Monday, March 29, 2010

The Jesus Lizard, Part Two

The First Aid kit was the first sign that I was in over my head. It was FedEx’d to me only a few short days before my departure for Belize and Guatemala. It was enormous—it wasn’t your home First Aid kit, you know, the little plastic white box with the red cross on its face, the Happy First Aid kit with band aids and Neosporin and little samples paks of Tylenol. No this thing weighed a good eight pounds and it was a true Bush Medical Kit with just about everything I needed to save a life that was dwindling away from loss of blood after a fall from the top of a Mayan Temple. And there was the book—the First Aid Book with pages I couldn’t bear to look at. I pondered the contents of the bag and figured that with all that equipment and the book, I could probably perform field heart surgery if I just put my little mind to it. My instructions were to carry the bag with me at all times during the trip. There was also a sheet of instructions for airlifting out with an injured trip participant. I was the designated attendee of the person to be airlifted. In the case of the Belize/Guatemala trip, we would fly to Houston. The in-country guide would have to attend to the other trip participants, but I would be Florence Nightingale and hold this mortally injured tourist's hand as we helicoptered to Texas. This seemed wrong to me . . . did I miss something in the pre-trip preparation package? Had a missed a paragraph instructing me to take a First Aid course, to be certified as an EMS professional before going on this trip? Nooo, nothing in the package said I was to take a class. Nope, it seemed that carrying the First Aid kit and being available to airlift with the injured was all that was required of me.

I was also instructed to carry a bag full of various snacks, sundries, and water. Crackers, trail mix, nuts, berries, chewing gum, chocolate, peppermints, sun block, Kleenex, and other items to bestow upon my wilting troops during hikes and the long bus rides. There was no mention of a flask of whiskey, something I would regret not thinking of myself . . . the ever-present hootch–in–the–pocket might have improved all situations that were to befall me.

I received a list of all my trip participants. As was ICO’s habit, the list was extremely detailed. I not only had names, addresses and ages, but I now knew the length of their membership of ICO, how much money they had donated over the years, interests (birds, plants, history), their occupations, their educations, whether or not they were associated with a family foundation (none of my participants were) and their giving "potential" as it were. This was the material for my reconnaissance mission . . . not only was I to lead these people through a foreign land, but I was to cultivate their future gifts to our fine organization. This was the seamier side of my duties. The good news was that two of the participants, a retired couple from Maryland appeared to be doctors—that solved my First Aid problem right there, they would know what to do with all that stuff in the bag.

But my good humor about the presence of doctors on the trip was counterbalanced by a letter regarding a participant by the name of Eloise Rockbottom; it was to be understood that she suffered from a heart condition and diabetes both of which she did not treat with drugs. It was to be further understood that her religious views, that of a Christian Scientist, required us to do nothing if she were to fall ill during the trip. Nothing. Now some might find this quite simple to deal with—if the old girl gets sick leave her alone, nothing to it. But this tickled my Worry Bone in the worst way. I began to come up with various scenarios in which I were to do Nothing. What exactly did Nothing entail? It seemed to me that there were degrees of Nothing that needed to be clarified. Did Nothing mean just not opening the First Aid kit and administering whatever pills, creams, tourniquets, smelling salts, and what have you? Or was it more extreme than that? What if she fell to the ground while hiking and couldn’t get up? Were we to leave her there? If she went into diabetic shock, were we to ignore the signs and just forge on without her? My familiarity with Christian Science was basic and somewhat skewed by my reading of Mark Twain’s Christian Science when I was a teenager. Christian Scientists at least apply Faith in the case of illness. Would Nothing entail some sort of call for us to have Faith that Miss Rockbottom would recover? You see? This order to do Nothing in the case of Miss Rockbottom’s potential mortality on my trip was not something I could just shrug my shoulders to—and as it turned out, her well-being would haunt me throughout the trip.

Finally, it was recommended that I pack a Thanksgiving centerpiece in my bag. We would be in the Tikal Inn in Gautemala, under the shadows of the magnificent Mayan temples on Thanksgiving Day and for two days afterward. “To create a festive atmosphere and make your American guests feel like they have a little bit of home with them consider purchasing some paper Thanksgiving decorations to adorn the dinner table with on the day of Thanks. It will surprise and delight them!” I immediately had a vision of one of those Hallmark Turkeys . . . you know the ones made with orange tissue paper that unfurls like a child's pop-up book and the turkey wears a bright cartoon-like expression. I decided to skip the center piece representation of Colonialism. I wondered how the Mayan hotel employees would feel about depictions of Pilgrims and Indians. And besides. I had no space left in my suitcase!

So there I was in the Miami Airport, weighed down by my First Aid Kit, my Snack Bar in a Backpack, and my duffle bag with a few t-shirts, hiking boots, a camera and a bathing suit. I was freshly vaccinated against all tropical diseases and I was high on malaria pills. I held up my sign: IOC: BELIZE and GUATEMALA and they came, like little birds. They all came to me and suddenly my list of names was now a group of living beings. I eyed them all carefully. They were a fit enough looking bunch. And dressed for the voyage ahead. Able to hike up Mayan temple mounds, snorkel the waters of the extreme western Caribbean, and hopefully withstand the bus ride . . . I would find that it was the bus ride that would be the most taxing on all of us. There were two married couples and the rest were single senior women. This phenomena seemed to follow the norm, they were widows or just-never-marrieds who liked to watch birds. Simple enough. But then my straggler arrived. None other than Miss Eloise Rockbottom and the trouble began. She took one look at me, pinched her face and said, “Are you old enough to leave the country without supervision?” and I laughed, even though there wasn’t the slightest tone of humor to her comment. My worst fears regarding her health and readiness for the trip were already realized. Her face was beet red from crossing the Miami Airport. She huffed and puffed and groaned as she lowered herself into a chair at the gate.

I decided to look out the window at our airplane. We were about to board Taca Airlines' flight number 152 and our plane was festooned with a Macaw. My fears regarding Miss Rockbottom were momentarily soothed by the colorful bird that would fly me to Belize. The thought of a great parrot carrying me away was thrilling and I wished that all airplanes were painted like birds, for the magic alone.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Jesus Lizard, Part One

When I, a thoughtful and unblessed Presbyterian, examine the Koran, I know that beyond any question every Mohammedan is insane; not in all things, but in religious matters. When a thoughtful and unblessed Mohammedan examines the Westminster Catechism, he knows that beyond any question I am spiritually insane. I cannot prove to him that he is insane, because you never can prove anything to a lunatic--for that is a part of his insanity and the evidence of it. He cannot prove to me that I am insane, for my mind has the same defect that afflicts his. All Democrats are insane, but not one of them knows it; none but the Republicans and Mugwumps know it. All the Republicans are insane, but only the Democrats and Mugwumps can perceive it. The rule is perfect: in all matters of opinion our adversaries are insane. — Mark Twain, Christian Science, 1907

The letter read something like this, the original resides in my permanent record in the nuclear storm proof archives that all our permanent records are stored in, and therefore, I cannot gain access to it . . . unless I were to fill out a request in triplicate form and have it signed by various and sundry individuals of power from my past, so this dramatization will have to suffice:

Dear Chief–in–Charge–of–Trips:

I recently returned from Belize and Guatemala. I traveled there by way of your fine organization’s International Eco Trips program with a group of fifteen senior citizens. We were hosted by an in-country guide, an Englishman named Nigel and his bus driver, a Belizean fellow named London. We were also to be assisted by one of your American employees, a young woman, all of 29 I believe, named Miss Wolfy. It was my understanding that Miss Wolfy would attend to all of our needs. She was to carry our luggage, check us in to all hotels, solve various itinerary issues, provide First Aid services, field our complaints, answer all questions regarding your organization’s activities within the country, be knowledgeable of all plants and wildlife in our country of destination, and above all, I believe it was her duty to be concerned with our welfare at every moment of the day.


Miss Wolfy failed on all accounts. I don’t see how your fine organization could employ such an incompetent boob of a child. She was far too young for any of us to relate to. She seemed to show no concern for my needs throughout the trip. She stayed up until all hours carousing with local people—drinking and playing backgammon of all things. Her knowledge of plants was elementary at best. She was callous toward my physical ailments. She all but disappeared in the last two days of the trip.

And finally, while snorkeling at Blue Hole, she swam off and left me to drown.

