Why My Second Play Could Be My Last  

Three performances of my chat-room play Nights in Squirt City, Phukenburg have taken place at the Hollywood Fringe Festival. Two more are slated to happen next week, and then that’ll be it. The director seems pretty happy with the project overall. The cast is also happy. Reviews have been good, the few that were posted by people in the audience. I couldn’t be more miserable.

Now why would that be? I’ve been thinking and thinking and came up with five reasons, all of them good, but I still can’t be sure that I have this right. I’ll start with the weakest reason and then proceed in order of magnitude.

  • While I’ve been very happy with what the director has done, I’d only give Squirt City, the way it was done this time, a B+. That’s still a positive rating. But why not an A? The director cut many things and really sped up some of the “inconsequential” chat-room patter, as he calls it. He was right to do this, but he ended up cutting so much that the second half of the play, which happens in, as it were, a different register, comes too soon and goes by too fast. To compensate for the tremendous speed and all the cuts, the director should have encouraged me, or I should have known, to expand the latter half of the play by at least ten minutes. This didn’t happen. We now have a very good sketch, but it goes by so fast that the whole project doesn’t have the weight that it ought to have. As I said, B+.
  • The second reason for my unhappiness is the big weak link in this whole business:____________________________________________________________________REDACTED!!!___________________________________________________________________________________ Theatre people are almost as obsessed with crowd size as our President. Poets, on the other hand, are more or less resigned to having just a meager handful of people in the audience. Poets don’t have expectations; poets know their art is unpopular. _____________________________________________________________________________REDACTED!_______________________________REDACTED! _____________      _____________________________________________________________________lized.
  • More important for me, perhaps, than the number of folks in the audience is the fleeting nature of the enterprise. This isn’t film, which gets memorialized for all time. It happens a few times, and it’s over, never to reappear. During the last several years of my “theatre phase” I attended many, many performances of plays, but because I wasn’t involved with their creation, their fleetingness didn’t bother me. But I’ve been working on Squirt since January. All that money, all the meetings, all the time, all the preparations, all the discussions…for what? Poof!—it vanishes like a soap bubble.
  • Which leads to the non-appearance of “friends.” I had assumed that half the people I know would want to come and see this play. Not necessarily to support me, but out of sheer curiosity. Not one person from my Wednesday poetry group showed up. I have never in my life witnessed such an array of excuses: family illnesses, broken bones, sprained ankles, sudden surgeries, sudden suicides, difficulty driving at night, lack of transportation, lack of time, lack of funds (and I’m sure most are legitimate). My next-door neighbor, whom I hardly know, immediately said he would come and support me, even if the tickets were three or four times what they are now. This showed up the fact that closer friends…where were they? All the hours, all the money, all the work, all the commitment, for what? It all goes back to childhood. Were my parents supportive? Of course not.
  • And maybe—though I’m not too convinced of this—I’m suffering from a bit of generalized post-partum depression.

The next project, slated to be done later this summer and involving a different team, might very well convince me (who knows?) that writing plays isn’t a total waste of time after all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

After Thirty-Eight Years, a Look Back at “Romance”

Jose Luis and me, 1986

Sometimes I ask myself, What went wrong? The question doesn’t come up too often anymore, especially in the last five years, a long period of relative serenity and freedom from obsession.  But the other day, with my guard down and me actually feeling nostalgic for a bit of intrigue and excitement, I had a long chat with someone on a dating/hookup site, CVsouthland a.k.a Caleb. It was a moment of spring, a moment of potential and hope…

For about an hour or two afterwards it felt like a refreshing change of pace, a bit of frisson that’s been lacking for so many years. I was once again experiencing something like that special thing most people live for, most people want. But then those pleasant feelings evaporated and I remembered what I am.

I had my first encounter in my dorm room at Columbia in New York back in 1980; it was with someone I’d met in a bar in Greenwich Village. Thirty-eight years ago now. In those thirty-eight years I’ve had many, many (very) casual partners (it would be impolite to state how many, but I have a rough idea). I’ve had only four relationships in these thirty-eight years. Even to call them “relationships” is a generous way of putting it; they were more like extended one-night stands, or affairlets. I’d say all four added up to about three-and-a-half months.  The third of those, with Jose Luis in 1986, resulted in me seeking therapy, and I’ve been in therapy in one form or another for the last thirty-two years.

My first therapist, a Freudian in Barcelona, thought it was helpful that I was taking a step back from all the insanity to just lie on her couch and analyze…and analyze and discuss and remember and ponder.  She said to me explicitly, “I don’t think you are looking for a real relationship.”  In some ways I think she understood me better than my later, American, male therapist who said, “Yes, I think you do want love” and “We grow through relationships: they are a classroom.”  Whereas her idea was that I’m looking for intrigue and sexual fantasy and an idealized version of myself that I can only find in me and not in others, the American therapist’s idea was that however painful relationships are, we grow and learn through them and come out knowing ourselves better. Also, he believed the more I dated, the more I would get desensitized and hardened to all the turmoil involved in man-to-man love. These therapists had very different backgrounds and perspectives and both are right about some things.

If I were much  younger than I am, I might still hold out hope of a lasting relationship, but since thirty-eight years have gone by and all four of my affairs were nasty, brutish and short, I wouldn’t go into any future endeavor with confidence that anything has changed. And I’ve always clung to the notion (I know it will sound simple-minded) that some people are meant to merge, and others aren’t. The ones who end up merging, I’ve always intuited, are looking for friendship and companionship more than anything else. The ones who don’t merge, and go from partner to partner, are living more in fantasy, and more than anything else are looking for excitement, intrigue, and drama; for them, the long-term marriage bed is a graveyard of dreams. During my time in group therapy and twelve-step groups, I constantly saw people who fell into one category or another.

But not to talk about them, and those people, but rather to make it more personal here: in the last day or so, when I asked myself what happened over all these thirty-eight years and why I had little trouble finding sex but a lot of trouble finding even short-term romance, I came up with the two characteristics of the ideal young man and, more importantly, the one characteristic in myself that made a relationship so challenging.

First the young man. He should have these two attributes: he needs to be very different from me; and he needs to give off an atmosphere of unavailability. Only then can I start to feel excitement. I was adopted by an older German-Jewish couple—Henry and Vera Frankel—who were uptight and so very different from the beautiful hip American people who parented most of my classmates in grade school. I was brought up wearing a bow-tie, carrying a briefcase to school, being bullied, being bad at sports, and so on. During my first days in junior high school, I saw near the edge of the schoolyard some boys who were maybe a year older than me, very pretty and tough, who were smoking cigarettes (they weren’t bullies, by the way). When I think back to them, I see the ideal. And it’s also clear that that kind of person would never be a good fit to spend the rest of my life with. I like opera; I read books. They listen to rock or rap and watch TV. And so on. I never liked the person that Henry and Vera Frankel brought up. I always preferred the young, sexy birth parents who gave me up for adoption. And by the time I did meet my birth parents in 1990 they were of course not young and sexy anymore, but they had some of the same characteristics I admired, especially my birth mother: coldness, nonchalance, unavailability…

All four of the young men I was involved with, and virtually all of my one-night stands and quick partners, were people much younger than me. It wasn’t just their age, though. They were masculine, tough, often working-class, and, even though they slept with me and were attracted to me, were incapable of returning any sentimental feelings. Well, I’ve known that for a long time, but a few years ago, when I saw someone’s profile on a dating site and read how much he wanted a nurturing partner in his life, I was suddenly and depressingly made aware that that’s the last thing I want. I don’t think I would have been able to come to this conclusion twenty or even ten years ago. I couldn’t have faced it. It’s a sorry state of affairs. Who’s the ideal? This guy—at least the fantasy of him:

So far I’ve been talking about the ideal youth. As awful as his attributes may sound, they would not be insurmountable barriers if it weren’t for the one characteristic in me that makes relationships hard. It’s not just the kind of people I choose. It’s the way I react to them inside me.

With all my partners, major and minor, after the moment I first met them I didn’t have a life anymore except to focus on them. I ate, I slept, I worked—but my mind was on one thing and one thing only. I lived for the moments I could spend with them. I sat by the phone waiting for them to call (not daring to make the call myself). I would lose weight, usually ten or twenty pounds. I couldn’t sleep. I would go out with friends or watch movies and not really pay attention to the friends or the movies.  From the moment “romance” began, depression also set in. And the depression could only be temporarily lifted if I was in the loved one’s presence. How many laundromats and hardware stores have I sat in or walked through and felt the impersonal ugliness of everything; how those places dragged me down because inside I was desperate for Him to reach out and lift me up.

Of course, this state of affairs couldn’t last. What really doomed the relationships was mostly not the fact that these people were so different from me or that they weren’t nurturing; it was that inside me the turmoil was so profound that, try as I might to conceal it, the young men had to have noticed—even unconsciously.  I didn’t act in a clinging way; I’d never say “I love you”; I tried to act nonchalant. But they always could pick up my desperation.  And who wants to be around that? They sensed the power they had over me. They got their fill of rubbing meat together and whatever else they were looking for, and then it was time to move on.

Here’s the number one characteristic of the love addict according to Pia Melody:

Love Addicts assign a disproportionate amount of time, attention, and “value above themselves” to the person to whom they are addicted, and this focus often has an obsessive quality about it.

And so…thirty-eight years have gone by since that first encounter in my dorm room. And thirty years of therapy and many of twelve-step work and group therapy. Maybe some would say that I’ve been lazy and I haven’t done the work. But I’ve seen from other people around me (in programs and groups) that I’m not the only stubborn one. I’ll say a controversial thing: it’s as hard to change your “type” and your “relationship style” as it is to change your orientation. You can grow; you can be more aware, more mature; you can give up destructive things like drink and drugs and overeating; but change whom you’re attracted to and how you feel inside whenever someone shows you a little attention? I doubt it. I guess I’m a kind of dry drunk. And my lack of relationships over the years has resulted in a lack of relationship (and dating) skills. A kind of stunted growth, you could call it. I know less about the give-and-take of real relationships than your average sixteen-year-old.

What went wrong with all those young men all those years? Freud talks about an id, an ego, and a superego in the mind; others talk about the self being divided between the gut, the heart, and the head, or the primal brain, the emotional brain, and the intellectual brain. There’s also the theory of the “operating ego” versus the “disowned self.” What happened all these years is that I responded to youths with just my lizard brain, with just a part of me, and they in turn just responded to me with their lizard brains. I heard this quote: “You pursue someone out of lust; you have affection for them out of romantic love; you bond with them out of desire for family.” I pursued out of lust which was, often, returned; then usually romantic love was ignited inside me but it was only met with lust on their side–but dying lust, lust that quickly shriveled up, and they moved on. But if they started to have romantic feelings for me, then my romantic excitement would fade. I needed them to be porn-star tough and jock-inaccessible. I’ve spent a lifetime looking for love from hustler types.

