Friday, February 26, 2010

Things I Learned in Prison. Part 3

Things I Learned in Prison. Part 3.

Bob made a chart once of the random wheels which sort of resembled a car chassis with a number of axles. Attached were wheels which spun, or were encumbered, independently of each other. I don’t remember the exact categories ascribed to the different pairs of wheels but each represented a different human need. I struggle sometimes to keep the wheels of love and intimacy and faith in the numinous spinning with sufficient momentum to balance others temporarily wobbly or permanently seized.

No matter how brutal my verbal abuse of the spawn is, we always seem to run about five minutes slow each morning. The turn from our hill onto the main artery Figueroa is treacherous with heavy, but not heavy enough for gridlock laws to pertain, traffic in both directions. From Fig we get on the Pasadena Freeway, through the Arroyo Seco, the quintessential Southern California paseo but narrow and with the insane death onramps. I tell the 17 year old, who has little motivation to practice his driving anyway, that he’s not to drive on this freeway which perhaps he has misinterpreted to mean that I don’t want him to drive at all. Sometimes, channeling my mother at her most inauthentic, I press my palms into a pleading position and open my eyes wide like Betty Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? so the school gatekeeper holds off on locking the entrance, and waves the tardy boys through. I remember feeling that my mother was a star and alternately being embarrassed by her. My kids picked up long ago on my hyper self consciousness and my ineffectual attempts at charm that betray my falseness.

Condemned until the 17 year old’s licensure to schlep kids far afield during rush hour, I rely on taped novels to keep me calm. Now I have 19 cds full o’ Moby Dick, one of the many great novels I have never gotten around to. It starts out with a big bang and I am entranced and actually look forward to being in the car to listen. About a third of the way through though there come some very detailed digressions pertinent to all things whale. I get that Melville’s excruciatingly detailed erudition about the remarkable beast supposedly enhances the drama and ratchets up the leviathan’s formidability as an opponent. Maybe it’s a chick thing but parts of Moby Dick are very boring.

My lack of engagement with cetacean minutiae encourages a wandering mind and several mornings I find myself overwhelmed by fears about the future and afraid that all the random wheels have lost momentum and a screeching jarring halt seems inevitable. I fantasize about magic wands and lotto jackpots. I make karma lists, not unlike the main character on My Name Is Earl who is as earnest to make right his place in the universe as he is incompetent to accomplish this. I pray but then I stop myself from praying because my prayers are selfish and self centered. Bereft of prayer, the weight of my own little circumstances foments despair. The shame of sinking into despair deepens my despair.

I lunch with a friend, also in her fifties and we lament about how shocking it is to be less well off now than we were in our thirties and maybe it’s ironic or karmic or just plain fucked up that we are also less well off than our parents were at our age. I grew up in much better financial circumstances and had more education than either of my folks. It is probably not a sign of emotional maturity to compare my circumstances to those of my parents, although while I am wallowing here anyway, I note too that I’ve got it better in many ways. I have done justice to their sacrifices even though I am still a condescending bitch who holds that their grasp of life’s essentials was shallow. Still, I would really like to win the lottery.

We head out hours before dawn for our third trip to the prison in Tehachapi. We have worked into a routine, leaving our ziplock bag of quarters, commuter mugs, snacks for the trip and black apparel, including abominable sports bra, all laid out the night before. We eat at a roadside joint with the great hash browns. There is less snow than when we were here on Christmas. The visiting center is slightly less crowded. My warmest coat was rejected last visit for being too close in color to the guard’s uniforms. I bring my second warmest coat which was on sale and is a hideous turquoise thing with enough green that I think it won’t be rejected as “too blue” but just in case I bring my third warmest jacket, a black one which, even though it was purchased for 60% off, is a pretty grave fashion error. I am desperate not to screw up this time but I mess up the entry forms. The coat is too blue and I know not to argue and go to the car and switch to the black one in which Himself says I resemble the Michelin man. It is now officially designated “the prison jacket” so at least it has a purpose and I feel less like a moron for buying the thing.

I return wearing the black jacket and the guard calls me to the desk. I remove my glasses, earrings, wedding ring and shoes, and place them with my driver’s license, single car key, and $50.00 in quarters in a wooden box. I believe each individual visitor is permitted to bring in $40.00 either in quarters or single dollar bills. The money is inspected. Rolls of quarters must be opened and wrapping materials destroyed. If any other coins besides quarters are in evidence, the visitor is instructed to return them to the car. There is a specific list of baby items which may be carried in a clear container and visitors may bring in prescription medication accompanied by a physician’s letter. The guards in the visiting area will provide tampons and sanitary napkins. During two of my visits, all of the guards in the visiting area are male. Plus, all of them are cops. The visitors represent a number of different cultures, some maybe not so predisposed to “Hey officer, I need a tampon.”