I demand some sort of retribution, perhaps in the form of letting this young woman go. She is obviously not fit to work for your fine organization and will only cause you further embarrassment in the future.

Sincerely,

Miss Eloise Rockbottom
Boston, MA

Sixteen years ago I went to Belize and Guatemala as an employee of the great big International Conservation Organization that I have mentioned to you previously. I had been working for them for close to five years at that point. I had been a data manager for the fundraisers and then jumped over to the science side of things where I managed more data and made maps by way of Geographical Information Systems. I was self trained in all these endeavors. I was an English major turned techie by necessity. One of the perks of working for ICO was the chance to participate in their international trips they offered to members. It was an honor to be chosen and one had to go through quite a bit of rigamarole to get on the roster of trip leaders. You had to fill out piles of forms, get recommendations within and outside of the organization, and you had to show yourself capable of being charming with the membership. I was noted for being particularly adept in dealing with our members, most of whom were over 55.

Our fundraisers spotted my talent for getting along with the older set early on in my career with ICO. They were astonished to find that I could attend these utterly boring fundraising events and carry on long and interesting conversations with people who were three and four times my age. One member practically adopted me as her grandchild after one such event, a weekend in the mountains. There was a snafu with a nature preserve gate being left locked and I had to sit patiently as the sun set and darkness fell with this wonderful old woman, a botanist, while we waited for staff to go find a key in a cabin that was a three or four mile hike away. The old lady and I passed the time by jabbering away and ignoring the cold mountain air that was enveloping us. By the end of it, she was my new grandmother. She mailed me Christmas cards every year after that, its twenty years ago now—I received my last Christmas card from her two years ago, right before she passed away.

So you see, it was well known within our Chapter of ICO that I had a way with the old folks, especially the ones with money. Something to do with my being raised by old folks I suppose. And therefore I was seen as an ideal candidate to fly off to Central America with a whole gaggle of senior citizens and represent ICO with no trouble at all. But Eloise Rockbottom, an overweight diabetic Christian Scientist with a heart condition who was also a retired New England school teacher of the worst kind loaded the dice against me.

Stay tuned and meet Eloise and all my trip participants in the Miami Airport in my next exciting installment of The Jesus Lizard . . .

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Jack Kerouac says . . .

Work from pithy middle eye out, swimming in language sea

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Camera is Mightier Than the Pig

My father was a photographer. I mean, he was a real photographer—a photo journalist. He worked for Time Life. He worked for Vogue and Bazaar and Town & Country. He did things like the Yuban Coffee Can Lady...for years and years, Yuban coffee cans sported an amber photo of a soft blond woman deep in thought while sipping from a coffee cup. That was my father's photograph. His career reached its pinnacle when he became the head photographer for the Daily Racing Form—and if you think taking pictures of race horses is not such a big deal, think about photographing Secretariat taking the Triple Crown by winning the Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths back in 1973. Maybe you were there—if you were, I know you remember it, I know its something that you’ll never forget. Secretariat was a folk hero during a time that this country needed a hero. The Vietnam War, Nixon, and the aftermath of the social and political upheavals of the Sixties left the country hungry for something like a horse that reminded everyone of a Greek God.

But recording Secretariat's life was the cherry on top of my father’s career. I want to talk about something else he did with his camera that might have been more powerful than any photograph he ever shot . . .

A few years before this story takes place, my father apprenticed with the great photographer Mark Shaw and was fortunate enough to work on JFK's entourage—you know those pictures of Kennedy walking on the beach at Hyannis Port? My father was on that shoot and he assisted in developing those photographs. When I look at Shaw’s photographs, I see where my father’s eye for framing a photo was born, the softness and intensity all combine to make an image that leaves you breathless. In 1968, Dad was asked to work as one of Hubert Humphrey’s campaign photographers and this put my father smack in the middle of the political cauldron that those times were stewing in. Dad’s year with Humphrey would be defined by the Chicago convention.

If you go to my father’s house and stand in his living room, you will find a montage of photos pasted on a board, unframed and sitting on his mantle along with a couple of hurricane lamps, a silver steeplechasing trophy or two, and a collection of found things . . . hawk feathers, pine cones, beachcombing booty in the form of shells, sea glass, and sea beaten stones. The photos are stark in black and white and the anxiety pours from the images. One photo is of Humphrey in mid-campaign speech, his mouth is gaped and his brow is furrowed. Another photo is a shot of delegates inside the convention center, you can feel the noise of the crowd, the enthusiastic Democrats. Another shot shows Humphrey’s campaign workers huddled in a hallway, strategizing. And then there are three more shots my father took outside the convention center—these three are night shots; the first, a Chicago policeman holding a billy club across his rather large belly that is pushing at the buttons of his uniform, his cap pulled down tight over his brow, his eyes cannot be seen. The second is a crowd of college students, their faces lit by stage light as they watch the concert that was playing round the clock that week in the park across from the Convention Center. That concert featured the likes of Joan Baez and Peter, Paul, and Mary. The third photo might be the most evocative—a line of Chicago policeman in full riot gear, Mayor Daley’s army, their faces obscured by helmets, the street lights reflected in their clear visors. They are all in black uniforms, and they are like something out of a bad dream.

Those photos have sat on my father’s mantle for as long as I can remember, never mind that he has moved from house to house to house, those pictures have always been present. When I was little, the photos frightened me. But the fear turned to intrigue and finally I clutched them in my hands one night and asked Dad to tell me what the pictures were. I knew he had taken them. I just didn’t know who the people were or what the significance was.

He told me of arriving in Chicago and the streets filled with thousands of kids—college kids, hippies and yippies, activists, artists and singers . . .he told me of the music playing night and day as the peaceful protest went on. The kids were gathered in the park across from the convention center. Mayor Daley was adamant that protests would not be allowed and he loaded the streets with police to discourage large crowds. As my father tells it, the ongoing concert acted as a Trojan Horse—the kids were gathered to sit in the park and listen to music, how could that be construed as a protest? But the tensions grew and grew as the week wore on. The cops multiplied in numbers as did the protesters.

As Humphrey was declared the Democratic nominee on the final night, the celebratory mood turned to animosity and then boiled over. My father went outside to get a break from the insanity of the convention hall and headed over to the park. He could hear Peter, Paul and Mary singing, their voices were booming across the crowds of kids and the cops...Puff the magic dragon lives by the sea...and he was drawn deeper and deeper into the gathering storm. It must have been like participating in an opera. As my father joined the crowds of thousands listening and singing along, so did the Chicago police. They pushed into the park and began to forcefully break up the crowds. But instead of peacefully dispersing, violence broke out. A wildfire of fear and brutality thundered all around Dad. He and other journalists were smack in the middle of a huge story, and like any good journalist, my father began taking photographs. It was as though the riot were contained within a crystal ball and he was on the outside watching and shooting pictures of cops beating protesters—knocking young women and men to the ground, kicking them and beating them into submission with their clubs, handcuffing them and dragging them by their hair. When my father told me the story it was the first time I could liken anything to Dante’s inferno.

But the crystal ball effect wore off and the journalists were no longer observers, they were in the dangerous fray. My father found himself running down a dark street away from angry policemen who saw him taking photographs. He was with a handful of protestors who had managed to get out of the cyclone. He decided to break away from the small crowd and turned down an alley thinking that it would lead him back to the safety of the convention center. As he made his way up the alley he found a single policeman beating a girl, a girl who was all of twenty years old. Dad stopped and instinct told him to take pictures, this was important to record, and so he began shooting away. His adrenaline and motor driven camera were one, but the images that were coming through his lense became too horrible for my father to keep the camera between him and what was happening. He realized that cop was killing that girl and he had only one weapon—his camera. He ran up behind the cop, who was not wearing a riot helmet, and swung his camera with all his might to come crashing down on the cop’s skull. That Nikon camera with the zoom lens knocked the cop unconscious. And the cop’s hard head broke my father’s camera wide open, spilling a swirl of cellulose out onto the pavement and exposing what might have been Pulitzer Prize photos. Dad scooped the bleeding girl up and the two of them ran to Humphrey’s campaign headquarters which had become a makeshift hospital for the injured.

