Tuesday, December 11, 2012

How big is the Fiscal Cliff Drop Off? Comparing today's recession to The Great Depression

The other night I saw Ken Burns’ Documentary on PBS about the Kansas Dust Bowl. In 1933, during the Great Depression, huge black clouds dumped layers of sand and dust over everything and everyone, killing cattle with famine and people with dust pneumonia.  Moving east it dumped four million tons of prairie dirt on Chicago.
     Watching, I was reminded of living through that awful time in Cleveland. My bootlegging father had been murdered in a turf war with the Mafia, leaving my mother with two children to raise during the Great Depression. A young widow, she worked in the Engineering Department in the City Hall. The City of Cleveland was so broke it paid its employees in “script” which was like Monopoly play money. On payday my mother would put me in the car, drive to the grocery store, and send me in to ask if they took script. I was 8 years old. Too humiliated to go in herself she waited in the car at the curb. The answer was usually “no” so she would drive to another store and another until I came back to the car with the good news that that store actually took script. Then she would go in and buy groceries.
     Some have compared the Depression to the 2009 Recession, but there is no parallel. Unemployment went from 3% in 1929 to 25% after the Wall Street Crash. Fully half of Cleveland workers were jobless. There were long soup lines. The Dow Jones Industrial Average lost nearly 90% of its value. Scores of people were killing themselves.
     Potatoes were a penny a pound. You could feed a family for a week on five dollars. Cars cost $500 and had a terrific rumble seat that opened in the back.  Rent for a three-room apartment was $60 a month. Movies cost a dime.
     Rightly or wrongly President Herbert Hoover was blamed. The shanty towns of tents people had to live in were called Hoovervilles. Food dished out in soup lines was called Hoover Stew; Hoover blankets were newspapers; Hoover Wagons the broken down cars that were pulled by mules.
     But it was a better America. We were like family looking out for each other, united in our mutual struggle and shared experience. There was not the bitter personal and political polarization that exists today or the abyss between the rich and poor or Washington’s political paralysis. Even Al Capone opened a soup kitchen.
     Surely we never want to return to those heartbreaking and dangerous years. But perhaps we can learn something from them.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

BOARDWALKE EMPIRE: Season 3, Episode 12

The season finale started with guns a blazing, and unfortunately not everyone survived the war. Sorry Gyp lovers. He was just too insane to live, but I have faith in the Boardwalk Empire writers to create a new outlandish character in Season Four. 
This season wrapped up with lots of people finally getting what they deserve. Unfortunately, Gillian made the cut. I wish Gyp was a dominant instead of a submissive. I guess we will have to deal with the psychotic woman for another season. Thank goodness Harrow took Tommy to safety.
Nucky is starting a new world of problems for himself though. He has sent the FEDS to the hooch warehouse -- incriminating Arnold Rothstein and Joe Masseria.  
Season Three is over, and I have to say, I find myself mildly disappointed. The episodes seem consistently predictable with a few oddities being exposed. We saw Gillian killing the Jimmy look-alike from a mile away. We predicted Owen Sleater’s death, and Gyp definitely had it coming by deductive reasoning. Am I getting used to the writers’ style or is the series taking a true nose dive?
Several Boardwalk Empire fans have expressed disappointment with the amount of time the show spent on women's health issues. I love to see the historical aspects of the Prohibition era! Of course the turf wars and the booze runs are thrilling, but there is a lot to learn from this period. The government is intervening on social issues. Women's health, substance use --why are these issues being regulated by the United States government?
Now it’s time to spend the next few months studying the history of Nucky Johnson, Arnold Rothstein, Lucky Luciano, Al Capone, Meyer Lansky, and Joe Masseria.
Stay tuned to the blog to see if we can figure out next season’s plot.



Monday, November 26, 2012

BOARDWALK EMPIRE: Season 3, Episode 11

It looks like the Boardwalk Empire fans who have been screaming for more Capone, Luciano, Chalky and Harrow are finally going to get their wish! I cannot wait to see how this turf war is going to play out! I have a feeling Gyp Rossetti’s days are numbered – seven to be exact.

I didn’t think the writers had any more room to ramp up the climax to this saga, but it looks like they were able to make the climax point the size of a pin head last night. Margaret and the kids have safely escaped, whether that is from Nucky or Gyp Rossetti’s henchmen is not known yet. It looks like we will have to wait a year to find out how Owen perished and what the next move is for the Thompson relationship.

Nucky and Eddie are taking refuge on the north of the tracks, and Nucky finally knows who is truly willing to back him. Eddie took a bullet for the man, and Chalky is risking his life and the lives of his community members for the man who has denied him everything this season. Why are Eddie and Chalky backing Nucky? I guess it is the only way Chalky knows he will gain any leverage in Atlantic City. Gyp surely isn’t going to give Chalky the turf and respect he deserves. We still don’t know why Eddie puts up with Nucky’s abuse. Hopefully Nucky’s eyes stay open to who helps him out of this jam.

Speaking of men who have finally had enough abuse from their captors, I cannot wait to see Harrow finally give Gillian what is coming to her. I want him to take Tommy away from that nightmare and to live a happy and healthy life with Julia. I really have a feeling that Harrow is going to not only save Tommy but also Nucky and the rest of the Atlantic City gang.

Body Count Prediction: I think Gyp’s time is up next week, and I think Harrow is going to be the one to send him to his maker.

Monday, November 19, 2012


Unfortunately, my body count prediction was correct for this episode. Margaret and all of the female viewers swooning over Owen are heartbroken. Even I woke up this morning feeling a little sad for Margaret. What is she going to do? Pregnant with Owen’s child, and we all know she hasn’t been physically romantic with Nucky. If she knows what’s best for her, she’ll buck up and perform her wifely duties or she’ll end up at the bottom of the sea with Owen, instead of in St. Louis. OR, she can continue with her plan to move west with only the children.

Killing the wife off in mobster stories is a very touchy area. First reason being, the first suspect in any woman’s death is the husband. Secondly, why kill her when you can make her pay for her adultery for years to come. Maybe Nucky will once again see the helpless woman that he fell in love with and grow a heart. After all, he did just lose his love only weeks ago. Speaking of which, how is Nucky healed from his PTSD symptoms so quickly? No ear ringing, no shell shock, no flashbacks.

I was hoping this season would bring more in terms of Harrow. It is great that Harrow has found love, but it’s looking like he is setting himself up for making the body count list. Not only does it look like he is thinking of taking Tommy from Gillian Darmody but now he is on the old man’s list.

Both Margaret and Harrow have intentions of making a run for it, and if there is anything I know as a mafia crime writer it is that no one escapes without either dying or getting their hands bloody.

Body Count: There are so many people that could make the chopping block next week! Margaret for cheating, Harrow for beating up an old man, Gillian so Harrow can take Jimmy, and Gyp for the turf war and just being plain evil. We have two more episodes, and I have a feeling Gyp is going to get it. Maybe Chalky will come to Nucky’s rescue once more by killing Gyp, and he will get that club after all.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Boardwalk Empire, Season 3, Episode 9, ‘The Milkmaid’s Lot’

Steve Buscemi did an amazing job with portraying a wide array of post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms in last night’s episode. Is it coincidental that Nucky battled with PTSD on Veteran’s Day? Was this a tribute to today’s understanding of what our soldiers inherit from war? The writers could have chosen many ways for Nucky to grieve Billie’s death. I believe this is just another social history lesson Boardwalk Empire is trying to tie into the series.

Fortunately, for the more brutish of Boardwalk fans there was no mention of women’s health or any other such “drama”. Is it just me or are there a large amount of fans that are just into the show for the violence and action? I personally find the look into the social issues of the time to be informative and intriguing to watch.

With that in mind, watching Margaret walk through a lobby full of gangsters on her way out from escorting Nucky to his “business” meeting was the most dramatic of all of the scenes last night. A woman who is acting as Nucky’s backbone finally confronts the world which she is helping Nucky keep alive – the world that is keeping her and her children in nice clothes and fancy housing. Hopefully, she doesn't lose the man she cares so deeply for now that a war is being waged.

Looking back to the history books, neither Nucky Johnson or Joe Masseria die in 1923 due to a turf war which makes me wonder if Nucky is going to go through with his plan to stop Masseria and Gyp without the backing of Rothstein and the other mob bosses. Masseria tells Gyp to think before he leaps into war. We’ll see if Nucky is capable of making this wise choice in his shell-shocked state.

The good news from this episode: Harrow gets a kiss!

Body Count: Can you believe it?!? No one died in last night’s episode. There is one for the history books. Unfortunately, I think Sleater is the next one to go. If there is anything I know as a crime writer, once a mobster’s wife decides to runaway with another man, that other man somehow ends up disappearing. The question is: will he die for Nucky or by Nucky’s hands. 

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Boardwalk Empire: Season 3, Episode 7

And here I thought there may be an episode without a body count. 
The Eli and Nucky Thompson clans get together for a good ol’ fashioned Easter egg hunt and Sunday dinner to celebrate the resurrection of Christ. Nucky left Miss Kent to fend for herself for one episode while he spent the day with his family. Unfortunately, his attempt at making peace with Margaret is too little too late. I wonder if this will open the door for a more seductive relationship between Mrs. Thompson and Owen. But I can’t lie, I wished the writers had taken the opportunity to clear the air between Nucky and Margaret. I guess the lovey-dovey couple didn’t bring in enough ratings.

