Having lived in Napa for 43 years, I sometimes think I’m a native, not one of those Johnny-come-latelies who elbowed their way in.
It took reading Ray Guadagni’s memoir of growing up in Napa in the ‘50s and ‘60s, “The Adventures of the Squeezebox Kid,” to snap me back to reality.
Nearly everything that Guadagni celebrates — the classic burger joints, his Little Italy neighborhood, the slow pace of small town life — was essentially dead or dying when I rolled into town in 1973.
I encountered a Napa that was still blue collar, but growing drunkenly. If memory serves, one year the city issued permits for more than 700 housing units. Napa’s old downtown was in urban renewal’s crosshairs, the wrecking ball about to swing.
As a newcomer whose business was news, I considered change on such a massive scale to be exciting. I had no attachments to Napa’s past. Demo entire blocks of out-of-fashion buildings on Main and Brown streets? Sure. Why not.
Erect a pick-up-sticks clock tower on First Street to symbolize Napa’s emergence as modern Bay Area suburb? Fine by me.
None of this was fine by Guadagni, who came into the world here in 1946. Old Napa enchanted him. It nurtured him. What about Napa on steroids was to like?
His memoir is an impressive piece of recollection. The reader gets to hang out with his buddies at Alta Heights elementary school and visualize the talent shows at the Napa Town & Country Fair where Guadagni played a mean accordion.
There is a wholeness to Guadagni’s recollections. Everything is connected to everything. Locals, not tourists, are the whole enchilada.
Reading “Squeezebox Kid,” I found myself envying the richness of Guadagni’s early memories — the deep rootedness of his life.
Why didn’t I have equally vivid memories of my growing-up surroundings?
I think I have a partial explanation. My childhood was one of constant relocation — town to town, state to state, region to region. Guadagni started out in Napa and 70 years later he’s still here, memory building on memory.
As I see it, my brain’s “refresh” button kept getting pressed as my family moved to keep up with Dad’s changing jobs and then the divorce.
I attended three elementary schools in two states. I can’t tell you the name of a single classmate. Almost as soon as I met them I left them.
And so it went: Boston, Massachusetts. Arlington, Massachusetts. Stafford Springs, Connecticut. Ridgewood, New Jersey. Thomasville, Alabama. Memphis, Tennessee.
I went to school in all of those places, but never became a solid part of any of them. I was more the observant tourist, taking notes, but always ready to move on.
Guadagni’s personal story is so different. He still knows scores of people from childhood. Napa’s past is his past, with intimate ties to his present.
Perhaps the differences between our youths don’t matter. I could write a different sort of memoir. It would have to be titled “Adventures of a Rambling Boy.”
Only I didn’t ramble forever. Napa became my forever home.
I liked having my children enter local schools in kindergarten, then pop out 13 years later. I liked adopting community traditions such as the Town & Country fair and fireworks down by the river on the Fourth of July.
The city I encountered in ‘73 may have been a pale facsimile of the Napa that Guadagni grew up in, but it was plenty good enough for me.