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.

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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.

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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.

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A Fighter’s Long Walk

It was twenty-four years ago when my mother took her last trip to Great Britain. She has yearned to return, and finally this year, in her 84th year, she convinced us to accompany her. She longed to see everything she had missed the first time. She wanted to visit the museums, see the Roman baths, see a play, maybe even take the train through the chunnel and visit France and Spain.

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“There’s something about England that I love,” she says.

She likes to tell the story about the mustard. While in London, she bought a hot dog from a vendor on the street corner. She asked him to slather on some mustard, because she’s always been a huge fan of that tasty spread. He gave her a tiny dab.

“More please,” she said.

So he gave her another tiny dab.

“More, more,” she said.

So he gave her a bigger dab, and by this time, people standing around were starting to stare in wonder.

“Much more,” she said.

The man gave her a strange look, but he complied. The hot dog he gave to her was literally smothered in mustard. The English were whispering beneath their breath at the strange American, anticipating what would happen when she bit in. When my mother finally did, she says it was like inhaling a nuclear blast up through her nostrils, past her sinuses, and into her brain. Turned out the mustard was Dijon, not French’s. But of course.

The other patrons politely stifled their laughter, a sign, she says, of the English character. In fact, she has told that story for years.

“The mustard is different over there,” she now likes to say, “but they were too polite to tell me.”

By 2014, my mother had developed hip problems. She could walk normally for about 25 feet, but after that, her arthritis would start to stab at her hips. Bone is rubbing on bone, her doctor tells her.

Watching my mother walk is sad and inspiring at the same time. She used to walk with the grace of a beautiful woman, but now, walking causes great pain, and takes the same courage with which she has addressed all the crucial issues in her life.

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In fact, there has been a lot in my mother’s life that has required courage. When food was scarce in her household in East L.A. in the 1930s, she would walk with her brother into the Chinese cemetery and steal the food that was left out for the dead. Her mother burnt her feet on the stove when she was 12 for coming home 10 minutes late, but the real reason was her developing curves, something that took her years to figure out.

My mother (R) in 1942 with her brother and mother (center).

My mother (R) in 1942 with her brother and mother (center).

Once, when her father came home drunk on a Saturday night from playing in his mariachi band, there was lipstick on his collar. Fighting ensued, he grabbed a kitchen knife, and it was a miracle that nobody ended up dead. But when he threatened to kill his wife and children, the kids were farmed out to Catholic charities for two years while her mother searched for a new husband.

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When my mother went back to school at age 21 to get her high school diploma, and then back to college at age 35, and then to get her Master’s at age 48, that took courage.

“I’m a fighter,” she likes to say.

So in Bath, England, when I see my 84-year-old mother walking the 100 yards from the train platform to the taxi stand, the repressed pain etched into her face, it also etches the portrait of a lifetime. I walk beside her, holding out my elbow for her to grab, steadying her. She’s had a couple strokes in the past 15 years, as well, that have compromised her balance.

“How much longer do we have to walk?” she says.

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“Not far,” I say.

And so she fights on. She’s a fighter.

When we arrive at the taxi stand, we talk to the first cabbie in line.

“We want to go to the Roman baths,” I say.

“It’s just up there,” he says. “An easy walk.”

“My mother has arthritic hips,” I say.

“We can’t do it,” the cabbie says. “We can’t turn right here. Go across the street and catch a cab. They’ll be headed in the right direction.”

So we hobble across the street and, after ten minutes, wave down a taxi.

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“We want to go to the Roman baths,” I say.

“I can’t do it,” he says, and he doesn’t even give me a reason.

So we hobble back across the street and ask another cabbie who is now first in the queue. He looks at me like I’m crazy.

“It’s just up there,” he says, pointing. “Up the road, two blocks up.”

“My mother has bad hips,” I explain. “Can you drive us?”

The cabbie seems upset.

“I’m not even first in line,” he says.

He walks over and gestures at the other taxi driver, who is busy chatting with a colleague.

“Hey, it’s your turn!” he says.

But try as he might, he can’t get the guy to take his turn, so he turns back to us.

“It’s just over there,” he says, pointing. “See that?” he says, pointing to a spot perhaps 50 yards across the street and to the left. “The baths are just 50 yards up from that.”

I know what the problem is: Nobody wants a short fare. Then he has to get back in line again. Uncertain, I think that maybe the best solution to this problem is to walk my mother 100 yards up. So we start out, get 50 yards up, and then I turn.

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“Wait here,” I say. “I’ll scout it out.”

I walk briskly up the walk-street, looking for the baths.  But when I get to the curve in the road, I ask a police officer how far it is. He points to a spot about a half-mile up another walk-street.