I should qualify the last sentence: Unlike a lot of love addicts, I haven’t madly flung myself from one train wreck to another. Because of my sensitivity, and the unlikelihood of extracting anything promising from my “type,” I’ve been content to be single most of my adult life. I’ve only slipped and fallen occasionally.

I came out at a time of the gay baths in New York City in 1980 when you could go to any one of several establishments and stay all night and have loads of partners. Those were also the days of the Mineshaft, the Anvil, Alex in Wonderland, and the great St. Marks Baths. They were like opium dens. I thought the late ‘70s and early ‘80s would be the rest of the future. They weren’t. Now the bathhouses are dying, and we have apps. Apps?!? In the old days, anonymous sex was great for love addicts:  there was less chance to get hooked/trapped. Now, with apps, you have to spend hours on your phone chatting people up and then inviting them to your home, going to theirs, or finding a motel. What times we live in. And this is the perfect storm for the love addict. Having a long cyber-talk plus an hour or two at my place is a recipe for a horrific obsession. I ought to know. It’s happened before:

I chatted with the great Chuy Barajas. Must be some years ago now. He was a swimmer and water polo player from South LA, and the next day we spent two hours together. Perfect “union” and then a shower and then good-bye; I watched him coldly walk away and wait to cross the street, never to be seen again.  A few days passed and I sensed I was in love—in “love” and in “loss” simultaneously. One of those nights I happened to watch Once Upon a Time in America and the harrowing theme by Ennio Morricone for pan-flute, chorus and orchestra became the anthem of my passion and my loss. I still cry every time I hear that music.

And what happened to CVsouthland, a.k.a. Caleb? I ran into him on the same dating/hookup site a week after our memorable chat. He remembered my name! But then after half an hour he drifted away from the conversation and was never heard from again. I was somewhat relieved, to be honest, and quietly went back to my life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Memoriam – A Birth Family, 1990-2018

Frank & Marcia

Marcia and Frank during our reunion, 1990. They’re younger than I am now!

What began in the summer of 1990 with a search for my birth parents Marcia Cranston and Frank Verges; and continued at Christmas 1990 with our reunion in Southern California; and blossomed into their dating and marriage; and our time together in Spain and England in the early ’90s; and my subsequent big move from Barcelona to Los Angeles to be closer to them; and my gradual realization that Marcia was uncomfortable with me in her life—especially being just thirty miles away; and the eight-year silence between her and me; and the disintegration of their marriage even though they continued to live as roommates; and Marcia’s illness and death in early 2007; and Frank’s quick decline after that; and his being moved away to Davis by a daughter (my bio half-sister) anxious to inherit his estate; and his further retreat into senility over the next years…what began with so much hope and fanfare twenty-eight years ago came to an end, finally, when Frank died in a Davis hospital on the 12th of February, 2018. He was barely Frank anymore. I was still able to talk with him briefly on the phone and hear his voice. He never got to the point of not recognizing people. His daughter, the lovely Samantha, was with him the night he died. She’d made sure to call me only at the last minute, so there was no chance of seeing him alive.

For the first thirty years of life I didn’t know who I was. Then I found out. And for the next twenty-eight years my birth parents were, in some form, in my life. But we didn’t have enough time. There was so much to make up for, but the work was only half done. When Frank first made contact with me in September of 1990, there was so much excitement in his voice about my coming into his life. It was a characteristic in his family—to be excited and energetic about things but then not to completely follow through. In this case he did follow through up to a point. A reunion happened only a few months after that phone call. He was gregarious and impulsive and cultured and fun; Marcia, my birth mother, was reserved, severe, and unconvinced of the value of any of this reunion stuff. And she was poor. She’d just lost a house in Hawaii, a house on the beach. Frank offered her financial security, and that’s perhaps more than 50% of the reason they got married. The ceremony took place on a Hawaiian beach. These two people, who’d first had an affair in Iowa and Illinois in 1960 and hadn’t seen each other until the reunion in 1990, were now in love and hoped to build a life together. They were happy for a year or two, but only unhappiness followed. I now think he had Asperger’s or was somewhere on the autistic spectrum. As for her,  she was a sprightly but angry, uptight person. In Orange County she found a comfortable home and created a lovely rose garden. She had cats and read her mystery novels, but spent most of her nights sleeping in an RV.

When I moved to L.A. in ’95 I hoped that I’d see my birth parents every weekend. Marcia, I hoped, would cook meals and the three of us would go to Blockbuster and rent movies and sit in front of TV and watch all the old movies we’d missed. This  didn’t happen. They fought an awful lot. Marcia, even though she’d married my birth father, didn’t embrace me. Half a family had been recreated; the other half just sat there wilting.

So the years went by. My birth parents were miserable. Occasionally, I did see Frank. He and I got along well. But he always considered me rich. He had a very keen sense of who was “rich” and who was “poor.” He often complained that I boasted about my “rich” background (my adoptive family). Toward the end of his life we talked about how much he might leave me, and he said “just some small token amount, because you’re rich, right?” There was a will in which I was left $5,000 and his daughter everything else, but even $5,000 was considered too generous by his warm-hearted daughter,  and when his faculties were limited toward the end and Samantha got him isolated, the old will was torn up and every cent went to that lady, whom I barely know, that divorced lady in Davis who was never the least bit interested in getting to know a long-lost biological half-brother.

A. I am not married.
B. My children are:
Samantha B. Havens
Alex M. Frankel
C: I intentionally do not provide for Alex M. Frankel.

Now they are all gone. Adoptive parents. Biological parents.

Perhaps our best time was in the beginning, when I still lived in Spain. We were walking down the street in Sitges, near Barcelona, and discovered a store named “Verges” and excitedly took pictures of it. Then we went for a chicken dinner and it was ecstasy. We were happy! And another peak moment: London, a few months later. We were sitting in a pub and it was so gemütlich. That’s a word the Germans have that we don’t. Cozy and cheerful with high spirits and a sense of belonging. There were moments like that at the start. But after I moved to the States things were never the same. Ideally, Marcia should’ve stayed in Hawaii, and I would have gone to see her once in a great while, and things would’ve been fine. And Frank and I would’ve seen me once a month or once every few months and things would’ve been fine.

We just didn’t have enough time. I heard about Frank’s death over a month ago but it’s just hit me. So much could’ve been different and better. But that would’ve entailed Marcia and Frank being very different people from what they really were.

The worst feeling is to walk by his house. His house was sold after he was taken away. Whoever owns it now must be renting it out to students. Not a lot of love has gone into the place. It doesn’t look like a home. No garden. It’s as if no rose garden ever existed there.

I unearthed a video of Frank and me from 2009. Most of Frank was still intact. His dog Pookie is running around trying to get us to play with his ball. There’s string music in the background and I’m reciting a little bit of poetry by Dylan Thomas. Things are light-hearted. Things are gemütlich in a way they rarely were, but it was captured in this one video. See for yourself: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nGYtH8Ygj30&t=13s.

What happened? It seemed we were just getting started. There was so much hope and promise in the beginning. Where are Marcia and Frank? I’d like to try again and get it right this time.

I could never quite believe, when I was in Frank’s presence, that I was in the presence of my biological father. The concept seemed too unreal. The same with Marcia. I couldn’t quite grasp that she was my mother but not my mother. Where are they now? We didn’t have enough time, the three of us. We could’ve used another twenty years.

I remember the end of Theodore Dreiser’s The Bulwark. After a funeral one character, sobbing, looks at another and says, “Oh, I am not crying for myself, or for Father—I am crying for life.”

Frank's ashes

Frank’s ashes are among the few gifts I ever got from him.

 

 

 

 

 

My Birth Father, 1936-2018

IMG_0855      Frank Verges, my birth father, died on Monday, February 12. He was living in a nursing home in Davis, in Northern California, near his daughter, my biological half-sister Samantha. The last six or seven years of his life he’d become cognitively impaired. The man who through most of his life had been so introverted and unresponsive became even more introverted and unresponsive in his last years.

I did what I could to help take care of him here in Southern California, up until 2013, when Samantha took over and escorted him—along with her generous inheritance—to a life of solitude and neglect  in her house and eventually in an institution. When that happened, I realized he was really gone. When that happened, I began the biggest project in my life, my memoir now called Fallen David. I got a dog, too. Both events were indirectly a result of his departure—and virtual death—in 2013. An era was over. I no longer had a birth father.

I first made contact with my birth father in 1990. I was 29. After the first phone calls and letters to and from him, Frank managed to track down my birth mother easily. Her name was Marcia. In 1990 both of them were divorced from other partners and living in different parts of the country. We had our reunion at the end of 1990, Christmastime. It was fun and strange and awkward. From the beginning, Marcia’s attitude toward me was, “Yes, I would like to see you again, why not?” And Frank’s attitude was, “I hope and pray we become loving friends!”

Not long after our reunion, the two of them began long-distance dating. They fell in love and got married. They lived together unhappily for fifteen years until her premature death in 2007. After that, Frank—a heavy smoker, drug-user, couch potato, and consumer of junk food—gradually went downhill. I remember the day of Marcia’s “celebration of life” event in their rose garden, months after her death. He made an appearance for some small part of it, but spent most of the time in bed watching C-Span and sports.

Whereas Marcia (even though she married Frank) never wanted much of a relationship with her long-lost love child, Frank appeared much more outgoing, open-minded, affectionate, and friendly. But that was true only up to a point. Compared to Marcia, anyone would appear affectionate and friendly. In reality, he had a habit of keeping people at arm’s length—and this included everyone. In fact the problem between him and Marcia was that he wanted to keep to himself most of the time, and was more interested in TV than in her. She noticed this, and didn’t like it. And friends of his noticed, and former wives and girlfriends, too. He once told me how he enraged women in his youth by his sullenness and indifference after sex was over.

And with me it was no different. Yes, we bonded. Yes, compared to Marcia, he was a caring, considerate birth father. But deep down the two weren’t so different. They were both very introverted, standoffish people. Whenever I saw Frank, he had a habit of cutting off our conversations abruptly, extending his hand, and declaring, “I am now going to bring this visit to an end.”

He once told me, “Of course I’d like to leave you a little something after I pass, but just a token amount—you come from a rich family.”

After my adoptive father died, Frank drove to the house in San Francisco and visited for a few days. “I’m doing you such a big favor, you have no idea!” he said. And he took me to task for grieving for my father so much. “I can’t sit here and listen to you whine about your predicament, I just can’t!” And so I had to apologize for grieving. The last day of that visit, I came home expecting to go out to dinner. His dog dropped a tennis ball out of its mouth in a playful gesture as I walked up the stairs. Frank himself stood in the kitchen. “No, I do NOT want to go out for dinner with you. I am tired and have a long drive ahead of me tomorrow. Good-night.” The next morning I woke up alone in the old house. It was my last day in the family house in San Francisco before it was to be staged and sold. And Frank was gone, unable to share the moment.