I asked Dad if he ever found out the girl’s name, if he stayed in touch with her? But he didn’t. He got her to a safe place and then lost her in the chaos of the night, the chaos of the times. He spent most of that night terrified that he had killed the policeman, but no reports surfaced of a dead cop in an alley near the convention center. My Dad left Chicago with only a few rolls of film, pictures that he had taken in the nights leading up to the riots, the best of which sit on his mantle, they are evidence of the building storm. He thinks often of the roll of film he shot the night of the riots—what a contact sheet it would have made! Pictures of Peter, Paul and Mary, panicking crowds, riot police inciting a riot, the brutality of Mayor Daley’s thugs. The roll was lost forever on that night in a lonely alley, but not the girl.

Monday, March 22, 2010

What Does I.M. Pei Have To Do With Postage Machines?

I’m going to jump ahead in my Bermuda saga for two reasons: nobody says I have to do everything in order and a brief conversation with a long lost friend yesterday reminded me of the year I returned to Connecticut . . .

We had been Involuntarily Repatriated, my husband and I, and like a space capsule at the mercy of the spinning of the earth, the atmosphere and gravity we landed haphazardly in my old home state of Connecticut. I know, I know, you want to know what on earth led us to be Involuntarily Repatriated, but I’m jumping ahead, so you're going to have to eat another cookie and just be satisfied with the aftermath of being I.R.’d.

I can tell you how it feels to be I.R.’d—its a shabby gut hollowing—the Involuntary part means that you didn’t ask to be sent home, that someone else decided it was time for you to go home. And the red stamp on your passport stating that you were I.R.’d is like a thing that your meanest teachers in school told you about, that Permanent Record thing, that file that is kept on you in a basement somewhere, Permanently holding all the Good things you did, and all the Bad things too. Involuntary implies that you never saw it coming. We didn’t and so it leaves you walking through the airport with all your stuff and your dog in a daze, with this thought in your head, Now What?

In our case we followed the job trail to Connecticut. Py found a job with a consulting company that would farm his skills out to various financial trading floors in New York. And I thought, sure, why not, let’s move to the state I grew up in. It will be fun! We’ll ride the train to the City, go to museums, go to the beach, revel in the fall weather — its my old home town, it will feel like home in no time. But there was something I didn’t think of. I wasn’t a kid anymore and Connecticut wasn’t the place I had grown up in anymore. Can you go home again? Like another Wolfe, this Woolfe could not.

We landed like refugees in a one room guest quarters over the garage of my mother’s best friend Bessie. It was no bigger than a space capsule, but it accommodated me, Py, Jack, and two cats as comfortably as a flop house in Harlem. Bess was more than generous to let us parachute into her lovely home. We had full kitchen and laundry privileges in the main house and she even loaned us her behemoth Suburban until we found wheels of our own. We were literally starting over.

In the first week we found a car and a house, not a great house, but a house in New Canaan of all places. Py began working and I hit the pavement looking for a job. Within two weeks, I had my first interview. I had sent my resume to a small software company looking for a database manager. Despite my odd resume—the most recent job on it being a two year Volunteer position on the island of Bermuda developing a database of captured Turtle information—they called me. Maybe they just wanted to see how weird I was. I was once again without appropriate clothes. I had just gotten the hang of dressing in Bermuda, and now, here I was in Connecticut, fall weather all around me looking like a beach bum. But now I was in the land of plenty . . . plenty of Interview Suits. So easily fixed. Yet, when I looked at myself in the mirror, there was something not quite right. Something looked all wrong. Ah, yes, my hair was long and bleached from the Bermuda sun and while I never felt particularly brown in Bermuda, I looked like the Girl From San Tropez in a business suit and heels. It was as though James Bond brought Honey Ryder back from the islands to London and her oyster knife was poking out from under her Chanel Suit. You can take the girl away from the island, but you can’t take the island away from the girl . . . or something like that.

I decided that I was being far too self-conscious and that my prospective employers wouldn’t even notice my tropical appearance. But it probably didn’t help matters that I was still communicating like a Bermudian. Certain inflections had snuck their way into my every day speak and Thank You and Please were apt to just come out of my mouth at any random moment. Sure, you’re asking, what’s so wrong with being polite? I’ll tell you that politeness is taken to a whole other level in Bermuda, a level that Americans cannot fathom. There is no such thing as a silent transaction in Bermuda. You go into the drugstore to buy a pack of gum and it goes like this: you pick out your gum and put it on the counter for the lady at the register to ring up for you. She rings up the gum and asks, “How are you today?” and you answer this way, and no other way, or else, “Fine Thank You, And How are you today?” And she answers, “Fine Thank You. That will be one dollar Please, Thank You.” and you hand her the dollar and you thank her for taking the dollar, “Thank you.” and then she thanks you for giving her the dollar and she gives you the gum and you thank her AGAIN, and then she says, “Have a Bermudaful Day.” And You thank her and tell her to have the same and she Thanks you again as you go out the door and you feel guilty that she got the last thank you in. You see? Its nuts.

Py and I found out very quickly that we needed to lose our Thank You habit. We were practically laughed out of a diner in Greenwich Village when we had thanked the waiter far too many times. Every time he brought us something or a refilled our water glasses we both said, Thank You and when he had heard Thank You one too many times, he began to curtsy and say snidely, “You’re Welcome.” and Py and I finally realized what was happening. All the waiters behind the counter were gawking at us as though we had just flown in from some strange Nordic country. We paid our bill silently and ran out with our tails between our legs. As we walked the city streets we quietly told ourselves to stop being so courteous, or we were going to get mugged.

So there I was, bronzed, blond, overly courteous, tending to include Bermudian slang in my otherwise normal sentences, completely overwhelmed by the shock of being in civilization again—the grocery store alone was enough to put me in a full on anxiety attack—and I had to stuff myself into a little navy blue suit, city shoes, and carry my well-worn brief case into some office and prove to them I could manage their database better than the pale non-turtler sitting in the waiting room next to me.

My notion that my appearance would go unnoticed was just that, a notion. I was shown into the Director’s office by a secretary who eyed me not unlike the girls I went to high school with . . .that upwards and downwards glance that left you feeling as though you had been touched inappropriately. A realization came over me as I was sitting in the reception area and it was really bothering me as the secretary told me to have a seat, the Director would be along shortly—I wasn’t wearing any hose. Every woman in that office was wearing panty hose, but not me. Women in Bermuda don’t wear hose. From the waitresses, to the bank ladies, to the women of Parliament, to the Premier herself -- none of them. They all go bare legged under their pretty suits and dresses, its the tropics, there is no reason to wear Nylons! It was a fashion habit I gladly adopted. So there I sat in my lovely crisp new suit and heels and no stockings to speak of . . . just my nut brown shins between me and the Director’s desk.

He came in the door, slightly out of breath, holding my resume in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. He was neither pleasant or brusk, he began the whole affair of interviewing me as seriously as any Director might do. But no less than five minutes into the process things began to break down. “I see here that your database management work in the past two years was Voluntary, not paid.” There was that word again, Voluntary, Involuntary, haunting me. As he said this he craned his neck over the expanse of his desk that separated the two of us, and let his glasses fall down the bridge of his nose. He was looking at my legs, no doubt about it. I answered him, “Yes, I was an unpaid volunteer. I was not allowed to work in Bermuda under the agreement of my husband’s work permit.” I decided to stop there, why talk too much, and besides he wasn’t listening to me, he was looking at my legs.

He gazed up at my face again and paused, looked at my resume again, and then back at me, “How do I know that you really did all this work? You don’t look like you’ve been working. You look as though you've spent quite a bit of time on the beach.” Well, this was slightly akin to a punch in the stomach, I had never been faced with a line of questioning quite this accusatory in an interview before. The walls began to close in. I thought for a moment about just getting up and leaving. I didn’t want to work for this man, no harm in just leaving right now. But something chained me to my chair, some sticky sort of obligation kept me seated, and I answered him, “I believe my references are attached to my resume, they can speak of my work accomplished on the island, paid or unpaid, I was diligent in my duties. I built a research database for the Turtle Project from the ground up, from nothing. I wrote a user’s manual and populated the database with nine years of data that had been sitting in a file cabinet. ” I wanted to add something about going to the beach, but I bit my lip.

“But you’ve never actually worked in a business that had to make money before?” This question completely baffled me.

“Excuse me?”

