Ken Leighton 5 p.m., Jan. 24
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- The Abnormal Width of Normal Heights
The Early Daze, part 11
“What’s up, Cool Daddy-O?!”
Tommy, the shipping/receiving clerk, gave me the nickname during my first week at M.G. Electric. Long hair plus goatee equaled Cool Daddy-O. And it stuck.
“How much acid did you drop this weekend, Cool Daddy-O?”
“Cool Daddy-O should be playin’ his bongos for us right now.”
“I bet Cool Daddy-O bangs all the hippie chicks he can find in O.B.”
Not quite, but there are hints of truth in every good nickname. No acid, however, or bongo drums, but as for the chicks, Hank says I never talked about Karen at all back then.
“It took me a month or two to figure out you even HAD a girlfriend,” he remarked to me a few weeks ago.
I suppose I kept quiet about it around the warehouse guys because Karen and I ran hot and cold, and I could be a completely embarrassing mess about it, which I’d never want those guys to witness.
(Sadly, my Ward Road roomie J and his now ex-wife, Quinn, got a painfully unedited look at the kind of mess I’m talking about. It was fall of 1991, and I’d moved to L.A. a few months earlier. Though Karen had encouraged me to move, said I needed to for my writing, that we’d survive it, within a few weeks it was over. She couldn’t do weekends, didn’t want a long distance relationship, we both needed to be free. I agreed in my head, but in my heart I was all reactive core. The wounded little boy was hitting and kicking.
While looking for a job and apartment in L.A., I was staying with my friends T and D at their place on Laurel in West Hollywood, a bottle roll from the Laugh Factory on Sunset. What I most remember about their apartment was the floor, the low carpet, where I spent three wounded stints in eight weeks, my back excruciating and locked, my brain fueling the physical agony to keep those corrosive unconscious emotions and thoughts at bay. To keep all the other buried pain from destroying me completely, to keep it from turning me into a mental patient, a nervous breakdown machine. Or so my divided mind did fear. And it worked, for many years.
T is a major league network television executive now, but then he had just quit his job as manager of the Dollar Rent-a-Car on La Cienega across the street from Beverly Center, to take a lowly assistant’s job on a soon-to-be-canceled NBC show. His wife, a lovely Irish gal, was finishing college at UCLA and waitressing part time. I returned their generosity by making them endure many hours of my wounded laments and dysfunctional rationalizations about Karen and I, about how we had to make it work, how I’d get her back somehow. They told me not to worry about unloading to them, and they reminded me that, unlike the previous friend staying with them, I never failed to do the dishes or vacuum, that it was almost like having a housekeeper. They also told me, or tried to, that Karen and I breaking up was probably for the best, we were different people at different points in their lives, and now in different cities, all the rational stuff. I was in L.A. now, T encouraged me, life was just beginning. I nodded, and I knew he was right, that they both were, but it did no good.
After a few weeks of having no contact with Karen, and realizing the end wasn’t simply near but that it had already occurred, I took up J and Quinn on their standing offer of using the guest room in their University Heights apartment for a weekend. I crawled through traffic, south on I-5, cruised at times, but mostly crawled down to San Diego from L.A. one Friday afternoon, back behind the wheel of my battered Nissan Sentra from the courier days, its passenger side still partially caved in. At this point, J was writing a good number of freelance pieces for the U-T and other publications, as well as driving a van for an airport shuttle service early in the mornings; while Quinn was writing radio blurbs for an entertainment wire service. Their marriage was still something I envied. They seemed on the same page, not like Karen and I, who seemed to be in different books entirely too much of the time. Yet I couldn’t bear the thought of not being with her, of someone else being her favored man –especially now that the end had passed, now that there COULD be a new man . The notion made me nauseous. Too many broken things in the past, too many rejections of the little boy. I had to repair this, and keep it, and be different than my “family” had been. Good choice, or more likely bad, it didn’t matter, I had to make it. To have not made it would’ve required, again, being an entirely different person.
When I arrived at their duplex, which was just past the antique remains of the gates of the old Mission Cliff Gardens, I was of course happy to see J and Quinn, but my immediate plan was to call Karen and try to get her to see me for a bit, so we could talk it out face to face as we never really had. Then I could meet my hosts for dinner or drinks, or both, in the evening. Simple plan. Unfortunately, it would be terribly executed.
