Monday, February 28, 2011
We had a fun day in Atlanta yesterday. The weather was warm without being hot and, though the locals warn that it was only temporary, we headed out to play tourist for the day. Signs have been been popping up around town advertising the Fernbank Natural History Museum and its mythical beasts exhibit. I knew we risked the exhibit being nothing more than a televangelist with a bible pointing at a dinosaur and yelling “Fake, it’s a myth”, but I was willing to risk it.
Our trip involved two MARTA trains and a mile walk through Inman and Candler Parks. Two of Atlanta’s neighborhoods with unique personalities. The weather held and eventually we rounded a corner to see the dinosaur statuary in the front of the museum. This is when Reed started humming the theme music from the movie Jurassic Park and didn’t stop for at least an hour.
It turned out that the mythical creatures exhibit was legitimate. Dragons, unicorn, topless mermaids and even bigfoot were recreated with explanations as to how people may have come to believe they were real. The reasoning was sound, found bones became dragons for example, except for the explanation for the origin of Bigfoot which, as everybody knows, always involves homemade moonshine and a huntin’t trip.
The permanent exhibit is what I’ve come to expect from a modern Natural History Museum. Enter the building and soon you’ll be in a large atrium in the presence of a Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton hanging from the ceiling. He will be posed to either look like he’s about to eat you or about to eat the skeleton of what is supposed to have been his prey. In the case of the Fernbank the resident T-rex is attacking an impressive Brachiosaurus. Pterodactil skeletons also hung in the upper reaches of the of the atrium like unfinished model airplanes.
Past the giant dinosaurs are glass cases with examples of the local fauna. The animals are stuffed, mounted and arranged to represent what a peaceful day in their lives would have looked like. The expressions on their faces are all calm and serene when I expect them to look surprised that they’re about to be shot and put in a museum.
Somewhere past the animals is usually an exhibit of the people who lived in the area before it was “discovered” and cleansed of their presence. The Ferbank delivered and, because this is Atlanta, the part of history between happily making pottery and weaving cloth from local plants and not being here was left out. Maybe it was too hard to display Native Americans that didn’t look surprised that they’re about to be shot.
On the way out we, of course, went to the gift shop. I’ve found that Museum gift shops can sometimes be a good place to find unique gifts. A metal replica of an otter skull made into a bottle opener, a coffee cup in the style of native pottery or the paws of various swamp animals with hardware added so they can be made into coat hooks are good examples.
This shop tended toward the more mundane. Plastic replicas of animals that could have easy been bought at the mall and books that were obviously aimed at the guests visiting from out of state and meant to purvey local color. The book “Grits, Grits, Grits” for example and “What’d I Kill” which was a guide to the carcasses that litter the hiways of The South.
Friday, February 25, 2011
I wrecked the car on a Friday. Saturday morning my stepdad stuck his head in my bedroom, partially woke me and asked me through my half awake daze a question with the words “go” and “with” in them. I automatically responded “no” in that asshole teenager way I seemed to have perfected with almost no practice. In a few minutes I was asleep again.
What was he thinking anyway, I wondered through that medium dream-state that happens once someone has disturbed you, I never wanted to go anywhere with them. Ever. Especially not when I was sleeping. It was Saturday. What did he say anyway? Something about “going with them” and “looking” and.. CAR. “We’re going to look at cars for you, do you want to go with us?” That’s what he had said. They’re buying me a car I realized and shot up in bed now fully awake. Crap!
Don’t get me wrong. I wanted a car I just didn’t want a car that he would buy for me. We didn’t have the same taste in anything and the only thing we ever agreed on was that I shouldn’t handle a firearm around him anymore. Even that meeting of the minds only happened after I shot him in the face with a twelve gauge shotgun. Allegedly.
This, I decided, was how my stepfather would get even with me for wrecking the car. A recurring topic of conversation amongst him and his friends was the reminiscing about their first cars. The theme was always how great it had been, how much they lived the car and the fact that they wished they’d never gotten rid of their first car. I was already making plans to get rid of my first car and I wasn’t even sure what it was going to be. I paced my room and made myself sick worrying that this important milestone in my life was going to suck.
