I should have known our move to New York City would be fraught with an extra dose of the usual challenges when we woke up with a flat after our 1st night on the road. My co-pilot Chris and I didn’t even get out of Austin until 2 a.m. the night before. I put in a solid 2 hours behind the wheel before we called it a night at the Motel 6 in Hillsboro.
The next morning, I let the land of Instagram know we started our day with a flat tire. Our early morning departure turned into a 2 p.m. lift off. We’ve been a step slow and a day behind—figuratively—ever since. Or maybe it just seems that way.
It’s late at night—nearly 3 a.m on a Saturday night—and I really should be in bed with my new wife. But I promised myself that I was going to record the happenings of our new life in New York. And if I couldn’t even get this thing started by this, our 13th day in Brooklyn, well that didn’t bode well for the future.
So as far as I’m concerned, the worst is behind us. And really, in the grand scheme of things, it hasn’t been thaaaat bad. But there have definitely been…frustrations.
For instance, we’ve recently taken to calling our new home Casa Limón. Let’s just say it’s no Casa Verde, the house we lived in and loved back in Austin. We’ve gone from just over 3,200 sq. ft. to just under 800 sq. ft. Our 5/3 has shrunk to a Tamale-sized 1/1. And our quirky, colorful home—the product of Brother Will’s architectural genius and Tamale’s eye for design—is an urban white shoebox not unlike the other 60 units in our brand new building.
In 13 short days:
—Our brand new washing machine didn’t work.
—We noticed the paint on the living room window sill is bubbling from condensation.
—The brand new dishwasher didn’t drain the 1st time we used it. It still doesn’t work. (At least “the super” fixed the washing machine.)
—We found our big, ugly space heaters to be loud and unreliable. Unless you prefer cool air heating up the room when it’s 30 degrees outside.
—We realized there was a yapping dog across the hall. Despite the fact that the real estate guy told Tamale this was a no pets building. (I saw the “no pets” paragraph in the lease with my own 2 eyes.) “The lease also says you can’t have a washer and dryer, but you got those, right?” the property manager told me when I complained about the barking dog. (What I didn’t see in the lease, according to the property manager, was the Rider on page 54 that allowed for a pet waiver. Damn page 54 Riders!)
—We met a nice gay couple who’ve lived in the building 3 weeks longer than us. They made us feel better when they let us know their washing machine, dishwasher and heater all sucked too. And they’ve seen mice. Possibly due to the dog food they may or may not leave out for their dog. (What do you say to your nice new neighbors whose yapping mutt might possibly drive you insane while you’re trying to work at home during the day?)
To top it all off, our little apartment has been stuffed to the gills with boxes. And boxes. And stuff that, to this day, is still being unearthed, put away, tossed out or gifted to the Salvation Army outlet 5 blocks from our new love pad. As much as our newlywed love is still blooming, this abundance of stuff in our small space has elbowed its way into our new life, leaving us little room for things like patience and a sense of home. It’s like we’re trying to unpack our way out of an over-stuffed hotel room.
The good news is, I finally started feeling like a true New Yorker when my bike got stolen 8 days after I pulled into town. I got the good news when I went downstairs to go for a ride to buy a new lock. So I saved a few bucks on a lock too. (I was not gonna pay $25 bucks a month to store it in the building’s “bicycle room” that still wasn’t finished.)
But if you think I’d change any of it, you’d be wrong.
I love New York City.
I love Brooklyn.
I love my wife.
In fact, maybe I should join her. Damn. It’s almost 4 in the morning. That’s what I get for moving to the city that never sleeps.
A FEW MONTHS BEFORE I HIT THE ROAD, MY NEPHEW JOSH CAME UP FROM ORANGE COUNTY TO SPEND THE DAY WITH HIS UNCLE BOBBY. For some reason, he’s got it in his mind that I know all these famous people and I live a glamourous life. One day the kid will figure it out. Until then, the illusion lives on.
To perpetuate the myth, I took him to breakfast at the Newsroom, a healthy low-key celeb hangout and one of my favorite dining spots back when I was actually sleeping in the same bed every night and paying rent in lovely Beverly Hills Adjacent.
We weren’t at our table more than 2 minutes when Josh noticed a young kid at an outdoor table just outside the window from our indoor spot.
“Omigod,” he said like a ’60s Beatlemaniac, “that’s Hayden Christensen.”
“Hayden Christensen,” Josh said in an excited whisper, as if his teenaged Canadian hero might actually hear him through the thick glass window. “He played Anikin Skywalker in the last Star Wars movie. I can’t believe he’s here!”
Personally, I never would’ve recognized the kid. But Josh is a Star Wars freak. His bedroom is full of the toys, posters and action figures that helped make George Lucas a rich man.
In an attempt to score points with my young nephew—a great, sensitive kid who I see all too little—I walked over and asked Christensen if he’d take a picture with my nephew. We can stop by and say hello on our way out and you make a kid’s day.
And that’s how it played out. Josh got to meet one of his heroes. I got to take a couple more digital pictures. Our waiter got a bigger-than-normal tip. Hayden Christensen got his ego stroked by a 6th grader from Mission Viejo. Everybody was happy.
