July 27, 2008

Stratospheric Stupidity

Always look a gratuitous offer in the mouth. Say, "Thanks anyway, but no thanks, I don’t really need it." When I drove a cab, there were five words I learned to look out for: “I’ll take care of you.” Every time I heard them I got a creepy feeling. They usually preceeded a screwing. The first time, a guy put a gun in my face and robbed my money. Every other time someone either stiffed me or ran out on the fare. My ears prick up like a dog’s when I hear them. I start wondering how this guy is planning to do me. I seldom give anyone a chance to do me. In the first place, if you don't want anything it's hard to be conned. I am the original “low profile” guy. When I get a feeling that someone is out to do me harm, I will grow wings if that's what it takes to prevent it. Once I met three guys in a bar in Virginia somewhere near Washington. We were all doing construction work of some kind and looked it. I was working as a carpenter’s helper for J.D. Long & Company, a big outfit building expensive homes at Langley Oaks a half-mile from CIA on Old Georgetown Pike in McLean. They were so friendly and seemingly-interested in me, that I sensed they were up to no good. They tried too hard to put me at ease and win my confidence. So I let them think they had it. Maybe they thought I was gay and wanted to get me some place where they could change my face. Maybe they wanted to steal my truck and tools. I didn’t know what it was, but I knew they meant me no good and didn’t know that I knew. After the first round was gone, I asked if I could buy them one.
“Sure! Thanks a lot!" They all thanked me a bit too much. They wanted something. I bought four beers and set mine on the table, saying I was going to the bathroom. I had scoped the place getting the brew and knew it was by the back door, which was out of their sight. I went straight out the back, got in my van and hit the road. I laughed my butt off, imagining they were back there saying, “Where is that guy?” And another, going to check, coming back saying, “He’s gone!” I figured it took them 15 minutes to check, and a few more to get it. By then I was halfway back to McLean, where I lived on the job in a 1962 Chevrolet C-10 van that was my favorite van of all time. I had purchased it as an abandoned wreck and re-habed it to a mechanically-reliable and livable mobile home during one of the most-miserable periods of my life, a time when nobody was saying, "I'll take care of you."

I bought it for $150 in Ellenville, N.Y., from a co-worker who had bought it and left it unregistered in a field for two years. The title had been lost so I would need to trace the VIN number and find the last registered owner who'd sold it, who hopefully would sign it over again. It started with a new battery, and ran rough and had out-of-date plates, but I risked the daylight drive 50 miles back to Spring Valley, where I shared a house with a carpenter named Bill Kimber. The old truck had a fading red primer paint job and a crumpled left front quarter panel and sounded like a threshing machine. It was a busy Sunday on the New York Thruway, and I made about 10 miles before I saw a state cop in the middle ground looking at me. He pulled out to head me off, but too soon, and was under the overpass before I reached the exit, so I turned hard into the exit and saw the state trooper backing up hurriedly with his lights flashing so he could chase me. I went over the highway as fast as the truck would go, turned right, then left, then left again and so on, until I was in a maze of streets off the main road. I pulled into a church parking lot behind a shed and waited about an hour, then drove to 17M and stayed on it until I was close enough to take back roads into Spring Valley. The house where Bill and I lived on Maple Avenue had an old garage. I managed to get the front end inside, but the door was too low for a van, so that is where it sat for the whole summer it took to get the vehicle in shape. It was Spring, 1977, the Death Valley of my life. My employment was sporadic. I couldn't keep a job and didn't want to. The winter before had found me down and out and living with a black family in Englewood, N.J., which had taken pity on homeless me and invited me to live with them for a nominal rent, and even provided breakfast and supper for a little more. During that time I had managed to get into the CETA program that re-trained losers like me. I had opted for a six-month machinist course at Bergen Technical-Vocational School in Hackensack, two miles down River Road from The Record, where I had been a "chief reporter" eight years before. (Before the stupidity.) I'd reasoned somehow that being a machinist would be a good job. But it's a very technical job, requiring more math than I had, and I had no idea when I chose it how much I would dislike it. I had plenty of occasions during the next 20 years to wish I'd learned welding, instead.


