I was thinking about the experiences of my youth (like that time I was caught up in not-quite-a-cult, but it definitely wasn’t not-a-cult) and I thought back onto a week-long road trip I took with one of my father’s good friends. It was one of those formative life experiences.
It’s a good story, or at least one I want to remember. I live my blog like amnesia is just around the corner. Gotta write it down or it will be gone forever.
It’s been a very challenging/rewarding/exhausting last month and the thing I need to do is sit and write. Writing is profoundly restorative and I simply haven’t had the time to do anything at the end of the day but drag my butt to bed.
Back in 1988 I was suffering the purgatory of “summering” in Newark, New Jersey where my mother attended graduate school. If you aren’t familiar with Newark in the 80’s take my word for it, it was a crime ridden shit-hole of a town ravaged by the 1967 race riots. It was still on its knees from the violence and struggling to recover. In other words, a wonderful place to be a kid.
My parents’ custody agreement awarded the academic year to one parent and all vacations to the other. In retrospect I felt commodified, like I was something that they got to share for their own pleasure; or maybe it was an equitable sharing of burden, there’s always that possibility.
Either way, not part of the equation was what I wanted, and it sure as hell wasn’t rotting in repurposed project block housing all summer when I should have been enjoying being a teenager with my friends back in Salt Lake City.
It was complete isolation. Dorm security required that I be signed in and out by a resident as I was considered a guest for the entire summer. I couldn’t come or go without my mother there and she was mostly gone all day. I grew up in San Francisco so wandering the city on my own was something I was okay with doing, but being trapped outside all day was almost as bad as being trapped in.
That’s when I got a call from my father’s good friend Bob (not his real name).
Bob was like an uncle and I always enjoyed it when he came around to my dad’s house. His visits always involved a spectacular party replete with props, music, themes, and the kind of creativity that would be right at home at Burning Man.
I understand more now that I am grown, both his desire to be the center of attention as well as the reclusive silences in-between. He was a spectacular entertainer, fully capable of creating a party out of nothing, of spinning a story so complete, so captivating, that he could keep a crowd of people hooked on a tale that would otherwise be completely mundane. But he could elevate it to the sublime.
I remember the story about when he tried to vault over a parking meter … not realizing it was a double meter … and getting caught in between. On his crotch.
Two second story, right? No. A 30 minute saga of aspiration, pain, and humiliation that had everyone gasping for breath at the Hunan Garden on 21st street.
I deeply understand how being capable of such feats of performance take their toll, leaving one depleted and needing solitude. I’ve been there.
So when Uncle Bob rang me in my mother’s dorm saying that he was visiting Jersey and how about swinging by and picking me up for a road trip, I said yes. My other option was to sit in my mother’s dorm room while she was in class, surfing the five staticky channels on TV, reading Russian novels (I set high goals), and writing letters to friends because those were the days when you didn’t call someone out-of-state; long distance calls were 20 cents a minute.
They were the worst summers of my life and they could have been the best. The following week was a shining diamond in an otherwise burlap sack of the summer of my 15th year.
My parents didn’t have any objections to me going off the grid for a week. It was the 80s and my mother was absorbed in her work and while she was absolutely convinced that my father would molest me if we were left alone together for five minutes, she didn’t seem to worry about his friend picking me up in his car and whisking me away for a week to who knows where.
Back then you never really knew where someone was, you just figured they would come back. I kind of miss those days.
My father? Bob was one of his best friends, why would anything happen? As it was, nothing did, but my god …
Ultimately I’m glad no one objected, it was a crazy road-trip that might make an interesting short film. It was amazing and strange and it might have even given me a taste for the random that I have never grown out of. And living in Newark in the 80’s fucking sucked.
Bob was this enigma of a man. If there is one true thing about him it is that absolutely loathed mediocrity. If he was anything, he was brilliant and creative. Nothing stopped him. He picked me up in a borrowed car we set off on a week-long trip down the memory lane of his childhood in upstate New Jersey. I don’t really know why he chose to take me along for the ride.
The first thing he did was crack open a beer while driving. I was the child of Just Say No and also a proscribed rule follower so this made me nervous. Then he handed me a paper road map and declared me the navigator of the New Jersey Turnpike.
This was a cold sweat inducing role. My mother is the worst driver. And I mean worst. She once came to a full stop on the New Jersey turnpike because she missed her exit. She didn’t pull over, she didn’t get on the shoulder, SHE FUCKING STOPPED IN THE MIDDLE OF THE FREEWAY! I can’t believe it didn’t cause a massive pile-up.
Getting into a car with her felt like putting my life into the hands of Chaos with ADD.
