Saturday, July 10, 2010

'Tis You Must Go, and I Must Bide

My dad had always been accident-prone. I’ve already recounted here how, when I was maybe four, he’d managed nearly to knock himself unconscious lowering a garage door, and then later, to my great dismay and confusion, had jokingly explained his bruises as a result of my negligence. His clumsiness made him — as mine has made me — a constant threat to himself.

Given his clumsiness, my mother was horrified, but probably not terribly surprised, to look out the window one weekend afternoon in 1991 when my dad was watering the strip between the sidewalk and the street and see him lying prone, with the hose doing St. Vitus’ dance.

He’d had a stroke, his second in five years. This one would leave him unable to walk.

He hadn’t taken spectacular care of himself. He probably consumed as much alcohol in a year as a moderate drinker, a shot and a beer after work type, would have consumed in a week. He smoked at most four or five cigarettes (nearly all “borrowed”) a day. Men of his generation weren’t gym-goers for the most part, though, and didn’t know what we know now about nutrition. (Which I sometimes think is that everything’s dangerous in its own way.)

At the hospital, he shared a room with a guy with an Irish surname. My dad’s generation, at least the part of it that grew up in the American northeast, was acutely conscious of ethnicity; I think you see traces of that in the way Mr. Sinatra and the rest of the Rat Pack — a couple of dagos, a schwarze, a Jew, and a limey — teased one another. One afternoon when my mother and sister and I came to visit my dad, he announced, perfectly seriously, that he and “the Irishman” would be singing a program of Irish songs for other patients later in the evening.

I would bet a great deal of money that the only two Irish songs my dad had ever heard were those performed by Lawrence Welk’s in-house Irish tenor on TV. My guess is that he’d probably have been able to get through the first two lines of “O Danny Boy,” or even through the “from glen to glen” line. But if I knew my dad, as I’m not so sure I ever did, he’d almost certainly have responded to any expression of doubt about whether he’d prepared adequately for his forthcoming performance by saying, “Oh, hell, I’ll just wing it.”

My dad loved attention, and was a fervent life-of-the-party type — a frightful mismatch for my terribly shy, painfully reserved mother. I can’t remember their having attended a single party over the course of my childhood without my mother screaming at him the following morning about how embarrassed or abandoned she’d felt. My sister and I have come to play the same roles. There’ve been times when I’ve entered restaurants with her and been so embarrassed by her manic glad-handing that I wanted to hide beneath the table we were being shown to. Our parents all over, you see — she as our dad, and I as our mother. But where my dad would invariably profess great contrition when my mother railed at him, my sister becomes furious at me when I urge her to de-escalate her charm offensive (exactly the right word!), to the point of not having invited me and Claire to her recent third wedding.

Every night before sleep, I picture my dad singing “O Danny Boy” for God and not knowing the lyrics beyond “from glen to glen”, and God, winking and saying, “Gil, did you not bother to rehearse, for Christ’s sake?”

Friday, July 9, 2010

Pimping My Ride - Part 11

If I hadn’t realized by then that pimping was very much an out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire proposition, I certainly realized it the night after the Night of the Identity Thieves, when the parents of one of my most popular whores, Roselle — who in fact wasn’t named after a past commissioner of the National Football League — showed up in tears, trying to persuade her to give up prostitution and return to the theater.

“It was our fault,” her father, who had thick hair but very bad skin, told me imploringly. “When she was a teenager, she wanted to act, but all we did was urge her to get a degree in a fallback field. Accounting. Interior decorating. Aromatherapy. Something like that.”

“From the time she was old enough to get her hand into a puppet,” her short, defeated-looking mother, in a shade of lipstick that didn’t suit her, and a bad haircut, said, “she was putting on little shows for us, and for whatever visitors we might have on any given occasion. “But we stepped on her dream, may God forgive us. We were only trying to protect her!” Sobbing, she buried her face in her husband’s Valvoline windbreaker.

“We knew how hard it is making a living in the arts,” he said over his wife’s trembly shoulder. “When I was a kid, I dreamed of being a singing waiter, and I was good. Goddamn it, I was good! I was!”

“Like Eric Carmen he sounded!” his wife turned to tell me, referring to the one-time Raspberries singer who went on to infamy as the composer of the American Idol standard "All by Myself", even though a substantial hunk of it was in fact Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Opus 18.

“High school,” Roselle’s father said, “she was in every production. Freshman year she was Blanche DuBois. The first freshman ever cast as Blanche at her school! Sophomore year, she was Godot in Waiting for Godot. You can picture the talent of this girl; they rewrote the play so that Godot actually showed up, and was a 15-year-old girl! They even wanted her for Shakespeare in the Park that summer. It wasn’t her fault the Department of Parks and Recreation’s funding was cut off! But she got rave reviews for her work in Shakespeare in the Parking Lot.”

