Literary Mission

 

                                 books

When my son was a toddler, I kept a list of the missing books in my purse so when Mom and I would go to the second hand stores I would know which ones I still needed. As soon as my son Michael could talk, I became obsessed with buying him the same childhood books my grandmother Nana had bought me. She handed down and blessed me with this innate “book love.”

nana

Common family lore was the tale of how even though she and BaaBaa were broke, he had not complained when in 1954 Nana could not stop herself from purchasing the set of that year’s Encyclopedia Britannica, including a custom bookcase with a slit at the top to hold the large added atlas, from a door-to-door salesman. I imagine Nana had hoped the voluminous volumes to help my mother write her high school class assignments would be a magic panacea to quell Mom’s rebellious streak. The encyclopedias had disappointed, collecting dust after Mom dropped out of school in 10th grade to work as a carhop so she could buy a white convertible.  Twenty years later, I used the books to write high school reports and ten years after that, as soon as Dave and I bought our first house, the bookcase and its contents ended up in our foyer.

 

classics

When I was in junior high in 1970, Nana had repeated the encyclopedia experience she had had with Mom, and decided that I should have a $200 finely bound collection called The Harvard Classics. The dark green books contained the text of American historical documents, Famous Prefaces, and works from Shakespeare, Dante and Tennyson, among the rest of their ilk. The pricey books’ bindings still retain their stiffness as if new. The curriculum of Southern California schools I attended in the ‘60s and ‘70s concentrated more on how to make an A-line skirt, beginning algebra and the California Gold Rush than reading classic literature.

For recreational reading while I grew up, my tastes leaned toward Agatha Christie mysteries borrowed from the library or the paperback edition of Valley of the Dolls I shoplifted from the Simi Valley K-Mart when I was in 7th grade because I thought there might be some kind of age limit if I tried to buy it from a cashier, the same as if I slapped a six-pack of Schlitz on the counter or a carton of Camels.

But after joining the ranks of motherhood, my literary pursuits were of a more wholesome variety. I needed to find the exact books that had educated and entertained me as a child before I developed my love of The National Enquirer, a habit I also picked up from Nana.

It did not matter to me that the now vintage 20-volume Pictorial Encyclopedia of American History ends with the year 1971, which was 15 years before my son was even born. The actual set Nana had brought home for me when I was in 6th grade in Simi Valley was long gone, but the first time I saw one of those thin blue volumes in a thrift store, I was spurred to begin my holy quest to have my son read the same books I had.

I never usually found complete collections in one place. Instead, I scoured jumbled thrift store bookshelves weekly, finding Volume 2 featuring the years 1734-1783 one week and maybe Volume 10, 11 and 12 at one time, paying 50 cents or a dollar for each book.

By the time Michael was two, I had only found half of The Golden Encyclopedia Set, including number 12, which covered the subjects Paricutin (a volcano in Mexico) to quicksand. Each book’s cover was illustrated with drawings representing its contents. Volume 12 had pictures of a potato, plankton, a perfume bottle and a scary Punch puppet wearing a wicked grin and holding a stick over the supine body of a male puppet dressed in black and appearing to be deceased. The creepy images of that particular cover had stayed with me since the day Nana bought them for me back in 1964 when I was seven.

Most of the books I searched for were long out of print, but within a year I had been able to fill an entire bookcase with familiar titles I had read twenty years before. As a kid, every time I came home from school the Scholastic catalog offering books to order, Nana would press dollar bills into my hand to pay for my circled selections. These books with their cheap cardboard covers cost 35 or 50 cents in the late ‘60s.

Some books had stayed in my mind as though I had read them yesterday. Follow My Leader about a boy blinded by a miss-thrown firecracker who had finally accepted his sightlessness after building a relationship with a guide dog. The World’s Best Fairy Tales, a thick red book Nana had mail-ordered through Reader’s Digest. My all-time favorite was Beautiful Joe, the dog version of Black Beauty, illustrated with drawings of the poor puppy as he grew up with no ears and tail after his first cruel master had cut them off.

book old joe                                                          book joe

Twice a week Mom and I would hit the thrift stores in downtown Glendale and the first area I would head to was the used book aisle. “I’ll pick you and Mikey up at ten tomorrow morning? Or is that too early?” Mom would ask when she called me the night before each planned outing.

“We’ll be ready,” I would assure her, grateful for any chance to get out of the house since I had no car and no other adult to be with until Dan got home from work. Squeezing into the low-flung back seat of Mom’s shiny blue Firebird to stow diaper bag, stroller, car seat and toddler was still easier than the bus.

I was delighted when at the age of three Michael learned to read after I found some tattered Dick and Jane books from my elementary school years. But something changed in Michael as he graduated to the 4th and 5th grades. At that age I had been addicted to the Nancy Drew series so I had accumulated the entire Hardy Boy series, awaiting him on two shelves in the den, including a rare first edition with book jacket of Volume 2, The House on the Cliff, for which I had splurged a whole five dollars on at Value Village.

“I need something to read,” Michael said one summer day, flopping onto the couch.

“I’ve got something,” I said, and he followed me into the den where I pulled books I thought he might like. He turned his nose up at every exciting title of the three Hardy Boys’ books I showed him. “How about The Trolley Car Family?” I asked, hoping the cover illustration of kids popping out of every opening in their cable car home would pique his interest.

“That looks stupid.”

