How I Killed My Father

Years ago, I gave my father the flu.  Six weeks later, he died of it.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately.  The COVID-19 virus is spreading through families like wildfire.  There are still without a doubt children who have given it to their parents, as I did.  Everyone’s hunkered down in their hermetically sealed houses waiting to see how bad this is going to be.  We’ve seen the movie Contagion.  We’re waiting for dead bodies in the streets.  We’re waiting for loved ones taking their last breaths.  Or, more optimistically, we’re waiting for Fauci’s Curve to bend and for everybody to pour into the streets and hold up their hands to the strains of “Hallelujah” and ticker tape.

Donald Groves and Model A, age 17 smaller 2

My father’s story began in the late 1940s, when he was a teenager.  I don’t know the exact decisive moment when he started smoking, but he did mention a type of conversation.

“Come on, just take one puff.”

By the time Dad entered the Marines in 1950, his medical intake exam noted that his lungs exhibited “rales,” which are defined medically as “an abnormal rattling sound heard when examining unhealthy lungs with a stethoscope.”

240

By the 1960s, I remember Dad smoking a lot.  The smell of it didn’t disgust me, but simply reminded me of him with fondness.  He smoked Kents, which tagged him as intelligent and professional.  Mom smoked Salems, a feminine and breezy brand, something a pretty lady would smoke on a sailboat.  He never smoked as much as John Wayne, who bragged that he smoked two packs a day; he smoked half of that.  He was a construction engineer and a strong and silent 1950s Dad, and the smoking seemed to go along with it.  Decency was part of the profile, too.  He went to work in the morning at a big corporation and came home at night.  He never drank.  He wasn’t loud or obnoxious.  He coached my Little League baseball team.

One day when I was 16, I was in our house when I envisioned a moment that merited documentation with a camera.  Dad was sitting in the living room relaxing in his favorite dark blue velvet chair, a bright wall of curtained light behind him, having a cigarette and staring into space.  I snuck up behind him with my Rolleiflex and shot the photo before he even knew what was happening.

“Hey, what are you doing?!” he said when he heard the click.

“Taking your picture,” I said.

“Why?”

“Because that’s your favorite spot to sit,” I said.  “It’s a good picture.”

He was a tad pissed off, I must confess, but I was glad I caught it.  To me, that photograph perfectly defined my father, like Carly Simon’s song: “…My father sits at night with no lights on/His cigarette glows in the dark….”

214

My father sitting in his favorite chair, smoking.

By 1985, I had graduated from UCLA and was writing freelance health & fitness articles for magazines and newspapers all over the world.  One day, I visited my parents at their home in Diamond Bar, California, and Dad was sitting on the carpeted stairway with his shirt off.  I was alarmed at how skinny he had gotten, although I didn’t immediately say anything.  The family was sharing time together, which didn’t happen all that often anymore, now that we were adults, and I didn’t want to dampen the mood.  However, I eventually just came out with it.

“Dad, you’ve lost some weight,” I said.

“Oh, I stopped eating donuts in the morning at work,” he said cheerfully.  “You know, the boss brings in a big box of donuts and they’re free. When I stopped eating those, I lost weight.”

“You know, the doctors that I interview say that a weight loss can also mean that there’s something medically wrong with you.  Have you gone to the doctor?”

“I’m okay.”

“But I’m just asking if you’ve gone to the doctor.”

“I’m okay and I don’t want to talk about this.”

“But Dad, what if you’re sick?”

“I told you I’m not going to talk about this,” he said, and stood up and walked up the stairs and into his bedroom, shutting the door behind him.

After he left, my mother, sister, and I discussed what had happened.  Whatever the cause of the weight loss might be, it was worth checking out.  We all agreed that something might indeed be medically wrong with him.

“He should definitely go to the doctor, Mom,” I said.

“Leave it to me,” she said with a wink.

Sally Groves studying 1

So I left it to her.  Mom said that she had “ways” of getting him to do things.

“I’ve been married to him for 34 years, after all,” she said.

So Mom started a campaign.  She discussed and cajoled.  She used reverse and double-reverse psychology.  She tried every trick in the book.  After several months of trying, however, he still refused to go to the doctor.

So my sister decided to give it a try.  She and Dad had a special relationship, like England and America.  She asked Dad if he would take her to the doctor.

“Okay,” he said.

So my sister made an appointment with Dr. Arnold Bergman in Montebello.  Dad drove her to the appointment, and they both waited in the examination room for the doctor.  When the doctor came in, he looked at the chart.

“So I’m here to see…Mr. Groves?” he said.

“No,” he said.  “It’s my daughter’s appointment.”

“No it isn’t, Dad,” Diane said.  “I want you to get examined.”

“Oh no.”

“Dad, we’re already here….”

“I said no.”

Dad walked out of that appointment, refusing to be seen.  His denial reaction, it seems, was quite virulent.  And all the time, he kept getting skinnier and looking more unhealthy.  His skin was prematurely dried out, his wrinkles deeper than they should be.

“I worry about you,” I told my father.  “You could be very sick.”

“I’m not sick,” he said, “I’m just getting old.”

“You’re only 57 years old,” I said.  “You shouldn’t be this frail.”

“I’m not frail.  And besides, I get all the health care I need on the radio.  I listen to Dr. Dean Edell every day on the radio.”

I’m sure Dad knew he was in bad health.  In the middle of the night, Mom would wake up and find him sleeping in strange positions, which is a common compensatory behavior when people find breathing difficult: Their body searches desperately for a position that makes it easier for their lungs to pull in oxygen, sometimes twisting itself in pretzels.  Sometimes, my mother would wake up in the middle of the night and find him sleeping with his butt shoved into the air.  Not only that, but he was getting down to an alarmingly low weight, partly because people with bad lungs find it difficult to eat; the time that the mouth is closed and chewing seriously interrupts their desperate efforts to breathe.  The body needs air more than it needs food, after all.

I was still writing health & fitness articles for all the major women’s magazines–Harper’s Bazaar, Mademoiselle, McCall’s, Good Housekeeping, Self, Shape, and the like–and was writing sagely about good health.  I was the man who told everybody how to live forever.  At the same time, however, I was full of heartache about the man I loved who refused to take care of his own health.  It was the heartache that we all carried around during that period, and we turned it this way and that in the light.

What occurred to all of us, quite as a surprise, I might add, that you just can’t force anybody to do anything.  It seemed ridiculous, but it was true.  We couldn’t make him save himself.  We couldn’t arrest him.  We couldn’t drag him bodily.  We couldn’t trick him.  It was our one great lesson in the mighty power of denial.

David Groves post college 1a smaller

In January, 1989, four years after I first spotted Dad’s weight loss, Mom was on a trip to Europe and Dad was all alone in that big house.  He didn’t like being alone, but he didn’t like to admit it.  He thought of himself as a lone wolf like Bogart in The Big Sleep or Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief, but deep down, he really craved the warmth of the family.  During family parties, he loved to stand around the periphery, leaning on a railing, watching everybody enjoy themselves.  That spot on the railing was his querencia, which is a bullfighting term for the spot where a bull stubbornly stands in the ring where he feels he cannot be killed.  Dad never quite felt comfortable participating in family life, but he loved watching.  He wouldn’t have used the word love, but that’s what he enjoyed being in the middle of.

That winter, I had been sick with a particularly nasty flu.  For weeks, I would suffer its symptoms, fight it back with rest and medicine, and then it would claw its way back into my life.  I don’t know how many times I relapsed, but it was a few.  I remember sweating mightily in my sprawling two-bedroom apartment in Culver City, watching television while my head pounded and my sinuses filled with congestion.  The trash bins were filled with Kleenex.  But at some point, I had improved enough that I thought I was past the point of contagion.

“By the time you’re showing symptoms,” a gorgeous nurse friend of mine had said, “you’re no longer contagious.”

So I visited Dad in that big house.  It was a two-story house in suburbia with four bedrooms and a great hillside view of suburbia.  I hugged him, which he always bristled at.  I spent time with him.  We went to a video store to rent a movie, but ended up not being able to decide on what to watch.  He wanted to watch Conan the Barbarian or Sheena of the Jungle, while I wanted something literary or even Shakespearean.  To this day, I’m still not a fun dude.