There was some good that came out of the long awaited family reunion. Nucky realized Eli’s sincerity and is willing to let his little brother take over the warehouse reigns. Finally, there may be some brains behind this operation, and I doubt Rothstein is willing to put up with another Tabor Heights incident.
The Thompsons weren’t the only ones enjoying their Easter. Richard Harrow is in love! His new flame is the daughter of an old angry old basement boxer and she doesn’t bat an eyelash at Harrow’s malady. I am so glad to see a bit of new love budding during such a horrific period of violence, debauchery and murder.
Now onto the sociopaths:
Gyp made a reappearance in this week’s episode and almost has his Easter goose cooked by Joe Masseria, but saved his skin by promising to bring the turf back to the New York crew. But of course, he couldn’t get away with just a bit of hotheadedness. He had to go ahead and assault and rob a priest after yelling at a statue of Jesus in his local cathedral. Gyp’s character may be showing the true signs of a sociopath, and I’m sure there are quite a few sociopath mobsters out there, but I have to be honest, I think I enjoy the episodes without Gyp.

Speaking of violence, debauchery and murder, Gillian covered the gamut in one Easter Sunday. She needed Jimmy to die on paper and she found a way, and talk about a psychological mess. The woman killed a good man who had a striking resemblance to the son with whom she shared an erotic relationship. Freud would have had a field day with this one. It finally seems as though she now has closure with Jimmy. Let’s hope the Boardwalk Empire fans that are still mourning his lost will lay him to rest with Gillian.

Next week’s body count: I do have to say, I haven’t been right once with who is going to die in the next episode, but that doesn’t mean I won’t keep trying. I’m putting my marker on Mickey Doyle again. He is a stooge and with Eli coming in, he doesn’t really serve a purpose.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Live By Night by Dennis Lehane

With the new season of Broadway Empire and the long-awaited, just released Live By night by Dennis Lehane, the era of Prohibition   continues to rivet the attention of millions. As in Boardwalk Empire, the novel spins a tale of booze, violence, guns, gun molls, flappers, speakeasies, killers and the killed.
           Live By Night is a fascinating saga of the rise of an ambitious petty thief to a full- blown mobster and killer. We follow him and his obsessive love affairs from the Boston streets to prison, and to Tampa, running rum between Cuba and Florida. The classic universality and clashing values between Joe and his father, Thomas, enriches the plot’s twists and turns with psychological truth.      
          Reading the novel was like visiting my own family. The names are different; Joe Caughlin was the invention of the author; Louis Rosen was my real-life father. Joe Caughlin ran rum from Cuba; my father imported alcohol from Canada to be turned into liquor through stills. Fighting over bootlegging turf, they both wound up murdered; Joe Coughlin with his feet in cement at the bottom of the Mystic River; my dad, shot to death in the driveway of his own home.
          The novel addresses a haunting question of my life—can a criminal also be a good person? Against all odds, Lehane brilliantly creates a likeable outlaw with sympathy. Although I never knew my father, and my mother refused to talk about him, after reading They Live By Night I am inspired to think of my dad with a new-found compassion and solace.

Babette Hughes

Monday, October 15, 2012

Boardwalk Empire Season 3, Episdoe 5

Okay, Gyp. Now, I really have to know what your childhood was like. Was it really necessary for the Boardwalk Empire writers to show such sexual perverseness? There is something to be said about shock value, but I hardly doubt knowing about Gyp’s sexual peculiarities is going to in anyway enhance this season’s plot line.  But just like every HBO show these days, it has toe the twisted line.  

With all of that being said, I do notice that the oddities of each of the Boardwalk Empire characters have been psychologically explained by their childhoods. Nucky was the poor, second-fiddle son.  We all know the stories of Gillian and Jimmy, and let’s not forget Margaret, the Irish girl who was willing to steal to find her prosperous new life in America. There is one thing that ties all of these characters together—the need for control.

It is getting tough these days to say who has the upper hand. Rothstein is at the mercy of Nucky for booze shipments. Nucky is at the mercy of the Gyp, the official Tabor Heights crossing guard, and it looks like Gyp has a bounty on his head for all of the trouble he’s been causing on Nucky and Rothstein’s turf. It’s only a matter of time until one of them loses the game and Buscemi is in the opening credits and anyone with access to Wikipedia knows how Rothstein goes down.

Van Alden/Mueller (when will it be all right to make the permanent name change) is also ready to take control of his life. With two FBI agents as his body count he is definitely going to need to seek the shelter of the dark side. Is O’Banion the right place to go? At least Mueller knows he has a wife on his side.

Mickey Doyle was spared this episode and so was Gyp. “Four fatalities and none of them Gyp.”

Prediction for next week’s body count: Let’s make it Billie for the fun of it.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Boardwalk Empire Season Three, Episode Four

Boardwalk Empire has finally hit full gangster. Sure, you expect characters like Gyp Rossetti to murder at the drop of a hat. But Nucky?!?! I wanted to believe so badly that he had a moral compass left. He murdered over booze. Over money. Over proving a silly point to his driver, Owen. 19-year old Roland would've made an excellent addition to Nucky's stockpile of goons, but Nucky decided to 'off' the kid who was just trying to get a leg up the only way he saw possible. Or maybe Nucky murdered the kid, who had a similar baby face to Jimmy might I ad, to help him deal with the demons that have been haunting him the past few episodes. Whatever the psychological reason for Nucky's body count rising, booze is still the root of all evil.

This episode brought to life just how much the Prohibition affected America. Crime increased 24% during the Prohibition. Organized Crime took hold of American black markets, and it proved just how corrupt our politicians and justice system could be. It amazes me that it took 13 years to realize the repercussions of the 18th amendment.

It isn't generally known that until the Prohibition there was relatively not mafia in this country. After the 18 amendment, criminals in Sicily found the bootlegging profits in the U.S. irresistible and swarmed over. This illustrates again how the disaster of the Prohibition ruined lives and makes me wonder if my own bootlegging father would alive today and my family changed forever.

Margaret's crusade for women's health education is the only sunshine to a very dark story. Sex was never discussed back then. Getting a mother to discuss menstruation with her own daughter was just as taboo. Margaret is doing good in the community and she is carrying Nucky along with her. If it weren't for Margaret's good works Nucky would be seen as nothing more than a fraudulent politician who lines the pockets of evil men in Atlantic City.

Prediction for who is getting the ax next week: Mickey Doyle.
Not only did he defy Nucky's direct orders. He went ahead and got a fleet of men murdered AND he ruffled Rothstein's feathers. Not a good turn out for our zany comic-relief character.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Boardwalk Empire Season 3 Episode 3

Margaret Schroeder Thompson
 It looks like Margaret has taken a few pages out of Nucky Thompson's play book. Not only did she wo-manhandle her way into a meeting with the Bishop of the Catholic Church, but she flawlessly led the Bishop and the Hospital Director into making plans for a women's prenatal clinic. If only this country had Margaret to arrange today's current women's health care education and coverage!

This certainly has been the season for tough guys needing support from strong women. Van Alden has the new Mrs. Mueller. Eli was welcomed home from a year in the slammer by his wife. Gillian picked up the business where the Commodore and Jimmy left off. And Nucky is so far gone he needs two women: Margaret to manage business and politics and Billie Kent for motherly comfort.

None of the men seem mentally stable these days, and there isn't any hope for Gyp Rossetti either. "Bon For Tuna" sends him into a fire-setting rage that will stoke the embers of a most assured head-to-head battle with Nucky. I wonder if we are going to get to see any back-story on Rossetti. What caused his mental wires to go loose?

The hot-headed, half-cocked nature of the men in Boardwalk Empire remind me of my  own father. Did he choose the bootleggers life? Or did he slip into it accidentally? Was he lured by the money? Or just the love of excitement? I’ll never know.

My father didn’t have a wife like Margaret; far from it. My mother was so traumatized by my father's murder she ran away turning into a flapper and party girl until she lost her money during the Great Depression. Then she went to work and raised my brother and me the best she could.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

"Just like Mama's, eh?" Boardwalk Empire Season 3 Episode 2

"Just like Mama's, eh?" --Gyp Rosetti
It’s nice to see that the Italian hothead, Gyp, gained a bit of a sense a humor this past week. I guess Nucky gave him a lesson during the New Year’s Eve party that you don’t make friends by leaving a trail of dead bodies. And what Gyp needs right now are friends…and alcohol, and boy, is he trying. The man settled for spaghetti and coffee! What an awful combination! But Nucky has a way with putting wannabe big shots back in line with the rest of the grunts. Unfortunately for Nucky, Gyp isn’t as half-cocked as he appeared to be last episode. He may actually swindle Nucky and Rothstein out of some illegal libations.
Another big shot who was personally escorted by Nucky Thompson to rock bottom has returned. Sallow and as thin as a rail, Eli is released from his two-year staycation in the slammer to become low man on the bootlegging totem pole. If prison didn’t show Eli how much Nucky was going to make him pay, maybe making the most annoying character on the show, Mickey Doyle, his boss will do the trick. Although, it’s not looking like Eli will stay at the bottom for long. He’s already turning into Owen’s right-hand man. This alliance makes you wonder if Owen will stay as loyal to Nucky this season.
Plus, Billie Kent’s extra ‘interests’ are becoming an issue for Nucky. At first I felt compassion for Mr. Thompson, but now I see him for the hypocritical misogynist that he is. He collects women to fulfill his needs, and expects complete devotion.
Is Season 3 it for Nucky? So many characters are set to betray him, but how is that different from any other season?
One question, what happened with, Regina, the dog Gyp gave to Margaret? I’m still waiting for the cops to put two and two together and pin the murder on Nuck.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Boardwalk Empire Season 3 Episode 1

When I sat down to watch Boardwalk Empire last night, I didn't expect to find my own story, too.
Like Jimmy, my father, was a bootlegger during Prohibition.
Like Jimmy my dad, Louis Rosen, was murdered in a turf war with the Mafia.

