Friday, February 4, 2011

California Dreamin'

California, PA, along the Monongahela River

I know, I know not a very original title, but so it is.

I have been thinking a lot about high school recently.  My reason?  I think it is Friday Night Lights' fault.  I started watching this series in December after avoiding it for many years.  Why?  It's about football and I am so not into sports at all (Steeler Superbowls notwithstanding).  The show is so not about football.  I became addicted to the show and stayed up until all hours watching it, like a good book not being able to put it down, just one more, one more, one more until pretty soon it is 3AM and I have to get up in three hours.  I love the characters and of course, as I always kid Leo, I love watching young guys in tights.  I also love that this show takes place in some crazy fictional parallel universe that is not all that affected by the 24-hour news as entertainment cycle, the society of celebrity and mass consumerism. It takes place in a small town, where small town values are still alive and well, where just as many people dream to get out as desire to stay.  It very much reminds me of California, Pennsylvania, the town where I spent my high school years and that I called home from 1979-1994.

Unlike a lot of the people of Cal, I did not have strong family roots there but moved there in 1979 when my parents were going through their divorce.  Determined to make a new life for us, my dad found a teaching job at the college, now the university and after spending many months looking for a house, we settled on the town of California.  I was familiar with the town, since our family had a furniture store that in town for many years.  My father's roots trace him from France to nearby Fredericktown, just a stretch down the river from California where he was a graduate of East Bethlehem High School (now Beth Center).  When I was very young my dad ran the California store and we would often visit him there on Friday evenings when the store was open later and then we would eat dinner in "The Acropolis" restaurant in town.  My dad ate lunch there most days and the family knew us very well.

When my dad got a teaching job at the college we looked at different places to live, originally my dad wanted a piece of land and we looked at some beautiful houses where my dad promised to put in a pool.  Finally though after looking at a lot of houses we settled on a house in California, in what was called The Harris Plan. I loved the house, but visions of rolling out of bed in summer to the pool faded since our yard wasn't really big enough for a pool.  We decided on that since my dad, as a single parent, who sometimes had to teach night classes, felt safer in this pre-cellphone world if I lived in a house with neighbors close by rather than out in the countryside isolated.  We looked at a few houses in the Harris Plan and settled on our house at 201 Skyline Drive.  I was 13 years old, on the verge of adolescence and struggling with my parents' divorce and my own relationship with my mom which at the time was difficult.  We were both reeling from the divorce in our own way and although I had chosen to live with my dad, it didn't end great with her and our relationship in those years was sporadic and tense.

I was initially kind of bummed out about moving to California.  Our life (save for the 3 years we lived in Miami) had been in Washington, PA.  My grandparents, aunts and cousins were close by and I knew all the kids there.  It was home to me at the time, so while I was happy to be moving out of our cramped little apartment my dad rented during the separation there was a big part of me that was not very happy to have to start over again in another new place.  Although Washington was only 25 minutes away he wanted to live fairly close to the college, without the commute meant that my dad could try to make his schedule so that I wasn't a latch key kid, only seeing him at the end of hte day.  When I was in high school he often started classes in the morning and then was home when I got home from school and one evening per week he taught night classes, so that most days he was home either when I got home from school or shortly after I arrived.  We ate dinner together every evening and a lot of the time I did homework while he prepared his lectures and graded papers.

