Growing up Poor

Perhaps I should clarify this provocative intro. My early childhood was well taken care of. Late 60’s, Sunnyvale California, father worked at a defense contractor (and made a good salary). I was too young to know that this made us solidly middle class. There weren’t many worries about money, and the essentials. Then, when I was in 1st grade, my mother decided that she wanted out. Divorce, sudden drop in income, and a pretty big change in life situations.

While my mother kept the house, and my father was diligent about paying child support, it was a noticeable shift in stature. Again, I was pretty young, but I didn’t know better. My mother went through a string of men, finally marrying one that was probably the worst of the bunch. A sometimes working auto mechanic, he was an alcoholic, and abusive. The fights they would have. Wow. Anyhow, there were a lot of dodgy things during this time. My mother worked as a stenographer, a typist, and even as a hair stylist. My now stepfather worked maybe 2-3 days a week, and was pretty drunk the rest of the time.

I remember all this with more than a little bit of the haze of time, but I do recall some things that affected me gravely, and affect me to this day.

When I say “poor” I am don’t mean “Appalachian” poor. But, regardless of our neighborhood, and our appearances, we had a serious downgrade in our day to day existence.

Some examples:

  • If you can’t afford the $6 a month to rent a band instrument, so you have to drop out of band.
  • If you qualify for the subsidized lunch program (and we certainly did, but pride and stubbornness prevented my parents from applying for it).
  • If most of your groceries come from the Dented Can warehouse. If you are there on Wednesday afternoon, when they got the new shipment. Nothing like label-less surprise for dinner. Will it be beans? or Chili?
  • If Tuna Casserole was a splurge. And not solid white, but the light chunk tuna.
  • If you used reconstituted powered milk for your cereal
  • If you ate a lot of bologna sandwiches on bread from the day old Hostess outlet.
  • You know what “government cheese” is.
  • If your vacation was illegal camping on private land.

There were some things that were not skimped on. There was always money for cigarettes (2-3 cartons a week). There was money for whiskey.

By the time I was in the 3rd grade, I began to realize that this wasn’t how everybody lived. I was what was called “gifted” in school, and pulled into special programs to allow me to grow at a faster pace. But it was here where I realized how different my family situation was than my new “peers”. Instead of thriving on the programs, I was almost resentful, as it laid bare how our opportunities were limited because of my mother’s fateful decision to seek a divorce.

I had pretty much forgotten about all this, putting it far behind me until a few years ago. I was at a leadership offsite, with the 12 or so leaders of our organization. Part of the exercise was to do a brief biography of our lives. We shared many attributes, almost all of us delivered newspapers for instance, but there was one thing that stood out to me. Of the 12 people there, I was the only one who had parents who divorced. Biography after biography was a story of a charmed life, with a “normal” family. At that point, I realized that something was taken away from me without my knowing it.

My mother has passed away, my abusive step father died very young, but to this day I am scarred by what happened in my formative years.

I am not sure why after all this time, I need to share this, but I do. If  you read this far, thanks. Perhaps later posts will be the other joy of broken families, the political battle between the ex’s about custody and visitation, game playing where my siblings and I were the cards.

My first Street Bike – 1978 Honda CX500

Not long after I started riding off road motorcycles, I came of age to get a learner’s permit. At the time, with a simple test, I could ride a motorcycle on the street (with surprisingly less restrictions than driving a car). So I was on the prowl for a good ride. I didn’t need a tame “starter” bike, as I had learned all the basics off road, so I was looking for something a little more mainstream.

My first street bike, the "ugly duckling" CX500 was a very capable ride
My first street bike, the “ugly duckling” CX500 was a very capable ride

In 1978, Honda had launched their CX500, a 500cc v-twin, in an “unusual” configuration. It had the engine rotated 90 degrees, with the cylinders hanging out (like the venerable Motoguzzi). It was water cooled, shaft drive, and in all other aspects a normal bike.

I think I got it for $1,000 used (in 1981 or so. Again, someone had bought it, and upgraded). It was a lot of fun to ride, and it handled remarkably well. The stock Dunlop tires were quickly shagged (plus they were some ungodly hard compound that was just awful) and I switched to continentals that greatly improved the ride and the feel of the bike.

I rode the wheels off that thing, all over the south bay, along the coast, Big Basin way in Saratoga, highway 9 to skyline, and up to Alice’s. I probably put 25K miles on that thing in the 2 years I owned it.

It all came to a horrible end when I wrecked it. I was on my way to work, and some sunday driver (it was sunday) on her way to church pulled out in front of me. Swerving to go behind her, she backed up to get out of my way. BAM. up and over the hood of the car, a perfect roll and I was on the ground. Fortunately the bike decided NOT to follow me over the car. I walked away from that with just a bruised wrist, and a thoroughly wrecked helmet. The bike was totaled.

With the insurance money, I bought a street hooligan bike, a HOnda XL500, 1979 vintage. But that is for another post.