The reason I’m relating this story is because today is Josh’s birthday. And since I didn’t send him a birthday card, I figured I’d try to make up for it by posting a picture of Josh and the big movie star on my website. Even if it did take me 3 weeks after his birthday to post the damn thing.
Happy birthday, Josh. I’ll get you next year.
“While I thought that I was learning how to live, I’ve been learning how to die.” ~Leonardo da Vinci
5.24.10 austin, tx
IT’S BEEN 2 WEEKS AND A DAY SINCE THEY BURIED MY FRIEND RUTH. I felt bad that I wasn’t able to make it to her funeral back in LA. But I know she understands.
Nearly 10 years ago I was introduced to Ruth by the director of Friends to the Elderly, a Jewish charity I began volunteering with in ’94. Despite what Glen Beck may think (and clearly he’s not doing much of it on this issue), I didn’t get into volunteering out of some latent Communist or Socialist leanings. Yeah, right, dude.
I got involved in the Friends to the Elderly program because I’ve always enjoyed the company of old people. Especially my grandparents, and they had all passed away by the early ’90s. And I’d already had a life-changing experience volunteering at the Hollygrove orphanage a few years before that.
So it wasn’t surprising that I’d grow to love Ruth. It didn’t take long, either.
I dare anyone to look at this slideshow I just posted on Flickr and tell me that Ruth and I didn’t have a good time over the last decade.
And if bringing a little happiness to a little old lady’s final years makes me a Socialist…
Beck’s cheap political rhetoric sounds vulgar when you’ve lived and breathed the volunteer experience. At least that’s how it sounds to me. Not only did spending time with a stranger grow into a beautiful friendship for a lonely woman at the end of her life.
It also reminded me time and time again how good it feels to put a smile on another human being’s face. And how deeply satisfying it is to cultivate selflessness when my impulse is often selfishness.
At the end of the day, my selflessness became a sort of selfishness. Because by listening to Ruth—by just showing up, swapping life stories and comforting her when she was scared, confused or lonely—I was easily getting as much, if not more, out of our visits than Ruth was.
That’s what the Glen Beck’s of the world don’t get. We’re not brainwashed little monkeys here. We volunteer because we think we might somehow scrub clean our shortcomings and maybe even fight back the tide of greed and narcissism choking our culture. We volunteer because we like making people happy and we know that if our intentions are pure, there’s simply no way the experience will be anything less than transforming.
And chances are, you’ll have some laughs.
Thanks for the good times, my sweet friend.
You will be missed.
“I’m one of those regular weird people.” ~Janis Joplin
5.13.10 austin, tx
I’VE BEEN LIVING IN AUSTIN FOR JUST UNDER TWO MONTHS NOW, and thanks to Facebook I’ve had a steady stream of people asking me how I’m liking Texas.
So in the interest of brevity and my desire to write one version of that answer rather than dozens of responses to the same question, I’ll give you the short version right now. If you’d like to hear the extended play, keep checking back here for the gory details.
Okay, so maybe gory’s a slight exaggeration. But only slightly. In the short time that I’ve been here, my soul’s been eviscerated, chewed up by the meat grinder of failed expectations and financial chaos. But today’s a new day and things are looking up.
For those of you who don’t know, Tamale, my girlfriend of 3+ years moved to Austin 14 months ago. My plan was to follow her out, but not until I had a steady, decent-paying job lined up. Finally, a full year later, a production company I’ve done a handful of projects for tells me the Janis Joplin documentary they’re making has been approved by the Joplin estate and the project will be announced at South-by-Southwest in March. Oh, and I’m in the budget as the writer.
So what do I do? I quit my job at the Silverlake dispensary and buy a one-way ticket to Austin. It was perfect. Just the kind of gig I was looking to land to start my new life in Austin.
We hit what felt like a speed bump days before I left LA when I found out the project was now NOT going to be announced at SXSW in March. Instead, they’d wait until April to deliver the news to the media horde at the Tribeca Film Festival, where the producers were premiering their latest music doc. Not the best news. But still, the thing was a go. So far.
But within days of getting to Austin, everything changed. And it wasn’t pretty. In the midst of doing a million and one tasks for the film’s director–whose last doc earned her an Oscar nomination–I found out there was a snag. The music rights were going to be more expensive than the producers had anticipated. The project was now officially on hold.
And yet, the director was still coming out to Texas for a week of shooting, which she promised to pull off on a shoestring budget and many hours of my efforts…for which I’ve still yet to make a dime.
But I did get to meet the nice people you see in today’s photo. Those are the Mosers, a sweet old couple who used to live next door to the Joplins in Port Arthur. The place behind them is the old Joplin house. They had some interesting recollections about Janis and her family. We also spent time with childhood friends of Janis, her kindergarten teacher and a woman who used to employ Janis as a babysitter for her kids. In Austin I walked around the UT campus with one of Janis’ first boyfriends and I paid a couple visits to the home of one of Janis’ high school party pals.
The whole experience was…fascinating. Educational. And frustrating for more reasons than the simple fact that I’ve yet to get paid and the movie’s in limbo. But that’s another story for another time.
Since all that went down I’ve plunged into pit of darkness I’m only now starting to pull out of. Is that too much information for my first day back on the blogger bus?
It is what it is.