And like Jimmy, he left a child—me-- at the age of two.
Watching Tommy's confusion and loss last night, I was reminded of the feelings I had when my father suddenly disappeared. Although I had a mother, and Tommy was orphaned, it was as if I was orphaned, too--my mother disappeared frequently into her new llfe as a partying flapper. And when I was old enough to ask her how my father died she told me he died of pneumonia. As Tommy, I lived in a world of adults hiding the truth.
I discovered the facts about my father's life and death at the age of 12, when my older brother told me I could read about him in the newspapers of the time. So I went to the Cleveland Public Library and found his story on the ten-year old pages of The Cleveland Plain Dealer and The Cleveland Press in huge headlines and graphic pictures.   
Boardwalk Empire is an entertaining TV series that viewers enjoy, turn off and forget about until the next Sunday night. But for me, the story doesn't stop; it stays with me, lingering, haunting my dreams.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Lost and Found: A Daughter's Tale of Violence and Redemption, Blog 7

Once at my friend Martha’s house I saw her father. He was sitting in the living room wearing an undershirt stretched over his big belly. He smelled of beer and sweat, and Martha and her mother seemed afraid of him. I didn‘t understand then all the importance everyone seemed to give to living, ordinary, mortal, powerless fathers who hollered and smelled and punished and took up space and were catered to and feared, while mine was flat-bellied and handsome and young and would never leave me to play golf or go bowling or to work or die of old age. He was dead so he was mine, all mine and always would be. He was brave and handsome and good and he loved me above all others.
    Yet something was wrong. I couldn’t seem to reach my daddy anymore. He even forgot to send me a hanky. Well, maybe he thinks I’m still two years old. Or maybe time’s different where he is.
    Or he could be too sick with pneumonia. I could take care of him! I clench my fists and shut my eyes trying to figure something out. But all I see is a silly old castle in a pink sky like a picture in a book for kids. And when I open my eyes again I see nothing but my mother’s room with the door closed.
     If he were here like other fathers, he’d give me the dog I long for to keep me company or the bike that will give me wings. (Years later I had a three-speed bike. And a Duel Ghia--then just like Frank Sinatra’s car-- with my name engraved on a gold plate on the dashboard, and neither one could replace in my heart that Schwinn two-wheeler I never got.) Or a trip to an amusement park. Calm strong arms to pull me out of a nightmare. A lecture over a bad report card. My birthstone in a small box. Sundays at the beach watching that I don’t go out too far. A backyard swing, a hug. Order in my days. I stared at a father and daughter holding hands in the park; a baby held by her dad fascinated me. Fathers and daughters seemed so commonplace to me, it was as if I alone was unworthy of such an ordinary arrangement, and feeling a dazzling and depthless loss, I pressed my nose against the window of families like Martha’s and Helene’s.
    So maybe having a phantom father in the sky wasn’t so great after all. Maybe a real dad who actually died in bed of respectable pneumonia was better. I needed to talk to my mother about which was which; I needed to know which one of us had made him up.
    One morning I wrote down the questions I wanted to ask her:   
    Did he really die of pneumonia?
    Did he get murdered?
    Was he bad?
    The shop where my mother had sold dresses on commission had gone under and she had been teaching herself shorthand and bookkeeping from a pile of library books spread out on the kitchen table. Although her new office skills landed her a job in the Engineering Department of the City Hall, she was exhausted from cramming and so nervous about starting the next day, she hadn’t been able to sleep for two nights.
    Kenny remembers our mother as being frightened, and I remember her as being brave. I think we were both right. Fragile, lonely, asthmatic, often hysterical, frequently bewildered, it was as if she were watching for something or someone to rise up and provide her with information on how to proceed, on what to do next. But her ferocious pride kept us going during the Great Depression, she looked like a Duchess in the bargain-basement dresses she wore on dates and to work, read Hardy and James and Wharton, and saw everything on Broadway from standing room (“when everyone gets up I sit down,” she told me proudly). And no matter what, every single Saturday the radio filled our apartment with opera. Summers, she drove us 500 miles over unpaved roads to her sister’s when few women drove alone around the block, and she could make a rude saleslady wish she were dead with her amazingly inventive insults. Standing at the level of her shoulder, I was embarrassed, but also secretly pleased, as if she were my surrogate mouthpiece expressing my anger at the world.
    She was only five feet four but when she stood she seemed to tower over everyone, electrifying a room with her brilliance and charm. Words spilled from her mouth as if she had to relieve herself of her teeming brain, but she didn’t know when or how to stop. People became restless; they looked away; they would leave if they could.
When Kenny and I were older we would sometimes imagine her in a different life--a Senator or the first woman Vice-President. A college professor lecturing in a perfect suit, her students frantically scribbling, trying to keep up with her racing mind. A lawyer arguing her case, pacing nervously in front of the jury. Not a doctor; she was too squeamish and on- edge to be a doctor. Rather one of those arrogant, grand Washington hostesses with the city’s powerful A-list at her perfect table, everyone vying for invitations. She would have been a natural for that role because it is true that in spite of her humble beginnings she was a snob.
    Or we could see her in another time: in a ballroom with flower-filled vases, Strauss waltzes and romantic secrets. Waving a flirtatious fan back and forth across her face against the summer heat. Seated at an elegant dinner table of candle-lit polished wood and gleaming silver, in a gown of mauve silk, jewels glittering at her ears and throat.
    Given the miserable facts of her real life, these imaginings became a little silly, but Kenny and I would indulge in them every once in a while anyway. It made us feel better.
    She had light-colored eyes and great bones, and when she was dressed up for a date in her high heels and jangling bracelets you couldn’t help looking at her. On Sundays, though, hanging around the apartment in her robe and slippers she always looked washed-out and sort of gray. Then, going to work in the morning, she looked different again, putting me in mind of the Duchess of Windsor in the newsreels; she had the same aquiline nose, thin mouth, and crisp elegance.
    But now I could see she was tired, stretched out on the couch, reading the Sunday papers. She was wearing her faded blue and white flowered housecoat with the front zipper. There was a blazing August sun beating against the window and she had put a bowl of ice cubes in front of our fan which was blowing a nice little breeze into the room. Outside the streets were quiet with Sunday morning.  
    She put the paper down when she saw me. “Did you do your homework?”
    I looked at her. Every once in a while she acted like a regular normal mother. But it was just another role and it irritated me. Of course I didn’t do my homework. I never did my homework. Which she knew full well.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Lost and Found: A Daughter's Tale of Violence and Redemption, Blog 6

When Gram made me a costume of purple cheesecloth on her sewing machine like a regular normal grandmother I was more thrilled with my flowing robes than my starring role in the Christmas play, or with the beautiful doll as the baby Jesus they gave me to hold . (Being chosen as Mary surprised and amused everyone because I was the only Jewish kid in the school.)
    Walking home one day after rehearsal I was concentrating on  avoiding the cracks in the sidewalk, because everyone knew Step on a crack you’ll break your mother’s back. I wasn’t sure just how that worked, but just in case, I watched, I was careful. We had enough trouble.
    Suddenly I felt a snowball sting the back of my neck. Turning around I got hit in the face with another one.
    “You cut that out!” I screamed at Ralphie Ryan and Kevin Webster.
    “Dirty Jew! Christ killer!” they hollered, pelting me with a barrage of snowballs.
    “I’m telling! I’ll telling my big brother on you!” I yelled.
    Crying, I ran as fast as I could, feeling the sting of snowballs pelt my back. By the time I got home I was covered with snow.
    Kenny was on his way out. “Kenny! Wait!” I screamed. “Wait! Ralphie and Kevin! They hit me with snowballs! They called me dirty Jew! I said  you’d get them!”
    “What’d you tell ‘em that for? Are you crazy?” And he slammed out of the apartment.
    I went in the bedroom to change my wet clothes. I was crying. Kenny had left me behind. He was in his teens. He didn’t want to be my big brother or my father or our mother’s husband any more.
    Although Gram complained constantly that she had too much work cooking and cleaning for the three of us, and that (although she seemed ancient to me) we’d send her to an early grave, she didn’t actually die for decades, not until I was grown. When the doctor told my mother that it was syphilis that killed her, my mother actually fainted dead away. But it also helped us understand that the disease had already penetrated her brain when she lived with us. At her funeral we all pretended we were a normal family burying a beloved mother and grandmother. But I didn’t mourn. She had made my mother cry too much.
I retreated to the movies. Presenting my dime to the lady in the box office, I clutched my ticket, walked a half dozen steps and was enclosed in the dark; a few more steps and my eyes could make out the seats. Finding my way down the aisle to the front row, I was ready to be taken into other lives.
    The strangers silhouetted around me were like silent comrades and the plots of films with titles like Stage Mother and For Heaven’s Sake made more sense to me than the furies swirling around at home. Event followed event in a semblance of order. Loose ends were tied up; problems resolved; virtue rewarded. You knew who the bad guys were (Boris Karloff, Charles Laughton). The women were beautiful (Constance Commings, Marion Davies); lovers were reunited; danger and all obstacles to happiness overcome. The heroes (Ronald Coleman, Franchot Tone) were saved, the endings happy. I loved the newsreels, too. The disembodied sonorous voice-over seemed to emanate from God himself in its omnipotent, awesome knowledge of all things from beauty contests to prize fights to the Kansas drought and the German elections.
     For entire Saturday afternoons at the Cedar-Lee Theater I watched the same movie over and over. When James Cagney or Edward G. Robinson died at the end I knew that as long as I sat there he would return, his reincarnated, shimmering presence on the screen in front of me as unreal and as real as my father’s. When Robert Young or Paul Muni disappeared after the last reel I knew he’d be back; I  was sitting with my daddy and his gossamer, magical comrades; I was in their stories; they loved me and I was safe. I sat there until Kenny came and hauled me out, blinking in the light.
     I could have told you the plot of every movie I had seen for the last six months, but once away from the theater’s friendly darkness, once back in the bright glare of real life, I existed in a willed amnesia. I forgot homework and my books, lost my coat, sweater, mittens, money. My mother got upset but I just shrugged. I didn’t mind. For all I knew my daddy’s sleight of hand had whisked my sweater or coat away; they vanished as mysteriously as he had. “Don’t ever have a baby,” my mother warned me. “You’ll forget and leave it on the streetcar.” But feeling pleasantly hazy and insulated within my skin like that lovely dreamy numbness you get after the first rush from one of the martinis I later took up, I was drunk on my father’s life after death, consumed into a pit of forbidden secrets, alone, neither rescued nor damned.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Lost and Found: A Daughter's Tale of Violence and Redemption, Blog 5

