The throw of the dice this week falls on the sunrise of hardship, for all of us.
In my home there is one staircase window that faces east. Each morning before I descend the stairs I stop at the landing, to watch the day begin. The sun must rise above an assortment of tree limbs and trunks, and up over the mountains. By the time I’ve had my coffee, the sun has risen above these obstructions. I am now jerked awake, like a slight nudge a parent might give you, ‘Come on–wake up! You have school.”
I begin writing, but that shameless sunlight in my eyes and the dance of the birds are tempting me to step outdoors. When you live in seasonal climate, summer days and nights lure you out of your wits; why stay inside when there’s moonlight, a sage brush breeze, and merriment across the street.
The gradual awakening unfolds layers of thoughts, beginning with the anxiety of the times. The impending hardship of thousands, my friends, and neighbors, oozes out like a bad smell. Everyone seems to be slanting in new directions; some are going home where they came from, others take on another job, or moving out and leasing their homes.
Some mornings I can’t even look at the newspaper. The headlines read like Sunday’s promotional movie advertisements: BANKRUPT, FORECLOSURE, and SUICIDE. The shocking prick of national disaster is a surgical awakening of a disease untreated. There’s no time to waste, no money to squander, it is a time of reduction and refusal.
As minor calamities knock on my door, and creditors calling from India, I turn my head to the sunlight and resume what I have to do, and that is write. If you know me, then you know I’ve vanished. It’s the only way I can work, and I’m standing on my head happy that I have the solitude to do it.
Last week while I was upstairs, prone on the sofa figuring out a transition between two scenes, someone knocked at the door. Then they fiercely rang the bell. Oh what it is now I thought.
“Yes,” I asked the man standing outside. He stared at me while twirling a toothpick in his mouth.
“Are you all right? I’m from Safeguard Security we haven’t had any signal on your alarm. We came to check on you.”
I stood there expressionless. I assured him I wasn’t held captive or about to throw myself out the window, but he didn’t seem convinced, he lingered and kept looking over my shoulder. I hastily sent him on his way, and returned to the desk. I’d been rude; I didn’t even thank the guy. This is some kind of message, next time he’ll slam the door in my face.
Later in the day, if I haven’t ventured outdoors yet, I take a walk around the Plaza, and muse over the herds of tourists. I look for revealing expressions and conversations. I didn’t see panic and anxiety, I observed relief. Couples shuffled together, maybe holding hands, dragging shopping bags, and aiming directionless for a new snapshot. They stand gaping at the churches and shoot photographs while standing in the middle of the street. Vacation is bliss in the middle of discontent.
When I return to my desk, it is time to print the days work. This is always a ritual of great expectation, filled with disappointments, surprise, and sometimes a whiff of elation.
By now the sun has made its journey to the other side of the house. The back porch is like starched light, it burns the eyes and flesh, the immediate effect is callous. Now is the time to slouch in the chair, close my eyes, and rewind a few scenes back.
Hardship is like the sun, unmerciful when it is met face to face, and transforming when we are protected. The sunlight is absorbed into our bodies; the effect is invigorating when taken in increments. The light changes the color of the world, we see things differently, and so it is with hardship, we feel intensely, our senses are sharpened, and we appreciate the treats more so than in times of prosperity.
It all translates into less spending and more creating.
While I lounge in this old house, one track of time keeps re-appearing. It was when my living space was limited to one tiny room, finances on a string as long as my finger and uncertainty a nightmare that turned into a lullaby. It is that time again; and what we all must do is keep the adventures above the circumstances. Any dice to throw:
After spending several summers in Saratoga Springs, I discovered I loved thoroughbred horseracing. All my life I’ve been a performing arts spectator. I never watch any sports on television and only attended baseball games when my father needed a companion. The art of performance is what led me to experience the racetrack as live theater.
The racetrack is a stage, the jockeys are the actors, and the men and women that fill the bleachers, the picnic grounds, the Turf Club, and the private boxes are the audience. The racehorse is the star celebrity.