Or is it?
“My friends are my estate.” ~Emily Dickinson
1.15.06 Placentia, CA
LET’S HEAR IT FOR THE LIQUOR.
No, I’m not advocating we all need to go out and get wasted. But nights like this prove why alcohol can sometimes be a good thing. Sometimes it feels good to get sentimental. To remind the people in your life how much you care about them. To broach subjects that, in the light of sobriety, nobody seems eager to talk about. To confess mutual attractions and act on them. And to just laugh.
Tonight I got drunk with my old friend Sly Mee and a handful of good people I just met. The occasion was a Sunday barbecue in San Dimas. I showed up with Sister Jeni, my brilliant Bro-by-Marriage Warren and their 2 little boys. It started innocently enough. Watching the 2nd half of the Panthers/Bears playoff game while Sly and his dirt bike buddies flipped back and forth between the game and last night’s Supercross race in Phoenix.
We were at the home of Allison, Jeni’s best friend since high school. Last year Allison married Mike, a successful pool technician who’s become buddies with Sly, MY best friend back in high school. In fact, Sly and I started hanging out about the time Sister Jeni was born.
Sly and I were the old farts tonight. But still young enough at heart to party with the young folk. The last time we hung out was on my birthday in Chicago a year and a half ago. I was on my way back to Wisconsin from Detroit, where I’d just seen the Lakers get pummeled by the Pistons in Game 3 of the NBA Finals, my free ticket compliments of Phil Jackson’s girlfriend, Jeanie Buss. Carpet king Sly was in Chicago on business, schmoozing clients, cracking wise and making new friends.
We got drunk that night, too.
But tonight was a different kind of good time. Sly is a non-stop joke machine, the life of every party he goes to. He’d invited some of his dirt bike buddies over, guys that are nearly 20 years younger than us. But we don’t discriminate when it comes to friends. These guys were very cool and they were clearly fond of their old friend, “The Silver Fox,” who told us all about the 2 hot women he and his young buddy hooked up with last night at a crowded desert bar in the middle of nowhere. Sex in the front seat of a twin cab truck. After a day of dirt bike riding.
Dude, you still got it.
* * *
Sly and I have a storied history. A friendship worthy of a movie, no doubt. “Dude, you gotta write a script about this,” he told me tonight. “Dude,” I answered, a 6-pack into my buzz, “tell me about it. I’ve seriously thought about writing that screenplay. One day, man. One day.”
In high school we’d often wake up at 4:30 and make the 45-minute drive from Covina to Huntington Beach for a brief dawn patrol surf session, packing up our boards in time to get back in time for Miss Redmon’s 2nd period typing class. (The most practical, useful class I took at Charter Oak.) He was a wiseass water polo guy who hung out with me and my sarcastic, cheap wine-swilling basketball teammates. Sly never had a shortage of girlfriends and was always willing to talk about all the “poontang” he was getting.
I, on the other hand, didn’t even kiss my first girl until the end of my senior year. Pathetic. 7 months later Sly and I went to a Christmas party in his baby blue VW bus at the Covina home of his ex-girlfriend Monica. When she asked for a Christmas kiss–after much drinking, of course–I gladly obliged. Drunkenly assuming Sly wouldn’t care, seeing as how he had a new girlfriend he liked much better than Monica, who he’d dumped 6 months earlier.
When Sly went in the backyard and caught us making out, he snapped. Grabbing my shoulders and pulling me off the picnic table where I sat kissing his ex-girlfriend, Sly gave me an earful. It was ugly. Then he took off, as pissed as I’ve ever seen him.
A few hours later, I lost my virginity to his ex-girlfriend.
I saw Monica one more time. And before long, things with Sly smoothed over. By the time I graduated from UCLA 4 1/2 years later, we were all set to backpack through Europe together. Then Sly got a job offer from a carpet mill. He decided to be responsible and take the job. 20 years later, he’s practically running the place.
About a decade later, Sly asked me to be his last minute fill-in best man. Sly’s dad was his first choice. But Tom Sr. was dying of cancer, too sick to stand up for his only son. So I got called into duty–and promptly gave one of the worst best man speeches of all-time. I blame it on poor preparation. And way too much alcohol. To this day I regret not letting everyone at the wedding know how I felt about my old friend.
My “date” that night was Sister Tracy, who’d had a crush on him for years. The 2 of them had even had a brief fling when Sly temporarily broke up with the girl he’d eventually marry–then divorce 5 years later.
And that’s when he reconnected with Sister Tracy. Running into her at a Supercross race in Anaheim. Sly was a free man and Sister Tracy was loving it. Almost immediately, they began spending nearly every weekend together.
5 months later, they were riding in the backseat of a Chevy Suburban driven by a guy they’d just met that day at a desert bar near Victorville. When the guy took a turn too fast and rolled the car, Sister Traky–who let the guy know her seatbelt wasn’t working–broke her neck in 7 places. Sly got off with a gash across his forehead and the most horrific memories imaginable.
* * *
“What I wanna know is, did you love my sister?”
Sister Jeni pulled no punches tonight as a group of us sat around the gas fire in the backyard. The beer was making all of us ask the questions we wanted to ask, say the things we wanted to say.
