Has Been’s, Could’ve Been’s, Once Was’s, and Children

Note: Like a sliver that’s penetrated the thick skin, it needs to be removed by a sterilized needle and constant squeezing. It will continue to ache until its presence causes you far more anguish than it’s extraction. The parallels are one reason why this post means so much to me.
Me (right) and my brother (left)

My brother got my dad’s physique; I got his mental illness.

Once I assumed the role of cook a couple of years ago, I planned my menu so that every other day I’d prepare a new meal.  The only cookbook I owned was a 1960’s copy of Betty Crocker’s Cookbook.  This cookbook was my mother’s, and if you saw it, you’d think Betty Crocker herself passed it along to my mother.  It was a solid first-step for me, my hesitation quieted by my mother’s obvious use of the cookbook, evidenced by the incredible number of batter-splattered pages; missing pages; half-pages; and an index at the rear which resembled the color palette of Crayola’s 64-Color box of crayons.  There were highlighted recipes; notations at the margins; and just a few, but oddly significant in an extreme way, an ad infinitum decree by way of thick, heavy lines, one or two eliminated altogether by a formidable, dense marker, applied as determined and repeated coats, forbidding any chance that these recipes might appear on our kitchen table.

My father was already a train wreck when my brain began recording his presence.  Failing at life (mainly due to his undiagnosed mental illness, bipolar), his appearance was infrequent: his social mask was one of humor: albeit acidic sarcasm and shearing, pointed wit composed in the key of tease and enacted before an unending column of untried yet promising second-shift ladies.  His role as a bullying, boorish big shot, whose sole domestic purpose was to reprise the 1963 verbal variety of water boarding. His peacocking drove us  closer and closer to suffocation, as though with each matinée he pressed another thick pillow of despair onto our faces and then, just when our desperation went quiet and we felt that first, foamy wave of disappearance, back we’d go into his second act and the shrill, ingenuous cackle of his subordinate’s callow laughter warned us that he was gaining adoration.  And the louder the laughter, the more lewd, raunchy, and viscous his anecdotes became, and our mention increased proportionally until, by the end, the three of us, his family, descended well past indecency, a good way beyond degenerate, and somewhere between contemptible and worthless.

And as the ladies stood and he, broadcasting his manners, helped them with their coats, those ladies whose saturating attention fueled my father’s mania sending him further and further afield, looked at the three of us, fodder of my father’s insanity, and delicately lifted the corners of their mouths in an effort to produce a symbol of empathy that my father couldn’t decode.

But what those lips produced was that sneer tossed at has been’s, could’ve beens, once was’s, and children who repeatedly witness their father falling apart.

That One Mid-Morning in November, 1963

“I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”   Matthew 5:28

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I’d admittedly forgotten some vague dots over the years until a tiny ember (resembling my aging mother’s voice) leaped through my firewall. She read to me an obituary of one Ms.
Daisy Polé the sole daughter and heiress of the late Mr. Raleigh (Buck) Polé. Ms. Polé, an unmarried woman and Mr. Polé, a widower since 1941 moved to Gilroy in the Santa Clara Valley in 1964 and accepted administration of the family’s lucrative portfolio of land ownerships including the keystone of Santa Clara, the Sebastiani Vineyard among others. a-1sebastianiIn 1916 his parents, M. Benoît-Pierre Polé of La Rogue Gageac, France, and his fiancé Miss Caroline Agnew of Tippah County, Missouri, entered into a 99-year periodic tenancy of the 4,467 acre vineyard of Mr. Samuele Sebastiani. This agreement allowed Mr. Sebastiani and his heirs to farm the land autonomously for a share of each yield. In a statement issued by family attorneys: “In the margin of the original will Ms. Pole noted in her own handwriting which was witnessed that “Upon my death and by freea-1daisy4 choice, it is my wish that all landownership be dissolved immediately and set free; all the land returned to heirs of Samuele Sebastiani (as well as Banshee, R. Strong, Paradise, and Truett-Hurst).” According to the Santa Clara County Recorder of Deeds Office, Ms. Polé’s gesture is the largest periodic tenant return in Santa Clara County, and is reportedly valued at $110 million.

It was back in 1963, one of a dozen sunny and bitterly cold Mid-November mornings. It was that particular mid-November day in 1963 that Mr. R. Polé and Miss D. Polé, and Mr. B. Bleddstone were exiled from my memory. That was the day my Mother (then a deeply discounted, cash only housekeeper) exploded. Her honesty while certainly noxious was also injurious and fatal to the futures of three adults and one child.

