It is a fact that I’m a Florida Man. Born and spent the first 3 years there. It counts!
The four states that I have spent my life in are Florida, Texas, Michigan, and California. Keep that in mind when my lefty California politics terrify you. You’re gonna want to roll your eyes and think I don’t understand the rest of the country. But, my roots are in The South.
Both my father’s parents were born and raised in the South. Georgia. Virginia.
My mother’s parents were Texas. And Michigan.
So, 3 out of 4 family trees have their roots in the South. All my family is still back there. I am passionate about the South.
My earliest memories are from about a year old during my Florida days. I remember having my diaper changed. I remember learning to walk, following my dad down the hall trying to mimic his gait and walking style. Can still see it in my mind clear as day.
I remember being fed in the high chair. I remember being unable to talk like the big people did. That took some time to figure out.
I remember a LOT of my life from my earliest days as a human on this planet.
And this is the post where I could tell you how idyllic my childhood was– and it was for the most part.
But, in thinking about how to tell this part of the story, my first 10 years, I’ve been struggling to find a way to explain the kind of privilege and safety I grew up in. The homogenized world that I was a part of and the religion and environment that made up the world I knew.
And so, in struggling to explain this part of my life I’ve decided that rather than present the story from the perspective of myself at that age, I’d like to describe my life from the perspective of a 45 year old grown man who has lived and seen things my younger self would never understand.
Let’s talk about what my childhood was NOT.
I was not raised in a tiny one bedroom apartment that was overcrowded and lacked space and privacy (for the first 6 months, yes, but after that always houses until I became an adult).
I was not raised with sounds of sirens.
I was not raised with sounds of gunshots.
I was not raised with a helicopter flying overhead every 30 minutes of the day.
I was not raised with police around.
I was not afraid of the police.
I can not remember a person of color in my neighborhood, or ever visiting my childhood home, or ever seeing them in my churches– except the lone tokens.
I was not raised in an environment with crime.
I was not raised in a neighborhood with gangs.
I was not raised in a neighborhood where all the homes had bars on the windows.
I never saw a dead body, or anyone homeless, or any unseemly things that spook all the White Evangelicals. There were no pimps or prostitutes in my neighborhood. There were no panhandlers or people begging in my world.
I never had to struggle with the local language. I never even heard people speak languages other than my own.
I never knew a family that was struggling with food insecurity.
I never had to worry about going to parks, schools, restaurants, shopping malls, or anywhere really… there were no doors closed to me for any sort of reason.
I never had to worry about the lights going off because we couldn’t afford to pay the bills.
I never slept in a car out of necessity.
I never had bare pantries.
I can not remember a single time in my childhood where there was not enough food.
I can not remember a time where I did not always have access to books.
I was not raised by a single parent, or baby sitters, or nannies because my parents worked so much.
In fact, I was not raised without a parent ALWAYS being around. (my father I hardly saw because he worked so much, but there was always a parent at home)
I was not raised with parents that struggled with substance abuse beyond cigarettes.
I was not raised with a parent with legal problems.
I was not raised in an environment where the neighbors had legal problems.
I was not raised with infestations of roaches or rats or any sort of unlivable environment that would be deemed unsafe or uninhabitable or a slum.
I was not raised with so much stress I couldn’t focus on school work or home work.
I was not raised in an environment where I didn’t look like everyone around me.
I was not raised in environment where others around us were in constantly unstable situations.
I was not raised in an environment where you could hear neighbors yell through the walls.
I was not raised in a world that was not accessible to me.
I was not deprived of anything.
I was not ever worried the police could kick in the door. In fact, I can’t even remember ever seeing police ever in my neighborhoods for any reason whatsoever.
I never lacked clothes or wore hand me downs (my poor younger siblings did).
I never had the water shut off or be undrinkable.
I never felt any major instability in my living environment.
I never realized how good I had it because there was nothing to ever compare it to until I would be much, much older.
I say all of that because my childhood really was pretty much the picture of White Evangelical Suburban Utopia.
Safe, suburban, cul-de-sac, two-story-house living. Two cars that always worked. A dad that wore suits and ties and carried briefcases.
We had a pool in Miami. I remember almost drowning in it at the age of 2 when I saw my parents swimming and thought I’d join them. I remember my dad’s red swim trunks as I sank under the water and inhaled half the pool.
I remember the banana tree in the back yard.
Fluffy dogs. A basement that I would slide around in my footy pajamas in thinking I was skating.
The reason I point out what I did NOT experience is because I think this is the fundamental problem with so much of the suburban White Evangelical experience. It’s just so damned safe and homogenous that the real world is held at bay. And so, what’s normalized isn’t normal for most people on the planet.
Everybody living in these houses watching tv where you never even really need to go outside unless it’s a backyard bbq or birthday party or the neighbor kids playing touch football or ghost-runner-on-second baseball.
When you live in these kinds of isolated-from-the-world’s-problems information ghettos, your view on things is magically skewed.
