Making Peace: Personal Essays
Coming down into the Los Angeles basin, through Cajon pass from the Mojave desert, has always seemed like a descent into hell. The continuing desert heat that simply takes on humidity, the whiskey-colored sky, the ambience, almost an odor, of fleshly sin and cultural corruption, have remained in my mind since 1959, when, as a new first lieutenant stationed at George Air Force Base in Victorville, I first drove down the pass, taking Charlotte on an excursion to see the sights of Hollywood and L.A.
In May 1991 we made the trip from Provo, Utah, down Interstate-15, to help our daughter Katherine, who lives in Fullerton, south-east of L.A., with the birth of her fourth baby. As we passed Victorville, we talked of our two years there, about Jennifer, our own fourth child, who was born on the base and almost died because of a diaphragmatic hernia and collapsed lung that went undetected too long. We had heard the base was about to be closed and wondered if we should go and take photos of the cinderblock government housing where we lived and the barracks hospital where Jennifer was born. We could take them right to her, now that she was living near Kathy. But we pushed on through the noon sun, down through the pass into the grey-yellow haze, anxious to reach Fullerton in time to greet Jordan, Katherine’s oldest, arriving home on the bus from kindergarten.
From I-15 we turned west along Highway 60, then south on 57 to east Fullerton, west on 91 to Euclid Avenue and north to Wilshire. As we turned back east on Wilshire, we saw masses of blue-violet foliage standing out against the grey sky ahead of us, dominating the skyline with color that shimmered, as we approached, with an electric inten-[p.108]sity that I later found would not register on the photos we took. Coming along Wilshire towards Woods Avenue, to the corner where Kathy lives, we could gradually see that that street was lined with blossoming trees. Dr. Seuss trees, Katherine called them, when I asked what they were.
After unpacking, as I walked under the trees, I could see her whim in the playful, absurd way they branch, like badly drawn elms, and the storybook profusion of the flowers, covering the grey trees before leaves come, dropping constantly into huge violet pools at their feet, until the whole street was a purple river. I walked around the pools where they washed up onto the sidewalks and lawns; it was wrong, too profligate, to crush the blossoms. I thought of the southern Idaho dryfarm where I was raised, the sparse blossoms of spring, brief apple and plums in April, and in May wild honeysuckle and sweetpea. A few homes had flower gardens, with snapdragons and bleeding hearts, and some had hollyhocks—and lilac bushes, violet like this but spare and brief.
Each bloom I picked up was identical—fluted into a three-inch trumpet, washed almost pink outside but deep violet within, like a snapdragon from my youth but more rich, exotic, and open, without the trap we could see the bees push open and then pull open ourselves and let snap back. The blossoms fell constantly.
Jordan, six, and Jacob, four, alternately shy and rowdy, showed us their new bedroom upstairs and its bathroom, made from the old attic furnace room, with an entryway left big enough for a bed for Charlotte and me. Katherine had decorated everything in her unique version of California funky: hand-painted dressers and closets in the boys’ room, some with parts of clowns’ bodies just coming onto the scene, some mottled black and white like a Holstein cow; vintage Batman and Beatles posters on the walls, with an original 1920s “Watch for the Children” roadsign over the stairway down, the running boy in knickers; a few single glass brick scattered in the walls between rooms, and the bathroom and guest-room/entry painted pink with sponged on swatches of peach. Hannah, two, woke up from her nap and gazed at us from Katherine’s arms for awhile, her head pushed so deep into Kathy’s [p.109]neck she could only peer sideways at us.
Katherine had been having pains for a few days, more regular the day we arrived, and she had tried to reach her doctor, thinking she might deliver that night or in the morning. Just as I was taking the boys off to bike over to Euclid Avenue for ice cream, the doctor called back and said he had a meeting that would run late and she’d better come in now. Kathy rolled her eyes at me, mouthing “Men!” but after she hung up, she said, “He’s probably worried about a repeat of Hannah. She came ten minutes after I went in to the hospital, while he was still trying to get his gown on.”
Charlotte took Kathy, with Hannah, over to St. Jude-Fullerton, left Kathy, and came back just as we returned with ice cream. Charlotte and I were immediately full-time parents again for three: dinner, fights, TV and arguments about stopping, bed-time stories, prayers. Paul, Kathy’s husband and a dentist, went straight from his office to the hospital at 5:30 and was able to stay with her through the birth at 11:00 and on through most of the night. He told this story:
“I’d had five one hundred dollar bills in my wallet since last week when a patient paid me in cash. Kathy had been talking about having an epidural for the first time. With Hannah the pain was so bad the last ten minutes she thought something had gone wrong and that she would die. It was pure terror. I stood there watching her give out these killer screams. I’d never seen anything like that and couldn’t even move. Anyway, this time she started talking about getting the epidural and paying the anesthesiologist with that cash—and, if she could talk down the price, having something to buy some post-pregnancy clothes at the Nordstrom sale.
“So when they put her on oxytoxin around 7:00 and the pains started to get stronger, she found out from the nurse an epidural usually costs around $800. But she had me go get the anesthetist who was on call and she began talking with him. I’d found out he gets a regular $600 a night fee for just being there–the word is these guys live out of their suitcases—even if he’s not needed. He gets a percentage of the first two cases, enough to cover the $600, and then gets a higher percentage of anything else.
“Kathy told him, ‘Look, I’ve never had an epidural, and I don’t [p.110]have to get one. If we pay cash so you don’t have to bill us, how much will you charge?’ He began telling us—he still had quite an accent—how he had trained in Taiwan and had immigrated and worked in hospitals all over and never been paid enough. He said (after awhile) that he’d have to have $450. He might have been thinking that he wouldn’t even have
to report this one and could get the entire fee.
