Spare Change?

300px-Hitchhiker's_gestureA simple choice, really. Walk to the bottom of the hill, cross the street, and stick out my thumb to hitch south to Hermosa Beach, or keep trudging down the hill with my arm out towards the street, my thumb hooked forward, hoping some poor soul would be turning south at the bottom of the hill anyway.

My bare feet were like leather sole shoes now, but not quite thick enough to stop the burning pavement from keeping my steps light and quick. My thoughts were molasses oozing slowly out of a jar, so I kept walking with my back to the traffic and stuck out my thumb.

 I will hail them, my brothers of the wheel, and pitch them a yarn, of the sort that has been so successful hitherto, and they will give me a lift, of course…

~ Mr. Toad: The Wind in the Willows (Kenneth Grahame)

A faded blue beater car pulled over and a guy in a sweaty, white, short-sleeved shirt leaned over and yanked open the passenger door. I jumped in. “Thanks,” I offered. “Going as far as Hermosa?”

I was on my way to “The Zoo,” as the locals called it. Someone had even spray-painted the words on the low wall that separated the sand near the Hermosa Beach pier from the strand, the sidewalk hundreds of people strolled every day of the year.The wall was where the “freaks” like me congregated to meet, talk, exchange dope for cash, and just “be.” It was one of my favorite places to meet people. I didn’t really know them all that well, didn’t even know most of their names, but we were compadres. It was us against the Establishment. I gave them names of my own, like “Mickey Mouse Watch,” “The Poet,” and “Freakazoid.” I loved them; they were my people. They made no demands. At least most of them.

Faded blue beater car pulled over at the corner of Pacific Coast Highway and Pier Avenue. He grabbed my arm as I started to open the passenger door to hop out. “Ya wanna go somewhere?” he asked. He had a wad of cash rolled up in a rubber band in his hand.

I yanked my arm away. “Go buy yourself a decent car!” I scrambled out the door and slammed it shut. Asshole.

I walked over to the corner and began making my way through the throngs of tourists and locals already out and about. “Spare change? Spare change?”

“Thanks!” I said when I felt some coins in my hand. I snuck a glance, hoping to meet a friendly face. Most looked away, disgusted. Within about six minutes (I timed it once) I had enough for some breakfast and some “red devils,” usually prescribed to help housewives with insomnia. Mother’s little helpers.

The breakfast would fill my belly. The reds would fill my emptiness. At least for a little while. Long enough to forget that no one cared. Long enough to forget that I didn’t care. Whatever. Forget breakfast. I need to find “Army Dude.”

I thought about blue beater car and slumped into the first vacant seat in the cafe. Asshole.

A Major Misstep events can change a life in an instant. On the other hand, some things take place over time. Many tiny miscalculations or silly decisions create a chain of events, and suddenly you find yourself staring in the mirror at someone you no longer recognize.


I had fled the chaotic confines of Metropolitan State Mental Hospital and planted a mattress on the floor in the spare bedroom of my parent’s apartment, a fresh start of sorts. I tried to make myself useful to my mother, so she wouldn’t kick us out. This time I was going to make it work for me and my sweet little boy.


My mom was one who liked to go to the grocery store daily, as if she were one of those lucky European women who stopped at the bakery each day for a fresh loaf of rye. She may have imagined herself lazily plucking through mounds of fresh vegetables and fruit from street vendors…everything freshly baked and harvested. On this particular day, she needed a fresh bottle of vodka, so we climbed into the old Ford Fairlane and drove down to the local Food Giant Supermarket.


As soon as we stepped onto the rubberized mat and the automatic glass door swung open, I saw him. Within two skipped heartbeats I had sized up all six foot two of one of the cutest guys I had ever seen. He had wide shoulders and wavy golden hair down to the green apron pocket of his supermarket uniform. The way he placed the milk into the bag first before adding the bread was downright genius! A bag of oranges went in next. Our eyes met. My cheeks flushed and I turned away. I grabbed a shopping cart and walked into the nearest aisle, almost knocking a box of Cocoa Puffs off of the end cap.


I was standing with one foot on the bottom rung of the cart waiting for my mom to decide between a quart and a fifth when I felt a tap on my shoulder. A conversation ensued and plans were made for this gorgeous hunk of a box boy to pick me up on Friday night. Once my mom paid for her precious cargo, I jumped onto the back of the cart and let it take me down the slight incline to the car. Whee! I was already imagining my happily-ever-after with a new husband and a loving dad for my little son.


