When I was a kid in Maine as soon as the snow melted in March or April the asphalt in front of our ancient school was covered in crudely chalked circles around which bunches of kids crouched over with intense concentration. Marble season. Everyone brought out their pouches–some leather, some knitted, many passed on from their parents or grandparents–full of their prized marbles. Clearies. Cats eyes. Boulders. Some new. Some antique. The hustling was fierce. I was nearly cleaned out my first week. Us out of staters were at a real disadvantage around the downstaters. They played for keeps. Keepsies. But I got better and ended up spring with more marbles than I’d begun. I even won some antique marbles, from the 1800’s. I remember they made a more musical tink when struck by a good, hard shot. It took a while to master such a shot. It was all in the thumb, it had to flick like a spring, quick and hard. Come May and warmer weather the marbles were put away by unspoken agreement and we all went running off in all directions, exploring the woods, picking blueberries, getting into trouble. Come the cold weather, stuck inside again, I practiced my shot. Practiced all the long, long winter. I was gonna be ready for my second marble season. I was going to be as good as any Mainer. Come spring I was going to be a terror on the playground. Instead, just after our second Maine Christmas we moved to New Jersey. I don’t remember anyone playing marbles in New Jersey. Instead there were riots. Just blocks away Camden was burnt out. I figured when we moved back to Maine I’d pull out the marble pouch again. Instead we moved to Massachusetts, out on the outskirts of a small town, with no sidewalks or driveway or anywhere to do any serious marble shooting. It was a long, cold Massachusetts autumn. The moving truck showed up when Dad was at work and mom was at the store. I asked if they could come back when my parents were home. I remember how surprised my folks were that we were moving, the company had forgot to tell us. An early freeze had left the ground rock hard, entombing toys. We moved before the ground thawed and headed back to California. They played marbles in California, played all year long, but not with the feverish intensity there’d been in Maine. All these Maine kids stuck inside all winter suddenly outside basking in fifty degree warmth, playing marbles as if it were life itself. I’ve never again witnessed anything so desperately in earnest. Never experienced anything quite like that competitive fever of marble playing that consumed me for a few weeks in Maine. Every kid in school outside at recess on their knees in the chill spring wind concentrating with an absolute intensity on two tiny little glass spheres, their’s and the one they want so badly to own. A flick of the thumb, the snap of hardened glass striking glass, the cheers and curses–shucks, darn, heck, hell. You’d pick up your hard won marble and hold it up to the light and a little galaxy of blue or pink or green or yellow revealed itself in swirls of cosmic dust and air bubbles like planets. Every marble was like a cosmos. We were hip to the cosmos in Maine. Small towns with a zillion stars overhead. Moonless nights of near total darkness, and on special occasions the northern lights flit across the evening sky like magic. Coming home after dark by the light of fireflies.
We went out to Elliott Caine’s pad in South Pasadena last night, like we do every year. We cover the door while he and Lei take the kids trick or treating. South Pasadena–as old as it gets in Southern California, full of Victorian homes–is Halloween heaven (now there’s a concept). All the houses are tricked out in ghoulish finery and kids are drawn from all over like moths to flame. They come in a trickle at first, then grow from bunches to throngs to armies to a vast herd of tiny little princesses two feet tall and rangy punk rockers in old Thrasher t-shirts and all the leggy moms herding them along. Trick or treat they all yelled, over the crazy screeching free jazz Elliott had put on–I remember a little bumble bee dancing to Ornette–and Fyl and I took turns dropping in a Snickers or Reeses or Butterfinger or whatever. We had more than enough candy, we thought, twenty bags full–about twenty pounds of it–but we didn’t, and after dropping them singly into an endless array of paper bags and pillow cases and plastic pumpkins, we were wiped out before 9 pm. Elliott Caine had already returned before then, exhausted. It’s crazy out there he said, giddy with it all. I dropped in the last few candies and apologized to the line of little ones that we were out. You try saying that to a pair of four years olds in matching Superman outfits without feeling guilty. Their mom smiled and walked them off to the next place. I would have given her two candies. Though I gave the dads candies too.
