Scope of Rules
I am not looking as the cashier swipes my groceries over the bar code reader and the display says QUICK SCOTCH BARLEY .95F, KR F/FREE SINGLES 2.89F, H/C H/S TRKY W/STU 2.79F, TOFU CHOC/BAN TWRL 2.09B, BIG/VAL BLUEBERRY 1.79F. It is 7:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning. The tabloids tell me about Sally Jessy Raphael's dead daughter, Johnny Carson's dead son, Liz Taylor's dead grandchild.
"Nineteen sixty-nine," says the cashier. And as if to herself: "A good year."
I want to say yes, oh you're right, but I have to see this cashier all the time and she probably thinks I'm too young to remember, I'm probably older than she is except I look so young to everyone, she does look older. And I take out a twenty, not wanting to use my debit card so early on Sunday morning, hand it to her, and get back a quarter, a nickel, and a penny.
"Paper or plastic?" asks the boy with Down syndrome.
One Form of Action
Mike and I were in the Cloisters some time in early September, when it still felt like summer and neither of us had started the fall term at the colleges we went to. He joked about us having a race to see who could grow his hair the longest and I said you couldn't really call it a race and anyway, it would only be fair if we didn't count sideburns since I couldn't grow any. He told me what INRI meant on all the crucifixions and I explained about the medicinal properties of the herbs in the garden overlooking the Hudson and I felt weird, eighteen years old and I figured I probably should go to the bathroom before Mike drove me back to Brooklyn but I knew I wouldn't if he didn't.
His Mustang had some kind of problem with the gears that afternoon, and he was totally diverted. Hoping we wouldn't get stuck over the high overpass by the Goya sign, I just wanted to get home.
Commencement of Action
It was a frigid Sunday afternoon in December 1970 and I was sitting in my mother's car wondering when the guys who had the keys to the place where we were going to meet--it was above a store on Flatbush Avenue--were coming. This guy from school who was on the wrestling team who I could never figure out went to our meetings, since he seemed so conservative, came along, and I let him wait in the car, and then this girl Anne, who sort of flew into our lives one day and got everyone excited and then disappeared a few months later, also came in my car. We watched other people gather in front of the door. Anne and this guy joked about them and said one girl, who apparently was Robin's sister, was built like a fullback. The girl was wearing a fake fur jacket and she did look like she had wide shoulders.
When we saw the guy with the keys get there, we got out of the car. That afternoon, Robin's sister and I were sent out to buy some kosher pizza--because some of the people at the meeting were yommie-boppers--and I kept noticing she smelled of that Love's a Little Lemon or whatever it was. It was something I'd smell a lot over the next
Not too long after our first unsuccessful fumbles, Robin's sister and I were doing it, in my narrow bed, in my little room, as usual, in the afternoon after classes. Usually I remembered to stick my rocking chair against the doorknob because I didn't have a lock, but that afternoon my grandfather was visiting and I forgot about privacy and he came in, "I just wanted to say goodbye," and there we were, in medias res like we learned in Classics, but all my grandfather said was, "Excuse me," and gingerly closed the door.
Before he died I should have thanked him for that.
Twenty years later, I'd be looking all over for my grandmother but she wasn't in her room or the TV room or that place near the water fountain where she sometimes sat with her walker before they were called in to lunch. Her roommate thought maybe she had gone downstairs to the rec room with Christine from next door, and the third floor desk told me they were having religious services, so I went downstairs.
In the rec room there was a boyish priest celebrating Mass, so I waited outside. From the opening of the door, I could see my grandmother sitting there, paying rapt attention, looking so polite though I'm sure she had no idea what was going on. She'd been a little girl during the pogroms in the Ukraine and she once saw Cossacks tie a rope around her uncle's neck and drag him along with a wagon until he was dead.
"It's something to pass the time," my grandmother said after the Mass ended. "I knew enough not to eat the cracker."
Pleading Special Matters
"You bastard," Robin's sister said. I hung up the phone.
It rang again.
"Look, there's something I have to tell you, you bastard. I might be pregnant."