“Yeah, I loved your sister. I wasn’t in love with her. But I loved Tracy. Definitely.”
Sly was getting emotional. We all were.
“If you don’t want to talk about it…” Jeni was willing to spare his feelings and change the subject. I, on the other hand, had another perspective.
“No!” I piped in, peering through my beer goggles. “We SHOULD talk about it. We NEED to keep talking about Tracy. We can’t forget her, we can’t avoid the subject just because it sucks that she’s not here. It bums me out that we don’t talk about her more. This is exactly the kind of night she would’ve loved. Fuck it! I say we should talk about her as often as possible.”
A while later Sly turned to his dirt biking buddies and said “I love this guy,” pointing in my direction. I got up off my ass, went over and hugged him.
“Dude, I love you, too.” And we’ve never been the hugging, touchy-feely types. But like I said, sometimes alcohol is a beautiful thing.
I’m glad it was said. I do love the guy. I’ll always admire how he handled a nightmare situation. I’ll always respect him for how he treated my sister in her darkest days and how he tried to be honest with her when she didn’t want to hear it. I love the guy like a brother.
I just wish I got to spend more time with him. Maybe now that I’m back in SoCal for at least a few months we can hang out once in a while.
I can’t think of many people I’d rather get drunk with.
7.23.04 Dallas, TX
Getting acquainted with my new friend Russell:
Occupation: “You know when you go to a concert, Bob, and you look up and see all them cables and lights and boxes up there? Well, Bob, my job is to make sure none of that stuff falls down, knocks you on the head and kills you.”
Former occupations: Oil and lub specialist at Jiffy Lube; number cruncher/cash counter for Texas coke dealers.
Knew it was time to get out when… “I got a phone call from someone —to this day I don’t know who it was —literally telling me to get out, like, NOW. It’s over. And that was it. I never went back.” Russell’s been responsible and straight up ever since.
Fun Russell fact: He’s color blind.
What the hell’s that got to do with Ozzy Osbourne? Russell once had a job making $10 bucks an hour working backstage at a Dallas Ozzy show. His job was to take out all the red and green M&Ms because Ozzy didn’t like those colors. “It was the perfect job for me,” Russell was saying minutes after I met him. “I can’t see green OR red. They’re both gray to me. So I just took out all the gray M&Ms.”
2 Degrees of Bob connection #1: When I did that reality TV pilot for David Duchovny, the director we worked with had just come off the first season of The Osbournes.
2 Degrees of Bob connection #2: After I graduated from UCLA I drove a limo for a couple months. One of my regular customers was Melinda Iommi. Ex-wife of Black Sabbath lead guitarist, Ozzy’s old bandmate and party pal, Tony Iommi.
Number of guitars Russell owns: 4
How he acquired the 2 guitars he’s holding in the photo: Found the one in his right hand in a dumpster; the other one he got for $10 bucks and 2 packs of cigarettes.
Composer Russell played for me on his new dumpster ax: Beethoven.
Russell doesn’t strike me as the kind of guy who’d be into…: Weird Al Yankovic. But then, who does? Russell is a huge fan. Has all his CDs and DVDs. He even sang me a few bars of the Joan Osbourne-again “What If God Smoked Cannibus.”
Russell put me into the time machine, circa, ’76 when he…: Busted out the same 2 Cheech & Chong albums I had when I was 15, 2 of the first albums I owned (Wedding Album and Los Cochinos).
3rd and final 2 Degrees of Bob connection: A couple years ago I went to Tommy Chong’s house for a meeting about co-writing a book with him. (It was to be modeled on the “Dummies Guide to…” series. Only this was gonna be “The Stoner’s Guide to…” concept. Needless to say, it never happened. Tommy’s in jail, according to Russell.)
Besides adjusting my valves and fixing my brakes, Russell also offerered to…: Give me a brand new mountain bike. I had to politely decline because my friend Rob had already given me his back in LA.
Russell quote that’s been haunting me: “Y’know Bob, what you end up writin’ about me will probably be the only thing anyone ever ends up writin’ about me that’s for public consumption.” Like I said the day I heard this, dude, that’s too much pressure.
Russell quote that reminds me things are still okay in the world: “I may not be the best lookin’ guy in the room, Bob. But I do alright. Amazing things happen, Bob, when you’ve got that backstage pass hangin’ around your neck.”
The highest praise for Russell: He’s the kind of guy who’s lived a life worth writing novels and making movies about. But more than anything, from what I can see he’s simply a good guy with a kind heart who’s been through a lot.
Town where Russell’s grandma lives: Fate, Texas.
Off-ramp you take to get there: Bobtown Rd.
“The habit of giving only enhances the desire to give.” ~Walt Whitman
2.23.04 scottsdale, az
FOR THE LAST 3½ YEARS I’VE BEEN GREETED ONCE-A-WEEK BY THE GIDDY FACE YOU SEE IN TODAY’S PIC-OF-THE-DAY. Like a puppy that’s happy to see you after a long day at work, Ruth never failed to light up when I arrived at her doorstep. We should all be so lucky to be welcomed with such giddy enthusiasm on a regular basis by the people in our lives.
