You Can’t Always Keep What You Love

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When my grandmother passed away on a night in early September, it was only a matter of time before my family would ready to say farewell to something else important to us—her house, my childhood home.

The blueish-gray house, which sits on a busy corner of a block in the LA suburb Gardena, has been in the family for decades. My mother and her sister were raised there, as were their first children. In the case of my mother, her next two children, my younger sister and I, grew up in between those same walls, too.

Almost all of my childhood memories take place here. In fact, the earliest, clearest memory I have is the day I saw my sister for the first time, after she was brought home from the hospital. I still remember it vividly—there she was in a carrier seat, in the center of the brown-carpeted living room, being fawned over by my family. I wasn’t in a rush to see what the fuss was about, so, I sat at the kitchen table and played with a toy. Jealousy. My aunt, being the only person paying any sliver of thought to the other kid in the room, turned to me and waved, “come here and meet your sister.” I did, and became an older brother. What a title to have.

It’s in this house where I stayed awake long after I was supposed to on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus (I got close once), carve pumpkins that would stay out far past their expiration date into late November, and lose myself in reading comics and R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps. It’s here where I waited years for my sister to grow out of her crib and finally get a bed of her own in the bedroom we shared, where we’d talk about creeping out for the night to run across Rosecrans Park and reach the railroad tracks far on its opposite side to find the source of the loud, Godzilla-like screeching noises that echoed from that direction every night. (The noises came from factories, which were knocked down a few years ago—Jesus, everything has changed here.) We never did venture out across the dark expanse that was nighttime Rosecrans, but the fun came from dreaming up what went on over there in the hours before sunrise.

Back then, I loved being up early. I’d wake up hours before dawn just to stare out of the window in our kitchen at the empty streets bathed in the orange glow of the lamps overhead, and press my cheek to the glass to feel the chill from outside. I felt powerful—I was the only person awake in the entire world. RUN! Run through the middle of the streets! Scream! Shout! No one would know! The fools are still asleep! Yep, there was a raving lunatic waiting to come out in my head when I was alone, but I never did let him out. I would instead watch the sky fade from purple to blue on these mornings, and watch as a lonely car or bus sailing down Vermont Avenue was joined by many as the weekday rush hour picked up before school. 

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As the years passed, and we aged, the house aged with us. Paint peeled, wood crumbled, and things broke that were never replaced. My family wanted to fix things—but my grandmother wouldn’t let us. As loving as the stubborn lady was, she could be extraordinarily protective when it came to her possessions. In her later years, when she had the house to herself, she simply wanted more time alone than not. And why not? She raised a hoard of kids off and on for half a century. Aside from my mother’s daily stops there and my weekly visits when I was in town, she could only handle so much before she’d let you know she was tired and it was time to hit the hay. Fortunately, this often didn’t happen until we were both washed in the deep orange hues of the setting sun emanating through the same kitchen window I peered out of so many mornings as a child.

By the time she passed away, there was a lot of work to be done on the house—far exceeding the money and time my family could put into fixing it. The area wasn’t any better, either. Gang graffiti tagged all over the white garage door, or someone parked in front of our driveway and blocking the entrance was commonplace. As important as it is, my mother and aunt (the heirs to the house) couldn’t hold on to it just for nostalgia’s sake. If there was ever a time to let go, this was it.

I lived with my mother as an infant before she handed me to my grandmother, and, of course, I don’t remember any of it. The story of my life, in my eyes, begins at this corner house in Gardena. But my final years will be lived out elsewhere. We’re masters of uprooting our lives and traveling great distances to set up shop, and I’m willing to bet that many of us don’t end up living out our lives in our childhood homes—even if it might be poetic to do so. My grandmother moved to Gardena from a farm in Iowa when she was just a girl, and though she liked to talk about milking cows and raising chickens, I never got an impression that she wanted to be anywhere else than her home in Southern California.

Today the buyers officially become the owners, and last night—the final night the house was in our possession—I walked through every inch of the place, outside and in, soaking in the yellowing walls, the ripped carpets, the clacking of the metal gate, my handprint and signature imprinted in the backyard cement the year my sister was born, all for one last time. These smells—the trees in the front yard, the stale rain water collected in coffee cans outside, the thousands of unfiltered Pall Mall cigarettes that still hang in the air, which my grandmother burned through for so many years that the smoke alone might be the only thing holding the creaking house together—I appreciate today more than ever before. 

While most of the house is empty, there were some leftover mattresses in my old room. I took one and dragged it to my grandmother’s bedroom, and slept there for the first time. This old house still had something new to give. 

I don’t plan to ever visit or pass by here again. The house is bound to be painted, remodeled, and transformed into something unrecognizable. I can’t bare to see it change so drastically. 

So, here’s a final picture of the house and I, in the state I plan to remember it in for the rest of my life. Regardless of what may happen to it after today, it will survive as it is in my mind and heart.

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Sometimes the memory of a place or time in our lives is all we’ll have left to carry with us. Sometimes, if we’re lucky, it’ll be all we’ll need.

At least, until it isn’t.

Citizenfour

My review of Citizenfour, the most important documentary you’ll see this year. Read it on Complex.

The last issue of the San Francisco Bay Guardian.

Another champion goes down.

The State of the American Dog

I recommend everyone, especially pet lovers, pick up this month’s issue of Esquire and check out Tom Junod’s piece, “The State of the American Dog.”