If I were wearing any clothing with pockets, I would be asked to turn them all out. My coat-- seams, pockets, sleeves--is examined carefully. I was asked once if I had anything in my mouth but not this visit. I make it through the ultra sensitive Tehachapi detector uneventfully. I am issued a green visitor pass and handed the wood box with my possessions. I replace my coat, shoes and jewelry. I present my driver’s license and visitor pass to a guard who enters the information. My hand is stamped with ultraviolet ink and I am instructed to join Himself and wait for the ancient school bus. Some families who have been visiting prisoners at Level 4 return. These visits have to be scheduled in advance, are only an hour in duration and take place through a glass partition via telephone. Some prisoner’s families may live less than an hour away but most will have to journey at least several hours for this brief non-contact visit.

After stops at levels four and one we are dropped at level two. We hold our visitor card and driver’s license in front of a camera and a guard in a tower above us triggers the gate to creak slowly open. We enter a cage, maybe 20’ by 20.’ The gate slowly closes and when it raps shut, another gate slowly begins to move and we are on the pathway to the visitor center. We present our drivers license and visitor’s cards to the guard behind a barred iron door. We wait on a vinyl couch until we are called back to the door. The officer unlocks it. We enter and are led to a numbered table in a large visiting room to wait for Alan to arrive. We are told which seat the inmate is to occupy. The tables are the height of coffee tables, I assume to discourage the passing of contraband, and far too low to eat at comfortably. Three or four guards sit laconically at the door. One works a crossword puzzle. Another, maybe after a rough Saturday night, has trouble staying awake. Alan arrives in de rigueur blue scrubs and state issued work boots. It is his forty-fifth birthday and I believe the first time in nearly twenty years that he has had visitors to mark the occasion. He has spent many birthdays in a cell or a dorm and we are happy that we can spend a few hours with him in the visiting room with Coke and candy bars instead of cake and candles.

The kids have rehearsal so it is just the two of us which means I am relegated to operate the vending machines. Prisoners are not allowed to handle money and there is a painted line on the floor surrounding the machines that they are not allowed to cross. They huddle in a small square and call out their selections to visitors. Inmates are cut off from so many of life’s pleasures that food is a huge deal which not surprisingly, is particularly resonant with me. The last visit there were some salads but they were all sold out by the time I got to the machine. We were able however to purchase for Alan the first yogurt he’d had in many years but even though our assigned table gives me superior access to the machines there is no yogurt or salad for sale. I choose quickly and pick up a beef enchilada meal which I microwave. Midway during the visit some guys with carts come in to restock the machines. I am shooed into the inmate box but I ask about the salads and am told that fresh dishes are only stocked on Saturdays so we know now, that given the importance of food, that this is the preferable day.

We are much more relaxed with Alan this third visit. It feels less weird. A few of the families play one of the board games, which along with bibles and food machines are the only source of entertainment except for human contact for a four hour visit. Today there is also a stack of catalogs from a mail order supplier of prison commissary. Inmates, using their own funds, either via persons outside or prison wages, may order from an approved vendor a package weighing no more than 30 lbs., less 30 oz. for packing material, every quarter. Descriptions include the price and equally important, weight of each item. Alan says that there is a cottage industry of inmates who charge other inmates for completing these order forms. I would need to outsource the ordering process myself because item weights are precise to a tenth of an ounce. The categories are non perishable food items, personal items, white tennis shoes, clothing and underclothing and electrical devices. Unless there is a lockdown, inmates can also use their own funds to purchase food and personal items from the on site commissary about once a week.

Electrical devices are ordered separate of the quarterly shipment. I do not know how often inmates can order appliances; I just know that they are strictly limited to three. All of these devices are specially manufactured. The machinery is clad in transparent plastic. Summers are extremely hot and the dorms and cells are not air conditioned so most inmates, who have the resources to purchase one, keep a fan. The hot pot is also a popular choice. It’s essentially a crockpot but also has a plastic strainer so it can be used to boil water and heat prepackaged prepared foods. 7” TVs in the price range of $200.00 are available, as are CD players, but I believe a maximum number of 20 CDs are permitted. There are also typewriters for sale and I presume that a manual model would not be counted as an appliance. Inmates have no access to the Internet and any computer access at all is on an extremely limited basis, mainly in classrooms. Alan is fulfilling his life long dream to learn the guitar and he must decide whether to give up fan, hotpot or television to make room for an electric one.

The catalog sports a big muscle car on the cover and nearly lurid racecar photos appear throughout. Alan notes that the car motif is sort of a cruel reminder to inmates of the things they miss but at least none of vehicles is graced by a scantily clad model. In the back of the book there are about twenty pages bearing pink borders. This is the woman’s section. Whereas men can only order underwear and sweat clothes the woman’s clothing section offers a peach or pink t-shirt, a pair of jeans, a very nunnish nightie and four of the ugliest bras I have ever seen. There are several different sorts of makeup, a few items of jewelry, sunglasses, and because apparently the men make pruno with it and the women don’t, hard candy and drink mixes that contain sugar.

