When I was in second grade, my best friend was an exchange student from Japan named Katsuya. We hung out all the time and always enjoyed each other's company. He spoke very little English when he arrived at our school and his English improved only slightly during the year that he lived in America with his family. To compensate for this, I invented a new language… well, not really, but it felt like it when I was seven years old. I altered my speech so that I sounded a bit Japanese. I took on part of his accent and dropped words from sentences so that I impersonated a foreigner. Now, that wasn't to make fun of him… as a seven year old, I was kind and smart. And headstrong. Even though my parents weren't fond of my new accent, I felt it must be helping Katsuya to understand me and maybe even to learn the language faster. And for some reason, it worked. His English did improve and the two of us sounded like immigrant brothers with our choppy sentences, simple vocabulary, and Japanese accents.
Whenever possible, the two of us would play together and invent games or chase each other around playing tag. One day, we burned the summer hours at his home, an apartment complex in downtown Berkeley near where I now live with my wife and two young sons. Katsuya and I were inseparable and enjoying every minute of that day. We chased each other down the long outdoor corridors of the apartment building, making much too much noise, I am certain. But when you are that young and the world is fresh and vibrant, you go with what you know. So we yelled and laughed, and ran the entire time. We tested the elevators by traveling over and over again from the first floor to the third and back again to the bottom. We opened the doors and closed them and pressed buttons at random. We were both good kids, so the thought of pulling the alarm or pressing a button we knew we shouldn't have didn't cross our minds. Mischievous? Sure, but to a point. We kept at it, running and traveling between floors until the afternoon sun flooded the walkways between apartment doors. At some point, though, our game of tag turned devisive. For reasons I don't remember now and am fairly certain I didn't know at the time, Katsuya ran into his house and closed the front door. When I reached for the handle -- out of breath and still half giggling -- I found it locked. I tried it again, but it wouldn't turn. I knocked and waited. And knocked and waited. But there was no answer. I knew in my seven year old mind that Katsuya must be inside laughing at my attempts to get in. And knowing so made me more and more frustrated. I was and am an only child, so while I've also appreciated alone time, when I'm playing with someone else I want that contact, that communication, and that shared experience. But I wasn't getting any of that. I was getting the silent treatment. And it didn't last five minutes or ten. It felt like it lasted half an hour, though maybe I exaggerate that from memory. Either way, I wasn't having any of it. I made up my mind that I didn't want to have any part of someone teasing me by locking me out of their house. So I turned on my heels and walked to the elevator. I rode it down to the first floor and left the complex.
Katsuya's home was on Shattuck avenue, a major street in Berkeley. It was right near the original Berkeley Bowl market, close to where we shop for groceries today at the replacement Berkeley Bowl, a store known for its diversity of produce and products. My home was in the Berkeley hills, above the campus. It was 2.8 miles from Katsuya's home to mine, a fact I didn't know back then. So I started walking. My sense of geography was very strong as a kid, something I took pride in. It was rare for me to feel lost, and I never actually did get lost growing up. Once I had seen a route a few times -- or even once -- I knew it well enough to find my way there. But 2.8 miles for a seven year old is practically a marathon. I was equipped with nothing and wearing shorts and a t-shirt in the summer air. Still, the nights in Berkeley aren't what you would consider warm.
I knew Berkeley well, and I found myself thinking about where to go first. Sure, home was in the hills, but it wasn't my only home. My parents had been divorced since I was two years old and had lived close enough to each other for me to be able to ride my bike between houses, or at least get a quick ride from mom or dad when I was too young to ride a bike that far by myself. My father had re-married when I was 14 and moved into a house in neighboring Albany. But at seven, he still lived in a small two-story house on Berryman street in Berkeley. It was about a third of the way to the house in the hills my parents had bought when they first were married and before they realized that marriage wasn't a good idea for them. So I trekked through the urban streets, walking mostly on Martin Luther King Jr. Way, which had just been renamed the year before in 1980 from Grove Street. There are still signs along that road that read "Old Grove Street." When I reached my dad's house, I felt relieved and knocked on the front door. When no one answered my repeated inquiries, I walked around the side of the house to the back yard. I found my dog, Kisa -- named after the Hopi word for Falcon -- there. Kisa was a loyal and loving dog who protected me from the snarling jaws of the next door neighbor's dog Rufus who I thought once tried to chew my leg off. Kisa was a German shepherd lab retriever mix, and she lived to be 18 before we illegally buried her in the backyard of the house my father and stepmother bought in Albany. Kisa was bought as a puppy the year I was born and died the year I moved out of the house for the first time and became legally an adult. I took Kisa with me on my walk to the next destination that came to mind: my other best friend's house nearby. The walk must have taken about ten minutes, which wasn't much when you consider that I arrived at my final destination when it was pitch black out. But again, I found a house that was empty of people. My friend's mother -- a teacher's aide later in life -- raised three sons and entertained many friends, family members, and acquaintances, but never once -- in the 36 years that I've known her -- locked the front door. I'm sure I could have simply opened that door, walked in to the living room, and sat down on the couch. And waited. For shortly someone must have returned to find my dog in the backyard, whimpering slightly at being left there by her seven year old owner. But I did not. Color me stubborn, but I wanted to be home. I wanted to be with my parents, or at least one of them if I couldn't have both together.