Donald Groves in the kitchen 1b smaller

We went back home, having disagreed for about the millionth time in our lives, and before I left, had a conversation about Dad’s father.  I talked about how extremely strong and silent Grandpa Roy had been, and how I had given up trying to get him to talk, how it was impossible to get anything of meaning out of the guy.

“Wow, you noticed that, too?” Dad said.  “Wow, I thought it was me.”

Dad’s sudden interest in family dynamics surprised me.  He had never seemed that interested in the past, or even more so, psychological explanations for anything.  Thinking back, though, it occurs to me that Dad knew that he was quite sick, and that his life was flashing before his eyes.  He was gasping for air.  He was panicking.  His world was changing.  He was running out of time.

On February 9, my mother left a message on my machine.

“Dad has gone into the hospital,” she said.  “You better come today.  It’s serious.”

Dad had been diagnosed with a flu laid on top of the worst case of COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and emphysema that the doctor had ever seen.  I pretty much stopped working.  The family spent all of our time at the hospital.  Mom slept there.  Dad was in ICU for two weeks, and then transferred to a Kaiser Hospital in Downey, just down the street from our very first house, back when I was 5.

There were many ups and downs that I could document, but suffice it say that after a month, Dad succumbed.  Early on the morning of March 9, while I was sleeping in my apartment, Dad suffered a series of heart attacks and strokes.  By the time I arrived around 8 am, Dad was brain-dead.  He laid on his ICU bed with blank eyes, staring straight at the ceiling.  We came in and said our goodbyes individually.  I looked at his body, with the same arms, the same chest, the same shape of face, and I saw myself.  In some strange way, I said goodbye to myself.  Soon afterwards, we pulled the plug.

I don’t know if I gave Dad the flu.  Truth be told, I’ve never worried much about it.  After all, I didn’t intend to give him the flu.  Not only that, but he could have caught it anywhere–at the grocery store, from a coworker, from the surface of a pack of cigarettes.  In addition, it was the severe risk factors that made that flu deadly, and I had no responsibility at all for that.  Hell, I had even asked him to quit a few times.

“I’ve tried to quit 150,000 times,” he said when he was first hospitalized.

Perhaps it was his fault.  Perhaps it was RJ Reynolds’.  When we went through his effects, we found a whole cache or RJ Reynolds promotional material that minimized the risks of smoking and complained about smokers’ civil rights, evil libertarian screeds that still make me angry.  But as for responsibility, I’ve never worried that it rested on my shoulders.  I don’t tend to worry much about things that are not my fault.

 

As of today, there have been over 162,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and nearly 3,000 deaths.  Many more may die, we’re not sure exactly how many.  It looms above us like a black cloud.  But hey, I’ve been there.  My father died at 59, but he should have had more years on this earth.  I would have liked him to see me get booked as a performer at the world-famous Magic Castle in Hollywood, as I did in 1997, or to meet the woman of my dreams, whom I got together with in 2001, or to read my novel, What Happens to Us, which I published in 2014.  I would have liked him to read the passages in the novel about him.  I would have liked him to read what I had learned about life, so much of which I packed into that book.  But he only made it to 1989.

That very month, he had just fully paid off his home mortgage.  It’s ironic that he never had time to enjoy the payoff and his golden years.

Now, my mother is 89, and still misses Dad.

IMG_6024b smaller

Mom with my partner Claire.

“I think about him every day,” she says.  “He would have had to wear an oxygen tank around everywhere he went, but I wouldn’t care.”

Sometimes, I catch her crying.

“I’m just thinking about your father,” she says.

Like a nightmare, it’s happening again.  Mom also started smoking in the 1940s.  She stopped around 1990, but not before she damaged her lungs.  Now, she too has COPD.  She cannot walk half a flight of stairs without getting severely winded.  She cannot sleep through the night without wearing a tube that supplies her oxygen.  All of that makes her at high risk for COVID.

“If I get the coronavirus,” she told me recently, “I’m dead.”

IMG_5574 sm

She’s right.  As a result, she has holed herself up in her 4-bedroom house in Diamond Bar.  She doesn’t let anyone in, even me.  She lives there with her little Shih Tzu Phoebe and her five television sets.  She’s happy to watch her Columbo and Everybody Loves Raymond and documentaries on history and civilization. When she needs help on her computer, as she often does, I take control of it from my house with Team Viewer, a program that allows remote computer control.

The way it’s going, it looks like she’s going to turn 90 alone in that house.  Her birthday is in May.

When Mom needs food, I shop for her.  Then I drive into her driveway and call her on the cell phone.  She opens the garage door remotely and I bring the groceries into the middle of the garage and walk out.  Then she carries the groceries inside.  She washes each package with rubbing alcohol.  Then she washes the bags, even the handles, with bleach.  She can’t be too careful.  She loves life.  She still finds it sweet, indeed.

This week, I read the statistics.  Dr. Fauci says that up to 200,000 Americans may die of this COVID.  Other estimates say that up to 2.2 million may die.  Then on Facebook, Trump is afraid, not of the disease, but of losing money in the stock market.  He wants the country “opened up and just raring to go by Easter,” he said.  Republicans argue that we have to get back to the economy and not be afraid to live our lives.  It’s worth the lives we lose.  After all, they’re just old people who are going to die soon, anyway.

I just think of my father.  I would have liked another 30 years with him.  I would have liked to get to know him better.  I would have asked him about the Korean War, which he never talked about, but now, I realize, fought heroically in.  Hell, he fought at Chosin Reservoir, a bloody battle in which we sustained 25,000 casualties within two weeks, and I didn’t know that till after he was gone.  I would have asked him about his mother, a beautiful but schizophrenic woman whom I hardly knew.  His whole miserable childhood growing up in the Great Depression is a supreme mystery to me.

And then there’s his soul.  I would have liked to just sit around it for a few more years and warmed myself by its fire.  He was a man of good intentions, which I now realize is quite rare in this world.  He had no ulterior motives.  I know I could have found his center, even though he tried to hide it.  I would have located it, sat with it, and cherished it.

Love Has a Lot to Do With It

You may think that the story I’m about to tell you has one lesson, but be careful what you conclude that lesson is.  It’s not what you may think.  You may, for example, assume from the photos and the story that you should panic.

The apocalypse is coming!  We’re all going to starve!  We’re all going to turn into cannibals!

You may assume, as well, that you run fast–don’t walk, don’t dawdle–to the nearest grocery store and fight for survival, grab toilet paper out of other customers’ hands, that you growl like a wolf and stockpile loads and loads of grocery items.  That, however, would be a stupid assumption.  Did I mention that it would be imbecilic?  Really, this is the closest thing you’re going to get in your adult life to a valid IQ test.

Let me emphasize, guys: There’s nothing wrong with our food supply.  Taliban bombers haven’t carpet-bombed our farms.  There’s no plague of locusts besetting the land.  No terrorists have blown up all the Vons trucks.  Tomorrow morning, you will still have a great choice of produce, packaged goods, canned goods, frozen dinners, and even all that disgusting junk food that you can stuff into your piehole.

What’s wrong, see, is the people.  Some of the simplest among us are panicking.  Without reason.  Without any reason at all.

IMG_1946

That said, I shopped for two today.  First, I was shopping for my live-in girlfriend and myself.  And secondly, I was shopping for my mother.

Mom, see, is at high risk for death if she contracts COVID-19.  She’s 89 years old, soon to turn 90, and she smoked for 40 years.  Even though she quit in the ’90s, her habit left her with a gift that keeps on giving: chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which impairs lung function.  Ever prudent, Mom started isolating herself hard two weeks ago.  She shopped for groceries at 7 am, when nobody was in the stores.  She avoided any other retail stores.  She stayed inside.