The tickets for admission, like any show, are based on your seating. You can walk through the gates for $3.00, or you can buy a box for $100,000 a year. The collage of human emotions, drama, suspense, and danger, are key components to good theater.
Gambling personifies the Shakespearean twist of the racetrack. High rollers and drugstore cowboys wager to win. Some men walk out with a grocery cart of recycled cans; some walk out with enough money to buy a racehorse. They leave by the same gate, and the next day they come back for more. But why, I ask, is thoroughbred racing not considered an all-around American sport? Why don’t jockeys get athletic respect? These two spheres of lightning truth struck me while I trampled through the mud one rainy August day at Saratoga Racetrack.
I asked around for opinions. The Governor’s bodyguard remarked that it was a good question. He did not think gambling was the reason because people bet on sports all the time. He thought maybe that it was because as kids we don’t learn to race horses, like baseball and football. The public is naïve about jockeys because they have never raced. Another answer I heard was that 200,000 fans fill a ballgame on any given day and that those numbers don’t compare with horseracing.
I’m not a gambler, and I don’t ride very well, but I am a drama whore. I took my notebook to the jocks’ room to ask the jockeys what they thought about this irregularity in sports. Jose Santos had a few minutes to spare.
“Jose, do you feel like America thinks of you as an athlete?”
“We don’t get the respect that we should. I think it’s the gambling. This is the greatest racetrack in America, and there is gambling in every sport, but when you come to the track, you see it right there, and people cannot avoid it. Pound for pound, we are more fit than most athletes.”
I asked Jose what he does aside from riding. He jogs three miles every day and walks for a mile. He reminded me that if he goes down with the horse, his strength is what gets him back up again. Another misconception is that jockeys only ride for 2 minutes. Well, the race is 2 minutes, but they ride every day of the year. They do not take breaks.
“How does the public perceive you?” I asked.
“In Europe, they are treated like movie stars. Over here the jockey is just another person, and in sports, the jockey is low. I wish we had more respect, but we don’t get the publicity.”
This feels like the guts of the truth; our little minds like to align with other like minds. The leaders of the pack go to football and baseball, and the media follows behind.
Jose remarked that the only time he felt real enthusiasm and support was when he won the Triple Crown. Otherwise, they get a little column in the paper with the results. “The Racing Form is 100 pages, and nothing is written about us.”
“What if there was a Jockey Magazine?”
“Well, that would be great. Then the companies would be interested, and we’d get sponsors. When I go out to the park and run, I wear Nikes too.” He chuckled.
“Have they ever approached you for sponsorship?”
“No, I don’t expect they will.”
A few days later I found Jerry Bailey before a race. It was a cinch to get into the jocks’ room in those days. That was before Elliott Spitzer sipped all the fizz out of Saratoga Race Track. These days the Press can’t walk inside the Jocks’ room. Jerry hopped onto a counter and extended his hand.
“How are you?”
“Great Jerry, thank you for meeting me.”
“Jerry, I’m very interested in the lack of sports sponsorship offered jockeys. Why do you think that is?
“Because no one is promoting us. If you don’t do anything to promote us, how does anyone know? They have bobble heads and gimmicks like that, but there isn’t even a Jockey Calendar. Excuse me now; I’ve got to ride a race.”
Of all the risk takers and entrepreneurs in the world, horse racing is the champion in all categories. If I made a decision to understand the business, attend every race, meet every owner, jockey, and trainer, there’s no chance I’d understand anything more, because I do not love the horse the way a jockey does, and you can’t fool the horse!
During the Hall of Fame Induction presentation at Saratoga a few years back, D. Wayne Lucas made a speech that drew a full house of gregarious applause. This is an excerpt:
“You ride a great horse, and the owner wakes up the next day and decides to switch to Bailey. The adversity is unbelievable, it is gut-wrenching, bring you to your knees humbling business, whether you’re a rider, trainer, owner, or breeder. There’s one thing that will keep you going, and that is simply your attitude. Attitude is the most important decision you make every day. Make it early, and make sure you make the right one. You will have a very full and very peaceful life.”