We moved in June 1979 and the very first day, moving day I was upstairs unpacking my room, the guys from the store had just left and the doorbell rang.  My dad got the door and I heard the sound of young voices at  from upstairs, I was sure they were selling Girl Scout Cookies but then my dad turned to me and smiled and said, "it's for you."  I went downstairs and my dad invited them in and they stood there in our foyer and were explaining to my dad that they had seen the trucks and they had already heard from the neighbors that there was a girl their age moving in so they came over to say hello and welcome me to the neighborhood.  They asked if I could come outside for a little while, I was shocked that they would come looking for me and without even knowing me ask me to hang out with them.  I looked at my dad and he gave me a look which said, go on.  So I walked outside with these girls.  We walked around the neighborhood, they showed me their houses and introduced me to people that we passed on the street and gave me their stories.  Day passed into dusk and we were still walking around, I was meeting people left and right.  By the end of the week we were fast friends and I felt like I had known them forever.  These girls, who were to become my best friends and although now several decades on we don't see each other or talk to each other very much, they are still in many ways the best friends I have ever had.  They adopted me, they accepted me without question and brought me into their world.  Their parents were extremely kind, sensitive and caring toward me.  There was no angle and in the entire 4 years of high school and in our college years, we never had a falling out.  They brought me into their group and we hung out, we played games, we studied together, had a zillion sleepovers, went shopping, we talked about boys, our parents, our lives, our dreams.  I had never made friends so easily or been accepted so wholeheartedly in my life.

California was so chock full of genuine people from all walks of life.  Although the entire Mon Valley at that time and for many decades before was driven by the steel industry and more particular for this area, the coal industry, we lived in a college town so there were also a lot of academic types around as well.  It was quite an eclectic mix of people, most of them old school.  They were though a real community.  When one hurt, everyone hurt.  It was the kind of town when someone was sick, someone came over with a covered dish.  Where weddings and other celebrations were done old school, not in fancy hotels or by chic caterers being herded about by wedding planners and Martha Stewart,  but in fire halls and elks lodges and where the women of the community would band together and cook the food and the entire town would attend.  Although my dad and I were outsiders and my dad, other than his professor friends with whom he would play poker with on weekends, my dad stuck a lot to himself an close to home when he wasn't working.  He had just ended a 20+ year marriage, was licking his wounds and he threw himself into his work.  He really enjoyed teaching and he was really good at it.  I used to love to watch him with his students.  When he had evening classes I would sometimes sit in for an hour or two.  Often in the evenings I swam at the college pool and then would go over and sit in on the second half of my dad's class.  I had no head for computer science but just used to like to watch him.  You could see that teaching energized him and chased away his demons which kept him up at night.  It was just beautiful to see his eyes sparkle when he was asked questions by his students.  On other evenings he manned the computer center or met with students.  I would meet him at the college, we'd go into town and have dinner at the Acropolis or at Alfanos or Saeli's, I would swim or go study at the library with friends and then I would meet him at the computer center and he would drive us home.

School was also a lot of fun and like in town, the people were largely interesting and very nice.  I did not receive a warm welcome from everyone though.  There were people who did not take to me, for what seemed to me to be no reason.  In particular there was a guy in my neighborhood a year older than me in high school, a jock who for some reason hated me on sight.  For some strange reason I dreamt about this guy last night, which is why he is on my mind now and I am bothering to write about this.  I still remember the first time I met him, he was good friends with one of my friends but even when he met me he did not say hello.  It went from total ignoring to cruelty very quickly.  He started throwing rocks at me at the bus stop and in the winter snow balls and he tried win other kids over to torment me as well.  I could be a mouthy girl and I am the first to admit that I can be an acquired taste but for the life of me I could never figure out what I did to this boy to make him hate me so much.  Our house was vandalized once where people wrote sexual expletives out in gasoline on our yard and I always suspected it was this boy but could never figure out why he would do such a thing.  The kicker was that his dad and my dad taught in the same department and I had told my dad about this boy and how he treated me.  He told me also that his dad was very cool toward him at work also for no reason.  Once we had an open house for my dad's department and their families and the entire depeartment showed up except this guy.  My dad  felt that anti semitism may have been the issue because there was just no other plausible explanation, particularly for this man's son to spew such hatred toward me.  I remember seeing him at a wedding about 10 years after graduation and he talked to me as if I was some old friend.  I never got up the nerve to ask him and I really just didn't care, but remember telling my boyfriend at the time, who was my date at the wedding that I was sure he must of thought I was someone else.  I had conflicts with other kids but there was always a reason for that, with this kid there really was nothing.  I had a big mouth and that did get me in trouble sometimes.  I have never been a person that people are tepid about, you either detest me or you love me and that was very true in high school.