IMG_5670b texturized smaller

Mom in 2014 admiring a 10th-century castle in Ireland

Then just a week ago, Mom saw the writing on the wall and started isolating even harder.  She decided she was going to stay inside her four-bedroom, two-story suburban house almost completely.  She and her little Shih Tzu Phoebe would shut the world out absolutely.  She wouldn’t even shop for herself.  She wouldn’t go to the bank.  She wouldn’t meet anybody for coffee.

Of course, this strategy only works if you have somebody to shop for you.  That’s me, thank you.  I volunteered to do it because I’m at fairly low risk.  After all, I have exercised about an hour a day for the past 40 years and have terrific lungs.  I’ve never smoked.  I’ve never had anything go even mildly wrong with my body.  I’m as healthy as a hose, even if I can’t always spell.  Plus, I’m doing it because–hello!–she’s my mother.

So this afternoon, I drove down to Albertsons Grocery Store in La Habra.  It’s the nice suburban community in Southern California where I live.  I walked in with three cloth grocery bags, because I didn’t want to put my hands anywhere near any filthy, germ-laden grocery cart.  I would just pile all my groceries into the bags and carry them around the store.

Stepping into the store, I knew there would be shortages, but I had no idea how extensive the shortages would be.  First, I checked out the essentials that everybody is stockpiling: hand sanitizer, rubbing alcohol, toilet paper, and water.  Predictably, those products were all cleaned out.

IMG_1944

They were out of rubbing alcohol, and even placed a limit on the number you could buy.

IMG_1931

Predictably, all toilet paper was gone.

IMG_1943

All water was gone, even though there’s no threat to the nation’s water supply.

But I was surprised to find that some related products were cleaned out, as well, including dish detergent, baby wipes, diapers, and various cleaning products.

IMG_1935

Baby wipes were out.

IMG_1934

Many cleaning products were sold out.

IMG_1933

All of the hand dish detergent was sold out.

IMG_1930

Napkins were sold out.

As I strolled around the store, I discovered other more offbeat shortages, as well.  For example, all the tortillas were sold out.  It makes sense, I guess, because the store is right on the edge of a Mexican-American community, but really, can’t you give a guy a break on his beloved tacos and burritos?

IMG_1940

All tortillas were sold out.

There were also no potatoes at all, only yams, and the only onions left were red onions.  Turns out tomatoes and carrots are pretty popular, too, because they were nowhere to be found.

IMG_1941

Albertsons placed a limit on the amount of potatoes you could buy, but by the time I got there, the limit had reached zero.

All the eggs were gone, too.  I love my omelettes!

IMG_1937

Eggs gone.  I guess it’s Cap’n Crunch for breakfast.

And rice, beans, and pasta sauce were gone, too.

IMG_1938

Rice, beans, and pasta were mostly sold out.

IMG_1939

In all, I bought $37 worth of groceries for Claire and I, and $95 worth of groceries for Mom.  By the time I got to the end of our grocery lists, I was lugging around three heavy bags.  I considered going through a regular checkstand, but decided against it because I didn’t want anybody filthy checker’s hands touching my products.  So I decided to do self-checkout.  That was a little dicey, though.  There was a lot of tapping the touchscreen and putting products on scales.  And then whenever I made a mistake, a grocery employee jumped over my shoulder and pushed the right buttons, uncomfortably close.

By the time I got to the car, I immediately jumped into the driver’s seat and slathered gobs of sanitizer onto my hands.  I couldn’t believe I had gotten through that ordeal.  It took me over an hour.

I drove a half-hour to Mom’s house and called her from her driveway.

“I’m here, Mom,” I said.

“Okay, I’ll open the garage door,” she said.

Within moments, the garage door started opening.  I took her two grocery bags out of the trunk and left the bags inside the garage.  Then I walked outside of the garage.  She grabbed the two bags and headed for her kitchen.

“Make sure to wash the bags!” I said.  “Don’t forget to wash the handles of the bags!”

“I won’t,” she said.

“And wash all of the products!”

“I know!”

Within a couple minutes, Mom was back in the garage, washing the cloth grocery bags in a sink.  She used bleach, just to make sure.  Then she dried them.  All the while, I kept a respectful 25 feet away from her.  Finally, she left the bags in the middle of the garage for me.  Once she had moved back a safe distance, I stepped up and grabbed the bags.

“Love you!” I said, and left.

And, in fact, that’s quite true: Love has a lot to do with it.

I Haven’t Touched Anything Yet

As I write this, it’s March 14.  The world has just entered the scary phase of the COVID-19 crisis.  Over 125,000 people worldwide have been diagnosed with it.  Over 4,000 worldwide have died from it.  In the United States, nearly 40 people have died, and most people expect many more.  Institutions are closing down.  On grocery shelves, hand sanitizer and toilet paper are virtually unobtainable.  It’s like nothing we’ve ever seen in our lifetimes.

IMG_5658b texturized smaller

My 89-year-old mother has begun to isolate herself.  She smoked for 40 years and has lung disease, so she’s in an even higher risk category than other 89-year-olds.  Not only that, but she lives in Diamond Bar, where 80% of the population is Chinese, many of them Chinese nationals who travel back and forth from China.

Mom rarely goes out.  She shops for groceries only at 7 am, when the aisles are empty.  She uses hand sanitizer when she touches anything–the shopping cart, cans of food, the change she gets back, anything.  She doesn’t shake hands with anybody.  She doesn’t look at anybody.  She just returns to her house and shuts herself in.  She has a gate in her front yard that she keeps locked.  Nobody can even knock on her door.  Safely in her big old house, she has most everything she needs–television, a kitchen, a home office, everything.  She and her little Shih Tzu dog Phoebe are a population of two.

Two days ago, however, Mom realized that she needed to go to the pharmacy soon for refills.  She didn’t want to do it herself, though, so she called me.

“Can you pick up my meds?” she said.

“Sure,” I said.

“And shop for my groceries?”

“Okay.”

I am so healthy and exercise so much that I’m a pretty low risk.

After exercise 7 17 10 a

“I’ll call you with a list, and then you can bring it to me without having contact with me,” Mom said.  “Call me from your cell phone when you’re outside and I’ll open the garage door.  You leave the grocery bags in the garage and go.  When you’re gone, I’ll pick it up and sanitize the bag and all the things in it.”

Everybody has to be careful in these Kafkaesque days. We are afraid of shadows because shadows are attacking us.

I’ve been visiting Las Vegas this past week.  I’ve been staying with friends, an eightysomething mother and a fiftysomething daughter, who aren’t paranoid about things.  They have a huge house with lots of rooms.  They do take precautions, but they don’t get crazy about it. I offered to cancel my stay with them, but they wouldn’t hear of it.

“You’re fine,” they said.

IMG_1440 smaller

I camped out in a lovely bedroom they made up for me.  I spent the week working here on my computer, but had only one all-important in-person meeting.  When I walked into his house, we didn’t shake hands.  We talked from a distance of six feet. We met for three hours, excitedly talking about our exciting ideas for business, and then I left without shaking his hand.  Once back in my car, I slathered my hands with sanitizer.

The next day, I was driving to the park to take a walk.  As I cruised along Pecos Avenue, I thought, “As long as I don’t touch anything, I’m okay.”  Cars were all around me, and people inside, but I wasn’t touching them.  I was happy.

I arrived at lovely Sunset Park and started exercising.  I walked around the lake, past geese, ducks, and even people, and I thought, “I haven’t touched anything yet.” People walked past me, but not within six feet of me. Our eyes met, but we didn’t touch. Then I walked away from the lake and into the desert trails, talking to a friend in Seattle on my phone through earbuds while passing desert shrubbery, jackrabbits, and the occasional human organism, and I thought, “I haven’t touched anything yet.”

IMG_1134 smaller

I didn’t touch anything for a full hour and eight minutes! Then I got into my car and didn’t touch anything that other people had touched, just the door handle and the steering wheel, and drove back to my friends’ house.  I walked inside and had dinner with my friends.  They suggested I go to a Vegas show, take advantage of discount tickets and low crowds, and I thought, “Nawwww.”

