Flashback! Or, why would you ever leave Florida? (Warning: Possible Triggering Language)

This was a happy day before all hell broke loose. It was around Halloween, as evidenced by my orange cup.

Always the attempt to look writerly and content.

He had a severely handicapped little girl, about seven; he said was the result of the Agent Orange from ‘Nam. I had no idea what any of that meant. I knew ‘Nam was ‘Nam as in Viet and I had a very literal idea what Agent Orange was from my childhood friend whose dad was some big shot at a company where one of the components was still manufactured. They kept the herbicide in the garage for emergency weed infestations and a couple of drops made gallons of the desired effect. We shot some of the stuff into a weed with a hypodermic needle to see how it worked. This was before the internet and kids did science experiments with deadly chemicals for fun.

He was a friend of a friend, and no doubt the brace on his foot had something to do with my offering help that day. Someone told him I was a writer and he had this elaborate camera that hung around his neck. It was confusing why someone would add the burden of the camera to their already precarious mobility-but I recognized an artist when I saw one. The photo I was using for my “author” picture was getting old so I said “yeah, what the hell. Take the picture.”

I never thought about something untoward happening because his miniature mute daughter was always with us. Until one day she wasn’t. He pulled up in his handicap equipped station wagon without her, which didn’t strike me as odd since he had joint custody and I just figured it was the wife’s turn to keep her out of danger.

He stepped out of the car with his good leg and dragged his braced leg behind him.
“I’m glad you’re dressed so nicely, today I’m going to take your picture.”

My faulty warning bell did not go off, but this compliment should have been ringy dingy number one.

Soon we were driving down the road in his wagon packed with photography equipment and on the seat between us, a small handgun. Seeing me see it, he stowed it in the glove compartment.

“I always want to be able to protect my companion. That makes up for my bum leg.”

Somehow this made perfect sense to me, and I was happy it was out of sight. Ringy dingy number two.

We arrived at the park where the third warning bell would go off if I hadn’t been so hell-bent on getting a photo for the back of my book jacket. It’s OK to laugh, I think it’s funny, too.

I helped set up the tripod and despite our previous friendly conversations there was something different going on, something I mistook for concentration and poetic license. He looked down into his camera and when he lifted his head back up, he had the gaze of a dog licking his lips in anticipation of a treat, a German Shepard-like anticipation dripping from his clenched jaw. It suddenly occurred to me that I was in a heavily wooded area with a man with a gun. This was before the day of cell phones and my head started pounding so hard I couldn’t hear myself think. I was trying to think of what to do when I heard him over my racing heartbeat suggesting I take drop a sleeve off one of my shoulders, “for the camera.”
**
The therapist had an office in the upstairs bedroom of his lovely home. Decorated in multiple shades of blue throughout, extra warmth provided by a fluffy little white dog that would eventually settle down into my lap after jumping around for a bit,  it was covered by my insurance.  I forget the guy’s name, and I had little respect for him when I found out he was working on his MSW. This, to me was like finding out my brain surgeon had previously, by way of experience, removed a few splinters from a child’s hand. He was getting his MSW and here I sat, owner of my own Diagnostic Manual, a gift from a friend. When you get a DSM-IV for your birthday aren’t you entitled to at least a psychiatrist? This was how my insurance worked, so…

I didn’t feel that I needed someone to talk to concerning the string of things to which professionals like to cling.

“Oh, you were adopted? When and how did you find out? Did you ever want to find your real parents?”
My real parents were George and Bernice and I resented mental health professionals insinuating that this was where my issues might be buried. I went to this particular guy for about a year, and the house noises made by the baby and things like the dishwasher that I never got used to. As unusual as the whole scene was, it was unbelievably pedestrian compared to the college counselor who took his consignees to Happy Hour after our sessions.

I escaped without physical harm or contact from the photo session in the woods, but it came up a couple of years later. I was spacing out, massaging the dog, when a tap on the desk snapped me to attention.

“Earth to Jaye.”

He didn’t raise his voice nor did it contain any sort of intonation at all, and you could tell this wasn’t only his  counselor’s voice, that “flat” would describe his everyday demeanor. I tuned in, my glance betraying my little space-out.

“What were you thinking about just there?”

Some stupid shit I did.

“Did you want to talk about the stupid shit?”

His use of my word startled me just slightly.

I kept a poker-face but the dog betrayed me.

My brain said “no” but my lips, often out of sync with the master cylinder, kept going.

I’ll tell you something stupid I did and you will tell me I was young, anyone could have done it, it was no biggie.

“I promise not to say any of those things, let’s have it.”

So on I went about the man in a leg brace with the Agent Orange daughter and the big camera.

