Searching For His Clubhouse

There are many men of principle in both parties in America, but there is no party of principle.  ~Alexis de Tocqueville

My son recently approached me as he worked his way through a Government assignment at school.

“Dad, I need to write a paper that outlines my political ideology and shares what party best represents that point of view.  I kinda know but there’s so much stuff and I am not sure I agree with all of it.”

“Welcome to the real world.” I said with a mouthful of food.

I am now only asked to kill spiders, give out car keys or money.  This was a rare bridge building moment for father and son. We all get nostalgic when we see our children clawing at the chrysalis of their hermetically sealed suburban life — trying to understand the bigger world picture and define themselves.  What should I say?

I hesitated, plunging back into the ancient waters of my own adolescence and a similar conversation.

“Dad, I have a project where I need to share what my political views are and why.”

“Let me see that? Who gave you this assignment anyway?  Was it that new teacher, that commie Berkeley grad with the long hair?  Tell Professor Trotsky that as long as you breathe, eat my food and live in this house, you are a $#@! Republican.  Is that clear?  If you would like to join any other party, I suggest you sleep outside near the garbage cans so you can get used to the life that you will be living if you vote people into office who promise you something for nothing.”

“Okay.  So we are all Republicans?”

“Yes. We are not simpleton, do-gooders who give away other people’s money.  We don’t want to live on the public charity.  We work for a living and believe that small government and low regulation creates a vibrant economy and jobs for everyone who is willing to work.  If you won’t work, get the hell out of here and go live in Europe where they give you free stuff in exchange for your votes.  We believe in God, a strong defense, small government, no debt, low taxes and personal responsibility.”

“What about poor people?”

“Well, if they can work, they need to work.  If they can’t, we help them.  If they won’t, we throw them out of the lifeboat. Can’t feed everyone on the lifeboat, you know…”

After submitting my paper, my Social Studies teacher gave me a passing grade.  It was a safe and politically correct gesture for a liberal teacher in a homogenous, conservative suburban middle school.  He clearly wanted to give my father the middle finger and my paper a “D+”.  Instead, he offered me a “B” and a perfunctory smile.  He had carefully written questions at the bottom of the paper.  “Good paper.  Think about the other side of every argument. Why is welfare a bad thing?  Do you believe people born in poverty like being poor?  Does a kid born in Downey have the same chance at success as a kid born in San Marino?”

I showed my father “our” paper and the B.  “Jesus H Christ, the commie gave us a B!”  He seethed as he read the commentary. “Jesus, Ruth – (we all thought at one time or another that our mother’s name was really Jesus Ruth) – the district is dredging the bottom of the LA River with some of these pinko teachers.”  Once again, there was a Communist in the woodpile. I had heard enough at dinner to know that a pinko was a Stalin-loving, freedom snatcher and not someone afflicted with conjunctivitis.

Over the years, I would cling to my father’s views and wear them like Kevlar – protecting myself from all the unseen forces that conspired to strip me of my hard-fought gains in life. It was not until I moved abroad that I began to form an almost unwelcome and more complex ideology that did not fit neatly into an orthodox two-party bucket.

I would now sit down with my son and hear his views on a variety of social, fiscal and geopolitical issues.

He glanced at his cell phone for messages. “Well, for starters, I don’t see what the big deal is about gay rights, abortion or immigration.  We need to be more tolerant. “

I interrupted. “Okay, well it sounds like you are a Democrat.”

“Yeah, but we have also been talking about the debt.  I don’t like the national debt.  I mean I have to pay for it when I get older and I didn’t even get to enjoy it.  It’s gonna be hard to find a job when I get out of college and the government is still spending more every year than it has.”

“Hmm.  You sound like a Republican.”

“Yeah, but I don’t think we should be involved in foreign wars and we should cut defense spending.  We should become energy independent as long as we don’t trash the environment trying to achieve it. I don’t want to have to worry about the Middle East.  It’s just oil, oil, oil and terrorists…”

“Yes. Good points. So maybe you’re a….”

“And, when I make money I guess I’m willing to pay higher taxes to support disadvantaged people but I want people to show some responsibility and work.  I don’t think we should make it easy to not work. I think we should spend more on roads and education and less on bailing out banks and Wall Street.  Big companies seem like they are ripping us off and the government can’t do much about it. Small government is good but only if you can trust Capitalism.  I’m not sure we can. And I don’t even understand the healthcare stuff.”