I turn back, now really angry. Just fifty yards up? Just fifty yards up?! What kind of person are you, to turn down service to an 84-year-old woman with arthritis, forcing her to walk a half-mile in pain?! I’m really pissed now, so I walk back to my mother.

“We’re going back to those damned taxi drivers,” I say, purpose in my voice now. “And we’re going to take down some names and kick some ass. It’s illegal what they’re doing, and we’re going to be driven to where we want to go, dammit, or we’re going to report them.”

So my mother turns around, and we trudge the 50 yards back to the taxi stand. When we arrive, the previous cabbies are gone, but there are a couple new ones there. I walk up to one.

“We’d like a cab,” I say quietly, loaded for bear.

“Where would you like to go?”

“The Roman baths,” I say.

It’s a sixtysomething man whose cool sunglasses make him look like he was once a player in the singles clubs and nobody has told him it’s all over. I am ready for his evasions. When he starts his double-step, I will say something like, Excuse me?! Excuse me?! Do you know that my mother has arthritic hips and can’t walk 100 yards?! Then I will take out a pen and start writing down his license plate number while saying, I’m going to find the nearest policeman, or report you to whoever you report these things to, and your ass, as we say in America, is going to be grass…. And then we’ll see if turns me down, or if he suddenly changes his tune, saying, Okay, all right, calm down, I’ll drive you….

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We wait for the cabbie’s response. It takes a moment, but when it comes, it’s direct and friendly.

“Okay, hop in,” he says.

At first, it stuns me. I’ve got indignation in my shovel and nowhere to dump it. But then we’re inside the car and we’re driving. I immediately start explaining what had happened with the other cabbies and he shakes his head.

“That’s wrong,” he said.

“You should go home to your wife tonight and explain that you’re a hero,” I say.

Because my mother, who has gone through so much and whose courage knows no bounds, deserves to be driven around England in style.

[Here are some photos of my mother in Bath, England, where for 25 years she has dreamed to return.]

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Old Buddies Who Met at the Old Stick

I published this four years ago, when I was performing tableside magic every Friday evening at the neighborhood restaurant Stick ‘n’ Stein.

For a couple years, I’ve been visiting with a couple of fascinating old men at Stick ‘n’ Stein, my Friday-evening restaurant magic gig.  Their names are Jack and George, aged 90 and 85, respectively.  They eat at the Stick at 6 pm nearly every Friday evening, and I sit down at their table and might do a magic trick or two, but mostly, just chat with them.

In the late 1930s, Jack was a professional basketball player.  Those were the days when you could excel at pro B-ball without topping six feet.  In 1941, though, he joined the Air Force to save the world from Hitler and The Rising Sun.  He flew reconnaissance flights over Japan.

When the war ended, Jack joined the aerospace industry.  That’s what brought him to El Segundo, which is lousy with aerospace outfits.

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In the 1950s, Jack used to eat at Rob’s, the restaurant that originally occupied the building that Stick ‘n’ Stein now sits in.  When it changed hands and became the Jolly Roger, he ate there, too.

By 1993, the building was vacant.  There was a successful restauranteur named George Stevens who wanted to use the property to expand.  For 20 years, George had run a successful bar on Grand Avenue in downtown El Segundo called Stick ‘n’ Stein, but he knew he could make it a bigger success if he had more square footage, a bigger parking lot, and a frontage on Pacific Coast Highway.  So he moved in.

Jack and George started eating at the new place.  Jack had retired five years earlier, but he still wanted to do things.  He had been elected to the planning commission a few years before, so he wasn’t letting the grass grow.

In recent years, Jack and George have made the Stick a regular habit.  They park their new grey Mustang in front of the restaurant–right in front in the owner’s traditional spot, not even in a legal parking space–and walk in like they own the place.

Five years ago, Jack and George used to come in with Jack’s girlfriend Jean, who was his secretary at Hughes Aircraft years ago.  But for the past year or more, Jean has been confined to a nursing home due to Alzheimer’s.  Lately, Jack and George have been coming to the Stick alone.

When I sit down to talk with the guys, we talk about a wide range of subjects.  Lately, I’ve been reading a biography of General Douglas MacArthur, so I thought I’d be smart and brought the 1,000-page book with me to the Stick.  I told them a little about MacArthur in Tokyo, and how he brought democracy and women’s suffrage to the island-nation.  George smiled.

Jack said: “In 1945, George was based in Tokyo.  In fact, George’s office used to sit right behind MacArthur’s.  He used to salute the general every day.”