Now, I want to be clear. My family was never rich or wealthy. That was another level above us. My parents definitely struggled to keep us in this world. But, we were never exposed to the hardships of the world. As a result, it made it easy for us kids to never know anything different from what we were experiencing.
We’ve always lived in the suburbs.
Poverty? That’s a concept that doesn’t make sense to kids raised in these environments.
Criminal Justice System? Never heard of it. That’s on TV where the bad guys are.
Food Insecurity? I remember the first time I saw a man rummaging through a trash can for food on a rare trip to downtown Houston. I was 7 or 8. It blew my mind.
I think of the suburbs like a coral reef. Where all the little baby fish are safe from the scary, deep, blue sea and crashing waves out there. We never saw sharks or whales or feeding frenzies. It was this safe little world.
And I think this is one of the profound problems in White America. White people were so successful at segregating themselves within this suburban invented landscape, that it never seemed like there was anything else other than this.
That doesn’t mean there weren’t problems. There were drugs and alcohol abuse, but it was all behind closed doors until a kid would come bolting outside while a red-faced drunk old man would come bounding behind with a switch or paddle. And then, everyone figured the kid deserved it. Not that it was abuse. This is why you never heard people yelling through the walls like in tenement housing. We lived just far enough apart with fences and yards to avoid knowing each other’s business. I remember moving into my first house as an adult with my own family after a decade in apartments and shared-wall housing. And the first night I was pulling up some carpet and hammering away and worried that my neighbors might hear me as I ripped out old flooring. And then it dawned on me! I’m back in the suburbs and my neighbors can’t hear shit. So I cranked up the music and blasted away at 3 am. And wasn’t bothered one iota.
There’s a great exchange that Sherlock Holmes has with his documentarian Dr. Watson in The Adventure of the Copper Beeches where he describes his fear of the countryside versus the city. And I always thought it applied to Suburbia as well:
“Do you know, Watson,” said he, “that it is one of the curses of a mind with a turn like mine that I must look at everything with reference to my own special subject. You look at these scattered houses, and you are impressed by their beauty. I look at them, and the only thought which comes to me is a feeling of their isolation and of the impunity with which crime may be committed there.”
“Good heavens!” I cried. “Who would associate crime with these dear old homesteads?”
“They always fill me with a certain horror. It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.”
“You horrify me!”
“But the reason is very obvious. The pressure of public opinion can do in the town what the law cannot accomplish. There is no lane so vile that the scream of a tortured child, or the thud of a drunkard’s blow, does not beget sympathy and indignation among the neighbours, and then the whole machinery of justice is ever so close that a word of complaint can set it going, and there is but a step between the crime and the dock. But look at these lonely houses, each in its own fields, filled for the most part with poor ignorant folk who know little of the law. Think of the deeds of hellish cruelty, the hidden wickedness which may go on, year in, year out, in such places, and none the wiser.
The neighbors all knew each other, especially once we moved to Texas. That’s where most of my childhood was spent.
One of the first master-planned communities in the country of that era of suburban utopia. Parks, greenbelts, public pools, tennis courts, plenty of schools, public libraries, two car garages, yards being mowed by all the dads on Saturday. All the neighbors work for Exxon and Continental Airlines and NASA…
Whenever you hear me playing the character of Jimmy Barclay as he’s playing in the woods or running around with friends… this is the part of my life that I would use as source material to reference in my memory in the studio. In a way, playing Jimmy gave me one more chance to enjoy that world as when I moved to California things were very different and my life would change. I wanted to cling to that world of tadpoles and blackberry picking and bicycle ramps and this new invention the skateboard.
Probably the best character to exemplify my childhood was Calvin from Calvin & Hobbes. The forests. The forts. The snakes. The quicksand. Lemonade stands. There were so many kids on my street that every day there was always an adventure outside. The block parties with neighbors. Little League. I once convinced all my friends to create a circus after visiting a Ringling Bros spectacle when it came to town– one of the birthing experiences of my love of show business– and all the neighbor kids complied! And we went and sold tickets to all the neighbors and they came out and we had a circus in the cul-de-sac in front of my house where I did magic tricks for everyone just like the clowns had.
And church. Soooooooo much church. Not everyone in my neighborhood went. But we sure did. Most of the people I knew did.
And at church the story was the same. Everyone looked the same, had the same neighborhoods, the same outlook on life, the same income brackets, the same hobbies, the same heteronormative 2 parent families.
Everyone looked like us and talked like us and it was all the same.
It was… perfect. Or as close to it as you could humanly get.
Yet, for all that safety and homogenized perfection… I was not a happy kid.
I don’t believe I was. Maybe. That’s not to say I didn’t experience happiness. I very much did. I was an incredibly creative and imaginative kid. Boredom is a concept foreign to me. I was always writing plays, and making my friends do stunt shows, and we were spies, and army soldiers, and Cowboys and Indians (it was the 80’s cut me a break), and we had so many cap guns so, so, so, SO many toy guns. Very realistic looking ones. And no one bothered us. We ran the world. “Come at home at dark” was the only things the parents would say.
