What I share won't come from after dark but rather the quiet before the light, warm morning kisses, and the cold grip of the day.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

"Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding..."

I was playing one of the Three Wise Men the night I broke my nose.  It was the evening of the Christmas pageant and potluck supper at our one-room elementary schoolhouse.  The place was thronged.  Every student in the school had a part, all seventeen or so of us.  I was the myrrh guy.  Not a bad part for first grade.  The costume my mother created was built on the foundation of my robe, a heavy felt material in seasonably appropriate hues of dark reds, forest greens, flecked with white.  It was in a zig-zaggy pattern of an American Indian blanket.  This bothered me, because I knew the story took place in a desert land, overseas and their clothes wouldn’t have looked like my bathrobe.  But, then I figured, well, the wise guys were foreigners and Indians were foreigners so it was OK.  Neither was I entirely pleased with her choice of my backless bedroom slippers for footwear, though I understood they were more credible than my Buster Brown’s.  Throughout my career as an actor, theatrical makeup had always helped me get into character.  (It would the following summer at our town’s talent show when I impersonated Elvis Presley on the improvised stage of a flat bed truck; the sideburns mother drew on my cheeks with her eyebrow pencil put me over.  I won an honorable mention.)  For the distinguished gentleman traveling afar, the same eyebrow pencil shaded a full, Babylonian beard, which hurt like hell when she rubbed it off.

The pièce de résistance was the turban.  Mother - until marrying a handsome pilot, one time lawyer, would be rancher and moving to rural Kansas – had been in charge of her family’s department store on the West Coast.  She packed some fancy clothes in her trousseau.  Evening turbans had been in style at some point in her salad days because, using one of her diaphanous silk scarves with peacock colors, she easily fashioned an authentic headdress.  I felt like the Sheik of Araby.

All went off without a hitch and through the magic of quick change I reappeared after the show from the boy’s cloakroom in my nice trousers, white shirt and clip-on tie.  (Beneath my robe the whole time, leaving me flushed.)  After the play, the holiday feast was coming to life in the basement.  It held a full kitchen and an open area where we ate our lunches from sacks and pails during cold or rainy days and did sloppy projects.  Tin foil was being pulled and folded for leftovers, pots stirred, and meats sliced.  This was farmland food, and every mother wanted to contribute her best dishes.  It was the one shindig of the year, outside of our town’s fair (where I lip-sank to “I Wanna Be Your Teddy Bear), that everyone set aside their petty feuds, forgot their big problems and gathered in community spirit.  Long tables were choked with ham, roasts, a turkey, fried chicken, casseroles of all kinds, mounds of potatoes and yucky yams, overcooked green beans larded with bacon, and Jell-O things.  More than we all could eat, more than we had seen at one time, more than many could afford to share.  Best of all, and where the Midwest farm wife had no equal, were the desserts.  Latticed and two-crusted fruit pies, creams, custards, chiffons, hatbox-sized frosted cakes, Angel and Devil, German Chocolate, ginger, orange, and lemons, shinny drizzled Bundt’s, stood like a squad, visible beyond the pass-through kitchen counter, along with platters of cookies, cupcakes, and brownies.

I had to take a shit.  (Or, in our family euphemism, “have a session.”)  I had been so excited I’d held it in all that day.  I dashed out the door of the schoolhouse, leapt down the eight front steps, around the flag pole, and sprinted toward the outhouses.  We’ve all seen port-a-potties.  An outhouse is a permanent, generally, larger version.  At Howard School, they were well constructed and maintained, not the kind you see pictured in jokey postcards of a falling down, weather beaten shack with a quarter moon cutout in the door, and captions like, “The new addition to the family manse!”  Ours were crispy white clapboard two-seaters, with L shaped entrances; you’d loop around two corners to enter the open doorway of the commode.  There were separate toilets for the boys and the girls, set forty yards behind the schoolhouse, for obvious reasons.  The repositories, nice as they may be, sat over an open cesspool, and in hot weather, with the wind in the right direction, you wanted some distance from the student population.

Running, I realized it was dark, black dark.  There was a single bulb on a tall telephone pole to illuminate the front of the building, but the toilets were away from that, behind the school.  The windows, only along one wall, shed no light onto the large open field I had to cross.  I became disoriented, at full tilt.  I couldn’t see anything at all, but I knew I must be close.  I hit hard and fell back onto the grass.  To my left I saw the shape of the outhouse.  I had run between the boy’s and the girl’s, just past, tripped over a low stone wall, my face going into the barbed wire fence that separated the school yard from the neighboring property.