When I was five my single-parent Mother whose career as a deeply discounted, cash only personal 0-momnmewinter.jpgHousekeeper was forced to dress me, pack her lunch, pack my lunch, check our bus fare, and one last-minute cross-check of her self supplied and professionally preferred cleaning products deftly loaded into her briefcase (a doubled National Foods, brown paper shopping bag) and haul us to her four daily housekeeping a1-housekeeperandsonjobs. And though she never said it, my waving-hand-hello’s which greeted the Mrs. of the House always – except today elicited the friendliest responses in the form of an angelic smile, pat on the head, brief tickling episode, or my favorite, an invitation to (one of my Mother’s strictly forbidden breakfasts) sandwich cookies and milk!

We never suspected the degree of turmoil Mrs. Daisy Bleddstone had deflected on a weekly basis for my Mother’s tardiness. On this intense and nippy Mid-November morning,  I stood shivering and whispered under my breath, “C’mon, it’s just a ring of keys in a car coat! Jeez!” I paced as I grew impatiently colder watching my Mother plunder her car coat like a determined cop ransacked a suspects coat for contraband. At wits end, she threw the coat to the ground, a-1momstimexchecked her Timex and proclaimed, “Holy Jesus, it’s a quarter past!” then dropped to her knees and began twisting and tearing and rifling through her proudly self-purchased woolen car coat which eventually puddled, ruined and lifeless, before her. Then my Mother in a strained, ironic voice peppered with diabolic laughter quietly confessed, “They’re on the kitchen counter!” (Again we were rushed, determined to avoid another condescending explanation of the value of her employer’s time, which is, by the way, priceless!)  “And fifteen lousy minutes to someone with all the time in the world cost me the only coat I’ve bought for myself in six years.” And as we knelt there staring at the woolen carcass, the immense front door (resembling the Wizard of Oz’s deterring, massive and inadmissible portico) opened and Mrs. Bleddstone stood there like an over starched shirt. She said in hushed tones,a-1thief her voice quivering unnaturally, as though a crook was poking her ribs with a cold snub-nosed .38 ordering, “Get rid of them or I will for permanent!”

Mrs. Bleddstone, in a breathy, desperate whisper said, “Buddy’s looking for his shirts!” “Oh Holy Jesus,” my Mother blurted flying past Mrs. Bleddstone and beelining it for the kitchen. saying over her shoulder to the Mrs.,, “They’re in the fridge staying cold and damp ready for me to iron them.” When my Mother finally emptied the Fridgedaire, the door slammed shut unexpectantly and barely missed my Mother. On the other side of the door stood Mr. Bleddstone, dressed for work except for a shirt. Mr. Bleddstone chortled, “Do you expect me to wear a wet shirt to work?” Then he buddys take-offbegan to mumble, inaudibly at first, then tightly restrained; a “can’t two damned women figure out how to iron . . . someone’s to blame and she’s going to pay, Christ! She’s going to  “Daisy,” Buddy asked casually (while he studied, carefully recalling this whole fucking debacle: ‘Which one’s really to blame? Which of the two bitches made a patsy of me? And in front of the god-damn kid!), “At what time do we begin paying our laundress and her little thimble?” “Eight o’clock Buddy, but . . . today’s an exception . . .” My Mother, hopeful that after watching eighteen months of Daisy’s acceptance of denigrating sexism and impolitic adultery, Daisy would finally go chin to chin with him.

Then Wham! Down came his fist like a butcher’s cleaver!

And again; Wham! But this time the noise and crushing impact caused Daisy to retreat to the nook next to the broom closet; as though she’d learned to protect some of her body. a1-buddy angryBuddy, without breaking his stare at Daisy, whipped his hand to within inches of my Mother’s face; yet she didn’t flinch (having been a “Daisy” years before). Buddy yelled at Daisy, “Those folk don’t get exceptions, they are exceptions! Damaged, cracked, and “hopeful’s” waiting on a dusty shelf, propped between bookends; on one side alimony and child support and on the other side a line of suitors waiting their turn . . . that is until they spot her little anchor. The kid is competition for privacy, intimacy, and affection. He’s a nuisance; one more rain-check, yet another rain-delay; stood-up because of a kid’s runny nose. Finally he gets it: Every suitor is enchanted by the promises of a lonesome blonde with ripe, plump strawberry lips. Eventually every suitor becomes disenchanted by ignored or forgotten promises of afa-1soldiersfection and boundless hours of sex. Every suitor was embarrassed that a few well-placed promises led to her mockery of the suitors understanding, forgiveness, and patience. Eventually it became clear that her primary attention and affection was toward the kid and every suitor had the leftovers. This was her way of giving the kid a daddy ’cause she knew nobody wanted to be daddy to some little bastard!”

I heard it but never saw it. The sound resembled a bat cracked during a ballgame on the a1-woman slapsmanradio. And Buddy stood there stupefied by the burning sting of a Housekeeper’s hand (a fucking Housekeeper’s hand) which hung, opening and closing quickly like the mouths of caught fish. Slowly Buddy shook off the shock, steadied himself off the ropes, his chest began to swell signaling an apoplectic eruption.