“Kathy told him she had three one hundred dollar bills that were his right now if he did the job. Otherwise, she’d go without and he’d get nothing. He continued talking about his history and troubles—it seemed like maybe half an hour—and then mumbled that he had to get his money, that he’d just spent two hours with an epidural patient across the hall. He’d do it for $375. Kathy said, ‘I’m quick, forty-five minutes at most,’ and stuck to $300 or nothing. He said $325, and Kathy shook her head. He walked out.
“Five minutes later he came back in with his equipment. He had her kneel on the bed and bend over to expose her spine better, and then put in the needle—which Kathy told me later hurt like hell. She flinched and he yelled, ‘Don’t do that!’ and proceeded to tape on the needle and its tube and package of anesthesia and the flow-metering equipment. Later the woman across the hall said hers didn’t hurt a bit. Maybe he was thinking, ‘Cheap job,’ when he stuck Kathy. Two hours later, the baby came, and he took his equipment and the $300 we’d placed in an envelope. The next week Kathy took a big box of See’s chocolates to him at the hospital and thanked him. I can’t believe it. She hasn’t mentioned that sale again, but she’s got the 200 bucks.”
Paul brought Katherine and the baby home the next day. Such a short time still seems strange, even wrong, to me, even after watching my daughters and daughter-in-law come home in a day or two with all our eleven grandchildren. After each of our own six children Charlotte stayed in the hospital four or five days—and my mother was gone at least a week with my baby sister in 1938. Katherine seemed more fragile than I had ever seen her, sitting and moving slowly and cautiously, walking with obvious pain. I could feel a sharp shadow between my own legs that made me flinch.
The baby was well-formed, looking a lot like her brother Jacob [p.111]but with dark hair. And she seems caught in my memory with the jacaranda—blue eyes and pink skin tinged with violet color. All during the three weeks we stayed, the blossoms fell, the pools formed and were crushed by cars or swept away and formed again by morning. Wherever we went in Fullerton the trees stood out against the grey sky, and whenever we returned to Kathy’s they formed our horizon. Each day, sometimes twice, I would take two-year-old Hannah for a walk, holding her hand or sometimes facing her forward in the stroller. As we went out the front, turned right, and headed south along Woods I avoided the pools of violet, going up on the harsh lawns of hard bentgrass, which had been designed for the desert. All around the block were strange California flowers in dry earth. In about every second yard a few agapanthus, which came originally from South Africa, were just coming into bloom, simple iris-like foliage near the ground, with a three-foot stem at a slight angle and then the six-inch ball of small blue flowers, like the first image of a fireworks burst. Two homes had callistemon, from Australia—”bottle-brush trees” Kathy called them, and I found that is one common name, for the obvious reason that the flower-clusters, hanging profusely in all directions from the tall, central shrub, look exactly like pinkish-orange baby-bottle brushes.
Jennifer, who lives with her husband Mark (a lawyer) about a mile away in a restored early twentieth century California bungalo that was moved to make way for a downtown Fullerton parking lot, calls her callistemon “the humming-bird tree.” All the homes I saw had trees or shrubs or flowers strange and attractive to me, rich in color or profusion (like the massed red bouganvillea vines spilling over trellisses and porches and white-flowered hedges)—or just unbelievably shaped, like the strelitzia, bird of paradise, its blossoms just starting to appear among its banana leaves like open-mouth green cranes’ heads (upper beak missing), with spiked orange crests and blue tongues—or with orange-winged, blue-billed hummingbirds launching out of their mouths. When I turned from the jacaranda pools on Woods west onto Amerige Street, we were under rows of magnolia, with dark shiny leaves and huge nests of pure white lotus-like blossums. Then, on both other legs of the block, there were palm trees, 100-foot Washingtonias, each with a huge thatch of dead fronds circling the trunk right under [p.112]the new fronds, short, straight wine and date palms with deeply striated trunks, and a few leaning smooth-trunked coconut palms and an occasional small coco polomosa.
Along the side of Kathy’s house, next to Wilshire, she has planted scarlet canna (from the West Indies), which have banana leaves like the bird of paradise, but then profuse stalks of electric red blossoms, somewhat like huge lilies in shape but much more heavily massed. When we turned back on Woods to the front of the house, I stood under the jacaranda until it seemed my own eyes had been colored.
Jacaranda blossoms usually come before the fern-like, compound leaves that started to appear soon after we got there, but the blossoming is staggered so some trees have both—as well as empty seed-pods from last season, still hanging like open grey castenets. Jacaranda mimosaefolia is one of fifty varities, most of them native to the high deserts of South America. “Jacaranda” is from the language of the tupi-guarani peoples, in which it refers to the richly colored, hard, dark wood; these native people use it to make bows, its boiled bark as a cure for fever, and its leaves to make a fish poison.
Now it is cultivated in most sub-tropical areas, from northern Australia to Florida. If it is watered too much the leaves come first, spoiling the dramatic appearance of bright mauve flowers against grey branches, so the recent dry spell had much increased the effect of our first vision of them. The blossoms last into fall and give way to the rich masses of pale-green leaves, like ostrich plumes, which gradually turn yellow and drop in late winter, leaving the seed-pods to burst open just before the blossoms come out again. The tree grows fifty feet high and arches out fifty feet to easily cover streets and front yards. In South America it is known as Brazilian rosewood and was long used, until used up, for cabinet-making, because it is beautifully colored in rich browns, very hard, and does not weather even if left in the rain. Urban Brazilians tell me that they have never seen such a tree, except in botanical gardens. Furniture, mostly nineteenth century, made from the wood, is extremely rare and expensive.