I still had to crap.  I didn’t take the time to go into the toilet.   I just took down my pants, crapped on the grass, pulled them up and ran back to the school.  It was easy to see my way because there were lights in that direction.  Most of the parents were still upstairs.  I pushed into the middle of the pack, like a Dickensian pick pocket.  Everyone I moved by stopped talking and stared down at me, creating a wake of quiet.  I thought it best to start crying in case I was in trouble.  By luck or homing instinct I ended up near my mother.  She took my face in her hands.  I looked down at my shirt, the front covered with blood.  I hadn’t remembered to zip up and my shirt tail was sticking out of my fly.  The school had no running water, but there was a hand pump over a sink in the kitchen, and that’s where she took me, down to the basement, to clean me up as best she could and tuck me back together.  I gave my folks a blubbery account of what happened, but dad wasn’t even mad, so we stayed for the meal.  The next day mother took me to our local clinic in a nearby town.  I cut my lip on the barbed wire and had to have a tetanus shot.  The wooden fence post broke my nose.  Doctor Ruble stuffed long, pencil thin strands of cotton up both nostrils and taped it over.  I couldn’t breathe out of my nose.

The morning I was to go and have the cotton removed, I sneezed, and the strips shot from my nose like those gag boxes where a spring loaded snake flies out.  This thing went clear across my room.  It had been in my nose for six weeks.  Mother had to pick it up.  She had one of those “last straw” looks on her face.  I have a funny nostril now, more like a slit as a friend once said, and a scar at the corner of my mouth.

I presume I was the first Elvis impersonator.

Anon, James

Monday, December 6, 2010

Will the Real Ding-Dong Daddy, Please Stand Up


                                                                                                 JANUARY 31,  1945


I found the above among my mother’s effects after she died in 2003.  The folded paper had yellowed but was in good condition.  By the looks of the font, it had come off a kind of teletype machine, printed front and back, containing several domestic stories and news of the war.  The excerpt of Mr. Van Wie, an overweight man “on the wrong side of 50”, as one report put it, is recreated here as close to how it actually appears on the document I found, including the ironic wartime typo, “ARMOROUS”.  As far as I know, my mother was not victimized by the “Ding Dong Daddy”, though she was living in the Bay area at the time of the scandal.  (Van Wie would flirt with ladies on his streetcar, and if vulnerable, propose marriage.)  This was not an approach my mother would brook.  My father, a pilot during WWII, seeing the dispatch while deployed in the South Pacific, mailed it back to my mother, to share a laugh.  According to one article (see site listed below), it was a highly publicized scuttlebutt, picked up widely by the national press as a relief story from the war.  Mother decided it was a memento.  It came to light he’d married some fifteen women.

My father was something of a ding dong daddy himself.  From Missouri, he was stationed in San Francisco during the war.  When he met my mother he was married.  His wife, back in the Midwest, was taking care of their daughter, who would later be my half-sister.  I had not been born.  My mother, recently divorced, was from a prominent Piedmont family who owned several major businesses in the Bay area.  A beautiful, still young society divorcée with a three year old son (one day to be my older brother), meets this 6’5” pilot in a uniform.

When I was just old enough to read and to be left to myself, I was snooping in a box.  I came across a newspaper clipping containing a photo of my father with a woman on his arm.  The caption read, “Mr. and Mrs. James and Virginia Selby…”  I thought it odd as the woman was not my mother.  And, anyway, her name was Marjorie.  Maybe the reporter had the details wrong and the woman was a cousin, or an acquaintance he was escorting.  Further into the article, it mentioned their home as being in St. Joseph, Missouri.  In my family history, we had lived in Oakland where I was born, a brief time in Colorado, then Long Boat Key before settling in Kansas by the time I was four.  Never in Missouri.  This was curious in the way of our family silverware having an “M” monogrammed on the handle.  “M” for Marjorie, I had always thought.  Somehow, an inner voice, one complicit with my mother, told me to fold up the clipping, return it to the box, push the box back into the bottom of the linen closet.  I was a good boy; I didn’t think of it again.

Not, that is, until I was in high school.  My father died suddenly while on the job.  A few weeks later there was a routine hearing for compensation.  My mother was to be questioned under oath to establish certain legal relationships.  I was required to be present in the courtroom.  During her testimony, an attorney asked my mother about the parentage of me, my brother and sister.  She took a moment, fumbled with a handkerchief as I had seen many an actress do on Perry Mason, and proceeded to answer the questions put to her.  Both my mother and father had previous marriages bearing, respectively, my brother and sister.  I was the only child from their union.  When the hearing was concluded she came to me, in tears, and said she was sorry I had had to learn of this in such a way.  She’d always meant to tell me.  I held her and told her it was all right, I had kind of figured it out on my own.  That was in 1966.  I was a good boy and we never spoke of it again, with one exception.

Twenty years later I traveled to Kansas from New York City where I was living, to see my mother.  She was 70.  One afternoon, I made the two of us a Bloody Mary.  We were having a nice visit.  I made a couple of more Bloody Marys.  I had been divorced myself by this time, so maybe the subject of my parents courtship didn’t seem so risqué to her any longer.  While stationed in California, she told me, my father lived in a carriage house behind one of the mansions in the hills above Oakland, not far from the house my mother built with her ex-husband.  They met at a party and began an affair.  Because of her family’s position, she felt they had to be discreet.  Even if it isn’t necessary, the secretiveness of a tryst can be provocative.  After dark, she would drive to my father’s house and park her car out of sight in his garage.  The next morning she would put on a scarf, dark glasses, and leave very early.  Eventually, my father divorced and married my mother.  His daughter came to live with them.  I was born a few years later.