Our time with Alan has now, after three visits, taken on the familiar feeling of hanging out. Visiting him has become part of our routine and there’s less a sense of urgency. We meander through the catalog, scrutinizing the food section. There are a number of ethnic selections and we discuss the potential of prison cuisine. It is comforting that the ingredients available via commissary, even in the absence of fresh items and the limitations of cooking in a cell, make for some fairly interesting culinary possibilities. I lap up any details of even the tiniest comforts that prison sanctions. I am eager to hear if he thinks current court orders to reduce the prison population might shorten the six years he has left to serve. He thinks not. I ask if in the course of his job he travels to other parts of the prison. He doesn’t. I ask if he will be transferred eventually to the less restrictive Level 1. Never, due to the violent nature of his crime. I ask about the last time he left the prison.. He was driven in a van to Bakersfield for medical tests several years ago. Bittersweet.

While I bristle, Alan is remarkably accepting of his circumstances. He was chill and making the best of it even before things improved recently as upon completing a heating and air conditioning repair certificate he is given employment on the prison maintenance crew. He is also elected to the position of dorm liaison which, although a big pain in the butt requiring much patience with men who historically don’t have the best coping skills, is a conferral of respect rare in the life of an inmate.

It is creepy how fast four hours pass. The guard returns our green permits. Inmate workers begin to sweep the floor. It is time to go. Inmates line up in front of one door and visitors in front of the other. The guard at the door checks our identification and we are led outside. It is raining. No umbrellas or head coverings non-religious in purpose are permitted. We hold our i.d. in front of the camera and wait to pass through gate, into cage, and through the other gate to the bus stop. The rain increases as we wait, only partially protected by a narrow overhang, among wives and mothers and children for the bus to arrive.

I crank up the Volvo’s heater and we stop at a ragtag farmer’s market in Tehachapi. I buy some vegetables. It rains hard until we pass though Mohave where it lets up and rainbows grace the mountains. Moby Dick drones on. Suddenly I am so extraordinarily tired that I have to pull over. Himself takes the wheel. The car glides down the highway. I fall into a deep sleep and don’t wake up until we arrive home. The kids are sprawled on the couch watching t.v. I cook the Tehachapi vegetables for dinner. We curl up on the couch under a blanket and watch the Wire in the dark. There in the warm stillness, back from prison, I hear the hum of the random wheels.
Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, February 19, 2010



Several years ago the kids started hanging out with a girl named Evelyn. She is the same age as the seventeen year old, about 14 when I first meet her. She lives not far away in a little green clapboard house in Cypress Park but we never go inside. The story is that Evelyn’s mother is severely handicapped and that her father is in prison. She is pretty much on her own and when the seventeen year old gets into some post curfew mischief with another boy, his mother subjects me to an angry rant blaming Evelyn and her lack of supervision for the corruption of her son. Evelyn spends a lot of time with us and there is never any discussion about her family or any force of authority in her life. Once in a while her cellphone rings, she reports her whereabouts matter-of-factly and signs off.

I read a lovely piece The Dime Store Floor by David Owen in the New Yorker about the poignancy of scent.
Our house always smells like food but recently the ailing poodle Fido exudes a noxiousness that defies description and overpowers the aroma of muffins baking or onions sautéing. We burn a lot of incense, purchased mainly from the funerary supply aisle at the Chinese market. I splurge on some of the pricier white sage stuff from a local hipster shop which gives the dying dog a bit more run for the money. All three immediate family members note that it smells like Uncle Bob’s, which is the je ne sais quoi of aromatherapeutic locales for all four of us. But, until the dog starts to reek, I like the mosaic of food smells, meal layered on meal, at my house. Garlic. Onions. Ginger. Cinnamon. Marjoram. More onions. Evelyn comes in after not having visited for a while, crosses the threshold and inhales deeply, “I love the way your house smells, and I missed it.”

She is a striking girl with an unusual face, sweet, sly and sad. She carries a handsome knitted Mexican bag and has a sense of style unsullied by teenage girl trends. We pick her up often from her home or at various bus stops. I take her and the boys bicycle riding at Venice Beach. She speeds down the bike path, wild haired and exhilarated but still vaguely sad and so much older than my boys. We stop at a restaurant and suddenly she becomes squirmy. My kids discreetly coach her through ordering from a menu and restaurant protocol that none of us remember ever not knowing. It is a British pub style restaurant in Santa Monica and not very good. Still part of me thinks she’ll say, “That was the best thing I ever ate in my life and I aspire now to eat at other restaurants and see the world,” but she seems to reach no such epiphany and eats very tentatively and remains spooked until we are out the door. She moves abruptly to Utah about a year ago.