But before Buddy had the chance, my Mother, with years of staggering physical abuse; years of self-denial, of crushed hope, of denigration, of inhumanity, and the pestilence of rotting promises; finally, Catholicism’s orthodoxy of eternal damnation if she divorced a cruel and punishing bigot; and her character decaying as she endured (out of fear) the self-important icy hands (also fists) which stripped then roughly rummaged  beneath  her clothing. My Mother, her eyes locked on Buddy said, “Well, a damp shirt is more dignified than one streaked with cheap lipstick. It’s so cheap in fact, that one day one of us “Housekeepers,” will climb the basement stairs where we’ve been scrubbing lipstick longer and with more determination than I scrub the grass stains from my boy’s dungarees. All that effort so your wife (and all the other wives that I’ve worked for) won’t face the humiliation of infidelity and worse, your cruel and bemused recklessness knowing she’ll notice it, deny it, admit it just as the last drop of dignity rolls down her cheek. Daisy’s fear of life alone and the weight of the word divorcee keeps you here to be beaten like a farmyard dog; beaten when it’s convenient for him!

“Good luck, Daisy,” my mother said in whispered tones; “I hope that one day you’ll have the courage to stand-up to this cowardly bastard!”

a-1buddyyellingBuddy spun around as quickly as a toy top, his fists clenched tightly and stood inches from my Mother’s face. His fists shook and clenched tightly like a school boy’s first after school fight. Daisy reached out to Buddy’s shoulder hoping to detour his anger. Which it sure did! The interruption lit Buddy’s fuse and subsequent explosion! First was a painful back-handed slap which spun Daisy around; then bare-knuckled fists which accurately landed painfully and repeatedly at Daisy. It was then, right then as Buddy was preoccupied with torturing his wife that Buddy yelled, “you’re fired so get the fuck out of my house!

My Mother grabbed our coats and mittens and never looking back, led us quickly to the back door.  Upon opening the door my Mother and I ran smack-dab into Buck holding a plate of Danish. “Isn’t it a bit early for you and your boy to be leaving?” Buck asked. My Mother replied, “Today’s not a good day for us and it’s probably not a good day for you.” She practically ran down the sidewalk dragging me behind and didn’t slow until the Bleddstone house disappeared behind a wall of Junipers. She kneeled a-1anger and looked deeply into my eyes as though she wanted to bury something deep inside of me; something that I’d likely to forget, yet it would somehow be something that would shape my life: “Bruises aren’t tokens of love. And that first yellow and green and blue and nobility purple resemble badly applied make-up and doesn’t streak down your cheek with the tears. But, you realize, the bruise is deeper, a place that can’t be wiped away but is absorbed like the deep pile carpeting of your marriage. And as your shivering fingers deftly touch it you hear his voice, “Want one more? Another helping?” And the next morning you awaken early and study your portrait in the bathroom mirror: the accolades about your beauty just a few years ago: “Priceless, gorgeous, the face of perfection!” But this morning you realize the beauty is counterfeit. And while closing the bathroom door so he doesn’t stir, out they come sob after sob after sob after sob all fueled by unutterable recollections.

The moment Buck stepped threw the door he saw Buddy slap Daisy so hard that she’d spun, landing face down and splayed across the kitchen table. When the plate of Danish shattered as it struck the kitchen floor its sound broke through Buddy’s madness, leaving him out of breath and surprised by his degree of destruction. Buck calmly walked to Daisy, scooped her into his arms and began to walk out of the kitchen, when he suddenly turned to Buddy, “I assume you’ll be here after Daisy’s packed a few things and is sitting in my car. I think we’ve got a thing or two that requires immediate intervention. Don’t you?” Buddy stood motionless then began crying. “You know,” Buck said, “In twenty-eight years I never, not once, laid a hand on her.” Then Buck climbed the stairs with Daisy cradled in his arms.

“She wrote to you, didn’t she?” I asked.

“Yes,” she replied, “Right after Buck passed away. She said they never talked about it. Not once for all those years.”

“Never?” I asked.

“Just once,” she said sadly, “When Buck knew time was running out.”

“So?” I asked quickly.

“She asked me not to discuss it with anyone, any-one, until she passed away,” my Mother answered.

“And?” my curiosity leaped ahead of my manners.

My Mother paused, then answered, “She mentioned only two things: She said that while sitting in Buck’s car she swore a wrecking ball was demolishing the kitchen.” Then my Mother paused and in that silence I knew she was fighting back very painful memories and the tears which soon follow. Continuing, she spoke quietly, “She said while sitting in Buck’s car and for the rest of her life, that she never found an answer to this question: ‘How can love as deep as mine look like this?”

a1-bottled anger

Conventional Wisdom is an Oxymoron!