Neither do I…and I work in the industry.

“Well, son, you have just summed up the American conundrum.  We are socially sympathetic but fiscally conservative.  People want jobs and they don’t want to pay for anybody else’s problems unless they are in real need.  If government is small, it falls to business and individuals to try to solve for the holes that inevitably occur in society. If you can’t close those holes, they widen causing more people to fall through until one day, the minority is the majority and then, the tables get flipped.”

He looked at me with a bored, vacuous expression. “What? So, which party is closer to all that?”

“Buddy, I have no freaking idea.  But, if you find their club house, will you let me know?”

Go East Young Man

Queensboro (59th Street) Bridge and Midtown Ma...
Queensboro (59th Street) Bridge and Midtown Manhattan at Night, NYC (Photo credit: andrew c mace)

 New York Taxi Rules:
1. Driver speaks no English.
2. Driver just got here two days ago from someplace like Senegal.
3. Driver hates you.

– Dave Barry

My first trip to New York City was in 1987.  I was 26 years old and had only known the Big Apple from gritty 1970s R rated movies like Shaft, Serpico, Death Wish and The French Connection.  (The fact I was able to see these movies with my father when I was still in elementary school is the subject of another story.) The urban citadel of New York was depicted in the flickering darkness of antiseptic California cinemas as a playground for misanthropes, heroin addicts, the criminally insane and corrupt financiers that sat firmly latched like ticks to the neck of the American economy.

Woody Allen and a few urbanized aesthetes attempted to reintroduce the perfumed notion of New York urban romance in films like Annie Hall but as far as I was concerned, the five boroughs comprised one giant petri dish overflowing with the germs spawned from an unscrupulous and unwashed humanity.  I had met kids from New York that had travelled West to attend my college.  They were infinitely more sophisticated having emerged from an entirely different elementary education.  I recall my first New York City roommate showing up with his strange music, turned up Izod collar, pink pants and penny loafers.  One spring afternoon I noticed him wearing a suit and tie one and asked him if someone important had died.  In California, neckties were only worn to church and funerals for heads of state.  He informed me that he was interviewing with Goldman Sachs for a summer internship.  I asked him why he would want to work at a department store.  I only now recognize the withering look of distain that I received.  It is a vintage eastern look that is both an intellectual rebuke and a simultaneous entreaty to God that he cull his human herd of another cripple.

My flight to New York was a seminal event to attend my older brother’s wedding.  He was, ironically, working at Goldman Sachs – presumably selling men’s clothing.  This made sense to me as he did seem to dress well.  I was alone as I lugged my massive garment bag out of Baggage to be assaulted by a gauntlet of gyspy cab and ronin limo drivers. I felt only slightly more confident than a third grader at his first sleep away camp.  I stood in a queue long enough in Los Angeles to qualify for a movie premiere. A half hour later, I was in a suspicious looking cab with a North African driver with blood-red qat eyes. Having mastered the annoying California habit of excessive friendliness, I peppered the poor cabbie with personal details and a stream of nervous questions.

“This is my first trip to NY.”

“How far is it to West 79th Street?”

“My brother’s getting married.”

I glanced at his license, a jumble of vowels interspersed between the letters “k” and “w”.  He appeared to have just walked off the set of The Naked Prey as a co-star with Cornell Wilde. I assumed his “home” must be some obscure nation in Africa.  I had been brought up in the provincial Eden of Los Angeles where Mexico was Tijuana, Canada was viewed like an unused garage apartment and the rest of the world was organized like the board game of Risk.

“So what country are you from?”

“Queens”

The cab swerved across three lanes of Van Wyck expressway brake lights moving on to Rockaway Blvd and a peristalsis of lurching commuters.  I surveyed the gated yards, orange glow of cigarettes and shadowy people tucked in among dilapidated homes and barred windows.  We were moving slowly.  I could easily be pulled from the cab and savaged by an angry mob. I felt my head retracting into my neck as I slumped down below the window.