Bill was a workaholic carpenter. He couldn't understand why I wouldn't work harder, or why I laid around the house doing nothing but reading, sleeping, getting stoned and watching television, and didn't seem to want anything else. I wanted plenty--I wanted to change the world!-- but my depression was so deep that I couldn't explain it to myself, much less to him. I was still on the run from Lake Charles but didn't know it. I thought seriously about hanging myself in the garage. My former wife said not to do it because it would hurt our son. If it hadn't been for him, she might have encouraged it. After all, I had faithlessly run out on them three years previously for a multitude of reasons that I used as excuses to evade my resposibilities. The national retreat from the activism of the Sixties and my personal implosion and suppressed rage over the imprisonment I'd suffered in Louisiana still occupied my mind like a television that wouldn't turn off. Some mornings I awoke with my sister Pat on my mind and the one-way argument continued, but we hadn't spoken since 1969. The time I'd spent in jail had marked the end of my relationship with everyone in my original family except my mother and grandmother. Mike had always been half-crazy and now he was a drug-addict and a jailbird too. Nobody wanted anything to do with me but no one told me directly. I didn't want anything to do with them either, though I missed my uncle Sherman, whose phone number my dear grandmother would not give me. A template of anger was stamped on my brain like a brand, and everything I said or wrote leaked sarcasm, scorn or venom. My constant talk about politics and war and the necessity for the American people to get off their butts and put a stop to it was rat poison in the largely middle- and upper-class enclaves of Bergen County, N.J., and Rockland County, N.Y., where making money was the order of the minute, the hour, the day, the week, the month, the year, and the century. The reality of my hasty decision to walk out on my wife and kid (my abandonment) had finally smacked me in the forehead. I was a coward and a bad father, and now someone had invented a term that fit me fine: "Deadbeat dad." Nobody called me that, but I knew that's what it was. It stung, even though I was in full denial. It was a miserable time for me, and I had brought it on myself with selfishness, dishonesty, irresponsibility, grandiosity and stratospheric stupidity exacerbated by alcohol- and drug-abuse. The three machinist jobs I'd managed to secure after finishing the school had all ended badly. I quit one in a huff of weariness and disgust and was fired from the other two. The truth was that I didn't want to work, and I hated those jobs. I managed enough work each month helping a carpenter to feed myself and pay my share of the rent on the small two-bedroom house, but not much else. One day I just said screw it and applied for unemployment. To my surprise, I got it. The bi-monthly stipend was adequate if I didn't go anywhere or do anything costing money, so I decided to tighten my belt and try to rebuild the engine in the C-10. I planted tomatoes in the back yard and by summer I was living on tomato sandwiches with mayonnaise. Again, Bill was incredulous that I would collect unemployment and not look for work off-the-books to get ahead of the game. Everybody did it. That's what unemployment was for! But I was tired of being exploited, as I saw it, by mechanics, who knew in an instant how little I knew about cars. More than a year before I had returned from a 30,000-mile round-trip to the Northwest Territories of Canada and California with a nice old Rambler Classic that I'd lost because I didn't know how to fix the brakes. I wanted to hit the road in a vehicle I could sleep in and this was it. The first thing I did was procure from Spring Valley's great library the hardback mechanics' version of the Chilton's manual for that model and study it until I had the section on engine rebuilding nearly memorized. That was one thing I could still do--study. In fact it was all I wanted to do. I even read a book on British thermal engines so I could understand why internal combustion engines worked. One day when I thought I was ready, I rented an engine hoist, and Bill and I disconnected the straight 6-235 engine, which was one of the best engines Chevy ever made, and lifted it out. Bill nearly was squashed when the engine swung and trapped him temporarily in the engine compartment. Somehow we struggled it over to a sturdy bench, and I started dismantling it by-the-book. Though I had been a reporter and a miniature golf course manager, a taxi driver and a public relations doofus, I was no stranger to tools or their use, due to the four years I had served in the Marine Corps, driving and servicing 32-ton amphibian tractors (amtracks) with Continental V-12-cylinder engines.

