Wednesday, December 19, 2012

STEALING FROM CHURCHILL

It's snowing today in Denver. The high temperature will be in the twenties. The wind is blowing hard, and it cuts through your clothes and shakes your bones- as I just discovered while walking my dog Padfoot. Most of the state has either a winter storm warning, or a blizzard warning. By most standards, it's pretty miserable outside. And yet,  I love it. Hamlet may have found providence in the fall of a sparrow, but I find it in a snow flake. Whenever the gods send the white stuff, as it starts to slowly drop down, I take it as a supernatural sign, a medicine for melancholy sent by Raven and Loki and all who have gone before me. I am not alone in this belief. Countless movies use snow as the signal that all is right in the world; as do songs. Look at the end of "It's a Wonderful Life". George Bailey is on the bridge where earlier that very night he was contemplating suicide. Now, he desperately wants to live, regardless of what happens. He pleads, "Please God, I want to live again...I want to live again." And what happens, to let us know all is well? It starts to snow.

It only snowed once in San Jose when I was a kid. For one day in February, the gods smiled and sent a message that all would be well. The day had not started out very promising. I awoke to my sister Heather screaming, and my first thought was that my step-dad Vern had done something horrible. I had just gotten the worst hair cut ever at his drunken hands (see previous blog). But after a moment, it was clear that her cries were joyous ones, and that she was screaming "It's snowing! It's snowing! Oh my God! It's really snowing!" I looked down to see is my brother Jerry's bunk to see what he thought- but he wasn't there. Something strange was happening. Something alien and fantastical. I leapt out of bed, and ran to my window. There in my backyard was magic, White Magic from on high. The impossible, always hoped for yet never expected, had arrived. On my street! Snow. It couldn't be real...yet there it was. I dressed in about two seconds, pulled on a never used beanie over my head, and ran outside. It was everywhere. My entire street was carpeted. In all my nine years, I had tried to imagine what it would feel like to see snow on my street, but none of those attempts at visualization did justice to what lay before me. Up and down the street, kids were running around, screaming and yelling and laughing and throwing real snowballs. Real snowballs! Rarer than any gem. I looked upwards- and the sky was full of snow flakes. I caught some on my tongue. I made a snowball and threw it at nothing in particular. I jumped up and down. The whole world was a giant toy shop, and all the toys were free. And I was part of it! I ran up and down the street. Some kids were trying to make a snow man. Other kids just throwing snow up into the air. I saw Jerry and Heather up the street, and ran up to join them. And then I said words I never thought I would be able to say.

"It's snowing!"

We all ran around, insane with joy. A snowball fight broke out, and we all joined in. And then a snowball knocked my beanie off. I didn't really care, but I noticed some of the kids staring at me. Andy, one of the older kids on my street, who had a penchant for being a sarcastic jerk, pointed at my head, and asked, "What the hell happened to you?".

In all the excitement, I had forgotten about my hair.

Andy started laughing. "Jesus, McAllister, you look like Frankenstein." I tried to think of something to say, but there were no words. Besides, Andy was right. I looked like a freak, a mutant of some of some sort. Other kids started to gather around me and Andy to see what was going on. "Who cut your hair like that?", Andy asked. I couldn't tell him my step-dad cut it in a drunken rage last night- our insane home life was a humiliation we kept to ourselves, a secret shame that we were all certain would ostracize us forever from the other kids if it ever came out. So I said nothing. "Who cut your hair?", Andy asked again. "The Shopwell Barber", I lied. Andy started to laugh. "Frankenstein! McAllister looks like Frankenstein".  The other kids started to laugh, and I started to cry.

Then Jerry stepped forward.

"Andy",he said, "you're right. He does look like Frankenstein. But you're an asshole. And in a few months, his hair will grow up, and you'll still be an asshole." I didn't know at the time that Jerry was paraphrasing Winston Churchill- I only knew I was saved. The kids all laughed at Andy- who wandered off to pick on someone else.

Soon, it was time to go to school. We begged and pleaded with mom to stay home, but it was no use. We trudged off to Strawberry Park Elementary, past other kids with parents wise enough to let them stay home. At school, all the kids were running around the big field, screaming and yelling and doing whatever we could with the snow. I threw a snowball at a girl named Amy I thought was cute, and got sent to our principal Mr. Van Workem's office. As I sat in the office, the sun came out, and I watched the snow melt away. I didn't mind all that much. For one brief moment, when I needed it the most, snow had come to my world. And when the snow failed, my brother stepped in.