Kathy had painted her house a bright mauve blue that picks up the agapanthus and jacaranda, as well as contrasting with the stucco bungalows along Wilshire. It is an older neighborhood, with small, inexpensive homes built in the 1930s and 1940s, and not only the mature jacaranda and magnolia line some streets but large pepper trees and the palms. The homes, of course, are much more expensive now, like all real estate in California cities, but even so the neighborhood seems quite middle class, though unusually diverse, with a large number of hispanics. The neighbors seemed close and at ease with each other, especially a family across Wilshire that rents a small wooden cottage that Kathy bought and fixed up. Even while Kathy was recovering from her delivery, Maxine would call and ask to send her children over while she ran an errand–but then Kathy sent Hannah over for whole afternoons when I made a couple trips to see friends. And one man from down the street would simply appear at the back door and ask to borrow things. Kathy complained to me that he kept bringing her bike back with a flat tire, but I didn’t notice that she stopped lending it.
So I was surprised at an article in the Orange Country Register that she had saved for me from back in January, right after the Gulf War started. It led with a color picture of Kathy and reported on the anti-war banners she had nailed to her front porch, which sticks out prominently, close to the busy intersection of Wilshire and Woods. The article reports that the banner she had put out in December, “War … Everybody Loses,” had disappeared three days after the air war began on January 16. The next one, painted on a white sheet, “War: $500 million/day, Can Our Children Afford It?” had also been torn down and taken. The reporter quotes Kathy as saying, “It makes me sad to think people believe I’m unpatriotic. My neighbors and I have always looked out for one another in the past … I’m an American. I love this country because people can say whatever they believe.” The reporter talked to some neighbors who disagree with that idea. One said, “These men are sacrificing their lives to make sure all goes well for us. To put up a sheet like that is disgusting.” Another, who had noticed that Kathy put out a Dukakis sign amidst all the Bush placards on her neighbors’ lawns and that she had an unusual flag flying on holidays, told the reporter, “They’ve always been different than everyone else,” and that she hadn’t minded until the war began: “It offends me. It’s like putting up a sign to say you support a rapist and a murderer.”
[p.114]The reporter, giving Kathy’s background and apparently quoting her, says she “was raised in a politically liberal family in Palo Alto.” I think of those days when I was a graduate student at Stanford. I had been raised in a politically conservative family in rural Idaho, served in the Air Force, ready to fight in Vietnam, voted for Nixon in 1960. But at Stanford I experienced something that shifted my spirit. I had access, through the Stanford Graduate Library, to translated news accounts from the foreign press—and so I was exposed to a greater variety of views and information than ever before. I had grown up believing not only, as a Mormon, that the U. S. Constitution was God-inspired, but that U. S. Presidents were inspired also—at least that they were noble and honest men. Then, reading various accounts of the Tonkin Gulf incident that President Johnson used to justify bombing Hanoi and to get Congressional approval to escalate the war, I became convinced he was lying, that, in fact, the “incident” was created not by a North Vietnamese attack but by our government’s easy recourse to violence and arrogant willingness to mislead its own people.
Years later the lie was proven and admitted, but in the meantime we proceeded with a war that killed tens of thousands of Americans and millions of Vietnamese and desperately wounded our nation. In 1964 I was heartbroken at first, then angry. I joined the anti-war movement and many other causes and spent much time, away from my family, pursuing them. One day I came home very tired and impatient. It may have been while I was spending afternoons after class going door-to-door in south Palo Alto, using my Mormon missionary training to keep up a cheery, articulate patter as I tried to convince people to vote for fair-housing legislation and hearing again and again the argument that they weren’t prejudiced but just thought apartment owners ought to be free to set their own rules—it was more American: “The rules are the same for everyone. Negroes and Mexicans can go get their own apartment buildings and keep us out.” Anyway, I came home late and angry, and getting ready for bed Kathy sassed me over something. And the only time ever, I struck her—slapped her across the face. “Oh, Daddy,” she said, and refused to cry.
I looked again at the full color picture at the beginning of the newspaper report. It showed Kathy—clear violet-blue eyes serious and [p.115]aimed straight at the camera, lovely hair, chin held high, a little too high—in front of the special flag she made to display from her porch on holidays and patriotic occasions. It has the regular field of blue with fifty white stars, and the seven white stripes, but in place of the red stripes are yellow and green and blue and brown and black and orange—for all the rainbow of peoples and ideas in our country and for Mother Earth. The end of the report tells of another sheet Kathy had painted and was about to hang on the porch: “Support Our Troops. Hate the War.”
On Kathy’s family bulletin board in her sewing room I saw another clipping. It is from the Fullerton Daily Star-Progress, March 7, and is a quarter-page picture of Jordan and a girl about his size, in front of a window, apparently of their school, on which has been painted “K-2 Salutes the Troops” above a huge bow tie. The caption reads, “Golden Hill School kindergartners Kelly Brady and Jordan Nelson rest brushes after painting a yellow bow tie on the media center’s window to show support for Operation Desert Storm troops.”
While Kathy was still at the hospital, I got some messages for her and for Jacquelin, the El Salvadoran Kathy has been helping get naturalized. She used to live in the small upstairs bedroom, with board and room for babysitting, until she got married to Carlos. Now she is pregnant and Kathy pays her to come by once a week, between other jobs, to help clean and watch the kids while Kathy takes a break. But mainly they are friends. They speak in Spanish, which Kathy learned on a mission in El Salvador during the worst of the civil war fighting in 1977-78, and they talk about her family there and the continuing troubles and about making it in America. Carlos, who is a trained machinist, works 60 hours a week at $4.50 an hour, trying to save up for the baby and a better apartment. Jackie takes whatever tending or cleaning jobs she can. Neither can get regular, well-paying work until they qualify for green cards.