“Sometimes something catastrophic can occur in a split second that changes a person’s life forever; other times one minor incident can lead to another and then another and another, eventually setting off just as big a change in a body’s life.” – Jeannette Walls, Half Broken Horses


On Friday afternoon I changed in and out of several different blouses and made sure my jeans had the least amount of holes and stains. Finally Sir Galahad arrived in his souped up Corvette and we were on our way. Were we going out to dinner? To a movie?  Butterflies danced around my stomach and I didn’t think I could eat a bite.


He turned up the car stereo and reached over to open the ashtray underneath the dash.  “Do you want to get high?” He reached in and grabbed two pink capsules. “Oh!”  I wasn’t expecting that but I was game. After all, pink was lighter than red, so therefore, these pills must be milder than the red ones I have taken before. No harm to come from this. My chin jutted forward. “Sure!”


Soon he pulled onto a dirt road that led to what almost looked like an abandoned structure of some sort. Instead of a dinner and a movie, I found myself sitting on the couch in his rented house, which seemed to have landed in the middle of a few acres of packed dirt underneath a freeway overpass. The farmer must have stood his ground for decades while progress grew up around him and the government waited until he ceased to be an obstacle to their plans to get folks from here to there as quickly as possible.


I very soon realized that “pink” did not mean “less.” My muscles felt like overcooked spaghetti, my head, the size and weight of a watermelon. I thought we were alone in the house, but suddenly there was another young man there. My date introduced me to his roommate.


“Nice to meet you…hey, do you want to see the art work in the other room?” he said.  “OK.” I got up and tried to walk.


“You bastard!” muttered my date. I wondered why he suddenly felt the urge to use profanity on his roommate but the connections in my brain were misfiring all over the place.


Art work? I got up from the couch and, smiling, the roommate grabbed my hand to steady me.  I can’t walk. Bastard? Why did he say that? Is he mad? Should I not go? What should I do? What is this room? Why are we going in here? Where is the art work? What is happening? Should I run? I can’t run! I feel like I’m walking through water…I’m scared and I think it’s too late to change my mind.


I was pushed to the bed and my clothes quickly removed. I looked towards the door, wishing I was back on the couch, not here on the bed. My date peered in and quickly turned away. I heard him making phone calls, and I hoped he was calling the police.


My arms were lead, my lungs hollow. My date came back in, then another guy, then another, then another, then another. One, very heavy, apologized. “It’s all right,” I mumbled. It’s all right?  It’s all right!!??


I was far from home. When my date offered to drive me home, even helping me on with my clothes, I quickly weighed my choices and accepted his invitation. Much later I stumbled up the stairs to my parent’s apartment, trying to quiet my steps so as not to wake the neighbors. For a moment I thought about calling the police. I pictured the interview. “Why did you date someone you didn’t even know? What were you wearing?  Why did you take the drugs? Why did you go follow the roommate into the bedroom? Why did you let him drive you home? Yes, this was my fault. I deserved this. I’m a stupid girl.  Worth nothing to anyone. I’m giving up. No one will ever know. No one but me will ever know.

Looney Toons

Looney ToonsPlaying dress-up with my new hippie  friends was lots of fun and all that, but on the inside I was unraveling. Peace and love, along with rock and roll, just wasn’t cutting it for me.  It all seemed like a counterfeit for something else, something more authentic.  I just couldn’t quite put my finger on it.  I needed help, but I was a child trying to live a grown-up life.  My problem-solving skills didn’t quite live up to expectations.

I had made an attempt to get someone’s (anyone’s) attention a couple times before, and this time, right in the middle of a loud party with lots of people around, I snuck off into my bedroom and took an entire bottle of tranquilizers.  I went to bed, thinking someone looking in would just figure I went to bed early, but no, something about that scene didn’t look quite right to one of my friends, and after shaking me enough to scramble my brains and getting no response, I was scooped up and taken to the emergency room of the nearest hospital.

I remember a police officer sitting down beside me.  “I went through a divorce,” he said.  “It’s tough.  But you’ll get through it, I promise.”  I stared at him through glazed eyes, wondering why he would care about some 18-year-old hippie freak chick like me.  I didn’t even like police officers and if he knew what I called them in private he wouldn’t have been offering much in the way of consolation.  Later, my new friends, realizing I was more then they bargained for, called my father to pick me up.  I remember him being particularly irritated.  The next thing I knew, I was being admitted to Norwalk State Mental Hospital in Norwalk, California.