The driver skirted a traffic jam, honked his horn and swore in a foreign language as he ran a red light.  He turned right away from Rockaway Blvd. and moved slowly down a chain linked side road.  I muttered a silent Rosary.  So this was it.  While my brother’s friends would be inquiring, “Tom, where’s your little brother?”  I would be in a garage in Queens being cut into small pieces and fed to pit bulls.  I briefly contemplated diving out of the taxi to hide in one of the canyon-sized potholes that the vehicle kept pounding across.

“Are we? I mean, is this the best way to the City?”

“Traffic’s bad.”

The lights of New York suddenly appeared to the West shimmering in the haze of the August summer night.  An hour later, I was sitting in my brother’s air condition-less Upper West Side co-op that was only slightly larger than a microwave oven.  He was exhilarated by his Lilliputian lifestyle.  I sat terrified as he described our need to take the subway to meet friends in the Village. The last movie I had seen that involved riding on the NY subway resulted in Charles Bronson shooting a car full of street thugs.

We walked down a stuffy hallway to wait for a coffin disguised as an elevator.  The lift could comfortably accommodate one person.  I hesitated as the door opened to two people.  My brother vacantly smiled and wedged in between the man and woman.  I followed, apologizing as I pressed against the young mother. She seemed nonplussed by the fact that we were practically conjoined.  I was certain when we exited the lift I would be wearing her blouse.

The doors opened and we spilled out into the hot breath of a foyer.  The doorman had his back to us watching a homeless man berate a four foot mountain of trash that was accumulating from a recent garbage strike.  August heaved up from the subway grills.  It seemed even the air had left the City for the Hamptons.

The night was an endless bachelor’s party blur of crowded nightclubs, silk dresses, shot glasses, kaleidoscope lights, superficiality and a wad of AMEX receipts.  I do remember being asked by every woman what I did for a living.  As I soon as I shared “insurance”, it was if someone had pulled a fire alarm. With each cocktail, my apprehension of New York City melted.  The mean streets slowly morphed into a neon adult playground of temptations.  I was Pinocchio running with a gang of financial Lampwicks on Pleasure Island.

The following morning, I awoke in the fetal position on floor of my brother’s dressing room apartment clothed only in underwear and dress shoes.  Aside from the roto-tiller grinding through my medulla, I noted the constant thrum of motor vehicles.  On my run through Central Park, I seemed to fixate on the mentally ill and a breed of elite, skeletal mannequins who jogged as if they were starring in an exercise video.  At that moment, I made a life pact that if I survived this dystopian weekend, I would never again cast my shadow east of the Mississippi.

God and life love making lemonade out of sour pledges.  One’s best thinking always becomes fodder for irony.  27 years later, I would find myself living in CT and commuting into New York City.  I was now jostling in the belly of an iron beast ready to be disgorged into the stale underground of Grand Central Station.  It seemed a lifetime ago that I could drive fifteen minutes from work to Newport Beach, run along the strand and then body surf for an hour before returning home to my young family.  It had been months since I had actually seen the ocean, the sky and or a star in a night now awash with light pollution.

Fast forward ten years and I now find myself walking happily up Madison Avenue passing a mélange of restaurants, shops and businesses.  The streets teem with diversity, a giant Masai Mara of heterogeneous souls coursing across a concrete veldt.  It is early fall and a perfect ambient temperature. Everything is bathed in a soft, sequined light.  The City prefers to walk on a day like today.  A car is a burdensome utility in a place like this.  It is a racehorse or vacation property – an impulsive and underutilized possession that must be housed and boarded.  Unlike the love affair we enjoyed with our four-wheeled deities in my native California, there is no value in driving.  To park anywhere is to squeeze into a postage stamp stall deep in the bowels of a urine fragranced car park, or hand $55.00 and one’s keys to a Tunisian parking attendant who has not smiled since he immigrated to the US in 1997.

There is no place to hide from life in the City.  It finds you. Everything is shared.  I often return to the City after dark to attend a dinner, a concert or social event.  Coming down the Hudson or FDR, the city lights are strung like pearls and as with most great works of impressionism, it reveals aspects of itself only when you step back to appreciate it in its entirety.