At dinner, they talked about one of their friends.  He is a divorced father.  He had a business trip planned for this week, but the event got cancelled.  He decided to use the airline tickets, anyway, to visit his daughter.  He hopped onto the plane and traveled all the way across the country.  When he arrived, his ex-wife said no, you can’t see your daughter.

“You’re a disease risk to her,” she said.  “You’ve just been on a plane!”

It’s been a bitter divorce.

After dinner, I got onto my computer, which nobody else had touched, and started working, because I always need to work.  Every so often, I got onto Facebook and socialized with people, saying hello, how are you, isn’t this weird, without touching them or being around them.

IMG_2004

Later today, I will get into my car and drive the five hours back to Los Angeles without touching anything that anybody else had touched. And if by chance I do, I have lots of hand sanitizer and rubbing alcohol.  I will listen to Beck and Tito Puente and Sam Smith on my Bluetooth speaker and speed back home.  But there’s one nightmare scenario that I’ve thought about.  God forbid this tragedy comes to pass.  Please God, oh please, I beseech you, don’t make it so that I have to go into a public bathroom.

The Politics of Touching

Joe Biden has been going through a lot of scrutiny lately over his touching of strangers.  It’s the beginning of a campaign, and that is the natural time for such issues to come up.  Some people are quite insistent that Biden has been inappropriate, while others are defending him.

As a teenager, I never hugged people in greeting. I felt that I had a wall around me.  I was lonely and awkward socially.  I didn’t know any way out of this conundrum, because my upbringing hadn’t given me any.

David Groves age 8

Then in college, I met people who hugged. When they saw you, they hugged you. When they said goodbye, they hugged you. It was how things were done in their world. Or maybe it was a moment in history when that changed, the 1970s, when men started wearing colors and gays started coming out of the closet.  Or maybe it was the circles that I suddenly entered, the big city that I had moved to, the sophisticated people, the bohemians and artists, I don’t know. At any rate, I started being more touchy.

David Groves with Afro ca 1979

I have never been as touchy as Joe Biden. I have admired how loving he is, how confident, how giving, but I have never been able to pull it off.  It’s a cultural thing, too, like Latin cultures that are more touchy (Italy, Spain, Greece), and look down on Anglo cultures that aren’t as touchy. There is a tradition that glorifies that kind of touching.

In fact, my mother tells me a story about that.  She comes from Mexican culture and my father comes from a German/English tradition–i.e., a white guy married a Mexican girl.  And when I was born, my mother hugged and held me all the time.  My father objected.

“You’re going to smother him,” he said.  “Why are you touching him all the time?”

“Because I love him.”

It was a point of conflict with him, and they never resolved it.  Twenty years later, when I was in college, I came back from school being more touchy, and started hugging him hello and goodbye.  My father was shocked, although he never said anything to me about it.  But in private, my mother tells us, he did talk about it.

214

My father sitting in his favorite chair, smoking

“When he hugs me,” my father asked my mother, “what am I supposed to do?”

“Hug him back!” my mother said.

There are subcultures that grow out of trauma, such as molestation victims, who freak out when you hug them. And then there are people who seem physiologically averse to touching for whatever brain-chemistry reason. And there are religious subcultures who avoid touching because it might be sexual (cf. Mike Pence, who doesn’t even like to be alone with any woman not his wife, or Muslim subcultures).

I am more aware of personal boundaries than most, probably because my parents taught me to be aware of that. When I was dating, I had problems with the moment when you kiss someone for the first time, for example, because it was an uninvited moment. You had to read the other person, and you could always read wrong.

What I’m saying is that this is not simple.  And before you condemn Joe Biden, ask yourself where you think it comes from: a good place, or a bad place.  That’s the key.

The Chaperone with Stars in Her Eyes

Last night, I was hired to perform magic at a high school prom, held at a local country club.  There were 1,000 or more, and they were Orange County kids, mostly white and Asian, middle class, nice.  The morning after, I’m thinking back on them, so many of whom seemed sweet to me.

The girls so proud of their fabulous dresses.

The teenage boy with gorgeous curly surfer hair, standing in line outside with his gorgeous girlfriend in the striking red dress, holding hands.  And you know every girl wants him and every boy wants her and they both know it.

The uncool kids dancing to the quaint jazz band rather than to the superloud house music.

The nerd, slouched and bespectacled, walking around stag, trying not to look lost and unsure what to do or who to ask to dance.

The kids there with same-sex partners, no harassment.

The other kids going stag, or in groups with other kids who didn’t have dates, trying to have a good time.

The brash girl with blue hair, coming off, like, “I’m not going to go through life getting lost in the crowd!”

The girl Alexis who had 35-year-old eyes, like she knew everything already, and she probably did.

The table of Asian kids freaking out en masse at every trick and amazement I performed, screaming “Whoaaaaaaa!” and begging me not to leave, just one more trick.

At one point, I leaned over to an adult chaperone my age, and whispered, “Are these kids like we were?” And she said, with a grin, “They’re better.”

Being Himself, in More Ways Than One

Bill Perron is a born entertainer.  He made his living as a carpet cleaner for many years, and hated it.  He hated swinging that big, heavy machine around.  It took its toll on his poor, aching back.  Not only that, but he didn’t find any glory or satisfaction in his job.  But one day, Bill was hired to clean the carpets at the Icehouse Comedy Club in Pasadena.  In that club, Bill experienced a life-changing moment.

Bill stepped up onto the stage, just to see how it felt.  In the semidark theatre, he faced all the empty seats.  He took a deep breath.  He imagined what it would be like to entertain a roomful of people.  He imagined all the people applauding at the entertaining things he said, laughing and enjoying themselves because of every word that proceedeth from his lips.

What a wonderful thing it would be to be a performer! he thought.

Suddenly, an orange light suffused the stage.  Bill swears it wasn’t one of the stage lights, but instead, an otherworldly orange light that shone down upon him.  And suddenly, in that moment, he realized that performing was his destiny.  As soon as he could, he went out and learned some magic tricks, and soon, he was working full-time as a magician.

I met Bill in 1990, when I was first getting into magic.  At that time, Bill had been a performer for five years already.  In fact, Bill taught me some of my first tricks.  He threw some shows my way.  He introduced me to some booking agents.  But the most extraordinary thing about Bill was that funny things were always happening to him.  And to tell the truth, I know exactly why.  It’s because he makes unusual decisions.  He’s a wacky, offbeat guy in so many ways.

Case in point: A few years ago, Bill was taking an improvisational comedy class.  His teacher assigned him the homework of creating a unique comedic character, and Bill went to town coming up with new ones.  The best of the bunch was Carlos Caliente, who was a spoof of a sexy, indeed, arrogantly sexy Spanish guy who is, in Carlos’ own words, “hot hot hot!”

Carlos Caliente 1a

Bill developed some comedy routines for Carlos, and through the years has gone out on many gigs performing as Carlos.  He even created some modest advertising to promote Carlos.  He placed Carlos’ face onto a magazine cover and put that onto the Internet.  Over the years, Carlos has become one of his favorite characters, as you can see in this clip with his lovely assistant, Joycelyn.

A couple weeks ago, Bill’s commercial agent sent him a casting notice.  A production company wanted lookalikes of latino celebrities for a commercial aimed at the latino television market.  At first, it seemed like he had nothing to offer them.  Bill doesn’t look like Enrique Iglesias or Lou Diamond Phillips, and certainly not Sofia Vergara.  But then an idea popped into his mind.   As a kind of spoof, why not propose that he’s a lookalike for…Carlos Caliente? 

Bill immediately started to laugh.  In fact, he thought idea was so hilarious that in the end, that’s exactly what he did.

I look very much like Carlos Caliente, a famous latino celebrity.

He didn’t expect to hear anything more about it.

[http://guestofaguest.com/los-angeles/galleries/2012/november/hollywood-weekly-magazine-and-celebrity-suites-la-host-ama-reception/764205]

A week later, though, Bill received a callback.  Bill was driving, so Joycelyn took the call.  Yes, they had seen a photograph of Carlos Caliente on the Internet, and yes, Bill did look remarkably like Carlos.  And so they had a request: Would Bill come in and shoot a commercial posing as a lookalike to Carlos Caliente?