I grabbed an Alfred Hitchcock anthology, Scary Stories and More Scary Stories to Fall Asleep With. “They’re even better than that Encyclopedia Brown book you liked last month,” I promised.

“Those books are for little kids. Never mind. I’ll just play my Nintendo.”

My heart broke as he said the words. But soon, I was forced to accept that my son had outgrown my collection of old favorites. He was a much more sophisticated reader than I was at that age.  I was happy to buy him each new edition of Goosebumps and then thankfully, his love of George Lucas films helped supplement his growing video game addiction to include an old-fashioned paperback.

“Will you drive me to the library?” Michael asked a week later. Be still my heart, I thought. “Nick next door told me about the Star Wars books.”

book

A huge series of books based on the Star Wars films, written by different writers kept Michael busy over the next three years and expanded his taste to adult science fiction by authors like Matt Crichton. But still, I keep my hard found collection of children’s books, even if they are only fit for a fourth-grader raised in an Amish vacuum. I can read them to my preschool grandchildren one day, I figure.  And when the day comes to downsize into a retirement condo, my husband will bitch and cry out in pain as he wrenches his spine lifting the heavy boxes of books. I am the curator of lost children’s classics, assigned to saving them from destruction or becoming lost memories. Besides, those gorgeous green Harvard Classics Nana bought me so long ago look classy lined up on my living room bookcase.

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Life’s Little Lessons

deck

 

That summer at the Murphy’s was the first time I drove a car. Even though I was only 15, I forged my mother’s signature and made myself a year older on the application so I could take summer school Driver’s Ed with Candy at her high school.

Taught by the football coach, our class would spend three hours a day that first week in a darkened classroom watching black and white footage of the aftermath of 1950’s car crashes. Pictures of ghoulishly grinning grills of rumpled Buick Roadmasters and the twisted torsos of tarp-covered victims. The plastic sheets covering the corpses were never quite large enough, always leaving a ghastly white hand sticking out or someone’s foot wearing only a sock. Everyone single one of us loved watching the fascinating films narrated by a deadly serious announcer.

The second week was full of boring lectures on the rules of the road. Who had the right of way and how to turn your wheels on a hill when you parked. Royal High School had these amazing driving simulators we got to use the third week. Long before video games were even found in arcades, let alone hooked up to the family T.V., these sit-in cubicles were equipped with a steering wheel, gas pedal and movie screen images that simulated how you turned or how hard you mashed on the pedal.  Fantastic fun.

When we showed up that fourth and final week, we were thrilled to find a dual steering wheel car parked near the classroom. The non-descript car was painted a dull tan but loudly labeled with large lettering on all four sides proclaiming for all the motoring public to get the hell out of the way- “STUDENT DRIVER.”

I was in the first group of three that got to climb into the car with Coach. The first guy who was allowed to sit behind the left steering wheel ferried us around the quiet neighborhood streets surrounding the school. The pimply kid nervously kept the speedometer steadfast at exactly 34 miles per hour as he navigated the car away from Simi and through the two lane back roads past the next town over of Thousand Oaks.

The girl next to me in the back seat took the driver’s seat next. “Take us down to the stop sign and then make a right,” Coach said. The girl’s hands kept clasping and unclasping the steering wheel, her foot sneaking to touch the brake pedal for no reason as she headed down Westlake Boulevard. We all jerked forward and back as we passed Westlake Village before Coach told her to pull over.

“You’re next,” he said turning to face me.

I slowly followed his directions for what seemed an eternity that took us into a rural area of hills that separated the valley from the Pacific Ocean. For some reason I have never been able to fathom, the Coach had guided this sedan of novice nervous drivers to the wicked stretch of road for miles around. Decker Canyon Road winds through the Santa Monica Mountains down to the Pacific Ocean at Highway One. I had been carsick on the winding stretch of road a million times as a kid.

Known as one of the deadliest stretches of road in California, the barely blacktopped road is nine miles of technical corners, decreasing radius sweeps and half mile straights. Rumor is the bass player from Iron Butterly committed suicide by driving his van off a cliff along its curving pavement.

decker-canyon

My mother, the perennial sunbather, used to drag all five of us kids out of bed daily each summer during the five years we all lived with Nana and BaaBaa in Simi Valley. We would all pile into her powder blue Ford Falcon with beach towels, tuna sandwiches and sand buckets, and then drive through the early morning fog of Decker Canyon to reach the beach.

All day as the bright sun burned off the fog; we would build sand castles and play in the ebb and flow of the ocean waves. Sometimes one of the younger kids would wander down the beach and Mom would realize when she called us over to eat lunch that one of us was missing. I would be left in charge as Mom went to the nearest lifeguard station to radio for a search. A tanned, blonde lifeguard would roar up in a four-wheel drive vehicle and Mom would climb in. They would drive down the beach and after a mile or so would find the missing member of our family.

My tuna sandwich would always taste a bit of grit from sand somehow always finding its way into even the tightest wrapped Saran Wrap. By late afternoon, everyone was browned just a little bit more with just a touch of red that would be cooled at home with a thin coating of Noxzema to relieve the sting. I am sure at least one of us is doomed to die of skin cancer in adulthood.

We were always have a bucket or two of wet sand to lug back to the car, each bucket holding a small population of sand crabs. As Mom navigated the twists and turns of Decker Canyon on the way home, always at the fastest possible speed without tipping off the roadway the hugged the hillside just above the steep canyon. “Sandra, slow down,” Nana screamed at Mom once when she had gone with us for a winter picnic on the shore, “Sandra, slow down. You’re driving on two wheels!”