Now both parents was weeping, and it appeared as though Roselle was about to start blubbing too, not to mention a couple of the other girls. I tried to dispel the growing tension by asking whom Roselle had played in her junior year. She herself answered, raining all over platform shoes as she did so. “I dropped out,” she said. “Mommy and Papa were pushing me so hard to take an accounting, or interior decorating, or aromatherapy night class at the community college, but it would have meant not seeing my boyfriend.”

“That no-good louse,” Mommy shrieked, blood-chillingly.

“He got her pregnant,” Papa explained. “With twins! The next thing we knew, she’d dropped out. The twins were born, and the no-good louse ran off.”

“I had formula to buy,” Roselle sobbed, “and diapers, and those plastic pacifier things that you don’t really think are so important until you have kids. They’re a lifesaver! You stick one in a kid’s mouth and it shuts him up for a while. But they’re always losing them, and who was going to replace them? Mommy and Papa weren’t speaking to me.”

You should have heard the howl of anguish that came out of the two parents. It would have shattered Saddam Hussein’s heart, or Pol Pot’s.

“So I began acting in adult films,” Roselle said, sniffling, somehow willing her own tear glands back into latency even as her parents wailed even louder. “And being a featured pole dancer. And one thing led to another. Then I lost my looks and wound up out here with these skanky ho’s.”

Sha’quaw’naa demanded to know who she was calling a ho, and I thought about how putting an apostrophe after ho to pluralize it might contribute to the epidemic of apostrophe misusage that would sweep the English-speaking world in the 1990s, and continue unabated through the first decade of the 21st century.

Out of the frying pan. Into the fire!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Pimping My Ride - Part 10

I tried to remember the 13th, or 23rd, or whichever it is, Psalm, the one about walking into the Valley of Death, as I neared the identity thieves. A couple of them actually licked their lips at the sight of me. Because it’s in Los Angeles, a city in which everyone drives everywhere, even from room to room in their condominiums, the corner of La Cienega and Sunset doesn’t get a lot of foot traffic on an unusually chilly Tuesday night, so they converged on me like flies on a dog’s indiscretion.

One asked with a grin how I was doin’. Another asked for my Social Security number, just for verification purposes, though I had no idea what he was trying to verify. Another, claiming to be doing research for a UCLA psychology project on memory, asked where I did my banking, and if I happened to remember my account numbers. Another asked if I’d ever been to a timeshare presentation. Another asked my mother’s maiden name, and my dad’s middle name. The one who’d asked if I’d ever been to a timeshare presentation said he noticed I was on foot, and wondered if I’d be willing to attend a brief, enjoyable presentation at which there would be delicious refreshments if it meant having a free rental car for the rest of my visit to Los Angeles. Another asked to see my driver’s license, just for verification purposes. The timeshare one asked what if he threw in a free map to the stars’ homes and tickets to a forthcoming Dodgers game, against the Fresno Raisins. Another asked to see my birth certificate, if I happened to have it with me, just for verification purposes. The timeshare one apologized for the map to the stars’ home being outdated; it showed where a lot of game show hosts I’d never heard of lived, but not Eminem, Amy Winehouse, or the cast of Glee.

Through all of this, I kept walking west, crossing Sunset Blvd. and passing what had once been the Sea Witch, a club at which the 2 percent milk (as opposed to the cream, you see) of LA’s folk rock groups played, and later been North Beach Leather. My intention was to get the identity thieves as far as possible from my whores.

When I said I had a question for them, no fewer than half a dozen said, “Shoot!” at once. They glared at each other in embarrassment. I asked how they were able to ply their trade with such temerity. Like many who score highly on tests of verbal intelligence, I commonly try to make those who’d do better on math or spatial relationships tests feel stupid by using the biggest word possible, though I don’t think anyone could argue very convincingly that, at eight letters, temerity is that voluminous.

Fortunately, one of them apparently had one of those desk calendars with a new vocabulary word for every day of the year, and was able to respond to my question. He and his crew were able to operate with impunity — impunity! — by virtue of having stolen the identities of no fewer than three deputy chiefs of police. After the identity thieves threatened to bankrupt them and have their various mistresses deported to Surinam, it became understood in the precinct that officers cruising westward on Sunset Blvd. should turn their heads to the right when crossing La Cienega, while those heading east would turn to the left, perhaps noting who was performing that night at the Comedy Store.

