On the Road to the OB

On the Road to the OB

Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey appeared on the list of required reading in my high school. One book a month. Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage. Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.

Mark Twain emerged as the only fun author. Other equally lofty and more disturbing classics were listed. Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the inevitable adolescent eye-opener, marks my first trip into the world of an anguishing conscience. I became personally familiar with that angst as I fully fledged. My favorite was and still is Dickens’ Great Expectations. But Thornton Wilder? His book had more presence and greater standing in my hollow, blossoming thoughts.

Thornton Wilder had lived in my neck of the woods near the Jersey Shore during or after his Princeton years. No one knew exactly. His old farmhouse stood on a v-shaped wooded lot on the road to the Ocean Bay Diner. The “OB” was a popular teenage hangout for those who had cars or, in my case, those with friends who had cars.

Every time we passed it, someone would say, “that’s where Thornton Wilder lived” as if it was his ancestral home. Until I read his 1975 obituary, I thought he grew up in that house at the intersection of Ocean and Beaver Dam Roads. Driving past it once, the smartest girl I knew piped up from the back seat, “He wrote The Bridge of San Luis Rey there.”

Don’t take that as gospel. I have no idea where he wrote it. And I have no idea what I thought when I read it the first time. Except this: I wanted to write like him. I admit the fact that passing by the house where he may have written it gave weight to my desire.

“Did you ever read The Bridge of San Luis Rey?” Veronica asked me last year. Her book group read it.

“Oh yeah, in high school.”

“Do you remember any of it?”

When I confessed I didn’t, she suggested I pick it up again. Months passed before the Kindle version loaded in. Settling into another one of my many pandemic iPad slouches, I finally clicked into it.

Immediately my old muse ignited anew. Here’s why I wanted to write like Thornton Wilder. The bridge in the title is a centuries old Inca rope crossing in mountainous Peru. Wilder hadn’t been to Peru when he wrote it. At age fifteen I could easily picture myself creating stories about places I’d never been, based on descriptions in the Encyclopedia Britannica or travel brochures.

Wilder concocted fables of the five people who died when the bridge collapsed. I could develop that skill. I told good stories.

Or at least good lies.

But oh, the writing. Was I capable of dreaming up sentences like “It is on this visit to the theater that further matter hangs.” ? I thought so then. And perhaps it would be so now, had I started earlier than age sixty-five!

First Time

First Time

In 1963 the Eastern Air Lines Shuttle regularly flew my father back and forth to Washington for business. No reservations. No check-in. No boarding pass.There were no security checkpoints or assigned seats. Cost? Fifteen dollars. He paid cash after he boarded. The Eastern Shuttle was the talk of the town. Seats were guaranteed. If the plane filled up, they’d roll out another. Flights left every hour. The Shuttle also flew to Boston.

As for me? Flying the Eastern shuttle from New York-LaGuardia to Boston was a quick and easy way to sneak off to see my boyfriend. He lived off-campus as a sophomore at Boston University. At age sixteen I moved in with my father in midtown Manhattan after running away from my mother in New Jersey. One Saturday I told my father I was taking the train to the Jersey Shore for a party and staying overnight with a friend. I lied but I’m sure he was not deceived. No questions asked. 

1963 fare was $15. No booking. No check-in.

I travelled in a logan green wool skirt trimmed in dark brown leather, with a matching heavy wool coat. The ensemble was part of a larger purchase from Henri Bendel’s, gifts from my father to show his love. A string of pearls that my father had brought home from Mexico a few years before set off my olive cashmere sweater. 

The bus to LaGuardia left from Grand Central Station, an easy cab ride from our home at the Delmonico Hotel at 59th and Park Avenue. I never imagined I’d be prevented from boarding because of my age. I was certain my clothes, modern hairstyle and lipstick made me look older. And besides, I smoked cigarettes like a sophisticated woman of the world.

The Shuttle was the busiest service in the Eastern terminal.  Signs were easily visible. It had multiple counters and gates. I never feared I’d get lost. I walked right onto the plane and grabbed the first seat. 

At Boston-Logan Airport I flagged a cab to Boylston Street and flew into the arms of my true love, a tall dark-haired green-eyed boy, whose name I cannot remember. 