I made the call to Karen on J and Quinn’s phone a half-hour after arriving. My hosts were a bit surprised that I had plans to try to see Karen, but they understood, and if they didn’t then they did a marvelous job of pretending. There was no caller I.D. then, so Karen was caught unprepared. And she was not happy to hear from me, much less that I was in town and wanted to see her. We “spoke” for a long time, mostly arguing, and I began to get emotional quite quickly, weeping on the phone, falling apart into an embarrassing pile of malformed sh-t. I fled into the kitchen with the phone, stretching the cord as far as it would stretch, sliding the door closed behind me. My hosts, on their sofa and obviously uncomfortable, could only look at each other, yikes, and wonder when this uncomfortable experience would end. But I would make it last.
How can you do this to me? You said you loved me! You have to tell me to my face! I ranted at Karen, begged Karen, raged at her, begged her more, weeping and exhausted, the little boy kicking and screaming and sinking into the kitchen wall. She refused to see me. She hung up. I sat on the cold tile floor, empty and wounded beyond consolation, a child abandoned in his own mind. Sad and pathetic. And inevitable.
It took me several minutes to regain my composure. When I slid open the kitchen door and emerged, my hosts were missing. Big surprise, I thought. I’d been the houseguest from the psych ward so far. Perhaps for an encore I could write tormented poetry on their walls in blood. I felt like an inexcusable joke. Then I noticed that they’d left me a note, which I read:
“We went down the street to get coffee. You can meet us there if you like. J & Q.”
I didn’t really want to face them, but I knew I had to. I walked to the coffee house on Park, the sunlight hurting my eyes, my feet heavy and slow. I approached their table, apologizing profusely, explaining to them how my idiocy knew no bounds, that I was too f-cked up for words and that I’d treat them to dinner, do their laundry, wax their vehicles, anything to make it up to them, I was so embarrassed. They told me that recompense wouldn’t be necessary. But I could also tell that their opinion of me had forever been altered. As it should have been. Such a fragile freak. I wanted to hide under the table.)
During the M.G. Electric days, however, Karen and I remained a couple, of our own morphing sort. And the other truth, the less dramatic one, was that my relationship with her, while providing me the love and attachment I had desperately needed for years, wasn’t enough to heal every wound I had, or fill every dysfunctional need, or satisfy similar wants. And what love is? Biologically speaking, I was in my early twenties and, on a base level, I still wanted to be a dude in some way. And dudes didn’t go steady with quiet elementary school teachers. Much less cry like a baby about them. It was pitiful, and I knew instinctively that my relationship with Karen wasn’t warehouse material. So I kept quiet about it.
* * * * * * * *
“What is UP, Cool Daddy-O?”
If only he knew. I was about as cool as warm butter. I was a fractured fool. But Tommy was a good guy, if tormented in several ways himself. He was short, and he could be insecure about it. I think his fights with Ray stemmed in part from it. If Ray had been a smaller guy, I don’t think Tommy would’ve jumped him so quickly. Tommy had “played pigskin with the brothers” at Morse High School, had mad skills, according to him, but his meager size had ended his career at that level. He married his high school sweetheart, but it hadn’t become a storybook tale. At that point in time, he was having to deal with his wife’s sister, a plump and vampy trailer-park refugee, who seemed, he told Hank and I, to be on an unstoppable mission to f-ck him. She had a grudge against her sister, something to do with a mutual dude from their Santee past, and sis wanted to bed Tommy as revenge. Torn, Tommy was forever lamenting his fate, terribly physically attracted to his sister-in-law, and emotionally attracted on an even more deeply perverse level, but he was terrified of coming within three feet of her. He knew the divorce would kill him, financially for certain, and bodily he feared his wife would Lorena Bobbitt him. With a very dull knife.