My therapist told me that I over-analyze everything. I explained to him that he only thinks this because of his unhappy relationship with his mother.”
― Michel Templet

I was one of the youngest patients, and they weren’t sure what to do with me, so they decided they would admit me to their drug rehab unit, which was coed and full of other teenagers.  “Cool,” I thought.  But before the transfer, I had to go through the usual process of being evaluated and getting a chest x-ray.  I say “usual,” but it was one of the strangest experiences of my life.  One of the very first things they do to a person entering the Norwalk State Mental Hospital is to make sure the patient will be compliant.  Just to guarantee this, every patient is administered Thorzine, whether they need it or not.

I sat in the day room, drooling and barely able to hold my head up.  I kept thinking I had dropped a cigarette and would jump up and look around the floor for it.  One of the older male patients shuffled over in his bathrobe to help.  I told him I dropped a cigarette and he said, “Oh,that’s the Thorzine, honey.”  The next day about thirty of us had to wait in line for a chest x-ray.  I crawledl along on the floor, leaving a trail of drool, just to keep my place in line.  Somewhere in there I knew I was being overdosed, especially since I noticed that the “real” mental patients didn’t seem drugged at all.

Even after getting on the unit, the staff continued to make me take the Thorzine, threatening to hold me down and shoot me up with the stuff if I didn’t swallow it like a nice young lady.  It was better in drug rehab, of course, with lots of fellow hippies and other colorful folk, like “Wizard,” who had fried his brains with LSD.  Nothing he said made sense and we all loved him for it, watching over him like a baby chick.  The unit psychologist was our version of Nurse Ratched.  Every day at around 4:00 PM we would be forced to sit in a circle while he picked out his next victim.  Psychodrama was his favorite form of therapy.  He loved the empty chair routine.  We didn’t.  One evening it was my turn.  “Well, Linda, you don’t talk much.  I suppose you think you don’t need to be here.  What do you think would happen to you on the “outs?”

“I think I would be fine,” I answered meekly.


I felt so insulted.  I mean, this guy didn’t even know me.  We had never even had a “session.” I’m blowing this joint…

But not before our field trip to the beach on Friday!  We all piled into the bus and headed down to the Newport Beach, California.  Wizard was in an exceptionally great mood, even for him.  Once out of the bus, we all dropped some blotter acid that someone had scored “on the outs,” where I was never going to make it.  We split up into several groups with a direct care staff with each group.  I felt like I was on a carousel ride and the painted pony I was on was about to jump off and fly away.

We all trooped back for our ride home at around 4:30 PM.  As I climbed into the bus, I saw that Wizard was sitting on one of the bench seats with his wrists tied to the metal bar above the seat in front of him.   Apparently, Wizard’s mind was too blown to handle the acid trip.  Amazingly, the rest of us feigned sobriety enough to pass inspection and rode back to the funny farm with our wrists unfettered.

The next week I signed myself out of the Norwalk State Mental Hospital.  They tried to talk me out of it.  I guess they thought they were really helping me.  Funny.  I had to sign out “AMA,” or, Against Medical AdviceI could so make it on the outs.  Or at least, that’s what I thought at the time.

In A Gadda Da Vida woke up to the sound of rain on the window.  I had cracked it open before I went to bed and the air filtering into my apartment was damp and smelled sweet.  I turned over and tugged the blanket up over my shoulders, attempting to recapture a dream.  But something felt wrong.  I was late…very late!  I jumped out of bed and threw on my purple velvet dress, quickly backcombing a poof into the top of my long, thin hair and drawing eyeliner wings over blue eye shadow before running out the door.  I grabbed my purse, the diaper bag, the baby, the keys.  I had been expected to start answering the phone at my desk at Al & Sons Termite Control Company 20 minutes earlier.

I hurriedly made my way down the concrete stairs of the building, and as I stepped onto the fourth stair tread from the bottom, my foot slipped on the wet pavement.  In an attempt to keep from dropping my 10-month-old, I came down on my knees, hard.  I lay there for several minutes, moaning.  My easy-going son sat beside me on the ground, eyeing me, trying to figure out whether he should be upset too.  Everyone else had left for work and there was no one around to help me.  I literally crawled to the car, managing not to drop the baby.  After I strapped him into the car seat, I crawled back for my purse and his diaper bag, tears running rivets through my beige Mabelline foundation.