Like a lot of times when you let yourself get worked up it’s not about the solid information you have in front of you but about the grey and malleable information you don’t have. A good strong and creative brain can fill in the blank spots on any situation and turn it into something horrible and completely unlivable. I had such a brain.
I had convinced myself that there would be terrible retribution for my car accident but I came to this conclusion with missing information. What I didn’t know was that my stepfather had completely totaled his brother’s nineteen sixty three convertible Chevy Impala. Even better, he wrecked it on the way home from taking his test for his driver’s license. I lasted almost three months before I had an accident. He didn’t even make it one day!
The other important bit of information I didn’t know was that my stepdad loved cars. A few old cars had cycled through our driveway over the years and if I had paid attention I should have recognized this. First a Volkswagon Thing with a rotted convertible top then a chunky Chevrolet from the fifties or sixties was delivered to the house by tow truck and pushed into the garage where it remained for a few years until the oxidized paint was covered in greasy kid’s handprints and it was pushed back out of the garage and whisked away by a tow truck. I thought of these cars like I did the piles of junk building up in our basement, meaning I thought they were OK to play with but don’t get attached since they could disappear tomorrow. Or, I assumed, we had junk cars because we just couldn’t afford anything any better.
Looking for a used car was real fun to him. Looking for a used car without me along was even more fun to him so it was a win/win situation. I was upset that I didn’t go with him but, to be fair, he had given me a chance. Asking me while I was asleep and then darting out the door when he got the answer he wanted was a dirty trick. A dirty trick I thought I had invented. I didn’t feel like I had the right to be too mad about that after using the same technique on my mom the day before.
By two in the afternoon I had exhausted my brain with visions of what car he was picking out for me for punishment or just because of his own bad taste. I had it mentally narrowed down to a two toned Pinto station wagon missing its muffler and a clear plastic garbage bag in place of the drivers side window and an ancient pick-up truck its bed rusted away and the remaining frame and body painted with yellow house paint, the brush strokes allowing the original blue paint and rust spots to show through in uneven stripes. This wasn’t totally my imagination since I’d seen these same two cars around town for years.
When my Stepdad and his, sometimes drinking buddy sometimes hunting buddy, showed up all he said said was “Come on we found you a new car”.
“New?!” I said, a little excited. I heard the word and reacted before logic kicked in.
“New to you” laughed the redneck friend who went by the initials BG and was always looking for a place to spit tobacco juice. I had assumed my mother had gone with him so there had been a little hope that she would be there to temper his decision a little bit. But I was wrong. It was a full on redneck shopping trip.
We didn’t talk much on the way but this wasn’t unusual. Our relationship had developed into that of cordial but distant neighbors that didn’t have much in common except a property line. It was for the best anyway. The sick feeling over what I was about to see had my ears buzzing and my guts fighting to stay in place.
I don’t know how far we went before turned off the highway onto gravel, then off gravel onto a dirt road with deep ruts and mud puddles, then onto a road half grown over with grass.
“Well there it is” He said indicating a car half obscured by tall weeds beside a rather large farm house. The house and the car I learned had belonged to a man that had died around five years before. The seller was the son of the deceased who, in his words “had to do everything because his lazy bitch sister was out tramping around with every hippy in town”
“Dad bought this car brand new then retired so he didn’t drive it much” He was half talking me and half talking to my stepdad not knowing who had the final decision.
My stepfather picked up the sales pitch. “It only has fifty five thousand miles on it. There’s a little rust on the rear driver’s quarter panel and a little bit on the bumper. Three sixty V8 engine with…” I tuned him out like I usually did. I didn’t know about car specs and didn’t care about any of that sort of thing.
“What year is it?” I asked in what I thought was a neutral tone.
“Nineteen Sixty Four” one of them answered.
