Saturday, 24 November 2007

The Dime in the Cement

I like to think I have a pretty impressive long-term memory.

Mercifully, my teens went by in a dizzy blur, but much of my toddlerhood and early childhood is with me still.

I can remember standing in the kitchen, watching my father fiddling around at the stove, trying to make scrambled eggs in a skillet my mother never used. He was wearing a pale blue terrycloth bathrobe and he was terribly crabby; the scrambled eggs he made were watery and raggedy, and my sister and I refused to eat them and he got cross. Not long after, my mother came into the room with a blue blanket and something white sticking out of the top: my baby sister's cotton-candy, eiderdown hair. I was just over a year old.

I can remember the rows of books in book cases, the chipped varnish on the wood, the thin film of dust on top of the shabby books with their peeling bindings; the sharpness of the grass in our front yard, the yearning I had for the New York subway that my older sister insisted ran directly under our sleepy, dusty Southern Californian street.

I remember walking home from school when I was in kindergarten: I saw a small boy try to hit a cat with a hoe; the cat gave the boy a good raking with its claws and I felt like cheering as the boy ran bawling into his house.

Half a dozen houses down from us, there was a house with a bright red mailbox out in front: the mailbox appeared to be supported by a large, thick, curving chain. I could never figure this out: it appeared so counterintuitive that I would stand and stare in awe every time I passed the mailbox. One day, my older sister showed me that the mailbox support, though cleverly constructed to look like a chain, was actually a lot of fused bits. I pretended that this wasn't the case: I would still stare at the chain every time I passed and tell myself that it was standing up all of its own accord, a regular phenomenon.

There was a dime imbedded in the concrete of our cousins' patio next door; my sisters and I were driven near to distraction trying to get it out and would lie awake at night concocting plots on how best to do this. One night I remember fearing that we might actually do it: we would manage to prise the dime out of the cement, spend it on something extravagant like a large Hershey's chocolate bar with almonds -- and then what? After we had eaten the chocolate, the dime would be gone: all that would be left would be a ragged hole in an endless expanse of ugly grey concrete. Lying there in the dark next to my still-scheming sister, I was seized with the hope that we would never, ever manage to get that dime out of its concrete bed and lose the wonderful promise of a treasure to come.

Many decades later, on a rare trip back to our old neighborhood in LaPuente, my younger sister and I saw the mailbox on its improbable chain support, our old house -- looking very much the same -- and the bunch of low shrubs under which the New York subway had once, I had been assured, rumbled and rushed to exotic, sophisticated destinations I could barely imagine.

We got out of the car and walked around the neighborhood, but we didn't want to bother the new owners; we never checked to see if the dime was still in the cement.

I'm so glad I don't know whether it's still there or not. In my mind, it is.


Sam, Problem-Child-Bride said...

I just Googled La Puente. It looks like a great place to grow up. Small and residential enough to be neighbourly but close enough to the big city if need be. They've got cool pictures of some great old buildings on their website.

Do you get back often?

I liked your first memory of the eggs in the kitchen and mum coming in with the new baby. And the dime story's great - an early life lesson in realizing you don't always want what you think you do.

A Paperback Writer said...

Ah, I, too recall when a dime would buy a candy bar... or a phone call... or a bus ride into town....

Brian said...

Lol -- outside the Coogee Bay Hotel, near where I used to live, some rotten hound had affixed to the pavement an Oz plastic $5 note using a most tenacious clear superglue.

No doubt he gained endless amusement from watching passers-by attempt to retrieve it. Much more's worth of fun than the currency it cost him!

There is a faintly similar scene involving a bottle top mistaken for a coin in Steinbeck's Tortilla Flat


Gorilla Bananas said...

It's amazing what humans will do for a bit of loose change. Sticking hands down settees is another popular obsession.

-eve- said...

Wow, if your memory is as vivid as your descriptive skills, you haven't forgotten much...! Another captivating piece...

I didn't know Hershey's was around so long, and that a dime was so big, btw!

Church Lady said...

I discovered you at the Quoibler's blog.
Your blog looks quite interesting! I can't wait to go through and read your postings!


Mary Witzl said...

Sam -- You piqued my curiosity, so I Googled La Puente myself and some of those photographs of old buildings really made me feel nostalgic -- especially the Masonic Hall and the Star Theatre, which I can just barely remember. I wish I could say that La Puente was a great place to grow up, but I remember it as being hot, smoggy and stifling. I do love California, but I have often felt that it was wasted on me. Although I do go back from time to time, I mainly visit California in my dreams. I eat a lot of Mexican food in my dreams.

APW -- My father used to fondly recall that you could buy a loaf of bread for a dime when he was a boy. That made him sound like such an old fogey to us. Recently, my sister and I were talking about how we could make phone calls for a dime, and I saw on my niece's face a look of amazement and disbelief. I felt so old.

Brian -- Shame on me for thinking how much fun it must be watching people trying to pick up that plastic $5 note. I'd like to try that myself even though you can bet I'd be one of the people who fell for it, and I'll bet I'd be lots of fun to watch too, in my desperate efforts to unstick the thing. Worth every penny to try a trick like that, I'm convinced of it.

