Walter Mencken 10:15 a.m., Dec. 13
As the 1990’s rolled in, Karen and I, like almost everyone else we knew, had been captivated by the political events around the world the previous year. The communists in eastern Europe were on the ropes, but in China there was Tiananmen Square and the crushing of that massive and peaceful protest. Then the Berlin Wall came down in November, and tears dripped from our eyes as we watched the joyous demolition on CNN. Yet only a month later we’d invade Panama, and level the poorest neighborhood in the capitol city to get a two-bit military clown. Some things never changed. Out with the old enemies, in with the new. It was depressing. I typed many a pointless but heartfelt and infuriated letter to various congressmen and women, receiving in reply an equal number of pointless form letters. Karen cheered herself by going to a few pro-choice rallies, toting a large sign copied from one she’d seen in a NEWSWEEK photo, which read “Bush: Stay Out of Mine!” And AIDS, of course, was everywhere, in the news, in our lives, it was still a death sentence for those diagnosed, or so we thought. I was a theatre geek from college, my parents had both been actors when they met, we knew plenty of people in the artistic community who’d been touched by the disease. The minister who’d married my father and his third wife, my stepmother, had recently died from it. And with Karen unable to take the pill because of side effects, condoms were on my regular shopping list. Even so, in June, we got a scare when Karen was very, very, VERY late.
But only late she was. Whew.
I continued my courier gig, making a point of carrying cologne spray in my car, after one customer had actually complained to my supervisor that I had “smelled like sour bacon,” whatever that was. Jerks. Let THEM wear this uniform all day in the sun, I thought. Tarps and car covers were manufactured with this material, the pants made sandpaper noises when I walked, and the insides of my thighs were red and raw and ingrown. But I was working on a straight fifty-percent commission, and I couldn’t afford to have a regular customer refuse to work with me because of some misperceived rancid breakfast meat odor. So I spritzed away, sneezed madly, and kept on driving. My butchered inner thighs I simply endured.
L.A. deliveries were the most profitable, but only if you got more than one at a time. My best day came late in my courier career. This was before cell phones, and all drivers had Motorola two-way radios installed in their cars, so we could communicate like truckers or cops, whose ten-code we used: 10-4, 10-7 for lunch, what’s your 10-20 (location)? Very late on a Friday afternoon I was called on my Motorola for an Orange County run.
“Just one?” I replied. “You don’t have anything else for me?”
I wanted at least one more delivery to make it worth losing my Friday night. But they said that was it, there was nothing more, and I had to take it, I was the only driver left in the area. I fought rush hour traffic into and out of Sorrento Valley to make the pick-up, cursing my fate the entire time. Back in my car and ready to head north, I called in to base to inform them. They told me to hang on, that I might have hit the jackpot. Right right right, I thought, stop messing with me and just let me go already. I waited and hoped for one more lousy delivery, but then the dispatcher came back…with six. Six! I could hardly believe my ears. A jackpot was right. I picked up all the packages around town, then headed north to Orange County and L.A. I didn’t get home until one in the morning, but I made about seven hundred bucks on that run. Those were the days.
The next day, however, I’d forgotten that J and I were double dating with our ladies, going to an Angel game up in Anaheim. The thought of driving north again didn’t appeal, but Karen said we could take her car, that she’d drive. J’s dad had prime corporate tickets in the first row right above the Angel dugout. The dream seats. J and I and the guys (one of whom was my current wife’s boyfriend at the time) had used them for a few games previously. Once we went to see the Minnesota Twins play the Angels, because our friend Sheik is a huge Twins fan, almost sociopathic. Sheik also knew which hotel the team stayed at, so we went right there after the game and waited in the bar for the Twins to arrive on their bus. When the bus pulled up, more than a few players immediately headed into the bar. The late great Kirby Puckett nursed a beer alone and watched ESPN, while fending off an aging groupie (“Don’t you have a home? Can’t you go back there please?”); Kent Hrbek continuously puffed on a stogie and sucked on a cocktail, while he played foosball with shortstop Steve Lombardozzi, beating all comers; star lefty Frank Viola was acting like a jerk, throwing darts and refusing to sign autographs for the kids excitedly waiting in the lobby for their idol; even elderly first base coach Wayne Terwilliger was at the manager’s table having a nip, dealing with the same grizzled groupie who’d been bothering Kirby Puckett earlier. Having struck out with players, she’d worked her way down to the managerial staff, but the yawning base coach was too old, had no interest in such things anymore, and he waved her away with a flattered and tipsy “No thank you, ma’am.” Quite the life. Actually, the players and coaches seemed kind of lonely and dazed, except Hrbek, who was always laughing and farting and looking for new foosball opponents to take on he and Lombardozzi. Our friend Sheik was crestfallen when the liquored Hrbek wouldn’t team up with him, saying he and Lombo were an unstoppable force and couldn’t be separated.