It seemed I always wanted to set up our relationship for a cozy fireside pow-wow, for a prolonged  tête-à-tête  surrounded by pets and tea things and autumnal colors and maybe some string music in the background. That was my fantasy. It never happened. He would appear, and just when things were getting friendly, he would disappear.

That day in 2007, when Frank disappeared on my birthday on my last day in the family house, I said to myself, I said in these words: When it’s his time to go, I will not grieve for him.

I am thinking about him a lot following his death on Monday. I haven’t cried. I am not grieving in any conventional sense. My birth parents were definitely and determinedly my biological parents. A relationship was established. Nothing like parent-child bonds were ever formed.

There was of course no funeral (they are expensive and he wasn’t religious). I will receive no ashes. I will probably never see the meagre $5,000 Frank set aside for me. The bio half-sister will try her best to cheat me out of even that.

And yet his presence over the last twenty-eight years enriched my life. He was a philosophy professor; I majored in philosophy a decade before I even knew of his existence. We could talk—especially back in the 1990s—and it was stimulating and exciting. If I hadn’t met my birth parents, I’m not sure I would ever have left Spain and returned to this country in the mid ’90s. He was cultured and smart and could on occasion be lively, and we had a good rapport. We are very much alike (—ha! I just wrote that in the present tense). My birth mother once said to me, “You and Frank are the two most negative people I’ve ever met.”

Frank Verges and I met twenty-eight years ago—a whole generation ago. He’s now gone. With him I probably had a better relationship than most people do who track down their birth parents and try to make up for what was lost.

In lieu of ashes, I will go to what was once his house in Fullerton, dig up some dirt in the front garden, and in a sort of ceremony scatter it in the sea somewhere near Catalina Island.

 

 

 

 

 

My Terrorist Friend, David (“John”) Dinsmore, Has Died

DavidDinsmorePic

“A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.”
Mao Zedong

 

The other day I got word that my Scottish terrorist friend, David Dinsmore, who for a short time in the mid 1980s was my best friend in Spain and the world, had died of cancer and AIDS. He was 54. Last Friday they buried him in London.

We were roommates when we were both very young. Then he decided to live his dream and fly to Rio de Janeiro to look for love and adventure, which he found in spades.  Later on, in the ‘90s, he gave himself up to British authorities and—courtesy of the police—was flown back to the U.K., where he stood trial for terrorist activities and was acquitted. He lived the rest of his life without needing to work, thanks to the British welfare state. He didn’t need to work because he’d been diagnosed with AIDS following his exploits in Brazil. He lived in a comfortable “council flat” in London’s popular Camden Town. He had plenty of money and was free to travel the world. He still worshiped Stalin and Lenin and marched for Scottish freedom from the “English dogs” until the end.

In all my life I never knew a more complex  man. David was a kind, generous, fire-breathing atheist; he was a fine debater, angry and righteous, addicted to booze and young men, political to the core of his being, smart, violently working class, tall, gaunt, explosive and gregarious; I never knew anyone who loved people so much.  We stayed on good terms all these years even though an ocean and a continent separated us, and even though he was, for me, a relic of a much earlier time in my life (something I never told him).

We met in Madrid in a bar in early 1985. We often hung out together, and one day David mentioned that there was a room in his rooming house for another roommate. Since I was still living in a hotel and new to Madrid, I said yes, why not? So I moved into the rooming house owned by the faded Flamenco singer Tomás de Antequera, who had been a big star in Spain between the Civil War and the ‘70s but was now decrepit and half-blind. Antequera made my bed every day—imagine, a bed being made by a Flamenco singer! The distance to the bathroom was very far, so late at night I would often pee in a wine bottle and forget about it the next morning. Unfortunately Mr. Antequera, being almost blind, would stumble into the room the next morning and more than once knocked over my bottle and all its contents…

After we knew each other for a while, David made this confession to me: he had been imprisoned in Ireland for his illegal political activities in Scotland and had been awaiting trial (though I don’t think he ever killed anyone, he once tried to send some Englishman a bomb…); then he was let out on bail, jumped bail, and fled to Spain…He was living under an assumed name (“John Parks”) with a fake passport.  I looked at him and just said “Oh!”  I was such a dumb American boy.

What was our life like in Spain? Teaching English as a foreign language, going to bars and bathhouses, drinking, teaching, going out, drinking (he did more drinking than I did). We both loved Spanish youths. He hated Americans (except me). He hated Reagan. He hated Israel. He hated Fascists. But he loved people. He had an insatiable appetite for people, even when their politics was very different from, or opposed to, his own. David’s other best friends were an old Italian priest and an impoverished Spanish count.

We taught in a summer camp that first summer. The camp directors didn’t like our untidiness or David’s drinking or the way he belted out Scottish ballads and eyed some of the kiddos. As for me, I read Thomas Mann, while he drank with a slew of Irish girls. Then, once free from the camp, we traveled to Berlin. One day in West Berlin David woke up and told me he wanted to defect to East Germany. I offered to help him in this enterprise, since I speak German. We spent a whole night interrogated by the East German authorities, but they didn’t accept him, for whatever reason. All night I had visions of being imprisoned for the rest of my life. I had visions of President Reagan going on national TV to promise the world that I was going to be rescued. In the end nothing good or bad happened. The police returned us to the Free World and I drank a schnapps in one of West Berlin’s five hundred empty gay bars.

After the German escapade we lived together in Barcelona for over a year. He wasn’t happy. He was bored. He always compared Barcelona unfavorably with Madrid. It was too staid for him, too bourgeois and European and boring. He wanted adventure in South America. Late at night he would get very drunk, after he finished our dinner of haggis or paella. He would call me a Fascist. He would talk about Scottish independence. He would rant about Stalin’s correct world view. He hated Trotsky and loved Stalin and Lenin.

David felt sorry for street people and invited them to come and live with us. One of them was a Peruvian hairdresser with AIDS. We took the hairdresser to the hospital and once he was fully recovered he became a male prostitute in a “house of boys” under the aegis of a lady named Madame Clot. She promised the hairdresser they would make millions. I don’t know if they made millions, but the Peruvian seemed completely restored after half a year with us. He was very critical of the mess and dirt in our apartment. Then he bought a kitten, even though I’m allergic to cats. Finally he robbed us blind and fled to Castile and a life of picking mushrooms.

The longer David lived in Barcelona, the less he liked it. We didn’t get along. He drank a lot and called me Fascist and sometimes taxi drivers would deposit him at the front door of our building, and I had to carry him up five flights (we had no elevator). He kept dreaming of South America. When his Scottish parents came to visit him, I was amazed they didn’t look at all like him. “Can’t you guess why that is?” David asked.

“Were you adopted?” I asked.

“Of course!”

His biological father had been an American airman who impregnated a Scottish girl and then abandoned her. His adoptive parents were much older than his birth parents; they were short and quiet and conservative—everything he wasn’t.  Now I understood part of the reason David hated America.

And then one day, suddenly, he decided to relocate  to Rio de Janeiro. “You can find love in Rio,” he argued. “In Brazil they’re not just looking for sex. They’re looking for love. And it’s nothing like Barcelona! In Rio people dance while they’re waiting for the bus!”

And so he started making plans to leave. With my father’s help, I gave him two thousand dollars. He also lifted several grand from one of the language schools where he worked.  It was all right to steal from the rich, in his book. I saw him off at the airport, together with two other close friends of his. I wasn’t sorry to see him go, because he was a hard roommate and “teacher” to have, but I didn’t know what would happen to me in Spain without a friend.

The day after he left, I went to Sitges by the coast; I was alone. People chatted me up on the train, but by the time we got to the beach they made it very clear I wasn’t welcome in their party anymore. I spent the day in the sand alone. When I got home, I was completely and utterly alone, I broke down in tears—and a lady in the building across the street saw me from her balcony, and took pity on me.

Things got better. I lived for many years in that apartment on my own. In the beginning David and I talked a few times on the phone. He was enjoying life—boys galore, cocaine, buddies in the drug cartel, teaching, booze, loads of friends, even a lover for a while. He was becoming fluent in Brazilian Portuguese. And me? I moved on. I loved my apartment on the fifth floor of our building in the center of Barcelona on the Carrer de Casanova. David and I had painted the walls yellow and pink. I took over what had been his bedroom, with the French windows overlooking the noisy street and the ambulance sirens and the swallows that descended on the city in May and the potent smell of bread from the busy bakery downstairs. I didn’t miss him. I made new friends. I spent years in therapy. David was now part of the past, a quaint relic of an early and immature phase. Years passed and I assumed I’d never hear from him again.

I did hear from him again, of course, after seven years. He was back in London. He’d decided to leave Brazil and return home to Scotland, even though it meant possibly doing time in prison. He’d wanted to see his adoptive parents, who were getting old. He turned himself in and stood trial and was found not-guilty. This was good for him, but unfortunately around the same time I received an unpleasant phone call from the anti-terrorist branch of Scotland Yard (or some such organization) and my father in San Francisco received a visit from the FBI. Apparently David had given the authorities my name so that someone (I) could corroborate his (true) story that at one time he had been living in Spain. There wasn’t much I could help them with, but for a few nights I didn’t sleep…

And so—with good boundaries—we reinitiated our friendship in the ‘90s, but things were never the same. I visited London often, even after I’d moved back to the States. We got our ears pierced in Camden Town in 1997. He was very accepting of me changing my first name from “Marcel” to “Alex.” I told him about writing poetry and living in America and being in a program for sex addicts. He was mildly amused. We never fought at all. He never shouted at me or called me Fascist. That first visit to London in the mid ‘90s, he cried when we said good-bye at Paddington Station. This touched me, especially because I no longer felt the same closeness. And yet we were still in each other’s lives, and stayed that way until the end. But though he was now cured of cocaine addiction, his drinking was getting worse. I once took him to an AA meeting in London. He even shared about his drinking binges and everyone in that room was listening intently and nodding–“There but for the grace of God…”  But he never joined.

The last time I saw him was in the summer of 2008. He had met his birth family (partly due to my encouragement) but was now estranged from most of them. As always, his apartment in Camden was open to all sorts of folks who wanted his help, or were fleeing the police for immigration violations, or needed a space where they could go with their johns for an hour. David was very disturbed by the cockroach situation. They were abundant and alive and healthy on all the walls and ceilings, even beside my bed, where he’d also placed some good roach poison. Finally I moved into a hotel but didn’t tell him I was doing so. I doubt he noticed. He was standing in his living room alone, completely lost in his alcoholized haze. He was very far away. He just stood there and smiled. Many, many empty beer bottles littered the floor. The statuette of Lenin was as prominent as ever on his dusty shelf, along with books on the militant proletariat and the story of Che Guevara.

This was the last message he sent me, just a few weeks ago:

“Hi Alex, how are things going?” he wrote. “Unfortunately not too great here, since in May I have been told that my head and neck cancer has spread to my lungs and intestine. This time there isn’t much other than palliative (including chemo) that can be done. At that time they gave me up to a year (or at any time in between). Strangely it doesn’t seem to bother me too much! Though I’ve been in and out of hospital a few times since, right now I don’t feel too bad and no pain at all really. I hope to head off to Barcelona for a couple of weeks in October with a few friends, all things permitting….”

