I was a day camper at TeePee Club in West Los Angeles when I was eight, in 1975. Summer mornings I ran through my apartment door into the smoggy, pink haze to catch the pick-up van out front. But first I had to walk Miss Christie’s dog. Miss Christie lived around the corner in a super-nice wood-shingled apartment building with three floors and a front lobby where I had to get buzzed in. I rode up the elevator with dark, smoky mirrors and patterned, rust-colored carpet to Miss Christie’s floor to retrieve her Yorkshire Terrier. I forget the dog’s name. It was named something boring though from what I could tell Miss Christie was not boring. She was blonde, which sounds boring, but her hair was a translucent, twine-like blonde that bounced around her circle face, and her flat, front teeth made her look young. Because I always saw her ready for work, her lips were permanently glossed in sheer peach.
This was my first job. Miss Christie had approached me while I was waiting for the TeePee Club van as I sat on the broken stoop of my wreck of an apartment in front of a rush-hour boulevard. She asked me how old I was. She considered “eight” for a minute – she didn’t seem to expect that answer – and asked if I could handle a job walking her Yorkie in the morning before camp. I nodded fiercely though my mom wasn’t home to ask. I just agreed on the spot to go to this lady’s apartment around the corner and up some dark elevator to walk her dog. She asked me if I liked the show Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley – which, god, who didn’t — because she worked for those shows. Later that week she brought me an autographed head shot of Scott Baio. I loved that gift so much.
That was my summer routine: walk Miss Christie’s dog while I wore a backpack stuffed with a towel, swim suit and bagged lunch, then run back to my stoop to wait. The intersection in front of my apartment was a blur of agitated crisscross patterns. People honked as soon as a light turned green; sped up at yellow, and sometimes red. Accidents happened constantly. That violent sound of crunching metal and lights was terrifying and exciting. I always ran to the window to see the scene. Months before, a station wagon had jumped the curb outside our place and took out the hedge to the right of the stoop. Every time I sat on the stoop, I looked at the hole where the big, round bush used to be. The unevenness of the missing hedge was always what I noticed first when I walked outside.
Our cat Toby always tried to escape the apartment when we went in and out of the house. Of course the street in front was too busy, like a freeway practically, for him to go out. Toby would get so mad. He’d rip around the apartment, his nails sounding deep and destructive against the carpet as he ran in frantic and low circles. He’d claw at the door and fight our shins and calves when we inched open the door. Sometimes he would get out and I’d spend too much time trying to get him back in, calling his name, stressed at the possibility of him rip-roaring into the intersection. My mom got a cat leash once for me to test on him out front. He crouched down on the sidewalk and didn’t budge when I put the leash on. He was like a rock on a string. Then he bolted in front of me catching on the leash causing him to rear up like a wild horse. When he crouched too long I dragged him forward by the neck. I think about that now and it makes me kind of sick. I would have never dragged Miss Christie’s Yorkie by the neck, though that dog clicked along without much coercing from me. Our neighbor saw me drag Toby and she came out of her apartment and said without a smile and without being too harsh, “Don’t drag that cat.” Heat burst up into my face. I looked at Toby who was low to the sidewalk calmly looking at the neighbor. I nodded. I was mortified because of course you don’t drag a cat. I just wasn’t used to people noticing what I did.
When the TeePee Club van stopped in front of the apartment, I had to sprint toward the slid-open door and jump in to a chorus of honks and yelling. The other kids on the bus, I can’t remember any of them, and I would then play Tap Car until we got to camp. That’s when you see a car you like on the street and “tap” it as “yours.” For some reason I always tapped the Ford Granadas. I never saw the BMWs fast enough.
I only remember a few details about the daily goings on of TeePee Club. I remember the morning routine because of my job and Miss Christie and maybe because of the stress of waiting on the stoop, but day camp seemed like a series of corralling us from one time-filler to the next; a blob of kids wrangled from activity to lunch to something else. I do remember playing this swimming game where half of the campers lined up on one side of the pool and the other half clung to the opposite pool wall. A counselor dropped a watermelon greased with canola oil in the middle of the pool and kids had to make a mad, splash dash to get it. The kid who picked up the watermelon and swam it to the other side won. The idea was that the melon would slip out of our little arms repeatedly and other kids would claw at it and the melon would change possession again and again– and it would be this fun, near-drowning series of splashing roughness that would tire us out and keep us busy until the next thing.
When the watermelon was dropped into the pool I shoved off the wall quickly and to avoid the elbows and fingernails of the kids, I swam deep underwater, half way between the curved bottom and the blanket of kicking and wind-milling kids at the surface. To my shock I got to the watermelon first. I came up for one big gulp of air then went deep again to get it. I kicked hard, my feet like a silent submerged rudder. I held the melon in a death grip. I thought I’d squirt that thing out of my arms with the amount of pressure I put on it to keep it in place because of the grease. Kids grabbed at my legs and scratched at me some, but I think because I swam so deeply, I streamlined it to the other side. I came up, gasping, with the melon. A second later a mob of kids touched the wall around me. The counselor who had thrown in the watermelon smiled said, “Hey… nice.” I don’t think he knew my name. We played again. And the exact same thing happened. Campers groaned a little when I got to the other side. The counselors looked at their watches and at each other and decided to not play again. I think about how this game would have gone down on a TV show – on Happy Days: Richie or Joanie would have certainly been greeted with cheers and pats on the back. More peopIe – adults and kids – would have wanted to get to know me. I would have even welcomed the tiresome, “Good swimming – for a girl!” But in real life I was a bit embarrassed that I beat everyone – twice. The campers and counselors were unimpressed, nearly annoyed like, who is this kid?