We were almost to what at the time was the Playboy Building when they finally felt they had enough of my personal details, and headed back toward where I hope the whores had been able to make hay while the sun shone. When I tried to buy gasoline the next morning after my daily run at Fairfax High School, my card was refused, and the swarthy foreigner manning the cash register deeply unamused. I have little doubt that if I’d been unable to persuade Marie to come put my purchase on her card, he’d have beheaded me. These people may leave their unspellable home countries, but not their unspellable home countries' brutal traditions.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Pimping My Ride - Part 9

One of the whores, a rotund white one with incongruously thin legs, had a name so convoluted and full of apostrophes that I’d made it my practice to address her first as babe, and then, as I became better versed in the vernacular of the profession, either Miss Thing or girlfriend. While we chatted at Carney’s, I noticed that she was very fastidious in her eating. She never actually put her hot dog down. After every bite, she would carefully rotate it about 30 degrees clockwise. After every spoonful of chili, she would carefully pat down to flatness what was left in the bowl. In this, she reminded me of my dad, who, after every forkful of food, would very carefully nudge everything on his plate back into its respective sector. If it gave him some sort of comfort, it was fine with me, but I don’t think I can remember a single dinner of my childhood during which my mother didn’t holler at him at least once for making so much noise. It was very much a case of the pot accusing the pot of blackness, as she indulged in multiple obsessive behaviors of her own. Though I am, in the words of Lester Bangs biographer Jim (Backstabbing Little Scumbag) de Rogatis, “a jittery neurotic,” I can honestly tell you that I am OCD-free, though I do occasionally wonder, as I drive toward the gym, if I remembered to turn the burners on the stove all the way off. I think the whores liked this about me.

We finally finished our meal and headed back to our corner, the one at the top of the La Cienega hill, at Sunset Blvd. It appeared to me as though a small crowd of prospective “johns” had congregated there in anticipation of the girls’ return, but Miss Thing — whose whore name made Sha’quaw’naa seem like Sue in comparison — found them very much more sinister, and her apprehension spread like wildfire to the others. On seeing the big goofy grin with which I have customarily expressed perplexity nonverbally, Sha’quaw’naa — speak of the devil! — snarled, “Ain’t you know nothin’, fool?”

I could see now as we grew nearer that the fellows on the corner all carried clipboards. Roselle explained that they were identity thieves. When a passer-by approached, hopeful of passing by, they would descend on him en masse, pretending to be market researchers, saying that they had “just a few questions”, his answers to which would make him eligible to win an unspecified Valuable Prize. From those answers, which they would extract in an order designed to arouse minimal suspicion, they would be able to empty the poor guy’s bank account and even, if they were feeling especially vindictive, annul his marriage and have his spouse deported. And they were vicious. One time several months before, when they’d co-opted the corner, a group of might-have-been NFL offensive linemen thugs hired by a coalition of pimps had descended on them, intent on dispelling them. Wielding their clipboards and pencils as a North Korean martial arts wizard had taught them to do, they’d instead routed the thugs, one of whom remained in a vegetative (broccoli, one of the girls asserted) state months after the battle. I was to understand that several of the thugs had wept like little bitches.

I did what I felt I had to do — told the girls to wait while I, unknown to them as a pimp, distracted the identity thieves, and lured them off the corner. Several of the girls expressed the view that this was the most selfless thing they’d ever heard of a pimp doing, at least since I’d allowed myself to be serially sodomized at the police and firemen’s orgy two evenings before.

The identity thieves (hereinafter ITs, not to be confused with information technologists, but the distinction should be easy enough to make, as information technologists are either Indian, Sri Lankan, or Pakistani, in many cases identifiable by surnames that take as long to say as the alphabet) reminded me, with their suffocating friendliness, of Mormons or Scientologists.

What had I gotten myself into?

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Pimping My Ride - Part 8

My having been sodomized by the police and firemen at the impromptu orgy on Venice Blvd, or wherever I wrote the other day that it was, seemed to make the whores feel I was one of them, or at least not to mind my being privy to their complaints about their various children, boyfriends, and husbands, which the Afro-Americans among them mischievously pronounced hubbins, possibly in the same spirit that many Afro-Americans will pronounce ask as axe.

Jeantelle, who was white, and from a small town in the San Joaquin Valley in which inbreeding was apparently epidemic, actually had three husbands. She’d married the first, her first cousin, at 12, and become the mother of triplets at 13. Her young beau abandoned her in frustration a few weeks before their first birthday when he found himself unable to remember all three names — Robin, Maurice, and Barry. I surmised he hadn’t been a huge Bee Gees fan, but of course we’re talking about an entirely different demographic.

Jeantelle had married again at 15, though undivorced from her first husband, after her parole officer talked the local high school into allowing her to enroll. This second husband had beaten her, so she’d poisoned him. and had her brother and cousin bury him in pieces in the foothills. Once again without bothering with divorce, she’d married her first pimp, Arturo, in Las Vegas on a slow Thursday night in April just for something to do. When she claimed with palpable pride to be wanted in six states for trigamy, Sha’quaw’naa snorted dismissively and said ain’t no such thing, her view being that no matter how many spouses a person had, the worst he or she could be accused of was bigamy.