Yes, he’ll be there, she said.

At this point, I would have laughed for about 90 minutes and then figured that I’d had my fun.  I would have called off the joke and told the production company the truth.  But that’s what makes Bill different from me.  Bill felt obligated.  Joycelyn had said yes, so he had to go along with it.  Bill showed up at the commercial ready to make some money.

In the studio, the director had a photograph of Carlos pinned to a bulletin board.  In fact, it was the same magazine cover that Bill had mocked up several years ago and placed on the Internet.

collegehumor.19248682858a17a732ded6f080b48913

“You look very much like Carlos Caliente,” the director said.

“Yes, I do,” Bill said.

“I mean, very much like him.”

“Yes, I’m fortunate in that.”

“We’re going to dress you up in a 3-piece suit.”

“If you want, I have a suit that looks exactly like Carlos’ suit in that photo.”

“No, we just want to do a lookalike thing.  We don’t want you to look too much like him.  In fact, you already look too much like him.”

“All right.”

It was for a latino department store, so they shot him doing things around the store–shopping, buying things, helping people.  In all, Bill spent seven hours shooting that commercial.

Bill assumes that the commercial is now playing on latino television, although he can’t be sure because he doesn’t watch Univision.  But he wonders what it looks like.  And I wonder what latinos think when they see this guy in a 3-piece suit noodling around a latino department store like he’s Somebody.

Who’s that guy supposed to be, anyway?

He’s just being himself, people, in more ways than one.

Mother Is a Reflection of Light Through a Crystal Goblet

My mother is in the hospital with pneumonia, so I had just come from her house in Diamond Bar, where I had retrieved some items that she needed during her stay in medical prison.  I was sitting in the left turn lane on Grand Avenue, thinking about how we care about others.

IMG_5557

Sometimes caring is genuine and sometimes it’s faked, but when it’s your mother, the genuineness of it goes deeper and broader than anything, deep like the deep roots of an ancient tree in Lord of the Rings, and broad like the stretch of our identity, which is like the muddy Mississippi River of a Jimmie Rodgers song, and which I’ve seen from the shore of the French Quarter and I could hardly even see the other shore.  Mother stretches into everything.  How you shake someone’s hand.  What goes through your head when you get angry.  The things that play below your thoughts like malware in a computer.  The unexpressed things that make people say you’re a good person.  How you react when you read a newspaper story about someone killing somebody else.  In all of those things, there are pieces of Mother, like the reflections of light through crystal.

Sally Groves with her new baby

I’ve been calling my mother on the phone more than she professes she wants (“You have a life to live!” she says), but I think that’s because she doesn’t want to be a bother and I sincerely want to be a bother.  I don’t want to be laying comfortable and warm on my sofa, feeling just great, while she’s laying in a hospital bed in an ugly green gown that’s open in the back, her lungs hurting all the time.  That’s why I call so much.  That’s why I visit the hospital every day.  That’s why I drive to her house and brings things to her.  And that’s why I was sitting in my car at the intersection of Grand Avenue and Diamond Bar Boulevard that day, bringing her a bagful of her belongings that she needed.

That’s when I saw him.  He was a medium-sized mutt, dappled white and black, and only about a year old.  He was running into the street and cars were stopping for him.  It was alarming to watch.  He was a bit frantic in his actions, as if he were lost and searching for his owner, rushing to a spot in the street, then stopping unexpectedly and swiveling his head around, then just as unexpectedly running in a different direction across lanes of traffic.  Everyone who saw him feared for him.

When the light turned green, I made a left turn onto Diamond Bar Boulevard, and it just so happened that at that moment, the dog was safely on the sidewalk to my right.  Still, I knew he might run into traffic at any time, so I pulled over and rolled down my window.

“Here doggie!” I said.

He looked up at me curiously.  In a split-second decision, I parked the car then and there, in the red in front of a bus stop, and jumped out of the car.

“Here baby!” I said, trying to approach him.

He cautiously approached me and sniffed my hand, but I was cautious about him, too.  You never know when a dog is going to bite you, after all.  I squatted down and was about to snatch him when suddenly, he bolted and ran into traffic, as if saying, I don’t have time for this, I’ve got to find my owner! 

I stood up and watched, dreading what would happen.  Diamond Bar and Grand is a very busy intersection, after all, and he kept running into lanes where drivers weren’t expecting him.  Worrying that I had locked myself out of my running car, I got back into my car and watched.  Then, just as suddenly, the dog veered back to our side of the boulevard, and a shiny black pickup truck behind me opened his door.  The dog went up to check the man out, and the driver got a bit of a hold on his harness.  Behind us, a bus and many cars were waiting to see what happened.  Seeing that the guy was having trouble getting the dog into his truck, I jumped out of my car and grabbed the dog from behind.  I lifted him into the cab, despite the fact that the dog was peeing on my hand, and bam!  We had him!

“Go pull into that parking lot,” I said to the truck driver.

Once we were safely there, I climbed into the cab with the other driver.  He was a sixtysomething auto mechanic who had just moved here from New Jersey, he said, and he was as giddy as I was to have averted a disaster.  But now we faced a different problem.

“What do we do now?” he said.

“Well, there are shelters,” I said, “but they usually keep them for a couple weeks and then kill them.”

I was thinking about other dogs.  My first dog, a dachshund named Gretchen, whom we loved for a couple years until he became paralyzed, as many dachshunds do (with a genetic disease now called IVDD), and my parents put him to sleep, as the euphemism goes.  My second dog, a Samoyed named Czar, who kept me company throughout my teenage years, and whom my mother gave away during my freshman year in college because I wasn’t there to take care of him.

Then, unfortunately, I was thinking about another dog I had found under a car in our driveway and I had fallen in love with.  He was big and brown.  He was scared and lost.  I brought him into our garage that night, and then in the morning, brought him to the shelter.  His owner would be looking for him.  He would be frantic.  But when I called later, I discovered that the owner never picked him up.  I wish I’d had the time to take him.  I can only presume the consequences.  I think about that dog often, in fact, with great regret.

My second dog, Czar

My second dog, Czar

My grandmother's Pomeranian (L) and our family dachshund Gretchen.

My grandmother’s Pomeranian (L) and our family dachshund Gretchen.

My bunny Quesadilla and our cat Zorro.

My bunny Quesadilla and our cat Zorro.

Our bunny Lulufifi.

Our bunny Lulufifi.

“Let’s not bring him to a shelter,” the Jersey guy said.

I was also thinking of other pets.  Our cat Zorro, who lays around all day sleeping, just waiting for mealtime.  My old bunny Quesadilla, who lived an astounding 14 years, perhaps because we took such good care of him.  My old bunny Count Chocula, whom so many children had petted and loved.  There are so many animal companions in our lives, and I dread to think how helpless they all are.

So I was holding this mutt, rubbing his face and back, trying to make him feel more relaxed.  He had his front legs on the passenger seat, looking me in the face as if to say, Is this my new owner? and was warming up to me.  To look at him, he seemed like a cartoon dog, like the kind of mutt that Little Orphan Annie might have had, and he had an open, friendly spirit.  He was wearing a black harness, implying that he wasn’t a stray, but not a tag, so there was no phone number we could call.

“Hey listen, I have an idea.  When I first saw the dog, he was coming from over there,” I said, pointing up Grand Avenue.  “We should just drive up there and see if anybody is looking for a lost dog.  There’s a condo complex up there and not much else.”

“Well, that sounds as good as anything.”

So we started driving towards Grand Avenue.  We were two strangers thrown together by circumstance, trying to do the right thing.  In some ways, I felt like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, or the Skipper and Gilligan, whichever seems more lost.  We pulled onto Grand Avenue and then made a U turn back to the condo complex.  I kept petting the dog, rubbing his face, holding his beautiful gaze.

“It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay,” I kept saying.

He was a darling.  He believed me, even if I didn’t know if I did.

Immediately, we saw a thirtysomething guy walking down the street and talking on his cell phone.