What’s worse is that she would hand me a map and then scream it me when we inevitably got lost. I can feel my stomach turning over just thinking about the tension mounting in the car as we both realized we were hopelessly lost. Her way of dealing with it was to yell at me.
I’m not the best driver ever, I’ll own that. But I would never stop in traffic and I would never put navigation in the hands of a child. I can’t tell you how much I love Google Maps.
I don’t even give a shit that sometimes Google takes me the long way because at least someone knows where we are going, and it beats the hell out of being screamed at my mother because she’s lost and her 11 year-old doesn’t know where they are.
But I digress.
Bob picked me up, put away the beer when I expressed my discomfort (which surprised me, I wasn’t used to my feelings mattering), and he didn’t seethe with parental disappointment when I couldn’t figure out where the fuck we were. He never yelled at me.
I can’t remember what we talked about, I was what, 15?
First stop the Poconos, the mountain summer resort town made most famous by the 1987 movie Dirty Dancing.
Bob had friends with a cabin in the famous mountains. I don’t remember much except the cabin was secluded and it was on a pond that I swam in. There was a small dock to jump off, the murky water was nestled in dense forest. I flinched at the feeling of sunken vegetation brushing my feet, it filled me with dread.
The people were old (like, 40) and I can’t remember what we talked about, if anything. Most likely I sat quietly as the adults talked.
Bob and I slept in twin beds in a room and at night we talked ourselves to sleep.
Sleeping in the same room with Bob can be perilous (I’ve done it many times) but it could also be fun. There was always singing and story telling and self-revelation and laughter. He was like Garrison Keillor only funnier, wittier, faster, and sharper. He was also a total letch, so there was always deflection involved.
He made a very discomforting comment about, and I quote, “I wonder what my friends think of me on a Lolita-esque road-trip with my young lover.”
To be clear, I was not a young woman, I was a child, and I was most certainly not his lover. But I heard his fantasy and like every good pre-millennial female, I deflected and pretended to fall asleep in my own narrow bed.
It’s what frustrates me the most in this time of the Kavanaugh hearings when old white men scream about how if Ford had been attacked, why didn’t she say something?
Girls weren’t supposed to tell, I only told once and realized it was a big mistake.
When I was in the second grade, I told my mother that a man working at the after-school program at the Chinatown YMCA made me uncomfortable with his constant back-rubs and attention. I twisted in pain as she marched me down to the office and in front of that man made her complaint and I was forced to speak against him with him looking directly at me with all the emotions clear on his face.
It was awful. She was trying to do the right thing but it took an uncomfortable situation and turned it into agony. From that moment on I realized that it was better not to talk to parents, it was less shameful to handle it myself. It was my burden. No one ever discouraged me from talking, in fact my mother liked to grill me about my father’s behavior, seeking for a reason to strip him of custody.
Back to the trip, I read Lolita. I knew what it meant. In fact, I read it when I was 13 on a trip to Paris with my father. A trip my mother warned could lead to being raped by my father if I shared a hotel room with him. She demanded I insist on my own quarters.
Given how budget minded my father was – and who gets a separate room for their kid? – there wasn’t a chance in hell it would happen. Plus, I would have to explain why. I would have to tell my dad that I wanted my own room because my mother worried he would molest me. Can you imagine that conversation? It was a horrible position for her to put me in. It was a vindictive and vicious attempt at post-marital warfare.
Of course I never insisted on my own room, I never even brought it up, it was unreasonable and would lead to a conversation I simply couldn’t have. And no, my father did not rape or molest me or do anything remotely inappropriate EXCEPT he read Lolita the entire time – passing it on to me when he was done – to enjoy in the confines of our spacious king-sized bed.
It was a miracle I slept, but I truly believe he was unaware of my state of mind.
My father is a lover of language – I think I got my love of language from him – and he insisted I read the book because of Nabakov’s magnificent prose, not even considering the content and the parallels that could be drawn given what I was being fed at home; but let me just say that it didn’t help me sleep. Nor did it help that I was defying my mother.
I am a people pleaser and being caught between authority figures is the worst thing I experienced as a child. My dad did well holding his tongue when it came to his grievances with my mother, but my mother did not possess the same restraint. She was hurt by their marriage and I was collateral damage.
Back to Bob.
Bob and I worked our way up the gorgeous Garden State Parkway to the tiny bedroom community he grew up in, something straight out of Calvin and Hobbes where children had vast forests to roam in their backyards.
He took me to the house he grew up in … we even knocked on the door and were invited in to sit to with the new owner in a very outdated parlor. They were considered the new owners despite the fact they lived house 30+ years. Bob and I politely perused their photo albums and ate stale candy from a glass dish on the coffee table.