Joey and Jaime were living nearby in Mahwah, N.J., with her mother in a nice, big house, and her family was all around her, so she wasn't starving, or lonely either, as far as I knew. I didn't want to know. Her mom, a clever, handsome, intelligent but manipulative businesswoman, was helping Joey get her life back on track with money and good advice. Joey had returned to Hollins College for her Master's Degree and was looking for scholarships to acquire a Doctorate. I was alone as usual with absolutely no support system, no plan beyond going elsewhere, little money, no friends, and a hero in my own mind. I just wanted to be alone. My lifelong wariness of people had turned to active dislike for most of them, and it was all I could do not to haul off and slam some guys who got on my nerves. I'd come a long way from the days when I was afraid of bullies. However, the first impulse I had on meeting people was to get away from them as soon as possible. I managed to see my son every couple of weeks when he came over to spend a night or a weekend , but it wasn't enough of course. I loved the little chap, so fresh, bright and exuberant, the same way I'd been at that age. But I was carrying a secret resentment that I would not have admitted to myself at the time, because it clearly was wrong and like all resentments misshapen, illogical, self-defeating, dishonest, crippling and futile. I had not wanted a child when Joey had become pregnant our first year of marriage, had nearly begged her to have an abortion (a Catholic) and, though I had stopped objecting when she had resorted to tears, and had accepted the birth with as much grace and gratitude as I could muster, cripple that I was, Jaime's appearance was yet-another impediment blocking me from a life of freedom (from responsibility.) Of course it was a lot of crap. Then there was the obvious fact that he had managed to take my wife literally right out of my loving arms and turn her devotion to me into devotion to him. Ha ha ha! Can you see it? I was jealous of that little guy and resented the fact that his mother cared more for him than for me. Finally I had a woman, and God had sent another male to take her away. Poor me. And poor kid, who had, just as I had had no knowledge of the rape my mother had endured to have me, no inkling of it, and wasn't to blame for it anymore than I had been to blame for my own birth. It was all me. I knew it, but I really didn't know what to do about it. It was how I felt and a lot of feelings are unreasonable. Everything was going wrong. Resentment can make you crazy and an alcoholic too. I had a load of it that probably started piling up when my mother had abandoned me to an orphanage in Chicago. I was into beer then and when I had the money I would sit in a local bar playing the juke and making a fool of myself with women. It was obvious that I would go nowhere without money, and in order to get "filthy lucre," I had to find a good-paying job, then save and invest my earnings. (How could I do that and still get high every day?) What's more, the work-scene was changing and I possessed few marketable skills. I wasn't commune-material because I was too withdrawn and sometimes downright anti-social; "uptight," in other words. I had had a good-paying job at The Record, and had abandoned it for adventure, drugs, politics, promiscuity, bouncing around the country like a ping-pong ball and carefree irresponsibility. The idea of putting a suit and tie back on and going off every day to exchange phoniness and falsehoods with other prisoners-of-business appealed to me like hanging upside-down over a vat of cat urine. I still tried to be a good father though. I hadn't any money except the pathetically small amounts in my wallet, and Joey was getting getting Aid to Dependent Children and help from her wealthy mother. I was assurring myself that I had done the best thing for them, that they would be better-off without me (they were,) and this was the only way I could prevent my son from catching my neuroses. Can you see it? I'm a 10th grade dropout who keeps falling for Catholic women with English degrees. Cindy had had one too. (And there were others afterward.) However, few and brief as the occasions were, my son and I had happy times. We walked along the railroad tracks that ran alongside the house, and I taught him to walk the rails like a tightrope. For me it was like being back on the tracks that had run by my grandmother's house in Westlake, when I was his age. We found things, examined rocks, saw snakes, looked under trains as they passed (it was a work track,) and found salamanders. Once we climbed trees. If there was a stream, I taught him to wade it, and later when we camped more, I had him jumping from slippery rocks over fast-flowing water. I thought it was important that he learn these important skills, because how else do boys develop balance and confidence? His mom wasn't out tramping through the woods with him, or teaching him to sit quietly beneath a tree until the other animals judged it safe to come out again. At night I read to him. We faithfully watched Star Trek together, with me talking to him about the Future and other things I didn't know anything about. Everytime we got together I would say, "Come on, Jaime, let's run!" and he would waddle alongside me. (By age eight he easily ran a mile, and later he won "Iron Man " of his high school, and ran varsity track four years for Yale.) We loved each other when he was young. He was like a miniature me with Joey's nice manners. It had scared the hell out of me when a boy was born. I might have been a better father to a girl. I knew what boys went through in this meanness passing for American society. One of the things going through my mind when Joey and I were arguing about having a baby was the line from a Dylan song that went: "You've hurled the worst fear, that can ever be hurled/The fear to bring children into the world..." (Masters of War) As far as I was concerned, the End of the World was any day now. We were still in a nuclear standoff with the Soviet Union, and American politics was getting stupider and meaner by the minute, with Reagan Rising. Everything felt urgent and necessary. Also, I was consumed by guilt and hating my own guts. I wanted to get back with Joey and and give it another go, but we'd tried it once, and I didn't have the guts to ask her to try again. She was fed up with me anyway, though she was much too gracious to say so.

And now perhaps you are wondering why I walked out on this beautiful person. Aside from the fact that I was selfish and self-absorbed, had grandiose ideas and was in full-revolt against almost everything and even God Himself, it's obvious that I suffered low self-esteem and felt inadequate to take on the responsibility of caring for two other people. And never having had a father except my distant and aloof stepfather Sidney Havenar for five years, I had no model of a father to copy. I had grown up in a family full of women. I would have been a better mother. Sidney hadn't even taught me to defend myself. When I'd complained to him about the bullying at school, this guy who had killed Germans all over Europe had advised simply: "Don't fight, Mike." I'd learned to defend myself when I tired of having my face shoved into dirt and went in the Marine Corps partly to learn how to fight. I didn't want it for my son. I wanted to teach him to defend himself when he got older, but God help me I didn't want him to be a bully. (And he isn't.) Yeah, I thought I was doing okay with Jaime. I was giving him what I had to give, but I was a stingy bastard overall. Stingy with myself and stingy with money. I couldn't lower myself to do what fathers have had to do since the first one recognized his own child: provide. I was wallowing in self-pity and could barely provide for myself. I was 36 years old, and "crippled inside." (John Lennon)