The late afternoon heat and swaying car would mix with the smell of dying crabs and sea smell and with five kids who were all prone to getting car sick even under the smoothest conditions; one of us would invariably throw up. “Put your head out the window,” Mom would scream, turning back to look at us rather than the ever winding road ahead of us. I guess it never dawned on her to keep a trash bag in the car for just such common occasions, so the back seat of the Ford was stained with vomit, the paint on the car doors below each window discolored by the stain of stomach acid.

And now here I was facing this canyon road from my childhood as the driver’s ed car picked up speed as I slowly started down the patched and pot marked pavement. My mind filled with images what might happen if I zigged when I meant to zag, I could imagine the plain sedan sliding down the steep side of the deep chasm, gaining speed as it bounced over boulders before busting into flames. I think I held my breath the entire painful 15 minutes it took me to maneuver the nightmare nine miles.

“Pull over here,” Coach told me before we reached the busy Pacific Coast Highway 500 yards ahead. Thankfully, he took over from there and drove us down Highway 1 to turn back down one of the less curvy canyon roads back to our school.

 

Candy was waiting for me on the curb of the school parking lot as we piled out of the tan teaching car. Coach handed each in my group a green signed permission slip proclaiming to the State of California that they should now allow us to secure a state-issued learner’s permit.

When Candy and I got home with our coveted green slips that afternoon, Mr. Murphy agreed to our plaintive pleading to let us show him our newly acquired driving skills in the yellow family Falcon. All the Murphy kids squeezed into the car and Mr. Murphy drove us to the empty elementary school parking lot at the edge of neighborhood.

falcon

“You’re company, so you get to go first,” Mr. Murphy smiled to me, “But I’m not getting in that car with you until I see how you do.”

Only Mr. Murphy got out for me to take his place in the driver’s seat, allowing the rest of the kids to go along for the possibly wild ride. With Candy in the passenger seat beside me for moral support or to grab the wheel if necessary, I put the car into Drive and circled the lot of the school like an expert. The Coach’s instructions echoed in my head as I circled around and around. “Take your foot off the gas and onto the brake as you curve.”

After a few more circles, Mr. Murphy finally motioned for me to pull over next to him and I skillfully slowed to a stop right at his side. “Okay,” he said, climbing in beside Candy in the front passenger side of the bench seat. “Go around one more time and then we’ll take her out onto the street.”

Perhaps Mr. Murphy’s presence in the car made me nervous. I did fine on the straightaway of the parking lot, but as I turned to arc past the fenced enclosure of bicycle racks my mind confused the two pedals at my feet. Instead of lightly touching the brake pedal as the car took the curve, I mashed down hard on the accelerator. The Falcon flew fast as we headed straight instead of turning. The front wheels jumped the foot high curb and plowed right into the chain link fence, bending the metal links along the curved lines of the Ford’s front profile.

I don’t remember getting out of the car or turning over the wheel to Candy’s dad. Mr. Murphy put the Falcon in reverse to back it up.  The car fell off the curb and clunked back onto the pavement. I was shocked to see that the wire fence kept its newly bent shape in the outline of the car’s hood. I waited for Mr. Murphy to berate me like he did to his own kids when they messed up even ten percent of what I had just done. Especially because the Ford was the family’s only form of transportation with no money in their budget for collision insurance, let along repairs. Maybe the jug of Thunderbird wine he had half polished off by then had mellowed Mr. Murphy.

“I wonder if I’ll need to get the front end aligned,” he said softly as we drove home. Thankfully the car stayed on a straight line when he took both hands off the wheel as we drove down the street because the trailer on the side yard of the house was almost full enough to be taken to the dump.

Southern Sadness

new-orlean

Now that Will and Grace is a standard repetitive rerun on television like I Love Lucy and Ru Paul’s Drag Show is must-see TV, maybe this country could stop being so homophobic and treat their fellow citizens with open arms no matter what they do behind closed doors.  Or on stage at a gay bar. Sadly though, during my Labor Day trip to New Orleans, I witnessed that some people living in the angry red Southern states still equate homosexuality with sin which is quite ironic, since the French Quarter of New Orleans is one of our country’s main centers for heterosexual hedonism.

My husband and I had booked a cheap last-minute Internet fare to the Crescent City for the long Labor Day weekend. After paying for our plane tickets, Dave cruised several websites researching hotels and tourist info. “I guess there’s some big celebration that weekend called ‘Southern Decadence,’” he said, scanning the computer screen. “There’s a big parade Sunday night and …um, a drag show Friday night.”

Without planning it, we would be joining the festivities in the French Quarter that weekend for what is considered “Gay Mardi Gras” — and have the time of our lives.

Out of the three other times I have visited this always-entertaining city, the hotels we stayed at have always been bland corporate establishments because in those days were traveled with our son, who is now away at college. Back then, we toured plantations and Civil War battle sites with just a day trip to the French Quarter to buy voodoo dolls or Cajun spices at the open-air market alongside the Mississippi. This Labor Day trip would be more along the lines of an adult theme of dining and drinking the night away. My husband and I would stay right in the heart of the French Quarter at the Hotel St. Helene, in what was once an historical 1830’s townhouse. Southern Decadence, here we come.