Maybe it’s time for a Jocks Nike, call it the Two Minute Nike.
The throw of the dice this week lands on an adventure with D.H. Lawrence.
Our affair began in the winter of 1970, when the film “Women in Love” was released.
“ Let’s go see this movie, Alan Bates is in it.” Lizzie, and I were madly in love with Alan Bates. Neither one of us had read the book, or had much knowledge of D.H. It was a film that explored sexual relations that interested us, and it was filmed in England. Back in Junior High Lizzie sang musical songs while I taped her on a recorder. Now in High School, she was singing Hey Jude, and I was reading the words from the record album.
I remember sitting in the balcony of the Beverly Wilshire Theater, leaning forward in my seat as I longed, with adolescent fixation, to be inside the story. I wanted to live in a studio like Gudren’s( the part played by Glenda Jackson) and toast my bread in front of fireplace and paint all day. Gudren was the artist terrified of being tamed. Her sister Ursula, who personified Lawrence’s wife Frieda, wished to make her life within a man’s.
“Your Gudren, and I’m Ursula,” Lizzie claimed with clairvoyant assurance.
” No, I’m not all Gudren.” I protested.
” You are– you’ll see.” Within a year, Lizzie would be in-love in London, creating a life around a man, and I would be an art student at Sonoma State College.
But on that lazy matinee afternoon, we gasped, and squeezed each other’s hands, during particular erotic scenes that shocked our sensibility. It was an awakening, of the abstraction of relationships. We’d discovered that friendships were not as they seemed, and that love did not always have a happy ending. It woke me to what possibilities lay ahead, and turned a defining fold in my growth. Would I end up like Gudren? At times the thought haunted me.
Over the last thirty years, I’ve watched the film every time it screened on television. It was the benchmark of my youth, just before I wandered off into relationships with artists and bohemian living. Several years ago I purchased a copy. I was convinced there was something I’d missed.
Summer 2006 Taos, NM
I move to Taos and Rudy gives me “Birds, Beast’s & Flowers” a collection of poems written by D.H. during his stay in Taos. I journey out to Del Monte Ranch where D.H. and Frieda lived on and off for several years. The ranch keepers took us on a private tour; oral and on foot. I yearned to learn more. Several days later I walked down the portal of Ranchos Plaza to see what new treasure books Robert had in his shop.
“What do you have by D.H. Robert?”
“Kangaroo, and Lorenzo in Search of The Sun,” it’s a biography about DH.
“I’ll take them.”
They were placed on the bookshelf in the bedroom and remained there unread. By now, I’d seen the famous stained glass window D.H. painted in Mabel Dodge’s bathroom in Taos, and the sketchings on display at the La Fonda Hotel. Still, I had not read any of his novels.
Winter 2008. Santa Fe.
The down blanket is wrapped tightly around my shoulders on a snowy night. I take “Lorenzo in Search of the Sun” off the shelf and begin to read. The book begins with his adventure in Taormina.
“I am so thankful to be back in the South, beyond the Straits of Messina, in the shadow of Etna, and with Ionian Sea in front: the lovely, lovely dawn-sea where the sun does nothing but rise toward Greece.”
This first excerpt leads me to chisel the cobwebs of memory to the summer of 1972. I left my sister in Barcelona, with a Spanish- lover, and took a solo journey to Sicily. I don’t recall what precipitated my quest; but the warnings and discouragement from my sister, and fellow travelers didn’t obstruct my vision. I had to go to Sicily. It turned out to be the bittersweet part of my European summer. An Italian hotelier rescued me, and put me up for a few weeks in his Taormina hotel; like he did with all the lost American hippie girls.
Every night this winter, I huddled inside and read a few pages of the book, savoring them as I would a chocolate souffle. These descriptions of Italy, Mexico, and Taos infiltrated that clamping cold. D.H mentions the Model T Lizzie in his chapters on the El Monte Ranch in Taos. I am reminded of my trip to the ranch.
