Around the summer of 1975, my parents and I moved into a semi-communal house on Cragmont Street in the hills of Berkeley, California. Since February of that year, we’d been traveling around the state and up to Oregon and Washington, seeking out land to purchase and settle down on. I was almost nine years old and looking forward to starting school nearby for some much-needed structure to my life, not to mention socialization with others my own age. This home we lived in for the next year or so was filled with adults who, like my parents, were in their mid twenties to early thirties.
And then there was me. I conversed as much as I could with our three to four ever-changing housemates, all but one of them moving out over the months to soon be replaced by others I then did my best to get to know. There was Paul the lawyer, a very tall, bearded man who drove a Citroen, which fascinated me to no end, the way it rose up on its wheels after turning on the ignition. I decided that I too would become an attorney so I could own a similar kind of car when I grew up. Ron the dentist replaced Paul in the room across from ours. He was quiet and looked somewhat like Lee Majors, pre-THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN. Then, I believe Michael the musician filled Ron’s spot. I would make up adventure stories which he would accompany with passionate guitar playing. Harry and his girlfriend Sandra lived in the room next door, closest to the front entrance. Harry wore wire-framed glasses, had thin wisps of blond hair, and was a bit stiff in demeanor. He played Steely Dan all the time, filling the house with those smooth, jazzy rock songs I still love hearing no matter where I am. His girlfriend Sandra was kind and gentle, wearing thick dark-rimmed glasses and long straight brown hair. Downstairs lived the anchor tenant, Jeffrey, who my dad knew from college. He was a suave graduate student of music, his shoulder length black hair, big brown eyes, and wide chiseled jaw lending him a somewhat Byronesque look. I remember my mom commenting to me about how “very handsome” he was. Jeffrey dated two beautiful half Indian and half British sisters, Emma and Lucy, until they found out about each other’s shared involvement. This was thanks to me standing with Emma in the kitchen one day, inadvertently telling the blonde, blue-eyed statuesque woman that I’d seen her younger sister (also statuesque, but darker skinned and raven-haired) coming around recently. No-one had told me to keep mum about this observation of mine. Lucy and Jeffrey would soon marry, then later divorce. When Steely Dan wasn’t blasting in the living room, Jeffrey could often be found playing piano with one hand and gracefully waving his baton with the other.
There were at least three other housemates in this rotation of occupancies. One was Joan, who could be moody, though I did deserve her irritation at times with my attention-seeking, such as one afternoon when I quietly loaded up her dark brown hair with grass and leaves while she read a book in the nearby school grounds. Then there was Nancy who kept her makeup in the medicine cabinet of the shared upstairs bathroom. I made use of her eye shadow on more than one occasion. I stopped this when Mom suddenly turned to me one day and sternly said, “Don’t get into Nancy’s makeup!”
There was another woman who lived in the same room previously occupied by Harry and Sandra, but I forget her name. I was puzzled with the big curlers in her dirty blonde hair she wore some mornings, resulting in perfectly straight locks. “I curl my hair to make it straighter,” she eventually explained to me.
When I wasn’t talking or trying to play with one of my adult housemates, I usually entertained myself effectively enough, going on imaginary journeys in the brick-laid front and backyards, bamboo (or some other kind of high shrubbery) growing tall between the sidewalk and the front area of the house. I was too young at the time to appreciate the sweeping view down to assorted trees, other homes, and the spacious playground of a local grammar school. A tall Rainier cherry tree tickled against the living room window of our abode, yielding delicious red-yellow fruits. My father would tie an old sock and wire to a long stick and then scoop up cherries for everyone in the household to eat. I did not mind sharing these natural treats with the chattering squirrels that hastened along the tree’s branches.
Adjoining the living room, the dining room was framed by a large window overlooking the verdant backyard below and, further off, the ocean. It is possible I am remembering this view incorrectly. Memory is tricky, often inaccurate, merging different places together into one, changing colors of things, moving people and objects from their original locations. Hence, the Oakland Bay may have been even further away and/or completely obstructed by buildings and trees. The skyline was wide, though, and, in my mind, through that window I keep seeing the grey-blue Bay surrounding a deep brown-hued Mount Tamalpais off in the distance, all this held within a vast dome of clear to faintly cloudy sky. I reflect now with a sense of gratitude and wonder that I lived for a time in such beautiful surroundings.
I often hungered for face-to-face engagement with other adults. Boredom was sometimes the reason. But, mainly, I was still reeling inside over my father’s divorce from my birth mother over four years before and her subsequent leaving me with him and his new girlfriend (and wife-to-be) about a year later. At the time, I didn’t consciously understand the deep significance of these events, I simply yearned to be with any grown up who would give me their undivided, loving attention. I started venturing next door to a few neighbors’, having met them on different occasions while we each stood outside, a line of shrubs as the property boundary between us. Twenty-nine-year-old, deep-voiced, bespectacled Vicki often had me over in her dark downstairs apartment, where I watched TV, since there wasn’t one in our house. I primarily remember seeing reruns of BEWITCHED and episodes of the then newish series THE WALTONS at her place. She was generous with her time and attention, and I’m forever grateful to her for all that she gave of her home and herself.