By the end of that day, my new nick-name at school was Frankenstein. I never did tell any of the other kids who really cut my hair.

Now that world is gone- mom and Vern and Melvin the Great have all left this world, and Jerry and Heather and I all have our own lives and homes. But in spite of all that, or maybe because of it, I still often find myself drifting off to sleep, hoping against hope that I will wake up in the house on Belvedere in the land of Strawberry Park, and that when I do I'll hear my sister running up and down the hallway, her little girl's voice repeating the magic word:

"Snow...Snow...Snow!"






Thursday, December 13, 2012

MEMORY GAPS, THE S.O.K.F., AND A STORY

I have a few gaps in my memory- moments that have been sucked into the great Black Hole of the Universe, never to be seen again by waking eyes. One of those gaps is when I got a concussion in the third grade. Or was it the second grade? It was the result of a pretty bad bike accident. Or so I'm told. I don't remember any of it. I remember clearly right before it happened. My brother and I were riding our bikes around the block as part of the initiation for our club, the S.O.K.F., which stood for Save Our Kids Future. To get in the club, we had made up a bunch of things you had to do- initiations, if you will. The initiations all had something to do with dealing with adults, dealing with their quirks and strangeness and what seemed to be a mass case of crazy. To be in the S.O.K.F.,  you had to walk through a room full of adults unseen; go to the store, shoplift a candy bar, bring it home and show everyone, then go back to the store and put it back; climb on to the roof of Strawberry Park Elementary School.  One of the  initiations, or dares, was to ride your bike around the block after dark. I was the youngest of our group, and so they let me do it a little before it got dark, and with my brother Jerry riding with me. I remember heading up our street, Belvedere Drive, then turning right on Saratoga Avenue, then turning right again onto Manzanita Drive- then it fades to black, like in the movies. The next thing I remember, I was walking out the front door of my house, several days later. I'm told that after the accident, in which I flew over my handle bars and hit the crown of my head on a brick embankment, I had amnesia, and didn't know who I was, where I was, or anything. But for me, I was simply on my bike one moment, walking out the front door of my house the next. But that's not the moment I want to talk about right now.

The other moment I can't remember at all happened one February night when I was nine. I had not gotten my haircut, even though my mom sent me to the barber, and I was in trouble. My step-father Vern came home late that night, full of alcohol and had called me into the kitchen to set me straight. And then Vern pulled out a giant butcher knife and informed me he was going to cut my hair. I'm told I screamed and hid under the table, and that my mother ran in and told Vern he couldn't do that. I don't remember any of that. There's just this black hole where all that happened. At some point, it was decided that Vern would not cut my hair with a knife. He would use a pair of shears, and I was dragged into the garage, sat in a chair, and told to sit still while he cut my hair. This is where my memories fade back in. I remember sitting on one of the chairs from the kitchen, that apparently had been dragged into the garage with me. I remember the harsh flourescent lights. I remember Vern was wearing a white T-shirt. And I remember those steel sheers. Somehow, my hair had gotten wet. I remember Vern pulling some hair forward, snipping, letting it go. I sat very still. As he cut, from time to time I could feel the cold metal of the shears on my cheek or forehead. I could hear each cut distinctly-it sounded like when a stack of papers got sliced in the paper cutter at school. Now and then, Vern would stop and tell me it was my own fault, that I had to learn to listen to my elders, that I had to learn respect God damn it- respect! I kept thinking he was going to plunge the shears into my eyes. I didn't move a muscle. I didn't look up or down or away.  I was a statue. At one point, he accidently cut my ear. I didn't make a sound. It took a very long time for him to finish. It might have been five minutes, it might have been an hour. I really don't know how long it took- only that it felt like forever, like the rest of the world was gone, had never really been there in the first place. There was just Vern, the shears, the flourescent lights, and me. Then, I noticed Vern had stopped cutting. He was just standing in front of me, smoking one of his Camel cigarettes. He stared at me for a long time, right in the eye. Vern had strange eyes. Sometimes, they were kind and laughing. Other times, they were frustrated, angry, or sad.  And then there were the moments when all vestiges of humanity left them, and all that was left was pure rage. And these strange eyes could vacillate from one to the other in an instant.