 

new-orleans

By the time we reached our hotel from the airport, it was almost midnight. The night desk clerk was around 40 and spoke in that typical soft Southern accent. He politely showed us to our high-ceilinged, first floor room that was decorated with antique reproduction furniture. The jade green upholstery on the heavily carved settee in the living room matched the thick velvet puddle drapes that covered double French doors that opened onto an old brick courtyard. That is one of the hidden treasures of New Orleans. What on the outside look like plain buildings with shuttered windows are simply a façade for what lies behind their outside walls– lush, tropical courtyards filled with tinkling fountains and antique wrought iron balconies. The St. Helene’s secret spot was no different with its overhanging plants, flickering gaslights and sparkling blue swimming pool.

“In the morning we serve pastries and coffee out in the courtyard,” the hotel clerk had told us as he handed Dave our keys. “And in the late afternoon at five, we have champagne. Enjoy your stay.”

We dump our bags in the room, then head back to the lobby. “Is it safe to walk around at this time?” we asked the clerk. The hustle of the airport was still jangling in our nerves and even though it was way past Dave’s usual bedtime, there was no way we were not going to hit at least a couple of French Quarter bars our first night in Party Town.

The friendly desk clerk told us we had nothing to worry about; that there was always plenty of foot traffic and pointed to us which way Bourbon Street was. Sure enough, after a short two-block walk, we were people watching and buying Hurricanes from a bar’s walk-up window. It was just like ordering hamburgers back home. We checked out menus posted outside of a couple of restaurants and bought postcards at a tourist shop. Two of the tall rum concoctions were enough to take the edge off and we headed back to the St. Helene.

In our suite, I put on my swimsuit and left Dave in bed watching TV while I tiptoed out to the empty courtyard. To hell with the swim safely with a buddy system. It was 2 a.m. but the September air was still warm and humid. Only slightly tipsy, I dipped below the surface of the cool water in an instant escape from the muggy night. I swam a few lazy laps, and then floated under the watchful eye of a stone lion’s head above me on the two-story brick wall of the building next door.

I swam frog-like, moving my legs slowly to my side as I lazily made a few more loops across the pool before reluctantly pulling myself out of the refreshing water. As I entered our room, the icy air-conditioned air felt delicious. Dave was now asleep, but I felt wide awake. I sat under the whirling ceiling fan and turned the TV toward the sitting area. The local 6 p.m. news was being repeated for us night owls.

A woman news reporter was standing with a microphone next to an angry man wearing a crew cut and black rimmed glasses. “Our organization will be marching in protest tomorrow night against the way New Orleans officials allow these sinful people to take over our fine city every Labor Day weekend for these Southern Decadence events. It is an affront to the Christian values of every citizen.”

I wondered if the man was talking about the same New Orleans I had just walked through, where every other establishment was either a bar or a club that featured live sex acts. They guy obviously needed a reality check. Dave and I had just walked all over the French Quarter and things were no different than any other time we had visited the area when it was not Gay Mardi Gras. Then again, perhaps there had been a higher percentage of tastefully dressed men versus ones wearing trucker hats.

After a wonderful night’s rest, in the courtyard the next morning we were greeted by the smell of rich coffee brewing and rows of fresh baked muffins and iced pastries. Two of the three black wrought iron tables were filled with people talking and laughing over their complimentary breakfast. We sat at the only unoccupied table, feeling for the first time like a minority because not only was I the only woman out of the ten hotel guests gathered there, but we were obviously also the only two who weren’t gay. Both groups at each table were talking back and forth, having such a good time that I could not even find a space to interject something and join in the fun.

We finished breakfast and hit the streets, browsing in the antique stores on Royal Street and taking photographs of each other in the famous square in front of the famous St. Louis Cathedral. We caught the St. Charles streetcar for a bargain priced ride past the stately old mansions in the Garden District where we hopped off and went for a peaceful walk through an 1880 cemetery filled with ancient tombs and crumbling statues of angels and decorative stone urns.

By the time the afternoon September sun had started to steam the city, we were back in the chilled cool of our room at the St. Helene. We spent the hottest part of the afternoon watching television, and then showered as dusk fell upon the French Quarter.

Dressed in cotton shirts and shorts against the hot humid night, Dave and I wandered the neon lit streets, looking up at the crowded wrought iron balconies as we swayed to the different drifting sounds of jazz and blues that escaped from each passing block.

“So do you want to head over to that drag show at the Golden Lantern?” Dave asked, taking a drag off his Marlboro.

“I don’t know. My feet are tired from all the walking we did today.” The Golden Lantern bar was in the 1200 block of Royal, practically at the very edge of the Quarter and at least eight blocks from where we stood on Bourbon Street. Then again, I had been born in the cross dressing Milton Berle era of the ‘50s. As a teenager in the ‘70s, I had smoked my first joint and then laughed my ass off watching the male cast of Monty Python do skits as English housewives. I don’t know what it is, but I love a man dressed more feminine than me in my usual jeans and a tee shirt. “Exactly how far is it?”

We stopped studying our map and turned around at the whoop-whoop-whoop of a line of motorcycle cops, blue lights flashing as they cleared the streets of half drunken pedestrians. Behind the police escort was a throng of people holding protests signs and chanting, “God hates gays. God hates gays.” Suddenly, I remembered the Christian zealot from the news the night before. I clued Dave in to what the marching crowd was about. “I don’t know why they don’t just stay home and mind their own business,” Dave shrugged.

Okay, we were now definitely going to the drag show, to show our support of the Southern Decadence event as much as anything.

