By the time I moved out of my parents' home, at the age of eighteen, I had lived in twenty-two houses.
And that wasn't all. Those houses had been located (in order) in Los Angeles, New York City, Los Angeles, Long Island, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles. Never the same part of Los Angeles twice.
I list the cities because they comprise an impressive pattern of coast-hopping, but to me, at the age of four, or seven, or eleven, or fourteen, it really didn't matter whether the new house was in a new state. At those ages, a move of eight blocks, expecially if it involves a change of schools, is such a complete disjuncture that it might as well be reincarnation.
My parents liked to move. Their three sons hated it. Each time, we had to start over: new school, new friends, new enemies, new teachers, new neighborhood, new places to play in (and avoid) -- new everything. The girl I had the crush on: gone. The friend whom I thought I'd know forever: gone. The teacher who told me I could be a writer: gone.
On the other hand, gone also were the witnesses to various humiliations that even now, many decades later, can make me writhe in self-loathing. And gone was the audience for my most recent failed personality. I could make up another one and try it on, with no one to look at me oddly.
And, in fact, I got better and better at passing for someone kids my age might like. From being an arrogant third-grade brain who didn't bother to conceal his disdain for his less-quick classmates, from being the sardonic sixth-grader who protected himself from rejection by being proactively unpleasant to everyone in sight, I gradually developed into the tenth-grader who was actually (that loathsome word) popular enough to be a member of the good clubs, get elected Student Body Vice President, star in every single school play, and date the girls other guys wanted to date.
Sounds a little sociopathic in retrospect, but someone who played as badly with others as I did when I was little can benefit greatly from a total change of cast.
Where all this is really taking me, though, is to books.
When everything comfortable in my life was left behind, I read. I read anything I could get my hands on, but the first books I owned personally were Oz books. Beginning in third grade, once a month when I got my allowance, I would walk through the woods (remember woods?) to a department store (remember department stores?) called Woodward and Lothrop's. (This was during one of our longer tenures, in Washington, DC, where we lived in only three houses.)
I'd sort through the Oz books on the bottom shelf, looking for one by L. Frank Baum that I hadn't yet read and avoiding at all costs those by the dread Ruth Plumly Thompson. I might go for one by Jack Snow, who worked really awful puns into his stories, but the original Oz -- Baum's Oz -- was the place for me.
And then, when I was eleven, I took down from my mother's shelves the thickest book on them and read, Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but . . . A whole new chapter began in my life. For three days, I lived with Scarlett, Rhett, Melanie, and that nattering twit, Ashley.
From that I moved to the novels of John O'Hara and John Cheever and James Gould Cozzens, the swashbucklers of Rafael Sabatini and Frank Yerby ("The sweet blue eyes of God," Alceste swore.) My parents, if truth be told, probably liked possessing books, and being seen to possess books, more than they did reading them, so they hung on to them. Many of the volumes on their shelves had been popular in the forties and fifties and (had I but known) had been swept beneath the carpet with the other dust rats of outmoded literary taste years before I read them.
Made no difference to me. I devoured them. By the time I was twelve, my literary playmates were all adults (except for Huck Finn), and then--drum roll--I read Raymond Chandler. And there it was: the kind of fiction that expressed how I felt about the world -- that it was all questions, few answers, and occasionally treacherous. But in which someone who was willing to go down those mean streets might be able to fix, temporarily at least, a tiny corner of it. Pretty much everything I've done since, creatively, at least, was already present in me when I finished Farewell, My Lovely at the ripe old age of fourteen. When I look back on it all, I can only wonder who I would have been if we hadn't moved so much.