  Although my central group of friends remained the girls in my neighborhood, I had a lot of other friends, some were friends that lasted throughout the entirety of high school and others that were friends just for a time.  I didn't fit into any one particular group.  My close girlfriends were cheerleaders, class presidents and NHS types and that wasn't really me, I did well in school but I didn't apply myself very much so I was honor roll but not more. I had friends from a lot of different circles and didn't fit squarely into any high school prototype.  I was too wild to be a goody-goody, too goody-goody to be wild.  While at times it was frustrating, mostly it left me with a very interesting group of friends and a fun high school experience.

Not everything was sunshine and roses in school, after all I was an adolescent and California was a place where a lot of people's parents went to our high school and grew up with everyone else's parents. In some ways, even though the town welcomed me, there were times when I really did feel like an outsider.  But they were very few.  Being Jewish in a small town also was not the easiest thing.  You can say a lot of things about Jews but we are mostly city folk.  There was one other Jewish family in town and I often got questions about being Jewish, most good natured but some not so good natured.  I also joked about it and made fun of myself for being Jewish so I think I also invited people's scrutiny to some extent.  I do think though that many people defined me by my Judaism.  It was different and many people had never been around Jews before.  In my yearbook, about 80% of the things people wrote to me refer to my being Jewish.  It certainly was on people's minds.  A low point was in my sophomore year when I came out of class to find someone had scratched a swastika on my locker.  At that age, I knew about the Holocaust but seemed very remote to me.  I knew a swastika was a bad thing but didn't realize how bad.  Still this was horribly upsetting, I broke down crying in the hall and when my friends finally convinced me to report it to the principal.  I went to speak to him and his initial reaction was not very concerned.  He gave me a "kids will be kids" type of response and told me to brush it off and go back to class and then my sorrow gave way to anger and I was screaming at him that he had to find out who did it and punish them.  He tried to get me to calm down but it was too late, I was totally irrational.  Finally he told me that if I didn't calm down he would paddle me.  I told him that my dad would wipe the floor with him if he touched me.  He said he was going to call my dad and have him come get me because I was going to be suspended for yelling at him.  I asked him, "are you going to do anything about the swastika or just suspend me?" He said he didn't need to do anything, he didn't know who did it, and what did I expect him to do?  I said I expected him to try and find out who did it and punish them or at least to make an announcement that this was unacceptable.  He said it was not my place to tell him what to do and if I didn't watch out he would make me keep that swastika'ed locker the whole school year.  He called my dad and told him to pick me up, that I was suspended for 2 days.  My dad came to the school and went to the principal's office and asked me to wait outside.  He came out 10 minutes later and asked me if I was okay.  I started crying and he hugged me and told me everything was going to be okay.  The principal was a total jerk but I wasn't suspended and we were going to leave school right now and go out for pizza and tomorrow when I came to school I would get a new locker and everything would be fine.  I found out later that my dad threatened to file a complaint with the school board and that he would mention the incident in our synagogue and he was quite sure that a reporter from the Washington Observer Reporter (one of the local newspapers) who was a member of the synagogue would be very interested in this story  I did not speak to the principal for the remainder of my two years there, and refused to shake his hand during graduation.

Despite those things though California was fun and these were isolated incidents.