I remember most the counselor Big Jon. I call him Big Jon now, in the conjuring of this memory and the sake of this story because the reality is that I ironically don’t remember his name. I just remember him. To my eight-year-old self, he seemed an infinite tower of tallness – and wideness – with square-framed glasses and a bush of dark curls that boxed in his face. It was hard to see into his eyes through his glasses, to see whatever was going on in there, but what came out of his mouth was nice. He was encouraging. He noticed me.
His attention to me had come on pretty suddenly. I don’t remember him being part of the TeePee experience in total, he was there, next to me, part of my supervision toward the end of summer. He just appeared as a huge, looming figure. I liked him. And more and more he would do things like gently hit my shoulder as he laughed like we were in on a joke together. He included me in games as more of a central part. I believed he was championing me with the other campers with whom I had failed to make connections. Big Jon was on my side.
During a game of tag, in the open space of a local park, Big Jon was “it.” The kids and I all scrambled away, squealing; running in jagged circles. I remember the filter of the mid morning sun like gauze over my memory and the patchy weed-like grass dotted with red-dirt clearings. I remember feeling the twinge of comradery with the other kids through our instinct to play, to just be kids without our childish, camp-clique politics. I swirled around, laughed happily. Big Jon caught me, of course. And in a split second he hoisted me without effort onto his shoulder. His hand was the size of a dinner plate and he held my arm. His other hand was under my thigh and butt as I half sat on his shoulder. The sudden change from ground to six feet up caused me to brace myself, to suck in air. He stabilized me, and I teetered above our world viewing the horizon of the park and the ground seemingly far below. Big Jon then slid his middle finger through the opening of my shorts and under my panties and inserted the tip of his finger inside of me.
My memory loses vision here. I only remember the feeling of his finger passing my shorts and then sliding into something sacred. That feeling became vacuumed in silence where only he and I existed in a universe of crossed lines and violation. I felt involuntarily gutted and shame-filled, which intensified with the pressure of his finger. That’s what I remember most, the pressure. Though I had never had a previous discussion with anyone about the violations men do to women or girls – or about the entitlement predators feel over the vulnerable — even my eight-year old self knew I was in murky, dark waters. My panic had no clear definition to me then, which was confusing. The only thing I could think to do was to kick my legs semi-frantically without saying anything as a sign that I wanted down immediately. My face felt like it was turning inside out; I felt nauseous, but I was quiet because though I was drowning in confusion and embarrassment, I still felt a sickening loyalty to Big Jon. I didn’t want to yell to create this strange scene where he would get in deep trouble for sure, which would be brought on by a girl who was hardly liked as it was. Was I to betray my only ally? I betrayed myself instead.
Forty-one years later, I still remember how I felt in the forty seconds I was on his shoulder. The memory remains raw and visceral: Grey vastness below me and clogged ears. My vision tunneled by black. The clogging turning to a low, dull ring deep. A dark ink alive in my chest spreading the span of my breast plate, up my neck, into cheeks, through the top of my head. My limbs tingling. Me swinging my legs like dense, panicked pendulums. Bracing my arms ready to fall from the six feet in case I kicked myself off this perch he had created for me, against a child’s want. I didn’t fall, though nearly, and he hinged over and clumsily put me down as I ran away quietly on the patchy grass toward a blurred horizon, to nowhere in particular; just away from Big Jon, my TeePee Club friend.
I don’t really have memories of TeePee Club after that. I did not want to go again, but I didn’t tell my mother why. “You can’t stay home all day alone,” she said. I felt pressed to tell her something. The embarrassment felt crushing. I didn’t want to blow this up into a big thing where I would be in the center of it all and where adults barked at me to talk about it a million times for their own knowledge, not so they could ease what I was feeling. Mainly, I didn’t want to tell the story and have it not be believed. I hardly believed it myself and at eight, I didn’t understand the implications in total; or why it was as wrong as it was. I just felt a vice-like constriction and desire for it to all go away. Finally, I told my mom that Big Jon had touched my butt a little, lightly. It’s all I could say. I was mortified to just say that much out loud. It was enough for my mom to call the camp. Changes were made, but I don’t remember if he stopped working at TeePee Club or was simply sent to another group. At eight, I didn’t think to protect other girls with my entire truth. That thought makes me kind of sick now. I felt he had zoned-in on me, like I was his big target because I was weak and unknown. Even today it’s hard to tell this entire story. This is the first time I’ve ever told it fully, actually.
I went back the next day. There was no Big Jon, but TeePee Club became a thick fog of time and insignificant space. I shuffled around, barely interacting. I didn’t want to play their lame games. Miss Christie before camp was a bright nanosecond to my day. Her dog was whatever. The busy intersection didn’t feel dangerous anymore. It just was there. Car accidents sounded dulled; as did the shouting and the honks. I didn’t care what happened to them. Toby didn’t fight me as much. I didn’t care if I had to chase him around the neighborhood, but I don’t remember him escaping as much. I don’t know, maybe he did.
I sat on my broken stoop with the stupid missing hedge and ran my fingers along the frayed strap of my backpack. When the TeePee Club van screeched in front of me with the waiting, open side door and all the honking, I didn’t run to it. I just sloppily put my bag on my shoulder and stood as the kids and the driver yelled for me to hurry up with agitated hand gestures and sleepy frowns. I schlepped toward the van in blunted steps, sinking deeper and heavily inside myself.