We drank up all the beer and wine in his place, had sex and walked to a college party. When we returned to the apartment a charming exuberant roommate greeted us with the notice that we were out of booze and he was broke.

What to do? I needed my remaining cash for the air fare and the cab rides to and from the airport. So I gave the roommate my pearls to cash in for more liquor. 

I made my way back to New York with no memorable mishaps. Since my father was battling his own alcohol demons and unsure of his role in my life, he made no effort to question the particulars of my trip. 

The Boston boyfriend? He flew down to New York on the Eastern Shuttle to see me once or twice. 

And that was that. 

The Last Time I Saw Him

The Last Time I Saw Him

The last time I saw my father was in a La Salle Street law office. The confrontation was inevitable but I’d hoped he’d die before I ever had to see him again.

John the lawyer had told me a few weeks earlier that it was time. “We can’t put it off any longer.”

Herb, my old friend and lawyer, met me in the hotel coffee shop that morning. I’d flown in from Washington to Chicago the night before. My official notice requested a day off for personal business. 

Personal business. The words are both too formal and too benign.

Herb flagged a cab on Michigan Avenue because my legs were too wobbly for the short walk to LaSalle Street. Two years had passed since I’d last seen my father. I came voluntarily to confirm fraud accusations against him. The thought of it kicked off spasms in my coffee-filled stomach.

Herb kindly offered to escort me from the hotel rather than risk my running into my father alone on the street or in the lobby or god-help-me in the elevator. 

Are these extreme feelings legit? Why was a grown woman so afraid of her father?

He was such a good liar. Forty-five year old me could still remember that twisted smile from behind the cracked door of the upstairs bedroom the first time my mother called the police.

“It’s nothing, Officer,” he smiled. “Just a quarrel over money. You know how it is.”

Years later, after they’d separated, he sobered up. But that smile. The one where his bushy eyebrows turned inward toward his pooled eyes; where his bottom lip turned up but his upper lip remained still, imperceptibly quivering. If you hadn’t known him all your life, you’d never know that smile was a dead giveaway that he was lying.

Having lived most of his adult life in Gucci loafers and posh apartments, he became desperate for money in his seventies. We’d been close. Until friends of mine let me know he’d approached them to back a questionable business deal. He needed enough money to live comfortably until the end of his life, which was not too long as it turned out. At eighty he died of lung cancer, a diagnosis he never revealed to anyone.

Before I moved to Washington, I’d been in the room many times listening to my father on the phone hustling potential investors. 

 “Just need a few more thousand,” he’d lie, “Then we’re ready to go.” 

A friend of mine he’d contacted without my knowledge took the bait. He gave my father almost a million dollars. Later, the friend sued. 

In the conference room Herb objected to those bushy eyebrows taking a seat across from us. I locked eyes with the lawyer interrogating me. Two weeks before, a crony offered me $10,000 to not testify. The week before, my father called my boss growling I couldn’t be trusted.

After the deposition, I backed away from my oncoming father. Herb stepped between us.

“Don’t talk to her,” Herb warned.

And he didn’t.

Happy Valentine’s Day to US Women

Happy Valentine’s Day to US Women

Women in the #MeToo movement in 2017 exposed patriarchal  employment agreements that protect sexual predators in the workplace from legal action and public shame.

And women led the effort to end those practices. Four days before Valentine’s Day, 2022, news hounds woke to hear that the bill, “Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment Act” had passed the Congress in rare bipartisanship.

“DID YOU SEE THIS?” Women everywhere texted each other in all caps asking if this surprise news flash could possibly be true.

Forced arbitration clauses are fine print boilerplates hidden in agreements and contracts. They’re concealed in the terms and conditions to enter a nursing home, start a new job, become a patient or rent an apartment. These clauses have prevented survivors of sexual abuse from holding the abuser accountable in a court of law. They require the accuser to submit to secret in-house arbitration.

This new legislation allows employees to expose sexual misconduct to the public, a gigantic cultural shift that will prove to be the deterrent to workplace abuse.

Before this act was passed the sexual abuser could have the accusing woman (or man) fired or demoted. Well, watch out abusers! In the future, your deviant sexual behavior and bullying tactics just may end up splayed all over the news.