Despite his domestic travails, Tommy was a generous soul. In addition to giving me my warehouse nickname, he’d always give you a hand if you needed one, was forgiving of honest mistakes, always shared his weed if you wanted a toke, and he even let Hank live in his house off Boundary in North Park for a few months after Hank was laid off from MG (months after I’d been let go). Though he hated Ray at all times, Tommy was cool with everyone else. At home, he had a gargantuan slobbering St. Bernard named Schlitz, an homage to his favorite beverage, Schlitz Malt Liquor, his sacred “Silver and blue,” the reward at the end of every day, the enticement that kept him working. Intoxicants were big among the warehouse guys. Hell, they were big among everyone in the front office, as well. The two owners, Moe and Gosh, men in their sixties, had offices that smelled of Cutty Sark and stripper thighs, of charcoal filtering and cirrhosis turning livers to briquets. They had their martinis and Pall Malls, Drunk Jim had his little bottles hidden around the warehouse and always had beer in his car. Hank told me that one day at lunch Drunk Jim had asked him if he wanted to have a beer. Hank has always had a powerful thirst, and his lips felt dry at that moment, so they retreated to Jim’s big 1970’s sedan behind the warehouse. Sitting in the car, Jim reached back, grabbing a couple of beers from a “cooler” on the backseat floor. Hank said he glanced back and saw no ice in the cooler, and when he took the beer from Jim it felt hot in his hand.
“I never turn down a free beer,” said Hank. “But that was the worst brew I ever got down my gullet. Guy coulda pissed down my throat and I woulda been more refreshed. But I got a buzz. It was a really slow day. Just pushing a broom up and down the aisle so many times I wore a groove in the concrete. Boring as hell.” Hank started to laugh, remembering. “I think I actually drank two. How sad is that, Cool Daddy-O?”
Not sad at all, Hank. Sad is hating the sound of your own name, as I have since I was a kid, and that’s why I actually liked Cool Daddy-O, didn’t mind the sound of it at all. A year later I’d even like it when my gang-member students would call me Jesus (long hair and beard intact), after I’d take a job at my second stepfather’s vocational school.
“Hey Jesus, you wanna see my .38 snubnose? It’s right out in the car.”
I’d politely decline, but always said thank you. The kid would snicker.
“Come on, Jesus, don’t be a pussy.”
Jesus didn’t bother me at all. Which is strange, since I’ve hated the sound of my own name since 1977, since the day my suddenly born-again first stepfather – having already attempted to beat out of us the other “faults” he saw in me and my toddler brother – had decided that David was “a sinner’s name” and that he would no longer address me by it.
“I’m going to call you Paul instead. He was a man of Christ.”
And so he did, torturing me with it.
“Clean the kitchen, Paul. Scrub the toilet, Paul. Get me my pills, Paul.”
Oh how I wanted to fetch the pills I’d poisoned, that I still kept hidden, just in case I could get my nerve up and feed them to him. But I never did.
“Paul, come here and take off my socks for me.”
How about I chop off your feet instead?
“You better get that baby brother of yours quiet, Paul, or I’m gonna take my strap to both of you. Spare the rod, spoil the child, Paul.”
I don’t remember how long he kept it up, but I remember begging my mother, screaming at her to make him stop. Perhaps she finally said something, I don’t know, but he did stop, but not without instilling in me a new type of self-hatred, one that I wouldn’t fully understand for decades, until I’d had a real nervous breakdown in my mid-thirties, after I’d blown my back out “for real,” which took my lower right leg and foot with it. Acute lumbo-sacral radiculopathy with foot drop. Now I was a gimp, dragging my right foot like a dead bird, or hoisting it into the air in an exaggerated manner to walk, like John Cleese’s Department of Silly Walks from Monty Python. In that depressed and disabled state, as doctors and surgeons and nurses and therapists were calling me David, I realized I could not stand the sound of the name, nor had I ever really said it comfortably. In fact, it occurred to me that I avoided speaking the name as often as I could. Even today, I will always call myself Adler as opposed to David. If I call a friend, I always say “Hey, it’s Adler.” Never David. Never Dave. And when anyone asks me if I prefer David or Dave, I always reply that either is fine, since the sound of both make me anxious and uncertain.
Such an odd thing. So inane. But I assume I’ll outlast it. Eventually.
“What’s going ON, Cool Daddy-O?”
Way too much, Tommy. And not much at all.