The bevy of bible thumpers reached where we stood on the sidewalk. They filled the street, making it impassable for anyone else. Dave and I walked beside them, purposely talking loudly enough so those protesters nearest us would overhear our conversation.

“Wouldn’t the world be a better place if these people were doing something useful like feeding the homeless or taking a foster child to a movie?

“I bet these are the same people who loved seeing President Clinton hounded because he lied about a blow job, but have no problem with a convicted drunk driver like Bush lying about taking our country to war in Iraq.”

“Isn’t it a sin to judge others?”

Although it was great fun goading the chanting hypocrites, alas, at the Rue Dumaine, we needed to head south and leave the locusts behind. The bawdy bars and sounds of jazz had disappeared. The area had turned quiet and residential, without a soul on the street. We passed not a single business of any kind, just shuttered fronts of seemingly dark townhouses. I was getting a bit frightened. Not even one car drove past us and the dark night was absolutely silent. “Let’s go back,” I begged Dave. Thank goodness earlier that day I had braided my hair and pinned it to my head. Even though the sun had gone down hours ago, I was still perspiring from the sticky Southern September temperatures as we walked and walked.

“We’re almost there,” Dave insisted as I bitched about my feet.

“And I have to pee.”

“Like I said. We’re almost there.”

 

new-orlan

Sure enough, moments later we had arrived at 1239 Royal. Out of nowhere, there was another couple walking up to the entrance of the Golden Lantern just as we arrived. The man opened the door, took a look inside, then turned around and grabbed his girlfriend’s arm. The two of them quickly walked away.

Me, I caught the door before it closed and walked right into the club with Dave on my heels. I had walked all this way to see a show and I was going in. Besides, I had not seen a public restroom for blocks.

The only customers in the place were men. Just a bunch of average middle class American males.

“Let’s grab a seat for the show and then I’ve gotta pee,” I hollered to Dave over the din of Donna Summer on the jukebox. We headed to the back room where we could see a small stage lit by flashing white lights. Black barstools lined each wall. Dave sat down and I plopped my purse on the seat next to him. “I’m going to the bathroom.”

I weaved in between the various groups of men standing in the middle of the room, talking and drinking. Backlit red signs hung over two restroom doors. One read “MEN.” The second sign read “OTHERS.” I guess that meant me. I crossed my fingers and went in, hoping for the best.

Ah, sweet release. I finished and went back to my seat to see Dave speaking to the man perched on the next stool. “Do you know who this is?” Dave asked me, grinning.

The face was familiar, but I did not have a clue, which must have shown on my face.

The smiling stranger stepped in to save me from my bad memory. “I checked you in last night,” he reminded me and introduced himself as John. Ah, the hotel desk clerk from the St. Helene.

We chatted as Dave went to buy us drinks from the bar in the other room. The room was nearing capacity as the show time neared. Tall women with muscular arms poking out from sequined evening dresses and wearing way too much eye make-up kept walking past us to go backstage. An audience member standing in front of me was wearing a tee shirt silk screened with the phrase, “GOD SAVE THE QUEEN.” Someone else’s shirt read, “ALL THE GOOD MEN ARE GAY.”  Hung on the wall behind us were numerous framed black and white photos for sale. The one behind me showed the back view of four nuns, hiking up their habits to expose their naked white male asses.

Dave managed to squeeze his way back, alcohol in hand. “At least the drinks here are reasonable compared to what they were charging us on Bourbon Street,” he said. “The bartender said the show’ll start in five minutes.”

A buxom blond(e) in a pink polka dot tank dress took the stage. Everyone in the crowd stopped talking and clapped as she adjusted the microphone. “We’re almost there girls,” she announced, then disappeared behind the curtain.

I sipped my drink, grateful that the bar’s air conditioning was doing an adequate job of keeping the crowded place cool. A brawny bearded black man walked past wearing a red spangle dress and a pageant sash that read, “MISS ATLANTA TRASH.” He stopped to lightly touch the side of my head. “I love your braids,” he said.

“Thank you,” I said appreciatively.

The house lights dimmed and the blonde once again was at the microphone. “As part of the celebration of this year’s 33rd annual Southern Decadence celebration, we have a trio of real beauties to-to-night,” said the announcer, tripping over the words. “Wait a minute. I’ve got to take my teeth out.”

“We know that story,” someone from the audience yelled out.

“And now for your enjoyment, let me introduce our first performer, direct from the back of the bus, Miss Clorox Bleachman.”

We all cheered as a drag queen wearing a huge red feathered hat and a matching mini skirt sashayed his hips while lip syncing to Jeannie C. Riley singing Harper Valley P.T.A.

The crowd clapped wildly at the end of the song. Next up, wearing a black cocktail dress, was a Barbara Streisand impersonator who dramatically worded along with a recording of Babs herself singing People.

Everyone applauded as Barbara left the stage and the announcer came back to the microphone. “Our final performer is also this year’s Southern Decadence Grand Marshall. He’s also the oldest Grand Marshall we’ve ever had. And here is Donny James.”