My bloodied knees hurt so bad it was hard to put enough pressure on the break pedal to stop the car.  My legs shook under the purple velvet and I thought I would faint.  I drove very slowly to the babysitter’s house so I wouldn’t have to press hard on the breaks.  By the time I got there, my knees worked enough to walk, but the pain was so bad it was a good thing I hadn’t eaten breakfast.  I suddenly felt tired…tired of pretending to be an adult.  Tired of being responsible.  Tired of working to just pay the bills.  Tired of being alone.  I was seventeen-years-old.

A couple of weeks later I got a call out of the blue from an old high school friend.  He had gotten my number from my mother.  Could he come see me?

I opened the door and stared in disbelief.  Bob had changed.  His hair was down to his shoulders.  He wore a puka shell necklace and bell-bottom jeans.  I hadn’t seen anyone who dressed like that since I saw The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl three years earlier.

The hippies wanted peace and love.  We wanted Ferraris, blondes, and switchblades. – Alice Cooper.

Bob and I began to hang out together almost every day.   He introduced me to his like-minded friends and the music of Iron Butterfly and Alice Cooper.  He talked about peace and ending the war in Vietnam.  He was passionate about things that seemed to matter.  He cared about other people. Every woman was his “sister,” and every man his “brother.”  He talked about love.  He exuded love.  It wasn’t long before I got myself a pair of bell-bottomed jeans of my own.  Because looking for love was what I was all about.

And I Wasn’t Even Pregnant! I tell the story about my marriage at sixteen, I always feel the need to say, “…and I wasn’t even pregnant!”  It still seems as crazy to me that my parents allowed me to get married at sixteen-years-old as it does to those I tell. I get a lot of wide-eyed looks of disbelief.  I always try to stave off that familiar sense of embarrassment by being flippant.  “Yep…crazy, huh?”  I  picture people thinking, “what, were you stupid?”


But, within two months of our walk down the aisle, I did become pregnant. I’m not sure I even understood how to prevent it.  At that time, my husband and I had rented a beautiful apartment with hardwood floors and two large bedrooms. Our only piece of furniture was a king-sized bed, purchased through the newspaper by my mother-in-law.  Maybe that’s how it happened.


My husband worked during the day (for a very short time) selling cookware door-to-door. The training program suggested taking off his wedding ring and flirting with housewives who were stuck home all day with nothing else to do. So, while he was out “soliciting,” I sat on the king-sized bed during the day and played with my Barbie dolls. Barbie and Ken became the couple I wished we could be, and they lived out the fantasies I had of married life.

Squeamish Warning….Stop Right Here


One night I awoke with a sharp pain, deep and low.  I went to the bathroom and found blood in the toilet and then on the bed.  I tried to wake my husband but he would not wake up so I went across the complex to my sister-in-law’s apartment and woke her.  She drove me to my in-law’s house a few blocks away.  Soon I was writhing on the floor of their bathroom while straining to hear their whispers and phone calls through the closed door. My mother-in-law came to check on me, and told me she and my sister-in-law were going to the apartment to try to wake up my husband, and more importantly, clean the bed she had just bought.  I was left alone on that bathroom floor, pain searing though me like a knife, the cold floor against my face the only comfort. I was so frightened I wanted to scream.



A couple of hours later, a trip to the toilet produced a tiny little baby. For a moment I stared in awe at the tiny arms and legs, the over-sized head. Then a hot, sharp knife seemed to tear through my insides. Soon I was out of my head with it and heard myself moaning as if from somewhere else, in some other place.


I barely heard my mother-in-law came trooping back into the house with my husband in tow. I tried to call out to him, but he didn’t come into the bathroom. More whispered phone calls, and finally in order to save money on a visit to the emergency room, I was whisked up and taken to a doctor’s office across town. He removed the placenta while I grabbed his wrists in agony. My head was spinning like a top. Then everything went black.


To be continued…


Child Bride

WeddingDespite the various and sundry crimes my fiancé perpetrated on unsuspecting friends and strangers, my parents caved in to the pressure by his parents to allow us to get married.  Apparently, being the more innocent one in the relationship afforded me a certain elevated status in the eyes of my fiancé’s parents. For them, if there was any salvation for their son, it would come from being married and settling down.

So, I was to be the one to save Ron from ruin, and they didn’t want to wait for me to grow up first. I was only sixteen-years-old. He was twenty-one.