He never did make it to Barcelona.

I got word of his death by glancing at Facebook in a small town in Utah in the middle of watching The Good, the Bad and Ugly.

I looked at his pictures again. I hadn’t looked at them carefully. I hadn’t fully accepted how sick he was. How could anyone sound so lucid in a written message and yet be so sick? (He was always braver than I.) The next day I hiked around Zion National Park and thought about David “John” Dinsmore all day. My best friend in Spain for a while. Wild, loving, gentle, confused, insane, rowdy, and passionate about an independent socialist Scotland.  Someone once said of him that he’d make a good Christian. Even though I’m halfway around the world, I feel the loss acutely. I feel that someone who should be there is no longer there. He did not believe in heaven and hell. He always argued that we just stop being. Just stop. I don’t know where he is. I feel he will always be a part of me. For a short time in my life, I lived in the fast lane, lived among street people and beggars and hookers and counts, and my best friend was a Scottish terrorist.

DavidDinsmore2

Wha's Like Us

 

 

The Decline and Fall (and Rise) of Walter January

Fred Half Pic

There is one loss that still hurts.

I made the journey back to New York City for a short stay. That’s where we’d known each other. I thought of Walter January day and night. What went wrong?  I had a stranger’s apartment all to myself, the kind of place Walt or I might have rented in the old days. As I lay on the couch, I looked over at the dining-room table, and I thought, Walt and I should be sitting there over food talking about our lives. What happened?

*

We met in front of the gates of Columbia, introduced by a mutual friend. I was twenty and dumb and extremely immature. Walt was four years older and a graduate student in philosophy, also my major. After that first day, we ran into each other from time to time, went for coffee, went to museums, went to hear Allen Ginsburg read Howl, went to the symphony; once we drove to West Point and Hyde Park. Walt was mild-mannered, sharp, heavily academic, homely in appearance, a Marxist and an atheist. He’d been raised in Ohio. I’m uncomfortable saying this but I need to: over the first couple of years and maybe all the years, he would’ve liked to be more than friends, but I never thought about him in that way.

He did not live in the fast lane, my Walt.

I was in denial about the nature of his feelings. I valued him as a friend. He was my first grownup friend. Both of us spoke German: I because my parents were German; he because he’d mastered it in school. He could read Kant, Hegel, and Marx in the original. Even though he wasn’t a show-off, he did confess to me how status-conscious he was, how he thirsted for fame and recognition. Of all the people I remember from the early ’80s, he was the gentlest, but… even so… at times I sensed another side of him:

  • As when my beloved dog died, and I cried and said to Walt, “You met him, didn’t you like him and wasn’t he the most adorable puppy you ever saw?” Walt answered this way: “Oh Alex, I don’t get attached to animals.”
  • As when I applied for Christmas work at Macy’s but failed the arithmetic test, and, distraught, I said to him, “How would you have felt?” He answered coolly, quietly, “I wouldn’t have failed.”

He appeared humble and unpretentious, but he was also young and therefore growing into the personage he’d later be. He was, like me, an adult in the making. He hadn’t reached his full Walterness.

*

In those days I was awkward. I was slim and blond. I imagined I’d always be twenty-two. New York City was a fine place to be that young. In those days there were still bathhouses where you could find ten or twenty studs a night. I semiconsciously understood how immature I was and knew one reason for this: it could keep me young; and if I was young, then I’d be desirable.  Walt, on the other hand, never went to a bathhouse in his life. He wanted a relationship, and then he found one, with a young architect from India who shared Walt’s ideas of a male couple making a life together.

Our friendship went on as before. I couldn’t imagine any day in the future we wouldn’t be in each other’s lives. I loved him as an older brother, and yet I always believed our friendship was at heart one-sided. I was the more interested party. I always wanted to hang on when we talked on the phone.  Even when I decided to leave New York for good and move to Spain, I imagined things would stay the same, despite the presence of an ocean between us.

*

After college I was just a proofreader in an accounting firm, and that couldn’t go on. It was too meaningless—“alienating” as Walt put it in his Marxist lingo.  I visited Spain in the fall of 1984. I decided to move there and teach English as a second language and find romance and passion, maybe.

It was Walt who saw me off at the airport. He said, “It looks like you don’t believe you’re leaving that much behind.”

“It’s true,” I replied.

Maybe it was hurtful of me to say that, but I didn’t believe in my life in New York. I was young enough to fantasize about a new life in a far-off country. Everything would be better in Spain, wouldn’t it? And perhaps I sensed that I wasn’t getting that much from Walt. There was such a formality to him. He was so staid and proper that one always had to set up an appointment with him days or weeks in advance.  And he wasn’t curious about my writing—unless I insisted that he read something and give me his opinion, which he’d consent to do if I bugged him enough.

Youth!

*

As soon as I settled in Spain, I started the work of idealizing our friendship. He always wrote back with his aerogrammes and always responded wisely and insightfully. From time to time I phoned him.

*

Walter January was the first person who told me I should try therapy. No, I’ll rephrase that: he told me I needed to be in therapy. Until I knew Walt, I’d always laughed at people who saw “shrinks.” But after I went through love and loss and melancholia and even thoughts of suicide in Spain, he wrote this to me:

I hope you do seriously look for a therapist in Barcelona and that when you start feeling better (as you’re certain to do), you don’t just drive the whole idea out of your mind. I have felt almost everything you describe, but is there something in you that makes you always pick men like José Luis? The answer is probably “yes,” but is that what you really want? You asked me if it’s possible to love and be excited by the same person, a question I cannot answer. Is it possible for you? Why or why not? I don’t think you can answer these questions yet. Taking ice-skating lessons is a great idea. It’s something fun and affirmative. Yet I doubt that it is a substitute for a prolonged, serious self-reflection (i.e. therapy).

Sincerely,

Walt

 

“Sincerely”? What close friend writes “sincerely”? And the academic style: “Why or why not?”

Walt and I had always thought of our friendship as one of mentor/mentee, though we never said so explicitly. I relied heavily on those who knew more than I. And he? What did he get out of our relationship? Was there a physical component I was—and still am—struggling to deny? Or better yet: the physical component we’d occasionally acknowledged was there, was that what kept him in a friendship with me—me, whose writing he wasn’t interested in, who had little grasp of philosophy (even though it was my major), who was very young and silly. “You’re so dumb” he’d said to me more than once.

As to the content of his letter, of course it was decisive. I started therapy and have been in therapy ever since.

In all my time with the analyst, Walter’s name didn’t come up, not once. Why would it? We had a long-distance friendship, a solid one. In therapy one tends not to dwell on the good relationships.

*

One day he wrote on one of his aerogrammes that he’d been hired “—by Harvard!”  I’ll never forget that well-positioned em-dash and that lofty name. He’d been accepted by The Castle, and I was glad for him.

At first things appeared to go on as before, but we lived on different sides of an ocean. I didn’t at first want to admit to myself that I saw changes in him.

His demeanor was different. He seemed very sure of himself. During one of my visits back to the States, I had dinner one night with him and his lover (they maintained a long-distance Boston/Manhattan relationship) and I noticed that, when we parted for the night, he didn’t say “bye”’ or “talk to you later” or “see you soon” but “good-night.” Maybe that doesn’t appear so strange on paper, but it was also his tone of voice. Businesslike. Aloof.

And from that time on it is possible that if I hadn’t kept writing to him three or four times a year, we wouldn’t have stayed in touch. No break-up. No quarrel. Just a natural ebbing over time. He was now a Harvard professor. Imagine all the doors that were opening for him! He was on a first-name basis with icons in his field.

 

When he spent half a year in Germany, I wrote him with dumb enthusiasm about going to visit him and received this response: “I’m afraid the dates you suggest for visiting Germany won’t work.” The letter said more but that’s the line I remember. Its unadorned coldness.

The next year I found out that while I’d been seeing family in the U.S., he’d gone on a trip with his lover—to Spain!

And then it happened that I visited him in Cambridge one summer. He’d offered to put me up in his apartment for a few nights.

He buzzed me into his building and I took the elevator up to his floor. His door was open and I walked in and shut it behind me. There was no Walt. I peered over into an adjacent room and saw him with his back to me, talking on the phone. He hadn’t just picked it up to say “Sorry I’ve got a guest.” No, he remained on the phone another ten or fifteen minutes before he emerged to greet me with a light hug.

We had a few days in Boston. Sometimes he appeared his old self, but what I most remember are the first few minutes of the visit: me sitting in his living room picking up one coffee table magazine after another, waiting for him to get off the phone. I tend to forget that he told me how unhappy he was, how unfulfilled in his relationship with the architect (who seemed the more interested party), how worried about his future at Harvard, how dissatisfied with Boston (too much “Middle America” in Boston).

I have this theory about Walt. He came from a working-class family in rural Ohio, but spent his life pursuing German culture and philosophy. He even spoke English—to my ear—with a German accent, almost the way I do. I think he hated his roots and did everything possible to run away from them—and even Cambridge, Massachusetts was not far enough, full of too much “Middle America.” If Harvard could’ve been uprooted and put in the middle of Manhattan, he would’ve been happy.

He told me about some of his students from just a few years earlier who’d already become hot-shot authors. “Does that bother you?” I asked him.

“It would,” he replied, with his old candor, “if I were not a Harvard professor.”

*

A committee approved Walt for Harvard tenure, “but it’s not a rubberstamp,” he said ominously as we sat in the Hungarian Pastry Shop on the Upper West Side, almost like the old days, a year later. “Not by any means. It’s up to the president now.”

Even though we lived thousands of miles apart, we no longer broke bread together whenever I visited New York. He would only allot me short sessions—a quick coffee, or a quick drink in the presence of other people. He did not laugh anymore. There wasn’t much spontaneity or fun in him—not that there ever had been, even in our heyday.

I didn’t feel at ease around him, this new and important Walter.

I was about to leave Barcelona after ten years and move to Los Angeles. Walt was horrified when he heard “Southern California.” He couldn’t understand why anyone would want to live in Stupid Country (as a character in The Buried Child calls it).

 

After our quick coffee, we walked toward Broadway and 116th Street, and I asked him where the subway was.

 

“You don’t even remember where the subway is!” Walt exclaimed. “You really are a stranger here.”

A stranger here…

After that day, I never heard from him again.

*

When I moved to “Stupid Country,” I sent him a postcard with my new address. I wrote a short letter at Christmas—still to his Harvard apartment. Then in the spring I sent him a birthday card and wrote “I hope we don’t get lost to each other forever.” I didn’t really expect a response, and none came. It would’ve been undignified to write any more letters. I promised myself I wouldn’t, and I’ve been as good as my word for the last twenty-two years.