It’s been reported that more than half of the US workforce is under forced arbitration contracts. As a pensioner, I greeted the news with mixed emotions. How different would my life have been if fear of reprisal hadn’t stopped me from reporting former bosses and co-workers? Would I have turned in the bigwig who showed up at my apartment building over and over to work on the latest project? Or the guy who thought he had a right to fondle my breasts at work when no one was looking?

I honestly don’t know what I would have done if I’d had the guts and the legal avenue to report them. I know one thing. I shied away from proximity to sexually aggressive men and missed opportunities for better jobs as a result. I tolerated bosses who treated women as replaceable sex objects and male co-workers who pestered women with sexually charged jokes, remarks, and teasing.

Mandatory clauses in nursing home contracts require that any dispute between the family of a resident and the facility be submitted to binding, confidential arbitration. According to the Administration for Community Living, 20,000 sexual abuse complaints were filed in nursing homes over the past 20 years. That’s about three residents every day. Most nursing home residents and their families are unaware they’d waived their right to sue over sexual misconduct when they signed the required paperwork. The new legislation allows these cases to be brought to court and adjudicated in the light of day.

I missed opportunities to bring abusers to justice in my working years. Now that there’s a legal obstacle to abuse, I need not fear if I end up living out my days in a nursing home.

Thank you women. Thank you RAINN.org. Thank you advocates. And thank you Gretchen Carlson, the Fox News host who publicly accused Roger Ailes and never left her courage at the door.  (video of Gretchen Carlson: https://wapo.st/3oGT4tY)

MLK: The Drum Major Instinct

MLK: The Drum Major Instinct

Fifty-four years ago Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a prophetic sermon he called the The Drum Major Instinct. He riffed off a passage in the New Testament where Jesus’ disciples got mad at him because they wanted to be credentialed leaders, to be praised for their importance, the “drum major instinct”.  In the 1940s the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill Wilson, wrote in the Twelve Steps that this desire for an important place in society, the “social” instinct, is necessary for community survival. Both men cautioned that this natural god-given instinct, unbridled, can turn on us, become an obsession for power and supremacy and eventually distort our personalities. 

I know a bit about the desire for attention. During these pandemic shutdown months, online Zoom meetings have become the stage and meeting room for events. Last year I was the featured speaker in one square among nearly three hundred muted souls on Zoom. At the end all I heard was thank you from the host. People wrote kindly in the Chat but I still wish I had heard that applause. My book, In That Number, was published in October 2020 and the enthusiasm I needed to promote it waned, due to—you got it—no applause.

Donald Trump heard a lot of applause throughout his entire presidency, even during the months most of us were silent following the stay-at-home orders of Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of Trump’s Coronavirus Task Force leaders. Whew! Trump’s drum-major instinct rampaged so out of control that he still says the Democrats stole the election he lost to Joe Biden.

MLK:  “… the final great tragedy of the distorted personality is that when one fails to harness this instinct, he ends up trying to push others down in order to push himself up…by spreading evil, vicious, lying gossip on people…”

Trump spread evil, vicious lies to his duped white followers continually until they finally exploded into a blood-and-guts frenzy on January 6, 2021. They sacked the US Capitol in an effort to thwart the official declaration of the election results. People died. Martin Luther King, Jr. nailed this aberrant behavior in a prescient accusation: his drum-major instinct makes him think he is somebody big because he is white. 

MLK and Bill Wilson remind us we all have the drum-major instinct. We all want the admiration of others. They caution us to keep it in check, to watch out we don’t let our drum-major emotions go awry, that we don’t act superior to others. I confess I do feel and act superior to the insurrectionists, the white fundamentalists, the angry male mob who sieged the Capitol. I condemn them in conversation, even post condemnations on social media. Experience tells me if I don’t stop, I’ll soon be in a full blown mire of self-loathing, questioning how I got there. King and Wilson both offer an ancient solution to keep my own potential soul-sick personality at bay. Love and service. Be a drum major for love. Help others.

I’m open to it. That’s the best I can do today.