My fiancé’s mother reminded me of what a person would be like if they were an alter ego of well-known atheist Madelyn Murray O’Hare. They both carried the same domineering obnoxious, and controlling personality. But that’s where the resemblance ended. They held completely opposite views of what happens when one…uh…shall we say…passes on.

So, three times a week, during the short respites from burglary and auto-thefts, Ron insisted we attend a little gathering of believers at the home of “Gifford,” one of his mother’s friends.  There I was taught that only 144,000 of us would make it to heaven. This number included only Caucasians, and only non-Catholic Caucasians at that.  Every Scripture was in secret code too, only to be unraveled by one of the 144,000 non-Catholic Caucasians.  We all assumed that Gifford was the one with the key to the code.  She seemed to think so too.

On the infrequent nights we did not show up for Bible study at Gifford’s, my fiancés mom would get one of his sisters to drive her the fifteen miles to my neighborhood and canvas the streets until she found us low-riding in Ron’s turquoise 1956 Chevy. She would then pull us over like a highway patrolman, and lecture us on the horrors of hell until we were sufficiently contrite.  Sometimes this took a couple of hours.

She often claimed to see horrible looking gargoylian demons sitting on our shoulders.  That in itself was enough to drive me running back to the house church, begging for mercy, while the parishioners swayed and shook, jerked and moaned, danced in circles around me, and prayed for my salvation.

I knew my fiancé’s mother was calling my parents on the phone and bullying them into allowing us to marry.  I was still surprised they didn’t put up more of a fight.  It didn’t take long for them to sign the consent.  Not only did they consent, they agreed to pay for an over-the-top garden wedding extravaganza and a formal sit-down dinner at an Italian restaurant owned, by all accounts, by a couple of Italian brothers with membership in the mob. I didn’t think of the wedding plans so much a celebration of future bliss as much as my parent’s celebration of getting my future mother-in-law off their backs.

My father’s mother came for a visit at some point in the planning of this gargantuan catastrophe.  I loved her, but she was not my favorite grandma.  I was much closer to my mother’s mother, who was pretty and brought me Dentine gum every time she visited. This other grandma had bird stick legs and a sour expression. I had overheard my parents discussing her “situation” many times. It didn’t sound good. They had to supplement her income and they weren’t happy about it. It seems grandfather had left her and my dad when he was an impressionable thirteen-year-old, and left for South America to stake his fortune with his brother, who had founded a major import business.  My father never saw him again, except for one brief visit after my father almost burned his leg off in a fire at the plant, saving a young employee in the process.

I was standing in the bathroom trying on my veil, turning my head just so, slight smile on my face.  My grandmother happened by the bathroom on her way through the laundry room to the kitchen.

“Well, if it isn’t the Queen of Sheba!” she squawked.

She had never spoken to me like that before.  Shock and hurt coursed through my body in quick succession.  My mind searched for an explanation for her hostility and came up with one that seemed plausible. Obviously, my mother must have told my grandmother I had been mean to her, and my grandmother believed her. I truly believed that my mom loved my brother and sister and alcohol more than she loved me. I thought everyone saw this as I did and felt sorry for me. Even so, I had been trying to hold on to the slim chance that it might not really be true.

I had always loved all my relatives unconditionally, assuming they felt the same way about me, and I wasn’t prepared to let go of that view in such a quick flash. I thought my mother’s alcohol-fueled diatribes would appear so nonsensical to my grandma that she would empathize with me and feel a sense of concern and obligation to make sure I was all right. At least Ron’s mother cared about my eternal salvation and tried to keep my feet out of hell fire.

I thought grandmothers had to like you. It’s a law or something.

Mary E. Pearson ~ The Adoration of Jenna Fox

The wedding took place on the last Saturday of December 1967, a year and a half before I would have graduated from high school.  I had gotten kicked out earlier that year, so I didn’t have any homework that weekend anyway. Although it was right after Christmas, the Los Angeles weather could not have been more perfect for an outdoor garden wedding. I walked down a curving white staircase on the arm of my father and out into a garden surrounded with ivy covered walls. The guests turned towards me as they stood together, quieting their murmurings about the absence of my mother.

She showed up later at the reception, full of vim and vigor and a good portion of a fifth of vodka. She staggered around the tables, greeting guests in her yellow and cream brocade sheath dress with matching coat and pill box hat, laying it on thick about having had diarrhea while trying to stabilize herself with backs of chairs. I was horrified, and yet felt strangely justified. Only later would I feel a sense of shame and regret so deep it made my chest hurt. All those shoulda, coulda, woulda’s clanging around in my head.

