Water Damage

by Mike Nagel

Behind my parents’ house in Long Beach there was a giant concrete ditch that I mistakenly called a "fleck control" for years before learning that it was actually called a flood control, meaning, I assume, that it could control floods. Only once did I see it completely full, threatening to overflow into our backyard and flood our house—the exact opposite of what it was supposed to do—but most days it was empty except for a small trickle of polluted runoff flowing through its center, right to left and out to the Pacific. The runoff carried in trash from other parts of the city. Milk cartons and plastic bags and phone books piled up down there until eventually a storm would come and flush it all away, leaving behind a shiny green layer of algae that looked slippery enough to slide on all the way out to the ocean if you had a boogie board and got a running start.

This was the early 90s in Southern California: a time of gang violence, handguns, and justifiable anger. 1992 was the deadliest year in Los Angeles County history. 2,589 murders. My dad says he could see the smoke from the Rodney King riots from our front porch, a 3ft x 3ft concrete stoop covered in AstroTurf worn down to the waffle-pattern plastic underneath. The same stoop where I once purposefully stepped on a dead bird and felt its bones crunch beneath my shoe. The same stoop that, in the summers, would get covered in big green olives that fell from the seemingly ancient olive tree in our front yard, whose roots bulged up from the ground like muscles clenched in their grip on the earth.

Our street, Vuelta Grande ("The Big Return"), was a quiet parabola, lined with young families and old people. The police called it Mister Rogers' Neighborhood because nothing ever happened there. As far as I know, nothing is happening there still. On the periphery of urban chaos, there was suburban calm, a honey-colored penumbra. You can grow up in the shadow of something and not know it's there. The scariest thing in my life was Gordon, the old man next door who guarded his manicured front lawn as if it were a pressure-sensitive bank vault floor. We tip-toed past his house and could feel him watching us from inside, a dark figure in a haze of cigarette smoke.

I was used to being watched, though. My family was religious—Evangelical Christian—and I understood from a young age that the tradeoff to God always being there for you was God always being there. The NSA's surveillance state was still a decade away but I had already resigned myself to a life of constant observation: watched from above by the heavenly drone. I remember this both as a comforting thought and a source of paranoia.

In many ways, I was raised inside a Christian bubble. But then again, the Christian bubble was part and parcel of the time and place. Nearby Orange County was  and still is  one of the most conservative counties in the country, a sanctuary for traditional evangelical values. And yet Southern California was  and still is  one of the most culturally progressive parts of the world, a juggernaut of fashion and entertainment. When I visit Long Beach now (my family left in the mid 90s) I'm not sure if I've traveled forward or backward in time.              

We went to church in a school gymnasium near Seal Beach. Afterwards we ate strawberry glazed donuts outside in the salty air. This part of the country had been transformed two decades earlier by Lonnie Frisbee's Jesus Movement, Chuck Smith's Calvary Chapel, Billy Graham's and Bill Bright's Campus Crusade for Christ, and, in general, a strong belief in gifts of the Spirit and modern-day miracles, both of which my parents subscribed to. And so I grew up on the edge of the country, on the banks of a flood control, in the shadow of a riot, smelling fish and believing in magic.

My dad was a telephone man. He went behind walls and up into attics to install phone systems for rich people and corporations. When my sister and I visited his office, he took us to the back room where the phones were. Rotary phones, cordless phones, receptionist phones with enough buttons to rival Mission Control at NASA. They were all connected and my sister and I would call each other from opposite sides of the room, whispering through the wires, feeling very 21st century. My dad was a wiz with phones. Truly. I've never seen anyone dial faster. When he checked his voicemail, his fingers blurred, anticipating menu options and password prompts three or four moves ahead, bordering on prescience. Sometimes he dialed so fast he confused the computer and had to start all over again. He could hack a payphone and make free calls (he just needed a paperclip). He could play the "Happy Birthday" song on a touch-tone keypad. One day he went outside, came back in, and we then had Nickelodeon. I understood that my dad was operating with some privileged information unavailable to the rest of us: things he learned behind the walls.

One night he took me with him to his volunteer job as a telephone operator for the Billy Graham revival hotline. The hotline was open during Billy Graham's state-wide telecasts, which were something of a cultural phenomenon at the time, broadcasting Evangelicalism into the mainstream. If you called Billy Graham's 1-800 number at some point in the early 90s, you might have talked to my dad. I might have been listening. We sat in an empty cubicle in a church basement that had been renovated into a call center and that reeked of water damage and Pine-Sol. He took apart one of the phones and put it back together without a mouthpiece for me. "So they can't hear you breathing," he said. A bit of harmless surveillance. A well-intentioned wiretap. Some callers were crying and my dad spoke calmly to them until their breathing slowed. Some callers wanted to be "saved." When my dad closed his eyes to pray for them, I closed my eyes too. This must have been the sweet spot for my dad, at the intersection of spirituality and telecom, both of which he had devoted his life to, and both of which would change dramatically over the next decade as post-modernism worked its way into the Evangelical mindset and cell phones and satellites replaced all the wires he'd laid throughout Southern California. After a few hours of taking calls, we walked down the street to a retro diner—one of those places with black-and-white tile and Twizzler-red vinyl booths—and we drank strawberry milkshakes and shared an order of curly fries. He must have asked me what I thought about what I'd heard, and I must have nodded and hummed while trying to suck a chunk of strawberry up my straw. Years later he would baptize me in an indoor pool that smelled overwhelmingly of chlorine, and whose wet, echoey walls created an infinite feedback loop of splashes and screams. He held me under water as my t-shirt turned to gossamer.

In the end, Southern California’s brand of charismatic, “get-people-saved” Christianity wouldn’t stick for me, but it would take almost two decades to work that out, and by then Long Beach would be nothing but a childhood memory for me, a place I would peer at through a haze of smoke.

The storm that filled our flood control came a few months later. It started in the morning and lasted into the night when my dad burst through the front door soaked up to his knees. We had been watching Doctor Quinn Medicine Woman, unaware of how bad it was getting out there. The whole city was filling up. The flood controls weren't helping as much as they should have. Maybe it was arrogant to believe that we could control something as powerful as a flood by cutting a few concrete ditches through our backyards. Maybe floods were not one of the things that we could control. My dad drove home through four feet of water, gunning the engine in low gear to keep water out of the exhaust pipe. At one intersection, the car next to him floated away. Then the water began pouring in through the doors of his little yellow Toyota Tercel. He drove home in first gear doing 15 miles an hour through the flooded streets of Long Beach. From then on, his Toyota stank of mildew, even after he tore out the carpets and went inch by inch with a hairdryer. Even after we moved to Texas and that car baked in the southern heat for a few years before he finally sold it to his friend Paul, who, last I heard, drove it into the ground.

Mike Nagel's writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Awl, Hobart, Salt Hill, DIAGRAM, and The Paris Review Daily.