"That's your problem," I said. She hung up the phone.
I dialed her right back and apologized a zillion times and we fought a zillion times and hung up on each other.
A few days later I felt better because she called me up at 6 a.m. and sang, "The red red robin keeps bob-bob-bobbin' along." At once I knew what she meant, that she'd had her period, but to give her the pleasure of telling me, I played dumb. "What about Robin?" I asked.
Counterclaim and Cross-Claim
The next fall, when I thought I was having a breakdown but all it was, was a breakup, my grandfather told me he saw Robin's sister and the guy from the wrestling team in downtown Brooklyn, where my grandfather altered slacks for a tiny men's clothing store. "They looked like a couple of creepy slobs," he said. I knew he said it to cheer me up a little but I'm not sure it did. They actually did look pretty bad the next time I saw them together: they were so obviously drunk.
"They'll end up the gutter," my grandfather said. That was going overboard.
In 1981, I found myself stuck at D.C. National Airport with a toothache and about six hours before my flight to Miami and to keep myself from thinking about the pain, I looked through phone books for people I might know: the District, the Maryland suburbs, Northern Virginia. I found Robin's sister's name -- her first name, the guy from the wrestling team's last name -- next to an address in Alexandria. I called. She was glad to hear from me, surprised of course, but we'd seen each other not too many years before, when she was in New York to see her parents and break the news about her divorce and she called me up on my birthday, said she'd take me out for a drink and then remembered I don't drink, and we ended up seeing "Rocky II" or "Rocky III" somewhere on Long Island.
At least I forgot about my toothache while Robin's sister told me about a terrible thing that had happened. She'd met this wonderful older man, they were going to get married, but then he'd had a stroke and was paralyzed on one side and couldn't talk.
I told her to take care of herself and then called my dentist in Miami to make an appointment for an hour after my plane was scheduled to land. I couldn't wait.
Permissive Joinder of Parties
Mike came to Miami once, to visit his grandmother, who took a Pullmanette downtown by the beach, a few years before all the trendoids moved in and they started renovating the Art Deco hotels and putting in cafes and clubs and European model agencies. We'd lost contact for years, several times, but somehow we kept finding each other. In all the time I knew him, I'd never met his grandmother before, and I was surprised to discover she had a Jewish accent. My own grandmothers, even the one that didn't get out of the Ukraine until she was twelve, spoke without an accent, just with traces of Twenties flapper phrases.
After we left his grandmother's tiny room, Mike and I went to lunch in Coconut Grove. I looked up from the menu when he ordered wine since I knew about all the time he'd spent in rehab. I think his bishop had made him go.
Later that afternoon, we walked to the beach and we got caught in a sudden downpour that got us soaked as we ran back to his grandmother's hotel. By that time she was gone, out for the day with Mike's sister and the married man, her boss, she was seeing and would marry once he finally got divorced. We were so soaked that Mike took his clothes off right away to change and I just uselessly toweled my sodden shirt and pants, watching him, half-glad and half-regretful that we never had slept together.
A few blocks away from where Mike and I got soaked in downtown Miami Beach, I heard the best speech I ever heard in my life during the Democratic National Convention in 1972. I'd driven down with a friend who'd been elected as a delegate, and on Thursday night I got a pass to sit in the gallery. The balloting for Vice President lasted too long. A lot of delegates were voting for all kinds of people (my friend voted for Abe Ribicoff because of his speech in 1968 when he talked about Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago), and McGovern didn't come on till about 2:30 a.m. after Eagleton was nominated and all the ridiculous platform fights were over.
That "Come home, America" speech was absolutely incredible, I thought. I was sure it would blow Nixon right out of the water. Years later I met McGovern at a party at Morgan Fairchild's house in L.A. and told him how great that speech was.
"Yeah," he said. "The only problem was it was on during prime time in Guam."
Substitution of Parties
"Prime time in Guam" is an expression I've come to use whenever the timing for something is bad. Like relationships.