The Truth of your Action often turns to shame which eventually turns to secret(s) which requires evasion and misrepresentations which causes perjury and self incrimination and arrest.

aaa-Conventional ArrestThe penance in 1928 for this path of omission would be swift, impudent, and ruinous to his sixteen year old daughter’s moral character according to Mr. Williams, the father to Miss Williams (confirmed to be with child). The father, H. Didrickson, eighteen, from Green Bay whose moral turpitude shamelessly corrupted his daughter’s moral character, and who would experience the wrath and fury of a politic and au fait Superintendent of a timber railway in Northern Wisconsin after Mr. Williams follows the advice of Conventional Wisdom to relocate his daughter to one of the neighboring counties and corruptly gains assurance of his family’s anonymity due to the handwritten misspelling of the birth father’s surname by the County Clerk. Conventional Wisdom was the modus operandi first employed in 1838 by the ruling class, and which were widely accepted as true explanations or actions by the proletariat even though they were unexamined and unproven. Simply put, Conventional Wisdom was high society’s “rule of thumb” when dealing with the ignorant, common rabble.

aaa-wisdom1It would appear that Conventional Wisdom adamantly insisted that: 1) any scandalous; 2) censurable; or 3) malevolent activity and its vicarious, foreseeable, or misbegotten side-effect i.e. bastard, crime, or hardship be: 1) blueprints; 2) engineered; and 3) dispatched clandestinely as to: 1) disquiet suspicion; 2) stave off defamation; and 3) avoid malice.  Conventional Wisdom’s golden era must’ve been a time when the world loomed large. An age when Europe would never be a destination. A time when the thoughtlessness of Conventional Wisdom empowered mandates set forth by the secretive, dodging, and manipulating rich, powerful, and self-appointed Grand Standers for irrational, ill-mannered, and bizarre vitriol; when men and women became lifetime politicians whose focus is their career not their conscience; and obscenely privately funded think tanks that thumb their noses at Liberty and bring our country to a dead stop simply by pouting and voting “No!”

A time of waywardness, of lost directions, of greed. An environment when citizens witness abject corruption which no longer scurries like insects or vermin, but are embolden and brazen, self-absorbed, and defying, criminals that remain free but those on whom they fed, those suffering their gluttony now face thirty penniless years of old age. A time when the dream to be President of the United States was ripped from the minds of the majority and entertained by those few able to conjure at least $1 billion. These are the times of Conventional Wisdom. Times of turning inward. Times of isolation. Times of blindness, and deafness, and silence. Times of cowardice, of intelligent ignorance: That is, being smart enough to turn a blind eye, a deaf ear, and a silenced voice. Times of surrender. Times of apathy. Times of villainous denigration caused by rubbernecks, scandalmongers, and nosey parker’s. The time when Conventional Wisdom rose from arcane and obscure backwoods’ breeding to become the basis and keystone of our culture’s moral compass.

aaa-wisdom

 

Hu-mil-i-a-tion, Noun, 2. To Produce Resignation or Shame to the Dignity of Another

Humiliation comes in many flavors: decline, disgrace, resignation, ridicule, shame, stigma, and upset.

HUMILIATION BY RESIGNATION AND SHAME

A bike to a 11-year old is like a compass to an explorer; it ensures progress, freedom, and discovery.

I was eleven or so and riding my Columbia 3-speed (I really wanted the cocoa brown 10-speed Schwinn but when my father asked without acolumbiabikelooking at me – (a seldom used, but spot-on tactic {for parents reading this, it’s found in appendix C entitled “How To Use Their Own Ignorance” page MCDL of the “Parental Handbook} letting the child see for him/her self that they don’t know why they need the thing they’re asking for) “What difference can seven more gears make?  How is ten gears easier to ride than three gears?  I, of course, didn’t know about torque and gear ratios so I settled for the defensive approach, which really set myself up by saying a parent’s favorite answer, “Because everyone’s riding them!  Who rides a lime green, lame 3-speed, Columbia bike?” And then, in true triumphant spirit (knowing he played this round perfectly) my father delivered the estocada with deft precision, “You do, my boy!  You do!”

