Charming and slightly sad story of a 15 year old who decides that he needs a vacation. I just love that he takes off to savor the freedom of doing what he wants, but is outraged by the idea that he might be running away. Even at 15, it is quite clear in his head that he simply needed a vacation – and one that wasn’t being directed by other people. I totally remember feeling what he describes. I’ll be looking forward to reading Pete Jordan’s new book, “Dishwasher: One Man’s Quest to Wash Dishes in All 50 States.”
NOT knowing what I’d eat — or if I’d be eating at all — I decided to play it safe and dumped two dozen red multivitamins in a sandwich baggie. I stuffed the baggie into the pocket of my corduroys.
Then I pulled on my coat, grabbed a rolled-up sleeping bag and the brown paper bag that contained my clothes, and left the note on the kitchen table.
As I slipped out the front door of my family’s small San Francisco apartment, I shouted “See ya later!” to my brother Joe — the only person at home. From the living room, he called back, “Where ya going?”
“Out,” I said, then closed the door behind me.
I was 15 years old, and it was August. The note on the table read: “I’m taking a vacation. I’ll call when I get there. Be back in about three weeks.”
At the crummy summer camp I’d attended when I was younger, every hour of the day was scheduled, which I didn’t find very relaxing, and on family vacations — where a consensus was needed to do anything — I always had to tag along after my four older siblings. I rarely got to do what I wanted.
So I caught the streetcar to downtown and boarded a Greyhound bus.
I rode five hours, out from under San Francisco’s persistent fog cover, to Lake Tahoe — which had what I considered to be the two key ingredients of an ideal holiday locale: fogless weather and miniature golf. Upon arrival, I folded my coat under my arm and called home, collect. My mom sounded worried.
“Are you coming back?”
“Of course I am,” I said.
“You’re not running away?”
“Running away?” I was insulted. Living in Haight-Ashbury — a magnet for runaways — I’d met plenty of teens who’d fled home to live on our streets and sleep in our parks. This sojourn usually lasted only until a squad car pulled up to the corner where my friends and I were hanging out. The cops would pluck the runaway from the crowd, stick him in the car and ship him back to his suburb/state of origin. It was exactly that environment that I needed a break from.
“I just wanted to get away for a while,” I told my mom.
“Well,” she replied, “just keep in touch then.”
After buying and applying some sunblock, I hiked straight to the miniature golf course. As far as I knew, it was the closest one to San Francisco.
It was also the course where, a couple of years earlier, my brother Joe — irritated by his inability to direct the ball between the circling blades of the windmill — had launched his golf club into the air. It whirled above the course like a helicopter before disappearing into the pines beyond. Then he announced that our game was over. Being under his supervision, I had to leave with him, my round unfinished.
This time, I played all 19 holes of the mini-links straight through. By then, the crowd was thinning out, so I bought another round and took my time. If I missed a putt, I took it again and again and again until I got it exactly right.
That evening, in a neighborhood on the California side of the border, only a few blocks from the Nevada casinos, I found a house with tall weeds in the pathway leading to the front door. It appeared to be a summer home for someone who wasn’t then summering.
Since I was summering, I hopped the six-foot wooden fence that surrounded the yard. The secluded back porch made for a perfect getaway accommodation. I rolled out my sleeping bag and went to sleep.
The next few days were fantastic. I lounged beside the lake. I climbed a Heavenly Valley ski run. I wandered through the casinos. But mostly, I spent my time — and money — miniature golfing.
On my fifth day of freedom, on my way to another morning of sunshine on the links, I stopped into a supermarket for breakfast — strawberry yogurt and a Jack La Lanne nutrition bar. To stretch the remaining $5 of my golfing/eating budget, I slipped the La Lanne bar into my pants pocket, then paid the 22 cents for the yogurt.
Outside the market, two security goons grabbed me — one got ahold of my neck, the other twisted my left arm behind my back. I squirmed and wrenched in their grasp, doing everything I could to prevent the yogurt — which I’d paid good money for — from falling and splattering all over the ground. My resolve was firm. They couldn’t get me down.
“O.K., all right,” I finally said after 30 seconds of grappling. “Ya got me.” They eased up. My yogurt was still intact.
In the supermarket’s security office, Neck Grabber frisked me. He found the nutrition bar. He also pulled from my pocket the baggie of 20-odd multivitamins and held up his prized catch for Arm Twister to appreciate.
“Multivitamins,” I said.
“Yeah, sure,” he replied. “C’mon, where’s the rest of it? Where’s the broccoli?”
“You know — the Juanita, the Acapulco gold.”
Neck Grabber seemed to be convinced that I was running drugs from San Francisco to Tahoe.
“If I was dealing dope,” I told him, “don’t you think I could at least afford to buy a Jack La Lanne bar?”
Ignoring this logic, Neck Grabber kept grilling me about my “operation,” using as much out-of-date street slang as he could. The eventual arrival of the police was a welcome relief.
“Shoplifter,” Arm Twister informed them.
“And runaway,” Neck Grabber chimed in.
“I’m not a runaway,” I protested to the cops. “Just on vacation.”
“Yeah?” one of the cops asked. “Where’re your parents?”
“Back in San Francisco,” I said. This answer failed to bolster my case.
Stuck in a cell in county lockup for 24 hours, I ate my yogurt, using the lid as a spoon, and thought about what a success the trip had been — well, up until my apprehension. Little did I realize at the time how much this venture foreshadowed the kind of restless traveling (Greyhound/minimal baggage/half-baked plans) that, as an adult, I would spend more than a decade doing.
My parents were called, of course. They didn’t have a car, so they, too, had to get on a bus. When I stepped out of my cell, my dad’s face showed a devastating look of disappointment. I’d seen it other times, like when he picked me up from our neighborhood police station after I’d been brought in for some harmless misdemeanor, but I’d never before seen it coupled with quite that look of exasperation. He was surely thinking, “If you’re going to screw up, can’t you at least screw up a lot closer to home?”
“I didn’t run away,” I asserted before my folks ever said a word. “I just wanted to get away for a little bit.”
This claim — coming as it did while my dad was signing the paperwork to release me from police custody — fell flat.
On the bus ride back, the three of us sat in silence. My mom read her library book; my dad, various local newspapers. I stared out the window at the sun-drenched sights as we descended from the Sierra Nevada, down through the foothills, across the Central Valley and through the East Bay suburbs.
As we crossed the Bay Bridge on our way into San Francisco, I could see the afternoon fog spilling over Twin Peaks, smothering the city. I put my coat back on for the first time in five days. My summer vacation was over. Pete Jordan is the author of “Dishwasher: One Man’s Quest to Wash Dishes in All Fifty States.”