Do criminals run in families like blue eyes and multiple sclerosis? I worried about that because in order for gangsters to exist there had to be gangsters’ parents and grandparents and all manner of forebears. All Kenny had to do was stay out late and my mother would worry that he was turning into his father, on his way to a violent death. Sometimes their arguments would turn into a free-for-all, with my grandma Anna jumping in, cursing in Yiddish, sucking on her false teeth, hollering louder than anyone. (Years later I realized that the only Yiddish words I knew were unrepeatable in polite society.) She had moved in with us because my mother supported her and there wasn’t enough money for a place of her own.
      Grandma criticized everything my mother said, wore, and did.  Kenny was going straight to hell gallivanting around with his wild ways, I was neglected, I was too skinny, I had never learned discipline or chores. If a man called my mother on the phone when she was out, she didn’t give her the message, and if my mother was home and answered the telephone, Gram would run the vacuum cleaner around her feet so she couldn’t hear what the caller was saying. Then, in between her rantings she sat on the couch in such utter silence it was as if she was carved in stone, coming to life only for a good fight.
      She hollered about what the world had done to her. She battled about money or the lack thereof, or what someone did or didn’t do, or said or didn’t say, grinning in her rage, the smile on her face scarier than her hollering. My mother would yell back, or cry, or slam out the door. Sometimes she got an asthma attack. Her asthma was such an
ongoing fact of our family life that in utter familiarity Kenny and
 I would hear her moist, rattling breathing, see her face drain of color, dash for the respirator, and watch in helpless terror as she bent over it with desperate gasps.
    I hung around the fights -- my family was crazy but it was mine. I tried to get Gram to sit down at her place on the couch or push Kenny out the door. Eleven years old, I was a one person UN, a self-appointed minister of peace. If Amy, who lived a floor below, asked me at school the next day about the room-rocking commotion, it took no effort on my part to just shrug. If nothing can be done people stay calm--they pile furniture on the roof in a flood, stand in their pajamas in the driveway watching their house burn down, ride an ambulance holding a stricken child’s hand. Or maybe those fights made me feel, in my ridiculous calm, reassured of my own sanity.
    Gram’s coming made us all worse. One night a policeman brought Kenny home after catching him driving around in our mother’s car. My mother had more of her temper fits, I rarely showed up in class and came  home later than ever. Kenny began tormenting me, chasing me with the bugs I hated, making a monster face at night in my room with a flashlight under his chin, starting water fights, food fights, locking me out, pulling my hair, doing anything he could think of to torture me.
    When they weren’t fighting, Kenny and my mother discussed politics and books and world events, arguing their positions like an old married couple. She depended on him for advice and attention, took his arm while walking and expected him to help her with her coat, listen to her complaints, open doors and light her cigarettes as if he were actually her husband or boyfriend. “Cigarootte me, toot,” she would say, and then try to puff like Bette Davis in the movies. Going to the deli, her arm linked with his, wearing her veiled hat, she could have been 25 -- she looked so young that Kenny, tall for his age and worried-looking, was sometimes taken for her husband. Which delighted my mother and turned Kenny sullen. He had the unfortunate role of adult male surrogate. My role was to keep the peace, not upset my mother and secretly watch out for her. Hers was to go to work, get paid, come home and not kill herself.
    My mother and I had somehow reversed our roles, with me worrying about her health, her dates, her job, her.  Even at eleven I knew she was hanging on by her fingernails. Even at eleven I knew that Gram had the resilience of the truly mean and disconnected, and Kenny the raw arrogance and strength of a fifteen-year-old male big for his age. It was my raging, crying, hysterical mother who was vulnerable and overwhelmed, who already at the age of 35 had had several lifetimes of misfortune dumped on her from a lopsided God who couldn’t seem to get his distribution of bad/good luck right among his helpless subjects. You’d think her sad, orphaned childhood would have toughened her for the unlucky vicissitudes of life, but it was the opposite, as if those heartbreaking years had stripped her skin away, her protective covering, leaving her with exposed nerve ends.
    There was no one, as far as I could tell, whom she could talk to about what happened to my daddy, about her loss of hope and love. Her anger. Her loneliness and terror. The hysteria that lay just back of her throat. Her secrets or her shame kept her mute. What she had longed for and lost, or never had, was no more or less than anyone else in the world would want, and she tried to get it, or some of it, or a little of it, from a boyfriend or two, a married lover, an office friend. She was on the edge with no hand outstretched in love or fear or guilt to pull her back.
     I thought it would have to be me.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Lost and Found: A Daughter's Tale of Violence and Redemption, Blog 4