So there we were in that cold garage, the young statue and the man with a thousand faces- looking into each others eyes. I don't know what he was waiting for- he just stood there, looking at me. I could hear the hum of the lights. Finally, he looked down, grunted "get your ass to bed", and that was that. He pointed to the door back to the kitchen, which was between him and me. I had to walk past him to go to bed. I didn't want to run, or get too close to him- but I couldn't make it obvious that I was trying not to get near him. I stiffly walked past Vern and into the kitchen. On my way to the bedroom I shared with my brother, I stopped to look in the mirror in the hallway to see what my hair looked like.

Where just that morning there had been a mane like a lions, all that was left were patches of hair of varying length. At some points, it had been cut almost all the way to my scalp, at others, it was an inch or two long. There was some blood on my ear, and bits of hair on my shoulders. It was one of the ugliest things I had ever seen. I started to cry. Not loud, of course. That would bring another lecture on why I shouldn't be a cry baby. I made my way into the bedroom, and climbed up to the top bunk. I lay in the dark, quietly crying. My brother called up from the bottom bunk.

"Do you want to hear a story?", he asked. I gathered myself as best I could and said "Yes." Then Jerry asked, as always, "Do you want a scary one or a nice one?" Most every night, I begged for a scary story. But not that night. "Could you tell a nice one tonight?"

There was a brief pause, then Jerry said "Sure", and told me this story:

"Once, there was a boy named Bobby who had long hair. One day, he got sent to a new school, and when he got there, he noticed that everyone else at the school had short hair. And they all noticed how long Bobby's hair was, and made fun of him. Now, this happened right near the end of the school year,  so when school got out, Bobby decided he'd show them. That summer, he got a his hair cut really short. He figured he'd surprise everyone the first day of school with his short hair, and then they'd all like him. But when he got to school, everyone now had long hair. When they saw Bobby, they made fun of him for having short hair. Bobby couldn't believe it- he was miserable. So he ran away, and let his hair grow long again. He lived in the mountains, hunting for food and sleeping in a cave. Finally, when his hair was long again, he came back to the school- but now, everyone had this crazy new hair cut that was half long and half short. And they all made fun of Bobby again. But this time, Bobby didn't care, because he finally figure out that it didn't really matter what people thought about his hair. He was him, and that was good enough. And after that, he lived happily ever after."

We lay in our bunk beds. Usually after a story from Jerry, I'd ask questions about the monster or the ghost or whatever the main event was- and I felt like I should ask something. But nothing came to mind. So I just sat there. Finally, sleep came for me, and I drifted off to sleep.

In the morning, I woke up to the sounds of my sister Heather screaming. There was confusion, then the thought that Vern had done something. But then, I heard a word. A word that couldn't be. How could she be screaming that word?

"Snowing!"

I looked down from my top bunk to Jerry's- but he wasn't there. Then I heard my sister again.

"It's snowing! Oh My God! Snow!"

Monday, December 3, 2012

THE DEMON BARBER OF STRAWBERRY PARK

I had long hair when I was a kid. This was the 1970s, and long hair was cool. Hippies, the Grateful Dead, the musical Hair- these had all paved the way for young men to have long hair. And I lived in San Jose, California- part of the liberal, cutting edge, new age love fest that is known as the Bay Area. Not that I was in the middle of Haight-Ashbury, walking around quoting Timothy Leary to my fellow fourth graders. Life was fairly subdued in my neighborhood of Strawberry Park. Still, I loved my long hair. It was brown, and turned sort of blonde in the sun, and groovy. Often, I'd run as fast as I could down our suburban streets just to feel my hair fly behind me. My hair was my joy, and belonged solely to me. My enemy was the barber, and I visited him as little as possible.