One woman who called for Jackie asked me to take the number and have her call back. I said I’d didn’t know when Jackie would be by and she should call Kathy and find out, and then I forgot to tell Kathy when she came home with the baby or Jackie when she visited later in [p.116]the week. On Friday I heard Kathy’s voice rising, then pleading, as she talked with someone. As she hung up and turned away toward the back door, I could see she was crying. “That witch,” she said, as she walked out. A few minutes later she came back in and dialed and I could hear the pleading again: “But they’re counting on this weekend. They’ve planned to be there.” After a minute she went on, “They didn’t know you’d called. Please don’t blame them because the message didn’t get through.” She ended politely but then sat down at the table, shaking with anger as she told Charlotte and me what had happened.
“These people from Brea hired Jackie and Carlos to tend their house this weekend. They demanded a reference, which of course meant someone white to vouch for hispanics who they were willing to pay half the going rate and who will put up with that but who they don’t trust because they are brown. So Jackie gave my name, and the woman’s husband—he’s behind all this but makes his wife do the dirty work—had her demand I bring them out to the house to meet them. You know how sharp Jackie and Carlos are. They dress great and look great together, and even the woman was impressed. That’s probably why she decided to ask them to tend the house the whole next month while they go to Tahoe. But when she couldn’t get through, he must have decided he was right the first time, that `Mexicans’ are undependable. So now she’s called the whole thing off, not just the month but this weekend too. It’s not fair.” She teared up again. “And Jackie and Carlos were counting on the money and a chance to move out of their apartment for a month and save even more.”
I asked her if this was usual, this much prejudice still.
“Oh, yes. And I have it, too. I resent it that I have to pay everything to have my baby and Jackie gets the whole thing free on welfare. Everyone I’ve known who served a mission in a third world country is prejudiced against the people of that country.” She glanced up sideways and smiled. “I hate El Salvadorans–but these people with the cabin at Tahoe. What scum! And that shop where Carlos works. They know he’s worth twice as much but that he won’t make any trouble for fear he’ll lose the job.”
On Friday Charlotte and Kathy took the baby and went shopping, [p.117]which left me with Jacob and Hannah. Carlos and Jackie came by just before Jordan got home from school at 1:30. They didn’t seem as bothered by the loss of their month’s job as Kathy was. Carlos had the afternoon off and took the boys to the park while Jackie started doing wash and vacuuming. When Hannah woke up about 2:00, a crew had just arrived to do the yard work, and I took her out on the front porch swing to watch. The first to come was a young hispanic, who drove up, in a ’76 rusted red Camaro, on the Wilshire side of the house about ten to two and sat there eating a hamburger. Two others, older hispanic men, came at 2:00 in an ancient black truck. When I described them to Kathy later, she told me their names. The young man is Jesus Manzo, the other two Pascuala Mendez and Leonardo Nava. “Leonardo is the oldest,” she said, “a sweet man.”
When the truck pulled up, Jesus took out a gas-powered blower, strapped the motor to his back, and began blowing the jacaranda blossoms into piles along Woods Avenue. Pascuala took out a weed-eater and hoe and began working through the flowerbeds against the front of the house and in the narrow flowergarden, full of the scarlet cannas, that runs between the fence on the Wilshire side and the kitchen and family room windows. Leonardo did the mowing, first the parking along Wilshire and then Woods and then Kathy’s front lawn. Hannah and I were facing front and didn’t see him take out the mower, but Paul later told me he is the only man he has ever known who is strong enough to hold the large powermower at arm’s length when he lifts it out of a truck or puts it back in.
Leonardo mowed with steady concentration, never once glancing at us. As Leonardo finished each section, Pascuala would leave the flowers and trim the edges of the sidewalk with the powered whirling vertical blade that showered sparks when he occasionally touched the cement. Then Jesus would come over and blow the grass and sticks and blossoms from the lawn and sidewalks along to a dirty canvas square, which he would use to gather them for dumping in the truck. But mainly Jesus swept the pools of jacaranda. The crew did the smaller yard across Wilshire, too, the house Kathy had bought and rented out, which also fronted on Woods. So Jesus swept the violet blossoms in growing waves along Woods from the north to the intersection, then [p.118]across to the front of the truck for gathering. Then he swept back from the south along Woods, in front of Kathy’s, and around the corner to the truck. Hannah and I, keeping silent against the buzzing motors, watched the mounds of color build and then saw the blossoms mashed into the sheet and poured into the truck. As the crew left there were already more jacaranda blossoms spotting the manicured lawn and clean sidewalk and forming the dim outlines of pools on the street as the truck turned and made a track of crushed blossoms through the pools as it left.
That night Kathy told me the crew came twice a month and did essentially all the yard work on both lots—no planting—for $120 a month. It took the three of them about an hour, which works out to about $20 apiece per hour, but they must buy and maintain all their own equipment. Over the three weeks I could see that most of the homes along Wilshire had yard service and that the crews were all hispanics or orientals.
On Sunday we visited the singles ward where Robert Rees is bishop. It was the first sunday, testimony meeting, and after the sacrament a young man in levis and a full linen shirt and white cap to match walked up to the pulpit and thanked the ward members for accepting him as a homosexual. He related how he had struggled to combine his faith in the Gospel with his conviction that his sexual preference was an undeniable part of him, not a sin but something to live with. He felt it was working out, that he could live a faithful, chaste life, that he was acceptable to God. He quoted the passage from Isaiah 56 about eunuchs: “Thus saith the Lord unto the eunuchs that keep my sabbaths … and take hold of my covenant; even unto them will I give in mine house and within my walls a place and a name … I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off,” and said he saw there God’s acceptance of faithful people with sexual differences and believed the general authorities would become more accepting eventually.