Sauntering onstage, Donny Jay looked more like Cruella De Ville than the Judy Garland look I think he was going for. But as he pretended to sing the pre-recorded song, the way he moved and his facial expressions touched me heart. The deep lines in his face accentuated the sad depths in his eyes. “This is my life. Let me live…”

Halfway through the song, Donny dramatically removed one false eyelash, tossing it into the entranced audience, and then followed with the other. He pulled off his wig to uncover his middle-aged male hairline. Someone handed him a white towel, which he used to wipe away the heavy mascara and lipstick from his face, leaving behind the image of any other man on the street. Still singing in an emotionally sad manner, Donny stripped away his gown to reveal his worn tee shirt and slacks underneath. “Please let me be me…

I thought about the religious right I had seen earlier in their mean spirited march through the streets and said a little prayer for all of them that they would somehow grow a soul.  Maybe that’s why their kind is so scared of going to hell, because that is exactly where they will surely all go.

Say Hello to Hollyweird

 What better place to head off to for a bit of December R & R than sunny L.A.? Many Californians even string colored Christmas lights on their palm trees, so the sunny 75-degree days won’t stop you from catching a bit of the holiday mood. A lot of people I know are afraid to drive around Los Angeles and go to San Diego instead?  Are you insane people?   Yes, you are. Like the blue haired old lady in tony San Diego cut across three lanes of traffic and sideswiped my son the first time he drove through that cursed town. At least in L.A., the drivers are skillful.

The first spot to hit after landing at LAX and renting your convertible Mustang is the Farmer’s Market at Fairfax and 3rd Street for a bite of breakfast. The Market’s famous clock tower marks the meeting place for generations of the town’s shakers and movie makers who meet for a meal and make million dollar deals. The outside walkways between various small shops selling good eats to eat right there or gourmet meats and fresh fruit to take to your hotel room for later. Inviting a hooker from Sunset Boulevard to your room is illegal.  I repeat, illegal.

Next head to the Griffith Park Observatory with its perfect view of the HOLLYWOOD sign on nearby Mt. Lee. Although the destination of hordes of horrid schoolchildren on elementary school field trips, the spot is still the epitome of Hollywood. Rent the film Rebel Without a Cause before you fly out and you’ll already be familiar with both the inside and outside of the observatory as you watch Natalie Wood, James Dean and Sal Mineo acting out the famous film’s dramatic climax that was filmed on the observatory grounds back in 1955.

No trip to La-La Land would be complete without a trip down the pink marble stars of Hollywood and Vine Streets’ Hollywood Walk of Fame. The star of your day should entail a long stop at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre at 6925 Hollywood Boulevard to try on the cement footsteps of Marilyn Monroe, Jimmy Stewart and just about anyone else you have ever seen on an old movie rerun. Try some on for size and down the street watch for any ceremony awarding some D-list moron with enough money to snag one of the pink stars along the sidewalk. The whole cache of these sidewalk stars has been diminished when they started letting people like Wink Martindale and Howie Mandel.

Even if it is not Halloween season, I still love to visit a good graveyard. The lush lawns, serene statuary and thought-provoking tombstone inscriptions of Hollywood Forever Memorial Park at 6000 Santa Monica Boulevard is the final resting place of such notable personalities as Jayne Mansfield, gangster Bugsy Siegel and punk rocker Dee Dee Ramone.  After years of free admission, the more recent owners now charge to enter the place and why not? It is worth every penny and even the dead have to eat? I mean pay the water bill for those gorgeous green lawns. Second best place to see not only beautiful grounds but famous past citizens is the Hollywood Hills location of Forest Lawn, which overlooks the studios of Universal and Warner Brothers. The historic cemetery is home to Lucille Ball, Bette Davis, and sadly not only Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, but also their son Ricky. My paternal grandmother is buried here I think.

Head to Westwood Memorial’s small cemetery to pose in front of the iconic marker where Marilyn Monroe is. Joe DiMaggio was still having roses delivered to the metal vase on her plaque when I was in my 20’s, but now only fans leave flowers there now. You can visit other stars who died tragically, like Natalie Wood, Bob Crane, Dominique Dunne and Dorothy Stratten.

If you crave a bite of lunch after hanging out with all those dead people, I suggest Cole’s in downtown L.A. at 118 E. 6th Street — rumored to be the 1908 birthplace of the French Dip Sandwich when a patron who just had some dental work done asked the cook to dip the bread into the au jus of the roast beef pan. Then again, Philippe’s Original at 1001 North Alameda in L.A. claims they created the first French Dip in 1908 too! Their legend goes that a cook preparing a roast beef sandwich on a French roll for a local cop dropped the bread roll into the au jus pan, and the cop told the cook to give him the wet bread on his sandwich anyway. A food star was born! And just like in Hollywood and Washington, D.C., who knows where the truth ends and the lies begin. Try both restaurants and make up your own mind.

Feel like Mexican food instead? Then visit the oldest street in Los Angeles. Olvera Street has been closed to automobile traffic since 1929 to allow pedestrians a leisurely stroll through the large Mexican mercado where vendors demonstrate their glassmaking skills, sell hand-tooled leather goods and make some tasty tacos and other treats. You’ll think you’ve been shanghaied and dropped off in Tijuana. At least you don’t need a passport to get home. (Friendly reminder- you damn well better not leave the country without a valid passport ever again after January of 2007 or good luck getting back over the border. Olvera Street with its cheap ceramic bulls and tiny colorful glass animals was always my favorite field trip growing up in the ‘60s.