This is an excerpt of the column I wrote about my visit to ranch in 2006.
D.H and his wife Frieda moved to the Ranch in 1924. Imagine that journey–there was no road to the Ranch, that came much later. They must have hiked up the hill or gone on horseback. The ranch includes a small barn, and two cabins; they chose the larger Homesteader’s Cabin. It is so organic, as if spun together by weeds and timber chips, but actually is a mixture of pine logs, mud, straw and water. The Homesteader was a man named John Craig. He claimed this property in the 1880’s, and built the cabins with the surrounding Ponderosa pine. The pueblo Indians helped D.H restore the cabin and he moved in during the summer of 1924.
I thought about this man sitting under the majestic beauty of the pines, and writing all day long. The plateau of silence that envelopes this ranch is every writer’s dream. Here he wrote some of his Taos poetry, “Birds, Beast’s & Flowers” he finished “St. Mawr,” a short novel, the novel “David,” and parts of “The Plumed Serpent.” D.H didn’t know how to type; he left that task to Dorothy Brett, the artist that accompanied D.H and Frieda. D.H invited Dorothy and several other friends to join him in Taos after his first visit in early 1924. He was creating a Utopian society, he named Rananim. Brett was the only artist to accept the offer.
I took a few photographs and then we trotted back to the entrance. Just as we were getting into the Van, a car pulled up. A woman got out, and called out a hello from across the way. I yelled back that we were just leaving, and she yelled even louder, “I can’t hear you – I’m almost deaf.” I got out of the car and went to meet her halfway. Immediately taken with her pioneering eyes, and up at dawn spirit, I yelled to Rudy to get out of the car.
“ I’m Mary and that’s Al over there, we’re the caretakers. Al’s been here 50 years.” I nodded to Al, standing a few feet behind her, watching us with a tinge of curiosity. I noticed his eyes, the color of faded denim, squirming with stories. I tried not to ask too many questions too quickly; Al was tired from a long journey so he took a seat on the porch.
“ Open up the cabin for them Mary.” He called out.
Mary nodded and led us up the path to the D.H. cabin.
Along the way, she talked about the ranch. There is a society named the Friend’s of D.H. Lawrence in Taos, and they want to build a big commercial visitor center on the ranch. Mary and Al think this is a bad idea, because the pines and silence are so happy, why mess up a beautiful memorial. If you saw the ranch, you’d agree that a visitor center will look like a spaceship in this territory of natural beauty. Mary opened the door to the cabin and showed us around. The first thing I noticed was the typewriter.
“ Is that where he typed? ” (She gave me printed literature that fills in the information I know now.)
“ Nope,– but that’s the typewriter Dorothy typed on.” The cabin is well maintained, simple and authentic. After we examined everything Mary led us back to Al. We gathered around the porch and Al talked about the road that he cleared to the ranch, the typewriter he dug out of the dump, and the time he drove out from Chicago in his Tin Lizzie. Rudy turned to the Model T in the parking lot.
” You drove that out here?” He asked.
” Naw, that’s my brother’s. We‘re going to get it workin’ soon. Go on in and take a look.” Rudy jogged over and got inside. I took photographs of him, and Al watched.
” That’s how D.H. and Frieda got around Taos, they’s was great cars.”
Mary took me aside and told me that she was throwing a party for Al in a few weeks, and that we’d be welcome. It would be Al’s 90th birthday. I glanced over at him, petting his dog and looking very content. I didn’t think he heard us, but he did. “ I’ll be here until I’m 100.” We exchanged good wishes, and many waves before leaving that afternoon.
Was Al’s brother Gotzsche, who D.H. writes about and who toured them around in his Lizzie? Further in my reading, I discovered that Gudren, personified the author Katherine Mansfield. I became more keenly acquainted with Katherine in Saratoga Springs, when I attended a reading of her short stories at Yaddo Arts Colony.
