Growing Up Cody
I was born in California and lived, until I was eight, in Burbank. If you’re not familiar with L.A., here’s the quick run-down: Burbank is in the Valley, and it’s largely known for being the home of production studios like Warner Bros. and the Walt Disney Studios. For much of my young life I was obsessed with the idea of being an actor—not necessarily because I was good at it (I was fine) but because I found fame and notoriety incredibly enticing. I don’t know if that dream was a direct result of my childhood proximity to Hollywood, but the entertainment business was in my orbit and likely influenced my thinking. And I looked the part, too. I had super-blond hair, tan skin . . . it was all very Zack Morris. My favorite childhood picture is of me rocking a neon pink Mickey Mouse shirt with cutoff sleeves. With the Disneyland vibe and yellow locks and the sun-kissed skin, I was serving serious California Boy realness.
All that said, my childhood was not exactly what you might picture when I invoke Bayside High and Hollywood and the entertainment industry. Namely, we were broke. My mom worked various odd jobs but she had trouble holding them, and none paid especially well. The two of us lived in a one-bedroom apartment on the first floor of an apartment complex. It was just the two us—my father died when I was four months old. He and my mom were both addicts, and he died of a drug overdose, though my mom always told me he died of a heart attack. That’s probably true if we want to get into semantics, but it’s not the full picture. I didn’t learn the truth until I was twelve or thirteen, when I was going through boxes of old papers and came across my dad’s death certificate, which listed drug overdose as the cause of death.
I don’t remember my dad, obviously, and don’t really feel any connection to him at this point—he and my mother weren’t married, so I don’t even use his last name. And good thing, because otherwise I’d be Cody Brudnicki, which is fine, I guess, but it certainly doesn’t have that Cody Rigsby ring to it.
My memories of living in California are a little spotty, but good or bad they all center around one person: my mom. Cindy and I were quite a pair. I didn’t have any siblings, and my mother always made a point to tell me that she was never sure if she even wanted kids. She had me at thirty-three and she’d definitely had a few abortions before that. She’s told me multiple times, “Cody, you were the one I kept.” She’s always had a way with words, that Cindy.
There was a lot of joy and spontaneity and silliness during those L.A. years—the fun of my mom and me blasting The Bodyguard soundtrack in the car on the way to school, or making sun tea on our patio (You know sun tea, right? Instead of tea bags in boiling water, you put them in regular water and leave the whole jug outside in the California heat. Hours later—voilà!—you’ve got gallons of tea for a cute summer refreshment. A science experiment!), or riding up the Pacific Coast Highway to see my grandmother in Santa Barbara. She lived there with her husband/my mom’s stepdad, Charles, who we all called Dickie. I thought that was hilarious because, well, I was seven. Dickie had a prosthetic leg, and for that fact alone I found him fascinating because, again, seven.
At home, my mom and I were roommates—we lived in a one-bedroom but the bedroom was big. She slept on one side and I slept against the opposite wall in a lofted bed, above a desk. We lived in that bedroom during the 1994 Northridge earthquake, a 6.7 magnitude early-morning quake centered in the Valley. It was terrifying. I woke up to the literal earth shaking! I was groggy and confused and in my stupor/terror I couldn’t figure out how to get out of my five-feet-off-the-ground bed, so my mom broke off the guardrail to get me out. I guess it was that maternal-strength-survival-instinct you always hear about—you know how they say a mom can lift a car when her kid’s in danger?—because this bitch legit ripped off the side of my bed and picked me up and made me stand in the doorway to the bathroom. Back then we were all taught that the safest place to stand in an earthquake was under a doorframe. Turns out that was fake news, but it’s a myth we were all buying in the ’90s. So anyway, I’m standing in the doorway, having just woken up, and like any kid suddenly awake in the middle of the night, I had to pee. My mom let me go to the bathroom, which probably wasn’t the smartest decision because the bathroom was home to many shelves of glass perfume bottles. There I was, standing at the toilet, the earth shaking beneath my feet and perfume bottles falling to the ground and shattering around me as I tried to pee. It was traumatic.
After the earthquake, the entire apartment complex community looked out for each other and took care of one another. We were literally shook, and we hung out in the shared courtyard most of the next day because it was dangerous to be inside. People were grilling and making food for one another, and it was one of the first times I remember seeing a community really come together. The neighbor kids were my closest friends—I was the only white kid in the complex; it was mostly Latino families. I was invited to so many birthday parties and celebrations that my memories of that time almost all involve piñatas and barbecues and this amazing birthday cake that I still think of to this day. It was a tres leches cake with strawberries and almonds in the middle, with this light and airy whipped cream–type frosting. Perfection.
As much fun as my mom and I had during those California days, there was also some real darkness. While I didn’t explicitly understand that my mom was a drug addict, there were moments when I knew something was not right. When I was six, my mother put me in the back seat of her car one evening and drove along a bunch of poorly lit streets into a sketchy neighborhood, where we came to a stop at an underpass. A thin man who was missing a few teeth approached her window. I couldn’t understand why we would talk to this guy, but the next thing I knew my mother was rolling down her window and handing over cash. In return, he pulled two balloons out of his mouth and gave them to her. Looking back, it’s obvious that she was buying heroin, but all I knew at the time was that something felt weird and unsafe. I couldn’t make sense of what I was seeing, and I tried to push aside any inkling that something was off, because I loved my mom and didn’t want to believe that she would put me in danger. Still, it was not right, nor was it okay (thank you, Whitney).
My mom also had these friends, Winnie and Trey, who she hung out with a lot. I liked spending time with the three of them because I was a kid who wanted attention and wanted to be a part of things (some might say I’m an adult who wants attention and to be a part of things, but that’s a conversation for another day). When we went to their houses, my mom and Winnie would disappear into the bathroom for a long time. Like, a really long time. Back then I was just like, What the f*** is happening?, but of course now I know. Ding! They were doing drugs! With me in the next room! I was even there the day Winnie’s boyfriend died—probably, I know now, of an overdose. While I was too young to articulate or fully understand what was going on, I knew there was something desperate and scary about the way we lived.