For those of you new to my story, I began paying Ruth weekly visits on August 1, 2000. We were paired up through Friends to the Elderly, a non-profit LA organization that hooks up volunteers with local senior citizens in need of companionship. I’ve been involved with Friends to the Elderly for 10 years now and Ruth is the 4th elderly person I’ve befriended.
Having Ruth in my life has been such a blessing. During our weekly visits—which usually last between an hour and 90 minutes—I’ve never once been bored with our conversation. And I’ve never left her apartment feeling anything but inspired and happy.
During my recent 6-week stay in SoCal, my weekly volunteer commitment consisted of my regular Ruth visits. After having been on the road most of last year, it was especially gratifying to spend time with her. Of all the people in my life, Ruth is probably the most eager of anyone to hear my stories. Just like I’m probably one of the most eager people in her life to hear her stories.
I’ll never forget a moment we had a few weeks ago. I was laughingly telling her about my most recent automotive foibles—my car horn was now spontaneously going off for no apparent reason. As I told her how this had already led to some embarrassing traffic moments, Ruth was cracking up.
“Oh, Robuht,” she giggled in her vaguely British intonation. “I never laugh when you’re not around. It’s so nice to laugh. I don’t know how you do it.”
One of the toughest things about being on the road has been not being able to see Ruth on a regular basis.
It’s a beautiful thing we’ve got going. Definitely one of the most gratifying relationships I’ve ever had. And further evidence of the too-often-ignored fact that to give is to receive tenfold.
* * *
The reason I’m writing about Ruth today is because I just got off the phone with her a couple hours ago. She sounded more upset than I’ve ever heard her.
“Hey, Ruth,” I said as I stood in the foyer outside Borders on Cactus Avenue in north Scottsdale. “How’d it go today?”
“Not good,” she said starting to cry. “The doctor says it’s cancer.”
Ruth went in this morning for an out-patient procedure to have a lesion removed above her eyelid. Now she’s gotta wait 7 to 10 days for the results of the biopsy.
“Either way,” she said fighting back the tears, “I need to go back and have surgery to have the rest of it removed.”
Ruth is terrified. I could hear it in her voice.
I tried to tell her it was gonna be alright. I tried to provide my usual dose of optimism. But this time it was harder to pull off.
A few weeks ago when Ruth told me she needed the procedure I was confident everything was gonna be fine. I’d never heard of anyone having “eye cancer.”
I was sure the doctor would go in and quickly remove what I assumed to be a small cyst near her eye.
Then last night, while I was watching the series finale of Sex and the City at the Embassy Suites Hotel in Scottsdale, I met a 6th grade school teacher whose ex-husband actually DIED of “ocular melanoma.”
The timing of this tidbit of information couldn’t have been worse.
But I’ll try to remain positive and muster up as much optimism as possible each time I talk to Ruth. She’s had such a tough life. Her first love went off to World War II, came back, married Ruth—then had a fling with a nurse while he was in medical school. Leaving Ruth to raise their young twin sons.
A few years later Ruth married a man she didn’t love—whose name, ironically, was Bob—so that her boys would have a father figure. (No wonder she’s been calling me “Robert” ever since I’ve known her.)
Ruth stayed with Bob for nearly 20 years. The best part of her marriage to Bob was David, the kindhearted son they had. David is Ruth’s pride and joy, but lives 3000 miles away just outside of Boston. (I enjoyed a memorable 3-day stay with David and his Orthodox Jewish family last July, which included my first visit to Friday night temple.)
After her marriage to Bob ended, Ruth never remarried. But she did fall in love again. To a career military man named John. Ruth and John met in San Francisco and dated for years in San Diego. Then, about 5 years into their relationship, they had an argument and stopped speaking for a few days.
Ruth soon learned there was a reason John wasn’t calling her to patch things up: he had died of a stroke.
And now her heart is breaking all over again.
Maybe everything will turn out alright this time around. But until the biopsy results come back and the surgery is over, I know Ruth is gonna be a wreck. She doesn’t have many friends left in LA. And her asthma and heart condition keep her inside most of the time, where she spends way too much time watching the horror and mayhem breaking out all over the world on the news.
Tomorrow I’m gonna write Ruth a little note letting her know I’m thinking of her. If anyone out there has the inclination to do the same, just let me know and I’ll e-mail you her address. I realize most of you have never met my sweet 77-year-old friend.
But as I’ve discovered time and time again, kind words from a stranger can have a profound impact on an aching heart.
* * *
I know many of you are awaiting my assessment of last week’s 5-day visit with Boston Jacquie. Not to worry. That’s coming in the next few days. I also want to write about some of the fascinating people I’ve met since I’ve been here in the Scottsdale/Phoenix area. As always, the stories are piling up.
I just needed to get this stuff about my friend back in LA off my chest right now. Thanks for hearing me out.
Hang in there, Ruth.
“A family is a place where minds come in contact with one another. If these minds love one another the home will be as beautiful as a flower garden. But if these minds get out of harmony with one another it is like a storm that plays havoc with the garden.” ~Buddha
12.4.03 new port richey, fl
THE FAMILY MY AUNT SHERI GREW UP IN PROBABLY LOOKED LIKE A BIG, FAT SLICE OF THE AMERICAN DREAM TO THE REST OF THE WORLD.