“Let’s ask this guy,” I said.

“Okay, but what are the odds that he’s the guy?  I mean, are we going to ask everybody we see?  It seems impossible.”

I rolled down the window as we pulled up to the guy.  I interrupted his phone call.

“Are you looking for a lost dog?” I asked.

The guy looked at me as if a lightning bolt had just hit him.

“Yes!” he cried.

I held the dog up so that he could see, and the man suddenly had the purest look of unmitigated joy in his face.  I mean, there were tears in his eyes and the emotion had filled him up.  The dog was excited, as well.  The man came up close, grabbing at the dog’s head, holding it, petting it.  For a moment, I thought he might kiss me.  It was that lovely of a moment.

And when I was driving home, I thought of my mother.  I thought of love like a muscle that you flex and exercise, and which gets stronger or weaker, depending.  I thought of love as a decision.  And I thought of what vast and mysterious ways in which I love my mother.  And a half-hour later, I walked up to room 581, brought her her bagful of things, and didn’t mention anything about any of this.

Mom 1b smaller

[Sorry, but I have no pictures of this incident.]

One Less Cowboy

Last week, my friend Geoffrey was hired as “atmosphere” in a Western movie shooting in the high desert of southern California. I can’t tell you which production it is because Geoffrey (not his real name) signed a confidentiality agreement. Suffice it to say, though, that there’s a lot of buzz on the Internet about this particular movie.

Geoffrey is a character extraordinaire. He’s over 70 years old and has a great handlebar mustache that gives him more than a dash of character. You can’t invent that kind of character, and for that reason, the production company really wanted Geoffrey for that part.

“Don’t shave that mustache,” the casting agent said.

“I won’t.”

“Because we need that mustache.”

“All right, then.”

Geoffrey arrived on the set on Monday at 6 am, right on time. They were shooting in a set that looked like a town in the Old West, complete with a saloon, a sheriff’s office, and church. As with any shoot, there was a lot of sitting and waiting, but in this case, Geoffrey was sitting and waiting in the heat and the dust. It was supposed to be glamorous, but this, he began to realize, wasn’t glamorous in the least. He worked for 6 in the morning until 10 at night. There were dustclouds kicking up all the time. There was nothing to breathe but dust. There was no air conditioning and he was sweating profusely.

By the second day, Geoffrey was getting sick of it. He had to get up at 4 am and he was getting paid only 19 bucks an hour. In fact, they had tried to cheat him out of that rate at the beginning, promising 19, but then, when he showed up on set, trying to halve the rate to $8.50.

“I’m SAG,” Geoffrey said. “I don’t work for $8.50.”

“Well, that’s what we’re offering.”

“After I’ve driven all this way?”

“Yep. Sorry.”

Geoffrey stood up.

“Okay, then I’m walking,” he said.

The production assistant stood up in alarm.

“You can’t walk,” he said.

“You just watch me.”

And with that, he got up and started walking away.

“Hey, we have a contract!”

“Are you watching?” Geoffrey said as he continued walking.

The production assistant suddenly switched tactics, and Geoffrey ended up getting the wage he had been promised. However, the dispute didn’t bode well for the production as a whole.

On Tuesday, they were filming a shootout between two groups of cowboys in the middle of the street. Once the shooting started, the 80 extras and atmosphere were supposed to run for cover. They told Geoffrey to run to the bank and hide behind a watering trough.

Geoffrey was hot and tired, though. He didn’t have a lot of patience. After a couple of takes, Geoffrey ran over to the Sheriff’s Office and looked inside. What he saw brought a broad smile to his face. There was a jail cell. And inside the cell was something that spoke to his very soul: a bed.

Geoffrey looked over at the other extras, who were walking back towards their original starting positions. That was where he was supposed to go. Then he looked over at the bed. Then he looked over at the original starting position. Then at the bed.

It was not a difficult choice. He walked into the jail cell, laid down, and went to sleep. They didn’t miss him. There weren’t any production assistants saying, “Does that look like 79 guys to you? I think we’re missing someone….” No, it was just one fewer cowboy to worry about.

I Came from Somewhere

My grandmother Paula Cruz was from another time and place. Born in 1908 in Leon, Mexico, she emigrated to the States in 1915 with her family to flee a bloody battle that was brewing in the area, and which eventually wiped out most of the population, thanks to the Mexican Revolution. At age 12, she was living in sleepy Azusa, California, according to the 1920 Census.

Through the years, my grandmother had to fight many things—poverty, a violent husband, the pervasive racism of the times, her own low self-esteem. Among the most revealing fight, though, was the one she waged against the Department of Motor Vehicles.

My grandmother Paula (R) with her sister Helen in 1929, when she was still single.

My grandmother Paula (R) with her sister Helen in 1929, when she was still single.

You see, Nana (we pronounced it Naw-naw) could only barely read and write. Her father had died when she was in third grade, so she and her other 12 siblings were quickly pulled out of school and put to work picking fruit in the fields. Another strike against her was her dyslexia, which in those days went by another name: stupidity.

Paula and Jesus wedding photo 1a smaller

As an adult, Nana got a job working at the Wilson meat-packing plant in Vernon. I visited her once when I was four. It was an ugly old factory on a nondescript industrial street south of downtown. If you’ve never driven down those streets, you don’t know how ugly an industrial section can be, because it’s still that way. Last year, I got stuck in a freeway traffic jam, exited below downtown, and had to drive through that hell.

Paula is second from the right.

Paula is second from the right.

Paula Martin with coworkers at the meat packing plant

As a 4-year-old, I remember visiting her at Wilson. I remember being lifted up onto the receiving dock and walking in. Inside the factory, it was dank and reeked of freshly cut meat. In a room with only high windows, I saw a row of workers, my grandmother among them, rolling sausages with her bare hands. She seemed happy to see me, and gave my tiny face a kiss, then went back to the sausages. It was the job she did for 40 years.

My grandmother and I were very different. Take the war.  In 1957, Nana’s third husband died and her war against the DMV began. Suddenly, she had nobody to drive her places and had to obtain her own driver’s license. The written tests were difficult for her from the start. She had to sound out the words phonetically, like a first grader. As the years went by, the tests became increasingly difficult. I don’t blame the DMV. It’s good to have drivers who can read and understand what they’re doing. But it was hell for my grandmother.

Paula and her third husband Leonard.

Paula and her third husband Leonard.

My mother would drill my grandmother on practice tests. She enlisted the help of relatives, asking them to save their written driver’s tests so she could coach my grandmother from them. Nana would sit at the dining-room table and try to read the questions, sounding out each word. Every so often, my mother would help her or correct her. Once the question was read aloud, my mother would reason out the answer with Nana.

We were always worried that she wouldn’t pass, that she would lose her driver’s license and be homebound. My mother would drive her to the test and sit nearby, waiting for her. It wasn’t a quick visit. Nana took a long, long time with those tests, sounding out each question and then trying to “think it good,” as she put it. Miraculously, she always passed. To be sure, she earned those passing grades.

Interestingly, Nana took great joy in her cars. In the 1960s, she started buying Camaros, which were a big deal in those days. There was a yellow one, followed a few years later by a green one, followed a few years later by a red one. Nana would drive around town in that hopped-up car and feel young again. We all called her the “hot-rod Nana.”  Later, my mother bought a Camaro, too. It was kind of the family car.

In her eighties, it was in one of those Camaros that Nana got into a serious car accident. She was turning left against oncoming traffic and was hit broadside. It was clearly her fault. I was called to her bedside, because, my mother said, she might not make it this time. She had some broken ribs and internal damage.

She was lucky though.  She healed up.  We all debated whether we should take away her keys. Her eyes and her reaction time were getting worse. But we were also worried about taking away her independence. We worried that without her independence, she might just wither away and die.

“You have to be more careful when you drive,” my mother told her.

“I will.”

“You’re getting older.”

“I know.”

“Do you promise?”

“Yes, of course.”

So we never took away her keys, and neither did the DMV. She drove until two years before the end, increasingly cautious.