The boys have pretty much forgotten her and find it weird that I ask if they’ve heard anything. I remember her waiting alone, poised and dignified, at the bus stop. I do not know about her circumstances in Utah or even if she is still there. If I had an extra bedroom and the unlikely consent of Himself I would have been happy to take her to live with me. I am haunted by her sadness and it puts my own in perspective. I rode the bus by myself for miles and miles when I was her age. I was getting away from many of the same things she is getting away from when we pick her up at nine p.m. from an Echo Park bus stop, but never in my life did I ever feel that I wasn’t good enough to go anywhere I wanted to go.

My kids have eaten in tons of restaurants and have done a fair amount of travelling. I remember a trip to San Francisco for a Bar Mitzvah when I was five. It was in our brand new sky blue ’63 Impala and I got carsick on 101 and puked in the backseat. We stayed at the Jack Tar Hotel and I was astonished by a glass elevator. I was gifted a stuffed cat with green glass eyes and real jet black animal fur, which was probably rabbit, that I loved more than any other toy. I loved it so much that I rubbed off areas of fur, leaving bald suedey patches. My dad took some movies which reveal lots of high heels and big hair. There are photos in the album of trips to Palm Springs with cousins but all I remember was being the only kid brave enough to jump off a high diving board and being caught in the deep end by dad. These are the only trips I took with both of my parents. My father, with the two wives to come, visited most of Europe, Asia and South America. I never travelled with him again although untouched in his office remain dozens of travel scrapbooks, reels of film and crates of Kodachrome slides.

After the divorce there were very few trips. Once my mother and I ventured all the way to Orange County and spent a weekend at the Newporter Inn. We rode a pedal boat briefly on the bay and uncharacteristically, given her thrifty nature, did not make use of the full hour of the rental because the ocean breeze wreaked havoc on her hair. I met a rather dull girl on the beach, the only child in sight. Out of boredom I regaled her with a story about my mother being an heiress and my father being dead by mysterious circumstances. We were up in the room watching television and my mother said something about my father. The girl said, “I thought your father was dead,” and that took care of that. My mother was nonplused by my falsification.

When I was fourteen wealthy relatives condescended to take me with two cousins on a trip to Monterey. I was enchanted to stay in a hotel and thrilled by the scenery. I sat in the middle of the backseat of a huge brand new white Cadillac for my first experience of the 17 Mile Drive through Pebble Beach. I was between two travel jaded cousins who read books during the hour we spent traversing one of the most beautiful coastal stretches in the world. They’d seen it before.

My mother had a boyfriend who took her to a high end restaurant and paid for a babysitter every Saturday night but he would not marry her and she was condemned to continue working which she resented up until the day years later when she took early retirement from the postal service. She called him Jose with affectation and for some reason I don’t think I ever knew. His real name was Sumner and he was a Jew from Boston. She claimed frequently that he would not marry her because of me and as sullen, miserable and unpresentable as I was, there was probably a lot of truth to this.

My mother, in the face of her boyfriend’s determination not to rescue her from her undeserved life of drudgery, continued to date him but also played the field. She met Jack Warner at a party. He took her to a fancy Beverly Hills Mexican restaurant with a boutique and bought me an embroidered blouse. He bought her a sewing machine. If she’d had a brain she would have taken this as an indication that ensconcing her in a life of luxury was not on his agenda.

One afternoon when I was in the eighth grade I was called to the office during seventh period. My aunt was there waiting. I thought there’d been a catastrophe but it turned out that Jack Warner had invited my mother on a spur of the moment trip to New York. My aunt took me home and waited impatiently while I packed to spend a week with her family in Encino. When we arrived at their home it was determined that my clothing was too wild, too short and too worn. My mother, while happy to dump me on her at the last minute so she could jet off to New York, had disparaged this aunt by noting that she had dozens of blouses with peter pan collars folded in drawers. I didn’t understand that this diss meant that my aunt had the fashion sense of a school marm until she took me to Fairyland and bought me some below knee length dresses to replace my unacceptable wardrobe while I was a guest in their home. I shortened them all as soon as I returned to Fulton Avenue.

I was mortified and disgraced to be plomped mid school week in the staid home of my cousins. I pretended I had a boyfriend just to not seem like such a loser whose mother would abandon her without notice to run off with a famous producer. The phones in those days would buzz if left off the hook for too long. I would call my home number, where I knew no one would answer and always in earshot of my cousins, fake a whispery, giggly conversation with some dashing long haired fantasy boy who was wild about me while the phone rang and rang at my empty house. Finally a neighbor with a key became concerned about the constantly ringing phone and entered to answer it right in the middle of my cooing adoration. I hung up immediately and told my cousin that my boyfriend was on a trip and not available to call for a few days.

