Wayward Son

The last day at Albert Powell High School in 1987 was also my last day of school in Yuba City for good. I decided not to go back for my senior year, effectively dropping out without much of a plan for what I would do next. Abby moved in with us not long into the summer when my mom’s developing relationship with Jerry and a more stringent set of rules led her to choose the vagabond life with me and pops instead. Our 400 square foot house was much too small for three people, so we moved across town to a two bedroom place that gave us a bit more elbow room and to avoid killing each other. Abby and I shared the main bathroom, while she got the extra bedroom to herself. Dad had the master suite with the attached bath and I slept on a pull-out couch in the living room that I rarely pulled out.

I worked as a busboy and dishwasher at a Mexican restaurant just down the street from our new apartment. This was where I acquired an abiding love of fresh chips and salsa and somewhat of an obsession for Tijuana-style tacos. The freedom to fill a gallon jug with beer whenever I closed was a certified bonus for what became my last full-time gig in the food industry before heading to Sierra Nevada Job Corps in the fall. Abby also decided to attend Job Corps rather than going back to school, so she was heading to the San Bernardino center in southern California right around the same time. The experiences actually ended up being oddly similar despite vast differences in geography and sociology.

 My meager collection of belongings was once again loaded into the back of my dad’s truck and we headed for the former Nevada Air National Guard Base turned delinquent central in Stead, thirty minutes from downtown Reno by car. The city bus took two or three times as long depending. I checked in at the student housing office and said goodbye to my pops, already eager to head to Circus Circus Casino. My old man was nothing if not a creature of habit. I was led to a brownish-gray, two-story cinder block building with a central staircase that went up to twin hallways with communal bathrooms in each wing and a central recreation area with a television, board games and seating scattered throughout. It was empty at this time of day but would later be filled with young men of every imaginable size, shade and temperament.

The student helper delivered me to the Resident Advisor on duty and left. The adult RA explained the dorm rules (mostly related to curfew, cleaning and cigarette use) before leading me to where I would spend the next year and half of my life. The room was the last on the left at the end of the west wing. He handed me two keys and returned to the office while I moved in. A set of bunk beds shared the fifteen by twenty foot space with a single bed and three locked closets to store clothes and any personal items we wanted to keep from walking off. A couple of concert posters with frames made from scrap trim, a small metal desk and bookcase rounded out the décor. It was shabby chic before such a thing existed. I took the empty top bunk and filled the closet with my stuff before heading out to explore the huge, desert compound of dun-colored buildings built out of the dun-colored sand for an entirely different purpose a generation ago.

I suspect that’s why Sierra Nevada Job Corps center is so highly ranked. There is something about the environment that bent unruly angst into superior performance. The program ran on a structured process of helping bright hard cases attain a high school diploma while learning a trade from a menu of options that included things like brick laying or culinary services, all timed with military precision. I was lucky enough to land at one of a small group of Job Corps centers that was amazingly effective at their core mission of transforming wayward youths into productive members of society. My two roommates came back to the room following their classes and prior to dinner at the chow hall.

Oscar was a big bear of a dude who was coincidently from Humboldt County, just outside of Eureka, and usually had a stash of the killer weed Joey and I risked our lives to find earlier that year. He read like a maniac and introduced me to the habit as there was rarely anything to watch on the floor TV even if we had a chance to pick the channel. He also had a huge library of science fiction and fantasy paperbacks that I used to feed my growing habit.

Our other roommate’s name escapes me, but I did borrow his jean jacket vest one night with a bright red Metallica patch between the shoulders that a black kid from Oakland used as an excuse to initiate a “fight” during the bus ride home. He must have been a Crip given his hatred of the color red. I took some solid shots to the face from different guys during the never-ending ride but cowardice was the better part of survival lest I provoke a team-based response. The other passengers practiced being blind and deaf to the brazen assault. The bus stopped near the barriers separating Job Corps from the surrounding suburban neighborhoods before heading back downtown. I quickly climbed the 12-foot fence and ran to the dorms rather than walking to the open gates up the block. My attackers never had a chance to regroup and finish what they started on the bus.

I fell easily into the routine of cleaning the common areas before lights out and keeping our room spotless. Going to breakfast, lunch and dinner at the same time each day was a novel change that added a bit more meat to my bones, though I was also hitting a spurt that saw me growing from five foot five to five foot ten over the next six months, so any weight gain was negligible. The high school classes following breakfast were a snap, and I quickly moved through the self-paced curriculum before capping the effort by taking and crushing the GED test. On a separate track each afternoon, I dove into the auto mechanics program, probably as a way to prepare for the coming visit to see my mom and step father (who built hot rods in his “spare” time) and step siblings in Colorado for the two-week Christmas break.

The trip started with an epic bus ride to Denver with my sister and a bunch of Dead Heads.