What Remains After the Curtains Have Closed

Or, the Beginning and End of My Dancing Career in About 13 Minutes

I’d woken up earlier than expected. Well, I thought that was the case. I could only sense that I had woken up early because I couldn’t actually see anything: my eyes weren’t opening, something was clenching them together. I slowly rose out of bed, stuck my arms out like a mummy that had risen from the dead, and felt for my bedroom door. I made it to the bathroom, managed to turn on the faucet, and splashed cold water onto my eyes—a pair of eyes, mind you, that had worked very well for 16 years until that moment. I slowly opened them and peered into the bathroom mirror: my eyelids were fused together with mucus, and dozens of inflamed blood vessels turned the whites of my eyes into a sickly, painful red. What. The. Hell.

It was May 2004 and I had just joined a dance team thanks to the urging of my friend Arshad Aslam. The group was set to perform at Torrance High’s talent show just a few days after I came on, so adding someone who hadn’t even been to a school formal was bordering on disaster. Our competition that Friday night was an all girl hip-hop dance group named DyNasty, and a two person crew who had won first place the year before. It was Friday morning.

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This was the first time I had it, so I didn’t know what I had was “pink eye” until I got to school and was laughed at by my fourth period Geometry teacher, Mrs. Castro. After I was stopped every other second by students asking if I was high, she sent me home early (this was the only day I would have chosen to stay in school instead of leaving, so I could get some final practice in with the team during lunch. I even tried to sneak back on to campus for it.) But after taking an unsafe amount of Advil, flooding my eyeballs with Clear Eyes, and self-medicating with antibiotics my friends and I found around the house, I was good to go as the show inched closer.

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The dance routine my two friends and I choreographed only lasted about nine seconds, but it took us an entire day stuck in a small bedroom to come up with it. It starts at about the 2:30 mark in the video. If you can’t tell, I’m the guy in the white jacket, black shirt, white shoes, one red glove (a Michael Jackson tribute), and rolled up black sweats who thought he was doing a hip Run DMC impression. We won first place—probably because the only part I actually danced in was limited to a few seconds, but we were probably better off for it. No matter how small it was, the experience was addicting—the cheers of the crowd, the applause, the rush of being on stage and muscle memory taking over. Though, when I high-fived a classmate afterward, the following Monday his eye was really, really pink.

We came back the following year, I had a bigger part (still dressed like a schmuck but I was pink eye free), and we won again. This time, I wore a XXL shirt that I decorated with camouflage paint, along with a sideways black Dodgers hat. At the end of the video you can catch my mom say, “I didn’t know my boy could move like that!” Sadly, she didn’t know because I didn’t invite my family the year before because I felt my part was too short to get hyped about, but in hindsight, I’m sure they would have enjoyed it all the same. With it being my senior year, I wanted to surprise them.

One of the girls in the group ended up being my prom date, and I’m still good friends with many of them. Crazy to think that just two years earlier I was a rocker guy at Torrance High whose main fashion statement was drawing flames on his forearms. This was a turning point in my life: it opened me up to different music and new forms of expression. The human body can do amazing things when you dedicate yourself to practice. That goes for the mind, as well. Most importantly, though, it got me closer to great people who are still in my life a decade later; some who went on to become lawyers, actors, musicians, veterans, and artists, who were all dancers on a single stage a long time ago.

A great experience, even if I became a tad bit too confident in my newfound abilities afterward:

Goodbye, New York City

I played this song almost every day while working on my application to Columbia Journalism School. It’s surreal that I’m sitting in JFK right now, more than two years later, leaving the city I once knew nothing about. It was quite an adventure getting to know her. So, here’s one more play for old time’s sake.

Adios, New York. Until we meet again. Off to LA.

New York to Los Angeles

I have a ticket to LA on June 21, but this time it’s a one-way trip.

Complex is opening offices in Hollywood, so I’m taking the chance to head home and spend much needed time with people I’ve only seen on and off since I left for the Bay Area in 2009. It’s been a good two years in New York City. I’m excited to take all that I’ve learned here back to the old stomping grounds and piece together some great stories. Maybe I’ll have a few stories of my own.

See you soon.

If You’re Going to Try, Go All the Way

“If you’re going to try, go all the way. Otherwise, don’t even start. This could mean losing girlfriends, wives, relatives and maybe even your mind. It could mean not eating for three or four days. It could mean freezing on a park bench. It could mean jail. It could mean derision. It could mean mockery–isolation. Isolation is the gift. All the others are a test of your endurance, of how much you really want to do it. And, you’ll do it, despite rejection and the worst odds. And it will be better than anything else you can imagine. If you’re going to try, go all the way. There is no other feeling like that. You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire. You will ride life straight to perfect laughter. It’s the only good fight there is.”

― Charles Bukowski, Factotum

“A House on the River”

“A House on the River,” a great read in this month’s Esquire about how a man rebuilt his life after his family was murdered.

Visiting the Met

Press preview of Velazquez’s portrait of the “Duke of Modena” at the Met.

An Eloquent “Otto the Bus Driver”

’…his sentences are peppered with “dudes,” “likes,” and “mans” – music to the ears of anyone who grew up as part of The Simpsons generation. (An eloquent “Otto the Bus Driver,” if you will.)’

A perfect description of me that my friend Jack Williams wrote for our Magazine Writing profile assignment.

Should This Have Been Published?

Cover of the New York Post. This man was pushed onto the tracks yesterday after arguing with another man. He was declared dead at the hospital.

Is this a compelling cover, or irresponsible?

“La Bestia”

In Stabile watching “La Bestia,” a film about migrants making their way to the US on the tops of trains.

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