D.H. is a puzzle that continues to zigzag around my “adventures in livingness.” He is also the author of that slogan. I found the saying in Anais Nin writings, but in fact I think its origin is with Lawrence.
At three in the morning the walls of reality merge with dreams, timelessness, restlessness, and an alertness of unspoken needs.
What I think of at three in the morning is never the same at ten o’ clock in the morning. The labyrinth of safety, colliding with the unknown, seems to be the most innocent of emotions. It is also a time that springs bright eyed realizations, recognitions, and a time when our mirrors move toward us. I see my looks fading. All I ever wanted was to see myself as pretty as my mother was.
The wind is sudden as it whips through the spruce tree outside my window.
I get up and wander downstairs, listening to the wood floors crackle at my footstep. I walk outdoors onto the back porch. The wind is like a mirror to me. This sound, so clear and unmixed in Santa Fe, brings me back to the years in Hollywood. The nights my father went out allowing me the freedom to explore outside. I would run down Doheny Drive to Santa Monica Boulevard and just keep running. It was on those windy Santa Ana nights that I’d run the longest.
I was running because the need to express something was bulging through my body. Back then I didn’t keep a journal at home. My father had discovered it and then questioned me about everything I’d written.
This night is like that, only I don’t feel like running, I am listening to the sound of the chime and the wind. I am thinking of the music of Charles Lloyd, and the shadows that look like people, and the clouds that appear to have message, and how everything is different when you are alone.
I dine without pause and usually finish before I’ve even wiped my mouth. I have extended conversations with the cats, Bugsy and Alice, and moments are elongated. I sit down at the counter and this wind and chime continues to circulate the house. It is an announcement- it is expectant of spring. I jotted down some notes and knew what I wished to write about today.
April is expectant- there is expectancy everywhere you look. The buds on the stark tree limbs are about to bloom, the birds have evacuated their nests and begin singing early in the morning, and insects eject themselves from their hidden corners. I don’t know what spring is like for a man, I’ve never asked any man, but I am going to tell you what spring is like for one woman. The essence of spring is sensuous, and for a woman it is an overture.
We strip down the layers of clothing; replacing socks with sandals, and sweaters with t-shirts. When I hear birds and watch them in the trees, I think of babies, and innocence. There are flowers about to shoot through the heavy clasp of winter dormancy, and when they do, the colors remind me to replace all the black pants and turtlenecks with pastel shades of peach and blue.
The sunlight radiates through my skin and warms every thing. My heart feels like it has been through a tune up. My body wants to dowse in sea water, and to eat less, and to run up canyon road, and listen to music, and dine al fresco, and get pedicures. Men, do notice your woman’s new pedicure, it will make her very happy. All of this preparation is to tune up the romantic notes, and to get YOUR ATTENTION. It is time to bring you out of the garage, or wherever you go in spring, and to notice that we are blooming. This is what I felt the night I heard the Charles Lloyd Quartet; I heard him blooming.
Surprise us with flowers, a new hat, or a picnic on the banks of the Rio Grande. Spring is time to redirect your attention to woman because we are at our best in spring. Our attention is on our surroundings; we will want to buy flowers, and baskets and new cushions for the patio furniture. We change our lipstick color, comb our hair different, and we look for new ways of expressing how good we feel.
Today I see cherry blossoms in my neighbors’ yard. They remind me of
a day in April at Golden Gate Park. Then I feel young again, like I was in the park that day, when I was in love with a man who would prove to be one of the great adventures of my life.
If you live in Santa Fe then you understand when I say-hurry up spring and start undressing.
“Is there any feeling in a woman stronger than curiosity? Fancy seeing, knowing, touching what one has dreamed about. What would a woman not do for that? Once a woman’s eager curiosity is aroused, she will be guilty of any folly, commit any imprudence, venture upon anything, and recoil from nothing.”
The throw of the dice this week lands on adventures in waiting.