ahillAnd so I did, and so I was the only kid puttering around our neighborhood with a 3-speed which was okay until I reached the piedmont of the Great Lapham Hill.  Three speeds were clearly insufficient to maintain both balance and momentum required to propel me to the Hill’s summit.  Any bicyclist knows you need at least five or better ten gears!  And so I tried pedaling my 3-speed Columbia up the 47 degree slope and then it began, the gear torque problem; the gears on a 3-speed couldn’t withstand the amount of torque my slow pedaling and they began to slip, which in turn caused my pedals to slip, which in turn interrupted my concentrated, all-out pumping.  When my pedaling failed to produce any forward movement, which caused a stall, followed by imbalance, and eventual failure expressed by my bike and I crashing onto the street and sliding downhill several feet.  Laying in the street against the curb I was utterly ashamed of my feeble attempt and was, at last, resigned to the truth that my father’s tyrannical reign was impossible to denounce.  I felt absolutely deflated and a prisoner of my father’s own mania expressed by indifference and cruelty.  I was forced to wiggle from beneath the damned 3-speed and push not adograceride my 3-speed bike up Great Lapham Hill cursing at my father, which intensified with each step, while dragging my boyhood pride behind me.  Suddenly, from behind like a leash of Greyhounds, my classmates rode Schwinn Varsity Double-Shifter 10-Speeds flew past me and quickly disappeared behind the crest of the summit.  And then he approached quietly in the 1965 Rambler Wagon, pulled up next to me, lowered the passenger window and began his litany of taunts using his professorial tone.  At which time I sensed a kind of heartburn, but deeper and with greater volume. I began to perspire, brow first, then neck and shoulders.  This isn’t going to end on a positive note, I told myself.  And when I couldn’t restrain it any longer, out it flew like a bird set free.  But it wasn’t lunch that exploded from my mouth but a raw, quick, and cheeky bombardment of varied and loud expletives and vocabulary usually reserved for drunken sailors on furlough.  I was still screaming when he slowly closed the passenger window, put the Rambler in gear, and floored the V-8 engine which bellowed the blue smoke of burning oil.

Why did I challenge Great Lapham Hill when I possessed three crippling debilities: Obesity, three speeds, and an overwhelming hatred for my perpetually condescending father who refused to buy me a 10-speed as an example of his dominion.  Not because he was a tightwad, not avarsitybecause he couldn’t afford it, but simply to crush whatever degree of animosity I may harbor against him.  Looking back, he baited me at the very start by taking me to the bike store; then he fed me frenzied hopefulness when he stood before the twin-shifting, steel-forged and welded frame, drop handlebars, and racing seat, all painted a beautiful metallic cocoa brown, and asked, “How about this one?”  That was the exact bike I dreamt of every night.  But as I moved closer to where he stood, his eye caught the glint of a lime green bike obscured by Varsity’s and Paramount’s.  Yelling across the store at the sales clerk he said, “We’ll take this one.”  “But what about this one?  The Varsity?  This is the one I want. . .”

The sales clerk stood next to my father, paperwork in hand, when my father asked without looking at me – (a seldom used, but spot-on tactic {for parents reading this, it’s found in appendix C entitled “How To Use Their Own Ignorance” page MCDL of the “Parental Handbook} letting the child see for him/her self that they don’t know why they need the thing they’re asking for) “What difference can seven more gears make? Besides, if you can’t ride up Lapham Street on your very own 3-speed, why bother buying a bike?  Let’s get a baby carriage that you can push up the hill and have a tea party like a good little nancy.”

 

Finally Understanding Life As Mani A.

manny-young

I first met Mani A. a few months after my father died when I was fifteen.  He appeared from around a blind corner where Wong-Su restaurant and Teddy’s Tavern meet like a knife’s edge.  He was a restless, sinewy, no-nonsense blond wearing his older-brother’s-hand-me-downs.  I apologized and excused myself immediately, but he roared to life like a freshly started chainsaw and lunged at me with a ferocious diatribe about a blokes right-of-way and his unalienable rights, to which I chimed in, “But you are an alien!”  He paused, his idling mind wafting the blue smoke of burning oil, when suddenly he hit the throttle baring his teeth and chortled that he wasn’t a bloody martian, see, so piss off with the alien bullocks; crikey, he has the right to use public property as a thoroughfare without being gobsmacked by some daft wanker! until, I think, he heard himself running-on about some kind of whack job hyper-speech at which time he slowed, eventually landing softly on a patch of green peckhamengland-1grass.  I sat next to Mani A. who opened up like a teenagers compact, and divulged his personal life in Peckham, England (just outside of London), which, by the way he described it, was a tortuous place; a hometown without a home, a chilling place that nobody admitted coming from, everybody just shows up one day, street-smart and dodgy, showed up-growed up because nobody ever had a childhood.  You were either born a teen-ager or plain old smeg.  Nobody was ever just a kid; and nobody ever saw a kid.  We were around the same age and dreamt of similar things, but whereas I knew mine were silly fantasies, Mani A. was certain that whatever he wanted he could have.  No kidding.  Without the slightest doubt or reservation, whatever Mani A. wanted, Mani A. could get.  Period.  Mani A. had balls.  Whether Peckham beat them into him or he developed that confidence on his own, the strength of his conviction, no matter the degree of unlikelihood, you had to think, hey, it just might happen.  I’ve never met anyone in my entire life that expressed the depth of fortitude that Mani A. did.  I said my life must seem like a cartoon compared to yours: I was two-steps west of being white trash, and while our home lives seemed oddly similar, I never learned how to survive; I just wait.  For what, he asked leaning his elbow onto the grass.  For anything.  Anything besides this shit hole I can’t get myself out from.  At which Mani A. leapt to his feet, extended his hand and said, come on mate, I’ll show you the dog’s dinner that’ll make your life now look like a wee bit of the hard lines.  Your going to get a crash course in Peckham Survival Know-How.  First, you learn about being borne:  In Peckham you didn’t cut your teeth; you growled and snapped!  We learn to bite before there’s anything to bite.  Being ahead, that’s tickety-boo; getting ahead never happens, especially in Peckham.  And so started six months of juvenile delinquency including assault (knife-school-teacher), battery (brother), truancy, and one stern lecture from a juvenile judge away from living in a home for dangerous boys.

