By Joel Badzinski
By choice, I walked to school every day during my freshman year of high school. The bus stopped at the corner two houses down, and on the cold-weather days—this was Minnesota, so there were many—my peers watched me from behind frosted windows with confusion and possibly disdain rather than admiration as I trudged along. Of course the bus sucked, but why would you … Omigawd … choose to walk? I imagined two dozen pairs of eyes rolling, and feared that the cute, popular girls were saying “Like, what a total spaz” to each other and crossing me off some secret list of interesting boys. The walk was about one mile and yes, it was all uphill.
Halfway there, I stopped at the house of a friend named Jay, his little redheaded sister staring at me while I waited in the entryway as offstage he scrambled to get ready, or sometimes he’d already be outside, marking time until I showed up. It just developed this way through some agreement over the summer: We’d walk together and skip the bus. After all, you don’t venture alone into a strange new land. So after the brief perfection of Midwestern fall, we endured the long, long, pre-Global Warming arctic winter, and when the snow flew sideways, we could imagine we were on a hero’s journey, like in The Empire Strikes Back when Luke almost died on Hoth. Sadly, there was no guidance from Obi-Wan, no voyage to the Dagobah System to meet Yoda; our destination was Park High School and its exhausted public teachers with their short-sleeve dress shirts and coffee-stained teeth. Heads down against the snow-glare and frigid wind, we talked about the things teenage boys talk about and practiced our impressions of teachers, timing the 15-minute hike perfectly so that we could toss our jackets in our lockers and get to the first class of the morning.
Park in the mid-1980s very much resembled a John Hughes movie. Or, think of the hairsprayed array of teenhood from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. It was a big, bland, storehouse for kids of the suburban middle class. Jay and I belonged to a group of friends who’d formed in junior high and more or less stuck together as we made the socially-perilous jump to high school and all through the next four years. Like a pack of distance runners, we saw some of our number fall away during the long haul, including Jay, and some join in later. I still can’t perfectly classify us in the all-important Order of Clicquery. What’s the exact middle? Let’s see, we played sports, thus avoiding geek status, but were mid-level athletes at best. No pep rallies for us. We could quote Monty Python—dangerous territory—but only when we were among a trusted few. We affected David Letterman’s wry sarcasm in attempts at class-clowning during an era when the wordless punchline to the old pull-my-finger joke got the easy laughs. We dressed conventionally, worrying intensely as all teens do how about to look just acceptable enough to blend in. Drinking wasn’t really our thing, nor was Dungeons & Dragons. The principal didn’t know who we were, as we avoided both trouble and high achievement. Throughout junior high and the first half of high school we had girls who were friends rather than Girlfriends and were shocked that they showed up at some of our (usually parentally supervised and always fully sober) parties and they may even have giggled when we mimicked John Cleese’s French waiter from The Meaning of Life scene where Mr. Creosote explodes after an epic feast. In short, my friends and I eluded attention and embarrassment and stayed well above the dreaded lower caste; then again we never got invited to the Friday night keg parties of the elite. We hung out in my basement, cultivated inside jokes tucked inside the inside jokes, and knew every offering in the ‘R’ rated horror section at Mr. Movies.
Back to that freshman year and the daily marches to high school. This was 1984-85 and that’s important because Thursday nights you had the awesomeness of Magnum, P.I. followed by Simon and Simon. I certainly didn’t watch every single episode—maybe there was hockey practice, maybe the dudes and I retreated to our subterranean lair to view “Dr. Butcher, M.D.” (Medical Deviate), pausing, rewinding, inventing new dialogue—and as the icy gales whistled through the subdivision, I fixated on tropical locations as presented through the lens of CBS. Sure, I wanted to spend the rest of the 80s crashing in Robin Masters’ guesthouse, being scolded by Higgins and dashing around in shorts and a Hawaiian shirt, haunted not by ’Nam, as Thomas Magnum was, but the death breath of the algebra teacher, let’s call him Mr. XY (get it?). “Rookie mistake!” one of my friends would gleefully whisper when a classmate raised a hand with a question, and Mr. XY would walk over and lean in terribly close to help them work out If 10 = X then … oh, who cares, I’m jumping in the Ferrari now for some island breezes. Yet Hawaii was too far away, too exotic, like a dream.
San Diego, on the other hand, seemed possible. Even if you were a Minnesota kid who’d never been farther west than Lake Minnetonka. Yes, I wanted to go to San Diego, maybe for college, or maybe just hop in my car, the one I would of course have in four years, and 20 minutes after receiving my diploma I would roll out toward my golden future. What about my family, my friends? How would I afford all this? Trust me, I didn’t know. However, I can assure you that at, let’s say 7:02 on a January morning, maybe it’s that awful first day of school after Christmas break, and I’m stepping out the door into a minus-4 windchill with a couple of untoasted Pop Tarts for breakfast en route to meet Jay (there goes the bus, can you see the eyes rolling?), three more grueling months of winter to go, that I was San Diego daydreaming. Once there, I could post myself behind a tree—a palm tree—and observe the car wash that Rick and AJ suspected was a front for a chop shop while they pursued a suspect down in Tijuana. Later they’d pay me $20 (that seemed like a lot) and I’d be all set. Or I could go to college. I had no idea what I’d study; heck, I had no idea if there was even a university in San Diego. It didn’t matter, because when you are a freshman, senior year and graduation are 100 years away and science has proven that.
Sophomore year, Jay’s parents inexplicably sent him to a private school and we saw him less and less, then not at all. I started taking the bus, at least until I got my drivers’ license and my dad, with palpable fear, started letting me drive his late ‘70s Ford F-150 to school.
I finally got to San Diego in 2006, as my wife and I celebrated our 10th anniversary with a California vacation. And last year, after a lifetime in the Midwest, we moved to Tucson, Arizona. San Diego is about six hours’ drive away, and we’ve already gone three times, with another trip coming up soon. Here’s my travel tip: the pleasure of San Diego, in our opinion, is in doing as little as possible, sleeping late, staking out a spot on Ocean Beach for the day, taking our dog for a splash in the Pacific, watching the sun set from a bar on Newport Avenue. I hope my landlocked, suburban-ranch dwelling, shivering, 14-year-old self can feel a bit of that warm SoCal sun back through the tunnel of years.
Joel Badzinski is a Minnesota native now living in Tucson, Arizona. A recovering sportswriter, he seeks meaningful travel when possible—visiting Warsaw and Krakow to understand his Polish ancestry, achieving Zen in Chiang Mai, Thailand, or eating his way across Lima, Peru—but is always up for a chilled-out week at the beach in San Diego, or checking out a new Major League Baseball stadium.
Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World by Charish Badzinski is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.