“Your entire resume seems to be work for non-profit organizations -- libraries and conservation . . . environmentalists!” He uttered environmentalist as though it were a filthy word.

“Sir, I assure you, everyone I have worked for had to make money somehow. The research database was not only for scientific purposes but for the procuring of grants.” I realized he was insinuating that non-profits were somehow unserious because they were not meant to be cash cows like his company, which existed solely to create software that enabled corporations to find loopholes in the tax system.

“Do you think you will be able to work a full time job? I mean, 8 to 5, Monday through Friday?” It was here that I began to lose it. I had been back in the U.S. exactly two weeks. I had no money, no job, was experiencing the throes of culture shock, was realizing that Connecticut was no longer the place of my childhood, and this guy was clearly an Asshole, and I don’t use that word lightly. My bottom lip began to tremble, and I thought, oh boy, I am going to cry, please, don’t cry, please please please don’t cry in front of this guy! Don’t give him the pleasure of making you cry. He could see I was about to cry and with that, he stood up and excused himself. He just left and when he shut the door I burst into tears. I fell apart completely and then I desperately looked around that office with the golfing photos on the wall for a box of Kleenex. Nope, none to be had. And then the door opened. It was his secretary. She closed the door and magically handed me a tissue. I looked up at her as she leaned back on Director A-hole’s desk. “Are you okay?” She asked in a surprisingly sympathetic tone.

“Do I look okay? What’s his problem anyway?”

“Oh, he’s just had a bad morning. He told me to tell you he likes you and would like you to come back for a second interview tomorrow. Can you be here at 8:30?”

“Are you serious?”

“Yes, completely. Don’t let him get under your skin. He’s really a good boss.” I began to imagine the good cop/bad cop relationship these two had.

“I think I’ll pass. Thank you. But no.” I stood up and asked her if it was okay for me to leave now, for some odd reason. As though I was being held against my will. She told me how to extricate myself from the building and said she was sorry I wouldn’t be returning for another interview. I thanked her, in a good Bermudian way, and escaped.

The following week a Temp Agency took me on, stockings or no stockings. They sent me to work as an assistant to a VP in Charge of Selling Things at Pitney Bowes in Stamford. They warned me that she was difficult and demanding and that previous temps they had sent to her had either disappeared under mysterious circumstances or been eaten by large cats. I took the warning seriously and I could see the plea in the Temp Agency woman’s eyes; I was their last hope of providing employees to the big company and they needed me to last a while. So go bend over, okay girl?

I fought traffic all the way up I-95 and the tremble was in my lower lip again. I fought back the tears as I parked in the massive parking garage. Ms. Tempeater met me in the enormous glassed-in lobby. The building felt more like an international airport than the corporate headquarters of a company that made its fortune making postage machines. I looked all around as she shook my hand, “Its fabulous, isn’t it? I.M. Pei was the architect.” Well, then no wonder. She turned on her high heels and asked me to follow her. With the preciseness of a stewardess pointing to the emergency exits she showed me where the corporate bathrooms were, where the corporate break room was, where the corporate cafeteria was. They had their own pharmacy, their own convenience store, their own post office (of course), and their own medical center. All this was so that one never had to leave work to do the piddley things of life, Pitney Bowes owned you and your days. But most interesting of all was the art on the walls. As we went down this hall and that hall, I mean narrow halls with anonymous doors leading to the desks of anonymous people, she pointed to various paintings and drawings framed and hung with care, some were large and some were small enough to fit in a brief case, “And that is a Bracque and that is a Jasper Johns, and that drawing is the only Picasso, although I hear there is another one on the way . . . ” The building was filled with a modern art collection worth a small fortune. I was breathless.

And then I had to work. She showed me my desk and gave me a list of things to start on right away. Filing, lots of filing. Travel arrangements—she had her own travel agent and a direct line to this person, so I needed to call this person and book tickets to London, Tokyo, Paris, Rome. All of these cities needed postage machines and this was the woman who was going to sell them what they needed dammit. I was to go to the cafeteria to get her lunch, sometimes she had lunch meetings and I had to get everyone’s lunch. There was coffee to be made and did I mention filing? I had to file piles of paper in these vast valleys of filing cabinets that sat in a lonely corridor at the end of the hallway we worked on. I was filing on my second day when a voice came from around the corner, “So you’re Ms. Tempeater’s new girl.” A face peeked round the wall of cabinets, it was the face of a man/boy -- he was olive skinned and he wore a deep blue shirt and a deeper blue tie. He was looking at my legs . . . still no stockings, I hadn’t learned yet. “Yes, I’m the new victim I guess.”

“Has she started calling you at home yet?”

“Well, actually, yes, she called me last night to ask me to do some last minute things for her before she left for Paris.”

“Ah, well, she’ll be calling you every night pretty soon.”

“How come you know so much about her habits?” With my question, he moved closer to me. He smiled at me. I didn’t like the look in his eye.

“I’ve known all the Temp Girls.” And I didn’t doubt it. I put the large pile of filing down on the floor between us. He continued to move closer, “Hey, she’s gone to Paris right?”

“Um, yeah, she’s gone til Friday.”

“Why don’t you come have lunch with me?”

“Oh, that’s sooo nice of you really. But I have sooooo much to do. I thought I would take advantage of Tempeater being gone to get alllll this filing done.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, really.” I opened a large file drawer with one long sweep and it hung there between me and The Temp Girl Chaser. He raised his coffee cup in defeat and went back to his cubicle.

I quit two weeks later. Tempeater had begun calling me at home on nights and then weekends. She lived in New Canaan and when she found that I only lived a few blocks from her she figured she could ask me to run errands for her. I figured I needed to quit. And so I did. I left a voice mail for her while she was in Tokyo, “Ms. Tempeater, I am terribly sorry to leave this position so abruptly and by way of your voicemail, but something tells me that its time for me to go back into the non-profit world.”

And I did. My only regret was that I didn’t put that little Jasper Johns in my briefcase one night on my way out.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Before I Die . . .

I will go to Harry’s Bar on Venice’s Calle Vallaresso, near the Piazza San Marco and order a glass of champagne and Croque Monsieur . . .

This is our version of the traditional French toasted cheese sandwich. At Harry’s Bar we fry the sandwiches in olive oil.

1/2 pound Swiss cheese at room temperature

1 large egg yolk

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

1/4 teaspoon dry mustard or 1 teaspoon prepared Dijon mustard

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

salt

cream , if needed, to thin cheese mixture

12 thin slices of homemade-style unsweetened white bread, crusts removed

1/4 pound smoke boiled ham, sliced

olive oil for frying

Put the cheese, egg yolk, Worcestershire sauce, mustard, and cayenne in a food processor fitted with the steel blade and process until smooth. Taste and season with salt. If the mixture is too thick to spread easily, thin it with a little cream.

Spread the cheese mixture over one side of all the bread slices. Arrange the ham over the cheese on half the pieces of bread and invert the remaining bread over the ham. Press the sandwiches together firmly.

Film the bottom of a heavy skillet with oil and heat it over medium-high heat until it is very hot. Add as many sandwiches as will fit in the pan and fry, turning once, until they are golden brown and crisp. Repeat with the remaining sandwiches, adding more oil to the pan as necessary. Cut the sandwiches in half and serve hot, wrapped in a paper napkin.

WINE NOTES
Italian: Soave—Anselmi
American—Chardonnay—Pindar

From The Harry’s Bar Cookbook by Arrigo Cipriani

Despite Arrigo’s (son of Giuseppe Cipriani, founder of the original Harry’s Bar in Venice) wine suggestion, I will opt for a glass of champagne, because it will be a bright sunny afternoon in Venice, and when will I ever have the chance to eat Croque Monsieur and drink champagne in Venice again? And I may follow it with a bowl of Zuppa di Pesce and another glass of champagne so that I may linger just a bit longer and perhaps catch sight of Hemingway’s ghost.

If you do not own Cipriani’s cookbook/memoir then I recommend you find a copy of it, put it in your kitchen and then cook with it by your side. Page 186 holds my favorite recipe—Pollo Alla Cacciatora. Be sure to make polenta to go with it.