It wasn’t until Mani A. left town did I get my head screwed back on tight.  I toed the line, straightened out school, became popular, played sports each season, acted, sang, even led student government.  Counselor’s referred to me as the idyllic example of reform.  But in the back of my head I could still hear Mani and all the things he said and showed and prompted me to do.  Being “ways” by choice, not by reaction.  Mani didn’t show me how to live,chubbyseniorportrait Mani showed me how to survive.  Mani and I have maintained our friendship for over forty years.  One of the things I admired about Mani was his bond of friendship.  Or should I say degree of bond of friendship.  Whenever he helped take care of something cagey, I’d ask him why he’d get involved?  His answer has always been the same: friendship.  He said all other relationships have their own bloody baggage and demands and expectations, and ways to screw you in the end.  But friends are simply friends.  Easy, like looking in the mirror.  I see a wee bit of my bloody self in you.

Mani continued to visit at irregular intervals, all of which were concurrent with troubling, impossible, or unavoidable circumstances.  For example, he swung into town when my junior year in high school devolved into adolescent chaos: ducking senior hazing, sidestepping discussions highlighting my grim blue-collared, unionized, married and fatherly fate; derailing any parochial collision between varsity lettermen and my shadowy shine for Mitchell, an underclassman; and my obesity targeted by jeering and loathsome bullies.  He arrived shortly after Stokowski and I went to Union Drop Forge hoping to snag summer work which leads to full time after graduation.  Our bus drove through the “Blue Mile,” a one mile corridor of heavy, eye-reddening, cough-inducing, toxin-saturated manufacturing exhaust.  We nicknamed that part of oldermani2town the “Blue Mile” because of that solar eclipsing blue haze belched from fifty-foot smoke stacks every minute of every day.  I took my application home where it still remains blank.  I wanted my future to be unexpected.  To be a lifetime removed from the cadence of the dead-end-man: a union job, a wife, a stuffy upper flat, kids we can’t afford, dependence on two incomes, kids dumped with objecting in-laws, hate and regret pitched at the other, and some place my hope tumbled out of my greasy coveralls pocket while reaching for my lighter which I never missed until I reached for it, right after she left with the kids flanked by her objectionable parents.  That tableau was the only life option offered to kids like me.  It was expected, and you were expected to follow the guy ahead of you.  But I dreamt of the unexpected, the unpredictable chaos of life beyond the “Blue Mile.”  College required good grades, but demanded money.  The costs were way beyond my family’s reach; so far afield that going to college became a family gag.  And then, when my avenues and alleyways around the tuition hurdle went bust Mani stopped by on his way back to Peckham.  His first words were, You look like a sorry sod, chum!  causing me to expunge my year of hopelessness and depression.  He waited until I stopped crying before he said, Sometimes you’ve got to be bonkers, your mates marching to a paycheck will call you a mug, but remember life is horses for courses!  And you’ve got to be bold!  You’ve got to be; because being bold and senseless and relentless are the only way out.  Back in Peckham if you’re pegged a nesh or are sussed acting naff the rest of life in Peckham is going to be piss poor.  You and your chums go about blagging tough, and sometimes it goes fist-to-cuffs.  In Peckham it ain’t about violence because violence there is like your factory here.  In Peckham it’s about surviving life, about tomorrow.

In 2008 Mani broke all the rules.  Rather than subtle clues that he’s a stones throw away, he decided that my end game was near, so he ruptured my barrier of sanity, perforated my character, elbowed out reality, and declared chubyoldermaniautonomy.  Mani was finally emancipated; freed from the crushing compliance of decency and propriety, he ignored laws, took chilling risks, discovered a steady stream of opiates which he washed down with lethal liters of alcohol, ignored vows, ruined friendships, tossed out of jobs, denied benefits, and finally barricaded himself in the office of a psychiatrist who eventually evicted him, and reinstated my authority over the dominion of my life.