(originally published MLK Jr. Day 2021)

_________________________________________________________________________________________

The Drum Major Instinct,” Sermon Delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Martin Luther King, Jr., February 4, 1968, Atlanta, Ga. Listen Here: http://okra.stanford.edu/media/audio/DrumMajorInstinct.mp3

Without Being Contagious to Others

Without Being Contagious to Others

Uh-oh. When I home-tested positive for Covid after a few casual lunches with different friends over the holidays, I knew I had to tell them about my infection. 

I had accumulated four Covid home tests to use between Christmas and New Years and self-tested before each gathering of five to seven people—not exactly a crowd, but I worried. After a rousing lunch of laughs and stories at the History Museum atrium Cafe, I went home and used my last home test. Gulp. Positive.

Immobilization glued me to my bed. What do I do? The slight cough and runny nose I’d had for a few days was seasonal allergies, according to the doctor. One friend told me the self-tests are not accurate. Really? Is she right? Is the CDC wrong?  How do I report it? Do I tell people? Will they panic? Am I responsible if they get it? Will they blame me? 

Fortunately I wasn’t with the friends who panic, blame, and generally indulge in open disapproval and silent scorn. That crowd is busy interrogating their other friends with positive Covid tests: Where did you get it? Who were you with? Were they wearing masks? Were you? Were they boostered? 

There are so many cases of Covid now that it’s impossible to trace the source of who, what, where, how, when. Last week people talked about their friends and relatives having Covid. This week they’re talking about themselves having it. 

Henry, Social Distancing

My course of action was 1) text Mark with the news and ask if he’d walk the dog for two days. Two days. That’s what I gave myself to be symptom-free. I was right. And really, how much dog-walking can you ask of your friends in the first snowstorm of the winter? 2) Turn on the kitchen exhaust fan to move the Covid air out. 3) Wipe all the surfaces with bleach, and 4) close myself off in the bedroom with Tylenol, electrolytes and Kleenex. Mark ran in and out with Henry. No lingering. No chit-chat.

The Northwestern Medicine patient portal has no apparent section for reporting Covid. I wrote my doctor through the online messaging system (who reads those?). “I tested positive for Covid. What should I do?” Twenty-four hours later my symptoms had subsided.  I’d read the CDC stuff and thought I knew all I had to know. But no. Northwestern has a lengthy standard reply, some of which surprised me:

Retesting is not recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) because you may continue to test positive for three months or more without being contagious to others.

What? For the first time in almost two years, the weight I didn’t know was so heavy, lifted from my mind, body and soul! No more frantically scouring shelves for Covid tests? No more fear of infection, the ER, hospital, death? No more worry that I might give it to you!

It’s like June 2021!

An Inauspicious Birth

An Inauspicious Birth

Until late 1944, my father had been a Navy pilot headquartered in Key West where he patrolled the Florida Straits for German submarines. After the war, as a new law school graduate, he reported for duty to the military court at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, as ordered.

Two of my sisters and I were born in the Naval Academy Hospital. On the day I was born, my father was in the middle of a complicated trial. All my life I’d heard that my father asked for a pause in the trial to visit my mother and me in the hospital. My birth was announced in the newspaper as part of the daily coverage of the court proceedings. When I was old enough to ask, I heard from my mother and him that he defended Navy personnel for stealing food from the Officers’ Mess. It sounded admirable. I fabricated stories about men he defended—petty officers sending necessities home to their poor families— and bragged about him to my friends.

In my fifties I went to Annapolis to search the archives for the article announcing my birth. Before I started rolling through microfiche, I called my father and asked for some common names and dates to look for besides my birth date.

“I can’t remember,” he said. “Call me when you get home.”

Newspaper articles from 1946 report details of my father’s part in the trial. In the Judge Advocate General’s Corps (JAG), he worked not as a defender of the disadvantaged but as a prosecutor.

The day my arrival interrupted the trial, June 13, 1946, my father was about to call an important witness to testify against former Chief Steward Walter W. Rollins. Rollins, “a Negro”, was accused of throwing an all-night party in his basement quarters of the Officers’ Mess with five white people. The day after my birth, the witness would testify they played penny-ante poker from 1:30 am until 9:30 am, but no money changed hands. The charges against Rollins included adultery with a white woman, a morals offense, gambling, embezzlement, misconduct and theft. He apparently took a jug of whiskey from the Officers’ Mess. Rollins was sentenced to two years in federal prison. After twenty-seven years of service to the Navy, he was demoted to First Mate and received a bad conduct discharge.