Rachel Jacobs gave her name and talked about learning to accept herself as a unique, worthwhile woman. She wore a dark dress and black tights, hair simply brushed back, no lipstick. She spoke some-[p.119]what haltingly about finding that in this ward that she didn’t have to be a Molly Mormon to be loved, that she didn’t have to punish herself anymore. Later Karyn Pate picked up this theme. She talked about the ward as a place where there were indeed “no more strangers and foreigners” and said how much Bishop Rees had contributed to that spirit, especially for women. “I’m so grateful,” she said, “to know that I don’t have to be a Stepford Wife—a submissive robot, a thoughtless pleasure-machine—to a man to be a real Mormon woman.” She half turned back towards Bob, gesturing, and laughed: “I’m grateful Bishop Rees isn’t a Stepford Bishop.”
The last speaker approached the pulpit tentatively and announced he was Keith Fitzgerald, used to seeing this building only from above—as a traffic reporter flying daily over the freeways. Though he was trying to use the forms and phrases he had first heard that day, it was soon clear that he was not a Mormon, but had stood up simply because he wanted to join in this interesting form of personal sharing. He told how he had wished to know more about what made his Mormon friends tick, of being invited, of finally coming today, of liking the informal confessing and wanting to join in. He told a little about his life, busy but lonely, his yearnings for meaning. He hoped he would be able to come back.
We went from sacrament meeting to Sunday school, where Sue Bergin taught about the parables of lost sheep and coin and prodigal son, and then to priesthood meeting, where, because the instructor had called in sick that morning, Bob had me teach the elders. They were all in their twenties and thinking, in fear and trembling some of them said, about marriage. I had them turn to 2 Nephi 26:33, and we talked about what it could possibly mean that “both male and female … are alike unto God.”
After the meetings the ward gathered on a patio for what had been announced as a “mingle and munch” to break their fast—sliced vegetables and dip, punch and cookies, and much lively conversation that continued for an hour or so, well after we left. An older, deadly serious man came up to me as I was trying to find a place to sit along the patio wall and thanked me for the priesthood lesson. He had been quite defensive in class (“Why are we talking about this, when the Prophets will be the ones to decide what it means and to give women the priesthood”) until I had reminded him no one had mentioned priesthood and had reassured him we were not trying to decide official doctrine but to explore what this obviously important but little discussed scripture could mean in everyday courtship and marriage. Now he seemed at peace and genuinely grateful.
I had seen the youth in the linen hat in a quiet corner talking with Bob, and now he came over and asked me to go someplace private with him. He said, “I know you’re a friend of Bob, and I want to know what you think of what he just told me. He said I was not to speak in his meetings about what the general authorities might decide in the future about homosexuality, that it could seem disrespectful. Isn’t testimony meeting a place to tell the truth, honestly and openly?”
I said, “It certainly is. And you did. And Bishop Rees has helped create a ward where you can feel free to do so and to ask for and get the love and understanding and help you need. But he is also bishop to all the rest, including some who may have been offended by what you said today. To keep this a ward where all, not just you, can come and be helped and keep coming back to be helped and to help others, he needs to give some direction, like he’s just given you, according to the inspiration he has the special right to receive as bishop. I’d listen to him carefully, as I think you have in the past about other things where he helped you.” He tightened up at first when it looked like I was giving him a sermon. But then I stopped and we talked about my own outspokenness and how being a bishop had cramped my style as a general gadfly. He laughed with me and relaxed and we were able to talk about his own cross for a while.
Late in the afternoon we went to the Reeses’ to have dinner with a visiting poet at UCLA, Alice Fulton, and her husband, Hank DeLeo, a fine artist who had provded the cover for her latest book, Powers of Congress. The home is a rather simple, English-style cottage that Bob and Ruth bought when he began teaching at UCLA in the 1960s—and that he added some bedrooms to as their children came, redecorated, including hand carving all the doors and window frames to look like English hammerbeam. Bob sent me out into the yard to pick some huge, luscious lemons to make slices for the ice water for dinner. I [p.121]spent some time looking at Ruth’s flowers, perhaps spruced up for the sale, but gorgeously lush—roses in full bloom along a low ornamental front fence under a huge Monterrey pine and, along the front walk and around the doorstep, clumps of deep purple, and a stunning bush I had never seen before. It was formed into a large circle at the top of a single thin trunk and completely covered with purple and white flowers, shaped like honeysuckle but much larger. Ruth called it “yesterday, today, and tomorrow.”
Bob had become good friends with the Fultons when he planned and directed a tour of China by a group of noted American writers and their spouses in an exchange series he had set up through his work as director of the Arts Division of UCLA Extension. Bob and the Fultons began reminiscing about the trip, especially the pervasive sexism they encountered in the attitudes even of the avant garde Chinese writers and scholars traveling with them. In that politically sensitive situation, they had felt some need to restrain their opinions, even their questions. Alice said she had felt especially constrained as a woman and a guest, but then she turned to Bob’s sons, Matt and Bobby, whom he had taken with them, and told them how much she had admired and appreciated them on the trip: “Your innocent dignity and good hearts were soon clear to our hosts. They could accept from you better than anyone the lesson of your treatment of all women you met and the challenge of your guileless questions.”