After a week in a household where my favorite show Laugh In was considered too risqué and there was no t.v. on school night’s anyway, I began to crack. I managed to get through to the Sherry Netherland hotel in New York. The operator said there was no room in my mother’s name so I begged to speak with Jack Warner. The operator refused but I said that my mother was staying with him and that it was an emergency. It was about ten in Los Angeles and when she finally relented and put my call through, it was obvious that I’d awakened Warner. He was furious and screamed that my mother wasn’t there. She returned the next day. I’m not sure if his disgust at my phone call was the catalyst for her return. She never heard from him again and we never spoke about it except she raged for days at having to repay my aunt for the long distance call I’d made to New York.

David Owen writes in the New Yorker piece that he buys Old Spice deodorant from the online purveyor he uses for personal and hygiene items because he remembers that his dad had used it. He applies it but the scent is not evocative. Forgetting to pack deodorant for a trip, he wanders into a drugstore and sees that the retailer, unlike the Internet supplier, carries Old Spice in a number of different scents. There is a variety labeled “classic scent” and he buys it. He applies it for the first time. It is the same scent his father used and it arouses a powerful sweet rush of memory and creates a dilemma about whether to continue using it and risk that the potency be subsumed by new memories.

When I think about my cousin’s house I remember a carbolic, vaguely suggesting nasty medicine, smell but I suspect this is a trick of memory. Given the character of the residents I cannot imagine their home spelling anything but extremely clean. My mother came out of the shower once with tears pouring down her cheeks. A new bath gel had reminded her of a childhood family trip to a field of lavender. I try to summon a smell that evokes her to me. Now her scent is of whatever brands of body wash and lotion I bring her. I think my most lingering scent memory is of her hairspray. She used a brand with a French name. It had the consistency of epoxy. It was not available in drugstores, only beauty supply shops. I vaguely remember the label being orange and yellow stripes with black woodcut illustrations, perhaps of fishnet stockings and stiletto heels. I wrack my brain but I cannot remember the brand name. I look online at advertising archives and blogs devoted to fifties femininity but nothing jogs my memory. I engage in live chat with a nice lady in Vancouver Washington via “Ask a Librarian” but she has no clue about locating collections of old beauty supply catalogs.

Fido is spaced out and just stands around, often being boinked by the refrigerator door but she eats voraciously, wags her tail when she sees Himself and except for fur loss and the aforementioned stinkiness shows no signs of terminality. She has exceeded the vet’s life expectation by several months and we have even been relieved of having to decide whether to purchase her expensive prescription in quantities of 30, 90 or 120. Himself mentions the poodle’s sad diagnosis to a colleague who happens to have his own liver cancer stricken dog. A few weeks later at a meeting he hands over to Himself five boxes of the same medication prescribed for Fido, having been overoptimistic when ordering for his own pet. I keep telling myself that it’s not ok to have a dog put down just because she smells. Plus it would be a shame for all those pricey pills to go to waste.

I’m sure though it won’t be that long until we’re liberated from eau de fading Fido and return to the usual whirl of food aromas. I am resigned that my mother’s hairspray brand is lost to me forever but maybe some day they’ll be a whiff of something that will transport me back to Fulton Avenue and mother’s love. I doubt too that I will ever see Evelyn again but maybe one day she’ll walk into a warm room with smells of cooking and remember me.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Cheap Date

Cheap Date

There is an old school Italian bakery near where my mother stays in Eagle Rock and I notice they have a cookie called a “hermit” which I remember she used to like. I remember that I like them too and polish off a few myself before I arrive to visit Mom. She is farther adrift every time I see her but when I arrive with the hermits, I find her surprisingly alert. She says, “That’s my daughter” which floors me because she has been uncertain exactly who I am for many weeks. For the first time in a number of visits, she is clutching her handbag. She ails with a cough early in the week and I deliver two rounds of antibiotics so I expect to find her drawn and frail but there is no sign of illness. I offer her a hermit. Recently, apparently confused by them, she spits out nuts and other chunky bits that she used to like. I am concerned about the hermits, which contain raisins and almonds, but she tastes one and her face softens. “I love these,” she murmurs again and again as she works her way through the bag. I do not remember ever seeing her more purely happy. Even though the big TV. has on a particularly grating reality show about Carnie Wilson and her preparations to host The Newlywed Game instead of a comforting old movie, I stay a bit longer this visit. My mother savors the cookies and I savor that there is a bit more of her than usual.

As it often does, it rains on my birthday which further dampens my family’s scant enthusiasm for celebration. I had originally requested a Mexican dinner but the place is a bit far afield and high risk for mariachis which induce apoplexy in Himself so I choose an Italian joint in the neighborhood for which I have a coupon. It is not haute cuisine but satisfying in that Eye-talian food of childhood memory sort of way. The owners are corpulent twins who bear an extraordinary resemblance to Tweedles Dee and Dum. The coupon says explicitly that the user should leave a tip based on the full amount of the bill and because they seem like nice people and maybe business isn’t so great if they are issuing coupons I cough up 25% pre coupon gratuity plus an extra ten bucks, leave the cash and the coupon on the table and we leave. We begin to pull out of the parking lot and one of the owners comes dashing out, waving furiously. He admonishes us for not announcing that we were using a coupon before ordering, although the coupon itself does not specify that this is required. I tell him that we left more than adequate cash but this gains us no immunity from his remonstrance. I probably won’t bother with a coupon again if it means the humiliation of presenting it to the waiter before dinner or being chased down after like a scofflaw. I am resigned, I guess, to a life of home cooking and taco trucks.