I visit an organic juice bar for a drink that has more vitamins than five heads of raw broccoli but tastes like battery acid.  A giant rat is inflated in front of an adjacent building that is clearly engaged in behavior that a local union does not find acceptable. A poor demented soul stops to rebuke an invisible demon then attempts to make eye contact with a jet stream of bowed heads and averted glances.  In one block, I pass a lifetime of humanity – all moving with urban determination to a destination that rests like a Hobbit’s hovel somewhere tucked inside a concrete mountain.

The City will change with the seasons.  No day is guaranteed.  The weather and unforeseen disruptions will alter our routines and push us into cabs and underground.  NY is no longer a Broadway beauty or a faded actress, it is a million faces and places hiding in plain sight.  It is a midnight piano bar, a Soho nightclub or the sad saxophone of the Blue Note.  It’s a Central Park autumn jog around the reservoir and a post theatre cappuccino at the Monkey Bar.   It moves and swirls like a holiday dreidel that will not stop.

As I approach my office, I overhear a familiar conversation as a New Yorker offers directions to JFK to a man and woman.

“Now forget everything I just said. You can avoid all dat garbage by taking the downtown and Far Rockaway-bound A train. Don ‘t get on duh god damn Lefferts-bound train.  Go to the Ozone Park-Airtrain station that connects you to JFK.  It leaves da same station as da E train, but youse gotta use a different subway platform. The E and A trains have da dark blue soy-culls. Same price, the freaking A train never runs to Rockaway as much as the E to Jamaica, but it’s always good to have dat as an option.” I smile, grateful for my simple suburban commute, the NY Times crossword and the Whitestone Bridge.

I miss California the way I long to be eighteen again.  I recall the West the way a person gets nostalgic for all the firsts that come with adolescence.

Soon, it will be cold.  I am content to see each season come and am always grateful to see it go.  I endure winter to get to summer.  Spring is a myth and autumn is a joy. It is the East and it is home.

 

The Diary of A Mad Third Grader

cropped-3stooges-2.jpg

“The only problem with the world is a lot of people DON’T have ADD” — Andy Pakula, CEO of Think! Interactive Marketing

“He just can’t sit still…I think he gets it from my father who everyone refers to as ‘George Blast-off’.  He can’t stop moving.  If Dad’s not working, he’s golfing or planting his monster gardens with tomatoes the size of basketballs.  Really.  Its quite amazing.” Nervous laughter.

“Ma’am, I know this difficult but have you ever considered Ritalin? I mean, it’s a big step but clinically it’s proven to help many hyperactive kids.” The voice sounded vacant and bored like the conductor guy who mindlessly asked for our ticket on the Amtrak train to San Diego.

“Ritalin?  Oh no, no, no… Really, I don’t think so.  I’d rather have him twitching like a worm on hot pavement than jumping out a third story window yelling, ‘Look at me, ‘I can fly’ Thank you very much.  Anyway, boys are wiggly creatures.  They’re always making noises, and shifting around to liberate some body part. You know, Mister Crimms, I was actually born a Christian Scientist.  Didn’t see a doctor before I was nine and only when they thought I might have polio.  We converted to Lutheranism at thirteen.  My father was German and convinced my mother that God approved of immunizations although he used to make us sleep together in one room when one of us got sick.  ‘Get it all done at once’. He would shout in German.”

I was swaying like a palm tree on the top of a wide oak worktop that doubled as the nurse’s office storage cabinet.  I was playing a game to see how far I could lean headlong without falling off the bench.  I rocked headfirst peeking around the corner to spy on my mother as she mimicked her father, my Grandpa George.  The young male counselor with the flattop haircut stared unimpressed as Mother rose half way in her seat and raised her hand in the air looking just like my father during one of his Sunday night dinner diatribes.

“Look, Mrs. Turpin, Michael has a ‘D’ in citizenship.  He’s a very friendly boy but he’s disrupting the other students.  He talks in class, can’t sit still and today, he provoked one of our special education kids into chasing him around the room during rest time.  I believe he’s suffering from hyperactivity syndrome or possibly some type of undiagnosed personality disorder.”

There was a pause as the thermometer dropped in the office. My mother’s tone went serial killer cold.  I knew that voice.  It was a declaration of war – the seven seconds before the bomb is dropped and life as we knew it would be forever changed.

“Now whom are we talking about, Mister Crimms? It’s my understanding that the boy in question is quite enormous – a lot bigger and older than Michael – and it would be unnatural not to run if someone older and larger was pursuing you.  That’s a sign of intelligence.  Exactly how long have you been employed by the district’s pediatric counseling office?”