*

My biological father, a philosophy professor, told me one day, “Guess what. Your friend didn’t get tenure!”
“But how do you know?”

“He’s working down at UC San Diego.”

 

San Diego? My backyard? I found out he’d been there for years…Then I used the Internet to discover he’d left “Stupid Country” and gone to work at Cornell. And some time after that I read he was back at Columbia in his beloved New York.

*

The other day I walked my dog and stood outside his home and looked up. He lives on the top floor of a fancy building on the corner of 109th and Broadway. He can walk to work. No commuter train or subway for Walter, at least not to get to work. I saw the janitor polish the railings in the elegant foyer. Walt’s done pretty well for a Marxist.

And then I walked on. I walked through the gates of Columbia and a girl came up to me smitten with my dog and practically begged me to let her pet him. I sat by the Alma Mater statue and enjoyed a very good view of a young man’s extremely athletic back. I walked by Tom’s Restaurant. I went to Riverside Drive and sat on a bench, the same bench where the old Walt and I had once talked about meaning in life.

*

I understand what the alternative to just vanishing would have looked like. He could have written to say—and couched it in nice language—that we’d outgrown each other. That I would’ve accepted and even respected.

There are many explanations for what happened, and I’ve thought of all of them. Not getting tenure at Harvard probably sent him into a crisis, and reaching out to me was not a priority. He needed to look good in front of me. He needed to stay on a pedestal. Now he wasn’t a Harvard professor anymore, but just regular professor who would have trouble with the successes of all his brilliant ex-students.

It’s also possible that his gradual withdrawal from me all through the early ‘90s had built up so much resentment in me that I’d occasionally let it show in snide remarks.

It’s possible that since I was older now (thirty-four), I wasn’t interesting enough to look at, assuming that physical attraction may have played a bigger part on his side of things than I realize.

It’s possible that there were mysterious (intangible) reasons he didn’t feel comfortable around me anymore but couldn’t bring himself to say so. He’d outgrown me. I’d also outgrown him but couldn’t let him go. He was Walt. He was family.

It’s possible, above all, that as he rose in his field (even as a non-Harvardian) I was not a suitable friend. His friends (though perhaps not lovers, where one’s criteria tend to be different) needed to be other academics and people of influence, people who lived and breathed in a world of Fichte, Hegel, Marx, and Rousseau, and also people who admired Dr. January’s work.

*

It troubles me how keenly I still feel the loss.

When I reflect on how much I’ve changed, I realize that similar changes had to have been going on inside Walt. And when I think about things this way, I can begin to stop feeling guilty-dirty for having done something wrong, or for not being good enough to share in a Columbia professor’s life.

*

Walter January has been gone a long time. It’s time to bury him. But a few more thoughts before I close the coffin?

I saw him on YouTube, interviewed a few years ago about his work. Often during the session, he shut his eyes while making particularly profound points. Once, his eyes stayed shut for a full minute while he lectured. His whole manner is affected; he’s putting on a show. The old Walt would have laughed at such pretentiousness.

*

The last time I ever saw him was twenty-two years ago, on the corner of Broadway and 116th Street, at the same spot where we’d first met all those years earlier.

I wonder about the intervening time: his sojourn in my “backyard”—San Diego—his stay, later, at Cornell, and eventually his resumed life at Columbia. All this time I’ve been in Los Angeles, and I think about the visits we could’ve had, the conversations, the insights I would’ve gotten from him. Maybe, if I’d matured faster, he would’ve seen me as an equal and not abandoned me. Maybe, if I hadn’t made a certain snide remark that last visit in New York… Maybe…

I sometimes have visions of waiting another twenty-five years and visiting him in a nursing home and grabbing his shoulders and demanding an explanation for the decades of silence.

I believe friendship has been compared to clothing: having a shirt for a certain amount of years, and then discarding it. Some friendships, I know, are not meant to go the whole way, from schooldays to death. It’s understood that romance often fails to make the long journey, but people seem to take it for granted that friendship is by definition more permanent.

I have gained insights from other people’s losses. I’ll say, “Are you still in touch with so-and-so?” and they’ll say, “No, no, they lost interest years ago.” It’s helpful to keep things in perspective, to realize that I’m not the only one. The common thread in all these cases is middle age. The young mind hasn’t fully developed; it’s open to many things; it’s spontaneous; it’s flexible; and it’s fine with being dumb some of the time. The older mind has thickened and ossified into a state of cozy pickiness and prickliness and odd prissy rules and boundaries; it’s not as accepting of peccadillos and slights; it’s set in its ways and just doesn’t have time. And maybe Walt is just as ashamed of his 24-year-old self as I’m ashamed of mine. Who wants to go back and relive the beautiful and stupid days? Not Walt, I’m sure. And not me.

If he were sitting across the table from me now, I’d say something simple and banal like, “I am sorry we lost touch.” I wouldn’t ask him why. I’d be diplomatic, even though most of the time I despise him. What I need to do is release the anger. Put on my boxing gloves and pound the punching bag at the gym, and then do some deep breathing and affirmations, the way I learned in therapy.

One of the best concepts I got out of therapy (and therapy is the thing Walter, more than anyone else, steered me toward): “It’s not what happened; it’s how you deal with what happened.” Over the last twenty-two years I have dealt with it poorly or not at all. Releasing anger, as I’ve described, is one way to come to terms with the loss. Writing this post is another. The slogans of all the 12-step work I’ve done are useful. But as another member of group therapy (an old-timer) said in one of our meetings, “You do all that stuff, you do the meditations and affirmations and the anger work and it’s still gonna hurt.”

I’m sorry that Walt didn’t get a chance to know the mature me. But looking at the tape of him in tweed ensconced in his philosophy chair, I’m not all that sorry I didn’t experience the new him. I like what he has to say about recognition and fame and its relation to evil—I am, like him, preoccupied with thoughts of accomplishment and posterity. I like his thoughts, but the actual Walt I see before me is, for the most part, not the person I knew.

 

I wonder if the attraction he admitted to in the early days wasn’t in some part reciprocated by me in a purely platonic form. I never viewed him as an object (I was into young jocks). But in some way he may have been the “love” of my life. I had the kind of friendship with him that you only get a chance to have in your young years, when you’re free to be dumb and smart and mean and compassionate and giddy with life and future hope in one long session over French toast and coffee at Tom’s Restaurant.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Carol V. Davis’s “Because I Cannot Leave This Body” (Truman State University Press)

Carol V DavisAs I was reading Carol V. Davis’s new collection, Because I Cannot Leave This Body, I was often reminded of Sidney Lumet’s great 1964 film The Pawnbroker, about a troubled Holocaust survivor in New York City. Even though he has managed to escape the horrors and evils of the Old World, he can’t—understandably—let them go. They haunt him and they add depth as well as an atmosphere of doom to all his encounters in what should be the capital of the Free World and the Land of Opportunity. No matter what happens to him, the ghosts of the Old Country will not go away. And they don’t go away in Davis’s poems, either. Superstition hovers over this collection like an ominous Easter Island statue, and often the “old wives’ tales” come from the Jewish experience in the Old World, though not, in this case, the Holocaust.

From the beginning, the reader is made aware of this dark, almost Gothic atmosphere with Davis’s affinity for words like raven, crow, willow, omen, hemlock, ghost, dybbuk, witch and Satan. One of the early poems is called “Long Shadows,” and that could be an alternate title for the book. It’s the long shadows of the past that can’t quite go away, even in an American landscape so different from (and supposedly much cheerier than) that of Poland and Russia. The shadows and the burdens of an antique European and Jewish past come into particularly sharp focus in “Speaking in Tongues,” in which Davis, an avid traveler, has come face to face with cowboys in a Wyoming bar. Even though she’s an American, she finds that on a deep level she doesn’t speak the cowboys’ language, nor do they speak hers:

In unfamiliar landscapes
Yiddish diminutives, terms of endearment,
drop from my tongue, morsels, a little sweet, a little sour.

Then the curses begin their training: bulking up
on a diet of sarcasm and sneers, centuries of practice
honed to this art.

The Wyoming cowboys in the bar
stare at me in disbelief.
They’re used to horses that whinny but this sounds
like something you’d attach to those decorated manes,
the kind no real cowboy would get near.

What exactly “this” is remains intentionally mysterious. Davis is condensing whole conversations, gestures, looks, into very concise language, but the key word is “curses.” It’s not spelled out entirely what she means, but I take it as a way of looking at the world that is tinged with, as she says, sarcasm and sneers, and a heavy load of shtetl suffering without (as she tells us in another poem) the usual humor we might associate with that worldview. “Speaking in Tongues” continues:

A geologist, also not from these parts, explains in a tone
reserved for restless third graders, just how to find a vein of coal.
Never mind the tops of mountains sheared off crew-cut style.
If he doesn’t find it, someone else will.

In Virginia they asked if
I’d ever seen a real movie star. I’ve seen plenty:
without all that makeup, they’re not so special.

In these two stanzas she does something very interesting: she dares to introduce people and set up quite a bit of “exposition” in a short poem. Normally this isn’t a good idea, and the way Davis does this doesn’t always work well, but here it’s fine. Nor does she ever attempt to be too musical; I sense she has no time for musical musings. She wants to get to the point in her direct, austere way. As for the content of these stanzas, she temporarily removes herself here from the persona of a shtetl survivor, to a conscientious (blue-state) American concerned about the environment in a state that ought to be protecting it; then suddenly she’s in Virginia—a big leap—confronted by people who believe Angelenos are always running into movie stars.
But she returns to Wyoming in her last stanza:

These curses didn’t know where to go. The bar was full.
Every time one fiddler sat down, another jumped in.
Barely room to squeeze in between one slide of a bow and the next.
The windows fogged up; outside the snow thickened like insulation.
It was time to get serious: the curses hauled out
everything they had and let them have it.

The fogged windows and thick snow happen in a Wyoming bar, but inside the poet, she’s somewhere in the Old World. Instead of embracing nature, she’s fighting the elements. Instead of enjoying herself with the locals, she’s engulfed by the old curses. She’s more in the world of Fiddler on the Roof than that of the American West (could the reference to fiddlers be unconscious?).

As for actual superstitions, they are mentioned time and again. In “Animal Time,” she relates how her parents “drove cross-country to / Death Valley, last leg of their escape from New York, / the thick soups of their immigrant mothers, generations / of superstitions that squeezed them from all sides.” In another poem, “Flying Off the Page,” she writes:

After I had babies, I’d rise in the dark, sleepwalk
to their rooms to check their breathing.
People once believed the soul escaped the body at night

to return to heaven and had to be enticed back every morning.
And a sneeze, an omen of death, expelled the soul.
Only a blessing would prevent Satan form snatching it.

And then, toward the end of the book, there is a really remarkable poem called “On a Suburban Street,” in which the superstition imagery reaches quite a climax. It’s got almost everything: snakes, spiders, scepters, a Greek chorus, crows, squirrels, lanterns, mockingbirds, warblers, an evil eye, tree roots, and an earthquake.