Kings of the Woods.
Looking at pictures of myself as a kid, there’s a sadness in most of the photos I come across.
I always worried.
I remember the first time in my life I washed my hands on my own. Is that normal? It was breakfast. I think I was 4. My mom had sat me down in front of the TV to watch Sesame Street or Mr. Rogers while I had pancakes with syrup. I remember the syrup got on my hands and there was this unpleasant stickiness that just irked the fuck outta me. I noticed there were no big people around to help me… and so I went into the bathroom, climbed on the sink, and washed my hands with soap.
4 year olds don’t typically do that. I’ve parented 3 of them.
I cried a lot. Easily.
I had nightmares. Hated sleeping. Still do.
I needed things to be perfect.
I remember once in 1st grade sitting next to a girl who used to always chew her pencils. One day, horrified, I realized I had no pencils. And I freaked. And I asked the girl for a pencil, and she very nicely gave me one of the ones she had– an act of beautiful generosity. With bite marks in it! And I burst into tears thinking she hated me.
While our environment didn’t have much stress, my little brain more than made up for it.
I was terrified of getting in trouble. And I was such a little perfectionist that any disruption to perfection and I’d fear that I was going to hell.
Things that we might now see in a kid and consider perhaps there are mental health issues, or neurodivergent, or abuse.
I kept it pretty quiet though. And this is where I believe my acting skill set was born. Do you have any idea how much work it takes to act normal when all you feel like doing is crying all the time.
You know what happens to little boys who cry in Texas? They’ll give you something to cry about if you don’t stop. So. you. learn. to. stop.
There were signs that something was disturbed beneath the surface.
Probably the clearest memory I have of a moment like that was in the 3rd grade. I was a rather cute little blond kid that some of the girls had a crush on. And this was back in the day when kids would chase each other and harass each other during recess. Hands off was not a concept. Parents didn’t sue schools where I came from. The parents wanted their kids spanked at school.
This one girl chased me for 2 years straight. I never had a recess where I was not constantly running from her and her friends that she would rope into her conquest. Which sucked because I liked sports and mostly wanted to play ball with my friends and she wouldn’t let me do that. One day, in third grade, she and her friends started drawing pictures of me…. um… nude.
These are 8 year olds drawings. Stick figures and whatnot. And something about the moment, and the unwelcome attention, just bothered me to the point where I didn’t know what to do.
Soooooooo I drew a picture of me cutting my head off with an axe.
Kind of an extreme reaction, right?
A classmate saw it. Then the teacher. Then the Principal. I was called into the Principal’s office. Now back in this day and age a trip to the Principal’s office was terrifying. I remember the time a kid in my Kindergarten class had gotten in trouble and gone to the Principal’s office and the Principal paddled him! WTF?!? So, I was terrified beyond anything I had ever experienced to that point. And the Principal showed me the picture I drew and asked some questions, and it was all I could do to not burst into tears. And I held it together and played nonchalant and phew… was allowed to return to class without being beaten. YAY!
When I came home, my mom had the drawing. There was confusion and concern, but nobody knew anything then about mental health. Certainly not in kids.
And I’d learnt to be quite the little actor. I can fake this. I can make you think I’m fine. It was just a joke…. I’ll never do it again.
A year later my house would catch fire and a parent would be severely burned and my perfect world would come undone when a few weeks later the other parent would fall gravely ill and nearly die.
And the combination of stress of these events plus the underlying problems….
I totally melted down. Couldn’t go to school. Just popped. Could not stop crying for days.
**Editor’s note: it’s only upon my fifth re-read of this that it’s dawning on me that two of the most traumatic moments of my life and all it merited was one sentence. That’s the real Dave right there, folks. I have a tendency to downplay things. May need to revisit that and tell the whole story…**
It was at that point that my mom enrolled me in the private christian school she was teaching at at the time. And this was my first entry into a world beyond the world I had known. Up until this point I had only known one school, one set of friends, one system of teaching, one normalized public school experience.
And now I was wearing a tie. And holding a bible. And there were only 15 kids in a mobile trailer instead of 30 kids in a big building with hallways and cafeteria… We didn’t have assemblies, we had chapel. WHAT THE FUCK IS CHAPEL. WHY AM I HAVING CHURCH AT SCHOOL?
Something had changed. The narrative of my environment changed. Not that I could perceive that or understand it on anything other than an immediate level, but upon reflection I experienced a cognitive dissonance in that what I was being taught in this school was very, VERY different than what I had been taught in my public school.
And since I was already miserable…
This just made it all worse.
The last half of my 4th grade year in Texas was awful. I couldn’t wait for summer. I’m tired of being sad all the time and having no friends. I want to get out of this stupid uniform because the kids in my neighborhood tease me because they don’t have to wear one at the real school… I wanna be King of the Woods again.
And then summer came. And I got to enjoy it for two whole days. And as if the last year of my life hadn’t been pure hell, it was about to get worse. WAY WORSE.
The bombshell dropped: We’re moving to California for dad’s job.
And things would never be the same again.