I’ve never faulted Mani for his insurgency.  He was simply providing the bravado to traverse the craggy cliffs of life, and of which I was ill-prepared to navigate.  But as Mani A. learned, freedom from consequence isn’t freedom at all.  It’s destruction, it’s disregard, it’s vengeful and dangerous and hateful and lethal   But Mani did have a knack for getting the job done which he introduced, tutored, and polished in me, providing the backbone for a career.  I think that’s how he survived: Mani and I got hired by gentlemen to take care of things quietly and cleanly.  Not that we ever broke the law, but we definitely broke the rules.  Mani recited many adages over the years, but the single-most poignant he shared with me was:  You can’t quit; every bloody cry-baby “says” they want “it,” but quit the second they’ve got to act like a chancer.  There are just two times you can quit: when you take the biscuit or hop the twig. 

 

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After 50 Years, I Can Speak My Father’s Language

I became Harold’s (my father’s name) youngest son when he was forty-nine years old.  Forty-nine today isn’t what it was in 1958, especially when you lived life full bore.  By the time I became conscious of his presence (three years old) he’d already begun his initial descent.  He had the looks of Walter Cronkite, the physique of Jackie Gleason, the temper of John McEnroe, the contempt for women of August Strindberg (Swedish Playwright and infamous misogynist 1849-1912), the alcoholism of Johnny Cash, and a creative and innovative mind in the areas of electrical and mechanical engineering.

There were just two of us (me and my older (2 years) brother.  That is, until 1972 (I was 14 years old), when the dirty laundry was aired: Our father had a previous marriage which produced two daughters and a son.  As I recall I was excited by the prospect (kind of like the “Brady Bunch“) and my brother was apprehensive and quite angry.  The confession of a first marriage only occurred because the eldest daughter had the strong desire to discover what happened to her “real daddy.”  The first wife’s precept that no one was to try to find their father until she had passed was strictly enforced and subsequently honored by all.  She passed in the early 70’s after which the eldest daughter’s search began.  As to why our mother or father kept this secret and never disclosed anything about it is anyone’s guess.

The marriage bond between my father and mother was broadsided by the wrecking ball in 1963 when the County Sheriff appeared at our front door to serve our dad his notice to vacate immediately which, we learned later, was a bitterly contested condition of their divorce. From that day on and until the day he died he expressed a cruel, ruthless and chronic acrimony and rancor toward our mother which he publicly and conspicuously displayed, especially when we visited on Sunday afternoons.  I don’t know if his brutish and vengeful behavior during our visits was aimed at my brother and I, or if he thought we’d run back to headquarters and repeat verbatim his vitriolic euphemisms such as “that god-damned pollock” (those were the only words he ever used to reference her).  I think his ruthless contention began after his first wife deserted him in the middle of the night with the children and his business partner and their business’s assets liquidated to cash.  The few things he treasured had fled in the night leaving him alone and penniless.

But he was not the victim; he was the perpetrator.

As I was to learn later in life, my father lived fast!  It took me a number of years before I could admit that my dad had already been someone else’s dad before he was mine.  What’s more, he was dad to three kids and husband to some lady some place and neighbors and club members and tavern buddies and business partners and customers all of whom I would never meet, but of whom meant very much or very little to him, and this whole other life never ever in a million years, not even for a split second ever imagined that somewhere some day in the universe there’d be Harold’s youngest child telling you their life story.  Well, until the age of fourteen I thought Harold being my dad was a one-act play; I was shocked to discover that there had been an earlier play, a one-man production entitled The First Dad is the Real Dad penned by his first family, which unbeknownst to me, devolved my one-act into a superfluous epilogue found in ancient Greek dramas.

Yet there were earlier chapters, when he was practically barbaric; young and handsome and strong and libertine.  Chapters in which he had pockets stuffed full of youthful immortality and adventurous hunger. Chapters which bore great resemblance to the stories of Hemingway or Faulkner or Steinbeck.  Chapters of male bonding and passage: acquiring the finesse of fly fishing; developing the patience of a deer hunter; learning how to set up camp.  Chapters about acquiring mechanical and electrical skills when combined with his creativity conjured up devices which awed his employers.  It’s these chapters that are out-of-print, those few siblings able to remember have long passed, names of friends or places or dates abandoned.  It would seem that my understanding of who and what my father really was would be conjecture, similar to explanations of figures in portraits painted by famous artists.