Her parents—who met after my grandpa rode his motorcycle during the Depression from LA to my grandma’s hometown of Springfield, Mass.—never fought. The family—comprised of 5 kids, my dad being the oldest—lived in a comfortable house in the booming San Gabriel Valley ‘burbs of Los Angeles. My grandpa had steady work as a motorcycle mechanic. My grandma was a stay-at-home mom. Taking care of a healthy brood of attractive kids who never got in trouble.
My dad raced motorcycles. Brother Bill was in the Junior Marines. Sheri, 13 years younger than my dad, was 3 when she became a mascot for the Monterey Park Girls Drum & Bugle Corps, a local group that marched in the Hollywood Christmas Parade each year. My grandma was a chaperone for the girls. Middle sister Carol played snare drum. Oldest sister Betty played tenor drum. Eventually, Aunt Sheri moved up to soprano bugle.
Then at 16—13 years after she’d become a mascot—Aunt Sheri quit the squeaky-clean band. That same year she quit high school, too.
By the time she was 17, Aunt Sheri was arrested for having a joint—1 fucking joint!—and placed in juvenile lockdown for 4 1/2 months.
At 22 she was a junkie with a dead husband. Locked up for writing bad checks to support their heroin addiction. Doing time at Sybil Brand, the same LA jail holding a couple of the Manson family girls.
A few days ago, I found out that during Aunt Sheri’s 72-day jail stay—a time when she also got the news that her junkie husband had just OD’d—not a single person from our family came to visit.
* * *
This afternoon before her meeting with the bastards who’ve turned her down twice for disability, Aunt Sheri poked her head in the spare bedroom where I’m writing this week. I was asking about her many health issues and the abuse that led to it when she casually mentioned: “I’ve pretty much been in a mind-alterered state, 24/7, since the late ‘60s.”
There are people in our family who might scoff and roll their eyes upon hearing such a statement. I’d rather listen and try to understand WHY.
Aunt Sheri doesn’t play the victim. She doesn’t blame anyone for her fuck-ups. During the last few days she’s told me things that made my jaw drop. Things that never got discussed in our family. Stuff I’d never probed too deeply into. Then again, that’s the way it goes in my family. And so many other families out there, from what I’ve seen.
Things I’ve found out about Aunt Sheri: After she dropped out of high school she discovered whites, which got her jacked up—without the alcohol hangover. Then it was pot. Heroin. (Which she vowed she’d NEVER try.) Reds. Mescaline. And acid. Lots of acid.
“I used to LOVE to blaze,” she told me the other night. “And I’d do a LOT.”
She used to sell drugs to get enough money to DO drugs. She told me how she once got away with stealing $600 from an auto body shop she worked at. She remembered going to the Colorado River to sell acid…and eating all her profits.
“I got FUCKED up,” she said with a gravelly, chain-smoker’s laugh.
For 24 years—after she got out of jail and tried to commit suicide twice—Aunt Sheri actually was responsible enough to hold down a full-time job at a mental institution. Over 2 decades of steady employment while being in various mind-altered states. During the last several years she was drinking vast amounts of champagne…BEFORE work. And more at lunch. Plus doing cocaine.
Then, in 1998, Aunt Sheri met a truck driver in a Yahoo! chat room.
Which led to e-mails. Phone calls. Until finally, exactly 5 years ago Monday—the day I got here—Aunt Sheri flew to Florida and met Loren in person.
It’s been almost 2 1/2 years now since they decided to move to the East Coast. The first time in her life that Aunt Sheri’s lived away from Southern California. To live in Florida with the man she met in a chat room—which had become yet another one of her addictions.
And for the first time in her life, Aunt Sheri got religion. In a big way. Although she’s not pushy or preachy about it. She’s even been sober for 2 years.
The ‘60s are finally over for Aunt Sheri.
* * *
At our family functions there’s always lot of talking. But not much is actually said. Too many distractions. Too many short attention spans. Too much apathy. But lotsa laughs.
My dad’s side of the family gets together every Thanksgiving and Christmas. Plus usually one summer birthday/graduation/anniversary party a year. And the occasional wedding or funeral. There’s always lots of cute kids running around. The alcohol’s flowing. And some kind of sporting event is usually blaring from the TV.
I’ve been seeing Aunt Sheri at these thoroughly enjoyable events all my life. I’ve always thought she was great. The cool aunt who actually seemed willing to have an open, 2-way conversation.
I’ve learned more about Aunt Sheri in the last 3 days than I did in 40+ years of seeing her at family functions.
Maybe that says everything you need to know about our family. Nobody is all that interested in anybody else’s life. Or at least it SEEMS that way.
I’m sure I’ve been guilty of it myself. I know in my heart that I’d like to hear every delicious detail about the lives of the people in my family. But in the Era of Convenience, we seem to have time for everything BUT listening.
And when the need to talk isn’t reciprocated with a desire to listen on the other end—when the scales of conversation are almost always tipped in their favor—who wouldn’t shut down under these circumstances?
Is it so surpising that Aunt Sheri ended up on the road she did? Raised by disinterested parents who, after 4 kids, were tired of parenting. In a household where she was never hugged. At Christmas a couple years ago she told me she couldn’t remember her mom or dad ever saying “I love you.”