I think about moments like that when I was forced to just be in there, where escaping onto social media wasn’t an option … there is a value in it.
Bob showed me the lot where his mother parked her car during her daily train commute into “the city.” He confessed that he regularly took the family car on joyrides while she was away, never asking for permission. And how he wasn’t always able to park it anywhere near where she left it, and how he swallowed his guilt when she fretted about her failing memory when she searched and searched for her car, never able to remember where she parked it. How he let her believe she was losing her mind.
To that day he felt guilty about gaslighting his mother for the sake of wheels.
He took me by Joe’s pharmacy and lunch counter and ordered the famous Sloppy Joe, a sandwich consisting of three slices of thin-cut sourdough, layered with turkey, Swiss, Thousand Island dressing, and coleslaw.
He said that back in the day if anyone wanted to guarantee turnout to a meeting or a community event, all they had to do was promise Sloppy Joes for everyone. We took the Sloppy Joe – wrapped in rapidly disintegrating paper – to the local swimming hole and ate it on the pier while kids played around us. I remember the sauce dripping from the sandwich into the water. I was grateful for the lake to wash my hands in. The sandwich lived up to its name.
Fast forward a bazillion years to when I ordered a similar sandwich from Dish Gourmet (a deli in Boulder) and I struck up conversation with the owner. I said, “You know, this sandwich reminds me of the Georgian Reuben from Zingerman’s deli in Ann Arbor, Michigan – a favorite sandwich and place of Loony’s.
The owner said, “Yes! I know the place, but actually it comes from a lunch counter in upstate New Jersey.”
Then I related my story with Bob and it turned out he grew up in the same place. Will wonders ever cease? I hadn’t made the connection before but it was clear why I have an affinity for turkey reubens with slaw.
Back to the road trip. Bob and I searched for his mother’s grave – which we found after talking to the caretaker – and drove through his past. I felt graced to be part of this reckoning, although I was far too young to fully understand what it means to be in one’s middle age and revisit one’s youth, as I am now.
From there we drove to Groton Longpoint in Connecticut. He had friends who lived on the rocky shore in one of those ramshackle, old-money Victorians. Old money in that everything was falling apart, and there was a grace to it. It wasn’t a McMansion. It wasn’t a magazine house, it was a family summer house passed down through the ages, replete with antiques and family photos everywhere. It was a deeply lived-in home.
The matriarch, perhaps taking mercy on me, took me onto to rocks to hunt for muscles. She showed me how to scrub and de-beard them, and then how to steam them in vermouth and garlic to serve with toast points. I doubt anyone would eat a muscle foraged from that body of water these days. I loved it.
Their house was crumbling, held together by wainscoting and wallpaper. The closest bathroom on the first floor was outside the kitchen in the outdoor changing room, there was also an outdoor shower to rinse off the sand from a day at the beach.
On the bathroom wall was a needlepoint sign that said, “Please do not throw tissues in the toilet. Dispose of them in the waste receptacle.” Clearly their plumbing was in as bad a shape as the house, but it didn’t matter. The fix wasn’t to replace it, it was to accommodate it.
I remember this because over a grand dinner that started with the muscles I wrested from the rocks, at a long table laden with more dishes, silver, and crystal than I have ever seen, Dirty Uncle Bob led everyone in an improvised opera featuring the admonishment from the bathroom. He had us standing on chairs, banging on pots and plates, singing verses in operatic voices of “Please do not throw tissues in the toilet…” at the top of our lungs.
It was magical. For the night I was part of an old family, brought together with food and stories and music. I was one of them for an ineffable moment.
Then it was over. Bob dropped me back off on the Dekalog like steps of student housing in Newark and was on his way. I don’t think I saw him until I was 19, once again sharing a room with him in Thai boarding house, once again deflecting his advances. But that’s another story.
I might have got the order of events wrong, but it all happened. The awkwardness slipping away from his innuendos, the dread of the murky water, the transcendence of being part of an old, old family that ate and cooked and sang together, the bittersweetness of paying respects to his old home, his mother’s grave, and his childhood stomping grounds.
He drew me into his history, taking me to the places, sharing the flavors of youth, telling me the stories, and giving me sweet independence in an otherwise stifling summer. I wonder why I was there, maybe he wanted company, maybe he was hopeful of his Lolita fantasy coming true, maybe he just needed an audience to make the experience feel more real.
Whatever the reason I am grateful for that week (and that I emerged with my virginity intact) and the appreciation it has given me for strange trips. Everyone should have at least one.