And page 7 holds my favorite paragraph: My father often wore a yellow tie, his trademark and an expression of his optimism. For me, too, ties have become a trademark. They’re not decorative; they have nothing to do with your suit. Ties express your feelings. People in mourning wear black ties. For many years I wore only dark blue and dark red ties, but as I get older I like beautiful bright colors and patterns. A tie has to conquer you, and then you want to wear it all the time. I always wear my ties in a special knot, at an angle and off to one side, because I hate symmetry.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Bermudiana



The time of the Bermudiana Hotel came to an end. They tore her down and brought her truckload by truckload by truckload to the quarry. They put her in the Rock Crusher and out she came—a seemingly amorphous pile of pink limestone. As the months went by, the Bermudiana was reincarnated as a mountain in our quarry—she no longer had rooms or windows or long elegant hallways; her dining rooms, as well as the grand mahogany front desk where the bell hops waited for the tourists to come, were all mixed up, thrown together, and now returned to the place they had come from.

Our quarry was a mined out shell of its former self. It no longer provided limestone to the island for building such grand places as the Bermudiana or more humble establishments such as the Bermuda Post Office. The quarry had long been scraped clean of its treasure and so it served other purposes; it held a garage and junked car yard, dry docked boats, a small unkempt exercise track for our neighborhood trotting ponies. Instead of birthing fresh limestone for building purposes on the island, the quarry had become something of a recycling center for used limestone. Any time a house or small building was demolished, they would load up the stone walls and the broken roof that once served as a rain catchment and brought it to our quarry to be offered to the Rock Crusher. The Rock Crusher was the monster of my days on my island in the sea. He started up at sunrise, like an old DeSoto . . . sputtering and backfiring and then? Then he would find his gargantuan rhythm and drone on all day, until quittin’ time, until the time of the Elephant Beer. The little dump trucks, yes, even the dump trucks in Bermuda were minis, whirred up Lolly’s Well Road, and made a stop at the dispatcher’s window, where they gave a wink to my tawny faced neighbor and friend Donna, who made a joke or two back, and then she signed their ticket. Into the gates of the monster’s lair those trucks dove to unload the remains of this or that and the Rock Crusher ate and ate and ate and ate. Then he rubbled his big rusty belly and out came dust, enough dust to build another Bermuda cottage. . .one cottage begat another cottage and so on and so on.

The Bermudiana Hotel died twice actually—she was built in the roaring twenties and burned to the ground in the mid-fifties. Following the fire, a somewhat grander woman was built on the harbor in Hamilton to continue welcoming guests and then the economics of the island cast her out for a younger girl, a girl who came in the form of the reinsurance industry. . .

Somewhere a faded and delicate newspaper clipping sits in a dresser drawer next to a pink satin jewelry box. The clipping is from the now long-gone Journal American, a once prominent newspaper of New York City, where all the social news mixed properly with Manhattan government scandals. The headline of the clipping announces the marriage of the daughter of the Hottentots of Westchester to the son of the Eversoriches of Trenton. The bride was attended by no less than twelve bridesmaids, her dress was tailored in the House of Dior, her pearls were her great-granmother's and her ring was smithed by Harry Winston himself. The happy couple will set sail for a fourteen day cruise to Bermuda where they will stay in The Bermudiana Hotel . . . when the new Mr. and Mrs. Eversoriches arrived by boat in the harbor of Hamilton they were slightly overwrought by the stormy seas that heaved their ship to and fro and fro and to. Instead of being queazy with their new marital bliss, they were green with a nausea that only Poseidon himself could bestow upon them. But they are a pithy couple and they plant their feet on the unmoving dock and turn their backs on the sailing ship that betrayed them. And for heaven’s sake, her father had once sailed the Newport to Bermuda Yacht Race, she knew what she was getting herself into. The Bermuda sun pours over them, and lights them from within. Their parents came to Bermuda for their honeymoon and even their parents before that. This was no time for carping—it was cocktail hour dammit. The Eversoriches spend the next ten days planning the rest of their lives between the walls of the Bermudiana. They play tennis, they ride rattly motor scooters to secluded beaches where they become dark and freckled and blonder and blonder. She wears pedal pushers and a broad brimmed hat that she found in a store on Front Street—dried palm fronds dyed green and pink are woven into the crown and spell out BERMUDA. He wears madras shorts and his thick brown hair is parted somewhat extremely, its shorn close over his ears and neck, but he has a shock of bangs that swoops across his tan forehead. They are lovely together, so close in height and bone structure that they might be brother and sister, but they are not. They return from the beach and shower, separately of course, and dress for nightly cocktails and dinner. And while the cocktails seem to never stop coming, the Eversoriches seem to never become drunk. They are immune to any sort of foible—at least for now they are. They record their doings on their Brownie camera and send brightly colored postcards home to family and everyone in the wedding party. She notes that thank you notes for the so many wedding gifts will be completed upon their homecoming. She privately thinks to herself that she must make the most of this first year, as there will be a baby soon; a baby girl she hopes, who will grow tall and lithe and one day have her own honeymoon in Bermuda.

The Rock Crusher received its greatest sacrifice when the Bermudiana came to the quarry. Never had the men in the trucks brought him such a grand meal! They imploded the old hotel sometime in the spring and the trucks ferried her infinite remains from Hamilton to Smith’s Parish throughout the summer. As the months wore on, as the Rock Crusher ate and ate and ate and chewed and chewed and chewed, the pink mountain in our quarry grew. It occurred to me that the Rock Crusher was going to finally choke on the thing it most desired; and his death from too many offerings would reward us with peace and quiet for a change. But he was possessed with gustatorial pleasure. I hoped and hoped for a broken belt, a leaking crank case, a faulty spark plug, an overheating of some sort, but that devil, that Godzilla in the hole, just lived and lived for more of the pink woman’s limestone flesh.

Have you ever seen a reincarnation? I can honestly say I have seen one, perhaps two simultaneously. As the Bermudiana was returned to her birthplace, the hole from which she was mined, the quarry transformed into the mound of stone it once was. With each truck load, with each passing day, the pink mountain grew higher and higher. In the beginning, the Rock Crusher simply spit the Bermudiana’s remains to the ground, but this became wildly impractical and so two trucks were assigned to stand by and receive the Rock Crusher’s regurgitations, one truck would fill up, while another was dumping its just–filled trunk upon the mound. An earth mover began to shape the base of the mountain, and then a switch back road was carved. The road ascended the mountain and so it all began to look a bit like a little boy’s dump truck game: the Rock Crusher crushed, the dump trucks careened up the mountain, dumped their load, and then they rolled back down again, all while dancing with the earth mover.

When evening would come with the sleep of the monster, we, the neighbors of the quarry would gather up our dogs and a perhaps a cold beer or two in hand and we would hike into the quarry to climb the mountain. Donna brought her pit bulls Sasha and Rocky, Py and I brought Jack, and Malcolm always accompanied the delicate and feminine pond dog Riddles. Every night we got a little higher. The dogs would chase tennis balls up and down the mountain road and while Malcolm told dirty jokes, we would inspect our new hill like geologists and anthropologists. From my porch at Casa Verde the Bermudiana mountain seemed soft and huge and made of only one element—the sun bounced off her as though she were composed of pink quartz. Little rays zinged through the cedars and travelled across Lolly’s Well Road and the little farm field filled with carrot tops to come into my house with the Anole lizards, who squeezed through gaps in the windows and who had their own magical ways with changing light and color.

But when we visited the mountain in the evenings, we found something else entirely—not like something your would find in a sandbox or a box of pancake mix or in a lady’s compact filled with pink powder. Oh no, the mountain was much richer than that. The Bermudiana was all there, all of her . . . her wallpaper, her bathroom mirrors, her ceramic tiles, her formica counters, her windows; the windows that offered views of Hamilton’s Harbor late into the nights when the little lights on the ships and the sailboats twinkled. All of it was there, shredded and torn and mixed into something not unlike those ridiculous cement decoupage bricks I would make when I was a child in Beach School . . . we would spend all morning running up and down Compo Beach collecting things...gull feathers, muscle shells, sea weed, treacherous horseshoe crab tails, hermit crabs, sea glass, and pebbles and when we had an armful of treasure, our camp counselor would mix up a bucket full of Quick Crete while we carefully arranged our found beach objects in a high-sided baking pan, and then the wet mortar would be poured in and left to dry while we learned how to swim, or climbed on the cannons, or endlessly swung on the swings near the parking lot. At the end of the day, Counselor would present you with a brick of white concrete filled with your beach artifacts. I remember holding the brick in my tiny sunburned hands and declaring it was far too heavy to hold.