Jeantelle expressed the view that the only big Sha’quaw’naa knew anything about was her own big ass, whereupon Sha’quaw’naa asked how Jeantelle would like her own, bony white, ass to be cut, whereupon the two of them began hammering on each other with their platform shoes. A cook had to run out from the kitchen and fling a bucket of hot grease on them to get them to stop. It was pretty embarrassing, but I suspect far less embarrassing for me than painful for the two combatants, who wound up leaving us in an ambulance, in which I can only pray they didn’t renew hostilities en route to the emergency care facility.

At 51, Sulene was by far the eldest of the girls, and the only grandmother. She attributed the longevity of her marriage to Bud, a human resources specialist at a local aerospace corporation I’d better not mention, to mutual trust. It was right around the time that corporations were ceasing to think of themselves as having personnel departments, and beginning to speak instead of their human resources departments. For me, the phrase has always evoked visions of corporate surgeons harvesting the vital organs of middle managers to replace those of senior vice presidents through whose livers too much gin or single-malt Scotch had passed.

It had actually been Bud’s suggestion that Sulene become a whore; he found the idea quite sexy, and liked her to tell him when they themselves had relations about how the “johns” she’d been servicing were much better-endowed than he. That she was actually one of the most popular of the whores owed, in her view, to the fact that many men despised their mothers or stepmothers, and secretly yearned to degrade them incestuously. Sulene marketed herself as a surrogate, commonly wearing an apron over her halter top and hot pants, and for an extra $25 per “trick” would address the “john” not as hon, but by the diminutive or nickname of his choice, Skip and Jimmy being two of the most popular.

Roselle, who I enjoyed thinking had been named after a past commissioner of the National Football League, related that her own “hubbin”, Tayshawn, had no idea that she was a whore. She told him she was attending night classes in preparation for a career in human resources. The other girls turned on her in much the same way that my fellow employees at the Jack in the Box drive-thru restaurant in Santa Monica had turned on me when they discovered I was in college, and thus assured of a glittering future.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Pimping My Ride - Only One More to Go!

My dad, who’d worked at an abattoir before Hughes Aircraft, had always urged me to pursue a career in something from which I’d come home smelling nice. I’d briefly considered the perfume counter at a swanky department store, but department stores had always made me strangely claustrophobic. I thought of auditioning to be a cantor at a Reform Jewish synagogue, but remembered I couldn’t sing. I thought too of becoming a busboy at Cantor’s, an infamous deli on Fairfax Avenue at which rock and roll and other colorful types suffered the abuse of LA’s most truculent waitresses because it was open very late, but it would have felt like a step backwards. I’d been a busboy at 17 at Ted’s Rancho Restaurant on Pacific Coat Highway, which was open only until 2. I returned the next night to the corner of Sunset and La Cienega intending to tell the girls that I’d realized pimping wasn’t for me, and had decided to try to follow Temp’Este into aromatherapy.

When I arrived on the corner, though, the girls gave me a standing ovation. I suppose the standing part wasn’t that surprising, in view of there being no seating up there except the bus bench, which the girls seemed to view as off-limits, but the applause certainly was surprising. They all came over to kiss me in turn, and my cheeks were filled with lipstick of many hues. Word of my having been multiply sodomized at the impromptu police and fire department orgies had spread, and several girls expressed that it was the most selfless thing they’d ever heard of a pimp doing. I didn’t deserve the credit they were giving me — I’d acted solely out of fear and self-interest — but we Americans as a race dislike anyone who doesn’t snatch greedily at whatever praise or kudos may come his way, deserved or otherwise. It turned out that all the girls now intended to leave their present pimps when their existing contracts were fulfilled, and to sign with me.

It was chilly, and I was sore from the previous evening, so I said, “This calls for a celebration!” and suggested we all go have a hot dog at Carney’s, the (then-) new restaurant in a railroad car a couple of blocks east on Sunset. I was young and foolish at the time, and not mindful of the fact that, speaking of abattoirs, hot dogs are made of what’s scraped off their floors. I was na├»ve enough at one point to imagine that Hebrew National franks were somehow more salubrious than other kinds, though their kosherness probably had to do with the cattle whose bits were later scraped off the abattoir floor having been slaughtered in accordance with Jewish dietary law. It has long been known that visitors to the Playboy Mansion are encouraged to address the magazine’s creator as Hef; it is much less well known that those in the innermost of his inner circles address him as Ner.

Several of the girls contented themselves with bowls of chili because eating a hot dog would have made them feel as though on a busman’s holiday. Carney’s didn’t serve alcohol, so Ter’ree offered to share her flask of vodka. I thought that was remarkably selfless, given that I’d twice before seen her get the shakes when insufficiently liquored up, but it was no more remarkable a gesture than her colleagues all declining a sip. One hears often of honor among thieves, but only rarely of collegiality among whores. I won’t pretend I wasn’t touched.