So what’s with all the superstition? Different things are going on. She is not noticeably religious, nor is she—I sense—genuinely superstitious, but all the old tales have come down to her as a quasi-religion, as her cultural inheritance, as a way of coping, and a way of connecting to a mythical past. Christian Americans have their religion, and Greek and Roman myths before that, either as something to believe in or as a reference point and a way to decorate their work. Davis lays claim to superstition as her own personal stock-in-trade, if you will. As much as it infuses her work, though, she’s not obsessed with it, and there are plenty of places where she reveals she’s a fine nature writer. From “Late January: Wyoming Storm”:

Sediment to rock, trilobites
in the sandstone and shale.
Minerals float to the surface, limestone
to marble. Pink-tinged granite,
there for the gathering.
You can track this landscape the way
a phrenologist traces protuberances of a skull.
Topography that expands, then
compresses to its vanishing point.

Davis is by no means always on the lookout for the czar’s horses and sabers; she may have concerns that haunt her book, but she lets her poems breathe. She has a whole series of fine ekphrastic pieces, for instance, and in her last poem she valiantly touches on a topic dear to all creative people, and maybe all people full-stop: the wish for applause and recognition. Here she is in “Master Class,” sitting in an audience but nervous for students singing their difficult arias in front of a demanding teacher:

They may not be here for applause, but isn’t that what we all want,
if only once: to be tossed a bouquet onstage, cheered and greeted
by throngs of well-wishers at the stage door.

Alicia Ostriker’s Waiting for the Light (University of Pittsburgh Press)

I have been reading Alicia Ostriker’s newest book, Waiting for the Light. When I saw that ethereal title (Ostriker is a senior now),  I was preparing for sunsets, tunnels, and late autumn days. That title, however, is a tease, but I will not reveal how exactly, except to say that most of the poems here are far from autumnal, and in fact are emphatically contemporary and relevant. I doubt she composed most of the poems after the election returns came in, which means they speak about our times and our country in general, but they do have a particular resonance during the weird era we’ve suddenly found ourselves in since November 8 of last year.

 
One of the most memorable pieces is called “America the Beautiful.” It is a ghazal. I’ll quote from the middle of it:

 
School days school days dear old Golden Rule Days
when we learned how to behave in America

What to wear, how to smoke, how to despise our parents
who didn’t understand us or America

Only later learning the Banner and the Beautiful
live on opposite sides of the street in America

Only later discovering the Nation is divisible
by money by power by color by gender by sex America

We comprehend it now this land is two lands
one triumphant bully one still hopeful America

 

 

What I notice about this work is its fresh wisdom and directness of approach. It is not glamorously layered writing meant to dazzle and impress, the kind an ambitious up-and-comer would write to make a big splash in the world. On the contrary, this is the style of someone who “arrived” long ago and no longer needs to show off. This style is the only thing remotely “autumnal” here. As for this poem in particular, the references to the bully and hopeful America are clear to us in 2017, but what is striking is that there have always been two Americas: this was true during Ostriker’s school days circa 1950 (a time of a rising middle class, a time of optimism free of Depression and—more or less—of war, but also a time of puritanism and continuing racial injustice); and this was still true in 2010 (with a shrinking middle class and less prosperity but also more rights and freedoms for large swaths of the population). In our new post-November 8 world, however, the skies seem to have permanently darkened and an era of disbelief and gloom has set in. Those who resist our new Overlords are often now referred to as belonging to the Indivisible movement. Ostriker’s ghazal could be, and maybe should be, the anthem of that movement.

 
Many of the poems in this collection celebrate the Big Apple. Ostriker does a fabulous job of evoking what is glorious and hideous and sublime and shameful in that most neurotic of cities (and other cities like it). In this vision of the metropolis, things aren’t black and white. “The Glory of Cities” is an Ostriker poem that pushes us headlong into the crazy capitalist soup without heavy-handed irony:

 
Let us now praise famous cities, our human fists against heaven, let us praise
their devotion to wealth and power and art, goals toward which we swim
ferociously upstream, tearing ourselves apart, to lay our eggs and die

along with swarms and herd of our brothers and sisters, let me especially praise
the cities of the Northeast Corridor from Boston to the District
of Columbia, birth-lips of trade and industry, thumbs of unbeatable deals,

their mayors and their mistresses, their Chinese and Korean neighborhoods
their Pakistani taxis, their Afro-American subway systems igniting
their steel drum arpeggios, moonwalks, laden shopping bags, all superb

for staring at people while sinking into invisibility.

 

All this is great writing, as good as it gets when it comes to the urban experience, or at least the Northeast Corridor urban experience. It’s a poem that doesn’t lecture but sings. And then it takes a turn in its last two stanzas. Having covered cool men and hot women and anarchists and waitresses, it now focuses on an immigrant:

 
I watch this boy

he is off the boat, he is thinking food and freedom, he is sending
the money order back home, it is so easy, there is a bank
on every corner of the Upper West Side,

he is a little high, so when the officer detains him,
he is slow producing his ID. Fuck. Fuck.
Watch his hands. Now watch the cop’s fast hands.

 

 

What could be more timely? The restraint and the artistry are exquisite. I can just see the poet sitting in an outdoor café recording her impressions. They have the smell and flow and rhythm and taste of real life; Ostriker never gets on a soapbox. It is a loving, generous voice we find in these pages.

 
Gotham really serves as the foundation of this collection, which after many urban poems proceeds to explore America and the world more broadly. Ostriker was right to put so many New York poems at the beginning, since that city contains everything that is fabulous and hideous in this world, and not just the USA, and helps build up the rest of the collection. In “Times Square,” which I’ll quote here in its entirety, Ostriker offers the history of that iconic place from about 1950 through its low ebb in the ’70s and ’80s (as I remember it!) to its current more clean-cut incarnation:

 
Great white way when I was a tender ten
first time downtown agape at cheerful billboard

smoke rings every four seconds puffed form the painted
lips of a man who would walk a mile for a Camel

then sordid shabby & sleazy, risky & stinky & low
digital Godzillas catapulted from manhole

now crazy clean your Disney scene
warrior girl in heels, boy with banana

sky-high waxed torsos & the crawl at the bottom
to let us know how the Dow is doing this very minute

selling everything in the world—luxury limos, lattes
fashion entertainment & sport—your neon fire

forever changing forever displaying the same
intolerable unquenchable human desire

 

 

I hope this poem will still be around in a thousand, two thousand years, so that people of the future will know what the capital of “civilization” was like. How much will they be able to understand? Will they have a tough time with words like “Disney” and “Camel” and “Dow”? But from our viewpoint, now, this poem offers a rich history and slice of life. Her last word is, importantly, desire. Mad, crooked, amazing desire simmers in almost every part of this collection. Here she modifies desire brilliantly with two adjectives: intolerable and unquenchable. This desire—what we might also call the Will—is responsible for all that is wonderful and awful in this world. Left and right, First World and Third Word, bully and victim, cop and immigrant, sheriff and protester, mogul and peon—wherever we turn in this book, there are likely to be conflicts and tensions, and desire is at the root of all of them, a raucous desire that hums along like crazy New York City itself.

Revocable Trust

 

Ambition and greed in fashion woman with jewelry in hands on black background

Ambition and greed in fashion woman with jewelry in hands on black background

a selection from the last part of my memoir, the only selection I’m publishing here on my blog………….

 

            The house never changed at all, and neither did our old San Franzisko neighborhood. The big house withstood the fog that came in most days from the ocean. It withstood daily gunfire from the rifle range across Lake Merced as well as earthquakes, some of them severe. People withered and died, but the house just stood there stoically facing the lake as well as the lions that roared and the seals that cried out at midnight from the zoo. I could go back to my old room and it could easily be 1974, until I looked in the mirror and discovered a man in his forties, with more than a few gray hairs. I loved the house so much that I sometimes pitied it, as you can pity a living thing. It remained empty nearly all year long, since my father spent most of his time with his lady-friend in Beverly Hills Adjacent, not far from me in the northeast corner of Los Angeles. And so, whenever I went back, I spoke to the house and assured it that one day it would welcome a young family living there again; one day it would be warmed by children and animals within its walls.

Henry Frankel shriveled and shrank, but neither of us wanted to fully accept that he was older than fifty or that I was much more than nineteen. We worked to keep me innocent and young about money, and I still called him “Deddi.” I reached my forties before I realized the significance, for Americans, of the date April 15. I sometimes didn’t pick up my paycheck from the university for days, and then would leave it in my backpack for weeks before I deposited it. The phone company often threatened to cut me off for not paying my bills. I never listened to the stock market report, and why should I?  I had a checking account, a few thousand dollars in savings, and a Visa card linked to my father. I never paid for my own gas. And yet I lived simply in a one bedroom apartment near Cal State L.A.; I dressed in the careless way of most male college instructors; I drove an old car; I didn’t travel. I accepted my unusual condition of dependence and thought about it as little as possible.

One Friday morning I lay in bed until late in the day. When I checked my voicemail, I heard a message from Deddi’s companion, Rhoda Goldfarb: my father had driven to San Franzisko, weak with kidney stones and diabetes, and had fallen in the bathroom. He’d struggled on the floor for twelve hours until he could crawl to a phone. The paramedics had climbed in through a window and taken him away. “He’s not doing well,” said Rhoda. “You need to go up there and act like a son for a change. Good-bye.”

By that evening—after a daylong drive and frequent updates from nurses who inexplicably found my father “sweet” and “kind”—I was sitting at his bedside in a hospital near my old high school and synagogue, the same hospital where my mother had died of cancer so many years before (we never truly lived in the wholesome American San Francisco, but in our own moldy German-Jewish San Franzisko).  He lay in bed awake and frail, his eyelids drooping every time he made the effort to speak. He’d taped a picture of Rhoda to the wall. “This is my love,” he declared to the nurses.

Henry Frankel now turned into my grandfather. I learned to carry his briefcase and his belongings from the house to the hospital. I learned to open his bills and his checkbooks and enter his inner sanctum of high finance. I was going to have to grow up now.

I stayed in San Franzisko two long weeks. Rhoda Goldfarb phoned from Beverly Hills Adjacent with instructions, opinions, demands, but never came up.

I stayed alone in the empty house. Sometimes, at night, I avoided listening to music, because I was afraid it would mask sounds of trouble somewhere in that big house. I could imagine an orchestra playing, but in the midst of the concert, I pictured a doorknob turning, a door opening, and a hooded intruder standing there wielding a carving knife. At night I needed absolute silence, so I could keep track of all the creaking floors, all the rumblings from distant corners.

When people want to insist on the beauty of San Franzisko, they can’t be thinking of days and weeks alone in a big house with a father in the hospital. They can’t be thinking of days of visiting a sick father and coming home to an empty house with gunfire from the rifle range always in the background. They can’t be thinking of thick fog and foghorns and a phone that never rang, unless it was Deddi calling with feeble instructions or reprimanding me for something I’d forgotten to do for him.