And so the Bermudiana had been reduced to a child’s sculpture really, and we would throw tennis ball after tennis ball for the dogs and drink our beers and kick the sides of the mountain hoping for a new view of paisley wallpaper or bronze-veined mirror. Sometimes the Rock Crusher left more intact than it was supposed to and we would find whole bath tiles of varying shades of pink and turquoise and indigo. The mountain was forever giving away secrets of the loveliest corners of the old hotel that once was.

Our nightly climbs on the mountain were like the slowest elevator ride in the world. Each night we ascended another floor—we not only observed the daily crushing results, but we came within arms' reach of the once out-of-reach walls of the quarry. We observed the darkened limestone that had been mined and left behind some forty years before. Now the quarry walls were covered with lichens and vines that flowered. There were birds' nests and lizards and mysteriously every so often we would see an egg laid by a feral chicken and we wondered how she had gotten herself to such a precarious spot. We could smell jasmine on those walls. And the houses that sat a top the quarry walls got closer and closer. Eventually we could walk level with the houses that used to stare down at us with their superiority—they had a view, we were in the hole!. But now the view was ours! We could stand on top of the reincarnated queen of hotels and look to our west and there, there was Harrington Sound! Some evenings we could spot a little sailboat sailing on the completely contained Sound; its sails fluttering and glistening white, white as the galleons of clouds that were following the sun down the North Shore line. We eventually could see all the way to the Causeway across Castle Harbor, near the airport. As the night sky came on duty, we could watch airplanes take off and glide up, up and away, on their way home without us .

Thursday, March 11, 2010

John Cheever says . . .

from The Letters of John Cheever; edited by Benjamin Cheever—have to say this hits me on so many levels, one being that I could have met my literary hero while shoplifting 45s in Barkers back in the 70s! Oh and note, misspellings and typos of the original letter are lovingly preserved!


Cedar Lane

Ossining,

December 8th 1976

Dearest Natalie,

All I truly have to say is love; but I will characteristically go into something lighter and something legitimate, it seems, because the last time we met, you and Rachel and I spent some of the afternoon at Barkers. (I still prefer Barkers to Caldor, because Caldor, it seems to me, aims at a higher class with the loss of dimension.) Anyhow, I went to Barkers yesterday to buy skates. My skates were lost in the renovation of the kitchen. Mr. Van Tassel, the manager here, has been demoted to Carmel and young Mr. Loeb has taken over. Yesterday the carrousel, the spaceship and the horse on the sidewalk were freshly painted. When I pushed open the IN and NO SMOKING door (only the exits fly open) and saw the clean and gleaming floors and heard the conservative but deep-beat rock music I wanted to seize on the nearest mannequin—she was wearing a pleated nightgown printed with an arial view of the Grand Canyon—and waltz her through the Smoke Shop, passed the bicycle racks to the coupon sale of hockey skates. Much of this excitement is, for a man of my age, nostalgia. The soapy, oriental perfumes in the air remind me of Woolworths in Quincy. There is the Present of course (spark plugs and toilet seats) but what truly thrills me in Barkers is the sense of being in the well_lived interior of an Unidentified Flying Object. This is science fiction made flesh; this is truly a step into the future. Oh how I love it.

There are disappointments, of course, the coupon hockey skates, for example. The skate shoes were made of black plastic, had the high finish of dancing pumps and were embossed with radiator paint. The sizes were all mixed up and I had to sit on the floor and take off my shoes to try and find a pair that fit. I didn't, but while I trying the music changed to a Thelonious Monk variation on In A Little Spanish Town and at that moment a single dollar bill drifted slowly towards me over the polished floor. I pocketed this, put on my shoes, shoplifted a love amulet and chose a pair of fur-line gloves. Then I took my place in my favorite check-out counter—#8—where the steadfast yellow light was burning.

Oh, ho,oh ho. Compared to check-out #8 the Pass at Thermaopylae—the Kyber Pass in the 19th Century—were asshole. #8 os The Real Thing. the senses of life as a passage. The woman in front of me had brassy hair and four, snug pairs of underpants, printed with roses, panisises, lily of the valley, and jonquils. This was a pushover, but I let it pass. 11 AM. In front of her was a man with a dirty paper-back, four flash-light batteries, and some dog eared coupons. Expired coupons, as you know, slow things up. In front of him was an old Chinese wearing a plush mink coat and pushing a wagon that held twelve curtain rods, a plastic representation of The Holy Family, four cartons of light bulbs and a pair of rubber gloves. We all pay with Carte Blanche which means summoning the assistant managress. She has ash-blonde hair, wears a gray lace dress and an enormous jewel like the order of St. Stanislaus. She has a strong, unfresh smell like old candy and counts on her fingers. So I made the passage, the doors flew open for me, my stolen amulet and my paid-for gloves and I stpped out into the world, a new man. I truly love you and Christopher and Rachel but I really want to get you back into Barkers.

Love,

John

Russian Wives

While checking my email today, I found an email, from my address incidentally—how clever of me to include me—with the enticing subject Russian Wives are the Best! apparently.

I had to open it, because I wanted to know why a Russian Wife would be suitable for me and here's what I said to me in my mail: you are my good, my handsome—i am waiting.

I chose not to go any further, this poetry was prize enough.

but I was tempted to respond: i am your good, your handsome—wait for me . . .

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

A Southern Writer and a Town Called Port Chester

A few weeks ago, my agent, yes, oh dear, I admit I have an agent . . . she took me in like a stray dog last summer and tolerates my vices and may sell my book in the near future, angel that she is. Well, ANYway, a few weeks ago, she says to me over the little table that we meet and discuss my messy little manuscript and all its foibles over, she says, oh, would you like to come to this luncheon in Big Town with me in a couple of weeks? Its a fundraiser for a local literacy program and there will be a few authors there to read. And she hands me this folded brochure, and I read the list of authors, and there, at the bottom of the list is my old boyfriend G., so I say to her, “oh, my old boyfriend G. is reading.” and her eyes go kinda wide and she leans in over the table we have been exchanging edits over for six or so months now and she says, “You’re old boyfriend?” and I repeat, “My old boyfriend.” She leans back and inspects me as though I just stepped off an airplane full of refugees from another planet. I see her confusion, her near distress that might turn to a digestive disorder, and so I decide to break the silence, “Yeah, he was my boyfriend for some months, maybe six months, some 25 years ago . . . I was practically a child, just twenty years old and he was a graduate student, working on his dangerous flamboyant persona, and he was perhaps twenty-seven or twenty-eight.” She eased up a bit. Something about the idea that I was just a child when I was involved with this Rasputin of the Southern Literary community comforted her. Surely, if I was that young then I simply didn’t know any better. And she was right . . . if that’s what I read correctly in her gaze.

I took the opportunity to accept her invitation to the luncheon. It was a good cause, to spend a few hard earned dollars on a catered plate of over-cooked chicken to support our county’s literacy program and to see someone who had such a profound footprint on my soul. I hadn’t seen G. for over twenty years, although I hadn’t lost track of him. I heard tell of him and his published works and while I was curious, I only picked up the books in the bookstores just to carefully put them back on the shelf, while uttering some koan to myself . . . a tangle of words to cloak myself in a force field of goodness and safety.

G. doesn’t know it, but he was the reason I stopped writing twenty or so years ago. It wasn’t something he set out to do—to intentionally kill a girl’s desire to write, but he did it all the same. And I used to hate him for it. But now I want to thank him for it.

I was a wunderkind when G. plucked me out of a little crowd in the green hallway of the English department. I say green because the tiles on the floors of the department hallway were speckled green and they were big squares. I used to sit on that floor between classes and put my elbow to one corner of a tile and barely reach my boney hand to the other diagonal corner. Light poured in from the front of the building and zoomed down that hallway to the other end which was closed in by a loud locking metal door, that when opened led to the art building where sculptures of scrap metal stood around moping and rusty. Randall Jarrell had walked that hallway long before I was a student there and I would read his poetry silently to myself in that dusty hallway just to feel his ghost. But I was just a little stupid blond thing, who could turn a quick story, like a trick in a back alley. Cheap stories really, except for one, there was one that wasn’t cheap or a trick. But the rest of the stories were like shell games, played by a street urchin and like a grifter, I took everyone in that department in with my game . . . including myself.