As children our waiting depends on how long it takes Mom and Dad to finish what they’re doing and pay attention to our needs. It takes hold of us, like a fever, and we resort to nudging them, whining, even sobbing, if we are made to wait longer than we expected. During the school year, I waited all semester for the summer. In Los Angeles that meant it was hot enough to go swimming in the ocean.
When I lived in Hollywood, I rode two buses, to get to Santa Monica. The second bus dropped me off on Ocean Avenue, above Santa Monica Beach. I ran down the ramp that connects to Pacific Coast Highway, and headed north to Sorrento Beach, another long block away, and when I got there I stumbled in the sand in my tennis shoes trying to run, and find the place where my schoolmates clustered, in a caravan of towels, beach chairs, radios, and brown bag lunches. I couldn’t just run to the ocean, I had to sit and talk and have something cold to drink, and then I made myself wait, until I couldn’t stand it any longer, and then I ran down to the shore, and embraced the waves, tumbling inside their grasp until I lost my breath, and floated into abandonment.
After I moved to New Mexico, I stopped thinking about the ocean, I had to remove the memories from my thoughts, and so I could continue to experience this spark of the world. The dry sage ocean of pink soil, and radiant blue sky that pinches your eyes when you’re driving, the sunlight, and the warmth of a desert night and the white snow on pink adobe. It has postcard perfection, even now, with fallen leaves spread like trash everywhere, and the trees almost naked, and the dead plants in the garden. I try not to think of the ocean, the look of the sea from watery suntanned eye lids, or from the bluff at Del Mar, or the splashing of waves around my shoulders as I sink beneath the surface.
I waited, like I did as a teenager, for that summer to come, so I could return to the sea. Last week, I stood at the water’s edge in Del Mar, it was like summer without all the kids playing ball and screaming, hey dude what’s up, and the running of the dogs, and lifeguards thrashing the beach in their jeeps shouting, , no swimming, no dogs off the leashes, no glassware, and no surfing. They were missing, so as the caravan of beach runners, and surfers. In fact, I was only one swimming, on that first day at the beach. Before I went into the water, I reclined on a big black boulder, and faced the sea, and let my eyes wander amongst the scenes of the beach on a Tuesday afternoon. In front of me was an older man with graying hair, in a wal-mart beach chair reading. He must be retired, he looked perfected adapt to his spot about five feet from the shoreline. I thought about that Dennis Hopper commercial, about retirement, and how I still cannot come to grips with retirement, and spending my days on park benches or in cafes watching younger men and women live.
There was one swimmer, on a bogey board, he was far out, and floating along, and I wished I’d brought mine with me, but it was in SC’s van, and the last time I used it was when I lived in Solana Beach. I also wished I had a new bathing suit, because the one I was wearing was ripped, and the neck straps were tied together in a knot so I could swim without losing my top. The sun baked my body, and I let it without abatement, without shading my limbs, or wearing a hat, just enough sunscreen to keep the rays from trotting over to my skin, and I closed my eyes and I opened them, and this is when the waiting business suddenly felt so important, so much so that I began to think about waiting as an aphrodisiac or something like a good cocktail that you have to make last for sometimes, years, while you wait for that moment that makes you feel immortal, and childlike, and senses sharpened as an animal.
I felt the beach flies, and the tang of salt water on my lips, and the when the seagulls swarmed above the water’s surface, like so many beads of a necklace, I thought, that this is about the most beautiful day I could have, and it’s all because I WAITED, I didn’t give up on the ocean, or my place in it, or believing that I would have my day in the sand, under a faded denim blue sky, with cotton ball clouds floating above me. I baked until the sweat drenched my pours, and then I raised myself up, and walked slowly to the edge of the water, the flat surface made tiny breaks not enough to shatter my body warmth and I felt the first sting of the water on my feet, and then my knees, and then I submerged, and found that the best way to celebrate this day was to keep flopping backward on top of each wave as it crashed, and I did this for a dozen rounds, until I felt silly and weak, and dented with the surf, and I found that waiting thing again, meant something that I should write about because all of us are waiting for the election, and the economy to recover, and our real estate to be worth something again, we are all waiting for this big change so we can feel secure and optimistic about the future. There is something useful about waiting, something predisposed, that gives us the support and substance we need, so when the waiting is over, and we are all flush with success again, it will feel like the first time, it will overwhelm with us with power and joy, like the ocean.