General Provisions Governing Discovery
Am I the only one who has trouble remembering just what happened in the Eighties? There were a lot of restaurants: on the Upper West Side, in West Hollywood, on South Beach. A lot of paper-thin yellow credit card receipts that got crumpled up in the pockets. Flights on Air Florida, People Express, Continental. I can check out my clippings from USA Today and look at the videotapes of the three times I appeared on CNN. Diagnoses and memorial services for the violinist, the soap opera actor, the translator, the psychology professor, my best friend from junior high. Mike died of something else. I started to see a lot more spelling and grammatical mistakes in newspapers and books. One time I went out at 11 p.m. to get the next day's New York Times because I thought I might be in it and took only a quarter so I wouldn't get mugged. After I bought the paper (I wasn't in it), a smelly homeless man asked if I would go into the coffee shop where Isaac Bashevis Singer had dinner a lot and buy him a cup of coffee because they wouldn't let him in there, they always chased him away. His filthy hands held a bunch of coins. I said okay, took the coins, and as he waited on the island in the middle of Broadway, I went across the street to the diner. The Greek lady at the cash register said I was short a nickel, I didn't have any money of my own so I went outside and started asking people if they had a nickel and suddenly I realized I was being ignored as if I was one of "them."
Now the ads for Charivari, the expensive clothing store (one used to be directly across from the diner but it's now another Korean greengrocer), say, "Torn jeans. Pocket tees. Back to basics. WAKE US WHEN IT'S OVER." But it was the last decade that was a dream, not this one.
Interrogatories to Parties
I called up the guy who was on the wrestling team after I saw his first movie, which I liked. I'd known about it for a couple of weeks, ever since I'd read a piece in the Times Arts and Leisure section about his screenplay and how he said he wanted to disprove the saying that there were no second acts in American lives. I found his number in one of the L.A. phone books in the Miami public library. There was no address but he had a phone number. Now that he's famous, of course, he doesn't even have any kind of listing, and in fact, I felt insulted last year when he told me not to give out his number to anyone. As if I would.
But he was thrilled to hear from me. I know that because I was just leaving a congratulatory message on his machine and he took the trouble to pick it up and tell me how happy he was I called, that I reminded him of a much simpler time in his life. As it happened, I knew his second wife pretty well and I liked her a lot, so we ended up getting friendly again, although he and I never discuss Robin's sister.
Requests for Admission
Anne, the girl who breezed into our lives when we were in college, that was his wife. But he claimed not to remember her very well from those days. I don't think they realize that they were in my car together that day in December 1970. What was that meeting about, anyway? It had to be the war. The last time I remember seeing Anne at college was at a party held to celebrate the death of J. Edgar Hoover.
When I got to their house way up in the Hollywood hills, they were out front, in the driveway, with their little girl and little boy and the Mexican maid. It was obvious they didn't recognize me.
"I'd have passed you by on the street!" my friend marveled. "You look wonderful."
He looked almost the same to me. So did Anne. She kissed me on the cheek, made polite talk, and said, "Well, I'm off to spend some of his money."
They had just moved in to the house. There were about twenty-five workmen all over the place. After subletting and moving around for so many years, I'm a total ignoramus when it comes to French tiles or whatever it is people in Hollywood have to spend lots of money on to impress everyone else, but I kept nodding and being encouraging.
The house needed work, but it had belonged to a famous songwriter in the Thirties and the legend was that a song my grandmother used to hum was written right in the room where my friend was going to put his computer.
He left me alone outside by the swimming pool to take a call from David Geffen. When he returned, I was standing up and looking at the view, feeling like I was in a movie because there it was -- below me -- the cliche of the Hollywood sign, some kind of talisman for kids who grew up in New York and everywhere.
"Great view," I said.
"Yeah, and see that's protected land, so they can never build anything there and block it."
"Great view," I said again, meaning it.
"It gives me a great incentive not to divorce Anne," said the guy who had been on the wrestling team.
Dismissal of Actions
United States Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of Florida.
The Honorable Sidney M. Weaver, presiding, only the judge's bench was empty.