After my daddy’s funeral, after my mother sat shiva for the ritual week with the mirrors covered and the radio turned off; after receiving streams of visitors with their murmured condolences and suffering the presence of the Rabbi at her side who smelled of something sour, like pickles, she closed and locked the door to the last visitor. Then she threw out the vases of dying flowers and baskets of uneaten, decaying fruit that had begun to smell of rot. Shedding her black dress, she gave her veiled hat to the maid, bobbed her hair and started running so fast and far it was as if she didn’t want to know what had already happened. She never returned to her husband’s sad, fresh grave, letting it get sunken and untended over the years, unvisited, shaggy with weeds.
    My mother went downtown and came home with a red dress, high-heeled rhinestone and satin shoes, a flirtatious red hat, and two evening gowns in clinging fabrics. Opening the boxes on the couch, she shook out the tissue paper, lifted the fringed red dress to her chin and twirled around the living room. She was so abruptly transformed from the grieving widow of only hours ago it was as if she had sipped some kind of magic potion that buried Lou Rosen’s mourning wife along with him. Her soft mouth hardened, her brows lifted as if in surprise, her face slipped from mournful to provocative, her body from its defeated slump to defiant flesh. She even smelled different; like musk, like sex. People--the maid, my aunts--whispered.
    Disappearing in unpredictable spurts, she sent Kenny and me separately to a series of aunts and uncles: Aunt Mabel and Uncle Red (for his red hair), Aunt Lill and Uncle Sanford, Aunt Sally and Uncle Sid, Aunt Linda and Uncle Marvin, Aunt Milly and Uncle Doc (a veterinarian ), Aunt Goldie and Uncle Myron.
    Aunt Goldie was always cleaning her house. People, even grown-ups, had to take off their shoes to come in. Her preoccupation with dirt added to my humiliation the mornings I woke up in a wet bed and had to watch her wrinkle her nose as she whipped off the sheets. I wanted to help in my shame, but she waved me away and dashed from the room holding the sheets at arms length as if they were on fire. It was an exercise poor Aunt Goldie had to endure often; away from my mother I was a bed wetter. I sat on the floor at the foot of my stripped-down bed in my wet pajamas and embarrassment, shut my eyes, and pretended that my mother was downstairs waiting to take me home.
     I remember wonderful food at Aunt Milly’s, who, demonstrating that my memory of her table is no mere fantasy, later actually opened a restaurant. But I loved the food at my other aunts’ too, even when I didn’t, even when it wasn’t good. I accepted seconds and asked politely for thirds. Then I finished the meal with three slices of bread swathed with butter, while my cousins stared at me and squirmed in their chairs, their carrots and hamburgers and mashed potatoes scarcely touched. (I had all I could do not to clean up their plates, too.) Watching me approvingly, my aunts thought they were great cooks. They didn’t know that every time my mother left me, I felt hollowed out with a huge cavity I couldn’t fill.
    Uncle Red built a thrilling puppet stage for my cousin Judy and me that had real curtains you could close with a string. But Aunt Mabel, who was excitable and angry, often flew into terrifying rages. Once when she screamed at Kenny for something or other, he ran away. He took me with him. I was four years old and he was nine. We hid in the woods. All I remember is my feeling of pride being pulled along by my big brother. And my fear. I have no idea how long we were in the woods, it could have been an hour or a day, but I seem to see a chalk-white sky slowly turning darker and thick trees casting ominous shadows, scaring me. Kenny was holding my hand but I began to cry anyway, which may be how we were finally found.
    My aunts were friendly enough, although somewhat falsely friendly, I thought, with a child’s canny perception. Still, they were friendlier than their children, my cousins, who were expected to play with the well-behaved interloper that I was. Look at Babbie’s clean plate, my aunts said to their children. See her nice manners; look how quietly she plays, how she minds without back-talk and sass; see how she eats her vegetables and notice that she doesn’t leave a mess. Why can’t you be like that? No wonder my cousins didn’t like me. But it was better than getting on a grown-up’s nerves and thrown out. My mother seemed as remote and sparkling and mysterious as the night sky and I didn’t know if she would come back for me. Waiting, I felt disconnected, in space, somewhere outside the world; in my mother’s sweet-smelling fleshy presence I was grounded again, saved. Nights in my aunts’ houses, in their beds, I still smelled her, felt her breath. She seemed to reside in my brain and lurk in the air. I wanted to disappear into her rustling clothes, I wanted to vanish into her body, into her womb again; I wanted to become her.
    Summers she took me to Aunt Mabel’s in Rye, New York, or Aunt Lill’s in Boston, driving the five hundred miles over unpaved roads, gunning the accelerator with her high heeled sandal as if the future stretched ahead as free and open-ended as the road, and the past, receding in our rear view mirror, gone forever. 
    I caught the way the highway whispered to her of promise, and  feeling blissful, feeling the warmth of her body, the vibration of the motor and my own utter contentment, I was saved. My mother was mine now, not mysteriously away somewhere, the two of us comrades of the  road. Wrapped together in our little car, we were insulated and safe because my mother was brave and strong and my father was watching out for us from the black sky overhead.
    She would stop for coffee at some all night diner or truck stop, a bright oasis of light in the dark, and I’d wake and stumble in with her, proud to be up so late with my mom in this grown-up night. There would be  a few men scattered on the counter stools and she’d gulp the coffee from a thick white cup and hug her purse as if someone was about to snatch it away. Back in the car, riding with my head in her lap, she stroked my hair and sang to me in a thin soprano. “Mighty like a Rose,” “Sleep Kentucky Babe,” “Sweet and Low.” Later, I wondered how she had learned lullabies in an orphanage.
    As she sings to me, the car floats along the road and then it goes up up up into the sky. We are going to my daddy. It isn’t night any more up there, the air is all pink, and I see a huge pointy castle drifting in the wind. I order my mom to take me to the castle because my daddy is in there and he’s a king. She does what I say because I’m the boss and because she’s my twin and we’re holding hands. We leave our car with a clown and she carries me over a bridge into the castle. I see a king with a diamond crown on his head and gold robes. That’s not your daddy, she says. I order her to put me down and I run to him. He has a bushy beard and mean eyes and he scares me. My mother hits him with a stick. I cry because he isn’t my daddy. We look in all the rooms of the castle and then we see him. My daddy is in bed. He is very sick. My mother and I stay with him a long time until it gets dark and he falls asleep and the mean king comes into the room. When my mother sees him she grabs me and we run to the car. We leave the sky and go back to the ground. We’re still holding hands. It’s us against the mean king, us against the world.
As we drove, beams of light headed toward us and then vanished like the strange prehistoric creatures in my picture book. We slept in tourist homes, an adventure with the smiling host and strange bedroom, and arrived at my aunt’s the next evening, stiff and happy. My mother and her sister drank coffee at the kitchen table and talked; I’d hear their voices while my cousin Judy and I played. But she always left two or three days later without me, and it always broke my heart. I would grow distracted, half there in my play, as if she had taken part of me away with her.
    Still, she could turn up as suddenly as she had disappeared, and she  came back, swooping me up in her arms, returning me to life with her smell, her musical voice, the feel of her body. She had rented another apartment, one of the fourteen we were to occupy during my childhood. I attended six different schools; three elementary: Fairfax, Prospect and Roxboro; two junior high: Roxboro and Roosevelt; and Heights High. Kenny, four-and-a-half-years older and starting earlier, attended ten.
    This apartment was half way up a hill nestled in a row of other brick buildings just like it, with a string of garages along the back and a gas station on the corner. The rooms were on the third floor and sort of shadowy.
    When my mother and I arrived home after our two-day trip, Kenny was just back from somewhere, too, playing outside. I dashed downstairs to see him. He grinned and waved as if he was glad to see me and I sat down on the stoop feeling content; my mother was upstairs in our apartment unpacking suitcases, Kenny was right here in front of me, our family was together again. It must have been summer because I was wearing shorts; I remember feeling the stoop’s cold concrete on the back of my legs, and the thick smell of the honeysuckle vine that grew along the garage wall. I sat there watching Kenny play with Tommy Aspin.
    I thought it was a game of cowboys and Indians, or cops and robbers, until I saw Kenny point his squirt gun at Tommy, yelling, “I’m my daddy and I’m gonna get you!”
    He lowered his gun. “Tommy,” he said with great disgust, “just shoot me. I told you, I’m my daddy. I get murdered. You have to shoot me.”
    Tommy squirted Kenny with his gun, shouting, “Bang bang!”
    “They got me!” Kenny hollered, staggering around clutching his chest. He threw himself on the ground. “I’m dead!” he yelled.
    “You boys stop that!” I yelled in my mother’s voice from my perch on the stoop. “My daddy was not murdered!” Tommy looked at me, his face getting red. But my brother lay motionless on the ground with his eyes squeezed shut and his arms across his chest. I stared down at him. My daddy dead of murder? Not just plain dead like my friend Beverly’s grandmother? Our kindergarten class had written a letter to Beverly’s family and when she came back to school after the funeral she drew a picture of her mother with fat tears on her face and a turned-down mouth. Then her own eyes got all teary and she started to cry. Miss Bailey pulled Beverly on her lap and said it was okay to feel sad and cry when someone died. But I never saw my mother cry about my daddy. I never saw anyone even feel sad. Beverly said her grandmother was up in heaven, so I guessed my daddy was up there, too, with all the other dead people.
     But maybe Kenny knew more than I did--he was, after all, almost 10. Suddenly I felt the same way I did the night I saw a bad man in my closet and woke screaming. My mother had come running. She said it was just a nightmare. But I couldn’t fall back asleep until she stayed with me and kept a light on in my room. 
    I raced up the stairs. “Mommy! Kenny said Daddy was murdered!” I think I was crying.
    She was unpacking a large suitcase. Putting an armload of clothes on the bed she sat down and pulled me onto her lap. “No no, Babbie. Kenny was just playing. Your father died of pneumonia.”
     I think I knew even then that Kenny was acting out the truth with a child’s unblinking accuracy. But I swallowed my mother’s story whole, and with relief.
    I imagined her at my daddy’s bedside, sponging his young, hot face, a good and devoted wife, taking his temperature, giving him pink baby aspirins and orange juice with one of those crooked straws I sucked on when I had the measles. He asked if he could see me -- he wanted me to come and make him better because he loved me the best. But they wouldn’t let me. I had my magic medicine all ready but they wouldn’t let me give it to him. So he died while I was taking a special bath that he had gotten out of bed to make for me; it had big puffy bubbles like white balloons. Before, I was playing bridge with the colored lady because I was a very smart baby. My daddy knew I was. He didn’t want to die and leave us but he had to. He had to go be the king.
    My mother cried because she loved him and couldn’t save him. Murder is just in storybooks. My father died of pneumonia. My mother said so.
And soon she was disappearing to mysterious places again, running again, as if she felt her husband’s public shame stick to her like flypaper. Or maybe now that Lou was gone, now that the worst had happened, she felt an odd letdown. Wasn’t it anticlimactic to dwell in ordinary life without the old heart-stopping fear and excitement? Wasn’t it more interesting to live on the edge or in flight? Her newly bobbed hair cupped her head like a helmet, she was as slender as a boy and as glamorous as a movie star. All she had to do now was dress up in beaded chiffon and swinging ropes of pearls and keep moving. All she had to remember now was how to do the Charleston and the Black Bottom and flirt and hold her scotch.
    If I squint my eyes I can see her in her bedroom of pale satins and shimmering silks. After growing up in a dormitory that slept 100 orphans, she is Cinderella; bewitched, I watch her slip into a glittering dress, step into her satin slippers, spray her slender neck with perfume, drape her shoulders in mink. She kisses me goodbye, scratching my cheek with her earring, and is gone. Proud and sad, I stare at the closed door feeling a sudden emptiness where she had stood, sparkling, only moments before.
     She was in such a good mood every time she left and so quiet and sad at home, I started to worry. So the next time I saw her with her hat and suitcase, I grabbed her sleeve. I was crying. She told me to let go; she said she’d be home soon. But I knew I’d never see her again and I hung on. She pulled my hands off, hurting my fingers. A quick hug and she was gone.