When I left, I had enough jubilation bouncing through my blood to take the risk of driving by Maurice’s home, the one he left three years ago, when he died under his favorite orange tree. To be continued next week. Any dice to throw Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
WHERE TO BEGIN THIS STORY OF A FATHER THAT I ONLY CAME TO UNDERSTAND BY READING HIS FBI FILES, BOOKS ABOUT MOB HISTORY WRITTEN BY LAW ENFORCEMENT AND COLLEGE PROFESSORS, AND DOCUMENTARIES PRODUCED BY FOES OF MY FATHER.
My last year with Dad was 1981. Naïve, and unconcerned with where I was headed, or how I’d get there if I figured it out, I was spinning around in an executive chair; waiting for the big hand on the black and white office clock to set me free. Time didn’t pass; I hauled it over my head, in my bland windowless office, under florescent glare. I was trouble shooting for an ambitious group of USC guys as they gobbled up all of Los Angeles real estate. Without any real sense of survival or independence, my life was in the hands of my father.
“Meyer’s coming to see me; haven’t seen the little guy in twenty-five years.” Dad said during a commercial break.
“Meyer Lansky?” I asked as casually as he’d spoken.
“Why did you two wait so long?”
“It’s no concern of yours; he’s my friend, not yours.” I was twenty-nine years old and still verbally handcuffed.
The three of us went out to dinner, and while the two of them spoke in clipped short wave syndicate code, I noticed that neither one of them looked at all happy. It was rare to catch my father in public with a friend, without raucous laughter, and storytelling. My attempt to revive the dinner conversation with my own humor,returned two sets of silent eyeball commands to resist speaking.
Several months later I received a call from Dad asking me to come over to his apartment, he had collapsed on the bathroom floor. When I arrived, he pleaded for me to stay close by. “I’ll be all right in a few minutes; I just need to catch my breath. ” I sat outside the bathroom door biting my nails, and waited, like our dog Spice, for my orders. For the first time in my life, he was weaker than I, and my turmoil centered on that unfamiliar reversal of roles.
“Daddy, you should go to the hospital, I’m calling the ambulance.”
“Nope, no ambulance, I’m not going to the hospital, hang up the phone right now.” I pried the bathroom door open, and crouched down on the floor to hold him in my arms. It was the first time I’d held him like that, he felt so heavy and warm. When his eyes closed I called the ambulance and waited. Two attendants arrived, and immediately took his pulse. “Why didn’t you call sooner, within minutes he would have died?”
“ I couldn’t–you don’t understand, he wouldn’t let me. ” They grimaced at me, and removed him from my arms. Over the next few weeks I learned only that he had a failing liver. The mirage of doctors and nurses flowing in and out of his room, assured me that this was just a temporary set back. Soon he would be back at his favorite table at the Bistro Gardens, dining with young aspiring starlets.
When you love someone whose life is draining into illness, even their hollering and gripe is a relief. For the first time in my life, my father did not frighten me. I don’t know if it was because he was vulnerable, and dependent on me for comfort. But the feeling was ecstasy, the feeling of being inside his world, and not excluded.
“Imagine sending nurses in my room at six in the morning. Boy did I give them hell. They won’t soon forget the name Allen Smiley. They’re not treating me like a social service case. “ His voice came back and the salty blue color of his eyes. I took my father home, and sat on the crushed blue velvet sofa while he made his phone calls.
” Say what’s up buddy, what can I do for you? I’m tougher than you think; my daughter and I are going for a walk later. What can I do for you? When are you going to Vegas? Yea, I see all right, don’t worry about a thing, no I’ll handle it, I insist now, don’t argue with a sick man, you rascal. Don’t send flowers yet, send champagne!”