I had my first teal romance in California too.  When I was a freshman, a senior boy developed a crush on me.  He was a nice guy and kind of shy and we had home ec together and we always joked around .  He asked me out which was surprising to me, I was only 14 and although I had one boyfriend before, it was total kids' stuff, a bunch of stolen glances and giggling to my girlfriends and a few kisses.  This boy in school used to write me letters and leave them in my locker at the end of the day.  Getting those letters was the high point of my day.  They were very sweet and romantic.  But to be honest, I was so young, very immature and pretty well messed up after my parents' divorce.  I did not know how to deal with the attention of a  boy.  I liked the attention and he was a very kind, sweet guy and even at my tender age, I could see that he saw through the very tough walls I built up around me to protect myself from hurt.  Still, I didn't know how to return his affection and was scared and so I strung him along.  He asked me to go to the prom with him and I just didn't know what to do. I wasn't allowed to date so I was afraid to ask my dad and I was so afraid of both being rejected by this boy and even more terrified of actually feeling something for him  that I just did nothing until the last moment and then turned him down.  When I was a senior I didn't go to the prom, I asked a few guys from school but was turned down, at the time I felt I probably deserved that for the way I strung this boy along.  I felt awful for doing that to him but just couldn't do anything else.  Even then though he was kind to me and really sweet but by summer time, just as I was feeling that I might be able to give it a chance, he grew tired of my games and said that he still really liked me but that we could never be more than friends.  Although I saw him less as high school went on, he was always very kind to me.  As an adult I had the opportunity to talk with him and apologize for doing what I did and for hurting his feelings.  He took it kindly and gracefully.  I was glad to learn a few years ago that he is very happily married.  Still, once in a while I get those letters out and they always bring a smile to my face.

I loved summers in California.  My girlfriends and I belonged to one of the local pools and we spent long summer days swimming and soaking up the sun (back when the sun was supposed to be healthy) and warm evening hanging around the neighborhood with the other kids, sitting on the curbs, talking, laughing and piling in kids cars to go to Dairy Queen.  When I was a bit older I made friends with some people who lived in nearby Roscoe and we spent a lot of those summers on the river, boating, water skiing, and swimming and evenings laying on boat docks seeing zillions of stars and lightening bugs talking about everything under the sun.

When I watch Friday Night Lights I am of course intrigued by the characters and the writing, which is really fabulous.  But I think what I like most about it is that even though the fictional Dillon, Texas and California, Pennsylvania are far apart geographically, there is so much about them that is similar.  I don't think I have ever met 'realer' people than I have in California.  Hard working, genuine, honest, G-d fearing people some of whom dreamed of nothing more than having a family and passing the years with their family, friends and neighbors, lives revolving around high school sports teams.  When I was in high school, very much like in Dillon, Texas, Friday nights were about football.  We didn't have a team as flashy or good as in Dillon but the football field was still full of flesh and blood people rooting their hearts out for their kids, grandkids and for their town.  Winters were about basketball and summers, baseball.  When I watch FNL, part of the appeal is that it takes me back to a simpler time in my life, a time when, even without knowing it then, I didn't have a care in the world, or as Neil Simon once wrote in one of his movies (I am paraphrasing), "I loved it for the most selfish reason of all, because I was young."

I am a city girl in my heart and unlike many others I didn't have roots in California.  My dad sold our house in '94 and I have only been back a few times since then.  My life post high school has taken me from Erie to State College to Tampa to Pittsburgh to Tel Aviv and finally to Amsterdam.  I have had a lot of adventures and via Facebook I have been able to reconnect with a lot of people in all those places, including California.  Even though I know small towns are not for me, I have always craved the city, with its endless possibilities, culture, anonymity and action and I know the city is where I belong.  Still, I am very glad to have had the experience of living in a small town as there is a sense of community, bonds and genuine-ness (I know it is not a word) that cannot be found in cities.  I am a better person for having lived in a small town.  

I am happy that even for a short time California, PA was my home and in some sense, it always will be.


  1. Right back at you, Dana!
    I feel like I know you already from your wonderful writing!

    FWIW, I'm Irish by birth, Australian by circumstance!!


  2. hey loved your story
    Just found your blog and love it

  3. Thanks, I love both your blogs too and have put them on my blog roll, I'll be checking in regularly!

  4. It sounds like you got really lucky in California, making friends so quickly. I never had any anti-semitic issues in HS in the US, maybe b/c half my school was Jewish.But I moved a lot, and switched schools almost every 2 years, between US, Africa and Israel.For me, making friends was hard, but it was a skill I had to learn, which was useful later in life.
    Looks like you managed to pick up those skills too, after all your travels and the changes you went through.