My Nana was a throwback to a harsher, more complex time. It was never simple. Without the ability to read or write fluently, much was denied to her. The DMV was a house of horrors. Ingredients lists on canned foods were of no use to her. Electronics were impenetrable and users’ manuals were no help at all. Many movies were puzzles ready to be misinterpreted.

Once, I tried to tell her how she was mispronouncing a particular word.

“It’s spoon,” I said. “Say it. Spoon.”

“Spoom.”

“No, spoon.”

“Spoom.”

“No, there’s an n at the end. Like in Nancy. Spoon-nah.”

“Spoom.”

At my first performance at the Magic Castle, Nana sat in the front row. It was a highbrow show, and my grandmother, who never finished the third grade, misinterpreted one of my jokes. In the middle of the show, I saw her urgently shaking her head and shushing me, thinking that the joke was a humiliation for me in some way, or a vulgarity that she thought I might go to hell for, or something, I don’t really know. It wasn’t.

In many ways, I was like the DMV to her, estranged because of my education and difference. She grew up in poverty and violence. I grew up in middle-class comfort. By the sixth grade, I had already had twice the education that she ever had, and the estrangement worsened. By high school, I was the editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, and reading my published articles would have been an ordeal, so she didn’t. By my twenties, I was publishing articles in Esquire, Harper’s Bazaar, and Mademoiselle, and we lived in different worlds. I flew in to New York City twice a year to receive assignments from my editors, and was living in a whole different world. Later, I was appearing alone on stages at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center, and on television, as well.

When Nana died at age 90 and three months, I was sad, of course. But in some ways, it was also like an ancestor dying in 1722. At the same time, though, it was like my own mother dying. She had babysat me as a child, rocked me in her arms, stroked my face, kissed my forehead. My most vivid memory of her is of my lips touching her wrinkled cheek. I can smell her makeup even now. I can feel those wrinkles on my lips.  At family dinners, she would sometimes stand in front of the stove and make corn tortillas by hand. She would wink at me and smile. With her very presence, she reminded me that I wasn’t just a television kid with no past, but that I came from somewhere.

Paula 11a

Paula (R), making tortillas, with her daughter Sally.

Paula (R), making tortillas, with her daughter Sally.

Paula holding the author's hand.

Paula holding the author’s hand.

A Tiny Voice Screaming

We had just had a fabulous vacation through England and Ireland.

Standing in front of "The Needle" on O'Connell Street in Dublin.  People wonder what the monument means.  To me, obviously, it's a celebration of the Irish junkie.

Standing in front of “The Needle” on O’Connell Street in Dublin. People wonder what the monument means. To me, obviously, it’s a celebration of the Irish junkie.

IMG_5891b smaller

Trinity Church in Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire, England

Trinity Church in Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire, England

IMG_5654b smallerIMG_6046b smaller

But two weeks is as much fun as anyone in my income range is allowed, so were heading back home. We were in an airport kind of mood, that is, that particular brand of autopilot where you tell yourself that there’s nothing to see here, nothing important to do, you just have to go through the motions, stand in the required lines, show the required documents, take off your shoes when told, and finally, only when you’re tired beyond imagining, get back to your own bed, where you will crash for 12 hours or more.

Claire at the airport.

Claire in an airport kind of mood

We boarded an Aer Lingus plane in Dublin that took us to London’s Heathrow, debarked that plane, then took a bus from Terminal 1 to Terminal 3.

It was on that bus that I reached for my fanny pack. It was gone.

Inside the fanny pack were some important things. My new cell phone. My wallet. And inside the wallet, my driver’s license, my credit card, and about $400 in cash, both English and American.

That was the beginning of a panic that was not a panic, because I don’t believe in panic, I believe in remaining calm because it’s much more useful, panic being a version of fear and insecurity and other useless emotions, because you really should remain calm and ask, What emotion will get me what I want? What action will get me what I want? But beneath it all, there was this tiny voice screaming.

Aughhhh!

DSC01297b smaller

First, we jumped off the bus and I backtracked. I looked at the seats we had been waiting at. Not there. I checked twice and thrice and even six times. Still not there.

I stood up and cast my mind back. I quickly narrowed it down to only three possibilities:

1) I had left it on the bus that had taken us to Terminal 3, or

2) I had left it on the plane, or

3) I had dropped it while walking down the debarkation gangway.

I glanced at my watch. We still had two hours before our flight, but at Heathrow, that was precious little time, since everything is so far away from everything else. So I parked Claire and my mother and went off in search of the Aer Lingus desk. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to get somewhere in Heathrow without following the rest of the herd to Baggage Claim, but trust me, it’s extremely difficult. You ask questions of airport workers. You get vague answers. You scramble. You go down elevators and hit dead-ends.

Ten minutes later, I found myself looking through a huge window one floor down at the Aer Lingus desk, but there seemed to be no way to get down there.

“You have to go through security first,” an employee told me.

Okay, ugh, so I stood in line to go through security, which of course is the slowest thing in the world when your fanny pack is lying on the ground somewhere. I took a deep breath. I glanced at my watch and cringed. I took off all my metal objects and dumped them into the tubs. I walked through the metal detector, trying not to evince panic, because that’s what suspicious people evince, and who wants to be unnecessarily frisked and questioned when you’re looking for your fanny pack on deadline? I gathered up all my metal objects and put them on again. Then I lit out for the Aer Lingus desk.

The woman at Aer Lingus made a quick call to Lost & Found.

“It’s not there,” she said. “It might not have gone through the system yet. But right now, your problem is that you have very little time to get on your flight. When you get to L.A., you’re going to have to email Aer Lingus Lost & Found.”

“Can’t I just spend the night here?” I asked.

“You’d have to buy a whole new ticket. You need to start thinking about your connection.”

So I made the decision that I didn’t want to make. I would leave my fanny pack behind.

It was such a long, long flight back home, 13 hours in the air. I tried to divert myself with movies and reading, but I kept thinking about my wallet, which was somewhere out there, I didn’t know exactly where. Maybe I had left it in the airplane seat. Before leaving, I had glanced at the seat and seen nothing, and Claire had asked, as well (“Did you leave anything?”), but perhaps I had left it beneath the seat. Or maybe it had come undone walking down the gangway. Or maybe it had come undone in the first bus. I replayed moments over and over again while watching a bad Kevin Costner movie on the seatback in front of me.

I wondered, as well, about the person who would find it. I’ve discovered that there are strangers who surprise you with their integrity, but I’ve also been surprised by those who consider petty larceny to be their God-given right. I once had a roommate who found a wallet and considered himself a saint because he took the cash and dropped the wallet into a mailbox. He was so proud of himself, like maybe that alone would get him into the pearly gates. You never know what kind of punk schlub dufus you’ll get.

I worried about the bureaucratic forest that lay before me, as well. I hated depending on email. I was determined to use their phone lines instead, but worried about breaking through the Kafkaesque levels of voicemail hell.

Suddenly, my mother was talking to me on the plane.

“When you were a child, I was doing laundry in a laundromat,” she said. “Later that day, while I was cooking dinner, this policeman appears at my door with a wallet. ‘Is this yours?’ he asks. ‘Oh yes, it is,’ I say. I didn’t even realize I’d lost it. And he says, ‘I’m sorry, but the money’s gone.’ I had about $25 in it. So I took it and looked into my secret compartment. I breathed a sigh of relief and said, ‘Well, at least they didn’t take that bill, because I was saving it up,’ and pulled out my emergency $100 bill, which was folded into a little little small piece. And the look on his face, I have to tell you, was, like, ‘Oh God, I missed it.’ And that’s how I knew that that cop was the one who took the rest of the cash.”

When we finally got back to our home in Los Angeles, we had been up for over 24 hours, but it was still only early evening, so I got onto the phone and started calling overseas. I spent a couple hours that evening, and then another couple hours the next morning, just calling and filling out forms online.

