Our family arrived in Sacramento when I was nine years old—Sacramento, a place that according to Time magazine, was “America’s Most Diverse City.” My early life had prepared me for diversity, with two initial moms—one American and one Moroccan, with distinct memories of the souks, or open market places, complete with loud bartering in Arabic, Berber and Yiddish, and the spicy, savory emanations of tagine slow-cooked lamb with couscous, freshly-caught seafood and curried vegetables seeping about, followed by baked figs with honey and dates stuffed with almond butter.
Then there was Spain and Portugal, where the memories lingered longer, of the villa and the market and the gypsies, of adventure, bullfights, gatherings and intriguing flamenco dancers, the stolen sips of sangria, local farmers’ cheese and the bread!
During the entire time that we were in Africa and Europe, we heard so many incredible rumors about the “USA,” this utopia where all dreams were fulfilled. The USA had “the beautiful people,” the wild, wild west, movie stars, cowboys, astronauts, millionaire hillbillies, surfer beaches, teenage parties and rattlesnakes.
Besides that, we had an uncle in California named Moses. I still remember—whenever he was on the phone, talking to my parents, I imagined a venerable, staid biblical figure with a staff in an old west/beach town, tumbleweeds making occasional appearances for effect. When I met him in real life, he was a cross between James Brown and Fred S-a-n-f-o-r-d, period.
We could not have been more excited when my parents told us we were moving to America. My younger brother, Jeff, literally jumped for joy (and split his head, requiring five stitches on the night before we left Spain). Needless to say, my first impressions of the USA were underwhelming. I expected the quixotic substance of fantasy, but I was delivered a sobering reality.
In Morocco and Spain, we had attentive servants who took care of our every need. I thought it was normal and expected for me to kick out of the sheets and throw my clothes on the floor, because it was the maid’s job to take make the bed and see to my cleaning my room. In Morocco, we had a house-man who took care of maintenance and everything outside the house—but we knew America would entitle us to a far more privileged life… until we arrived.
Maids? House-men? How about daily chores and week-long house projects, like painting rooms, pulling weeds and digging trenches to replace pipes? In no time we realized that the USA had been over-hyped. We felt life was clearly better in Africa and Europe, and it took perhaps years to appreciate the true beauty of America, which entailed freedom, liberty and opportunity.
America was such a culture shift for me and my older siblings, however, as we soon found that we did not fit in anywhere. We had moved onto a street called Arlington Avenue, where my father had bought a house in the late 1950s for $8,000. His parents lived in that house before we came, but the neighborhood was diverse, with blacks, Mexicans, Asians and whites.
I had never encountered Mexicans or Asians. I assumed the Mexicans were Spanish and initially believed the difference between Chinese and Japanese was gender-based. But we had come in the aftermath of the civil rights movement and there was a sense that we would have to choose where we fit in.
In each case, we fell into our respective academic niches, focusing on education and grades, so our associates were by default a mixture of scholastic students from many cultures. My first intellectual rival (outside family) was a girl with glasses named Tillie Fong (who had a younger sister named Millie). As fourth-graders, I admired her and enjoyed the competition.
During that year, I began playing saxophone under the tutelage of Bud Harpham, an incredible swing clarinetist, and was first-chair for sax and clarinet (for orchestra) until eighth grade, when my family moved to the Valley Hi area.
I went to James Rutter Junior High, where I was ashamed to show classmates my report card (I was afraid of being called “a bookworm”). I continued in concert band, and a group of us, including Mike Urbano, (and later Ken Gray, who would become a keyboardist for Shelia E) formed a garage band, playing for school dances and school assemblies.
I went to Elk Grove High, where in my sophomore year we had a race riot—10, maybe 15 black guys in a school of 1,800 students, versus those who would intimidate us. Parents eventually got involved to broker an uneasy truce, though we still had to pair up and travel everywhere in twos.
During my junior year, I became involved in competitive Speech and Debate, and I excelled on the track team, though circumstances forced me to choose the NFL (National Forensic League ) over track and the junior prom. During my senior year, I attended brand-new Valley High School and gave the commencement speech for its first graduating class, where I won awards for Speech and Debate, Foreign Language (French), Student Leadership and Silver Viking Award (only 16 recipients each year).
When I was in the fifth grade, our family became acquainted with the Baker family, as we as children attended Ethel Phillips Elementary School on 21st Avenue. Diedre Baker was good friends with my sister, Rinnetta, and Milton Jr. was one grade under me and one grade over my brother, Jeff. When we moved to Valley Hi during junior high school, the Bakers moved to
Parents, Milton Sr. and Hester, from Texas; Milton died July 25, 1979