G. was a graduate student. And while he was a grifter himself, developing the classic alcoholic artist persona, he had the goods—I want to be clear about that, he really could write, and so let that be his saving grace. But he was searching for a girl—I think he was always searching for an interesting girl to spend some time with. And he got wind of me, in that green hallway and I guess he thought that we would be some sort of stunning literary pairing, like Stieglitz and O’Keefe or Bogart and Bacall, and before I knew what hit me, I was in a bar down on the college row with him, having a beer and falling for his appeals to my more vulnerable and perhaps vain side. His reasoning that I was the undergraduate wunderkind and that he was the bad boy Thomas-Pynchon-born-again didn’t seem half baked. I had kept quite to myself as a writer up until the moment of meeting him . . . I hibernated in my apartment every afternoon to write furiously until the sunset and then I would have a story, scribbled in pen on lined paper in a red spiral notebook, because it was always a red spiral notebook that I wrote in back then, to type up that night and throw into the hands of a certain professor in the English department the next day. This professor was my mentor, my main man—he declared me the best undergraduate writer to hit that green hallway in a 100 years, perhaps the best undergraduate ever. Was this bullshit? Maybe . . . I don’t know. He said I would never write a novel. That short stories were my trade and to stick to them. So I did, I religiously wrote two or three for him every week. And they all were born of a first line. I wrote first lines all day long and recorded them in my red notebook and some of those first lines lived to tell a tale, like an embryo that becomes a child, while others just sat frozen in a petri dish, just goo, going nowhere.

So my extended tryst with G. began and honestly, it was the strangest, numbest romance I ever had. It was perhaps the only love affair I had with someone who was truly ambitious and saw me as some accoutrement to his career. I was the trophy girl to an aspiring Southern writer. And the more time I spent with him; going from bar to bar and pool room to pool room, the more I lost myself. I was no longer a writer in my own right, I was reduced to a pretty girl who knew what a writer needed. It became apparent that there was room for only one writer in the room and that was him. My ability was quaint, interesting, and novel, but his ability was full of depth and importance. His ability would endure, mine would go out like a falling star on a night so cold and cloudy, that not a soul was outside to see the momentary flare.

I was to be published for the first time that year, in a small review; my one story that wasn’t a cheap trick, and it lay in the review only a few pages from one of his stories. He was on the staff of the review and despite the fact that it was one of the more important professors in the department that read my story in class who said, this is it girl, this is the one you need to publish, somehow it got twisted that there was a fix put in for me and that was how the story got published -- it wasn’t that it was a good story, it was who I knew, who I was, perhaps, sleeping with.

The fall dragged on. I was failing most of my classes and out drinking every night with G. I was sitting in on large gatherings of graduate students, writers-of-great-importance-to-be, and they all leaned in to their beers and expounded upon their projects and then they would look at little me, a decade younger than all of them and I thought, I should be at home writing! But there I was, with G., and I was producing nothing, but I was part of the scene, the big artistic scene.

Then it happened. The day of reckoning. I was hanging out one sunny afternoon with G. and for some damn reason he asks me how long I had been on the Pill. I said, I don’t know, since I was seventeen, I thought. He was shocked, “How come you went on the pill at such a young age?” Cause I didn’t have my period G., cause I was real skinny and real athletic and my grandmother was all worried about me, so she took me to the doctor and he said, she’s too thin, she’s too muscular, and she’s got polycystic ovaries...put the kid on the Pill and that’ll make a girl out of her and so they put me on the Pill and I became a girl I suppose. Well, G. stood up and cracked open another beer and says to me, “I can’t believe this, you are the second woman in a year to have polycystic ovaries. That means you can’t have kids.” and me, being all of twenty years old looks up at him and asks why the hell should he care? He goes all silent on me and I realize, oh shit, this guy has bigger plans for me. And he tells me maybe I oughtta go home now. And I get up and say, okay, sure, and I leave his apartment and go out into the brilliant fall evening and walk the few blocks back to my apartment, with no stories in my head except this: I am twenty years old and my boyfriend doesn’t want me anymore because of my ovaries . . .

A few nights later I am walking up the college row with a back pack and my head just beginning to be full of stories again, and I pass the pizza joint. I look in the window and I see G. sitting at the bar with a girl, a blonde very much in my likeness. I think, you know, the bastard still has my stuff in his apartment! We haven’t really ended this thing and now he’s with some new girl who just might have better ovaries than me. So I walk in the bar and confront him. “Hey G! I was thinking of going back to your place to get my stuff, is that going to cramp your style with this one?” I pointed to the new girl. It was a cheap shot, but I was feeling cheap, like a toy in the bottom of a cracker jack box. G. looked like he wanted to crawl into a hole. I turned on my heel and headed out of the pizzeria and up the street to his apartment. I still had a key. I let myself in and started gathering up my stuff. I remember feeling good about it, like, wow, I should have done this a week ago. Well, G. came back and found me packing up my toothbrush and nightie and he took a swing at me. I dropped my stuff and then he got hold of me and swung me around the living room, and on my way round I managed to get hold of a lamp, some kind of ugly thing and I hit him with it -- square on the head. He let go of me and went to his knees. He said, “Hey! You can’t do that!” and I said, “I just did man, I just did.” and I gathered up my belongings and walked out.

I went home that night with a hole in my soul. I woke up the next morning and found the hole still there. So I did the only thing a self respecting girl with supposedly damaged ovaries and a hole in her soul could do, I cut my hair real short and hit the books—got my grades in some sort of shape so that I could come back to school the following semester.

Two months later I met the guy who would become my husband and I managed to squeak through school to graduate. I put my aspirations of writing in a box—literally. I put all my notebooks with all those first lines in an old Corona beer box and taped it up. It traveled with me everywhere, even to Bermuda and it was in Bermuda, ten years after hitting G. with the lamp that I opened the old box and discovered words again. I was a decade older and a decade wiser. The words came out in a much truer way. And as I began to write again on those lonely days on my island in the sea, I thought, maybe G. did me a favor. Maybe I was meant to go dormant for a while. My voice is not the voice of that young girl and if she had continued to write the way she did back then, with a slight of hand, she would have just burned out anyway. So there you go, there you go.

So 25 years later, on a cold February morning, I found myself standing in the lobby of a hotel with tables of books and the local hoi palloi all in anticipatory fervor over the expected catered lunch and an hour or two of readings by a few literary glitterati. I arrived fashionably early and found my agent in conversation with a group of donors. She waved hello and pointed over her shoulder. I followed her hand and my gaze fell upon a familiar old face. It was G. -- rough and gray, but the same, surprisingly handsome somehow. I called his name and he looked up from some piece of paper he was looking at, he squinted and smiled a crooked smile and said, “Hey Slick.” This was an old habit of his, to call women Slick, especially ones he didn’t recognize. He kept his eyes on me though and I moved closer, “How are you G?” and then it hit him, like a small car at a slow speed, he realized who I was. “S?”

“Yeah man, its me.” He smiled sweetly and put his arms out to embrace me. I don’t know why, but I obliged and wrapped my arms honestly about the man. He stood back and looked at me. He charmingly said it was a such a nice surprise to see me and he asked me if I was still writing. I wanted to say, you old goat, I am still writing in spite of you. But I just smiled back and proudly told him that I had finally completed a book. We spent the next twenty minutes catching up on where we had been for the past twenty five years. Ironically he tells me he's been living with a woman for more than a decade and they have no children, just lots of dogs . . . just like me, no children, but lots of dogs. Somewhere in the conversation he said he hadn’t had a drink yet and I said, “Man, its only 10:45.” and he looked around at the crowd and said, “Really? Oh, well, these things make me nervous.” I breathed deeply for him and joked that I would have thought he’d be an old pro at these gatherings, these public appearances, I mean, he’s published seven books, but apparently he was still nervous as any new writer might be.

We all filed in for lunch. Speaker after speaker and finally the writers who we came to see came up and read from a recent work or told a story that related to their experience with literacy. G. read a terribly funny story. I hadn’t heard him read a story for 25 years and it was a good story -- a sweet and sickly hilarious story, his specialty. I was proud of him. Proud that I had some sort of weird history with him.

