A version of this story has also been posted on our writing blog, Tips on Writing.
When I was twenty-three, I moved to Los Angeles with a dream and everything I could fit into a bright orange Ford Gran Torino station wagon that I bought for six hundred dollars and named Stanley. (Two points for anyone who can figure out why I called him Stanley.) I spent the first several nights parked on side-streets in the car, then spent a month on the living room couch of some friends from college. I got registered with a temp agency and got a job fairly quickly, then started looking for a place to stay that I could afford.
I found an apartment in Hollywood, a couple of blocks north of Hollywood Boulevard. A room, actually. The building had been built as a fourplex, two apartments upstairs and two down, but by the time I got there, the owner had started renting the individual rooms out instead of the whole apartments. I was in the back room on the first floor, just past the bathroom, and shared the bathroom and a small kitchen with everyone on that floor. The landlord charged rent weekly, thirty-four dollars a week, as I recall.
It was an interesting place. I would be woken up in the middle of the night by fist fights in the hallway. I’d find hypodermic needles (and often blood) on the sink in the bathroom. The fellow who had the room closest to me made his living (if you want to call it that) by “patrolling” Santa Monica Boulevard. He was younger than me, perhaps nineteen or twenty. I am really not sure how I managed to stay sane for the year I was there, but I was young, on my own and going somewhere with my life.
That December, my temp job ended about a week before Christmas. My Grandmother had sent me a check for Christmas, I think it was ten or fifteen dollars. It was the only money I had. My neighbor had a tiny little portable black and white television that one of his customers had given him. It was two days before Christmas. We were both sitting on his bed, the only piece of furniture in his room, watching the television. We were both depressed.
Suddenly, he looked at me and said, “Let’s go to Disneyland.” I was startled by that, and it showed. “I worked last night,” he said. “I can put gas in your car. Let’s go to Disneyland tomorrow.”
The next morning, December 24th, we filled Stanley’s gas tank, I cashed my grandmother’s check, and we drove down to Anaheim. It was a drizzly day, the kind of day most would find, at the very least, annoying, but let me assure you: The best way to experience Disneyland is the day before a Holiday when it is drizzling. The thing most people talk about when they talk about “The Happiest Place on Earth” is not the wonder of it or the fun of it. What they talk about is standing in line. The Disney “Imagineers” have turned standing in line into a high art, giving you twists and turns that reveal the line is twice, no three times, no twelve times as long as you thought when you first entered it. Standing in line is what you spend your day doing at Disneyland.
Except on a drizzly Christmas Eve day. There were no lines. The drizzle wasn’t enough to make you wet, only enough to put a sharp chill in the air that kept most people huddled up in their homes by their Christmas trees, waiting for the turkey or ham to come out of the oven. To me, though, it put a soft filter on the world, making the plastic splendor of Disneyland glow with an unreal magnificence. It felt like moving through a beautiful, Impressionist painting. Monet’s Cathedrals with men dressed as large mice.
All the attractions besides Tom Sawyer’s Island were open, and we were able to see everything we wanted, go on every ride we wanted. Neither of us had ever been to Disneyland, and I was completely enthralled by the wonder of it. This was back when you needed tickets to go one each attraction. When you entered, you received a bunch of tickets, The “E” ones for the best, scariest rides, down to the “A” ones for the mildest. Once you ran out of your tickets, you had to purchase more. Except for “A” tickets. You could get as many of those as you wanted.
I’d read about the haunted house when I was in grade school and had always wanted to experience it. It lived up to my expectations and more. It was thrilling. It was an “E” ride. I also fell in love with the Peter Pan ride, where you board a boat and fly over the rooftops of London. That was an “A” ride, but became one of my favorites.
The Disney film studios had just put out the move, The Black Hole, and everywhere we went in the park were ads and posters for it. On the way back home, we stopped at a nice Italian restaurant for dinner, then, when we got back to Hollywood, went to the Chinese Theatre to watch The Black Hole. It wasn’t a great movie, but it was a good ending to the wonderful, surreal day.
It was a magical, perfect, drizzly Christmas Eve Day. I’ve been back to Disneyland many times but it has never seemed so full of wonder and magic. And the irony of experiencing the home of Mary Poppins on funds derived from illicit activities only added to the surreal joy of it all.
Geoff Hoff is co-author of the best selling satirical novel Weeping Willow: Welcome to River Bend
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