Empty of treats, we turned out the lights and blew out the jack o’ lantern and turned off the flapping bat with the glowing red eyes and shut the door. In the dark, ghostly, the armies of the night shuffled along, little ghouls and cowboys and monsters and superheroes. Elliott’s kids, home and exhausted, were packed upstairs to bed, and the neighbors departed with their own sleepy broods. The music had gone from screaming to swinging–Miles, Dizzy, Lee Morgan–and the air turned sweet and fragrant, the brandy was good, the beer cold, the pizza cold too. We talked of jazz and everything else late into the night and on into All Saints Day. Yawning. Time to break it up. As we drove home, grown up ghosts and monsters and super models and a Donald Trump or two walked unsteadily down the sidewalk.
I’ve never been much for grown up Halloween myself, I like to see all the kids in costumes. They’re mostly handmade now, little hand sewn princess outfits or zombie get ups made from shredded hand me downs and liberally applied make up. I like it better that way. As I drop candies into the bags it took me back to frosty harvest nights in Maine, the moon full, a chill wind blowing through the leafless trees. The ancient empty house up the street was haunted, the older kids told us, and we believed them. A whole family of headless ghosts lived there. They’d all seen them. None of us had, and we didn’t want to. We kept walking. There were unhaunted houses a half block up, with real people living in them, and big jack o’ lanterns out front. I tried not to look at the old cemetery as we passed it, wishing I wasn’t wearing a ghost costume. A cold wind blew across the headstones. Dead branches creaked and moaned. It was an endless walk, past the unruly dead in the cemetery, past the ancient wall, to the first house with all the squealing kids scurrying to the door. We were almost to the wall and I reached out to touch the lichen covered brick. A mistake. Out stepped a zombie. We shrieked and nearly bolted. Trick or treat he yelled, and laughed a dead man’s laugh.
It was the best Halloween ever, and as I drifted of to sleep that night I thought about the Great Pumpkin (that was its first year, 1966) wishing it was real. That was our last Halloween in Maine, and not a year goes by that I don’t remember just how perfect it was.
We were taught how to use the abacus in Maine. Meanwhile, the neighbor next door was writing music with a computer at Bowdoin College. This was 1965. He took us to see the computer…it was the size of Long Island. The first school I went to in Maine was on an island off the coast. We lived three islands off the coast, so we bused over an entire island to get to school. Area’s rich now, apparently, full of Boston summer homes and movie star money, but back then it was all poor lobstermen and cod fishermen on the water, farmers inland, plus the Bath Ironworks where my Dad worked. The second school I went to was a one building brick structure kids’ grandparents had gone to the same school. Winters were harsh. I remember walking home from school through sandy fields during gales, ouch. I remember snow on Mother’s Day, and the best creepiest Halloweens ever. Loved it there–3rd grade was the only time I spent an elementary school year in one school. (I’d been to five in 2nd grade…well four, went to one twice..started in San Diego, wound up in Maine with a detour to Tacoma.) Oh yeah, I remember seeing Minnie Pearl and ox pulls at the county fair, and I hated cod liver oil. Once the snow cleared kids played viciously competitive marble games everywhere. Tough bunch, Mainers, civil war monuments in the cemeteries, huge things, and they were still fiercely proud of their Abolitionism…Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin in our town there. We almost settled in Maine, in which case I’d be one of the people Jeff Foxworthy jokes about and you all would never know me, or me my wife, which is too scary to think about, or weird to think about anyway. When you move constantly your life is like brownian motion, seemingly random, to a kid anyway, but always an adventure. I loved it.