**

In college I was on a first name basis with the handful of security guards, several who surveyed the campus round the clock. Almost everyone chose the school for it’s waterfront, if not the waterfront program specifically. I didn’t exactly choose it at all so much as it chose me. They gave me a handful of money and they had a kid playing French horn on the cover of the catalog. Let that sink in, young parents…I chose my college because there was a kid playing French horn on the cover of the catalog. There were other reasons, sure, but I wanted to continue with my band activities and without further due diligence I assumed French horn kid would be there to show me around the tiny campus.

In actuality, the world-famous organ program, with one of only three (at the time) Flentrop organs in the nation and an outstanding choral program were the only music programs the college offered. The music program was outstanding but in its infancy and there was no place for my Selmer clarinet and me.

If you sat about playing guitar into the night campus security waved at you. They were a friendly sort with implementation of the original ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy firmly in place. I had a friend explain it to me this way: the city has a deal with the school-they don’t police the campus and the school doesn’t depend on them to do so; if you do call them it better be goddamned serious because a single call would likely change this lax position and the city was aching to do it. This, explained to me by my friend that escaped being sprayed by Agent Orange by being a conscience objector and serving two years in a Veteran’s hospital.

I didn’t really believe all of this about the campus police but 36 years later I’m still reading a lot about apologetic swimmers and rape culture so I guess it is true now and it was true then.

Years later while therapist shopping I would recount the experiences both on the on the yellow plastic  couch and later, with the little fluffy dog in the blue room. I reluctantly talked about leg brace man but I couldn’t remember what happened to him. Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome was still reserved for military personnel but there was a suggestion that whatever ended up transpiring on that day was blocked out my memory due to trauma. I have never bought into this, but I’m pretty sure there’s some connection here: Around the same time as the Gulfport murder I stopped feeling safe sitting outdoors at various waterfront venues with my guitar. It was time to leave, but I didn’t know it yet.

 

That time the chaperone was really not necessary: Age of innocence, 1974

Thanks to St. Parygostny.org for the image familiar to geeks everywhere!

Image created by St. Parygostny.org – familiar to geeks/nerds around the planet.

Recent events have me meandering over Europe (in my mind). I was in ninth grade, it was the first time I went abroad, 1974, first time on a 747. Eleven days, 3 countries: Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Switzerland had refrigerated vending machines where you could buy a corsage; as it was Easter and my sisters always got me one, I bought one for myself. It was a huge white mum; its fragrance telegraphed my arrival long before I entered a room.

I write a lot traveling to London, but this is where I got the bug.

It was what we used to call “Easter Break” and it contained three lasting lessons-good value for the grand my parents dished out after my relentless two-year campaign of nagging, pleading, promising and promoting.

First, there was the naiveté, thinking we could sit in our room, a boy and a girl, with a chess set, an entire freakin’ chess set, balanced on our knees as we occupied opposite beds. When our chaperone, language arts teacher Mr. Reed, came down the hallway (we all had to keep our doors open), he kicked me out of the room and said “no fraternization with the troops.” I didn’t know the word meant, but I knew it meant “get out.”

I can feel the regulation travel chess pieces in my hands even now, as I recall the kids who from chess club that thought to bring them. They were the black and red kind, the kind that comes with checkers, too. They were lightweight yet solid plastic, extruded from molds by the same company that brought us Colorforms and Play-doh.

I envied the boys on the chess team. I didn’t have the confidence to try out until the next year, but unlike Audio Visual Aid Society, where the result of your labor was judged whether the class got to watch the movie or not, here the measure of success was a forty minute clock, and everyone had the same one.

There was a cute boy sitting across the regulation plastic mat. The first year I participated, I was guaranteed a male partner, as I was the first and only girl to join the chess club. The top 5 players each week would represent the school in a tournament. I climbed tooth and nail to get to the number five board precisely once, a week when our team lost all five boards, a fact that did not make me feel one iota better. It was humbling, humiliating and exhilarating all at once, a Spirograph of adolescent emotions.

In Germany they let us have beer with the evening meal. I didn’t like it, but I drank some to fit in. We Audio Visual Aid Society chess nerds had to do what we had to do. We drank this beer with our chaperones, (did our parents know this?), and the food was so [searches for acceptable to note that I didn’t care for it ] …em…gross! So much for expanding my cultural interests.

The third thing that became evident on this trip was my developing love for members of the opposite sex who would never want me: the gay boys. These were the boys hat spread their wings a bit while out of range from their parents for the first time-borrowing a can of hairspray or wearing a “muscle tee” on their flabby soft white exfoliated arms.

One evening a popular boy and girl came down a giant semi-spiral staircase creating a bold entrance, dressed in each other’s clothes. They got in sooooo much trouble, which I didn’t get, because I thought this busy public cross-dressing behavior was keeping them from fraternizing with the troops behind closed doors. He was handsome save a light smattering of acne-and would years later become the Junior Prom King.