    The next time I saw her getting ready to leave I slipped outside, opened the back door of her car, and curled up on the floor. After a while I heard her get in and slam the door. She started the motor. I held my breath. I didn’t breathe. We began to move. We were moving. I felt the vibration and heat of the motor through the floor. My foot fell asleep. We drove and drove for such a long time I had to go to the bathroom. I was afraid I’d wet my pants. I wet my pants.
    She didn’t find me until she stopped at a gas station and the man pumping gas asked her if the kid on the floor in the back was sick. She wheeled around and hollered, My God what are you doing here! She was really upset. She was really mad. She yanked me out, put me in front, turned the car around and drove me home in my wet pants. She  was so mad she wouldn’t talk--just yelled that I ruined everything. I didn’t care. I was glad I ruined everything. I was hungry and thirsty but she wouldn’t stop--not even for a soda. But I didn’t care about that, either. I was going home in the front seat with my mom.
     But the Depression was waiting like a mean-eyed snake and when it hit, my mother had to put away her sparkling dresses and dancing shoes and stay home with Kenny and me. Still, everyone else was broke too; even men, even husbands and fathers, even the guiltless. The entire country had been on a binge, drunk on money and bootleg booze and the fantasy that it would never end and for once she was part of the mainstream, living not in orphanhood or gangsterhood or flapperhood but merely as one of millions who had lost everything and was suffering from a hangover of excess. And    I had my mom back. The Great Depression had saved me. I was part of something now, a family, a community, a country.
    We set up housekeeping. Sort of. Her raging claustrophobia kept us in constant motion. After the barred windows of the orphanage, after never being allowed outside the compound, movement anywhere -- to the park, to the road, to another apartment or a different job or a new man -- cheered her for a while. Unmoored, she moved us from apartment to apartment, often suffering with one of her asthma attacks, as unaware of her impulses as a feather in the wind. The moving van would take us to “better” rooms, a brighter future.
    But when we arrived at the new apartment all we found was a place and a life just like the one we had left behind. It was as if the more she tried to escape the past, the more it confronted her, and then we were off again, running in place again. Each new apartment seemed as forlorn and hopeless as the last, smelling of cigarette smoke from a previous tenant’s habit, or the fresh paint my mother had managed to negotiate with the landlord, or cooking smells, thick as wet wool; sausage, garlic, cabbage, that made my stomach turn with nausea and envy. Our window view was always the same, too, as if we had brought along the brick wall facing us from our last place. Inside, the rooms were shadowy, or seemed to be, as if meant just for sleeping or death.
     The moving vans and packing boxes were as familiar to me as my mother’s face. And so were her books. Every time we moved, her books were the first thing she unpacked -- before the dishes or coffee pot, or ironing board (which was not taken down until the next move). Even before making up the beds. She went about her unpacking cheerfully, humming, fondling her books. Moving always put her in a good mood, as if the mere act of packing and unpacking would change her destiny.
    She always kept her books nearby, like a lover. I stared at the dogeared volumes and held them because she loved them so much. Das Kapital by Karl Marx, Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, and I remember two by Kafka--The Castle and The Trial. There was a play by Eugene O’Neill -- I don’t remember the name, but I do recall Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves, open on her nightstand -- probably because even then I liked its lovely elegiac title and the smooth feel of the cover. 
After my daddy died we settled into an apartment on Euclid Heights Boulevard. There were many rooms and a huge kitchen and an endlessly long hall that disappeared into the mysteries of my mother’s bedroom.
    “Smoke!” my mother screamed.
    I was two and a half years old and the next thing I remember is being on the street in the bitter cold night. The building burned to the ground and since this was our first home after the murders, my mother could be forgiven if she wondered what evil forces were out there still knocking her around. Neighbors took us in. It was warm inside. I was fed milk and cookies. Kenny tells me that Uncle Marvin came and got us.
    After the fire we moved to the Hotel Sovereign, then to successive apartments on Lakeview, Meadowbrook, Chapman. We lived on Lenox Road the time I got scarlet fever, and Hampshire where the landlady’s fat son jumped me.
    Then my mother sent me to live with Aunt Jane as a paying border while she went off to a hotel. I had to take two streetcars to get to school that bitter cold winter, and my cousin, a year older than I, wasn’t thrilled with my presence. Too angry to feel my anger, I didn’t tell my mother I wouldn’t go. I didn’t say: “Why are you doing this?” She volunteered a reason, something vague, but I didn’t listen. I didn’t hear it.
    I was afraid she was having sex in a hotel--probably with someone married, probably Jack O’Brian, one of the engineers where she worked. The few times he had dinner with the three of us at the deli, she looked at him a way she never looked at me. Although he tried to be nice, putting on an Irish brogue and telling jokes, making my mother laugh, I hated him. I wanted him to go away. I knew with a child’s canny instinct that he was married. Why else didn’t he come over? Or take my mother out on a proper date like Milt Strauss? Why did she whisper into the phone every time he called and then get ready to go out? Her excitement getting dressed and the way she looked and smelled when she came home -- a little mussed, a little sweaty, kind of lit up -- worried me. It scared me.
    What was having sex, exactly? What were she and Jack doing? In the movies the couple kiss and go into the bedroom. But then they shut the door. My best friend Phyllis said the man gets on top of the woman and pushes his seed with his thing into where she pees. Did Jack O’Brian push his seed into my mother? Did he hurt her? The next time he calls I’m going to hang up. The next time he calls I’ll hide her car keys so she can’t go out. I don’t want him to get on top of my mother so she can hardly breathe. My daddy in heaven could stop all this stuff, this sex. He could make her stink. He could make Jack O’Brian get killed in a car wreck. He could do anything because he’s a king and he’s coming back to us.
    “When I grow up and have a daughter I’m going to stay home,” I told her.
    She looked at me, amused. “Oh? And what if you can’t? What if you’re alone so you have to go out to have friends?”
    “I won’t be all alone,” I said. “I’ll have a real husband to stay home with.” (Years later, stuck in misery with a real husband, I longed for my mother’s life.)
    Aunt Jane was cold and bossy and I didn’t like her. I didn’t like that my mother had to pay for my staying there, either, and my cousin had a mean streak a mile wide. We carried my two suitcases inside, my mother helped me unpack, and then she was gone. Gone. Her absence echoed in the apartment, reverberating in my ears. I felt defenseless, disposed of. Discarded.
    That night I dream I’m in a hotel  corridor, sitting on the floor, my back to the wall. I listen to the elevator doors open and close. I listen to my own heart pulse in my ears. I am waiting for my mother to come out of the room. The door finally opens but it is not my mother. It is someone else, a strange woman in a black veiled hat, and I weep in relief and disappointment. She doesn’t see me because I am invisible to everyone but my mother. I look up and down the long dark corridor trying to figure out which door she is behind. Then Jack O’Brian comes out of a room. He is smiling. I get up and run away.
    Aunt Jane’s apartment had carpeting and heavy furniture and regular meals. I tried to focus on the luxury of having a bedroom all to myself. And   the nice hot sit-down dinners she served. I sat at the table with my cousin and the other borders, a couple who had the big bedroom off the living room. But I didn’t like them, either.
     I  missed my mother. I missed our screwed-up life. I missed the moving vans and packing boxes and the familiar ratty books that followed us from place to place. I missed my brother and the little white cartons of chop suey that my mother picked up on her way home from work, and our last apartment and the one before that. And I missed my father. Not the king in the sky of my fantasies -- what I longed for was a flesh and blood dad -- the kind that everyone else seemed to have, the kind that would get me out of here. Furious, sad, I sobbed silently into my pillow into the night.
    When my mother finally came back for me, she seemed so quiet and sad, I wondered if she and Jack broke up. Or if maybe he refused to leave his wife and marry her. I didn’t think she was the one who fell out of love because of the way she lunged for the phone every time it rang and the way her eyes got wet when it wasn’t Jack. Then I‘d hear her cry in the bedroom, as if I wasn’t there, worrying, as if only Jack O’Brian mattered in the world. I wished I could get her back to the time before Jack O’Brian, to the way she was before love or passion or whatever it was stole her away.
    I think maybe my daddy fixed Jack O’Brian good. He made him love his wife. He made her more beautiful than my mom.
     I knew I would never figure out what really happened. I didn’t care. I had my mom back and we moved into a basement apartment on Overlook Drive with an iron-gridded window-view of wheels and feet. It was like existing below sea level. Then we lived in two different apartments on Cedar Road, six months and a block apart. Don’t ask me why. The last place was on North Moreland, from where I got married. That was when my mother had to get all her teeth pulled even though she was only 44. When she got her new teeth she cried because they changed the shape of her mouth. With her teeth in she still looked good, but at night when she took them out her face got so crumpled I was afraid to look at her.
    We moved so often that one neighborhood has melded into another in my memory; a kind of generic arrangement of Depression-era grocery stores, with their scrubbed wooden counters and penny candy in tall glass jars and good coffee smells and the long wand with its fascinating grippers the grocer used to pull cans down from the top shelf. I remember the drug store where I would sometimes spend the fifty cents my mother left me for dinner on a banana split. I’d sit on the stool at the soda fountain, eating slowly, trying to make my ice cream last long enough to get the attention of the handsome soda jerk who was always busy waiting on customers or flirting with some other older girl. Finally, I’d pay my check and go home.
    But sometimes I’d eat at Hull Dobbs, a diner that had wonderful potatoes called butter fries. Often I’d see Patsy Rose there, who was a year or two older, and alone, too.
    “Poor Patsy,” my mother said. “Her mother sends her to eat alone at Hull Dobbs.”
    “But I was there, too! On the next stool!” I cried.
    “Listen, Patsy’s mother plays bridge. I have to go to work,” she said proudly, as if she’d just been anointed Mother of the Year.
    There was a deli on the corner where my mother and I would eat sometimes, also a dark shoe repair shop that smelled of leather, whose owner had blackened fingernails and a dark, glowering face when he turned from his machines to wait on you. There was a library within walking distance and, next to the shoemaker’s, a Woolworths from which I stole, with a pounding heart, an all-day sucker decorated with a face. The bar in the neighborhood had a mysterious, darkened, faintly dangerous facade that speeded up my heart as I walked past, street smart enough to carefully avoid eye contact with the men sitting inside on stools or coming out unsteadily, blinking in the light.
    I passed a mother pushing her baby in a stroller; a man in a coat and fedora with a newspaper tucked under his arm; a couple holding hands; a guy in overalls. Standing at the traffic light, they seemed to be connected horizontally to each other and vertically to sturdy roots, and who knows? maybe upwards to God. Standing outside their magic grid waiting for the  light to change I imagined the fortified linkages of their lives, while I had nothing but the time and space to drift around like smoke, unconnected, being only who I was.
    The first thing I did when I got home from school was call my mother at work. I loved her office telephone voice. She sounded like a real mom then, performing the role, I now know, for Jack O’Brian and her other office mates. Her telephone voice was different; calm, motherly. She asked about school, she laughed often, her laughter musical, thrilling me. She told me to meet her at the corner deli after work, or to come downtown on the streetcar to her office and we’d go to Mills Cafeteria. But later, at home, all that professional motherhood and cheerfulness and interest in me slipped away like a second skin. Turning inward she wilted in front of my eyes; I watched her alive downtown face change into something as listless and deadened as a wounded animal’s in the road. And I was alone again.
     I heard the voices of our next-door neighbors, their comings and goings, their radio: Jack Benny, Fred Allen, Amos ‘n Andy. As the smell of  meat loaf wafted out into the hall, I pictured their tidy rooms and busy, fragrant kitchen. Ours was bare, as if we were just passing through. Which I guess we were.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Lost and Found: A Daughter's Tale of Violence and Redemption, Blog 3

