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It’s Fun to Write at the YMCA

Even though school was often a disappointment, my after-school activities were awesome. 

The Sunshine Company was an after school program run by the Los Altos YMCA. A van would pick me up from school along with a few other kids and drive us as a group to the Y, where Megan would already be waiting, after having been picked up at her school. 

The Y was another place where Mom could show up late on a regular basis for the no later than six pm pickup time. But that was fine with me.  

There was no acclimation required at the Y; I felt home there immediately. The people in charge were counselors rather than teachers, they skewed much younger, and not one of them ever told me that the Devil had made me evil, or that anyone in my family was going to Hell. Swimming, playing in an adjacent park with a large playground and plenty of equipment (including a five-story metal rocket ship), movies in the multipurpose room, places to read, materials for art, a wide variety of other kids from a spectrum of local schools, ice cream hikes to Thrifty’s before it became RiteAid, and (my favorite!) movies in the multipurpose room.

I made friends fast and was soon looking forward to the end of my schooldays before they got started. It helped that I met a former conspirator on my first day, though neither of my parents were exactly thrilled to discover that Candy, who I’d gone to school with at McKinney, was one of my “new” friends at the Y.  

I was happy enough to see her again, even though our friendship had changed. We were the same age, but she was in fourth grade along with her freckle-faced best friend, Danielle, who talked even more than I did and loved to play chess with me. Danielle was the first girl I ever “liked” and I liked her a lot. 

Candy had always been kind of a know-it-all, raised by her know-it-all father, but the time away from McKinney had transformed her from a smarty pants to an artiste-in-training. I’m not sure if she really did show up one day in a red beret or if my memory is coloring outside the lines. But she did carry a notebook around everywhere, claiming to be a writer and looking suspiciously like Harriet the Spy — Candy’s favorite book at the time. She heartily recommended that I read it, and so I did. 

She also recommended that I start writing stories like her. It had been a few years since the Spiderman epics I had banged out on the old manual from Sears, and that sounded kind of cool, but there were movies to watch in the multipurpose room, plus all those chess games to play with Danielle.  

But then Danielle started getting super into Candy’s stories, so I wanted her to love reading mine. Ideally even more than Candy’s. There was also Ms. Jean and Mr. Kent, my two favorite counselors. They both thought I was super smart (I overheard them talking about me one time), so I spent some of my time at the Y living to impress them. I wanted them to like my stories too. 

So I gave writing a shot. 

The only thing I remember about any of those first short stories was the opening line to one of them, because it’s so hilariously terrible. I shit you not, I started a story with: It was a dark and stormy night. 

I have no idea where I picked that shit up, because I had certainly never read the 1830 novel, Paul Clifford, which gave birth to the cliché. But at nine years old, the thin line between familiar and fatigued like a corpse was lost on me, so I presented that golden line with pride. 

This part is pressed into my memory, because when I showed my story to Mr. Damon, the YMCA after school program director, he loved it, but then told me that I could never ever, under any circumstances, start a story like that again. He paid me a quarter, and I agreed to give him my story and follow his advice. 

Mr. Damon continued to pay me $0.25 for every story I wrote. Ms. Jean and Mr. Kent liked my stories even more than I ever thought they might, and they were always happy to pay for them too. So were a few other kids. Candy and Danielle always got them for free. 

Mr. Damon let me use the copy machine. I would write a story for a quarter and end up with a couple of dollars every time. 

I sold my stories for about a month. Then Mr. Damon was gone and Mr. Tim told me that he better never catch me selling a story at the YMCA again or I would be booted from the program. Mr. Tim had a serious mustache and eyes that never knew how to smile, even when his lips tried their best. 

Danielle didn’t like the stories enough for me to keep writing them for free, but that didn’t matter. I was making good money selling Garbage Pail Kids and mutant G.I. Joes on the playground. By the second half of the school year, I had friends, a mobile mercantile, and a teacher who tried to take care of me.

Mrs. Moroka. The one with the plan.

If only it had worked.