“Now, Ma’am, if you’re questioning my experience…”

“Just answer my question, young man.”

“Well, if you must know, I finished my graduate degree in pediatric psychology from St Mary’s last year and I am getting my PhD from USC.”

He sounded officious and offended.  “Look, I have seen Methylphenidate work very well on children to help them focus.”

“Mr. Crimms, you know, I’ve done my research.  The sources of any child’s hyperactivity can stem from a number of organic sources like sugar, caffeine, food allergies and other environmental causes.  Why would you want to dope him up without ruling out all other sources first? How do you explain his high marks in all the subject matter tests?  He is intellectually in the top ten percent on all tests.”

She composed herself, “With the exception of physical education, my son is a very committed student.  He does have an aversion to organized exercise.  He hates PE but plays Little League and YMCA football. The child can play for hours with his toy soldiers and his brothers.  Why on any given day, he’ll spend hours out of doors …”

“Ma’am, some savants have been documented to possess extremely gifted intellects but lack the social filters and controls.  These syndromes stem from innate behaviors and chemical imbalances that medication can help to mute.”

“Chemical imbalances? Are you a student psychologist or Nurse Ratched in Cuckoo’s Nest?  Have you read the book, Mr. Crimms?  It’s seems modern medicine cannot always cure what we have the capacity to remedy ourselves.  It’s as much about self-esteem as it is about brain chemistry.”  She stood up and walked into the foyer clutching my wrist.  As she turned to leave the office, she bullwhipped one last barb at the fledgling educator.

“What’s next, shock therapy? Are you sure you did not study under Tennessee Williams or Ken Kesey?”

My mother would always get in the last word.  In a scene that would repeat itself with each of her sons over many years, she rushed me out of the nurse’s office – speaking to herself and her mother as if Gran was walking right behind us.

“Mother, will you listen to the man? A personality disorder? How dare he?  He looks too young to even drive a car.” She stopped and looked down at me, smiling.

“Tomorrow, we’re weaning you off that god damn Mountain Dew and Pop Tarts!”

Years later, she would be proven correct on almost every front. She rarely confided in my father about our brushes with educators at school.  She knew almost every boy had difficulty concentrating and sitting still.  She also understood that he disapproved of the gentle process of diagnosing a problem by eliminating the potential causes.  He preferred  more medieval remedies to correct any kid who appeared on the wrong trajectory.

“Cut that crap out.” He would hiss as I tapped my tight-fitting loafers against the pew in church. He would slip his arm behind me and knock me on the back of my head like it was a door.

“Ouch, that hurts, Dad.”

“I’ll give you something to cry about if you cannot keep still.”

We always sat in the back row of the Presbyterian church so that he could administer mid-sermon punishments with fewer witnesses. We sat two deep on either side.  If he was highly agitated, he could simply lean back and knock multiple heads together like the Three Stooges.

 Between the toe tapping, wrestling, whispers and sudden outbursts, the people seated in front of us must have assumed we were visiting Baptists. 

“They are such animated Christians,” a woman whispered to her husband.

For a low attention span kid, an organized religious service was tantamount to being nailed to a cross.  I tried everything – drawing on pew envelopes, even listening to the minister urging me to accept Jesus as my personal savior.  I had accepted him as the Son of God but I was fairly certain that he was less my savior and more a bearded goodie-two-shoes accountant who scrupulously recorded each and every one of my misdemeanors and could not wait to tattle them to his father.  God knew that we played with matches, had impure thoughts and occasionally made crank phone calls to our next-door neighbor pretending to be her grandson.

My mother did not seem to worry about our spiritual destinies but instead focused on the more temporal problems of grades and social assimilation.  She was certain that diet, exercise and more frequent activity breaks would allow any mildly “hyperactive” male to improve in social responsibility.  She understood that boy’s exceled at the things that interested them the most and most often floundered when lacking interest in a subject.  My brothers and I could spend hours focused on a single task — drawing, assembling model air planes or painting miniature 78mm Airfix soldiers with petite Testors brushes, recreating the precise regimental colors of the British 8th Army and Rommel’s Afrika Corps.