She does, however, remember my dad’s teasing and temper. “Your dad was MEAN,” she’s told me a couple times since I’ve been here.
In my dad’s defense, he’d been emotionally ignored at home while getting teased mercilessly at school for years because of his stuttering.
It wasn’t until a few years ago when I felt like I understood all that pent up rage he must’ve felt.
I had my dad over for dinner one night when I was working on “the book.” I wanted to hear all the stories he’d never offered up over the years. I wanted to have the conversation I’d had with dozens of friends and strangers. A conversation where my genuine curiosity and unbridled enthusiasm had gotten so many people to open up and share their stories.
A conversation I’d never had with my own father.
After that night, though, I felt like a dirty window had just been cleaned. I saw things in my dad I never did before. When that conversation was over, I’d never felt such compassion for my dad. For years I tended to dwell on what he DIDN’T have. That 4-hour talk left me full of respect for the man he’d become and for what he’d overcome to get there.
After these last few days in Florida, I feel the same way about Aunt Sheri.
Aunt Sheri is a survivor. Still diving headfirst into life with a laugh and a cigarette. When it would be so easy to just give up.
At 52 she is also the physical embodiment of the consequences of partying too hard for too long. Among her MANY ailments: hepatitis B & C (from shooting up), work-related arthritis in her neck and shoulder (from subduing patients at the psych ward), the onset of osteoperosis and arthritis in her hips and hands, a leaky bladder, cirrhosis of the liver, a hernia and a near-constant headache. She’s also had a hysterectomy, her gall bladder removed and has been on anti-depressants pretty much since my grandma died in 1980.
Now all the drugs Aunt Sheri takes are state-approved and taxed by Uncle Sam.
Through it all, she is upbeat and optimistic. “I’m not ready to check out yet,” she told me before going to have a Marlboro on the patio. She loves her 2 cats (Budhe and Quasar), volunteers once-a-week and loves the music at her Methodist church. She’s got a network of friends — the family that LISTENS to her — thanks to a Yahoo! chat room. (Aunt Sheri and about 20 other chat friends from all over the world actually hooked up in Vegas not too long ago.)
And for the first time in her life, she’s in a stable relationship with a man for longer than a year-and-a-half. At 52, she’s found love with a good man who she calls “an absolute blessing.”
I love hanging out with people like Aunt Sheri. People who keep getting off the mat when life bitch slaps them to the floor. People who’ve felt lost, ignored, unloved — yet somehow found the fortitude, the grace, to keep going.
* * *
Aunt Sheri told me a great story 2 nights ago that sparked a pang of recognition.
After she’d gotten out of jail, lost her husband, went through rehab and tried to kill herself twice, Aunt Sheri decided she wanted to go back to school. At 25, she was going to study to become a psych tech — the mental hospital equivalent of a registered nurse. She was a little nervous about the whole thing. She hadn’t been in school since she was 16.
But Aunt Sheri was determined to complete the year-and-a-half program. Even though, as she recalls, “I had never finished ANYTHING in my life. I quit high school. I quit the Monterey Park Girls Drum & Bugle Corps. I quit the jobs I didn’t get fired from. I quit my marriage.”
While Aunt Sheri was in jail, her husband Greg came to visit. Angry that her years with him had led to a junkie’s life and jail, she told him she never wanted to see him again.
It was the last time she would ever talk to him.
Weeks later he OD’d on heroin.
So when Aunt Sheri showed up for the psych tech program, she came with just a little baggage. And a history of not finishing things.
Well, not only did she NOT quit, but Aunt Sheri got straight A’s. Made the dean’s list. And finished in the top 95th percentile in the national certification tests.
When she told me this I was aghast. “Why haven’t I ever heard that story before? Did anyone in the family know about this? Did anyone show any interest in what an amazing thing that was?”
She shrugged and shook her head. “Not really.”
“Well, I hope it’s not too late,” I told Aunt Sheri as we sat surrounded by cats and clutter on her screened-in patio. “But I’M proud of you.”
“Praise youth and it will prosper.” ~Irish proverb
11.19.03 arlington, va
CUTTER IS A GREAT KID.
Even though — or maybe because — he loves to scare people. He’ll fuck with his friends. His mom. Complete strangers. No one is immune to his zen-ish yen for toothless mayhem.
The wallpaper on his iMac is a hilarious picture of the exact moment he snuck up and doused one of his friends with cold water in the shower. In the video snapshot, the unsuspecting kid looks like a wet, grimacing Lee Harvey Oswald getting capped by Jack Ruby.
Only, Cutter’s weapons of choice were a cup of ice water and a digital camera. Delivered with an impish chuckle, no doubt.
The night I met Cutter, my friend GC’s 17-year-old East Coast cousin, he told me about the plot he’d hatched up recently. A plan in which he assembled a team of his high school buddies to kidnap one of their friends. Using ski masks, toy guns and a getaway van, no less.
“Just to scare him,” said Cutter, the kid with the Disney grin and the Pulp Fiction heart. “Believe me, he deserved it.”
The plan came off perfectly — until the kidnappee broke free and ran screaming back to the house party from where he’d been snatched. Cutter cracked up as he watched the whole thing go down from the shadows nearby. When I asked why he didn’t participate in the abduction, he said he couldn’t. “I would’ve started laughing. I always lose it in those situations.”
