I walked out of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial not giving much of a shit about the stupid rubber alien with the glowing finger. That was just the plot. Even at the age of ten I could tell that the plot of that movie was entirely irrelevant to the film’s true message, which had sweet F.A. to do with aliens. In this case, the medium was the message, that medium being perfectly captured by E.T.’s working title of A Boy’s Life.
The world of A Boy’s Life was alien to me in ways that had nothing to do with waddling creatures or spaceships. I had grown up in tree-thick communities, hoary with snow then hot with decomposing leaves, short sightlines and old houses. Though I’d left Brooklyn a full thirty-five years before the wannabes and the jerkoff Gawkerites arrived, I’d seen early in life that New Yorkers never looked up. There is no vista to see. Your vision is blocked on all sides. This was as true in the dignified decay of Upper Arlington, Ohio as it had been in Columbia, MD and everywhere else.
The world of E.T. was something else entirely. It was barren, bare, the open California sky above and the naked dirt to all sides. The homes squatted close to the ground. Until I saw that movie and really looked at it, I’d never considered that perhaps the sun of the East Coast was fettered by humidity and the omnipresent deciduous canopy above. When Danger Girl came here from New Mexico three years ago, she confessed that the rolling, absurdly fertile Ohio landsdcape made her paranoid, claustrophobic. Surrounded by living things.
And, of course, you had the BMX bikes, Ceppie Maes and Bob Haro making Kuwahara famous. There was so much freedom to be had out there. In Ohio my peers and I were relentlessly tracked and oppressed by intact family units and a neighborhood that considered discipline to be a distributed service, like the French Resistance always three steps too slow or stupid to outwit the Wehrmacht, but out in the amorphous amalgamation of Spielberg’s ur-Cali, the kids ran free, their divorced mothers out pursuing their own pleasure every night and abandoning their progeny to a sort of benign anarchy full of D&D games and unsupervised insanity. The very fact that these kids could hide a being from another planet in their house for days at a time… my mother would have discovered E.T. three hours after he touched down. Max.
I longed for that California the way Huck Finn yearned for the Territory. My BMX friends went without me, moved to Westminster and other places to live the dream. I put my head down and went to school instead. There are people I could blame for that decision but it would be weak of me to do so. The choice was mine. I didn’t acquire a genuine working knowledge of California until I was in my late thirties. Nowadays I know most of the state’s racetracks and backroads pretty well. I’ve probably spent a hundred days of my life in the Golden State, from San Diego to Eureka and points north.
No matter what I do as an adult, however, when it comes to that idealized California childhood I will forever be an outside, a cargo-cult native of a backwards island worshiping a Coke bottle. Which brings me to the story I’d like to share with you: the life of a modern Californian boy, told by someone who understands the San Fernando Valley the way I understand the side streets and forested paths of central Ohio.