“Aren’t you that Rosen girl?” Mary Ann’s mother said. Mary Ann Halloway was my new best friend in second grade and we were sitting in her kitchen drinking milk and eating coconut cookies. The cookies were delicious and something nice-smelling was cooking away on the stove. It was Saturday afternoon and her father was there, too. “The one whose father got murdered?”
    “No,” I said, chewing. “My daddy died of pneumonia.”
    “It was about five years ago,” she went on, “some kind of bootlegging business. Let me think.” She narrowed her eyes. “His name was Lester. Or Leon. No, wait a minute. Louis. That’s it, Louis. Louis Rosen. And there was another one murdered -- a brother, I think. It was in all the papers.”
    She turned to her husband. “I remember the name because it’s Jewish. Most of those people who go around killing each other are Italian,  but this was a Jew.” She looked at me, got hold of her husband’s hand, and pulled herself back as if I had the measles or something.
    The coconut cookies on my stomach were suddenly on the way up. I stood, knocking over my milk. “I have to go home now.”
    “Yes, run along,” Mrs. Halloway said, handing me my coat.
    I got out of there just in time to throw up on Mrs. Halloway’s azaleas.
    I was not invited there again.
    Which was OK by me. Mrs. Halloway made me mad; she made my heart bang. I wouldn’t want her to be my mother even if all she did was make coconut cookies. Even if I could eat a million coconut cookies. People who were bootleggers and Jews sounded bad coming out of her mouth. But I had no idea what bootleggers did. Or Jews, either, for that matter. My mother’s life had hardly turned her into a believer, and she didn’t send me to Sunday school, a foreign destination reserved for other kids. All I understood about being Jewish was that our family didn’t go to church. But we didn’t go to temple either.
     I started to run home but my feet seemed stuck as if I were running in place in a dream. I had believed Mrs. Halloway when she said the murdered Louis Rosen in the newspapers was my daddy, and I felt a wave of disloyalty to my mother that made my throat hurt; and in the next instant a shiver of pride that my daddy had done something so exciting and daring it was in the newspapers that he got killed.
    But I felt ashamed, too, and I needed to talk to someone. When I got home, Kenny was out somewhere and my mother wasn’t home from work yet, so I went back outside. It was almost six and the other kids had been called in to dinner. I played jacks by myself on the apartment stoop for a while and then hopscotch on the sidewalk. Then I discovered a nickel in my pocket and decided to walk over to Peterson’s Drug Store for some candy. I liked it in there. Mr. Peterson always gave me a licorice stick when I bought a candy bar and let me hang around eating my candy and reading comics. Looking back, I think he felt sorry for me, but I liked my wanderings; it helped ease my loneliness. It comforted and consoled me. It made me feel free. It took my mind off home.
    I went outside with my licorice stick and sat down on the curb. Mr. Peterson was nice but he was always busy unpacking boxes or waiting on customers and I needed someone to talk to. I needed to talk to my daddy. I shut my eyes tight and took a deep breath. Then I put my hands together like people do when they pray and looked up at the sky. Daddy? Are you up there? Can you hear me? See, other kids have real dads to talk to about stuff, but you’re in a place I can’t see. So I have to ask. Here’s what I want to know. You heard what Mrs. Halloway said. So is it true? I think I know you aren’t a king with pneumonia, but are you a Jew bootlegger who got murdered? If you can hear me send something through the air. Make your hanky fall in front of me on
Euclid Avenue
when I’m walking. Okay?
    I got up and walked home on
Euclid Avenue
watching for my daddy’s hanky but it didn’t come down, so I guessed he was too busy or something. And by the time I got home that night Mrs. Halloway and Jew bootleggers had slipped back into the secrets and out of my mind.                 
    I would often drift around like that, the days without beginnings or ends, skipping school with the sun on my back like a warm hand, riding streetcars, reading in the library, staying too long in a friend’s house until the mother sent me home. My friends were fascinated and envious of my roaming ways and their parents wide-eyed with concern. But as if surviving murder means you’ve used up your lifetime’s share of danger, I felt safe. I wasn’t, of course, but I thought I was. Walking home from the library at night under an umbrella of stars, or wandering in the park, I  thought my father was watching out for me from heaven with his gun. I really did. He would never let anything bad happen to me because he was powerful and dangerous and he loved me. And although I had obscene proposals shouted (and whispered) to me, innocently made friends at the age of nine with a fifteen-year-old prostitute, observed masturbators in the park, and once on the streetcar (they didn’t scare me because they seemed to be intent on the business at hand) I wasn’t raped or murdered.   
    But just in case my daddy was distracted or busy doing something else up there in heaven, I was careful. I became my own parent. I crossed streets with the light, made no eye contact with strangers, watched out for stray dogs. I took a sweater along in the summer heat and mittens and  a scarf on mild winter days. And for emergencies I carried a stone. I understood the violence in the air.
    One day my friend Helene tagged along when I skipped school. She talked all through the movie and on the way home I had to snatch her back to the curb when she was almost run over. Another time she ate so much candy from Woolworths, she threw up in the Ladies. Walking home that day it turned cold and she shivered so hard I had to give her my sweater.
    I got tired of taking care of Helene and wouldn’t let her go with me again unless she let me ride her bike after school for a week. The only thing I really liked about her anyway was that she could walk backward without looking, which I found thrilling. One day after school she tagged along home with me because I had gone to her house so often to play with her doll house. But when we got to our apartment building I was too ashamed of our messy place to let her come upstairs. I told her that my brother had scarlet fever.
    So we played jacks on our apartment stoop. Suddenly I burst into tears, surprising both of us. She called me a poor loser, but that wasn’t it. I had just started to feel sad. I didn’t know why. It was as if something bad had happened that I couldn’t remember.
    “Your nose is running,” Helene said with great disgust.
    I wiped the snot on my sleeve. Watching, she pretended to throw up.
    Helene, like Nancy and Mary Ann and my other school friends, was chaperoned, supervised, fed milk and cookies. Taken to ballet lessons, piano lessons, Sunday School. Made to do homework, clean up their rooms, eat their vegetables. Their mothers said how was school; they asked if there was still a substitute teacher in geography and if they needed milk-money. They said don’t you dare go out without your galoshes. They said a penny for your thoughts. I heard them. My mother never said those things to me or asked questions. It was as if I existed merely as her shadow or forgotten appendage.
    I was the one with the curiosity. I wanted to know everything about my mother; what she whispered about on the telephone, where she went with her hat and earrings, what she talked about with her girlfriends, what she did on her dates. I wondered, worried, if she felt sad, if she would get one of her asthma attacks, if she was lonely. If she was afraid. Looking back I think worrying about her was easier than feeling my own sorrow and abandonment. And anger. Feeling her feelings was easier than feeling mine.
    Sometimes I pretended she would come into my room after one of her dates and sit on my bed. “Babbie, I’m scared,” she’d say.
    “Well, coming home I thought I was getting an asthma attack, but now that I’m with you I’m feeling a lot better.”
    “Okay, Mom,” I’d say. “Take a deep breath and count to ten. Then I want you to go into the bathroom and run the hot water and when the room fills with steam take ten more deep breaths. Okay? Meanwhile I’ll get the vaporizer ready.”
    “Oh, Babbie, you always help me so much. Thank you, dear. I’m ready to go to bed now,” she’d say, giving me a big hug. “Good night, honey.”
We envied each other--my friends and I; they envied my freedom, I envied their aproned, hovering mothers, their sheltered, defended days. Walking home with Nancy from school one day I bopped her one on the head. She ran home bawling and then I felt like crying. Another time in the playground I put my foot out and tripped Alice McCoy while she was running a relay race. She went sliding on the gravel and the principal had to take her to the emergency room to get her bloody knee stitched up. I was kept after school to clean blackboards and erasers for three weeks after that.
    The teacher called my mother to come in for a conference about my bad behavior and poor attendance. So she got herself up in an outfit from her high-flying flapper days and made a grand entrance into the classroom, causing a definite buzz. “Is that your mother?” my classmates whispered, pointing as she stood like a movie star in her veiled hat and gloves and the fur scarf with the mean little animal face draped over her shoulder.
    That night when I asked her about the conference, she said, What do those stupid teachers know, and went back to her book.
But maybe my mother thought I would be all right wandering around alone out there; life was considered so safe no one locked their doors, and on hot nights in those days before air conditioning my mother and I would actually sleep in the park. We’d find an empty spot among the other families in makeshift beds, spread out newspapers, arrange our pillows and stretch out. It was like being at the beach except that instead of the blazing sun there was a dark sky and moon overhead and a few blessed random breezes. There would be the aroma of something sweet, like a honeysuckle vine growing somewhere, or someone’s perfume, and you’d hear the murmur of voices and a radio playing softly. One night the couple next to us had their radio turned on to “Fibber McGee and Molly”-- a program my mother hated. After lying with her eyes closed and mouth clinched she suddenly reared up as if stung by a bee and told them to shut that damn thing off. Which they promptly did. My mother had that effect on people.
    Actually, the only time I was accosted was at home. My mother had rented rooms in some woman’s apartment on
Hampshire Road
that smelled of the old orange cat that took possession of the only comfortable chair in the living room. The landlady had tight red curls, a double chin, and wore  dangling earrings and those flowing muumuus that fat people dress in. Her son, Frankie, gave me the creeps. He was fifteen and I’d catch him spying on me while he lurked around the apartment. The rooms were small and dark; they had a musty smell and I hated it there.
