2012, Our Moving Year

Just over a year ago, my family was homeless. Okay, so it wasn’t in the sleeping-outdoors, panhandling-for-change sense of the word, but technically, we were without a place to live. We’d packed up our West Hollywood condo, and everything we owned was traveling through parts of the country we ourselves had mostly never seen.

Other than our decision to have kids, it was the biggest, scariest choice we’d ever made, but it seemed like the right thing to do for our family.

We spent the holidays with Drew’s parents and siblings in upstate New York, then I came down to meet the movers and start unpacking our stuff. Each item was tagged with a number, so it was easy to see exactly how much junk Drew and I had jointly amassed in our years on the West Coast. The highest number was roughly equal to my score on the SAT verbal section. (Granted, math was my forte.) Three days later, with only about 3 or 4 boxes unpacked, I opened the door to Drew and the kids, all of whom were seeing our new home for the first time.

That was one year ago today, January 1, 2012.

It’s nice to ring in this year with some stability, because the last one started off so full of uncertainty. Would we like it here? Was this the right thing for the kids? Would we ever get unpacked?

I wish I could say I had definitive replies to those questions, but the only one I can answer for sure is the last one — no.

Earlier today, we sat down with the kids and looked through some pictures of our last days in California and our first days in New York. The differences kind of surprised us, as in this image of the moving truck:

movingtruckThey’re crawling! That may not shock you as much as it does me, but in my memory, the last time my kids crawled was a hundred years ago. In actuality, it was just one year, or, according to the Mayan calendar, a mere 355 days followed by a timeless void.

It took me a minute before I could remember the moment. They knew how to walk by then, but the rickety ramp was a little too unsteady for then. Just to be safe, they got down on all fours. As we got ready to leave our past behind, the kids gave us one last glimpse of their infancy.

Confidence in walking ability wasn’t the only thing our family gained in 2012. We made some amazing new friends, reconnected with some old friends and spent wonderful times with our East Coast family (by which I mean our actual families, not the loose network of Bell Biv DeVoe-affiliated artists popular in the early 90s). The kids also made new friends, they learned about 10,000 new words (only 1 or 2 of which we’d prefer they hadn’t), caught a dozen or two kiddie viruses and started school.

Sometimes, I’m overwhelmed at how happy I am in our new home. Other times, I’ve overcome with grief at the lives and the friends we left behind. I’ll ask my kids if they remember someone from our old life, and they’ll just stare back at me blankly. Los Angeles is a blur to them, and soon, it’ll be nothing but a series of pictures their dads show them when they’re in the mood to look back and reflect.

Browsing through at the photos, I admit, I got a bit choked up. As for Drew, he sobbed uncontrollably and had to leave the room. So the big question facing us now, at the start of 2013, is pretty obvious: did we make the right choice?

I’ve asked myself that at least once on each of the last 365 days, and I sat down to write this post determined to address it. Once again, though, I’m not sure it has an answer. There’s no way of knowing what this last year would’ve been like if we hadn’t moved. All I know for sure is that none of these things would’ve happened:

bennetttrain suttonrainbow grandcentral throwingleaves suttongardenWe would’ve made a completely different set of memories, some incredible, some undoubtedly sad. I wouldn’t have any of these pictures to treasure, but there would be a different set, one I probably would’ve loved just as much. And I’ll never know what they might’ve looked like.

That’s because changing the setting may change some things, but it doesn’t completely alter a story. Wherever we put ourselves, we’re headed forward on a similar trajectory through an uncertain future. Here or there, New York or LA, we’re still us. The same people and the same family.

We end one year tentatively crawling, and the next, it seems like we’ve been walking forever.

Our Spooky Town

Only a few days after we moved into our new home last January, we were driving on the main highway, and we passed by a hideous warehouse-type store that was painted a dull, cheap shade of orange.

“What’s that?” Sutton asked.

“Um… that’s Spookytown.”

That’s what the sign out front said, though instead of o’s in the word “Spooky”, there were two fiery red demon eyes.  If I thought the name might scare my kids, I was dead wrong.

“Oooh, can we go there?” Sutton pleaded.

“No, it’s only open around Halloween.”

She brought up Spookytown constantly — whenever we passed by it, whenever the subject of Halloween came up, and sometimes completely unprompted.  “Next Halloween, we’ll go to Spookytown!” she announced.  “I won’t be scared, because it’s just pretend.”

She was simultaneously horrified and fascinated.  At two years old and change, scary is supposed to be simple.  If something’s scary, you stay away from it.  But here, there was this store that sold nothing but scary stuff, and people went there ON PURPOSE.  My curious little girl was dying to learn more.