My sister Sheri always thought I was pretentious and high falutin’ and I thought she was low class and she would laugh maybe about the coupon humiliation. Early in my marriage, Sheri, having bankrupted, via a cocaine addicted husband and a gambling compulsion, a videotape rental store that my father had bankrolled for her, is reduced to living with my mother. My sister has just been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Her marriage is tenuous. The husband drifts from my mother’s to other places and then back. She’d met this fourth, if you count common-law, husband and as the family always referred to it, “stole him away” from her best friend since childhood who’d been having an affair with him. He had been married at the time and his rejection of the convention of monogamy is consistent through his third marriage to my sister. She clings to him desperately but he clings back only when experiencing a deficit of cash. My sister has no resources to live anywhere but my mom’s but there are constant acrimonious explosions and I am frequently called to referee. At the time I refer to Fulton Avenue as Grey Gardens but having recently seen both the Maysles brother’s documentary again and the HBO dramatization with Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore it is clear that my mother and sister were far more vicious than Edie’s big and little ever were.

I think perhaps they might be able to reach some sort of détente if they have a few sessions with a therapist. I arrange for them to see mine and am included in the session. I remember nothing about what transpired but at my next session the therapist seems almost to be chiding me for my naïveté when he tells me that there was absolutely nothing he can do to help either of them. I haven’t thought of this in years and do not remember how I reacted at the time. It comes back to me from nowhere and I tell Himself and my dear friend Richard the story. Both of them erupt into snorting laughter. At first I am taken aback and then I begin to laugh myself and it seems that maybe I’ve gotten somewhere.

After the therapist, things get worse between my mother and sister and despite her physician’s admonishment to avoid warm weather, my sister follows her husband to Las Vegas. She is able to get some public assistance and low cost housing and my father and I subsidize her. It comes to light that while living at my mother’s house, my sister had intercepted some of the many credit card offers my mother received in the mail and opened a number of accounts in my mother’s name. She wracked up enormous debt. My father and I are already stretched, paying for private nurses because my sister is adamant about living independently but she is in genuine danger of serious legal consequences regarding the credit cards. We pay them off. My mother notes that no matter how infirm my sister was during her stay on Fulton Avenue, she listened for the mail and waddled out to the box with her walker every single afternoon.

My sister is able to remain in her Vegas apartment until the day she dies. I hold her hand and then go to Applebee’s with her husband and his sister. They are into Santeria and talk about that some. If I hadn’t paid it, I would still be sitting there waiting for someone to pick up that check. I fly directly home where I have two kids in diapers, instead of remaining for the funeral. I pay for a modest burial at a local mortuary and tell my brother-in-law that within that budget he can make whatever arrangements he likes. He calls me again and again. He screams that the funeral my sister had wanted would be ten thousand dollars. He calls me cheap and selfish and a bitch but I won’t, really can’t, budge. I tell my father about my brother-in-law’s harassment of me regarding the funeral and he says to tell him to put it on my mother’s credit card.

The rest of the birthday is spent watching three episodes of The Wire which Himself and I have embarked on now that Dexter is over for the season. It is complex and stimulating and in the cold house we watch it wrapped together in a blanket. I realize that Himself’s motivation is purely to absorb the warmth generated by my ample body and he would find a size 14 hot water bottle just as effective but after over twenty years it is still nice to avail myself of this cheap thrill.

Valentine’s Day is another one of those holidays that’s destined to disappoint. When we were in elementary school the rule was you had to bring a valentine for everyone in the class. All you could really do was choose a particularly romantic one for a special boy or one with a skunk for a classmate deserving of retribution. When the impartiality requirements were lifted, I received very few valentines. For twenty years now though, I’ve gotten one annually. It is always written in an elegant hand with a fountain pen and is usually homemade. But even though we keep our efforts humble there is an artificiality that isn’t conducive to romantic milestones. The pressure and obligation to make a memory sort of precludes the serendipity and convergence this actually requires.

Years ago we make the mistake of going to a fancy restaurant for an ostensibly romantic meal. It just seems like the sort of thing you’re supposed to do so we find ourselves crammed in like sardines. The meal is overpriced and pre-plated so diners can be in and out in less than an hour. Dining out on Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day or New Year’s Eve is for suckers. Dining out on Thanksgiving is for the pathetic and dining out on Christmas is for the pathetic and/or the Jewish.