One Sunday morning in February, 1976, my mother announced it was time for us to get hair-cuts, handed my older brother Jerry some cash, and sent us off to the dreaded Strawberry Park Barbershop. If barbers were my enemy, the Strawberry Park Barber was their king- known the world over for hair-cuts that made you look stupid, lame, and infinitely uncool. There were other barbers in the area- more expensive hair salons, places that weren't quite so awful. But the Strawberry Park Barber was cheap. Thus, our patronage. I begged and pleaded to be spared from this cruel and unusual punishment. I promised to do my chores, to clean the whole house- anything! But to no avail- Mom was adamant, and so we quietly got out our bikes, and pedaled to the House of Horror. We rode in silence, each contemplating how bad our hair would be in a short time. When we got there, the barber's chair was empty. My brother and I looked at each other, two condemned souls. Jerry bravely said he'd go first. I sat down on a chair, dejected, and tried to read one of the boring grown-up magazines they laid out for customers. You'd have thought they'd at least put out a few comic books to ease the pain, but no. So I picked up a copy of Time, and flipped through it, page after page- trying hard not to notice what was happening to my brother mere feet from where I sat. I didn't want to look up and have to see what they were doing to him. It was too much to bear.  But Time magazine just couldn't hold my attention for so long. I looked up, to see how Jerry was doing. 


It was awful. Jerry's hair was popping up in strange places, and combed back in what was called the "wet-head" look. He looked like Dagwood Bumstead- and I am not exaggerating. I don't know how they'd done it, but they had.  Jerry smiled at me, hoping no doubt to get some encouragement. I probably should have smiled back, told him it didn't look so bad, that come to think of it, his hair looked pretty good. Jerry kept smiling. I kept staring. Jerry asked me, "Well, how does it look?" I froze. what could I tell him? I didn't want to lie, but the truth was too horrible.  I don't know how long I stood there, staring at him, mouth agape. He asked again, "How does it look?"  I blurted out "You look like Dagwood!", and ran out the shop, jumped on my bike, and pedaled away as fast as I could. I often wonder what Jerry must have thought, sitting in that terrible chair as he watched me make my escape. But at the time, I just rode as fast as I could, as far from that damned barber as my bike would carry me.

I rode without thinking. I ended up at Murdock's Creek, a natural creek that had been altered by the city with a couple of little dams that made perfect pools for swimming. You had to climb a fence and over a trail to get there, which gave it a sense of isolation. There were lots of trees, and frogs, and I loved it.  It was the unofficial spa for all the boys of Strawberry Park. When I rode up that day, my buddy Noel, and a couple of other guys, were goofing around, throwing rocks, climbing trees- doing all the things that could make a normal day fantastic. As I rode up, everyone was daring everyone else to climb one of the trees that surrounded the pond and jump. "I dare you to climb up ten feet and jump". "I dare you to climb fifteen feet and jump." They were somewhere near twenty feet when I arrived. Noel turned to me. "I dare you to climb to the branch with the rope swing on it and jump!" I looked up. That particular branch was pretty high up. At the time, I had a sleight fear of heights. "Scared?", Noel asked. "No", I lied, and began to climb. It didn't seem so bad up there. I got the branch and looked down at everyone. Some of the guys looked impressed, which felt great. Then Noel called up, "I dare you to go higher." All the other kids started to chant "Higher! Higher! Higher!". So up I went.  After about five more feet, I looked down. "Higher! Higher! Higher!" I climbed, higher than I had ever climbed before. I could see over the tops of the other trees to the rows and rows of houses in the distance, and beyond them, the Santa Cruz mountains, covered with clouds.  I could feel the tree sway beneath my weight. I edged my way out on the last branch that I thought could hold me up, far enough out so I could drop into the water. I looked down. All the guys were silent, awestruck, even a little afraid. Perfect. "How's this?" I yelled down. "Awesome", Noel yelled back up. I looked down. The water seemed far away. A cold wind was blowing. What in the hell was I thinking? I didn't want to do this. But I couldn't go down  now. I'd never hear the end of it. I'd be a loser, a wimp, a nothing. And I did not want that. I took a lot of dares back then that I ended up regretting- did things that were stupid and dangerous but that seemed to impress other people. If you wanted someone to jump off a roof, make a prank phone call, or ride their bike over a ramp- I was the go-to guy.  And here I was, out on a limb way up in the air on a cool February day.

I jumped. The water was freezing, but I didn't care. I was alive, and all the guys were yelling their admiration. Life was good. We spent the rest of the day running around, discussing the latest issue of Spiderman, and told whatever dirty jokes we knew. I was shivering most of the time, but didn't care in the least. Life, for that moment, was perfect. At the end of the day, we rode off into the sunset, young heroes who could do no wrong. The incident at the barbershop was a distant memory.