I had been reading from Bob’s copy of Alice’s poems before she came, with its cover by Hank, to whom the book is dedicated—a violet and blue, yellow and black swirl of abstract, bird-like forms. The poems are crowded with ideas as well as images, intricate and dense in their rhetoric, even when using vernacular. Many are religious, some ironically so, like “The Gilt Cymbal Behind Saints”—or “The New Old Testament” (which is spoken by God): “Least Little Ones, / gnash your teeth till Kingdom Come, I won’t be there / to intervene, who would have let the South secede, / Hitler kill six million more.”
One evening I took the Amtrak to L.A. Jennifer had ordered tickets for the Joffrey Ballet, performing in its last-ever appearance at the Civic Center. She and Charlotte drove up to the city to visit museums [p.122]in the afternoon and were to pick up Mark at his office, then meet me at the station. The train, I had learned from Mark, a lawyer who rides it each day to work, comes up from San Diego, passing through the affluent beach towns and the edge of Irvine and past Disneyland before stopping at the small Spanish-style station in Fullerton where I got on–and then plunges into what Mark calls the underbelly of Orange County and Los Angeles. The next town is La Habra, where hispanics have extended their houses with added-on rooms and lean-tos for extra relatives until the houses nearly fill the yards—just like what he saw in Brazil on his mission, Mark claims. As I went through I did not see the man Mark said often comes out to flip the bird at the train.
Not long after La Habra the train began to pass through miles of industrial plants and warehousing yards. The Lever Brothers factory is a tangle of huge tanks and flumes, pipes and spouts that I could imagine filling tanker trucks with liquid Palmolive soap. The distribution yard for the Ralph’s grocery chain, at least ten acres, was stacked with what looked like dry goods being loaded onto trucks, keeping maybe fifteen forklifts busy. Further on were acres of Toyotas and Nissans, fresh off the ships at L.A. Harbor I imagined. The reds and metallic greens shown bright and still dust-free in the setting sun.
Then the train crossed the L.A. River, really a huge concrete storm drain now, perhaps thirty feet deep and about two hundred feet wide, with a channel, six to eight feet across, flowing down the center. The slides slope up at maybe thirty degrees, so people and even cars can get down into the bottom. I could see a few trickles of liquid flowing from pipes along the sides, and the water in the channel, though it seemed fairly clear, was edged by froth and made phospate bubbles in the eddies. Some of the concrete on the sides and especially the buttresses that supported the trestle we crossed on—and others I could see on up the river for each crossing street or set of tracks—were all covered with graffitti and paintings, layers of patterns upon patterns. The paintings were garish—mainly, it seemed, symbolic—but I couldn’t make out the slogans, except near a large glass with a line painted across the middle and words to the side, “HALF EMPTY OR HALF FULL?”
As we slowed and turned north along the riverbed, I could see the [p.123]shining towers of downtown L.A. and just to our left the huge Amtrak switching yard and then a long wall which I learned from Mark is part of the L.A. County jail and an adjacent police station. I could see just outside the wall what looked like a moat, perhaps seven feet wide and six feet deep. A few men were putting sheets of plywood across this. Although the evening was warm, they were dressed in layers of clothing, including winter coats. One wore a Raiders jacket over a long dress coat. Most had on scarves or hats, a few had Lakers caps. I looked out to the right and could see a man and woman and three children bathing naked in the channel and then, just under the next trestle, a group of boxed lean-tos, with clutter all around, shopping carts and paper and clothes and cans and plastic toys and junked cars. In what seemed a clearing in the middle were two couches and some chairs with people in them and a fire circle.
That night, driving home after the ballet, Mark told me that occasionally the city bulldozes these shanty-towns for the homeless that develop under the trestles along the river by the jail and on public property and even on sidewalks right next to city hall. The people start to rebuild the next day. He thinks some choose the quarter-mile long area by the river because it’s close to the police station in case they are attacked. They organize themselves into “families” for security. The people seem to be mostly hispanics, some anglos, but he has seen no African Americans. He sees almost no one in the morning; they seem to be already out on their business by 7:15 when he passes. In the evening, returning home about the time I rode up to the city, he sees more people, often getting shelters ready for the night. Sometimes he sees people in the city pushing their shopping carts. He says they often seem very intent, each grasping their cart with clenched hands and moving quickly and directly, their eyes fixed ahead. They seem intent on going someplace terribly important.
Mark told me he had seen a news report about the arrest and imprisonment of one of the graffitti artists. Apparently some take great pride in their work, especially in getting it widely spread around and onto many inaccessible surfaces. This artist, whose name is Chaka, had put his works in 200,000 places in L.A., many high on granite and marble walls of buildings, which cost thousands of dollars to remove. While [p.124]he was in jail, others continued to copy his style and sign his name to their work.
After a week Kathy and the baby seemed to be doing well and the other kids getting into a schedule, so my help wasn’t much needed. I called Jim McMichael, a friend from Stanford graduate school in the 1960s and now a poet and teacher at the University of California at Irvine, to see when we could get together. He mentioned he had been invited to read a poem at a service honoring the war dead on Memorial Day, the next Monday, and I invited myself down to hear him and have a visit.
Kathy had planned a family outing, along with Jennifer and Mark, for Memorial Day morning at Irvine Regional Park, so we went a little early and took an extra car so I could drive on down from the park to Jim’s. We drove east on highway 91, then south on 57 past Disneyland to Chapman Avenue and followed it east through Anaheim and northern Irvine into the first hills of the Santa Ana mountains, then turned left on Orange and into the huge park that had been formed around the outlet of Irvine Lake. We wound through large, mowed fields and cultivated shrubs and trees, to the fountains and ponds and large trees just under the lake, where there are tables and swings and asphalt paths that lead up and down the wooded hills, around the ponds, and across bridges.