Before marriage, we spend a Valentine’s Day in New York. We eat at the Russian Tea Room. I just remember that it was very red. There is a snowstorm and there are very few taxis. I want to ride in a horse drawn carriage through Central Park but Himself is adamantly against it for reasons now, decades later, I am still not certain of. This perhaps is tit for tat for a trip to Ireland when we arrive in Dublin for the first time, in a pounding rainstorm during rush hour. Confounded by roundabouts, and driving on the left, in the days before GPS or even Mapquest we finally locate our hotel, a charming conversion of a Georgian townhouse, and are informed that no en-suite rooms are available. I will not traipse down the hall to share a bathroom with strangers. He is furious at me but I will not capitulate and we end up navigating the city for several more hours to become ensconced at a charmless modern high-rise hotel. In a room with a private bath.

I note with every birthday now how much farther I am getting from the probable midpoint. 53 x 2=106 so midlife has pretty much vanished from the rear view mirror. It has always been very important to me to have something to look forward to but now it seems sometimes there’s not much more than early bird specials and specialized medicine. All that remains of the bar mitzvah is inflicting psychological torture on Spuds to get his thank you notes completed. There is no travel on our horizon and for the last few weeks our professional situations have been particularly thankless. I watch a lot of TV and I look forward to it. Sometimes this goes on the list of signs of depression and sometimes it’s just that I like TV, always have, and why the hell not? Food, by the way, is subject to the same discomfiting rubric as television.

The coffee makes itself at 5 a.m. and I wake to the aroma. I buy some particularly warm, albeit ugly, slippers for half price at Target and I leave them bedside and it feels good to slip into them in the cold morning. I will come home from work and the DVR will have prison documentaries, The Daily Show and The Office. Some days I surrender to the beaten downness and in despair forget the comfort of these tiny sweet pleasures. No matter though what travails a day may bring, I look forward to the end, when the lights go out and we whisper and breathe. In the darkness, every night, not just holidays, I am reminded of the reason for and the God in having travelled more than halfway through.
Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, February 5, 2010

It's My Party and I'll Die if I Want To

It’s My Party and I’ll Die if I Want To

My father married three women who were obsessed with their bodies and suspicious of traditional medicine. My current stepmother made my father endure a grueling round of expensive blood cleansing routines called “chelation” performed by a physician who clung to his license via gossamer thread. The cupboards over the marble wet bar in their condo overflow with natural food store herbs and remedies. I avoid her phone calls because I lack the patience to endure the enumeration of her physical ailments. The first stepmother wasn’t hypochondriacal as I recall but obsessive about health and enthusiastic about crackpot alternatives. In the sixties, before it was hugely trendy she was a big health food store advocate, fasted, camped and practiced naturalism and free love.

My mother would visit many doctors but never take prescription medication, claiming her constitution was far too delicate. She distrusted Jewish physicians but made an exception and requested a referral to THE Dr. Lewinsky when she was prescribed a brief course of radiation. She had a weird affected way of saying the name. Loo´ in sky. I know it would be impossible for her to keep her mouth shut about the infamous daughter and I cringe to think about what she probably said to him. She suffered from mild asthma but always, like stepmother #2, was on the brink of death from some malady, the frequent mention of which was always accompanied by a weak wristed palm to forehead and a guttural, “This is a rough one kid.” Plus the between the lines, “You’ll realize how much you love me and will feel guilty when I’m dead.”

Since being institutionalized over three years ago Mom has been given a daily course of asthma and other medications and consequently her physical health has been quite good for a woman in her late eighties. There are intermittent problems with edema and potassium levels and her crepey skin is paper thin and easily bruised. Otherwise since leaving Fulton Avenue she has been of robust appetite and generally sturdy until a recent and potentially serious at her age, respiratory ailment. Dementia has stripped her of many things that I miss but also of complaint and bitterness.

It has taken me over fifty years, given my legacy, to realize that no one really wants to hear me prattle on about my body and if you feel crappy there is nothing to be gained by boring those around you and making them feel crappy too. Even though I am sure you would be terribly interested, I will spare you the details of my specific complaints. I admit only that I have had recently some shock and awe at my body’s surrender to the ages and its betrayal of my self.

Several years ago I rode a bicycle on the beach in Santa Barbara, feeling smug and self righteous for participating in a(n outdoor) physical activity in the name of recreation instead of obligation. Some tween boys are goofing around on their bikes and one momentarily cuts me off on the bike path. My reflexes are good and I avert disaster only to hear the hot dogger being chided, “Dang dude, you almost ran into an old lady.” As a connoisseur of humor I totally get that the “old lady” part really made the joke and was simply a huge stretch in the name of getting a laugh. This is the type of exaggeration I am not above myself although usually at least in voce much more sotto. But still.