The trustee was asking questions. I was in the witness stand, having been sworn in.
I was asked my name. My complete address and phone. If I was employed and where. I'd been sitting listening to other people being grilled, but the only other question the trustee asked me was about my car. She waived her something or other to it, then the little man sitting next to her, from the county tax assessor's bureau, had a question.
"Have you ever lived at 9021 Mockingbird Lane?"
Huh? I knew I had a quizzical look on my face. "No," I said, thinking it sounded like an address a character on a situation comedy had. The guy obviously saw I didn't know what he was talking about and I was dismissed, told to take a paper from in front of the witness stand.
My lawyer followed me out of the courtroom for a minute. He was representing three more people back in there. They'd gotten through about twenty personal bankruptcies in an hour.
"I talked to the trustee last week and I don't even think that stupid woman even bothered to read your petition," my lawyer said. "You're a lucky man."
I say, "You mean you think the bankruptcy will go through?"
He laughs. "It already has."
Turning on the car radio that Friday morning in February, I learn that since I'd arrived downtown some bad unemployment numbers had come out and the Fed had lowered the discount rate to help boost the economy.
That afternoon I was at my friend's house in Hollywood, his little boy got his hand smashed in one of the doors. The kids hadn't gotten used to the house yet and had been fooling around. The boy -- he had the same name as my grandfather -- wasn't hurt badly but he was howling and his face was red and wet with tears.
"I want Mommy!" he screamed. Anne was still out spending her husband's money.
The maid looked helpless. My friend bent down to comfort his son. "Mommy's not here. But Daddy can make it all better...Isn't Daddy as good as Mommy?"
The boy stopped crying and looked angry. "No! I want Mommy! Go away, you stupid old man!"
My friend froze.
I turned away, looked back at the Hollywood sign. He's two years younger than I am, I thought.
Entry of Judgment
Sooner or later he'll divorce Anne or Anne will divorce him. Both sets of their parents were divorced, more than once. My parents were divorced, but only my father remarried. Old as I am, I've got a half brother in first grade in Connecticut even now. My father's wife tries to be really nice to me because her own parents are dead and she has no brothers or sisters and she knows she'll need an ally someday, after my father dies. I've seen the kid only about a dozen times, but we get along fine. My father and stepmother left him with me in Manhattan one Sunday afternoon when they had some function to go to. I walked with him down West End Avenue and then we went to Riverside Park, where he was enchanted by seeing a rat.
I don't know what I liked more: having people think the kid was my son or knowing that he wasn't.
My grandmother and her friend Christine and I are in the TV room. The news is on, a story from Ireland about a fourteen-year-old girl who was raped who they won't let get an abortion.
"I'd like to see Ireland again," says Christine, who was born there.
I nod. "How about you, Grandma? Would you like to go back to see where you were born?"
"You mean Russia."
"Well, it's Ukraine, actually."
"You mean I don't even know where I was born?" she says, and she and Christine exchange glances and chuckle.
Old people, like children, are used to being underestimated.
"Seriously," I continue. "Now that everything's so different there, wouldn't you be curious?"
My grandmother shakes her head. "No, why should I be? I don't even remember it."
"Well, I'd like to go to Ukraine one day to see where you came from. And to Minsk, where Grandpa was from; that's in Belarus."
My grandmother shrugs, turns to the TV again. Something about sumo wrestlers in Japan.
"There used to be a saying," Christine says to me. "'May you die in Ireland.'"
"Like 'Next year in Jerusalem,'" my grandmother says. Christine nods.
"It's always somewhere else," she says.
Prime time in Guam.
Robin's sister sent me a Christmas card again. She said she was glad to hear that I'd decided to go to law school, said I shouldn't be worried about being too old, said she hoped the interactive technology that her firm was developing would soon be given the green light by the FCC, said she and her boyfriend would be getting married this summer at an old country inn in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Her handwriting hasn't changed, like mine has.
"I hope it will be romantic," she wrote.
I hope so, too.
Copyright © 1999 Richard