Charlotte noticed that everyone we saw was black or hispanic, and Kathy, who can’t resist taking a little advantage of her mother’s innocence, told her that the park was reserved for non-white races—which she believed for a few minutes until she saw Jennifer’s grin. Along the road back of where we parked and laid out our food in front of the car, a large group of African Americans, apparently from a church congregation, were gathered, sometimes singing, occasionally moving in a group up and down the road, almost in formation. An older man seemed to be their leader, exhorting the group from time to time about something I couldn’t hear, then walking off with one or two of the young men in intent conversation, then helping one of the children with their bike-riding or frisbee-throwing.
Jordan took off along the paths on his bike and Jacob tried to fol-[p.125]low him, sitting inside his red plastic tricycle-car. But he couldn’t pump up the hills, so I got him to let me push him up a small hill and coast down—again and again, screaming with frantic joy as he barely steered away from the pond at the bottom. Kathy seemed worried about Jordan being gone alone, so I walked around the ponds until I found him and brought him back. I pushed him and Jacob in side-by-side swings for awhile, keeping them out of phase so I could push Jordan with a strong right and follow through and then step back and push the lighter Jacob with a strong left. Kathy got in her van and watched us awhile, intently, while she nursed the baby. She is thinking of naming her Bronte, after the English sisters who wrote novels.
I had planned to leave at 12:30 but Jacob turned up missing, and I did a fast run through all the paths until I could hear Kathy calling that he had been found. I drove fast back along Chapman to highway 55 and south to where it meets I-405 right by the new John Wayne Airport. I turned left onto I-405, immediately left again on Jamboree, then, after a few blocks through the new Irvine business district, right on Alton Parkway and a few more blocks to where I could see the Civic Center on the left. I was late and worried about missing Jim if I didn’t go right to the Plaza where he had told me he was speaking. I made a lucky guess and turned into a driveway that took me around the back, where I could see people gathered at the crook of the L-shaped building. I parked and slipped along a covered walk that took me close to the stand, where Jim had just stood up. I moved behind a pillar and watched him from the side as he read what turned out not to be a standard poem but a short prose meditation:
As I understand them, Memorial Day services are for the living. They offer the living a chance to offset at least a little of their immeasurable debt to men and women who died in war. I confess that I don’t like to think about the nature of that debt. For what Memoral Day obliges me not to forget is the difference between a living person and a dead one …
It had been eighteen years since I had seen Jim, the handsome face with eyes that crinkled deeply even in a shy smile—and the perfect body that our friends from New York, Robert Pinsky and David Thorburn, [p.125]had mocked affectionately as making him a caricature of the California jock. Now his hair had greyed and receded, making his fine tan even more dramatic. I noticed the skin was loosening along his jaw.
Because it was each one of their bodies and not my own that was undone by war, the judgment about what they died for is a judgment each of them alone had to make and not I. While it is tempting to believe that each willingly gave up his or her body for reasons each judged worthy, I am not sentimental enough to believe there wasn’t one among them who judged otherwise.
I watched the crowd, seated on folding chairs in the sun, many with American Legion caps, and wondered what they could make of this effort by my friend to be fully true both to his ritual public responsibility to the war dead (and these patriotic mourners) and also to his private hatred of what had killed them—his rhetoric stretched to the breaking point:
Memorial Day obliges me to remember all the persons who died in war, not just those who found reasons worth dying for. And as it obliges me not to speak for any one of these dead, Memorial Day obliges me as well not to speak to them by saying thanks. Just as they are not pretending to be dead, I must not pretend that even my simplest words can reach them. Memorial day obliges me to pay my respects not to what I wish with all my heart these dead could be but rather to the irreplaceable persons each of them once was.
There was polite applause, a few remarks from the mayor, a Souza march from the band, and the service was over. I stayed back while a reporter talked with Jim, then I embraced him, noticing he was taller than I had remembered, met Amy, and then followed them to their new home in faculty housing: From Alton we took Harvard, lined with immaculate lawns in front of Spanish-style double condos, back south across the 405, through an older section with interesting-looking shops and a theatre, shaded by two jacaranda, then forked left onto Berkeley and began to rise into hills covered with more condos, forking again and again until we came out into a driveway where I could see beyond their [p.127]immaculately white, very modern new house into open fields stretching to the south and east. The front room angled up two stories, huge windows opening to the fields. While Amy fixed us some cool drinks, Jim talked about the burrowing owl that lives just across the dry ditch between the back yard and the field. He told me how that morning, when he had gone running, the owl had stood above the burrow without moving when he passed just a few feet away.
As we sat in white chairs on the white rug, with clear glasses of ice and Sprite, I talked about what I had been doing, about the book on Shakespeare’s avengers and healers that I now felt I was ready to write after reading René Girard on violence and especially the post-modernist philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who put ethics before theory, our encounter with each other in mercy as the basis for any justice. At the mention of Levinas he turned and smiled at Amy: “I told you he would probably have been reading Levinas.” To me he said, “It’s uncanny how our work has brought us to such a similar place. I was turned on to Levinas by my colleague Francois Lyotard. But perhaps it isn’t surprising. Our minds came together at Stanford.” We talked about Pinsky, now a foremost American poet, and Thorburn, who teaches at M.I.T., a leading critic—appreciator—of popular culture. Jim spoke of the writing program he directs at Irvine, how the young poets are chosen. I thought of a line from one of his poems that always
stays with me, about how trout “measure the pool” with their shadows, a line I had stolen for one of my essays.
After a while, Amy left to pick up her twelve-year-old daughter Jessica. Jim told of the immense struggle of his second marriage and divorce—and finding Amy. He said, “I am writing a long poem about the divorce.” Before I left, I walked over to an alcove off the living room where, as I stood looking out the high, angled windows, I could see fresh pages with penned lines of poetry, alone on the antique desk.