I’m up early, staring at the tree. It looks good even in daylight which is good for a Christmas tree, sometimes they look strange then, things off, lights blinking ridiculously. But not this one. It’s pretty perfect. Our drunk friends did a nice job, though I still see a few Cheetos. No presents under it yet, we haven’t even started shopping, that’ll be today. We always do the last minute thing. Know where to go (which isn’t the Galleria) and be back in time for eggnog and A Christmas Carol. The one with Alistair Sim, the spooky one. Or maybe A Charlie Brown Christmas, which I’ve probably watched at least once every year since it came out in 1965. That was in Maine, there was snow on the ground, it snowed like crazy that year in Maine. Snowed even on the following Mother’s Day, a regular blizzard. Out here they were surfing and tanning and making stupid beach movies, in Maine they were shovelling and cursing the slush. The next year, 1966, How the Grinch Stole Christmas came out for the very first time, and I’ve probably seen it every year since. That was in Maine, too, and there was snow on the ground. Those two Christmases were rather remarkable for me, I remember, since we lived in the same house for both. I can’t remember us ever having two of any holiday in one house during my childhood except 1965 and ’66. Maybe that’s why I have such fond memories of Maine. Brunswick, the little town we lived in, was all dolled up in Yuletide everything, but in an old fashioned way. It was cold and snowy but just like a movie. We had a huge tree and decorating it was a blast. Mom had her own tree, too, in the den. It was aluminum, white, and decked with blue balls, with a blue spinning lamp that reflected on it, and it sparkled, and we weren’t allowed to touch it. That was very early sixties, that tree, very Jackie Onassis. I don’t know if they still even have trees like that. The real tree, though, was big–huge to an eight or nine year old–and had a zillion ornaments, some brought all the way from Austria-Hungary by my grandparents. We had to be extra careful with those, especially the perfect little bird’s nests with the tiny eggs. I wonder if you can still buy those? Or do you have to import them from Austria-Hungary, which hasn’t even existed for a hundred years. A Never-Never Land, like a fairy tale, or a drug induced hallucination, whatever. Leave it to me to have half my relatives from a place that doesn’t exist. The other half came from Ireland, and the tradition was to drape the tree with strings of popcorn and oranges if they could afford them and light it with candles. Whiskey and candles were a bad mix, the one leaving you to forget the latter, and houses would burn down in Irish neighborhoods every year, one or two. Or so my dear mother told me. We had electric lights. Everyone did by the time I was born. We had a train too going around the tree. We still do. Maybe you’ve seen it.
I loved Christmas as a kid, and I love Christmas now. I can’t help it. I’m just a sucker for the tree and shopping and wrapping presents and eggnog (lots of eggnog). I think I even like hating the same stupid carols they play over and over and over. Feliz Navidad, oh lord. In Maine groups of kids went door to door a-caroling, I remember that vividly. Out here no children have ever come a-caroling to our door–any of our doors, and there’s been four of them since 1980. Though one Christmas Eve we were at a friend’s place in Hollywood and gay carolers came to his door. Gay as in gay, though they seemed gay as in happy too. You’ve never seen carolers until you’ve seen gay carolers. They were dressed in Christmas to the nines. I’d never seen Christmas handcuffs before. Later I knew a lady who showed me her’s. L.A. is different from Maine, and Silver Lake was different from anywhere.
It’s still traditional in our household, though. Well, I did just notice that the gingerbread couple in the snow globe are anatomically correct. I’d never noticed that before. It was a gift, years ago. That’s a lot of snickering behind Brick’s back. And there are Cheetos hung on the Christmas tree with care. But otherwise it’s a traditional Christmas here, as always, and so I’ll deliver my traditional Merry Christmas to all of you who’ve read this far. And a Happy New Year. I hope your holidays are the best.
Half the stuff I have ever written in my life disappears in unsaved drafts or forgotten and long obliterated emails. All the long first drafts of Brick’s Picks columns I gushed out…I’d trim them to the exact word count and turn all that excess writing back into random electrons. And I have no idea how many emails are no more, thousands and thousands of emails. I used to do my best stuff in emails. Some were saved. The ones written at work, however, they too are now electrons. They could run on for hundreds of words, for paragraphs, crazy tales of something or other and then poof…..gone. Words become crazy spinning electrons. Probably a million words have gone that way. Hundreds of stories. Thousands of vignettes. I never even think about it till suddenly I want to retrieve one like the tale of the girl I nearly squirted with pickle juice. Sounds funny now, but to a little kid from California plunked down on an island off the coast of Maine it was no laughing matter. Lobster bait. It was my very first day in Great Island Elementary School, the fifth school I’d attended in second grade….beginning in San Diego, a stop in Tacoma, a couple other places, then the wilds of Maine……and my mother packed me a brownbag lunch of a liverwurst sandwich on rye with a pickle and when I bit into that pickle it squirted…but just then the little girl sitting next to me ducked down to pick up a pencil or something and the juice arced clear over her head and landed unseen in the floor. I could see it there, a tiny little puddle. Probably the most relieved I ever felt in my entire life. That was half a century ago but I can still remember it vividly. I wrote down the whole thing in a longish email that is gone now. Just electrons. And you know how electrons are. Meaningless. Brownian. infinitesimally small. Too small to give a damn about, really, except that I just wrote that sentence in electrons.