The windows were boarded up from the inside. The bumpy, textured plaster on the walls and arched ceiling was still the same gray-white color, but instead of three beds in the small room, cases of soft drinks and beer were stacked everywhere along with storeroom clutter.
The choice was to laugh or cry. My brother John and I were standing in our former bedroom - from boyhood to early teen years - in Duarte, Calif., when the land around the house/restaurant was mostly orange groves, and Route 66 was 15 yards away from the front door.
Now our bedroom was a storeroom for a blue-collar bar and grill.
What used to be my parents' colorful Swedish restaurant some 40 years ago (the family occupied four back rooms) had been transformed into a hangout, the kind of bar Dirty Harry would walk into to find the guy who knew the guy who pulled the trigger. A Lakers' basketball game was on TV. Two guys with three-day-old beards were playing pool near the bar. Cigarette smoke and the smell of beer was, shall we say, prolific. And the jukebox was twanging and whining a country song about misguided love.
When we walked in, everybody looked up. The pool players switched toothpicks to the other side and stared at us.
The owner's daughter, a blonde with a wide smile, was gracious when we told her we used to live here, three boys, Mom and Dad, and a 1939 Packard.
"This is what the place used to look like," John said, offering three or four yellowed photos taken of the front door. Several people at the bar gathered around. The bar was along a wall that used to have a warm little fireplace. The room over there was Mom and Dad's bedroom, and the pool table stood in what used to be part of the kitchen.
"And that room there, with the lock on it," John said, "used to be our bedroom." The woman found the key, opened the door, and turned on the light.
It was in this room that I read about the adventures of explorer Richard Halliburton, using a flashlight under the covers at night. It was here on Saturdays that I listened to college football games on the radio. On summer nights I would swing open the window next to my bed. Above me, the hugeness of the cosmos sparkled in mystery, while a train whistled two miles away, heading for Los Angeles.
It was in this room that an earthquake threw me out of bed one night. I struggled to get my pants on as the floor bucked and the walls creaked and groaned. In this room my pet mouse, Herb, got away and hit the road to somewhere else. In this room, my brothers and I slept and argued, grew and laughed, and learned what was necessary - or at least useful and enduring - from my parents and a small town.
As a storeroom, the bedroom is small and dark. But in memory it has a bright, heirloom quality like an old sofa passed down from parents to sons.
You can't be too passionate about the past, or bend too much to the sentimentality of it. Just when you think it's hallowed ground, somebody hauls in cases of soft drinks and beer and makes a storeroom out of it.
My brother and I thanked the woman, and stepped outside into the night. Heavy traffic flowed past the bar. We walked around to the back, where a large pepper tree once stood about 20 yards from the house. In playing baseball there, the measure of absolute triumph was to hit a ball over the tree without touching it. A clean home run.
But the tree is gone. So is the garage. Next door, the small motel cabins are still there, but they look like pale green tool sheds with windows. Gone is the sense of possession I felt, the acknowledgment that builds in children to render their surroundings, no matter how basic, into home.
WE headed for our old elementary school, which could be prime real estate now. Duarte has grown into a big town just off the freeway.
Surprise. The school has retained its old exterior, a sort of Mission-style Gothic. But inside is a huge family-style restaurant where several hundred people are eating and dozens are waiting. The playground is a parking lot.
My seventh-grade classroom is filled with people eating pizza and spaghetti. What used to be a big multipurpose room for plays, dances, and movies is now the main dining room with booths, tables, and chairs. The school motif is enhanced by old sienna-colored photos enlarged and arranged on the walls.
Next to the bar is a photo of a rumpled cluster of boys from the 1950s, wearing baseball mitts and holding bats. Some are mugging for the camera. The boy toward the back, with the big grin, is my brother John. We know the names of most of the boys, but several have slipped from memory.
We sit down and have dinner, our conversation rolling back and forth between past and present. Suddenly I remember that we are sitting in the exact spot where I once asked Florence Pietro to dance on a Saturday night, and she said yes.