Another author came up and tearfully told the story of how he grew up as a black boy in Westchester, NY -- how hard it was to be black in moneyed White town. He became a crack addict and ended up living underneath Grand Central Station. But something happened -- one day, he didn’t have crack to smoke, but he had the pencil he used to clean his crack pipe and he had a small notebook. So instead of getting high, he wrote a story about a friend who was dying. He was so excited by the feeling of writing that the next day, he wrote something before he got high. Eventually writing replaced his need to get high. He cried as he told us this story and I was in tears with him. How powerful is the pen? or pencil? That’s how powerful!

When the lunch was over, I went out in the hallway and stood in line to have my books signed. I told the crack-head turned author that I grew up in Westport. And he looked up at me and a smile came across his face. He said, “You kids, you white kids in Westport used to drive over the state line to my hometown Port Chester to drink. The drinking age was a year younger in NY than it was in CT. And then you white kids would drive home drunk and get yourselves killed on the Merritt Parkway. ” I nodded and put his book down in front of him to sign for me.

I said, “Yeah, I was one of those kids. But I made it home.” He took the book and put his pen to it, he wrote To S. the one who made it home.

I stood in line to have G. sign a book of his stories for me. When it came my turn he looked up and said it was so good to have seen me. He asked me if his story made me laugh. and I said, oh yes, of course it did. He said he was glad, he was pleased that he made me laugh. He asked me if I had published anything since that story, the one real good story, all those years ago, and then, miraculously, he recited the name of the story to me, “Wasn’t it called ‘God Drove a 1965 Mustang’? I liked that story.” and I said, yes, that was the name of it and no, no nothing published since then, but I’m working and that's something, isn't it.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Red Clay Running

So I was driving home from the barn today, heading south on 57, and this clump of red clay runs across the road, leaving this diaphanous cloud of dust in its wake. The clump of clay ran up on the wild weedy bank and as I got closer I slowed down, cause its not every day that you see dirt running. The unmolded terra cotta pot stood up and watched me go by with the beadiest black eyes—eyes that reminded me of the hundreds of soft shell crabs whose india ink eyes I plucked out in a seafood kitchen years ago. The red sod turned out to be a whistle pig, a ground hog. He resembled an indian in full war paint. He looked angry and ready for a tussle; his fine fur coat was plastered and hardened with clay, spiked like a punker dog on a Saturday night in a bad tattoo parlor. As I drove past, he turned his earthen back to me and continued into the briars—the meanest looking rodent I ever seen.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Road Warrior

I hurry home tonight—I drive my truck fast like my father taught me; I let off the gas at the head of a sharp curve and on the arc of the curve I hit it again, this swings me and my little Ranger smoothly out onto the straightaway in a satisfying feeling of nimble gliding. On the straightaway, a flock of turkeys are dashing across the road, they scatter out from a soybean field and push their cumbersome unwieldy bodies up, their wings spin in a blur like whirligigs, and I think to myself; there is nothing more optimistic than a turkey in flight.

My father was always driving me somewhere; to New Jersey, to Virginia, to Belmont Park, back to Connecticut. I spent more time with my father in his car than anywhere else. And the car was always packed with his camera bags that billowed and spilled open on the back seat . . . telephoto lenses, zoom lenses, little yellow boxes of film, gray and black canisters filled with his work, chamois cloth, motor drives and Nikon camera bodies, race programs, the racing form, bottles of pills—I gotta Nikon camera, I like to take a photograph, Mama, don’t take my Kodachrome away . . .

The New Jersey Turnpike, the Garden State Parkway, the land of factories just north of the Meadowlands we used to call The Stinky Place. We ran out of gas in The Stinky Place once, the sun was setting and we were headed south to Princeton, where my father was living at the time. My tiny sister curled up in the backseat among the camera bags and a wool horse blanket over her to keep her warm. My Dad left us in the car and walked up the highway to find gas. I remember sitting in the car watching him disappear just at the moment the sun dipped behind a smoke stack that was unfurling its heavy cargo of soot into the New Jersey twilight. It wasn’t the first time I had been left alone somewhere, and it wouldn’t be the last. My sister; my father’s daughter by his second marriage—and his second divorce—was completely unaware of our predicament, she slept like a kitten. I felt our car sway and halt with each car that zoomed by us on the turnpike. The silence of the car, its dead-out-of-gas-din, buzzed in my ears louder than the rush-hour traffic that was all around us. I locked all the doors and night fell. There were some Ritz crackers and I ate those, watched my sister sleep, and watched the artificially lit horizon for my father’s return.

And he did return, with a New Jersey state policeman and a can of gas. We were back on the road and soon we were in the Princeton house, with his great dane and his jack russell terriers running all around, while my father whipped up stir fried rice and vegetables, the sounds of the highway now replaced by the gong of a metal spatula against the cast iron wok in the middle of the night.

My father road raced when he was younger. It was an offshoot of his steeplechasing days. He favored small racy sports cars. He had an MG spitfire in the days he was married to my mother. And as I grew up there was a series of small fast cars, a Fiat roadster being the one that remains with me most because of what he called it -- Mussolini. It was deep forest green with a racing stripe and it was the kind of car you might see in a desert rally in North Africa. Driving the eastern turnpikes and highways with my father was not unlike being in a race. He drafted behind tractor–trailers, he snaked between lanes, downshifting heavily as he entered corners and then kicked up and sped out of the corners, just like a proper race car. But this might lead you to believe that my father was always concentrating and utterly in command, but he wasn’t. His fuse was short, very short indeed, and it was as though all the other drivers existed for only one reason: to slight him, to piss him off.

I always rode in the front seat because I was prone to car sickness. I think my bouts of nausea and vertigo had more to do with panic than with actual sensitivity to motion. My father would hand me a Coca Cola and tell me to sip it along the way, and I pressed my hands into the cold sides of the can and braced myself for the ride ahead. There was never an uneventful drive with him. Never. If someone on the road failed to set him ablaze, then my sister always supplied the fuel. Tiny little thing that she was, all it took was one complaint or barely audible whine and my father went off like a cherry bomb in a mailbox. And me? I pressed up against my door contemplating just opening it and spilling out on the highway to escape . . . like Steve McQueen.

Pop used to tell a harrowing story of driving north on old Route 1 in 1966, from Southern Pines to Westport, with his then son-in-law, my father. With my father at the wheel, they careened along at speeds that Pop was never comfortable with, but by this time, he knew of my father’s irritable nature, so Pop did as I did when riding with Raymie, he kept real quiet. Somewhere between D.C. and Philadelphia, they were cut off by a station wagon full of men. The wagon came up behind them at a horrible speed and swung around them, leaving my father with no choice but to slam on the breaks. This was the fire that was waiting to be set and so it began. My father gunned the engine and caught up with the wagon, which was so full that it rocked low on its wheels as it sped along. He pulled up along side and told my grandfather to roll down his window. Pop did as he was told, and then the words started flying. You know the kind of words I'm talking about. My father was in a blind rage, but Pop was the middle man; he turned his head to see the recipients of my father’s wrath, and there within an arms length of him, was a Ford station wagon with wood paneled sides and windows down; it was full of Hell’s Angels. Just jam packed with the meanest, scariest looking men Pop had ever laid eyes on. Their long dark hair seemed to tangle all of them together and it whipped around like baby snakes. Their enormous arms were bruised with tattoos and they wore thick leather bracelets. They just glared back at Pop, they weren’t saying anything—my father was doing all the talking—he was talking himself into a terrible spot. Pop decided it was time to say something, “Raymie. . .” My father didn’t respond, he just kept swearing a blue streak and the louder his voice got, the fast the cars went. “Raymie, you need to calm down.” But my father didn’t calm down and still, he seemed to have no idea who he was addressing. Pop looked over at the Station Wagon from Hell again, now the Angels were calling back and they were brandishing knives. Pop looked back at his son-in-law, and then he looked straight down the highway. He saw an exit. “Raymie, I want you to hit the brakes, get behind these guys, then take that exit and let them go on. Do you hear me? Goddammit! Do you hear me?” And something made my father listen, maybe he saw the sun glint off of a switchblade and it cut through to him. He downshifted and swung behind the Wagon of Doom and before Angels could maneuver, Pop and my father were down the exit ramp and on their way to a Howard Johnson’s for a hamburger and a cocktail.

Tincture of Green—An Astringent Addendum