Going back, I turned left off Berkeley across the broad flood plain of the San Diego river. Two white egrets flew along the small strip of green rushes near the center. Then I turned right on Jamboree and back to the 405 and made it from Irvine to Kathy’s in a half hour. Later that week I noticed that her copy of Lear’s magazine for May had an es-[p.128]say by Robert Scheer, the UCLA sociologist, called “Withering on the Irvine”—a wry deconstruction of the place where he—and my friend Jim—live. Scheer calls it “white-flight country,” known as the “most successful planned community in the nation,” the newest and already perhaps supreme model of the American dream: “booming, green-belted checker-board of high-tech, low-rise production centers, discreet high-rent shopping malls, and hierarchically niched villages.” I thought of the new down-town I had passed through just before the Civic Center, all tan stucco brick and glass, perfectly clean, strangely deserted now that I thought about it. And the condo villages along Harvard we had passed, also deserted, no garage doors open. Scheer tells how the villages, each with its shopping mall and lake and bike paths, are controlled by homeowners’ associations, which even set the height of fences and geraniums, so that “grass roots democracy has come down to fierce meetings … about the spacing of speed bumps and the approved colors for awnings.”
The new Irvine has been built in the past two decades, on half of the old Irvine ranch, to combat “suburban sprawl” from L.A.—and modeled on the Disneyland notion of “maximizing collective freedom by sharply restricting individual prerogatives.” The population of fiercely free market Republicans submit because the system is good for home equity (average price $256,000), for which the mainly two-income families are hanging on by their fingernails to meet payments. This “planning for profit” Scheer claims has produced docile kids (who “go nuts only when they are old enough to drive” and then wreak havoc in other places) and has left a city devoid of variety. Not even the university makes a difference. When students set fire to a Bank of America as part of the spreading post Cambodia bombing reaction in 1970, town planners decided to separate the zoned villages and malls two miles to the northwest of town and control them with armies of security guards, though Scheer writes that the no-man’s-land, which I passed going along Harvard and Berkeley, is filling up with small shops and apartments and “has become know locally as a poor-man’s Westwood.”
Scheer worries that we can see in Irvine the future of our highest affluent vision, the “citadel of the good life” for our brave new world of [p.129]international business, but where the planners in their very drive for perfection, “particularly in the security and the cleanlinesss … may have created a legacy of godliness and boredom.” Fundamentalist religion and materialism “permit essentially absentee parents who are born again to reunite with their children each Sunday for fast embrace of God’s plan, faithfully implemented during the work week by hustling in the marketplace.” Irvine was the base for the Lincoln Savings & Loan Federation run by Charles Keating, who, before the S&L scandal broke, “found time to crusade against a local X-rated movie theater while tending to the financial needs of widows and U.S. senators.” Scheer admits, “We never have any gardening chores. An army of Mexicans moves in each morning to clip, cut, and blow away the errant leaf; they steal away at night-fall to the barrios of Santa Ana in the other Orange County.”
The teenagers have the same high level of drug and alcohol abuse and society as other such communities. They call Irvine “The Bubble”: One says, “You rarely see poor people, and you come to think all of America is just like this place.”
The last day before we were to leave, I spent the afternoon with Jordan at “rock park” (his name for Richman Park because of its pile of huge rocks to play on), doing hide the ball and plain old hide and seek and “baseball” (with an oversized plastic bat and a tennis ball and trees for bases). When we got back Charlotte was rocking the baby and Kathy resting on the couch, reading. Jennifer was there, playing with Hannah. I noticed some chili in a pan on the stove and turned it on to heat while I got some bread and a plate. Charlotte had just started reading Robert Fulghum’s new book, It Was on Fire when I Lay Down on It, and when she commented how good it was, Kathy said, “Let me read you my favorite part,” and got the copy Charlotte had left by the couch.
I took my food to the table that divides the kitchen from the small, carpeted “family room.” Kathy read the section that describes three occasions in the relationship of a father and son. The first (“This is 1963”) is about a disaster at the supermarket. The boy is three and tips over their shopping cart and a pickle shelf and leaves the father [p.130]calmly thinking about running away from home—but of course he doesn’t. The second episode, in 1976, tells of the father, standing in Fulghum’s living room, crumpling and uncrumpling a letter from the now sixteen-year-old son, a scene during which the father tells Fulghum “he hates [the son] and never wants to see him. The son is going to run away from home. Because of his terrible father. The son thinks the father is a failure as a parent. The son thinks the father is a jerk.”
During this section, I finished my chili and carried my dishes a few steps to the sink, wondering just what might have brought father and son to such a pass. Suddenly I heard Kathy’s voice change: “And Dad wonders why we don’t listen to things he tries to read to us.” I hurried back to my seat as she continued into Fulghum’s third episode:
This is 1988. Same man and same son. The son is twenty-eight now, married, with his own three-year-old son, home, career, and all the rest. The father is fifty.
Three mornings a week I see them out jogging together around 6:00 A.M. As they cross a busy street, I see the son look both ways ….
I heard a small catch in Kathy’s voice and looked up to see tears edging both eyes as she pushed on:
… with a hand on his father’ elbow to hold him back from the danger of oncoming cars, protecting him from harm. [Here she paused again but didn’t look up. No one else seemed to notice.] And when they sprint toward home, the son doesn’t run ahead but runs alongside his father at his pace.
She continued, in full control now, to read Fulghum’s sermonizing on this narrative (“sometimes they come back in their own time and take their own fathers in their arms”). I thought that it might be my death I could see in her violet eyes.