One night several years ago I had a dream.  My mom was in heaven with her family singing a song about the holy Word of God.  She, my grandmother, my great-grandmother, and two of my aunts were using sign language to illustrate it as they sang, and somehow I knew they learned it there. One day on the other side of this life my mom and I will talk again, forgiveness and love will flow, and it truly will be unconditional. I think about that often, and what it will be like. But in the meantime, I have my feet planted firmly on the soil of this side of the divide, and I spend a lot my time trying to make it all count for something good.


A Pimp Named Slim summer day when I was fifteen, I found myself sitting across the kitchen table from a tall, black, big hulk of a guy named Slim, and five, twenty-something white prostitutes lined up on the couch like pieces of fruit left to rot on a weathered windowsill. Slim was an acquaintance of sorts, one of the many I had been introduced to since I met my boyfriend Ron several months earlier.

Ron dropped me off after feeding me his typical line of tommyrot. Insisting he was just running to the liquor store, he left me to sit with Slim in uncomfortable silence. I was surprised by the lack of “girl” talk, and sensed glares coming from the group on the couch, hitting the back of my head. I sat very still, hoping for invisibility.

There was a quick tap at the door of the dingy apartment and a man walked in. He was white and seemed to be in his mid-thirties. He didn’t seem clean and I got the sense he had come straight from pulling an all-nighter somewhere. All five girls looked up expectantly. The man looked over at me and said, “I want that one.”

“She ain’t workin’,” Slim answered. I froze for a moment, then glanced around at the girls.  They stared back, hostility visible behind blank eyes.

“I said, I want that one,” he repeated.

“And I said, she ain’t workin’!” said Slim, as he began to reach under the table.

The man lifted his hands as if surrendering to an unseen enemy and backed out of the apartment.

So this is it? I thought. I’m going to end up sitting on a filthy couch one day, satisfied with a five and a ten? I felt helpless, alone and afraid. I just wanted to go home.

June Cleaver

June Cleaver

Just a few short years earlier I had pictured myself greeting my future husband at the door in a dress, high-heels, and a pearl necklace just like June Cleaver, in the old 1950’s sit-com, “Leave it to Beaver.” What a joke.

I got up from Slim’s dining room table and without a backward glance, made for the door.

“See ya,” I said. “And thanks.”


Thinking back on some of the bits and pieces of my early years is kind of like looking into a kaleidoscope; pieces of jagged colored glass tumbling around in my mind.  Most of the time they dance around in the background, but when I stop long enough to examine them, they fall into place, and I write.





Lookin’ For Love…

(If you would like to start at the beginning of this journey, please go to the archives on the right and start with “It Was A Dark And Stormy Night”).

1956-chevy-210-chevrolet-archivesThe guy in the turquoise 1956 Chevy was really something!  Dark hair, like my father’s.  Thick lower lip, like my father’s.  Tall and thin, like my father.  But that’s where the resemblance ended.

My father, although he had his faults, wasn’t a convicted felon.  He hadn’t stolen the car he drove to work.  He didn’t watch the game on televisions he acquired by breaking into other people’s houses. He never finagled the driver’s side window of a friend’s car to gain access to his pumped up car stereo system.  And I’m quite sure his crowd didn’t include gang bangers from East Los Angeles, or pimps and prostitutes from South Central.

Back when I was a shy, naive sixth grader at James Kew Elementary, meeting the James Dean wanna-be would have never entered my mind.  My mind was filled with dreams of becoming a great writer, dreams inspired by my 6th grade teacher, Mr. Snyder.  One day he read a piece I had written out loud to the class, a story about Benjamin Franklin and a mouse.  I have a flashbulb memory of the moment he told the class that I had all the makings of becoming a great writer some day. He told them I left him “wanting more,” at the end of my paper.  I still remember where I was sitting as he spoke about me…last row on the right side of the classroom, sunshine streaming in through the open windows, the smell of fresh cut grass wafting in.  My tummy fluttered as his words washed over me and the pleasure of it all made it hard to keep a straight face while my classmates all turned to stare. I recreated that moment in my mind all summer long, and signed up for a Creative Writing class as my first elective at Monroe Junior High.