Another neighbor was Gage, who lived next door in a two-story apartment by the other side of the house. I watched TV sometimes at his place as well, while downstairs, he often created spray paint art on large canvases composed of differing patterns of intertwining string. Perhaps he felt a bit compensated for putting up with me via my parents and our housemates allowing him to keep his cannabis plants nestled away in our brick-covered backyard, far from the street and hidden from other residents’ view. I had been instructed by my folks to tell any visitors that they were tomato plants, should anyone happen to ask about them.
Of all the people I lived with and around during this period in my life, Charlie made the deepest impression on me. The first time I saw this dark-brown-skinned, towering-appearing man was on his second floor apartment balcony, right above Vicki’s unit. Seemingly rising up out of the high shrubbery along the property line, he stood playing his saxophone, repetitively blowing out the same partial tune, whatever that was. (One of my female housemates– Nancy, I think– would later tell me that he was trying to play “Misty,” though I’m not sure if I have the correct title after all these years.) I was intrigued. This was pretty routine for him. My mom and others in the household chuckled now and then, remarking how untalented he was.
I think I started conversing with Charlie from the back deck during one of these jam “practices” or “sessions,” if you could even call what he was doing either of those. He probably appreciated this audience of one, a curious child largely uninformed about music, albeit someone who was non-judging. One afternoon, Charlie spontaneously walked with his saxophone all the way down to the schoolyard, which could be viewed from his balcony, and met up with me there. I happened to be hanging out with moody Joan or softer-spoken Nancy, I can’t remember which. I enjoyed watching this man, the sounds out of his instrument being secondary, unimportant. I’d probably known him for at least a few months at this point. I think both Charlie and I longed to be fully seen and heard without criticism. I could give him that and he, seemingly so naturally, returned the favor.
I started visiting Charlie and his white girlfriend Marne in their apartment. Like Charlie, Marne was probably in her late twenties, maybe thirty, though I recall Charlie seemed a little younger. Always one to take notice of and be fascinated with people’s hair, Marne’s was impressive: past waist-length, thick, black, and wavy. I remember her as being quiet, serious, and patient, a bit depressed. Charlie, on the other hand, always seemed to be smiling, his white teeth cleanly juxtaposed against his dark skin and large Afro.
There were two other residents in this apartment of warmth and welcome: Leroy, Charlie’s pet Great Dane and Lab mix, and David, Marne’s much smaller, older dog who was probably part Beagle, part Lab. They were both black in coloring, with Leroy being more shiny, like a panther. The two got on well enough together. I don’t recall them ever fighting or even barking at each other.
Leroy and I instantly became buddies. Affectionate and playful, the huge dog was always ready for pets and gentle wrestling, never once snapping or barking at me. If I wasn’t paying direct attention to him, Leroy would stand close by, looking up expectantly, waiting. I felt guilty one time when I moved my hand suddenly without looking and jabbed him in the eye. No apparent harm done, thank goodness. He didn’t even squeak. I’ll never forget watching Leroy play tug-of-war with a huge bone of his that a visiting friend of Charlie’s held up high in both hands. The dark canine seemed to tower over the somewhat heavy-set African American man, simply glad for the attention and fun.
Leroy’s exuberance seemed to be an outward expression of the more subdued yet warm current of enthusiasm I felt between Charlie and myself. It impresses me to this day how Marne did not mind my daytime and evening visits with she and her boyfriend. She hung back, more reserved, yet also felt easy to talk to. Sometimes, I sat on their bed watching some show on a black and white television set with the two of them or just Charlie, though perhaps always with both. I remember Charlie and I in closer proximity to each other than Marne and I ever were. His body warmth still seems palpable. I only remember once being asked to leave, which was a time Charlie wasn’t home and Marne seemed particularly tired one afternoon. Otherwise, I usually naturally knew when it was time to go home, including to avoid worrying my parents (which did happen once one evening, though).
As I reflect on these visits with Charlie and Marne, I wonder what may have been going on between them that I, an attention-hungry nine-year-old, did not pick up on. Was Marne unhappy because Charlie abused her in some way? Were my visits possibly a brief respite for her from an intermittently unpleasant intensity of living with him? Or was she depressed, or simply run-down, for reasons other than issues with her boyfriend? Undoubtedly, Charlie’s incredible warmth towards me completely skewed my already naive perspective. I’m left with just my impressions, which have their own intensity. It’s also possible that I’m now looking back with clinically-trained wondering and suspicion over a problem that didn’t exist. I’ll never know. For what it’s worth, I don’t recall hearing a harsh word or seeing a disapproving look pass between them. I do know that Charlie’s demeanor and friendliness were radiant, balanced with a proper restraint. I never once felt intruded on by him, such as left with any lingering sense of “icky” or “bad touch” or even a minute sense of pressure to somehow engage with him in such contact. None of this. I’m not sure if we were even ever alone. I felt completely safe around him at all times and I was.