     I am home alone with a cold. Frankie suddenly grabs me from nowhere, shoves me down on the floor, gets on top of me in his clothes, holds my arms down and starts pumping away. I press my legs together from my ankles to my thighs. I stop breathing. My middle region turns to water. Fear shuts me down so I feel nothing--not even his hard-on. My head, my entire body has stopped itself and I cannot move or get out from under this heavy, gasping mass of flesh. I want to scream but no one is home, and anyway, if I’m found here under him they’ll think it’s my fault, that I’d asked for it, like people say about girls who get into trouble. His breathing is wet and fast. Tears stream down my face, and my dress is wet with something else. I think he peed in his pants. I feel the wind slammed out of me and then a  sudden awareness of the disarray and menace of the world.
    When he lets go of my arms, I sock him, knocking off his eyeglasses. He rolls off me and starts feeling around like a blind person. I jump up and stomp on his spectacles so hard you can hear the crunch as they break into a million splinters. 
    “Hey! Whad’ja do! I can’t see!” he hollers.
    “I’m telling!” I scream, as he feels his way down the hall. I am so mad I am crying. And when I finally see what had made my dress wet I kick on his door until my foot hurts so bad I think it’s broken. I go to my room, change my clothes, and worry that I’ll get pregnant when I start menstruating. I am ten years old.
    I knew I hadn’t invited this--I really hated that boy on sight. But maybe I had. Sex scared me but it fascinated me, too, and maybe that boy read my mind when I thought about what men and women did together.
The only information I had about sex was what my friend, Gloria, had told me. She was sixteen. Gloria and I went to the movies together on Friday nights after she got off work at Grant’s Cafe. She had pulled-back mousy brown hair, pale skin, and a dancer’s nervy carriage that would have  pleased even Miss Brumelmeyer, my gym teacher who socked me on the back when I slouched, shouting posture!!
     One night as the usher showed Gloria and me to seats in the dark theater, her knees suddenly buckled under her and she fainted dead away. The usher picked her up off the floor and carried her back up the aisle. Alarmed, I followed him to an office in the back. It smelled of stale popcorn. He laid her down on the couch.
    “Water,” Gloria whispered.
    As soon as the usher ran out, she sat up and winked at me. By the time I had recovered enough from amazement to speak, he had dashed back in with a paper cup of water and Gloria had collapsed back on the couch. When he held the cup to her lips she stroked his hand with her fingertips.
    “Babbie, go on home,” she said in her weak voice. “Danny here will take care of me.”
    But I had already got the picture and I don’t mean the one on the movie screen. It didn’t occur to me until I found myself outside that I could have sat down and watched the movie. It was one of those Myrna Loy, William Powell mysteries. The one after “The Thin Man.”
    After that night she told me all about her sex life. How she brought Johnny Spango home, who was a regular at the cafe. Speaking with pride as if she were powerful, she said they had sex on the couch while her mother was passed out in the bedroom, and that Danny, the usher, had simply unbuttoned his fly and got on top of her. On Saturdays after the restaurant closed, she said she had sex with her boss, Mr. Grant, sitting on the edge of the sink in the basement bathroom with her uniform pulled up and her legs on his shoulders. She dismissed Oscar, the cook, as being too grumpy. “So far,” she added, grinning. “Although he could be one of those queers.” She never wore panties, she told me, although as a matter of pride, she never took her clothes off, nor would she permit her boyfriends to do more than unbutton their pants.
    All this sex talk scared and excited me. It made me want to cover my ears. My mother never brought a man home like Gloria did, or even mentioned sex. All I really knew about sex was that it was how you got pregnant.
    “Aren’t you afraid you’ll get a baby?” I asked her. 
    “I guess I’m just a damn fool,” Gloria said, proudly.
    When she told me that she was through with Danny the usher I agreed to go to the movies with her the following Friday night. “Some men are pests afterwards,” she said, “but Danny’ll be easy to get rid of.”
    She had me come to the restaurant to wait for her. I sat at the counter drinking the cherry coke she gave me, and watched her dash around waiting on customers in her crisp pink uniform and white nurse’s shoes. She was all business. She didn’t even flirt. “You don’t mix business with pleasure,” she told me as we walked to the theater. “If I pick someone it’s my choice,” she said, “not theirs.” Going into the theater, she was true to her word, turning her back on Danny’s shiny-eyed greeting.
    Walking home after the movie, Gloria told me about her father. “My daddy was a minister. He told me I was going straight to hell. I ran away.”
    “Your ran away? Where to?”
    “He wanted to fuck me,” she said, cracking her gum.
    “Where was your mother?”
    “He said I was wild but all I was doing was riding around with boys drinking beer. I hadn’t even screwed anyone yet and I sure as hell wasn’t about to start with my own daddy.”
    After Frankie jumped me I didn’t want to see Gloria any more and I didn’t answer the doorbell when she came over. I wanted to get out of that apartment, away from Frankie, away from Gloria. I wanted to be ten years old.
    If I was ten the right way I would have a white room, like cream. There are eight pillows on my bed. Sometimes I put them in a circle and sit in the middle with my doll. I read her Charlotte’s Web. My daddy always brings me a teddy bear when he comes home from a business trip and they’re all lined up on the shelves with my dolls. There’s a window seat with a cushion on it like Helene has in her room, only mine is bigger and has a view of a real apple tree. My mom buys me too many dresses so the closet’s a mess and I have a new record player like I saw in Jayson’s Hardware.
      When my mother came home from work I raised hell until she promised we would move. And the next morning at breakfast with Frankie and his mother and Kenny and my mother, I asked him sweetly what had happened to his glasses and watched his stupid fat face get red.
    Years later I wondered why Gloria wanted to hang out with a ten- year-old. Or why my mother let me spend Friday nights with a sixteen-year-old waitress. Had she handed me over to Gloria for my sex education? Was that it? After all, the only information she ever gave me was in the two library books about the birds and bees she silently handed over before dashing from the room. They had nothing in them about menstruation because when I got my first period while in the hospital with scarlet fever, a nurse tossed a Kotex and strips of gauze on my bed and kept on walking. In my embarrassing, appalling ignorance, I didn’t know what to do with them. As the sheet grew sticky and wet under me, another nurse finally put me out of my misery and strapped and swaddled me in.
    “The scarlet fever brought it on,” my mother said when I told her, as if menstruation was a side effect of disease. I got no beaming lecture on the body becoming ready for the joys of motherhood. For sex and love. Or a brisk reminder of the dangers of fooling around. There was no acknowledgement of a feminine milestone, or sentimental watershed. Not that I expected it. But I did.
     But my mother was raised in a Victorian orphanage and would actually color and leave the room if anyone told a risque joke or uttered a four-letter word. Still, in her usual confusing tangle of contradictions, I saw how sexy, shined up and flirtatious she was around Milt and Jack, and later, even my dates.
    “Well, hello!” she would sing, coming into the living room, batting her eyes like one of those silent movie stars. Sometimes she would stand in the doorway, smiling with her head raised as if someone was taking her picture. If we were playing records and she was in a good mood she’d actually start dancing, swishing her skirt from side to side like a Busby Berkeley girl. I couldn’t look at her, but my dates raved. They had never seen a mother like her.
After Frankie, I felt safer on the streets than in our apartment and kept to my wandering ways. But I hurried past the houses on the tree-shaded streets lest I start howling with envy over the families gathered behind the forbidden yellow glow of their windows.
    I went to the library. The books on the shelves were my friends, their stories waiting to take me out of my life. I loved the long shiny tables. I loved pulling down one of the lined-up encyclopedias and the way its weighty pages would transform my confusing, baffling world into the wonder of an orderly alphabetized universe.  The walls of soft-colored volumes were windows of stained glass, and the reverent hush of the people around me worshipers in the church I never got into. Miss Allen, the librarian, was my mother handing me a book she thought I’d like, or telling me to lower my voice, or that my books were overdue, or to go home because the library was closing. I liked Miss Allen. I loved Miss Allen. When she put on her coat and turned out the lights I wanted to go with her.       
Walking home one night, a man pulled his car over to the curb and said I’ll put my tongue in your hole. Shaking, I ran in terror to a nearby apartment foyer, rang all the bells, shut my eyes and crouched in the corner. Two or three buzzers sounded in response, but half paralyzed with fear I didn’t get to the doorknob in time and it locked again. After a while I peered through the glass door. His car was gone. I came out with shaking knees and went home.
    My mother was there but I kept quiet about the tongue man, the way I had about Frankie. The thing about my mother was you never knew what she would do when you told her something -- collapse into hysteria (as she did when a policeman caught Kenny joy-riding in her car), or hardly look up from her newspaper (like the time I confessed to skipping school). Or maybe say it was my fault and send me away to that vague, terrible place she came from. Orphanages were supposed to stay safely in stories and comic strips, they weren’t meant to lurk menacingly on the edges of your own life as history, as threat. But in our family “orphanage” had the sad wail of reality, and if you don’t know if your mother will collapse, ignore you, or send you away when you tell her something, you tend to keep your mouth shut around the house. I didn’t mind. My mother may have been mercurial, but my phantom father watched over me and was as constant and steady as the sky.
    But he couldn’t seem to keep me from getting lost. He was busy. In my wanderings around town I lost my way so often it was as if my secret daddy had blindfolded me, twirled me round and round in a grotesque pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey game, and then turned me loose in the world. To this day maps depress me and I am defeated by addresses; dogs and small children have a far better sense of direction and place-memory than I do, finding their way with ease while I wind up on the other side of town. Leaving a hotel room I walk the wrong way in the corridor, and the diabolically slanted streets in Washington DC that angle crazily off circles have brought me to tears behind the wheel and in dangerous neighborhoods. I stick carefully to the interstates with their signs, exit numbers and arrows, and the labeled streets of geometric grids, as if such landmarks could steer me away from my father’s killing streets.