I dressed very carefully for my first day of 7th grade.  I had on my usual uniform of under things…a white tank top undershirt with the tiny satin bow on the front and lace-trimmed white anklet socks peeking out from white, bright, brand spanking new tennis shoes.  There must have been a memo that had gone out to my elementary school girlfriends during the summer that read, “Sometime this summer, make sure you grow up.  Shave your legs.  Have your mother buy you a tiny garter belt and “suntan” colored nylons. Experiment with make-up, and get a bra even if you haven’t sprouted any yet.”  I didn’t get the memo.  And we had to dress-out for P.E.

The bullying started that first day and followed me through the halls of middle school, filling my skinny, stick straight frame with shame and fear.  At the same time, my creative writing teacher combed through over one hundred student papers a week, and I think writing a “C” caused her the least stress to her wrist.  One fell-swoop instead of the stick straight lines of a “A” or those curly cues you need to master in order to write a “B.”  I decided that Mr. Snyder must have been smoking something that day so long ago, back in the sixth grade, and once I finally made friends with the bullies, I began to experiment myself.

I met the guy in the turquoise 1956 Chevy just two short years later.  After a whirlwind courtship filled with crime and betrayal, we married in a sweet outdoor ceremony under a white arbor, me in white gown and veil and my fiance in standard black tuxedo.  The ceremony took place in a beautiful garden filled with smiling guests who sat in neat rows of white chairs, decorated with little white satin bows.  I was sixteen and he was twenty-one,  and in this forever moment I looked up at my husband-to-be and still only saw the face of my father. But that’s where the resemblance ended.

New Kid on the Block

Juvenile HallMy eyes flew open as the searchlight passed by the window for the umpteenth time that night. Sleeping was something you did in between. The room was about 10’ by 10’ with a big thick, double-paned window looking out at nothing.  There was wire mesh in between the glass.  About once every half hour or so, the light passed by each window on the south side of the “block,” shining into the cell.  Apparently, this was to make sure a visitor hadn’t baked a saw into a cake, allowing one of us to turn into a fugitive from justice.  I cannot remember now where the light came from.  The memory of its intrusion is enough.

I had to use the bathroom and wondered if I could hold it.  The very first night I was brought in to “juvie,” I slept on the floor, as there were no empty rooms.  There was about a dozen of us, all sleeping on the floor on futon type mats with blankets as scratchy and rough as day-old stubble.  I had a dream that I was sitting on a toilet urinating, and woke with a start to find that I had wet the bed for the first time in twelve years.  Fear and shame gathered me up, like the bedding I threw in the laundry chute, hoping my secret would go unnoticed.

A week later, when I had my own “room,” I got up and padded over to the locked door. I began to knock, tentatively at first.  Then, as my bladder complained, I knocked louder, banging with the side of my fist until it ached.  Finally, about an hour later, I heard the slow, methodical steps of one of the direct-care staff, her important keys jingling on the end of the lanyard.  She opened the door, rolled her eyes, and told me to hurry up. “That’ll teach you to pee before “lights out,” she grumbled.

My throat burned, making it hard to swallow.  I had the chills and realized I’m very sick.  Each morning after getting dressed, we stood in line down the long hall to see the nurse.  For the fourth time in as many mornings, she told me to gargle with salt water.  I finally refused to attend school and went on a hunger strike in order to get medical care. The ex-military nurse called me a baby before she found that my temperature was 104 degrees.

My plan had backfired on me.  The idea of running away to force my parents to wake up had almost gotten me removed from home permanently.  This was a place for castaways.  Here I’m taught how to smoke pot by a direct care staff. There is a nine-year-old and her two sisters who create more havoc in the milieu than the gang bangers from East Los Angeles. We all get pelvic exams, done in haste by a rough female nurse, and once they do mine they slap “Sexual Misconduct” on my record. I have never come close to having intercourse, the whole subject of sex confusing and still a mystery to me.

By the time I’m released, I’m angrier, more distrusting of adults, more disappointed in my parents, and more ready to take the world by the throat. I’ve learned a lot by being sent to juvenile detention. And none of it is good.

Unlike grownups, children have little need to deceive themselves.