As someone who’s never much liked Halloween, it’s taken me some adjustment having a daughter who’s obsessed with it.  She brings it up every single day, all year round — more than Christmas, more than her birthday.  The topics range from what her costume will be to the character traits of different types of monsters like vampires, ghosts and wolfmen to, of course, Spookytown.

We drove past that deserted eyesore for months, and every time, it launched a conversation.  Then one day, it was gone.  Spookytown disappeared, and overnight, a tile store moved in.  They slapped on a fresh coat of paint, installed a new sign and dismantled the demon eyes.

Sutton was crushed — and Halloween was only getting closer.  “We’ll find another Spookytown,” we assured her.

For months, she lived with the uncertainty of not knowing where her October scares would come from.  Drew and I know that Halloween stores are the bad pennies of retail.  You can always count on one showing up again.  Sutton was forced to take our word for it.

Then, in late September, there it was, a quarter of a mile up the road from the old Spookytown.  New Spookytown.  The second we saw it, Drew jerked the steering wheel toward the parking lot and the tires screeched cartoonishly as we skidded up to the entrance.

It was, as expected, a shithole.

There were cheap packaged costumes, cheap overpriced decorations, and a display of animatronic ghouls in a decorative graveyard.  Even though the store had just opened, only half of them seemed to moan on cue.

The kids loved it.

The way they ran from the Smurf costumes to the zombie makeup rack, shrieking at full dog-whistle pitch, it was like they were in Disneyland.

Neither of them could make up their minds what costumes they wanted to wear, so we bought them each three different ones over the last month.  I know, we’re suckers, but we’ve gotten plenty of use out of them with all the costume parades we’ve had up and down the hallway of our house.

As we counted down the days to Halloween, reports started coming in of an unprecedented storm headed directly for us.  Drew and I gathered candles and filled the bathtub with water, while the kids played quietly with their toys and talked about candy.

“Why did you take down the pumpkin in the front yard?” Bennett asked.

“Because the Frankenstorm is coming,” I said.

It seemed like a joke, like the kind of twisted boogeyman parents make up to scare kids.  A Frankenstorm.  But this wasn’t something out of Spookytown.  It was real, and Drew and I were genuinely scared.

Somehow, the storm that tore apart most of our geographic area left us untouched.  The lights flickered a few times, but we never lost power.  By Halloween morning, everything seemed normal.  I put the kids in their costumes and herded them to the car.

“Who wants to go to Spookytown?” I asked.  They went nuts.

It seemed like a simple plan.  We’d been to Spookytown half a dozen times over the last few weeks.  Why not now?  I made a right turn off our street and almost immediately had to hit the brakes.  Up ahead, the road was blocked by a giant tree.

It was just sitting there.  No one was even trying to remove it.  I turned down a different street, and I soon realized why that fallen tree wasn’t a priority.  There were downed trees everywhere, practically one every block.  I saw one that had landed on the roof of a house, but mostly they were in the streets.  It was like driving in a maze, constantly having to turn around and find a different path.

The ten minute drive to Spookytown took forty-five minutes, even with almost no traffic on the roads.  When we pulled into the parking lot, it was eerily empty.  A man at the door told us that the store had no power.  It was their biggest day of the year — in fact, the only day that really mattered — and they weren’t sure if they’d even be able to open.

I took the kids instead to the supermarket.  It was open, but barely functional.  The shelves had yet to be restocked from the pre-storm hysteria.  The freezers were cordoned off with police tape, and what remained in the refrigerated cases was marked “Not for sale”.  Employees whose job was to fill up the shelves were instead spending the morning throwing things away.  Clearly, they had lost power at one point, and all the perishables had perished.

So this was our Halloween.  One thing was for sure: it delivered on spookiness.

The only bright side was that my kids didn’t have many past Halloweens to compare this to.  For all they knew, this was a kick-ass All Hallow’s Eve.  We decided that our afternoon would be spent watching Halloween specials on TV and having a pizza party.  You know, typical Halloween stuff.

Then, the doorbell rang.  It was Cinderella.  She had tiny glass slippers and a school jacket draped over her light blue ball gown.  Her tiny arms spread open the mouth of a shopping bag full of fun sized candies.

In my 17 years in Los Angeles, living in apartments and condos with security codes, I’d never had a single trick-or-treater come to my door.  This was the first time I’d given candy to a little kid in a costume since I was a kid myself.

I thought Halloween had been canceled, but when I looked up and down my block, I saw more of them.  Harry Potters and Spider-Men and, for some weird reason, a lot of Crayola crayons.  (Seriously, what the hell?  Is there a factory nearby?)

“Drew!” I shouted.  “Trick-or-treaters!  Tons of them!”