In 1974, we'd been living in Passaic in a comfortable but small second-floor apartment on Hope Street, a few blocks from the Capitol Theater, where I never attended one concert. I was driving our old Volvo back and forth to New York, or taking the bus to drive a taxi nights for Chase Maintainence on West 47th St., my first garage. I was busy learning the city in my methodical and obsessive way, and Joey was spending all night and half the day alone with Jaime, because I slept till noon. I am a guy who really needs sleep or I am hard to live with, but it was impossible to sleep for long because the little tyke was always shouting or crying or coming in and crawling over the bed. I took it as good-humoredly as I could, but sometimes I would be irritated. Poor Joey was bending over backward to make it easier for me, but the cab-driving job and my growing feeling of inadequacy and helplessness were wearing me down. On top of that, women were making obvious passes at me on the job, and it was getting tougher to turn them down (which I did.) Why is it that women go after married men and guys with girlfriends? Because they know they are sexually active, I believe. And married guys are less likely to tie them down. But I had no reason to cheat on Joey, and I truly did love her. She was the only woman who had ever liked me enough to marry me, and she was as sweet, lovely, smart and delightful a gal as a man could want. She was much smarter than me and better-educated. She was the only woman who had ever made me laugh at myself. She teased me from my pomposity and exposed gently and humorously some of my more ridiculous ideas. She was so far better than me that I sometimes wondered what she saw in me. ("You were interested," she explained years later.) More important than anything, she had been my sole support during the 18 months I'd spent in solitary in the Calcasieu Parish Jail, and sometimes I think she saved my life doing that. Of course I was falling like a statue of Stalin in my own eyes. It bothered me to know that she could do better with another man, or simply without me. I also had a feeling that I could stick it out half in misery for 10 years, and she would probably end up leaving me anyway. Like I said, abandonment issues. (Abandon them before they abandon you.) Meanwhile all this political stuff was going on in New York and the damned stupid war was still dragging on. I couldn't get my mind off the war and like a dummy still thought I could do something about it. Then on the other hand I was realizing how screwed-up and mentally crippled I was, and didn't want to infect my son with the same maladies and conditions that had malformed me. But being the arrogant and impulsive person I was, I was sure that by the exertion of more will I could solve all this stuff myself, and save the world too. It never occured to me to seek mental health or family counseling. Whatever was wrong I was sure I could fix it, if I could only find the "key." Joey sometimes teased me about finding that key. Not only did I want to get out from under the unwanted burden of fatherhood, I wanted other women, but tried not to admit that. The only antidote to resentment is gratitude, but I didn't know that then. What I had was monumental ingratitude.

One morning Jaime woke me once too much, and I got up agitated. Joey was calming me and explaining once again that she couldn't do much about the child's natural exhilaration, and Jaime was running around under my feet like a little puppy and laughing. I couldn't focus on the both of them, so I picked him up and gently tossed him on the bed, where he bounced in happy surprise. But Joey took alarm at my sudden movement and like a mama bear protecting her cub moved toward me rather aggressively, I thought. So with a learned-response to aggression I grabbed her and started my right fist toward the side of her head. Before it got there I realized what I was doing and opened my hand. The back of my fingers harmlessly grazed her skull and I stepped back horrified at what I had almost done. At that moment I knew it was no use. If it kept on I would end up hurting her, and maybe Jaime.

"Joey," I said, pulling on my clothes, "I'm getting out of here. I'm leaving." I wasn't going to be a battering husband or an abusive father. I saw no other way to prevent it.

"Really, Mike?" I never saw anybody so crushed by something I'd said. God I can hardly write about it.

I packed my backpack with clothes, Eric Fromm's "The Early Marx," and a three-volume paperback set of "Capital." I think Joey was crying quietly in the kitchen. Jaime was blissfully unaware. It took me about 15 minutes and a few tearful moments of explanations and promises and a hug and a look to get out of the house. It was winter. I had about a hundred bucks. I let go and started to tremble while waiting for the bus, but it wasn't from the cold. It had scared me half-to-death to almost hit my lovely wife.

I didn't know where to go, so I went to Manhattan and got a room for the night in the YMCA on the East Side in the Forties. I took a picture of myself in the mirror bundled in coat and pullover cap and still have it. I guess I was recording a watershed moment. Before the sun came up I walked down First Avenue until I came to the loading dock of the Daily News. Within a minute I had a ride with the guy who delivered the papers to Maine. North was okay with me. If I could have, I would have gone all the way to the North Pole.

I wanted to freeze the frame. I was running away from the stupidest thing I ever did.

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