This time, however, J and I weren’t on a Twins trip with the guys, we were on a double date, and it quickly turned pissy when Quinn made a joke about the Blue Oyster Cult or whatever 70’s rock that Karen, ten years her senior, was playing on the radio. Karen shut it off, muttered “bitch,” and was in a bad mood the rest of the day and for the entire drive home. Later, when I told her Quinn didn’t mean anything by the remark, that it was just a joke, Karen said Quinn was a spoiled little priss, and why was I taking her side.
“You’ve always had a thing for her,” Karen jabbed at me.
“No I have not,” I lied, even though my thing was merely a reflection of the Julie Christie/”Heaven Can Wait” screening from my youth. Merely.
This disagreement initiated another several day separation. And during that time, in July…
SCREEEEEEEEEEEECH!!!! (Sounds of slamming and crunching metal.)
* * * * * * * *
My courier days came to a crashing end when I was creamed by a guy running a stop sign in Hillcrest. No getting around insurance this time. I was done. 50,000 miles and ten months later, my beloved tin can on tires finally succumbed. (Even though, within a month, the Sentra would be “repaired” by the Cambodian refugee students at my second stepfather’s bizarro adult school operation, I wouldn’t attempt to restart my American Courier career. I put repaired in quotation marks because, though they did fine body and engine work otherwise, the students managed to replace a part in the wheel assembly backwards, which sent one of my tires rolling away as I drove out of the garage. I sat there in my now three-wheeled Sentra in the middle of the road like a little kid stranded on the bumper cars at Belmont Park.)
Luckily, however, I’d saved up almost two grand working the courier gig, money that I used to get Karen back. I was dying without her this time. It had been all of four days. And I’d had to run up to L.A. for a family affair, where the house was thick with antagonism, and I discovered my mother and second stepfather were now sleeping in separate bedrooms. Supposedly it was because he snored, but that was just an excuse. He was even older than my father was, almost seventy, and my mother was barely in her forties. It was inevitable, they’d gotten together because my mother was scared of her ex-husband, and that fear had long since faded. I drove home from that “visit” depressed and disconnected. I was desperate for that love only Karen had ever given me, our impassable roadblocks and ceaseless doubts aside. Reason aside.
So I took my saved money and used it to plan a trip we’d talked about for several months, Karen in need of a long vacation after the school year grind. First we’d fly out to see my father in Atlanta, and then we’d take the train up to New York City, stay there a week and see some of my other family. After New York, we’d take the train across the country to Portland, where her family had civic roots, stay there for a few days, then we'd finally take the last train trip from Portland back down to Los Angeles. Karen was thrilled when I laid it all out for her. She hadn’t traveled much at all, and had never been to the east coast. We booked our tickets as fast as we could.
When we flew into Atlanta a few weeks later, our plane was late, and the hour-plus drive to where my father lived was in moonless darkness through the pine filled and hilly landscape. Even so, Karen stared out the window into the blackness like a little girl: “It’s so green! I can tell!” We stayed with my dad and stepmother, and my little brother and sister, for five days in their red brick house in the city of Rome, population at that time about 40,000. Small but not too small, but still the south, still Dixie, and when you cross that river you damn sure know you’re in the black part of town. Shopping carts were “buggies”; things weren’t just going to happen, they were “fixin’ to.” Lots of Confederate flags and good ol’ boys around, too. That stuff kind of surprised Karen, but most of the people were fantastically nice, and the country was beautiful.
My brother and sister were only five and six then, and my little sister was outside our bedroom window every morning, trying to peek in at us in bed. Then she’d giggle and run away. One morning she kept herself quiet, didn’t giggle as soon as she usually had, and she caught a glimpse of Karen and I fooling around. Then she cracked and I tossed a pillow at the window to shoo her away.
One day we hiked to the old water wheel tucked away in the woods on the sprawling campus (largest in the country, I believe) of Berry College. Even though it hadn’t been used in decades and the giant wooden wheel was motionless and dry, the sight of it brought another childlike look to Karen’s face. It was a storybook view.