George chimed in: “At night, I used to see him pacing back and forth in his office, thinking.”

Wow.  I had read in the biography that MacArthur was a pacer, but George had actually seen it firsthand, day after day.  Holding a mere 1,000-page book in my hand, I felt terribly inadequate.

Jack’s health has been failing lately, although he doesn’t show it.  Apparently, he has prostate cancer.  Last Friday evening, he told me he wouldn’t be coming in to the Stick next week.

“I’ll be having surgery,” he said.

“Is it serious?”

“Well, any surgery is serious.”

Jack explained a little about the surgery, about how he has an artery that’s 90% clogged so they’re going in through the carotid to clean it out, but I zoned out while he was talking.  I wondered if this was the last time I’d be talking with him.  I wondered if that’s what he was saying.  I doubted whether Jack’s relatives would know that I wanted to go to a funeral, if that’s what it came to.

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Finally, I shook his hand.

“Good luck,” I told him.

Jack has now passed on.  I was not invited to the funeral.  George is the last one standing.

 

A Warm Body

When I was 11, my mother took a job as a secretary at JP Negley Company.  She had been a stay-at-home mother since I was born, but now, figured that she could leave me and my sister with a babysitter from 3 – 5 in the afternoon.

My mother as a housewife in the 1960s, when she was working on her BAIt lasted for six months.  I wasn’t happy.  The babysitter was a little strange, and I felt a little lonely and displaced in the afternoons.  She left Playboy magazines on the coffee table, which is not a good thing to do with an adolescent boy in the house.  The house seemed dark and creepy.  So did the babysitter.  I felt like I was somewhere I didn’t want to be.

One day at the kitchen table, I asked my mother if she would quit her job.

“Why?” she asked.

“Because I like you there in the afternoons.”

“Well, when I’m home, you immediately run outside and play and don’t spend any time with me.  Why is this any different from the way it is now?”

I thought for a minute, then said: “Well, I have your warm body here.”

That melted my mother’s resolve.  The next day, she gave her notice at work and went back to being a full-time mother.

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In 2014, my mother turns 84.  In 1989, her husband of 37 years died of lung disease.  In 2000, she took on a boyfriend, but he died of stomach cancer in 2007.

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So today, I called to make sure that she had something to do on New Year’s Eve.

“I’m not going anywhere,” she said.  “It’s not safe.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

I was hoping to go to her house and celebrate the new year with her and my girlfriend Claire.  But then I booked a lucrative show in Corona del Mar that I couldn’t turn down.  It made me sad.

But the Saturday before, on the 28th, there’s a party Claire and I were invited to at a poetry friend’s house.  It’s a party for writers who are going to read from their own works.  When I was younger, I wouldn’t have been caught dead with my Mom among such a hip group.  I was carving out my own identity.  My parents were so provincial.  They didn’t understand words like oeuvre and genre and denouement.  They had never read the greatest writer of our time, Don Delillo, and what’s more, didn’t care to.

But it’s different now.

“Mom, do you want to go to a writers’ party on Saturday night?”

“Okay.”

“You could read something.”

“Okay.”

“Like maybe that poem ‘Pie’ that you wrote in that poetry class you took a couple years ago in community college?”

“Whatever you think.”

“Yes, I think ‘Pie.’  Everybody loves that one.”

We made plans to pick her up and drive her there.

These days, my mother quilts for hours and hours, alone in her fabulous quilting room.  She has her new computerized sewing machine, closets full of fabric, and a plethora of tools, books, and patterns.  Her friend Ronnie has moved to Cucamonga and she doesn’t talk to her friend Mary anymore because of a disagreement.  So she sews and watches TCM.

Sometimes I ask her if she’s lonely, and she shakes me off and says no.  But I want to make sure, just like I wanted to make sure she was with somebody last Valentine’s Day, and on her birthday, and just like I visit her as much as I can, not just to help her with honey-do’s, but also, just to sit at her kitchen table in the late afternoon with a cup of mint tea and be with her.  I want to make sure she has a warm body around.Mom 1b smaller

The Cop Who Did the Right Thing on Christmas Eve

The hammer came down on my mother tonight.

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It was Christmas Eve, and as usual, I was performing as Santa Claus.  It’s a gig I started years ago as a young man, and I still enjoy it.  All you need to do as Santa Claus is love.  I had a gig in Granada Hills at 5 pm, and another in Santa Clarita at 7 pm.  Because of that, I was unable to drive my mother to our extended family’s New Year’s Eve party.