One would need the Jaws of Life to pry me away from any form of television or film, particularly a double feature movie at the Rialto Theatre – although my brother had recently misinformed me that the theatre’s proprietor had hung himself during a kiddie matinee and had swung lifelessly across the illuminated screen in front of one hundred horrified third graders.  His ghost was rumored to haunt the poorly illuminated bathrooms that rested at the base of an ominous staircase leading from the mezzanine theatre seats.  This led me to avoid the toilet and in a full-bladdered crisis, courageously attempt to pee in a Coke cup. This, of course, disrupted my friends who laughed and stood up to move, which attracted the flashlight light of a conscientious theatre usher. Shortly thereafter, my mother was having yet another discussion with the very much alive theatre manager regarding my mental stability.

My mother understood that four boys were a breeding ground for germs and adolescent neurosis.  She preferred to organically unravel each twitch, tic and nervous repetition to understand the demons that occasionally set up shop in our vulnerable minds.  Nurture would win out over nature and the subconscious would always give up the bodies that rested at the bottom of a child’s mind.  Like Freud and Jung, she believed in interpreting dreams and in psychoanalysis.  The last few minutes before a tired child fell asleep was a pre-hypnotic phase where semi-conscious kids were likely to give up secrets and be open to home remedies to counter strange fear based behavior.

In the last ten minutes of every night, she would appear like Florence Nightingale, the angel of the night-light, gently extracting the day’s mental splinters of bullies, bad teachers, first crushes, bad choices and the irrational phantasms that arose out of sibling disinformation.

I always felt that I was her favorite.  She seemed to spend more time with me than the others – interpreting my behavior and my dreams, reassuring me that one day those twitching cement pipe legs and monkey mind attention span would morph into the butterfly of a grown man and athlete.  I was, in fact, the most neurotic of our four man army.

“Michael, dreams where you are being chased or can’t get out away from something, those are your subconscious mind trying to work through problems.  It’s healthy.  The reveries where you fly or move things with your mind? Those are power dreams.  You may even be in astral flight where your soul is out exploring in the world.  I often wonder what you were in a past life?  I am sure you were a kind king or perhaps or a Shaolin warrior.”

I smiled thinking of myself as a benevolent monarch or a flying lethal weapon, perforating a knot of evildoers with a soaring kick and arm chop.

My father would be waiting for my mother — a trim and shadowed spectator in the doorway, peering into my room but not buying into her “Age of Aquarius BS”.

“Jesus Ruth, don’t fill his head with that crap.  He’s got one life and he’s gotta stop screwing around to make the most out of it.“

My mother continued to look down at me, her smile piercing the darkness. “You’re father was a Templar Knight in a past life. He likes to fight for what he believes is right.” My father shook his head and once again took the Lord’s name in vain.

“Well, you may be right.  I’d like to go over to the Middle East and kick some ass again.” He laughed as he walked back into the light of the hallway.

My mother ran slender fingers across my scalp.  “Such wonderful hair.”

“I gotta a big head.  Somebody called me pumpkin head today.”

“Honey, everyone in our family has big heads.  They’re full of brains.  Third grade is a tough time.   You need to ignore the other kids and learn to sit still and focus on what your teacher says.  When you’re bored and you want to talk to your neighbor, just take out a piece of paper and write down what you want to say.  That way the teacher won’t get mad at you for disrupting the class.  Got it?  Here, I got you this.”

She opened a white paper bag from the local stationary store handing me a leather bound book.  She turned on the bedside lamp. I opened it and saw that she had written my name on the first page: Property of Michael Turpin.  “You write everything you think and feel in here.  Draw pictures or doodle.  It’s a diary and it’s better than any silly old pill from a doctor to help you focus.”

Months later my father would discover what was to be the first of many diaries.  Inside were primitive hand drawn pictures of epic WWII battles, monsters, space ships, and racecars and in almost every picture, there was a kid with a big head who was the clear protagonist in the illustration. He would often use X-Ray powers from his mind to vanquish the bad guys.

“Jesus H Christ.  A shrink would have a field day with this crap. Why in the hell is this kid drawing Captain Pumpkin Head?”

My mother just laughed as she ran her fingers through his haircut that grew like straight grass above his unusually large cranium.

“Yes, dear.  It’s strange. I wonder where he gets that from…”