Prayers for Thomas Peters

UntitledAnother hot, muggy morning in the City of Angels, smog so thick my eyes burned.  I wiped away another streak of black eyeliner running from the side of my eye and kept walking, keeping time with the jingle bells hanging from the end of the two leather strands I had fashioned into a makeshift belt.  Hitching rides had become routine.  On this particular morning, I had been hitchhiking for over an hour already, and I was tired of it, so I walked along the side of the four-lane highway, not even looking towards the cars as they whizzed by.  The heat rose off the asphalt, making waves that I could actually see.  I put my hand on my belly and shook my head, wanting to be sick in the street.  I imagined each passerby guessing my dilemma and worrying about the lone young woman on the side of the road. Unlikely.

A pink Volkswagen bus with hand painted peace signs painted all over it drove by and honked. “Sorry!  We’re full!” someone shouted from the passenger window.  I saw this was getting me nowhere so I crossed over to the other side of the freeway off-ramp, turned to face traffic and stopped, sticking my thumb out in the traditional hitchhiker’s stance.

The year was 1971 and I was on my way to the Los Angeles Free Clinic.  I was hoping against hope that my fears were unfounded; that it was some mysterious flu bug and that I was not really pregnant.  Again.

There must have been twenty-five to thirty of us in the waiting room.  There were few chairs, so most of us sat in various positions on the dirty tile floor.  I made myself small against the dingy walls, gray with the exhaled smoke from cartons of cigarettes smoked on an hourly basis.  I wanted to be sick again.

The doctor was young, and seemed caring enough.  After informing me that I was approximately 2 ½ months pregnant, he told me that if I was going to “do something” about it, it better be soon.  I did want to do something about it.  I was only eighteen-years-old and my son was only a year and a half.  The father of this baby had finally sold enough drugs to fulfill his fantasy of life halfway across the world in the Caribbean.  Who was I to ruin his plans?

Roe vs. Wade was going through the courts, so the doctor told me that I could obtain a legal abortion.  He asked me if I had any suicidal thoughts.  “No, not really,” I offered.  “Well, you need to say you are having suicidal thoughts,” he prompted.  “Oh, ok, well, yeah, I’ve had a thought or two about that these last few days,” I lied.

The next couple of weeks were a blur of appointments.  I had to see a social worker and two other doctors.  The day finally arrived and I took a taxi to the hospital for a quick D&C.  Nothing to it.  In and out.  All alone.

A week went by uneventfully, and I tried not to think about anything.  One night I woke up from the sound of someone screaming.  I felt a white-hot pain centered in my abdomen and realized the screaming was coming from me.  I clutched at my belly and began to rock myself furiously, afraid of waking up my Dad.  My mom heard me and came in to see what was wrong.  She ran back to the bedroom to get me a couple of my father’s Percodan pills.  Ah…bliss for about 3 ½ hours.  My Dad gave me more with the promise I would replace them when I got my own prescription.

The next morning, I took another taxi to the gynecologist’s office.  At first he acted like I was overreacting to normal pain.  After an examination, he discovered he had left a piece of my baby within me.  I had a terrible infection.  I told him I wanted a prescription for Percodan.  “Isn’t that a little potent?” he asked?  “It takes away the pain,” I answered, sighing.  Moron.  He seemed resigned as he wrote out the prescription.

I took another taxi home, too tired to try to hitch.  I took two Percodan and sat in the orange Naugahyde chair in my parent’s apartment for the rest of the afternoon, experiencing what it felt like to be underwater but still breathing.  I kind of liked it.  I felt no pain.  At least not the physical kind.  Another kind of pain was waiting in the wings.  When I lied to the doctor that day about my suicidal thoughts, it never occurred to me that in a few short years they would become my constant companions.

It is poverty to decide that a child must die so that you may live as you wish.
- Mother Teresa Of Calcutta

I have never forgotten those few weeks and the decision I made back then, forty-two years ago.  The other day I was with my grown daughter.  I looked at her and in a flash I saw her as a baby, then a toddler, then a young child, a pre-teen, an adolescent, and then the beautiful young woman she has become, full of promise, giving so much to the world, to her family, and to my grandsons.  I stood a little taller as I watched her.

I thought of her brothers, my sons.  My children are the deepest, most profound blessings of my life.  They give me my greatest joy.  They are each different and unique, yet we share blood, genetics, and a sense of humor that just won’t quit. I thought of that one person that is missing from my family line.  I often do.  That baby from long ago who would now be a man.  I wondered about him, who he would have been, what he would have looked like, what his voice would have sounded like, and all the missed kisses and hugs between us.  Yes, it would have been hard at the time.  But who ever said life was supposed to be easy?  I’m just sayin’.

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