My mother knows she shouldn’t drive at night.  She’s had two strokes, one of which gave her a small blind spot between 11 and 12:00.  In addition, her night vision has gotten worse to the point that the streetlights look like Fourth of July sparklers.  But my mother is proud and doesn’t like to ask for help.  She likes to be independent.  She’s fierce, as you know from previous posts.  And she doesn’t like to relinquish control to anyone, and I mean anyone.

“I can do it,” she said.

At the Santa Claus gigs, I entertained little kids with my elf Clairabelle at my side.  I’ve known eight-year-old Annie since she was born, and I was thrilled that she hasn’t yet reached the disbelieving threshold.  The autistic kid in the house, 19-year-old Damian, still believes in me.  He sits next to Santa Claus, hangs his head, and croaks out his Christmas wishes.  He now works at Lamppost Pizza.  Some autistic kids are geniuses at one thing or another, but not Damian.  He’s just a regular adult who believes in Santa Claus.

At 6:45, we jumped onto the 5 freeway and sped up to the Calgrove turnoff.  When I entered the second home, I was interested to see how 8-year-old Melissa was adjusting.  Her father died two years ago, and everyone has been worrying about her.  I was glad to see that she seemed just fine, dressed in her lovely lacy black dress and shiny patent-leather shoes, but I was especially pleased with her radiant smile.  There are wounds that aren’t evident, I’m sure, but I’m confident that she’ll survive.

After that, we jumped on the road and sped back to the family party.  It was after 9 pm when we walked in.  Immediately, we could sense that something had happened.  Gradually, I got the story.

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My mother had been driving to the party in the dark when another motorist saw her weaving.  They called the cops to report an erratic driver.  What was strange was that just a half-hour earlier, we had called 911 and reported an erratic driver on the 210 freeway approaching Pasadena.  Within seconds, a cop was on my mother’s tail.  The lights went on and she pulled over.

“You seem to be driving erratically,” the cop said.

My mother never drinks.  It interferes with her medication. My mother was impeccably dressed, tastefully coiffed, and didn’t have any liquor in her voice or in her eyes.  Later, she told me that “his face was so close to mine that I thought he might kiss me.”  Obviously, he’d been smelling her breath for a $10,000 probable cause windfall.

“I saw that you were looking down at your GPS device,” he said.

Mom explained that yes, it was a new GPS device, but the main problem was that she had simply mistaken one line on the road for another, ending up in the center lane, the one you’re not supposed to drive in.

“It’s dark around here,” she said.

“Do you have a license?”

She handed over her license and he checked it.  Everything came up just fine, but there was still the question of the erratic driving.  At 83, there’s always a question of whether her keys should be taken away, and with it, her independence, her self-respect, and her autonomy.

“I’ll be honest with you, officer,” my mother said.  “I know I shouldn’t be driving at night.  But it’s Christmas Eve and my son is working.  He gets hired out to play Santa Claus at people’s homes on Christmas Eve.  So I thought I could drive myself, but…I don’t know…it’s so dark on this street….”

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The cop had a decision to make.  He could give Santa Claus’s mother a ticket for erratic driving and ruin her season.  She would have to get retested at the DMV and jump through hoops.  Or he could…what else could he do?  He had to be responsible to the other drivers whom my mother might slam her car into.

“Where are you headed?” the cop asked.

“A family party,” my mother said, and she gave the address.

“Listen, I’ll escort you.  Just follow me.”

So my mother followed the police car to the party, which was only two miles away.  When she had parked, he jumped out of his patrol car and held the door open for her.

“I’ll walk you to the door,” he said.

“Okay.”

“Can I carry something?”

“I made some deviled eggs,” she said.  “They’re in the trunk.”

So he carried the deviled eggs and followed behind her as she walked up to my cousin Gary’s door.

For the people at the party, I heard later, it was an arresting sight.  The doorbell rang, and in the doorway appeared my mother with “this big hunky cop behind her,” according to my cousin Chrissy.  “I thought, ‘Oh God, Sally’s done it again.  She’s dating some really gorgeous cop now.'”

Gary invited the cop inside, but he demurred.

“You can have something to eat,” Gary said.  “We have tamales, menudo, the works.”

The cop turned it all down.  Instead, he asked to speak to my sister.  He was just going to talk it over with the family and start a conversation.  Make sure they’re aware that her failing eyesight might be a problem.  He wasn’t going to let it drop.  It was the responsible and kind thing to do.  And when it was over, when his job was finally done, he quietly left, knowing that he had gone out of his way to do the right thing.

When I arrived at 9:15 pm, my mother was sitting on the stairs looking chastened.

“Can you drive me home?” she said sheepishly.

“Of course, Mom.”

“I’ve got quite a story to tell you.”

“All right.”