It was like the sappy final reel of a Christmas movie, where the protagonist loses his last bit of holiday spirit only to glance out the window and see snow falling or Scrooge hoisting a roast goose.

A Halloween miracle.

We turned off Dora’s Halloween episode and raced the kids to the door.  “You guys want to go trick-or-treating?” we asked.

“YEAH!!!!”

It was the best Halloween ever.

Leaving Los Angeles (Part 2)

[Tomorrow, the movers will arrive to pack up all the stuff I've accumulated in 18 years in Los Angeles.  They'll put my whole life into a few dozen cardboard boxes, load it into a truck and transplant it 3,000 miles away, in New York.  It seemed like a good time to look back at the first time I left Los Angeles, in 1993, after what was supposed to be a lifelong move, but which ended up lasting about 3 months.  Part 1 is here.]

A few days after we arrived in LA, Jay and I applied for jobs at a temp agency.  The woman who interviewed me told me she couldn’t remember the last time someone got 100% on the spelling test.  I told her I’d come to town to write movies, and she nodded knowingly.

“You know who you remind me of?  John Waters.”

“Um, OK.”

“I bet those are the kind of movies you’ll write,” she said.

“Sure, maybe.”

“It’s so sad that he died.”

I shook my head.  “I’m pretty sure he’s still alive.”

“Oh, no.  He passed a few years ago.”  She lowered her voice.  “Of AIDS.”

Soon I was doing data entry at a factory in Culver City.  I have no recollection of what kind of data I was entering, but I do remember that the factory made surgical masks.  Jay and I found a two-bedroom apartment in Los Feliz that was a real bargain, I assume because we split the rent with about 10,000 ants.  Jay’s data entry job was in Torrance, so every day he would schlep me 40 minutes across town to my job, then drive another 40 minutes to his job.  I don’t know if I’ve ever thanked him sufficiently.

I hated that I’d moved across country for a dead-end job in a dim, cruddy factory.  I’d done some interning at Scott Rudin Productions in New York, so I got in touch with the LA office, humbly pleading for that big break I felt I was owed after all that free labor I gave them.  They made me a great offer.  I could intern for them here, too.

There was no pay, but it was on the Paramount lot, the greatest place I’d seen since CityWalk.  I could peek into sound stages and borrow scripts to read, like Sister Act 2.  “This is a disaster!” someone scrawled on the cover page.  (Allegedly Scott.)  I got to ride a golf cart.  I walked around in awe, wondering if people looked at me the way the temp agency lady did.  Maybe when they saw me walking into Rudin’s building, they thought I was the next John Waters, only alive.

While I was working there, one of the scores of now-defunct monthlies about the film industry (I think it was Movieline) published an article about the worst bosses in Hollywood.  Surprising no one, Scott Rudin topped the list.  Stories about him were legendary, like how he made an assistant pick him up at the airport, then fired the poor kid right at baggage claim, forcing him to find his own way home.  I read the article dozens of times, cherishing every word as if they were reporting on my life.  Maybe someday, I fantasized, “an unnamed source” would be me.

Of course, Scott Rudin didn’t know I existed.  But it wasn’t his fault.  Whenever he stepped out of his office, I was ordered to hide.  The development exec I was working for hadn’t attained Scott’s permission to hire me and was terrified that Scott might fire her if he found out about me.  Everyone was afraid of being fired, all the time, except me, because I didn’t officially work there.  I was an “intern” in name only.  In reality, I was just a guy who they called drive-ons for so I could make Starbucks runs and copy scripts for them.

I tried my best to impress everyone, hoping they’d someday make me someone’s assistant — for pay!  I talked a lot to the guy who did the hiring.  He liked me, so he gave me a tip.

“The question I ask everyone I meet with is ‘What did you think of Scent of a Woman?’”

I was thrilled he picked a movie I had such strong opinions about.  So contrived, so overlong, so derivative of Dead Poet’s Society.  I’m pretty sure I did my impression of Al Pacino saying, “Hoo-aah!” then giggled like an idiot.

He sat stonily.  “I think it’s pretty much a perfect film.”

Soon, I was temping again.

I finally bought a car of my own.  A used Nissan Sentra with the side door bashed in.  I fell for the trick where they tell you to pick it up at night so you won’t see all the dings and imperfections.  I had no idea how to negotiate with a car salesman.  He wouldn’t tell me what the sale price was, only that the payments would be $112.97 a month.  I had no idea how I’d ever afford that, but I signed the paperwork.  It wasn’t until I sold that car years later that I bothered to glance at the contract.  The interest rate for the loan was almost 30% a year.