Sadly, my mother did not find the days events amusing. She said she had told my step-father Vern what had happened, and that he would talk to me when he got home. Sometimes, on Sundays, my step-dad had to go into work for a few hours. Usually, he was home by four. But it was past four already, and he wasn't home yet. This was not good. The later he got home, the more likely he'd been drinking. At seven, he still wasn't home. A dread silence pervaded the house. Nobody said anything- by this time, we didn't have to- a storm was coming, and there wasn't anything we could do about it. Around eight or so, we got sent to bed. Still no Vern. Then, sometime past nine, I heard his car pull up, the front door open, the tell-tale uneven footsteps from door to kitchen. Not good. I could hear Mom talking with him, and then I heard him call.

"Kelly! Get your little ass in hear. Now!"

I was scared. Dad, as we called Vern by then, had never beaten us or anything like that. At least not yet. But I was certain it was only a matter of time before he lost it and killed one of us. He'd gotten pretty angry before, and broken some plates and stuff, and it didn't seem like that much of a stretch for him to just go completely psycho. Sometimes late at night, as I lay in bed, I would hear him in the kitchen, opening drawers. We had this one butcher knife that was ridiculously huge, and I had this idea that he was looking for it, and that once he found it he would walk down the hall, open my door, slowly walk up to the bed, and cut my throat.  Whenever I could, I pushed that particular knife far back into the drawer.

"Kelly, God Damn it!"

I climbed out of the top bunk, looked at Jerry, who tried to smile for me. I slowly walked to the kitchen. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad, I hoped. Maybe I'd only get grounded, or spanked or something. Maybe they'd take away my bike. That wouldn't be so bad.

I stepped into the kitchen. He looked extremely pissed. Sometimes, it seemed like actual waves of anger would come off of Vern. I stopped dead in my tracks.

"Come here", he said.

I didn't want to do that. He knew it. I knew it. He pointed to the floor, right in front of him. "Come...", he said, and pointed again for emphasis, "...here".  This was something he'd do, pointing to the floor in front of him, commanding you to "come here". His entire body was tense, and I remember thinking he kind of looked like a snake about to strike. I still didn't move. He frowned, and his eyes somehow got meaner.

"NOW!"

I inched my way towards him, step by step. I've taken many walks in my life, even some pretty long hikes- miles in the mountains and through Europe and once almost all the way around Manhattan in the middle of the night, but I have never taken a longer journey in my life than those few steps I took that night in the kitchen of the old house in Strawberry Park.

Vern crouched down so that we were face to face- our noses almost touching. I could smell wine on his breath- sour and mixed with cigarettes. "I understand you had a little trouble at the barbershop", he said. slurring his words just a bit. I looked down and mumbled, "Yeah".  He cocked his head, as if he was looking at some strange, slightly disgusting animal. "Yeah. From now on, you do what you're told. Period." He liked to use the word "period" for emphasis a lot. I always thought it sounded stupid, but didn't think this the right time to tell him. "Is that understood?", he asked. "Yes", I said, trying to sound as contrite and pathetic as I could. But something about my answer was wrong. His nostrils flared, and he snorted out his breath like a bull. "Yes, what?", he demanded. I had no idea what he was talking about. Yes was a pretty direct answer, I thought. Yes. Positive. Affirmative. What had I said wrong? Should I have said "Yes, Dad" or "Yes, wise and powerful one" or "Yes you crazy son of a bitch?". He kept looking at me, expecting something. Then it hit me. Of course! "Yes, sir". He held his glare for a moment, then sighed. "Alright".

And that was that. I couldn't believe it. Was that all? Fantastic. I turned, and headed back to my room- but he stopped me before I got out of the kitchen. "Where the hell do you think you're going? Your mother wants you to get a hair cut, and you're going to get a God damned hair cut".

And then he turned, opened a drawer, and pulled out the butcher knife.

"Come...here".

NEVERLAND STAY WITH ME

Long ago and far away in a kingdom by the sea, I was a pirate in the service of Captain James Hook. It was glorious. I had many tattoos, a h...