No wonder my father evaded his history at Annapolis. He had just been commissioned a Lieutenant Commander, had flown the prestigious Grumman Avenger torpedo bombers in the elite Air Corps. He’d been a scholarship student at Georgetown University and Law School. And yet, for years, he secretly funded all extracurriculars with money he earned at all-night high-stakes bridge games. He’d been arrested for drunken brawls and flown illegal rum and cigars home from Cuba. A much worse law-breaker than Rollins, my father tried to blot out his part in the Rollins’ trial.

He never served as a trial lawyer again.

And I never told him what I knew.

Seeing Jesus

Seeing Jesus

In 1949 the Soviet Union started the Cold War by detonating its first atomic bomb, blockading Berlin, and pushing its way into Poland and Eastern Europe. The voices I heard swirling above my head at cocktail hour in our Washington home implied the Russians were coming for us. Everyone acted like this was the worst thing that could ever happen. 

Air raid drills were concocted by the federal government through the National Civil Defense Administration to protect people from incoming A-bombs. Common folk-wisdom said only cockroaches would survive a nuclear attack. Nevertheless teachers were required to conduct impromptu air raid drills. They shouted, Drop!—a signal for us to jump out of our seats, crawl under our desks, fall over our knees and cover our heads. The nuns added the instruction to recite Hail Marys aloud while on the floor. 

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

At seven, I didn’t understand the difference between a drill and the real event. I went to my death every time I huddled under that desk. I feared the A-Bomb was the worst thing that could ever happen. But, I was not. afraid. to die. 

This is it, I’d pray. This is the day I’m going to see Jesus.

I believed Mother Mary would grab me in her arms like she did baby Jesus and take me to heaven. Why did we practice to avoid such ecstasy? 

By the time third grade rolled around, I got used to not dying under the desk. Images of children who lived after their exposure to the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki appeared on our small black and white television. I saw that there were worse things than death. 

Our Catholic school teachers taught that Communists who ruled Mother Russia prohibited the celebration of  the Mass. The clergy declared this was the worst thing that could ever happen. We prayed for Catholic Russia.

At home, my two sisters and I made our own breakfasts and school lunches because my mother’s alcohol intake rendered her unconscious in the mornings. We often gathered around her bed trying to figure out if she was alive. Holy Mary, Mother of God. One of us would place a finger under her nostrils to feel her breath until, with one exhale, she’d confirm that the worst that could’ve happen, hadn’t—and we’d be off to knock on neighbors’ doors scrounging rides to school. 

Those early almost-worst-that-could-happen memories have inoculated me against the mau-mauing of present-day alarmists, naysayers and fear-mongers who sermonize about the death of our democracy. Yeah-but’ers and tsk-tsk’ers want us to heed their cynical creed that our country is hopelessly overrun with insurrectionists, sexual predators, corrupt politicians and gun-toting scofflaws.

And what if these are apocalyptic times? So what? So were the 1950’s. I’ve been here before. 

Mother Mary may be out of commission these days, but I still dream of seeing Jesus.

IRL (In Real Life)

IRL (In Real Life)

One of the first gifts I received from my grandson, CJ, was his framed eighth grade self-portrait. He filled the center of a twelve by sixteen inch paper canvas with his life-size face, neck and shoulders, probably as instructed by his teacher. The background is a collage of his own black & white photos, trees and fences, angled every which way. The drawing portrays what he looked like at thirteen years old. 

Except he painted himself cobalt blue. 

This painting hangs from a hook on the wall-to-wall bookcase in my living room. CJ is fair-skinned with reddish-blonde hair. I’ve never asked him why he painted himself cobalt blue. As far as I know, he wasn’t imitating Picasso’s blue period. No one knew about the blue people of Kentucky until the 2019 publication “The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek.” After hearing so many ads for Blue Man Group on TV, CJ expressed interest in seeing them live on stage. But it was an interest, not an obsession.