The day after I brought my car home, I heard a voicemail that was meant for Jay.  (We shared a phone, so it wasn’t officially snooping.)  Jay had a job interview back in New York.  When I asked him about it, he admitted what I’d long feared: he hated LA, couldn’t wait to get out, and he was scared to tell me because he knew he was my only lifeline in the city.

Well, him and the piece of crap car I was now tethered to for the next five years of payments.

Within a few weeks, Jay was packing up to go.  I almost didn’t feel like I had a choice.  I couldn’t stay here on my own.  I hadn’t made any friends or any inroads on a career.  I thought back to that first night, wandering around CityWalk.  I knew I wouldn’t see anyone I knew, but at least I had someone to joke about that with. If Jay was gone, I’d just be utterly alone, in a place where I still didn’t understand how to get to places that were only a mile or two away.

I packed up my stuff – pretty much the same load of junk I’d hauled out with me, plus a few CDs and a map of Los Angeles streets I’d picked up in the three months since then.  I caravanned behind Jay in my new (used) car, 3,000 miles to the place we’d just left.

I had a lot of time to think on that road trip – about what I loved about Los Angeles, what I missed about New York and how scared I was to be at a time in my life where literally anything could happen.

Most of all, I started thinking of how I could come back.

Leaving Home

You could say I came to LA to get away from my family.  I was 22 and wanted to assert my independence.  Plus, it seemed like a much cooler place to live than New Jersey, the filthy, strip-mall saturated suburbia where I spent my requisite miserable childhood.

LA was exciting – and it was mine.  My family thought I was crazy to come here, and that was the best part.  But in spite of myself, I continued to call New Jersey “home”, as in “I’m going home for Christmas” or “I miss everyone back home.”

Still, I didn’t have to get anyone’s permission – for anything.  It wouldn’t be overstating it to say I finally became myself in LA.  I came out, fell in love and had my kids here, something Drew and I couldn’t have done without California’s liberal surrogacy laws.

Sometime over the last 17 years, I started calling LA “home”.  The East Coast was just a place I visited now.  My family was made up of a tight circle of friends I’d formed here.  I got used to pumping my own gas and grabbing a quick meal at Baja Fresh.  When I’d drive through old neighborhoods in New Jersey, I’d see Verizon stores where Roy Rogers used to be.  It was a foreign land.

Then, a few weeks ago, we were presented a chance to move back.  Drew got a very tempting job offer with a New York-based company.  They wanted him to start right away.  They’d pick up all our moving costs.  We wouldn’t even have to pack.  All we’d have to do… was leave.

We took the offer.

22-year-old me would never have believed I’d cave and go back.  But it wasn’t that hard a decision after all.  I don’t want to leave here or to lose touch with any of the people I’ve come to care so much about in California.  But the forces pulling us to New York were ultimately stronger than the forces tying us here.  It wasn’t about the job or the money.  What made me want to go back to the East Coast was exactly what made me leave in the first place.  Family.

I want my kids to know their cousins, and I want them to get spoiled by their grandparents.  I want to be there for my brother-in-law’s wedding and to stay out all night celebrating.  I want free babysitting from my sister, and I want to know that in an emergency, a lifeline is just a phone call away.

We found a house to rent in Westchester County.  A house, with a real backyard, rather than a hallway that we call a backyard.  Still, it doesn’t feel real.  I suspect it’ll take a while before New York feels like home.

My kids aren’t quite two and a half yet.  Assuming the move sticks, New York will be the only home they’re likely to remember.  It makes me sad to think that they’ll forget all their friends – all our friends, that when we come back to visit, these people who are so dear to us will just be strangers to them.

But maybe someday, when they’re grown up, they’ll want to move far away from me.  Maybe after growing up in the New York suburbs, Los Angeles will seem new and exciting.  I kind of hope it does.  It’s not that I think they’ll be any happier here than anywhere else.  Or that I romanticize my own journey out here when I was younger.

It’s just nice to know there are a lot of people here who’ll watch over them for me.

Pioneers?

Portrait of Davy Crockett1834

Image via Wikipedia

When Drew and I first met with our surrogacy agency, they called us “pioneers”.  We laughed about it, unable to see much connection between us and, say, Davy Crockett.

I’ve been working on a blog post about the reactions we’ve received as a gay family in Los Angeles.  Sometimes, we have trouble explaining our family to people, but overall, we still don’t feel like pioneers.

Yesterday, the New York Times Magazine published this essay, titled “O Pioneers!”  It’s written by a man who grew up in the suburbs in the early 80s with two lesbian moms.

It’s a great read, and if anyone’s earned the “pioneer” title, it’s the author and his family.  If I’m able to see the humor in our family’s situation, it’s largely due to families like his, who’ve only found their laughs in retrospect.

I’m going to put my post up tomorrow.  Until then, enjoy the NYT essay.