My favorite evening consisted of a game of chess with a boy who was not yet ranked by the United States Chess Federation, (USChess.org) who therefore had nothing to lose or gain by beating me save pride, softened by sipping a stolen beer. These were the hobbies the boys would enjoy, hoping to get a whiff of the Herbal Essence scent of a 70s teen age girl on her first trip around the world.

Donald The Egg Man

Photo Credit: Rob Roth

Photo Credit: Rob Roth

When Michael told me we were going to see The Egg Man, I didn’t know who or what to expect. Rooster said “Don’t go unless you have, like, a day to burn, man. Once Donald gets you in there it’s tough to get out. Man, that dude’s a museum.”

It might have been six months from the time the conversation started: “Hey, you know what would be fun? Taking Jaye to Donald’s.”

“Oh, yeah, them two would get along great.”

There were the permission slips that had to be signed, steps that had to be taken, security issues to define. Of course, all the secrecy made me just want to go more. All I knew is that he had a collection of sequins-sequins that I had to see.

Donald The Egg Man had a prize-winning world renown collection of hand-made, hand-decorated eggs. International Egg Art Guild stuff, although we didn’t yet know there was such a thing.

I myself was not yet into crafting, but I did have an obsession with tiny things. Miniature versions of things still amuse me, like those tiny guitars they sell at rock concerts. Anything to do with babies. Newborns at the zoo, and of course, anything in an incubator. A baby lemur at the Philadelphia Zoo had me all misty eyed a couple of weeks ago.

****

I was surprised how friendly he was towards me for someone I perceived as keeping me away for at least six months. He offered beverages all around, to me, Michael, two Spanish guys who spoke no English, and a blind Golden Retriever. The dog stayed by Donald’s side like some sort of backwards seeing-eye dog-human team, the sighted Egg Man leading his aging friend all around the house.

The first batch I spotted were the Ukrainian eggs. They were a good icebreaker for the nervous group, a crowd of awkward geeks who were out for a free art show and perhaps some discounted beer. Diane Swaim, my 8th grade Social Studies teacher, had introduced us to the wax-relief method of creating these particular eggs and as the only talker in the group, was glad to get things rolling.

The next thing that caught my eye was the Santa Blimp. This was a two-egg affair, a hot-air balloon in the form of a vertical egg attached by tiny ribbons to an oblong egg hanging below. The designs looked like they were perhaps painted with eyeliner brushes but after I asked, I found out that those would be too fat. Santa had a jovial appearance, to give you an idea of the scale and detail, his rosy cheeks were comprised of 4 sequins each.

Shelves lined the 3 rooms that comprised the “studio” portion of the small cape. There were a few hundred finished eggs, some that had just come back from juried egg shows. One wall displayed the ribbons Donald had won from egg competitions. I stood there, fascinated  that there was such a thing.

Donald was a very private, very busy man and I only went to his house twice. In the late 70s, Donald, always a robust man (we used to wondered how he got his giant fingers around the delicate ribbons and sequins) began a rapid weight loss program later to be named AIDS. He was alive when I went to London, gone when I returned.

I saw the two Spanish guys a few more times, they were gradually learning English and were not shy about public displays of affection. I ran into Rooster on the boardwalk in Atlantic City shortly before I met my husband. He gave me a New Testament, and said “I’m sorry about your friend.” I assumed he was talking about Donald and tried to be gracious and compassionate. It was awkward because we so barely knew each other. A year later, I would find out exactly what friend he meant.

Character Building Disappointment: All its cracked up to be?

One particular Christmas, the gift-opening anticipation especially killing me. I knew in my heart that there would be an abundance of surprise, as there always was, but there was only one thing I needed. I was so confident that we were all on the same wavelength, I’m not sure I even communicated this need clearly to anyone else. Looking back, one would have had to have been a mind reader to know that I clearly needed my own guitar. There was one available to me, but it was older and warped and the action, the distance from the strings to the neck, was so high, it took a herculean effort to play a chord.

This particular guitar had been my grand-father’s and I loved the wood, loved the smell of it. It smelled like my early sawdust sculptures mixed with a little of Pop-pop’s cherry wood tobacco. It didn’t have a case, instead, a lovely drawstring bag that my sister made. One side was a solid mustard corduroy, and the other side was a patchwork. Donna sewed many of my outfits and costumes, and many of the patches on the drawstring guitar bag were cut from pieces of fabric craps leftover from her efforts.

A particular favorite  was the year I played Mrs. Santa Clause in a school play, and Mrs. Santa wore an apron adorned with colorful circles of pastel fabric with a bumpy, uneven texture. I loved this apron, and it kind of assuaged my hurt feelings over my non-speaking part in the play. If you had a kid who’s annual report card griped that she never shut up, why wouldn’t you let them have a line in the school play?

The drawstring for the guitar bag was a heavily braided, nylon-coated affair. The sack, not quite long enough, allowed the headstock to poke out a little, and there was plenty of room inside for a songbook or two.