And I LOVED Tortilla Flat and vaguely remember that bottle top bit. One of these days I am going to reread Sweet Thursday, Cannery Row, and Tortilla Flat -- three novels I remember laughing myself silly over some decades ago.

GB -- I have been known to stoop to pick up pennies; I regularly scan the ground for bits of silver and frequently humiliate myself by mistaking bits of foil and bottle tops for coins. Someone told me once that you could make wishes on found coins, and I have eagerly embraced this bit of superstition, preferring to think of it as culture.

Eve -- You are sweet to praise my descriptive skills, though I suspect you have far greater ability. Hershey's has been around even longer than I have, but dimes are still the same size as they've always been: about as big as an average-sized woman's thumbnail, and roughly of the same thickness.

Church Lady -- I really enjoyed Quoibler's tampon posting, which I found linked on Ello's blog. I have noticed your name too and enjoyed some of your comments. Now I'm going over to your blog to check it out...

Ello said...

I thought this was a lovely reminiscence! (did I spell that right?) I remember when the New York subway system was $.75 and we all had to buy little golden coins with a Y stamped out of the middle of it. Now it's $2 bucks and it's all done by plastic cards. Times change and all we have left are our memories. Although I think I kept one of those old subway tokens!

The Quoibler said...

I think your dime story brilliantly illustrates why it's often the hunt (and not the kill) that holds true excitement.

Mary, I believe the dime is there, too. And as long as there are two of us who are 100% convinced, that's all that matters.

Truly awesome post.


debra said...

The dime will always be there. It's the journey rather than the destination, isn't it.
I recently went back to the street where I was born. The visit was precipitated by the discovery of the original papers from the time my folks purchased the house for all of $14,500. In my memory the dark green house was home, big enough to be filled with warm memories. The street had a huge hill down which I remember flying on my pink Schwinn two-wheeler. The house, on its postage sized lot, is brown now, and the hill, a gentle slope. As I left the street, I was still flying down that gigantic hill, hair streaming behind me.

Danette Haworth said...

You write such wonderful posts! I laughed about all the scheming going into getting that dime!

The Anti-Wife said...

I grew up in a small rural community, but it seemed huge when I was there. When I wanted to call my dad at work, I just picked up the phone and told the operator I wanted to talk to my daddy. Funny the things we remember.

Mary Witzl said...

Ello -- I remember those subway tokens, too: I used to walk almost everywhere in Manhattan, but on my occasional trips to Brooklyn, I took the subway. Somewhere I've still got a token. I once told a friend from New York about how glamorous I just knew the New York subways were; how I'd dreamed they ran under our front lawn. He'd grown up longing for hot, dry weather and sagebrush, it turned out. We couldn't get over each other's absurd fantasies.

Angelique -- Thank you for that comment, and how good it is to know that others feel the same. Whenever I went anywhere with my family as a child, I always loved the trip more than getting to the destination, and now my children are just the same. I think it's better to be our way than the other way around.

Debra -- There is nothing like going back to a place from your childhood, is there? The nostalgia is just overwhelming, and things look so familiar, but in such a foreign way. I had a Schwinn too, and remember spending many happy hours on it -- though my hair was sadly always too short to stream behind me. But the hill I remembered as being rather steep seemed to be more of a gentle slope, and our house, though it hadn't been painted, looked so different.

Danette -- Thank you. I still remember some of the outlandish things I obsessed over as a kid and blush. But they are fun to write about.

Anti-wife -- That sounds ideal! We had a party line which we shared with Spanish-speaking people. I used to love picking it up and hearing them rattling away -- their conversations sounded so spirited and fantastic, and I longed to be able to understand them.

Kara said...

Dimes are an underrated currency. I think they're often tossed aside due to their insignificant size. This is a shame. I'm partial to them myself, but am forced to part with them on a regular basis due to their inability to perform the function of starting a washing machine. Alas.

You ever hear Cake's song about dimes? It's a good'n.

Eryl Shields said...

I can see your house! I hope one day my son remembers this house with it's shabby, dusty books too. He's already told us we're never allowed to sell it even though it's falling to bits.

Mary Witzl said...

Kara -- I still remember a young cousin who happily traded all her dimes for nickels because the latter were bigger. Reasoning with her was in vain. But you're right: dimes are nice. They're smaller than nickels, thinner than pennies, and often feature in songs. Must be because they rhyme so well with 'time' and were often the price of a shoe shine or a phone call.

Eryl -- You know that you've made your home a good place to grow up in when your son feels so attached to it! It is true that even shabby, rather ugly things are infused with a sort of magic when they relate to our childhood. The house I grew up in was as tawdry as they come, but infinitely precious and beautiful to me in so many ways.

Carole said...

Great post. You are so right. Dreaming about what you could do is so much better than actually doing it. When you get the dime, you only have one choice. When the dime remains in the cement, the choices are endless. It is a perfect picture of hope. Good stuff.

Mary Witzl said...

Thank you, Carole. At one point, I almost considered putting a dime in our bathroom, when we replastered, just to give our kids the same experience. Of course, here it would have to be a 20-pence piece, and given inflation, a whole pound...