No visit to California would be complete without a drive up PCH (Pacific Coast Highway). That crappy map the rental car company gives you will show it as Highway 1. Drive past Malibu and the hidden homes of everyone you’ve ever seen on the silver screen. You can pay a lot of cash and eat at one of the overpriced restaurants there or better yet, stop at the Ralph’s grocery store and buy the makings of a picnic lunch on the beach. You might even spot some celebrities at the grocery store picking up tampons or tuna. Walk down the dusty shoreline past those same celebrities’ mega-mansions because no matter how much money they have, the State of California keeps the beaches public for all of to use, so there David Geffen. Too bad for you when the state finally enforced your agreement to keep the public walkway open when they allowed you to build your uber-mansion and you tried blocking the people’s access. Shame on you.

Hey, who knows, maybe you’ll pass the home of some hot shot director barbecuing on his glass enclosed patio, who when he sees you pass his house, your perfect profile against the backing of a perfect West Coast sunset and he will call out to you because you have just the right look for the epic film he is desperately casting for just the right unknown to star in. CUT!

Yeah right, dream on…..then again, if you really believe that might happen to you, maybe you do belong in la-la land.

I’m Smokin’

Maybe I started smoking cigarettes when I was 14 because everyone I admired was a smoker.  Neither of my parents smoked.

Nana and BaaBaa both smoked.  Nana, even though she was an angel disguised as a human being, had smoked cigarettes since she was a teenager.  BaaBaa puffed on cigars. He bought brown boxes of Churchill Rejects, which were sold cheaper because maybe the hole was a little off center. All five of us kids used to hide Nana’s cigarettes, because we wanted to protect her health, so I will never understand how all five of us ended up smokers.

 

nana

BaaBaa was going to retire from Hughes Aircraft when he turned 65 that year. He and Nana wanted to move all of us from Southern California’s Simi Valley to Seattle, where BaaBaa had grown up.

“But I’ll never see the kids if you leave California,” my father complained, even though he seldom came to see us. So, in June of that year, he married ‘The Bitch.’ Everyone agreed that the five of us would be melded with The Bitch’s three boys into the Buena Park Brady Bunch. My grandparents’ sold our Simi Valley home and gave the profit to my father as a down payment on a big place in Buena Park, land of Disneyland.  We would all live as one big happy family!

The only thing that saved my sanity during the following 15 months was the sanctuary provided by our neighbors, the Cunningham family.  The Cunningham house was at the end curve of the cul-de-sac when we went to live with our father in 1970.  Everyone old enough to spell the work “cigarette” smoked them at the Cunningham’s. Renee with some standard filtered brand, while Don was hardcore with his unfiltered Lucky Strikes and the gravel voice to show for it. Renee’s mother, who everyone called Mamaw, lived with them and she smoked. Mamaw was simply an older version of Renee, big-boned with bleached blonde hair and a booming voice and presence. Renee was a housewife and held court all day at the kitchen table with her constant cigarette and cup of joe. Her nicotine habit added to her deep laugh.

I loved Renee because Renee hated my stepmother and was more than happy to do what she could to help my brother Mike, sister Katie and me avoid going home as much as possible. Kevin Cunningham and my brother Mike were the same age and partner in crime, while Katie Cunningham not only shared a name with my sister, but the same interests that led to them being constant companions.

My Cunningham pal was Donna, who was in 7th grade, a year below me. Donna was always laughing just like her mother Renee. Donna had perfect, naturally blonde white straight hair and skin that could tan in two days to a golden hue. She was tall and big-boned, but had the confidence to wear a bikini.

I spent hundreds of hours hanging out with Donna in her upstairs bedroom. Renee let Donna paint her room hot pink and bright orange and the fluorescent walls were hung with psychedelic posters that glowed at night when Donna’s black light was turned on.

Renee provided sanctuary by encouraging the three oldest of us five kids to spend as much time at her home as we needed, away from the stepmother hell. My father’s new wife made my household chores torture. Her three troll sons were all bedwetters and my job was to open the lid of the plastic trash can in the garage where their pissed on bed sheets were held until I laundered them. I used to love helping Nana Windex the windows in Simi, but my father’s wife made me used a horrible product called Glass Wax, a thick pink liquid that I had to wipe all over the glass and let dry to a chalky finish.  Then I had to use soft rags to buff the dried on substance.

I gladly pitched in to help Donna do her chores. Around the Cunningham house, the two of us would laugh like crazy as we helped Renee around the house. We would take turns vacuuming the long shag carpeting in their living room, and then use a carpet rake to leave the nap perfectly combed. I loved dusting the things Renee had hanging on her walls, like the giant tiki fork and spoon set that hung in the eat-in kitchen, and the oversized pair of scissors with a strategically draped swatch of cloth between the giant blades that decorated a wall over the sewing machine.

Don Cunningham owned a company that painted the white stripes in parking lots. He didn’t say much, but when he did his rough voice reminded me of those crusty character actors who always played the sidekick in those old black and white sea epics.

Don sounded cantankerous but was a sweetheart. When my brother Mike was playing with some bottle rockets and one shot through another neighbor’s open car window, my father was anything but understanding how scared and guilt-ridden Mike felt about the burned up upholstery. “You’ll have to figure out a way to pay for that new front seat. I’m not paying for it,” my father told Mike and walked away.  Mike was in the fifth grade.

Don heard about what happened, how Mike had not slept all night worrying over how he was going to take care of this impossible situation. “Don’t worry kiddo,” Don rasped. “You can come help me stripe a lot I’ve got scheduled for Saturday and I’ll pay the tab for your little mishap.”

