I grew up in a smallish town in Northern CA and though I’ve been living in the Bay Area for years, I still often find myself feeling like a gawking tourist stumbling through the East Bay trying to figure out the bizarre customs of the locals. All I need are some plaid pants, a canary-colored Alligator shirt and a camera dangling from my neck for pictures (“Wow, looky there, a real Cheesecake Factory!” Snap, snap).
It wasn’t Little-House-on-the-Prairie small, my home town. We had a McDonald’s and JC Penny’s and Target and even an Olive Garden. The difference is, when you live in an area of affluence for any length of time, like the Bay Area, it seems only natural for the people to take on a certain element of…expectation.
The other day for, instance, I was enjoying some appetizers at Flemming’s Steak House when over in the dining room I heard a boy raise his voice to his mother: “Steak? Why did you order me steak, mom? I wanted a hamburger. I hate steak! I told you that.”
The mother, instead of reaching down the boy’s throat and ripping out his spinal cord, apologized and begged forgiveness for her stupidity. The boy, ten years old at least, proceeded to throw a barbaric tantrum that sent his mother scurrying about the restaurant like the rabbit from Alice in Wonderland in search of the nearest waiter so she could order the aforementioned burger for her tyrant of a child.
Before I could even stop it from happening, the phrase What’s wrong with kids these days? sprung into head. Thoughts like these seem to be appearing more often as I grow older. The thoughts of my parents. A line that becomes blurrier with each passing year.
It’s hard to admit, but that sneaky voice that is my father’s has been tattooed into my brain, so much so that irrational judgments of big city behavior leap into my thoughts before I can even stage a defense.
As a child, I was well-versed concerning the evils of splurging and excess. Leaving even the smallest smear of ketchup on my plate invited a lengthy lecture regarding the starving, bloated children of third-world countries and the daily suffering they endured. My sister’s and my offering to send them our leftovers only caused a lengthier, angrier lecture
My father, when he wasn’t lecturing, figured that the best way to ensure the survival of our planet would be to save and reuse…well, everything. We could go six years on a single roll of tin foil, as he would fold and refold the foil after each use so that when you opened the drawer the first thing you would see (and smell) were dull, wrinkled squares of foil folded over four or five times with small and large rips in them and spots of cooked food baked into the creases.
“What’re you doing,” my father would yell, racing into the kitchen from out of nowhere at the first sound of me tearing off a new piece of foil. He could be at the mailbox at the end of the driveway and he would hear it and come running back to the house as if he had seen flames emerging from the windows.
“Hold on, don’t use that foil,” he’d scream breathlessly, his boots crunching on the gravel as he bolted down the driveway. “There’s four pieces of perfectly good foil left right in front of you. What’s wrong with you?”
“But there’s old chicken grease all over it,” I’d say.
“Chicken grease? Give me a break, your highness. Some of us have to work for a living.”
I never did receive any lectures on contaminants or the dangers of placing food in my mouth that had been wrapped in foil or plastic wrap with moldy, decayed food encrusted on it.
It didn’t end at tin foil either. Dental floss was rewrapped around an empty thread spool, salvaged for the next night’s use. “We use it until it breaks,” was my father’s philosophy. At that point I stopped flossing altogether for fear of wedging more food back into my gums from the recycled floss than from the lack of flossing itself.
Rubber bands were his favorite (a.k.a. money clips), which he used to quickly and tightly bind a stack of one-dollar bills as if hogtying a calf.
Paper clips, sardine cans, dead batteries. The list included anything you could find in any junk drawer or cabinet in the garage. My father was the McGuyver of recycling: able to discover a creative, if not unsanitary, use for any common household item that no longer fulfilled its original purpose.
Coupled with his distaste for waste, my father loved to venture out into the world and express his resentment toward overpopulation. Even a simple trip to the beach at the lake could turn into a crisis
“Look at all these damn people. Where did they come from,” my father would say, as if we had stumbled upon a swarm of mosquitos instead of nice families enjoying a day of tanning and swimming. “We’ll be lucky if we don’t use up all our resources in the next ten years at the rate we’re reproducing.”
For whatever reason, our family was never considered to be part of the overpopulation problem, on the planet or on the beach. Somehow we belonged here. Everyone else was taking up space and using up resources. I always had the uncomfortable feeling that, if given the chance, my father would have happily used a garden hose like you would on an ant colony to wash these people away into a hole in the Earth. In his mind the formula for successful existence on the planet went like this:
Human extermination = Enough resources for everyone.
Throwing out old chicken bones = Bad and wasteful.
Resources were being exhausted everywhere, and it was my father’s lifelong mission to point it out to my sisters and me at every waking moment.
“Go ahead, throw away the rest of your lunch,” my father told me. “Don’t give it a second thought. You remind me of a friend of mine: she wasted so much money on food she threw away that she lost her house and wound up living in a garbage can with her three kids. Think about that the next time you want to toss out your melon rinds.”
You may think this is funny, but you try looking good for school when your hand mirror is made from recycled tin foil.
“Stop complaining,” he would say. “Your hair looks fine. How about you worry more about using an eraser when you make mistakes on your homework instead of crumpling up your paper and throwing it in the garbage?”
“That was my scratch paper for my Algebra homework.
“Whatever. All I know is that the Sahara desert used to be a dense, thriving forest until people like you came along and decided to use up all the trees because you were too lazy to move your hand back and forth to erase your mistakes!”
On rare occasions my parents still come to visit me. You’d think they’d be excited to travel and visit areas like the beautiful East Bay and to browse through the unique stores and restaurants offered in the downtown shopping areas, but they spend the entire time denouncing the moral values of the people driving SUV’s and groaning about all the traffic on I-680, not to mention the lack of parking.
I made the mistake of walking them within site of Tiffany’s last time they were here and as a result was tormented with a half-hour sermon describing the gallons of blood that was shed in order for those diamonds to sit in a glass case for our perusal.
I’ve come to accept that the joys of travel are wasted on them. They could be sitting on a white beach in the Greek Isles with their feet buried in sand soft as flour, and all they’d comment on is the fishing boat four miles out ravaging the sea of its tuna and halibut.
“Can’t you guys just try to enjoy yourselves while you’re here,” I ask them.
“Enjoy ourselves?” my dad bellows. “I just saw a guy toss half his burrito into that garbage can. How can I enjoy myself knowing that my son lives in a place surrounded by high brows and blatant decadence?”
“It’s not decadence, dad. It’s a burrito!”
“Extravagance is a stain you can’t just scrub off with a sponge of ignorance.”
“That’s great,” I tell him. “You two can fish the burrito out of the garbage for dinner. I’m going to P.F. Chang’s.”
“Amazing,” my father tells my mother as I walk away. “All those brains and he becomes a bartender. What a waste!”
Cheers, until next time.