I don’t know exactly when I stopped feeling immortal. Mortality considerations waft through my mind with increasing regularity. The “ceasing to be” thing doesn’t bother me that much. I don’t want to get onto that tangent now, but I am referring to a “ceasing to be” in the way that I am accustomed to being. It’s the love thing more than the afterlife thing that conflicts one about the dying thing. Having loved and having been loved makes the ceasing to be imaginable and maybe even tacit fulfillment of the bargain. It’s the fear of leaving complications for those who have loved me and have been loved by me so richly that I am not afraid to die that I am unable to shake. Based on my experience, fate may auger sadness that even the best of planning cannot ameliorate.

I have, in a number of arenas, less to give to and less to leave for my children than is optimal. The economy manacles my beloved to a job that makes him weary and me to a tiny business with an uncertain future. My office is crammed and funky and there are buckets strategically placed to collect roof leaks. The skeleton crew struggle to keep up on work and maintain a building as presentable as possible, which isn’t very and sometimes it is a hard and sad place for me to be. The boys are dropped at the office most days after school and it is an extension of home to them. They eat and sleep on my dad’s old cot. They watch videos and play games on the computers.

Worried about making payroll for the employees to whom I owe my comfortable life, I snap at the indolent children and make them feel guilty for not pitching in at the office. I tell them that they embarrass me in front of the employees. I call them little pashas, a reference they probably don’t grasp except to figure it’s an insult. The whole while I am screaming I remember my mother coming home from work and finding me lounging in front of the t.v. and exploding with stunning vitriol at my laziness. I can still feel that tightness I’d get in the pit of my stomach when I’d hear her car in the driveway. This still wounds after forty years yet I rage with the same fury and misplaced frustration at my own children.

Spuds is predictably reasonable and accepts my apology but the seventeen year old is wounded and distant and angry. My “guilty with the explanation of weariness” plea doesn’t resonate right now but explanations and apologies were not offered to me at all on Fulton Avenue. I am aware that having a wildly hormonal mother might not even register on the short list of a seventeen year old’s beefs with the planet but perhaps one day it will be remembered that at least I asked to be forgiven.

I am married to a freak but I love and admire him and I am protective of my idiosyncratic, not of this world, genius helpmate. I watch him while he reads. Sometimes he feels me watching him but mostly his concentration is intense and inviolable and I could gaze at him for an hour and he won’t flinch. I consider myself somewhat of a reader and he reads more in the average week than I do in a year. He gets annoyed when I mention this but unless his school load is particularly brutal, he writes about 12,000 words each week. For comparison, this blog takes me a whole week to regurgitate and is seldom longer than 2000 words. I have, on a number of occasions, copy and pasted the body of his week’s work into both Google docs and MS Word and word counted, lest there be a question of accuracy.

Himself’s generosity with his knowledge and intellectual acuity moves me and on a good day is motivation to keep my mouth shut about inadequacies, as perceived by me at least, in other areas. Due to his mental calisthenics that make me dizzy to ponder, he finds himself greedy and desperate for sleep. He too was shamed for his penchant for curling up with a book and sleeping in and lack of enthusiasm for household chores as a kid. On the few days a week that he is able to sleep late, he apologizes from the bed and despite my assurances that I don’t care, counter-assures me that he will be up and in action shortly.

This week has been one of late nights and early mornings. He is particularly exhausted and I am grateful that there is a change in schedule and he has an unexpected day off. He sleeps while I prepare to shower and my heart sinks when there is a tentative little knock on the door. He bids Spuds enter before I am able to scream, “Let Daddy sleep!” Spuds is apologetic but assertive with a mission only Dad can accomplish. It is the last day of the semester and he is making a presentation for his business class. Mom orders all the supplies and performs a custom printing job but only Dad can tie a necktie. It only takes a minute but there is a remarkable tenderness between them. I have no brothers and grew up in a house without men so the father/son thing is mysterious. Himself doesn’t throw a ball in a yard or teach them to fix stuff but it’s ok to wake him up to tie a tie and it is sweet to feel the love that exists on the periphery of, but significantly outside of my orbit.

I am turning 53 which is not significantly different than turning 51 or 52 and I predict that 54 won’t be any great shakes either. My children will turn fifteen and eighteen this year and it is staggering to think of how much re-creation happens every day in their lives. I distinctly remember feeling how they must feel, immortal and knowing more and more with greater and greater certainty every day. When was it exactly that I realized the inevitability of my own death and gleaned with certainty that I know less every day than I did the day before?

I want my kids to validate me and my experience and feel my love for them without being fettered by my looming fears. When I hear the whispers of a tie being knotted or look forward to some puerile joke that will inevitably break the ice with the seventeen year old, I become less frightened that my children will be weighed down by my existential fears. The anecdote for the panic an aging body foments, that a life, well more than half lived, has been of little consequence is this love so fierce that it fills this life, and every second that remains of it and infinite afters .