Except, there was one trail which we’d never bothered to follow: a couple of phenomenally heavy boxes which contained an enormous array of hand tools, parts, components, knobs, fuses, and rust.  These boxes had been buried in my brother’s basement for years, neither he nor I had any practical use for them.  In fact, they reminded both of us of particularly painful memories when both of us declined our dad’s invitation to study drafting in high school (and therefore follow his life’s path) and turned our attentions to the performing arts.  That was when I could feel my father’s pride drain from him as though he’d just been gutted.  But fifty years later, after I endured a break down and was determined to entertain my curiosities and creativity I spotted the art of wood working.  And I read a passage: “A Woodworker works wood with hand tools, he doesn’t machine wood with power tools.”  And so began my acquisition of various tools, all with specific purposes, and some which looked distantly familiar, as though I’d stumbled across them long ago but didn’t know what, if any, use they’d have.  What I didn’t understand then, I clearly understand now: Context was missing; meaning was missing; purpose and use and technique and discipline and understanding were all missing the first time, as an adolescent, I had found them.  But today, as I work wood with my hand tools I finally understand my father’s native language.  A language of tools and imagination and creativity.  A language of applied science.  A language which died the same day he did.

But it’s been rediscovered and is as important to me as the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.  I finally understand the language he’d been speaking, how he saw his world, what he’d use to solve problems, and why he was so devastated when my brother and I impolitely snubbed his advice about drafting class and joined glee club instead.  And while I’m overjoyed to finally uncover a common thread uniting me to my dad, it’s also bittersweet: It’s a reminder that he’s gone and a wish that I’d give anything if he and I could, for just one day, sit together in my work space and “talk shop.”

The attached pictures show my dad’s tool at the top or the left and my tool underneath or to the right of his.

Do I Look Like A Pigeon?

There’s a basic tenet of parental behavior to which many ascribe:  Whatever you don’t like, don’t understand, or frightens you about your child, you’ll try to ignore it, or threaten it, or eliminate it under the guise of childhood protection.

If you had known me as a child you would never describe me as: bashful, shy, inhibited, reserved, demure, or innocent.  Especially innocent!  I blame my lack of innocence on a creative incarceration complete with shackles, pillory, and thumbscrews (metaphorically speaking) as the adult-authority’s recommended protocol for youngsters that emigrate to the shores of their imaginations.  My crime?  Being entertained by my imagination’s liberty to dream of things or experiences which landed far beyond the limits of our lower-middle-class capabilities, and of which I insisted were possible despite our depressed economic status.  Not that I asked for things that we couldn’t afford.  I asked for things which required creativity or compromise or cunning.  I only asked for things which were possible but perplexing; things which, if I were taller or older or motorized I could procure.  But I was a short, plump, uncoordinated child that wrestled with an unbridled imagination and raw creativity which everyone described as teetering between adaptation (the positive, yet painful struggle of change: unyielding animosity between divorced parents, recent move to the south side) and abdication (an attempt to cope by disengaging himself from his misery by displacing reality with imagination).  I had just begun implementing a plan which might conquer both my hells (before/after move).  Using creativity and imagination I might be able to map my way free of their self-centered, ego-inflamed romantic ideals and out from under the shitty and selfish mess the adults-in-charge created, then forced down my gullet like corn down the throat of the holiday goose.

So authority figures convened to develop a strategy designed to lower the volume of my imagination and increase interest in my new-world order.  By discouraging escape and encouraging capitulation they hypothesized that I would slowly build a positive (and comfortable) reality without careening into fantasy, imagination, or creativity.  In other words, we’ve tested him and he ain’t no Einstein, scored dead-center 50th percentile, and, thank God, kind, dull, unambitious, and docile: he’s simply avoiding change by daydreaming.  So the adults broke their huddle and walked to the line of scrimmage; a defense full of adulthood, authority, corporal punishment, and varying degrees of coercion designed to obliterate the supply bridge between me and my creativity and imagination.  But I was on the offensive and understood that in a matter of seconds my pulverization would commence; I mustered some resistance, usually a subtle mockery of mumbled affirmations.

Their boundless resources, their freshly recruited therapists (secretly screened in the convent) hammered my resistance and during a nighttime raid caused a debilitating breach, a nightmare, which cast doubt on imaginations allegiance.  Creativity wasn’t strong enough to deflect their incessant whittling away at my corners, sanding down my resolve in order to spit me out at eighth grade graduation: a shining example of what to do with a square peg when the world offers only round holes.  The nuns, lay-people, and counselors believed that by distracting my distractions, by motivating and redirecting and sympathetic yet tyrannical concern and instruction, they could successfully extinguish what, at the time, was thought to be simple imagination.  And I would take my place among my fellow eighth grade graduates poised for the adventure of public middle-school, then high school, and finally be added to the third-shift at some manufacturing or assembly plant as one more blue-collar-assembly-line-lifer with low expectations and very little hope.  

Tragically, these nuns and educators were in pursuit of an example, a trophy, proof that plucking me from a sea of personal trauma and forcing me to face the reality to which I was born.

How nearsighted they were to think they eliminated my problem.  It was much worse than that.  They confirmed, even back then, that it was real and I wasn’t just imagining things.