After I returned to L.A., Rhoda Goldfarb consented to a break from her bridge tournament in Beverly Hills Adjacent; it was now her turn to come up and take care of him in our house. My father spent days readying the place, even summoning the strength to do some of the dusting and cleaning. He knew how exacting she was about housekeeping.

She threw out my old toys, my seven unique clocks, all my art from grade school, my stuffed baby cobra, my bust of Thomas Jefferson.

He appeared to improve a little. He regained some of the weight he’d lost. He walked without a cane. He paid his bills. He read. He yelled at waitresses and left insulting tips. But his body was consumed with the internal business of shutting down.

Rhoda did not see any need to keep me informed of my father’s condition, so it came as a shock one day, near the end of October, when by chance I found out he’d been re-admitted to the hospital.

I was there when the doctors and nurses rolled him back to his room after his latest procedure. He smiled in the fake-saccharine way that might have been in vogue around 1930 somewhere in Europe: “I invite you gentlemen to the most marvelous feast!”

I was there when he saw Bill Clinton on the ceiling. “Really?” I said.  “But everyone’s talking about Hillary.”  And I began to feel my side warming up pleasantly; a moment later I realized it was his urine.

I phoned Deddi’s lawyer and asked, “If he passes away, what is the first thing that will need to be done?” He answered with a more general and ominous point: “The first thing that will have to be done is sell the house.”

I rushed home and, while Rhoda was out with her new San Franzisko bridge partners, I rummaged through the hiding place, under a bedspread in his closet, where my father had always told me I’d find his will. I saw my name: “All assets shall be distributed to ALEX M. FRANKEL” and then I saw the other name: “$100,000 shall be distributed to RHODA GOLDFARB.” A moment of relief but, just based on the lawyer’s words and tone, I continued my search for papers: I needed to know what my future would look like, I needed some firm, or unfirm, knowledge—anything. In the top right-hand drawer of his desk, I found an innocuous manila envelope with a new will that invalidated the old ones. It was dated May, 2007, after his fall, when he was weak and helpless. I turned the pages: solemn language handed down from a misty but implacable Roman and medieval past, words like declaration, restatement, hereby, pursuant, codicil, amendment, revocable, inoperative, attestation, witness, testator, trust. Trust—an interesting word, I wondered what it meant, in this context. I didn’t know many legal terms. Trust. I had always trusted my father. A twelve-step sponsor used to say to me, “You are so trusting, you take people at their word.” I turned pages, looking for changes, sensing they were coming. Falling, falling alone, more alone than ever before. I was bad, unclean—maybe people were right to want me invisible: the schoolyard children from the seventh grade, the exciting young men from the streets and the gay bars, and now my own father. “The sum of $100,000.00 (One Hundred Thousand Dollars Exactly) shall be distributed to Settlor’s son ALEX M. FRANKEL, currently residing in Los Angeles, California, if he survives me for 30 (thirty) days. If she survives trustor for ninety (90) days, then all of the rest and residue of the trust estate and assets of the Trust shall be distributed to RHODA GOLDFARB, currently residing in Beverly Hills, California, outright and free of trust, and the trust shall then terminate.” What did it mean to revoke trust? Who was doing the revoking? I had done most of the trusting, but it seemed to me that someone else, now, was doing the revoking. What did it mean to be “free” of trust and to “terminate” trust? Now, in my hands, I held the answer to my future. A hundred thousand from my father to me, and Rhoda Goldfarb—almost a stranger—had won. I began to do primitive calculations in my head. I knew the house was worth over a million. I knew my father had a million in investments. Where had I made my mistake? When had I been bad?

*

Before I left his bedside that night, I recited my boyhood German prayer. He didn’t seem at all surprised or annoyed, and he even joined in, with his eyes closed. He said the words meekly, innocently, together with me. What a gentle old man he could be, what a good Deddi.

           

Tired am I, and go to rest,

            Close both my little eyes.

            Father in heaven may your eyes

            Watch over my little bed.

            Amen 

 

I had an idea. I took out my phone: “Record a message for me, please! Tell me good-night!”

He smiled and nodded faintly and, still with his eyes closed, said in a strong voice, “Nighty night, sweetie!” as I held the phone to his lips.

*

I drove around until late. I needed to avoid our house with his lady-love in it. At dawn I parked by the windmills at Ocean Beach and fell asleep.

There were four messages when I awoke. Impossible—I’m never that popular. Then I realized who they were from. “Where are you? Go to the hospital immediately,” instructed Rhoda Goldfarb. “You need to go to St. Mary’s now,” she said in her second message. In her third she said, “I left you two messages already. Go and see your father. Go and see him at once.” Her final message: “This is the last time I’m calling. It’s almost nine in the morning. Go to the hospital. You know where it is.”

On the fifth floor of St. Mary’s, someone had taped a sign on the door to his room: “Please see nurse before entering.” I opened the door and found my father in a bag.

Ten, twenty years of preparing for this moment and I wasn’t prepared. I unzipped the bag and saw his face—what an odd expression there. He didn’t seem in pain. His lips were pursed, as if he were about to speak.

I said the Serenity Prayer over and over. What was going to happen to me now without a Deddi?

He hadn’t really been sick. He hadn’t had either a heart condition or cancer. Eighty-seven was too young. I needed him there another few years; I even needed an angry father, anyone, anything, just not alone.

I put his glasses on him so that he would look more like himself. I felt his hands, cold but not stiff. Why hadn’t I been in the room when he died? Someone mentioned it happened at 3:00 a.m. No one around him but the professionals.

*

I brought his graveclothes to Sinai Memorial Chapel. I stood under what memory insists was a silver and gold rotunda. I brought his blazer, slacks, a dress shirt. And suddenly, standing on the other side of the room, I saw another man, also carrying clothes for the same reason. Our eyes met. We didn’t talk. What is the proper form of conversation for such a meeting? He looked at me; I looked at him. We said nothing. I turned away.

I sat down with the undertaker, a reserved and businesslike fellow who did not shake my hand. Because I’d often heard how mortuaries take advantage of people in distress, I chose the cheapest coffin I could, which seemed to displease the man.

I still had Deddi’s voice on my phone. I needed it. “Nighty-night, sweetie!”

I drove around San Franzisko and walked in the park, where rich young couples pushing strollers greeted other rich young couples pushing strollers. I spent yet another night in my car, not willing to face our old house taken over by Rhoda.

And then, the day of the funeral, I drove up to the Hills of Eternity and walked uphill to the grave where my mother had now been for thirty years. My father was to be buried next to her. I went to the coffin, hugged it, wept into its shiny brown contours and imitation gold.

About six or seven people showed up.

I watched Rhoda Goldfarb arrive; she looked like royalty decked out in black. She did not acknowledge me. I watched her walk on the grass among the graves in her severe attire. She knew how to dress for these events.

The cantor who’d officiated at my bar mitzvah conducted the service—what a comforting act of continuity! As if all those years hadn’t passed. Rhoda Goldfarb did not speak. I did speak: I’d written up a eulogy at 4 a.m. I still have it; I keep the torn, coffee-stained pages in my glove compartment. It reads, in part:

The happiest I ever saw him was the night we went to see Life is Beautiful. It may seem odd that a film about an Italian Jew condemned to an extermination camp would be so uplifting and so positive and would make him so happy, but it was the happiest I’d ever seen him. He was a survivor. Being a German-Jewish refugee in Shanghai taught him how to survive. Life is beautiful. Life will be hard without him. He lay there in the hospital on Friday morning and all around him life was going on even though he had left it behind. On his door, someone had put a note: Please see nurse before entering. You don’t say “death.” But I say “death” and I protest.

People talk nicely by the grave because the sun has broken through. Neckties. Dresses. A scent of Sunday even though it isn’t Sunday. That coffin, glossy as a baby grand, gets eased casually, with little ceremony and no protest, into the earth.

Eternal rest grant unto him O Lord . . . 

Sprinklers. Neckties.

To lead him into paradise . . . the bosom of Abraham.

No one is crying.  Orchids, dresses, light, sprinklers, bugs. There should have been music. Too late now.

The coffin is covered up with dirt by sullen men. People scatter quickly.  Rhoda departs without appearing to notice me.

*

The day after my father’s funeral, a tall, grizzled lawyer appeared at the house, rang the doorbell. Maybe my time in hell would be over soon. I was swallowing a Xanax tablet in my childhood bathroom when I heard the chimes ring. “Alex!” called Rhoda Goldfarb, and let the lawyer in. Like the undertaker, the attorney did not shake my hand and chose to get down to business, dispensing with polite preliminaries. Since I had taken a look at the will, there were no surprises when the man gestured to Rhoda, who sat on a distant couch, and said, “Your father left his estate to Rhoda Goldfarb, with a provision of $100,000 for you.” I remember his hand: he sat in an armchair and so easily gestured to Rhoda, so easily, so casually with his right hand indicated that she was to receive what should have been mine.

The lawyer handed us papers. “Here are copies of all his previous wills,” he told us, “so you can note the changes.”

Where we sat seemed important: I was in the round armchair that swiveled and had belonged to my mother, her favorite chair—“Mami’s chair,” where she’d sat the day she told me about my adoption. The attorney was seated in a stiff fancy-fretwork chair from Thailand, a gift from business people of the ’70s. And Rhoda sat in the new sofa she herself had selected, having thrown out the old one which had been in our family for twenty years. And everything in the room—as per Rhoda’s instructions and wishes—had been re-upholstered in white: beautified, purified by the cool simplicity of whiteness.

“It might take as long as a year to sell the house,” the lawyer said.

“A year!” Rhoda didn’t like this one bit.

It had been a good idea to medicate with the sedative. Sometimes I caught Rhoda looking at me, perhaps wondering why I wasn’t more surprised by the news the lawyer had brought. And that interested me: the lawyer brought us news; we didn’t have to present ourselves at his office. This scene didn’t resemble—physically, at least—the classic movie or TV image of relatives sitting in a dark, wood-paneled law office while a dignified man of years, seated behind his desk, informs those gathered around of a deceased person’s good or bad last decisions.

There were quite a few boring details to mention—and the lawyer mentioned all of them.

The talking went on and on; I felt so thankful for the sedative.

And the lawyer slipped out as quietly as he’d come in, almost bashfully, like a waiter.

*

Most of Henry Frankel’s possessions went into boxes and crates.

I stopped sleeping in my car and faced up to spending a few last days and nights in my old room. Constantly I heard high heels in the walk-in closet and the master bedroom. Once I picked up the phone and overheard Rhoda talking to a man whose voice I didn’t recognize. Instantly, I understood that she already had a new admirer.

One night, while I was sitting on the floor packing books, she appeared in the doorway of my room. “You left a mess downstairs,” she said.

“Did I?” I was trying to fit venerable old volumes of my Encyclopedia Britannica into boxes they’d given me at the market. I tried not to look up. “I’ll get to it later.”