Also during our Georgia stay, we made a pilgrimage to Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Lookout Mountain, where Karen’s mother was born. We drove fast, as I always did then, through little towns with quaint courthouses, past roadside junk stores where I was tempted to stop at and spend hours. Past tiny churches with messages on their signs like, “Jesus is your project manager” or “Your soul weighs more than your troubles”. Voom! I was driving so fast Karen became nervous, but I slowed the car instinctively as the jolting silence of a civil war battlefield suddenly surrounded us. It was like passing through ghosts. Past the battlefield, back to speed, soon we crossed the Tennessee border, the high and rocky green plateau of Lookout Mountain crossing with us, a giant ramp rising from Georgia and reaching into the Volunteer State. We rode the famous Lookout Mountain Incline Railway, the steepest in the world, facing backward to enjoy the view as we ascended, passing faded and worn houses on shady roads winding up the side of the mountain, houses like the one where Karen’s mother had come into this world. Crankety, crankety, crankety, all the way to the top, pulled by cable that held our lives in its grip, we were almost vertical by the end of the ride, and we peered out the glass windows on the roof of the train car, now directly in front of us, our eyes fifteen hundred feet above the station, overlooking south Chattanooga and back into Georgia. I remember Karen using the payphone at the cheesy gift shop atop the mountain, calling her mother to surprise her.
“Guess where I am right now?” Karen asked her mom, emotion biting her. “Guess. I’m on Lookout Mountain! Where you were born. Yes I am! It’s so beautiful, and green, and there’s so much history. And your history, mom. I can’t believe I’m here. You have to come back soon. We’ll both come back. I’m going to bring you.”
Karen was in tears, and I could tell her mother was, too, and they spoke for some time. I finished an entire container of popcorn while I waited. We argued after she got off the phone, something about how I made her feel like I didn’t care, like I just wanted to get going, that I was munching my popcorn impatiently (which I now think I may have been doing). I was confused and disagreed with her, said I was happy to let her share that moment with her mother. She thought I had been rude, and I apologized if I’d made her feel that way, but then somehow she managed to bring up her inability to have children, and how she could never give me a family, that I deserved one after the childhood I’d had. It seemed to have come out of nowhere – though I’d known this about her, the childbearing thing, for some time – but then again this really wasn’t nowhere, since we were in a place of birth, her mother’s, and it was ripe, obviously, with so much meaning for her. At that point I simply bit down firmly on my worn-out tongue. The famous civil war Battle Above the Clouds had taken place up there on Lookout Mountain, and I didn’t need to engage in a rematch. So I let it go. She did too, however, much to my surprise, and within an hour we were in each other’s arms, lying on the grass beneath a tall statue of a formally attired confederate officer.
The overnight train trip from Atlanta to New York City was our first such journey by rail, and we’d gotten a tiny double berth: two seats facing each other, which folded into one bed, the other bed folding down from the ceiling. We left late in the afternoon and rattled through the night, north toward Manhattan. We stopped in places like Toccoa, Spartansburg, Greensboro, Lynchburg, Manassas, and then Washington DC. We slept through most of the stops, awakened sometimes by the absence of train motion and the calling out of the porters: “Charlottesville next! Charlottesville!” Up through Baltimore we rode the tracks, dreaming into Delaware, before waking at Philadelphia. We grabbed a quick and shaky breakfast in the dining car, sharing a table and unbreakable plates as we held our tipping cups, with a couple from Amherst, both university professors, who were worried about their dogs. The last time they’d left, the bigger one had clawed and chewed all the way through a door.
“She thinks we need to kennel them and not use a dogsitter,” said the nerdy-chic husband.
“He thinks we should just teach the dogs to use the doorknob,” said his petite Korean wife, winking at him.
They were an entertaining act. They had a chemistry I envied. I think Karen did, too. .
Arriving into to the mad chaos of Penn Station, New York City was rushing and alive. This is where Karen and I had more trouble. She was overwhelmed by the city right away, hated that I walked differently there. Which I do; I walk fast, eyes unfocused, just go. She was freaked out by all the people, by the noise, the pace, while I loved it. In truth, she just needed a little time to adjust, but I could be quite an impatient prick when I didn’t need to be. She was more comfortable on the touristy cruise around Manhattan I took her on our second day in town. We circled the Statue of Liberty, which is always awe-spring, and I can still see the World Trade Centers behind us in the photo a fellow passenger took. We hit The Metropolitan Museum of Art, where Karen was transfixed by one of Gauguin’s self-portraits.
“That look on his face reminds me of you,” she said to me.