So I continued my journey, with the sun starting to dip towards the horizon. I had had to cross many busy streets and while the eastern parts of Marin avenue are not that busy in comparison, Marin holds its place in the hearts of Berkeley citizens much the same way that Lombard does for San Franciscans. Marin meanders upwards towards downtown Berkeley but then pauses at the site of a roundabout with a fountain in the middle graced by four small granite teddy bears facing the cardinal directions. As with most traffic circles, it is unmanaged by traffic lights or even stop signs. The four yield signs at each corner do little to hinder aggressive drivers from flooring it to try and bypass the cars that slowly drift around the edges of the circle. But I was unscathed this entire journey. It could have been much worse, I realize now… a young boy alone in a sometimes troubled city, with plenty of homeless people and criminals to keep even the bravest adult from completely carefree travels. But my determination overcame even that steepest of hills, Marin. I passed the fountain and started climbing sidewalks, passing block after block. A few years later, with a carful of rowdy preteen boys, my friend's mother -- the teacher's aide -- stalled her buick station wagon at the tip top of Marin, just a few feet from the top of that momentous climb. The needle next to the fuel gauge read EMPTY. We had no choice -- she had no choice -- but to put the car in neutral and slowly, carefully, back down that steepest of blocks on the steepest hill in Berkeley until she could turn -- backwards -- onto a side street. I'm pretty sure we coasted the rest of the way down in neutral, which means that her brakes surely worked. Without that, I hesitate to think what might have happened to me.
A seven year old -- even a headstrong one with divorced parents who is set up in life to have to go it alone to a certain extent -- will naturally start to think of frightening possibilities. And my possibilities tended toward the boogeyman. I had then -- and still possess -- a fear of the dark. When I was in Bali at the age of 24 and walking along completely pitch black streets where wild monkeys and witches (the Balinese find nothing peculiar about a belief in witches) preside, I had to steel myself against the growing belief that something or someone would step out of the shadows and attack me. It was only because of the gracious company of my friend Tom who told me after finding it curious I would have a fear of the dark that he had grown up among the cornfields of Iowa and that it was not uncommon for him to be out late in the evening, alone, after the sun had gone down simply walking for hours through those fields without a worry in sight.
Walking up that steep street in Berkeley, I began to subconsciously and then consciously sing to myself. And then finally, aloud. The song that wanted to make itself known at the fearful moment was "The freaks come out at night" by Whodini. The lyrics I remembered back then and still the only ones I remember to this day were "The freaks come out at night. The freaks come at night. The freaks come out at night. The freaks come out and bite." A quick Google check shows that the word bite never appeared in the song, but to my young ears and frightened mindset, it fit perfectly. I must have repeated that chorus a hundred times as the day stretched into night. At that point, I was starting to get really worried. What if no one was home at my mother's house? What if I got too scared to continue? What if I got hungry? But I didn't see a choice in the matter, so I kept walking up that hill. Car lights passed me but I didn't see a single person on the sidewalks for over an hour. When I reached the top of Marin, I turned right onto Grizzly Peak, something the Buick station wagon had never managed to do. Grizzly Peak runs along the top of the Berkeley hills and dumps into the Lawrence Hall of Science, Tilden Park's many attractions including the Brazilian Room where my wife and I were married in 2004, and Campus Drive, the street where my parent's original house stood. I walked along the flat sidewalk-less darkness of Grizzly Peak with an impending sense of dread. Fear was flooding my nervous system, but I pushed on. Few cars passed, but each one that did made me consider sticking out my thumb and hitchhiking back to safety. I went so far as to practice what my hand should look like when I stick out my thumb to catch a ride. The fourth car that passed me slowed behind me and came to a stop. I swallowed hard and turned around. It was my mom. I was saved. And in big trouble.
As I stepped into the warm car and began to recount my story, she too had a story to share with me. She had gone to pick me up that afternoon from Katsuya's house only to find that his parents had no idea where I was. It hadn't concerned them either. "He left" was all they bothered to share with her. No phone call or missing persons report. From there, my mother drove to her friend's house -- the teacher's aide -- and found her at home but confused as to why our dog was in the backyard. She, too, had no idea where I was. There weren't enough clues. So my mom did what any mom would do. She began to trace what might have been my steps and to consider that I might think that going home meant returning to the house I had grown up in in the Berkeley hills. A house that had been sold the month before and was standing empty and lifeless in the dark.