We saw a lot of my aunt Lottie in those days -- not to imply that Mother approved. You'd never believe they were sisters. Lottie always wore slacks, had a casual way about her, and brimmed with wisecracks and good humor. My mother disapproved of trousers on women, was very formal, and rarely appeared in public without gloves and a hat. Lottie's off-color jokes grated like nails on a chalkboard to Mother, who'd sniff, "Please, try to elevate your mind," whenever Lottie had us in stitches.
Lottie often took us to the Pike, Long Beach's grand harborside amusement park, where we'd spend hours in the arcades and on the rides: the Deep Sea Diving Bell, the Dodge 'Em Cars, the Laff-in-the-Dark Funhouse, the Crazy Maze, and the awesome Cyclone Racer. Sometimes Lottie'd get so wound up, laughing and carrying on, she'd pee her pants. Walt and I would have to stand around her on the bus ride home, hiding her big wet spot. Mother found no humor in our retelling of such stories. "There is nothing funny," she'd tsk, rueful that she was related to such a "low character."
One of Mother's fortune-cookie aphorisms was "I'd rather have one room in a good neighborhood than a mansion in a bad one." Maybe that's what led her to constantly uproot us. All things considered, it came as a shock when we abandoned Long Beach for a worse neighborhood in Los Angeles. Mother had gotten a wartime job with Lockheed Aircraft and needed to be nearer the factory.
Having so little, it was easy to start over. So we did. Repeatedly.
First, it was an apartment on 69th and Figueroa, a stucco-and-asphalt corner with little charm. At least it had Beverly Peck. She lived halfway down the block. Like us, no father in sight. She lived with her mom and a gigantic grandmother who had arms like wobbly ham hocks. I never saw Beverly's grandmother anywhere but parked on a kitchen stool, minding a perpetually bubbling pot. Every time I walked in, every time, she'd say, "You're too skinny. Here, eat this."
Our mother couldn't boil water. Walt and I spent a lot of time over at Beverly Peck's.
Beverly became Walt's girl, as much as an eleven-year-old can have a "girl." Once he lost interest, however, Beverly and I became inseparable. On my own, I'd never have been able to talk to her -- I was painfully shy. But watching Walt, I learned. That's how it was for me, always coasting in Walt's wake. Without him, I might never have left the house.
Beverly and I would save dimes during the week, and on Saturday she'd gather them in a little handkerchief, tied tight. We'd hop a streetcar downtown to the Clifton Cafeteria, where Beverly's mother worked. Free lunch! The best thing about Clifton's was the Sherbet Mine -- you stuck your arm into a frosty cave and pulled out a dish of lime or pineapple or rainbow sherbet.
Bellies full, Beverly and I would walk hand in hand to the downtown movie palaces. Our little stash of coins bought us entry to theaters like the Million Dollar and the Orpheum, where we spent the rest of the day watching the latest double features. I was ten years old. Those blissful Saturday afternoons with Beverly Peck -- and Robin Hood and Zorro and Captain Blood -- were what turned me into a lifelong movie lover. Beverly wouldn't stay in my life very long. The Geliens were soon on the move again, this time to a nicer neighborhood, a better school.
That's what my nomadic childhood was like -- never in one place long enough to develop "lasting childhood friendships." Not one. My mother's obsession -- granting us a better upbringing than she'd had -- produced a sorry side effect: it made us distant from people, just as she was. I later came to think of my mother as a self-sufficient survival machine. In her operating manual, it said in big capital letters: to avoid serious injury, never get close.
My childhood lessons came from the same manual: after Beverly Peck, I never got close to anyone, knowing I was only going to leave them behind in a few months.