Gauguin wore an expression of a mild irritation, and I asked her how she meant it. She wouldn’t answer, saying it was just the way a piece of art talks to you, and I couldn’t decide whether she meant it as a compliment or not. I thought not. We stopped by MOMA to check out some acid trip Rauschenbergs and Pollack splatters, saw a Broadway show, took walks down monument row in Central Park, and hung out a little, very little, with the New York Jewish segment of my family, whom I hardly ever saw or spoke to, and who were like a non-sitcom version of Jerry’s loud and, to put it nicely, colorful family on “Seinfeld.”
“Hey David!” my uncle Lou would bust me in his grating way. “What’re you carrying that stupid shoulder bag for? Women, they have stuff, they need purses. Men, if you have some books, you leave ‘em in the car!”
“Lou!” my aunt would chide him. “Leave him alone! So what if he likes to carry a bag!”
“I’m just suggesting!”
“So when are you two making it official?” my aunt interrogated Karen. “You can’t let yourself get too old, you know.”
“Is your family conservative or reformed, sweetheart?” my other aunt chimed in before Karen could answer the first question. “I mean, you are Jewish, aren’t you?”
Karen just looked at me: help. I loved them all, but I was as helpless as she was. I was the shy skinny Gentile kid from California they’d mostly just heard about. With our psyches relatively intact, Karen and I made it through dinner with my family, but all the marriage and child talk had made us both uncomfortable. Dwelling on these topics with my beautifully inappropriate relatives wasn’t exactly how we had wanted to end our time in the city. I’m fairly certain, if given the choice, that we would’ve paid someone to chew off our pinkies instead. Family can do that.
Leaving New York, Karen and I took the Lake Shore Limited to Chicago for a quick layover, where we grabbed a White Castle burger or ten and then caught the Empire Builder for the two-day trip through Wisconsin, Minnesota, across the great northern plains, through Glacier National Park (at night, sadly), and finally to Portland, Oregon. We stayed in our closet-sized double berth most of the time, enjoying the view out our window, and I vividly recall the afternoon sight of a lightning storm in the distance as we crossed North Dakota. Miles away, psychedelically shaped bolts by the dozens flashed down into fields of staggeringly bright yellow sunflowers that stretched out as far as you could see. The flowers were so yellow that if you looked away you still saw the color for a few minutes, as if you’d looked at the sun itself. We got off the train and stretched our legs in Wolf Point, Montana, where a mosquito the size of a sparrow latched onto my neck. Karen smacked it dead and came away with what looked like a cup of my blood on her hand. The Empire Builder (I love that robber-baron name) split off at Spokane, half of it headed for Seattle, the rest of us for Portland. At dawn the final morning, we entered the great Columbia River Gorge, with its towering walls and waterfalls, following her legendary flow west to the City of Roses.
In Portland we stayed at the landmark downtown hotel named for Karen’s family. Her great-grandfather had helped build the city, his name was everywhere. They treated us like royalty at the hotel when they found out who Karen was, even giving us a custom set of champagne flutes as a gift, etched with her family name and hotel logo in script. But Karen and I we were kind of sick of each other at that point, having spent almost three weeks together non-stop. We were each testy, snappy, ready to be home. We drove down the gorge for our final sightseeing trip in Portland, stood under one of the those gorgeous waterfalls along the route and, as the mist dampened us, Karen said to me, “I feel like this is our swan song.” I didn’t know what to say. Even though she soon apologized, said it had come out wrong, the line lingered as it had to. She kept trying to make up for it, to excuse it, tried to say she’d been tired, not thinking, but she was right. The trip would be our final big number.
When my mother and second stepfather picked us up at Union Station in downtown L.A. the night we arrived home, I was dreading the drive back to San Diego. But it was mostly silent, no fights erupted, only small talk, what a nice trip it was, yap yap yap, denial denial denial, just get me home. And, once home, we found ourselves right back where we’d started, physically and emotionally.
Within weeks of returning we’d have one of our more severe last exits to Brooklyn. She was frustrated with me again. I made her feel like she wasn’t creative enough, or smart enough, she always said that, and it was probably true, I could be a pompous ass sometimes. And her inability to have children, she kept bringing that up, too. She was convinced it would be another thing to come between us in the future, that it was another reason not to be together now, which I told her was silly. But I still wasn’t trying to find a career, she added, which was always her larger concern. And it was true, I wasn’t trying to find one. When we returned from the trip, I’d simply started to look for crappy jobs again. This time, however, I confined my search to driving jobs. I’d appreciated being on the road all day, out of the office, able to scribble in my little notebook whenever an idea struck me. Karen was upset when I told her I’d taken a job driving the delivery truck for an electric supply company. She wanted me to look for better, but I was not going to. By that night we weren’t speaking to each other again. And this time it would last a little longer.