All the while, I was wondering how the dice would roll. One of the things that I’ve realized in my life is that humans are not basically good, but they’re not basically bad, either. They have the capacity for both. There are some humans who have done bad things, such as Adolph Hitler (who was a person, after all, not just an epithet), Ty Cobb, Shannon Doherty (whose heart leaps, I’m sure, being mentioned in the same context as Hitler), Charles Manson, Joseph McCarthy, Richard Nixon, OJ Simpson, Susan Smith, Tonya Harding, Timothy McVeigh, Donald Sterling, et al.

Conversely, there are some humans who have done wondrous things, such as Mother Teresa (who was a person, after all, not just an icon), Oskar Schindler, Miep Gies (who helped hide Anne Frank), Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Cesar Chavez, Franklin Roosevelt, Betty Ford, Bill W., Andrei Sakharov, Lech Walesa, et al.

I was searching for a good person. Someone who would pick up the wallet and have not a question in their mind.

Oh, this goes to the Lost & Found, they would say to themselves.

Not:

Yes! My lucky day!

I envisioned travelers, each eager to reach their destination. I thought the probability was high that they would do the right thing. After all, when you’re traveling, your mind is focused on getting your ordeal over, not gaming the system. But when it came to employees, I was a little more apprehensive. Once an employee gets used to a job, his or her real self comes out.

So it was that I was on the line with a woman who worked in Aer Lingus Lost & Found. She was idly instructing me how to call back when she stopped, as if she had spotted something on a computer screen.

“What color was the wallet?” she asked.

“Brown,” I said.

“Black,” Claire said.

“My girlfriend says it was black.”

“And how much was in it?”

“About $300 in American dollars and $100 in British pounds and euros.”

“And what brand was the phone?”

“LG. It’s a new phone.”

It turned out the bag and its contents had been found and returned. That, however, wasn’t the end of it, not by a long shot.

“You’re going to have to send somebody down here to pick it up,” she said. “Do you have a friend in London?”

I couldn’t really think of anybody who would fit that description.

“Well, then I recommend that you hire a courier to come down here to pick it up,” she said. “They can then put it in a Fed Ex box and mail it to you.”

She gave me some sort of identification number for the items and told me to hang up and organize the retrieval.

Things were looking up, to be sure, but couriers sounded expensive. I turned to the computer and inquired about sending a package weighing .99 pounds from London to Los Angeles. It turned out to cost $139. In fact, taking the courier/Fed Ex route might easily eat up all the cash I had in that wallet.

Kind of defeated the purpose.

So I turned to another strategy: friends. To be frank, I really had no friends in London at all. We had spent three days there, but more as tourists than anything else. The only possibility was a fabulous magician I had seen at the Magic Circle. We had spent a couple hours watching his charming and amazing tricks, and I had shown him some wonderful ones, too, and at the end, he had given me his business card. I had meant to call him, but only to tell him how much I enjoyed his magic.

Now, I realized, I was in a position to manipulate him into helping me as if he were a friend.

That didn’t feel good.

Instead of doing that, I decided to make it a financial transaction. I would ask for the name of a young magician who could pick up the bag from Heathrow in return for a fee of 50 pounds. Surely Chris wouldn’t have the time or incentive to do that kind of job, but perhaps a trusted 22-year-old buddy might.

So I called him. In fact, he was happy to talk magic with me, and we stayed on the phone for a full half-hour. We talked about many things. His day job, which was a secure job with a city council. The transition he hoped to make to full-time magician. The great magician Michael Vincent, whom he had known since he was a teenager. Vincent’s recent descent into deafness, and the effect that might have on his career. A half-hour later, I felt like the victim was sufficiently softened up to refer me to a young magician.

“Listen,” I said, “I was going to call you, anyway, but I have a favor to ask. I need a young magician who could do a gig for me. It doesn’t pay enough for you, but here’s the gig.”

And then I explained my predicament with the wallet.

“As you can see, I need someone to pick up my wallet from Heathrow and put it in the mail for me,” I said.

Chris laughed. He was way ahead of me.

“Okay, I’ll do it,” he said.

That was Saturday morning, and strangely enough, he said that his daughter was flying into London on Sunday evening. But there are four airports that serve London, and the odds that she was coming in at Heathrow were less than even.

“Honey!” he called over to his wife. “What airport is Shana flying into?”

Turned out it was, indeed, Heathrow. That moment seemed delivered by an angel, although once you start thinking of everything in terms of angels and devils, the devils seem to vastly outnumber the heavenly beings, which seems to diminish every good thing that has ever happened to you, and you certainly don’t want that.

I emailed Chris instructions on all the details of the pickup. Then all I had to do was wait for 28 hours. It was strange to depend on someone so many miles away, and not only that, but to sit back and do nothing. After all, I’ve always felt that it’s only diligence and focus that is rewarded. But in this case, there was no alternative.

By 3 pm the next day, I was sitting at a Father’s Day party in Brea, Claire sitting beside me. I was talking to my cousin Maria about Israel, which is ridiculous because we’re not Jewish and know nothing about it, but still, we were talking about the latest trouble in that troubled land. That’s when I checked my email with the message that I had been waiting for.

“Just to let you know, mission accomplished,” Chris wrote. “All went like clockwork and everything seems to be there as described….Going to bed now.”

I breathed a huge sigh of relief.

But the marathon wasn’t over yet, and it certainly had gone into marathon territory, and if anybody is left reading at this point, you’re running a marathon, as well, and wondering whether the finish line is anywhere nearby, I’m sure. The thing is, though, we still had to get the items safely into my hands in Los Angeles.

The next day, I left a message for Chris, but didn’t hear back, either by phone or email. That was strange. Something suspicious within me started to wonder whether I was going to have trouble getting it back from him, whether he had lured me into choosing him just so he could screw me over, and for a short moment, I was absolutely convinced that he was a conniving con man.  It’s a small, suspicious part of me, clearly, because that suspicion was based on absolutely nothing at all.

The next day, I talked with Chris. We went through the items one by one, and yes, everything was there.

“Okay,” I said, “just throw away the fanny pack. It’s old and will just add weight to everything.”

“All right,” Chris said. “I’ll put everything else in a bubble pack and send it.”

“Great,” I said. “Use the pounds in the wallet to pay for the postage.”

After I hung up, I wondered what it would all cost. I wondered whether I should have told him to throw away the wallet, too, to cut down on the weight. And other people had second thoughts, too.

“Did he send it registered mail?” my friend Rich asked.

“No.”

“Oh man! I told you to send it registered mail. It’ll take a million years to get here, if it ever arrives!”

I inwardly bemoaned Rich’s cynicism with regard to government services. I wondered if he would’ve voted for The Great Satan, Margaret Thatcher. Still, the proof would be whether the damn thing arrived or not, and nobody could tell me for sure whether it would. Once again, my zen challenge would be my patience.

So I waited. Breathed deeply. Tried not to think about it. There’s no use in feeling disappointment twice, after all. On top of that, I tried to drive perfectly, since I didn’t have a driver’s license on me. I started carrying my passport wherever I went. I activated my old phone. I went on with my life.

Finally, six days later, an Asian postal carrier arrived at the door.

“Do you know what amazing story lies behind this package?” I said, smiling widely as I took the package.

“No.”

IMG_6479b smaller

So I gave him a quick rundown, then let him go. It didn’t do the saga justice. Maybe an HBO series or a Netflix contract like “House of Cards.”

I smiled. It was so unlikely. The wallet had made its way from London to Los Angeles, passing through so many hands along the way, making so many precarious stops where it could have been snatched up and kept, never to be seen again.

And ever since then, I’ve been thinking about what it all means about human nature. After all, there are some wonderful people in this world, people like my girlfriend Claire, who will do a favor to anybody if asked, and Chris Wood, who went out of his way to help a Yank, and that Aer Lingus lady, who gave me such good advice, and then, going back all the way to the beginning, whoever it was that found it in the first place, that faceless person who was honest enough to turn in a wallet in a fanny pack and log it into the system, not keeping even a dollar for herself. Thinking about it that way, it was a little miracle, a chain of good people I had happened upon, unblemished by even one bad person.

Oh, I thought, if only I could spend the rest of my days walking only among people like that.