One day, I believe Charlie showed me pictures of himself, friends, and family members in a large photo album. This must have happened because I sat close to him on the edge of his bed one afternoon (probably one out of perhaps three occasions). Glancing down at something in his lap, I asked a question now and then about what we were looking at. I can’t recall any of the photographs, though I’m certain those are what I saw. What I do clearly remember is Charlie, how I kept looking up at him, admiring his thick Afro, his pleasant smile and soft, soothing deep voice, the warmth of his body, his muscled arms. He often wore only a sleeveless t-shirt for a top, unpleasantly referred to by many as a wife beater. Perhaps he just wore this once and my selective memory leaves me thinking of him wearing one all the time.
It may have been during this same visit that Charlie shifted to showing me something more intimate than his personal photographs. Or perhaps it was during a separate occasion altogether. I’m not sure how this sharing got started, but Charlie informed me that, some years before, a man fired a shotgun directly at him one day. I wish I could remember more details to the story, but I don’t. I may have found it hard to believe, or that I didn’t want to accept that he, such a kind man, had been through something so awful, cruel. Unprompted by me, Charlie gently took my left hand and guided it to his right upper bicep or deltoid (I’m not sure exactly where), pressing my fingers into the flesh and moving them in a small, brief circle. I felt a hard pellet move tightly within tissue. He then guided me to his chest, somewhere by or just below the collarbone, repeating the circular motion of my fingers. Again, a hard pellet, this time closer to bone and the surface. I think I also felt the upper edge of his pectoral muscle against my palm, unless this is just what I later imagined feeling. One final holding of my hand led me to his skull, close to the temple. I forget which side. Close to the surface under the skin: yet another hard pellet. Fascinating. I felt relieved that he was still alive, healthy, there spending time with me.
If I hadn’t initially believed Charlie had been hit with shotgun pellets, I believed him after this intimate show and tell, or, more accurately, find and feel. I was a very inquisitive child, so I’m certain I asked him about details. The dialogue during these moments is largely gone from my mind. This exchange entered a more primal realm for me. Charlie’s face and chest dominate the scene, as if I see him in a movie closeup, only I’m right there, feeling the heat of his body, enveloped in his large presence, comforted, intrigued, desirous. And aroused– or, more accurately, feeling the beginnings of this state. I wasn’t familiar with that word at the time, but I’ve long since realized nascent arousal mingled with desire were in the mix of my feelings and sensations.
I can count on one hand the times I remember finding grown men attractive before and when I was nine years of age. But, Charlie was my first in-person crush, not a fleeting attraction to an image or someone briefly in my presence or passing by. In my own young way I think I loved him, as best a child traumatized by divorce and the upheaval of frequent moving knew how. And it certainly felt like he loved me, what with sharing his home and personal life so openly and warmly the way he did. This rare combination of interest in and respect of me– particularly by a man– felt so affirming, energizing, comforting, evoking space inside for desire to come forth.
Around the summer of 1976, we moved from the hippie-filled household on Cragmont Street into a second floor apartment close to downtown Berkeley. I never saw Charlie or Marne again. But, I would go on to often admire, feel curious about, and lust for Black men for the rest of my life. This came to a head in late 2012 or early 2013 while participating in a months-long series of intensive weekend trainings on the Internal Family Systems (IFS) model. For several days, my mind kept periodically showing me a lurking, nearby presence of a tall African American man. This was not at all upsetting, just intriguing and distracting. I can only guess that this inner stimulus was somehow prompted by the deep psychological work I was engaging in with several other people, almost all of us psychotherapists. With the skillful help of a certain woman therapist, who also worked from the IFS model and practiced EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), I unlocked this little inner mystery. While following her moving fingers across my line of vision, I thought of this recurring image of a muscular Black man. Suddenly, I remembered Charlie and grief welled up inside me. I burst into tears. I’d long missed him, or some young part of me sure had. I then talked this through with the therapist, completing a sense of release. What remained was a gentle wistfulness and a lingering curiosity to find out whatever happened to Charlie. Alas, I didn’t know his last name, let alone his date of birth, probably all just as well.
Sexual and emotional attractions are complex and mysterious. I don’t claim to fully understand all of what has me feel so strongly interested in certain people and not others. But, I do know that some particularly powerful, lasting attractions can and do come from a longing, which interweaves into romantic fantasy, a longing to return to a real or imagined (or combination thereof) time of special, exclusive, all-encompassing sense of connection with another. Perhaps, as in my case, this often stems from a childhood experience, when one’s senses are clear, filled with innocence, curiosity, a wide openness and hunger to connect, and wonder.
[Note on the accompanying photograph with this post: Me in the summer of 1976 in Alameda, CA, near Berkeley, around the end of the time period this personal account occurred.]