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Rhoda crossing her arms over her chest. “Your father was right about you. So untidy. So scatterbrained . . . You had difficulties in school, didn’t you?”

“Just with math and science.” Still without looking up, I tried to focus our attention on the books in my hand. Before there was the Internet and Google, there was the Encyclopedia Britannica—a source of hours and hours of wasted time. “I used to love these books,” I said. “I even loved the smell of the pages.”

“Yeah,” said Rhoda. “Math and science, math and science. Your father told me about your troubles. Summer sessions, private tutors, afterschool classes and whatnot, but you never got it, did you?”

“I never got it.”

“You weren’t too studious either, were you? Except in English. Except poetry!” I noticed she made an effort to showcase the word “poetry.”

Near me I kept bubble-wrap and tape as well as a pair of rusty old scissors we’d had in the family ever since I could remember. They were classic and rather frightening office scissors.

“Maybe,” I said, “I inherited a few traits from my birth parents, have you ever thought of that? My biological father was an intellectual, no head for business.”

“Oh Alex, don’t get me started on that,” said Rhoda. “You hurt your father—I mean the man who brought you up. It sickened him when you came up with those people out of the blue and announced you were going through with a reunion. A reunion!”

I went on with the motions of packing.

“Those were my birth parents. I had a right to find them.”

“Who gave you that right?”

I was nearly finished with a box but feared grabbing hold of the scissors to cut the tape, feared what I might do with them in my hand.

“Well, he’s at peace now,” I added quietly, looking at the floor.

“When are you going to get to the mess? The dining room’s a disaster.”

“I’ll get to it soon.”

She took a step into the room and, hands at her hips, looked at the walls. “Pictures of composers! They must be worth something. You should have them appraised.”

“I might,” I said.

“Most American boys collect baseball cards, but you had to collect portraits of composers and classical records,” Rhoda observed.

“I guess that’s the way it was.”

“You didn’t talk baseball and football with your father, you talked music!”

“There’s nothing wrong with that.”

She stood close to me, in my old room, in her new house. I could smell her Chanel. I looked at the scissors, shiny and sharp.

“He worked so hard to put you through high school and college and grad school, Alex, he wanted you to make something of yourself.”

“I did make something of myself.”

I heard her laugh. I was still on the floor and she was still standing over me. “It wasn’t his idea of success,” she said. “What do you make, fourteen dollars an hour?”

“Seventy.”

“But no retirement, I heard, no benefits . . .”

With the scissors it would have been so easy to do so much, but it would have taken too long and been extremely messy. I liked where my imagination took me.

“What are you now, fifty?” she said to me.

“Forty-five.”

“I thought you were older.”

“Forty-five.”

Then she was walking around in my room—freely, openly. She had taken possession, even of this space that had once been my sanctuary. She’d been my father’s higher power, no use denying it. Was she mine too?

I wanted her out. I wanted to get the packing done. Soon it was going to be time for Ambien and sleep. What would I have done without Ambien?

“Your father worked hard for you,” I heard Rhoda say. “It’s a shame you treated him the way you did.”

“We didn’t dwell on it.”

“Oh, you’re wrong about that. He dwelled on it. When you weren’t there.”

“No doubt,” I said. “No doubt.”

“He was such a kind, generous man, but you never got to know him, did you? Sometimes he’d come back from having lunch with you, and he was so down. I didn’t like to see him that way. He was suffering.”

Hundreds of more things to pack. I’d barely started. I looked around at the piles of books but kept snagging my eyes on the bright scissors on the floor beside me.

“He knew you didn’t love him,” said Rhoda. “I wish you’d tried, but you were always too selfish for that, weren’t you?”

“I tried. You only knew him a few short years. He was my father, and I was the best son he could’ve asked for.”

“You weren’t. You never came to visit, you neglected him. That’s not how a son behaves.”

Maybe if I hadn’t been grieving, the rage in me would have shot to the surface and I wouldn’t have been able to control it. I knew that since Rhoda was not grieving, it was easy for her to pick a fight as if these were just normal times.

“You weren’t there when he had pneumonia last year,” she went on. “Or when he had  the gallstones removed. Or when he almost lost his hearing. You were never around. I did everything.”

“Yes, you did it all. He was lucky!”

But she wouldn’t be sidetracked. “I used to tell him he was too permissive with you when you were growing up. With a little firmness, a little old-fashioned strictness . . .”

“Yes, what then?”

“Why, you might’ve turned out more normal.”

I looked at the floor. “More to his liking? More to yours?”

“More normal.”
“Normal, I see.”

“With just a little strictness. I don’t know how often I told him—”

“Rhoda!” I jumped up, startling her, but she was in her element, prepared for battle, pleased with where this might be going. “Rhoda, I want to give you something.” I groped for a box full of odds and ends on the shelf behind her. I took out a picture of my father on a Caribbean cruise, circa 1974. He was strong, tanned, slim, hardly a grey hair on him yet. “I bet you haven’t seen this one.” For a second she looked confused. “You only knew him when he was older,” I said. I took her hand and placed the framed picture in it. “I want you to have this, please.”

“Oh.” She looked down at the picture. “Yes, it’s lovely, thank you.” Deddi was standing on a sun-deck in a beige leisure suit and smiling at us with lips tightly shut. “I hadn’t seen this one, you’re right.”

I turned around and sat back down on the floor and went on with my packing. She passed through the room and out the door without another word.

Rhoda packed; I packed (I almost wrote “we,” but there was no “we”). Days went by. Sometimes her new boyfriend would leave soft, flirty messages openly on my father’s answering machine. One morning I woke up and realized she’d left for Southern California—along with her new china and stemware, as well as two Persian rugs, several lamps, and a miniature Chinese village carved into ivory, complete with temple and tower. I never saw her again.

*

A few weeks after the funeral, while the house was being readied to go on the market, I took a train and then a bus up to Yosemite.

It was winter now.  The first snow fell the night of my arrival, and the next morning I struggled to walk in the wet unplowed whiteness of the valley. I gazed up at the mountains and took pictures and, when no one was looking, I cried. My Deddi and my Mami and my grandmother! It was true that as an adult I’d tracked down my birth parents, but we hadn’t become close and I didn’t mourn them after their deaths. I had only one set of parents, those who’d raised me. And so what was I going to do now, all alone? In my cabin late at night I listened to radio voices speculate about space aliens, poltergeists, sprites, goblins, UFOs, alternate universes, life after death. An expert spoke: “Always there is life, always.” If that was so, where was Deddi now? Was he anywhere besides just gone? By day I walked in the cold and the slush—cold as Siberia here—and at night thawed out in the lodge and warmed my feet as near as I could get to the fire without burning myself. One evening I sat by an immense fireplace in the lobby of the Ahwanhee Hotel and watched partygoers in costumes file into the great dining hall. They were wearing Tudor-style costumes—bodices and petticoats and ruffles and lace cuffs—and they were laughing, life was good, life seemed to have at least a temporary purpose for them. I could never have imagined my father Henry Frankel dressed as Henry VIII, though for me he’d been as important and as mighty. On my way back to my cabin I communed with a snowman in the moonlight. “Such a good snowman out here in the cold!” I said, a child of eight rapidly turning into a man of forty-five. I patted his ice-cold belly and kissed his pine-cone nose. Slowly I walked back to my cabin. What was waiting for me there? Energy bars and talk radio. I prayed to God to ease, to deliver me from, the hatred I felt for the woman who’d stolen my inheritance. I lived mostly without God, but if ever there was a time for the Serenity Prayer, it was now. A full moon lit the way to warmth. “My Deddi,” I said out loud to just cold air. It was a comfort to have his voice on my voicemail, and there it remained for a whole year, until one day I woke up and realized I’d accidentally deleted it. The good-night message had vanished, along with my father.

 

My Night With Zsa Zsa Gabor

zsa-zsa-gabor

I was only eighteen. It was the late 1970s. I was working as a houseman (assistant to the maids) at the famous Fairmont Hotel on San Francisco’s Nob Hill. It wasn’t at all glamorous, though a lot of celebrities passed through, either to stay at the hotel or perform in the Venetian Room, or both. I was working the night-shift, five in the afternoon until one in the morning. It was my first job. The ladies who ran the housekeeping department were very strict Germans who all but terrorized us employees–she-wolves of the SS! The parts of the hotel that the guests didn’t see were crawling with giant roaches and busy with fast-moving mice. The place stank. There was no joy there. Some days, in the beginning, I cleaned out toilets in the men’s locker room, a dungeon where the vermin fed on the garbage left by workers. Whenever I could, I sneaked into maids’ closets and read Henry James or Kafka or Garcia Marquez. I was taking a year off from college.

 
When I became an assistant maid, I no longer had to clean out toilets; instead, I helped bring towels to rooms and create king-size beds out of (I think) two double beds. This was how I met Zsa Zsa Gabor.

 

Late one night I received an order to go up to a suite and make a king-size bed. When I got there, I saw the night manager, a distinguished older man in a black suit and bow-tie, fussing around and straightening things out. There were also two women speaking a foreign language. I recognized one of them and said to the night manager, “Who is that?”

 
“Miss Gabor!” he whispered.

 
A few minutes later I proceeded to roll the beds together, put a strip between them, and so on, in this makeshift way creating a king-size bed.

 
“What are you doing?” said Miss Gabor. “I can’t sleep like that.”

 
I explained to her that this was how we made a king-size bed in rooms that didn’t have them. When I was finished, I stood in the middle of the room. The night manager and Miss Gabor’s Hungarian lady assistant had dropped out of sight and it was just us in the bedroom. She accepted the bed I’d made for her now, but still complained how standards had gone down since the 1950s. She was friendly and impressive. I felt I was in the presence of royalty. She must have been in her early sixties then. She was  at once innocent and domineering. As she spoke, she put her hand on my cheek. I’ll never forget that. I was so young then, almost a child. I wonder if her gesture would be considered appropriate today. She didn’t stroke my cheek, just put her hand there gently for a second or two. It was her right hand and my left cheek. Then she went to her purse and took out a five dollar bill and handed it to me. I wished her a pleasant stay and said good-night.

 
I was star-struck and everyone down in Housekeeping could tell, and whispered about it and laughed.

 
The next evening, by coincidence, I got a chance to enter Miss Gabor’s suite after she’d checked out. I was helping the maids and noticed Zsa Zsa’s pillow. It was black and brown and every color in between, the relics of her nightly beauty regimen. One of the other housemen looked at the dirty pillowcase and shook his head. “Not very glamorous, if you ask me!”

 
This happened over thirty-five years ago. At the Fairmont that year I rode the service elevator with Ella Fitzgerald, brought a rollaway bed to Tony Bennett’s suite, and was stopped and questioned by security guards outside the Pavilion Room the night of Princess Margaret’s banquet. But the most memorable moment was the one with Zsa Zsa Gabor. RIP.