Renee and Don had plenty of parenting experience with their huge clan of seven kids panning in age from 2 to 22. Their oldest son and daughter were already out of high school. Cindy was my age but we didn’t hang out together because she had been in a serious relationship since she was 13. Her boyfriend was at least five years older and drove a small import truck with an aluminum camper shell.

That’s why I was surprised when Cindy showed up at our front door after school one day when my evil stepmother had grounded me for forgetting to come home from the Cunningham until after dark one night.

“You wanna learn to smoke?” she asked when we got up to the room I shared with Katie and closed the door.

As a kid, I used to hide Nana’s cigarettes to keep her from smoking and really had no desire to smoke myself, but I was flattered that Cindy wanted to hang out with me. “Sure,” I agreed.

We went into the bathroom down the hall and closed the door. Cindy pulled out a short fat cigarette from the soft cellophane pack of Lucky Strikes. After two tries, she finally got a match to light and held it up to one end of the cigarette as she puffed on the opposite end. The two of us stood on tiptoe on either side of the toilet and passed the lit cigarette back and forth.

I sucked the smoke into my mouth, trying to keep the smoke from curling up and burning my nose and eyes, then quickly blew it out through the metal mesh of the window screen. I caught a quick glimpse of myself in the bathroom mirror and marveled at how much older I looked with the white burning cigarette between my fingers; my features looked sophisticated behind the smoldering cloud.

Some of the raw tobacco stuck to my lip from the unfiltered end as it became damp from our lips. When the glowing end of the butt got within an inch of our fingertips, Cindy held it between her thumb and middle finger, and then flicked the burning butt into the toilet, where it extinguished with a hiss. The motion was quick and accurate, and was the coolest move I had ever seen. Even now, decades later, I have given up smoking and hate the nasty habit; but seeing a man toss a cigarette butt with that quick flick of a finger impresses me.

Our neighborhood was comprised of large, two-story homes with professional landscaping and new cars in each driveway. But down the street lived two sisters I met in gym class and I would sometimes go there instead of the Cunningham’s. Instead of a shiny, new car out front, their house had a 1955 two-door Pontiac usually parked at an odd angle. The beat-up car had a huge silver frown of a grill that was flecked with dark green overspray from its last paint job, when the sister’s stepfather had them use up a case of spray cans to give the thing a fresh new color. The freshness did not last long, when three months later someone pelted the car with a dozen eggs. The residue left faded streaks and dried eggshell.

Jackie was the oldest by a year over Judy, but they were both in the 8th grade. That was the only thing the sisters had in common. Jackie was tall with big boobs already and large coarse features she coated with a thick layer of pancake make-up that ended in an obvious dark line of demarcation that outlined her lower jaw from her white throat. Her cheeks were a straight slash of heavy pink rouge that came in a large stick like a giant tube of lipstick. Her pouty lips were kept coated with white, pineapple-scented lip gloss. She lined her eyes with black pencil, the same color of the mascara that clumped alone her lashes.

Younger Judy might have had the more feminine name, but she was anything but feminine. While Jackie was tall and thick, Judy was short and wiry like a high school boy from the junior varsity wrestling team. She even dressed like a boy, in men’s button-up shirts, with the sleeves rolled up just past her wrists, and plain cotton pants. Her dishwater blonde hair was short and wispy, and rarely combed. Judy was tough, and ready to fight anyone who made fun of her sister’s clown-like make-up.

The girls’ father was nowhere to be found but when I knew them, their mother was remarried to a Hispanic man who supposedly taught school somewhere in the barrios of Los Angeles. He made enough so that the girls’ mother did not have to work and could lie on the red velvet couch watching her “shows.” She was very thin and bony and I do not ever remember seeing her off the couch. The sisters did all the housework, but poorly. The entire house was furnished in that Mediterranean-style furniture that was popular then, all dark wood and all the tables had grilled insets lined with dusty red velvet.

Jackie and Judy were also responsible for getting dinner ready each night. Neither could ever remember to thaw anything, so there was always a frozen cellophane package of hamburger floating in the kitchen sink.

They shared a bedroom which was a whirlwind of Jackie’s clothing and the bathroom they used in the hall had drawers jammed full with pots and sticks of cosmetics that Jackie shoplifted by the purse full.

Their mother had a passion for Elvis Presley and even Jackie and Judy would get excited when they told me about the time their mom had taken them with her to see Elvis in Vegas once. Still, the three of us were in their room listening to a 45 record called Whole Lotta Love by a new group called “Led Zeppelin” when their mother hollered from downstairs. “Jackie. Judy. Get down here right now.”

Their mother had run out of cigarettes and her daughters knew just what to do. The girls would plunder the overflowing green glass ashtray of its old butts, carefully pinching and rolling each stubbed out cigarette for that little bit of tobacco left at the end of each dark stained filer. Judy would cut a two by four inch rectangle from a sheet of notebook paper and roll up the threads of old tobacco into a homemade cigarette held together with a lick of spit. The girls’ mother would light the lumpy cigarette, which would only last long enough for her to get a few quick hits of nicotine.

Who knows where Renee, Don and Judy’s mom are now, hopefully not all dead from lung cancer. Unfortunately, my father’s second wife is still alive; it’s a shame she never smoked. I, myself, smoked for thirty years until a bout of pneumonia convinced me I never wanted to feel as if I were suffocating ever again. Anytime I feel the urge for a cigarette, all I have to do is picture Judy’s mom lighting up that homemade notebook paper cigarette and the urge disappears.