Cobalt blue, used for centuries by the Chinese for their blue and white pottery, is the epitome of coolness; dark, deep, and mysterious. It’s the color of the evening sky in winter, clear twilight boosted by the unseen sun from below the horizon. CJ’s not the only creative to fancy cobalt. J. M. W. Turner, Renoir, Claude Monet, and van Gogh all favored its compatibility with other colors. Remember Maxfield Parrish’s famous Daybreak? He used cobalt blue mixtures for the skyscape. 

Public opinion polls show blue as the favorite color of both men and women. And yet, a case of the blues refers to feelings of sadness. My parents used the term, the blues, to announce their alcoholic hangovers. 

Thanks to old African American traditions, the blues generally signify sadness without despair. Pastor Otis Moss III of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago preaches about a blue note faith, one that’s rooted in letting dark times exist side-by-side with hope. Moss teaches his congregation to let these dark moody blues move around them while they practice dancing in the dark. This practice keeps the blues from turning to hopelessness and death by despair.

For the past ten years CJ’s self-portrait has hung where I see it everyday. He’s melded into my unconscious seeing. He looks the same to me. But as I write this and inspect him further, I see the cobalt blue has faded to dark teal. Teal is a modern color, one not seen in art before the twentieth century. It has no meaning really, except a lot of European TV shows use teal interiors and costumes. It makes the actors look better. 

In real life, CJ’s hair has turned brown, but I still think of him as reddish blonde, just as his self-portrait will always be cobalt blue. We don’t see each other often in these isolating covid days. He’s in those perilous twenties where the blues start taking root.

I hope he’s dancing in the dark.

Saved By Eloise

Saved By Eloise

When friends announced their newborn’s name, Eloise, memories of New York’s Plaza Hotel stiffened my spine. I’d erased all memories of the palatial turn-of-the-century landmark after Donald Trump bought her in the late 1980’s. I even dumped my co-memories of Eloise, an early literary heroine who lived in the Plaza without her parents.

In the early 1950’s, my mother took my sisters and me to live for a while in her childhood home in North Jersey. One day, we took a train to Penn Station, then a cab ride to the Plaza at Fifth Avenue and Central Park South. We drank coca-colas, went to the powder room and backtracked home.

The book Eloise was published in 1955, a few years after that memorable first trip to the Plaza. The protagonist is a precocious six-year old, though the book was written for adults. After its publication, my mother gossiped about author Kay Thompson as if she were the next-door neighbor. On the phone with each of her sisters, she’d giggle at Eloise cartoon antics. They all grew up in the shadow of New York, mocking spoiled high society children similar to Thompson’s Eloise.

Kay Thompson lived at the Plaza and wrote the idiosyncrasies of other residents into Eloise stories. Plaza kibitzers tittered about a wealthy widow who had her hair done cheaper in the men’s barber shop rather than the women’s salon. Thompson had Eloise get her haircut in the barbershop too. Eloise picks ribbons from the garbage in the service elevator, mimicking a reclusive countess who was known to pilfer through hotel trash bins. 

Talk of the Plaza Hotel wafted through my childhood. I imagined myself living in the Plaza with my dog and turtle, like Eloise, getting into all sorts of fiendish exploits. My charlatan father often stayed there, or pretended he stayed there. I overheard him arranging to meet other business contacts in the Palm Court or the “coffee shop in the lobby,” as he satirically called it. When I was a teenager I lived with my father for a time in Manhattan. The Plaza was in the vicinity of my walk home and I’d often stop to use the powder room or meet friends in the coffee shop.

Once when I was around nineteen, I came out of an alcoholic blackout at 3:00 a.m. on the powder room floor in the Plaza. I had no purse, no money and was far from my New Jersey home. The bellman allowed me to use a phone in a small back office. I called Bernadette, a high school friend in the Bronx whom I hadn’t contacted in four years. She knew the bellman.

“Ask him for money and take a cab to my place.”

When I arrived, she made up a bed on her couch, gave me homemade chocolate chip cookies and milk. I tried to tell her what happened.

“No explanation necessary. It’s the home of Eloise after all. Anything can happen.”