Within a few weeks, my father was back at his favorite table at the Bistro Gardens wearing tinted shades. His passion for the company of females, was reciprocal, they loved him. He sent them flowers, and picked up their checks. He could wave his magic wand of favors at the studios, or for concert tickets, and the chips rolled. He kept up that pace for six months.
All my life he had made things happen for me, now it was my turn. I collected the telephone messages, walked the dog, and cleaned up the house. It was strange, to putter amongst my father’s things. I opened drawers cautiously, thinking he may have alarms on things. He had a pile of papers stacked on his desk, and unopened mail. His personal toiletries were still in immaculate order, his brushes, and collection of colognes. A heavy sadness, presided over the room. I noticed he was reading “Honor Thy Father.”
During his sickness, he presented a man only slightly off balance. He continued to camouflage his liver failure, like he’d masked his identity all his life. I recognized the anguish in his eyes, but I had to pretend it wasn’t there.
My character changed overnight. I did not hesitate over minor decisions, cower if he yelled, or hide inside myself. Something in him was now part of me. We were fighting together. One afternoon we took a walk in Holmby Park.
“What matter’s in life is that you don’t allow people to walk over you, see. No one looks out for your best interest, except your old father. You’ll see, it won’t be so easy without me.”
“Daddy, don’t talk like that, come on.”
“Why not, I’m telling you the way it is, what do you want, for me to lie to you? Everyone else will lie to you! Now, I’ve told you that I’m donating my body to USC Medical center. I already have it arranged.”
“Daddy, I’m not listening. Don’t talk to me about that,” tears welled.
“You must listen little sweetheart. There’s no expense for you to be burdened with. I wish I put more away for you, but I’ve always told you, haven’t I….that I spent everything I made. I only hoped that things would have changed…. be that as it may, you won’t have any expense.”
Smiley’s Dice Adventures in livingness
The throw of the dice this week lands on the adventures in the making. How could I have known 15 years ago?
Back then I had but a finger-bowl of resources, a blue chair, a desk, and a typewriter. Everyday I wrote into the flame of discovery looking for my mother. My notebooks were sketches of this woman I never knew. The absence of the most ordinary information, like where she grew up in Newark, what sort of neighborhood, what her father did for a living, what schools, she attended, and later on, what experiences she had modeling in New York. The closest I got was by reading John Robert Powers book about the modeling agency he started in 1923. He assigned unemployed Broadway talent to his agency to be photographed for corporate campaign advertising. According to John he was the innovator of the modeling agency concept- beautiful women and men will sell products to the public, the public never would have thought of buying.
I found her name in the index, Lucille Casey. She joined the agency when she was 16 years old. John groomed the models; and assigned disciplinary perfection in dialect, manners, appearance, character, and intellect. Powers Girls married anyone they wanted. They were invited to all the important society events, they were given card Blanche at the Stork Club, and the Morocco and they were transported to celebratory city functions. They met men of all means, character, and class.
After I read the book, I thought about what my father used to say, “ Your mother could have had any man in the world, but she picked me. Don’t you make the same mistake.”
That is a complex summons for a teenage to understand.
I sat in the blue chair and waited for the flares of information to come down to earth. After two years, I had very little to build a full page. My mother’s history was lost, her friends had vanished, or would not talk to me. She did not leave a diary. Her photo album as a model was all I had. What could I see in those eyes, and smile? Perfection. I gave up the search, and switched over to my father. The government documented his daily activities, and what they didn’t hear or see, was exploited in newspapers, documentaries, and books.
There was one woman who was alive, that knew intimate details of my mother, because I had met her, and she made it known to me she knew. That was Meyer Lansky’s wife, who went by the name Teddy. Women have a distinctive look when they are withholding secrets. Teddy always had that look when she brought up my mother. I told her I was writing about my father and mother and she said, “Let them rest in peace.” I didn’t take her advice.