Not an original story, particularly, during the uncertainty of war, but it was one my mother couldn’t share with me.  Maybe she felt there was too much fragility in our family as it was.  Or, perhaps, it was something for her alone, like a love letter kept in a locked box.  When I was visiting my mother’s sister in Palo Alto over a college Christmas break, I told her how I’d found out about mother’s first marriage.  She was flabbergasted my mother hadn’t explained.  It was an ordinary divorce, she said; no stigma involved.  My mother’s first husband, Bert Meyer (hence the “M” on the silverware), was a nice enough guy but never “right” for her.  He was a plain and simple man and Marjorie needed - something more.  What bothered me about the whole saga was everyone in our family knew.  My brother, whom I tormented as younger brothers will do, must have wanted to yell it in my face.  An otherwise model brother, he got his frustrations out in other ways, becoming quite the practical joker.  My sister eloped when she was 16, going AWOL with a kid from the Keys.  Our father was so maddened, he stopped talking to her.  Though my mother corresponded with her stepdaughter - in secret, it would be fourteen years before we all would reunite and meet her three children.  Even then, my nieces and nephews were cautioned never to mention their Grandma Virginia in front of Uncle James.  They were of elementary school age.

My mother was an amazing, brilliant, loyal, resilient lady, a remarkably giving mother.  I was a good son.  I was, also, an inveterate liar until I was forty.

What did Francis Van Wie, the Ding-Dong Daddy and lion tamer endure do you suppose?  Francis?  My sister's first husband, the kid from the keys, the father of their five children, was named Francis.  He became a traveling salesman, if you know what I mean, and I think that you do...

Anon, James

To read an account of the real Ding-Dong Daddy:


Saturday, December 4, 2010

Shrinking Ferns

I do not have a green thumb.  I grew up in a very rural area of Kansas on 400 acres of grasses and crops and cows and mulberry trees.  The last thing I want to do is grow something.  (There was a jolly woman, a friend of my mothers, long since gone.  Her name was Dorothy Wiscombe and she was a bleached blond, chain-smoking, over-weight, part-time lounge singer in Topeka.  I adored her.  I thought of her for the first time in thirty years because she once quipped she was so bad with plants that the plastic vine in her kitchen was losing leaves.)  Dylan asked, “Where have all the flowers gone?”  I would ask, “Where have all the ferns gone?”  I reflect back on my days in NYC and remain, to this day, properly chauvinistic.  I’ve observed, during frequent travels away from the city, whatever happened in NYC would, sooner or later, crop up everywhere else, creating universality to most crazes.  In the 70’s, for example, the de rigueur restaurant style featured brass, wood, faux Tiffany lamps, and plants: hanging, standing, potted.  Ferns were as rampant as kudzu.  You needed a machete to reach a table.  Not only in restaurants, but lobbies, offices, and waiting rooms were decorated with all manner of flora.  Apartments had ferns atop radiators, on end tables and, particularly, hanging in bathrooms as the moisture from steaming showers was good for them.  Didn’t matter, they always dried and died, shedding little thyme-like browned and crispy leaves that crunched under your bare feet.

Avocados were a good starter plant for young and poor because you ate them first and then put toothpicks in the sides of the seed, placing your mini Sputnik in a glass with its butt touching water.  You had to keep the water level up and get it right end up if it was to sprout.  If all went well, in a couple of weeks you’d get a shoot and a tiny leaf.  Those who did have green thumbs could get it to bush out.  I couldn’t cultivate mine beyond the stick phase, though my seeds would generate copious, albino roots in their slimy water.  Jade plants were fairly fail-safe.  You could get a cutting from a friend with a mother ship plant, gently transport it home in a damp napkin, and put it in a glass of water until it sprouted roots.  Then you’d have to buy dirt and plant the cutting.  Cacti were the felines of the plant world: aloof.  Fichus trees were a bit more serious in terms of investment, space, and horticulture.  The good news was they took a long time to die, but at least you kind of got your money’s worth.  My one and only success was a “mother-in-laws tongue” I inherited from a theatrical producer who closed up shop.  Unlike the plays she produced, it had eternal life.  In its shoe-sized ceramic, it fit perfectly on various apartment window sills reaping light from narrow shafts.  Like some of my lovers, it thrived on neglect.  It didn’t really grow much bigger during the time I had it, its long bayonet leaves staying happily stunted in the nubby green pot.  I had it for 20 years until I left the city.

Part of the attraction of house plants was to bring the outside in.  Particularly, in New York, and specifically, in the 70’s, when the city was filthy and sooty and air quality so wretched it was not healthy to be outside for long periods.  When you got back to your apartment, your indoor plants gave the impression of having filtered the air and were visually soothing.  Given the city is cleaner and greener now, and allowing for my theory of what happens in New York doesn’t stay in New York, I am willing to bet there are less house plants per capita than there were in the 70’s.  Nowadays, you just don’t see that many indoor plants, is my point.  I never see a fern.

Another anomaly.  Where’ve all the shrinks gone?  We all had those, too.  Maybe they’ve become massage therapists.

Anon, James