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Unfiled September 4, 2004
Walk on the Suburban Side
By Mark Ames Browse author Email

A couple of weeks ago I got an email from my mother telling me that my first childhood friend, Mike H., had died. The obituary in the San Jose Mercury didn't specify what caused his death, but my parents heard it was drug-related. He was 38-years-old, leaving a wife and child.

Mike was my nextdoor neighbor. Our families moved into the same brand new subdivision in Saratoga, a suburb of San Jose, just over the hill from Santa Cruz. It was getting expensive then -- today, it's one of the priciest areas in the state. I remember seeing the carbon-blue architect's plans for our long L-shaped house, with the 1-acre yard where we planned to keep a horse. The neighbors behind us and across the street had horses, as did my future babysitters a couple blocks away. Their names were Tammy and Theresa Beers. San Jose was a shitkicker culture -- Morris Snideman always reminds me that I retain a few Okie inflections -- only with new money thrown into the mix, and the hippie plague ready to sweep down on us from San Francisco.

Mike's family had gone from East San Jose proles to millionaires almost overnight thanks to his father's paint business. They built an off-white two-story house with a separate garage, and later, a separate two-story "playroom" for the kids in the backyard, complete with TVs, a pool table and a pinball machine. That was where we found the parents' case of scotch, stored in the playhouse basement. Mike, his two older brothers and I carefully broke into the box, unsealed a bottle, and shared it. Mike was six years old, and I was seven. All of us gagged with each capful, but Mike took the whole bottle and started chugging it. We thought he was trying to impress us, and later, when he started staggering around the neighborhood, we thought he was faking it. Late that night, he started choking on his vomit. His parents rushed him to the hospital where he had his stomach pumped. They said that if he had fallen asleep, he would have died.

One day I saw a brush fire in an empty lot across the street and liked it so much I wanted to start my own. Mike agreed, so he helped me carry boxes of newspapers a block away to a shack next to an old widow's house. We set the shack on fire -- the flames leaped up about 10 or fifteen feet -- then ran away, each to our homes. The firemen came and put it out -- and then they knocked on Mike's door, on a tip from a neighbor. He cried and told the firemen that I had put him up to it. I bawled my head off, and got off with a warning.

I soon became a kleptomaniac, shoplifting from the local Safeway. My favorite was lifting a pack of cigarettes from behind an unmanned checkout stand, which I'd then take down to the creek and smoke. I taught Mike how to swipe cigarettes -- but at age 7, he got busted by the manager, while I slipped away. Again, Mike blamed me for putting him up to it.

By the time I was eight and Mike seven, we had moved onto smoking pot. Once, when we were high, Mike insisted that he would catch up to my age one day. He had already calculated how long it would take.

He was prone to getting hurt. Once he fell off a creek bridge when we were stoned, breaking his leg. Another time, when I helped him catch a fainting buzz (you take a deep breath, hold it in, stand against a wall and have a friend push against your sternum as hard as possible), Mike collapsed and fell back on his head, suffering a severe concussion. I could have caught him, but I watched him fall instead, back-of-skull first, right onto the pavement. My reaction (or lack of) disturbed me even then -- why I didn't catch him?

We also vandalized a lot together. We'd bean cars with rocks, break windows, or do stupider things like trespassing (Saratoga was still rural then), or going late-night streaking with the local hippies. Mike's older brother was thirteen, and our babysitters, the Beers twins, were 16, with older hippie boyfriends, mean, hairy jerks. We'd find houses that were not fully built or whose owners were away, and we'd break in (easily, through open windows or sliding glass doors) just to be in someone else's house. When the Beers' boyfriends were away, we'd get drunk and stoned together and play spin the bottle with our babysitters. Once, Mike's older brother rubbed his fingers into my nose. "That's Tammy's pussy," he said. It smelled like pee. I didn't know where the hole was -- I kept poking around in the center of Tammy or Theresa's pubic hair triangle whenever they were passed out from drugs, but I couldn't find the damn hole. I was only eight.

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