(By the way, the kid who got nabbed later got his revenge when he hid a few dead fish in Cutter’s car. One of the fish wasn’t discovered for weeks.)
Cutter also showed me video footage of him jumping out from behind a door and scaring the crap out of Professor Lisa, his patient mother.
Apparently, this sort of thing isn’t that uncommon in their household.
* * *
“Today Cutter was saying, ‘I’m pissed at Bob.’ He’s been checking your web site all the time.”
Cutter’s mom is giving me a much-deserved dose of shit. I’m back in LA. Sitting on the blue velvet Pottery Barn sofa slipcover I paid $400 bucks for 5 years ago. In the near-empty office at P.’s apartment. MY old apartment.
It’s been over a month since I spent an unforgettable week in Arlington, VA with Cutter and the Professor.
“I warned you guys,” I’m telling Professor Lisa. “Didn’t I? I said it could be a day, it could be a week before I get around to writing about my visit to Arlington. It could be a few weeks, it could even be a few MONTHS. Did I not warn you guys?”
I don’t blame Cutter for being annoyed. After all, I did have a memorable, action-packed week at his house. A turn of events that was completely unexpected, seeing as how I assumed I’d stay for a day, maybe 2.
I’d never met these guys before I showed up on a Monday night at their side door. The door just off the kitchen. The one, I later found out, no one ever goes to when they first come to the house.
I’ve known my friend GC for over 10 years. I even lived with him for 18 months. And I don’t recall ever hearing him mention his Aunt Lisa and cousin Cutter.
Cutter was getting ready for basketball practice when I showed up that night. He seemed a bit reserved at first. He must have been thinking: “Who the HELL is this guy?”
Still, he took me upstairs to the room I’d be staying in. It was twice as big as his tiny room at the top of the stairs, where I noticed ESPN: The Magazine and the latest Sports Illustrated on his messy floor.
I soon found out he was a shooting guard on the Washington-Lee High School basketball team. As 1 of only 2 sophomores on varsity last season, he didn’t play much. So this is a big year for him to step up.
When we got back downstairs I sat at the kitchen table. Giving the Cliff Notes version of my story to Cutter, the Professor, Cutter’s best friend William and William’s mom Sally. The 4 of them were immediately friendly and genuinely curious. Cutter, in fact, was so engaged in our conversation that he was almost late for practice.
An hour later, he came rushing through the house as the 4 of us sat having dinner.
“What are you doing home so soon?” his mom yelled out as her son scampered by.
“I forgot my shoes!”
And then he was gone. Out the door. In the car. Back to practice. Leaving the rest of us shaking our heads. The Professor finally broke the silence.
“So what’s he been doing for the last HOUR?”
* * *
So you might be thinking: Okay, so he pulls pranks and forgets his shoes. THAT makes him the coolest teenager in America?
No, not JUST that. He is, however, able to make mischief and forgetfulness endearing. But after only a week, I noticed at least 7 other factors that put him in the race for Coolest Teenager In America:
1) He is talented. The night I rolled into town he showed me some of the video shorts he’s made with his iMac/DV camera setup. They were pretty damn good, too. One of them, a long chase scene with a Tarantino/Scorcese vibe, had just been accepted into a new film festival for D.C.-area high school kids. And he’s getting an “A” in his screenwriting class at acclaimed H-B Woodlawn High School. Look out, Hollywood!
2) He is curious. He asks questions that let you know he’s actually listening, a reportedly rare quality in teenagers. “Are you religious?” he asked me during our first late-night discussion. “What’s your take on spirituality?” The question left his mom beaming later. “How many kids ask that kind of question?” gushed the Professor.
3) He‘s responsible. He claims he never smokes or drinks. Until proven otherwise, I‘ve gotta believe him. “I don‘t want to have that feeling of losing control,” he told me and his mom. “I laugh enough without that stuff.”
4) He‘s kind. I don‘t have any concrete evidence. But he strikes me as the sort of guy that would stick up for the nerd getting picked on at school.
5) He‘s resilient. I went to one of his basketball games. Immediately afterwards, he was grumpy. He thought he sucked. An hour later he was cracking up as he put on his thrift store sport coat and pimp glasses, getting ready for the winter formal. And he laughed when his mom and some of her students punk‘d him when he came home from another game in a bad mood.
6) He‘s humble. Named for the type of boat he lived on for the first 3 years of his life, Cutter looks like one of those kids on the WB. He ‘s smart, funny and has great taste. (He loves Tarantino and I turned him on to Bottle Rocket.) Yet he’s confident without being cocky. And his stomach still churns when he likes a girl.
7) He loves his mother. He shares her curiosity and her goofy sense of humor. Even when he‘s giving her shit there‘s an undercurrent of affection and respect. How many teenagers stay up ‘til 2 on a Saturday night with a buddy laughing with their mom?
If he keeps this up, White Gold — as he jokingly calls himself on his voice mail — is about 10 years from being every potential-mother-in-law‘s dream come true. Proof of what a little praise, nurturing and good parenting will do.
Now if we can just get him to stop playing with toy guns.