I never lusted after that guitar, but I liked messing with it. The object of my six-string obsession still loomed in the future, but I was pretty sure that holiday season that it wasn’t this:

 

My bitter-sweet disappointment.

My bitter-sweet disappointment.

 

Yes, I was somehow sure that telepathically Santa knew I was ready for a “big girl” guitar and so I was mega-surprised when I came down the stairs and saw the unwrapped Magnus chord organ with the car-sized yellow bow attached. It was the equivalent of getting a steak knife when you thought you were getting an actual working light saber.

Funny to look back on now, had I embraced this reedy little machine I would have learned about chords and chord structure, patterns, keys and transposition. Instead I learned that you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might get it one long year later.

Guy on the Train: London 1980

English: Gower Street sign, Camden, London WC1

English: Gower Street sign, Camden, London WC1 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Daily Prompt: Come Fly with Me

Share a story about the furthest you’ve ever traveled from home.

http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2013/11/13/daily-prompt-travels-2/

The guy on the train.

I had been schooled: “In America, people say ‘come on over’ or ‘I’ll meet you next week’, but they don’t mean it.”

Even the book “Let’s Go–England” (a 70’s copy found in a Laundromat) told me that if  invited somewhat casually, with no follow up plan, to a location, it would be considered rude not to show up.  This would be the farthest from home I had ever traveled, and the last thing I wanted to be was rude.

The other thing that I failed to learn by reading the travel books was the train ticket advice…you will need your ticket to get off the train. Simple enough, right? It wasn’t as if I was accustomed to train travel (at least not yet, anyway), so I didn’t have any bad habits to break.

On a train from Gatwick  (ultimate destination, Gower Street via the Goodge street station) I had the weariness and exhilaration that accompanies the completion of a long trek.  I wouldn’t have needed this next-to-final leg of the journey had I flown into Heathrow, but I saved hundreds of dollars, and I met ‘the poet.’

He sits across from me and says ‘hello’ with an English accent so thick I had no idea what in God’s name he was saying. Since the plane was full of Americans, this was my first sip of the UK and I intended to drink deeply.

It was all that I expected. It sounded beautiful and I listened intently, picking up a bit here and there. He seemed fascinated that I was American, and I was fascinated at his fascination, among other things.

He told me he was a poet and I said I kinda was too.  We dug through our belongings. In a moment he came up with a journal out of a worn, cotton messenger bag. I pawed through  my luggage to get mine. I was also packing a Martin guitar in a massive hard shell case, an over-sized soft sided suitcase that said “parental property” all over it, and a purse. Nothing had wheels and I checked my passport (purse) and guitar every eight minutes.

We shared a few poems, and had that non-verbal agreement that writers sometimes have: Yes, these are poems.  It is so embarrassing when someone hands you something that doesn’t seem like a poem to you. I was glad I didn’t have to manufacture some kind of reaction, I was way too tired for that. I had been awake for 19 hours, in the air for 9 of them, and I was having alcohol while severely dehydrated. I wasn’t buzzed, drunk or stoned. I was crazy, but I didn’t yet know it.

The ride was less than an hour and we exchanged numbers, mine, the student number for the house at 35 Gower street.  I spoke to him on the phone a few times but this caused some issues with a boyfriend or two…ahh, the jealousies of youth!

When the train stopped, I went to hop out and the conductor asked for my ticket.  I was wearing my cape and had no pockets, and I was so struck by the ride and my new poet friend that I was flustered and near tears while searching my purse and the bag that held the poems.

A hand reached out behind me holding a pale yellow ticket. The sans-serif font explained my destination to the conductor and to the world. It was as if I was freed from incarceration, the endorphin release brought the tears the rest of the way.

The hand belonged, of course, to my new literary cohort, who had come to the front of the train to see what the commotion was about. We had already said our goodbyes, simple and sincere. Now came an awkward moment and a final glance that I was sure revealed my craziness in full bloom. The last look I saw from him can only be described by the word poignant. I probably looked a little desperate, that would be the kindest word for the moment.

Map of Gower Street

Map of Gower Street (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We had a few phone times, me on the Gower street phone where the whole house could hear even the slightest whisper; he on a pay phone in a little red booth that I got to see in a Polaroid photo he later sent me.

He sent me a few love poems but it was not “like that”; he wanted to share critiques and, while we were close in age, I believe he felt a little fatherly towards me, writing-wise. If this girl couldn’t get off the train by herself…

After a few phone calls and failed meeting attempts and new, exciting adventures supplanting this one, we stopped talking.  But he that was the boy who helped me validate myself me as a writer, by way of my first European peer review.

Weeks after we met I realized he must have paid a hefty few pounds for me to exit the train (what the delay hoopla was about). In a pocket in my sweater was the pale yellow ticket with the sans-serif font.