My face must have been unreadable because the seller jumped in the driver’s seat, started it and drove it around to the front of the house to give us a better look. It was the right thing to do. Away from the house and out of the weeds we could see the car in its full twenty feet. The paint was faded and the color of cheap turquoise Indian jewelry. Towards the rear rear of the car, written in chrome cursive letters, was Custom 500.
“Go ahead get in” the seller coaxed.
I did and once inside the sun showed through the windows and struck a dashboard full of chrome covered buttons and gadgets. The resulting reflection on the interior gave the same effect as a disco ball. The front seat was as big as a couch and had a bounce to it from the heavy duty springs.
The steering wheel was the biggest I had ever seen in a car. It was big enough to steer a boat. No not a boat. A yacht. The center of the steering wheel was a mirrored half circle the size of the steering wheels I was used to. It was the horn. I tested it and the sound that came out of the dual horns under the hood was louder than any ordinary car and harmonized. It was like hearing a freight train about to hit a semi truck.
“So, think it’ll work” My stepdad asked. He had a smarmy smile on his face. That bastard was proud of himself.
I almost said ‘no’ just so he didn’t win at whatever contest I had made up in my head, but I was in love. “yeah, it’ll work” I answered trying not to pee on my new seats from the excitement.
“Think you can drive it home?”
I said “Yes”. I said “yes” instead of “of course I can drive it home. It’s just a car! how hard can it be!” Afterall I had just wrecked a car the day before.
He paid the seller five hundred dollars and I followed him back to roads I recognized. From there he sped off toward home.
On the way home I learned a few things about cars. I learned about power steering and more precisely how hard it is to steer a car that doesn’t have power steering. I learned about power brakes and that without the power part you have to stand up on the brake pedal to get slow down three tons of steel. I learned about brake pads and more precisely what happens to brake pads that have sat for five years without being used.
Once I was nearly exhausted from steering, braking and the fear of not doing either in time. I learned what happens to tires that sit too long. They don’t hold air. I had already learned how to change a tire but I hadn’t yet learned to check and make sure the spare tire, or the snow tires, aren’t already flat before putting them on the car.
Four flat tires aside I was in love with my first car. Over the next year I would replace the brakes, the tires, the generator, the upholstery and parts of the engine that haven’t been on a car since nineteen seventy. But I didn’t care. I didn’t care that the paint was flat and faded, I didn’t care that it was older than I was, I didn’t even care that it was the same car Andy Griffith drove as the Sheriff of Mayberry.
The only thing that bothered me, that niggled away in the back of my mind when I wasn’t paying attention, was that it was my stepfather that had chosen the perfect car for me. Could we be more alike than I ever considered? A deep visceral asshole part of me wanted to reject the car just because he was the one who chose it.
Instead, I convinced myself that we liked the car for different reasons. He liked the big American made engine while I liked big comfortable seats, he liked the classic design while I liked the fact that nobody in town had a car even close to mine, he liked that it was a reminder of his childhood and I liked that it was an antique.
Our uninterested neighbor relationship changed to an uneasy partnership that, eventually, grew into something more like car owner and trusted mechanic. My role in this new situation meant I got to drive my friends around in the car, smuggle alcohol in it, get laid in it, get laid on it and show it off at school next to the fifty three Chevy owned by the mayor’s daughter and Edsel driven by the weird senior boy that looked and dressed like Harry Truman.
For my stepfather’s part I allowed him to do any of the many repairs that cropped up on a twenty year old car.
It wasn’t wrecking my mother’s car that changed me that Summer it was having my own wheels, my own freedom and, finally, my method of escape. From that point on fights with my parents would end with me thinking “I could just leave ya know. I can get in my car and just get the fuck out of here” but then I would cool off and think about it. I didn’t have enough money and didn’t have any place to go so I ended up staying. Still, for the first time that I could remember, I felt like if I stayed it was my decision.
Thursday, February 24, 2011
“We’re not going to just give you a car” was a speech my parents liked to give. The words would pop up spontaneously regardless of whatever the current conversation happened to be. It didn’t seem to make sense when it would start either. We could be at the grocery store picking cereal and out of nowhere my mother would say “You’re going to have to get a job and pay for it yourself or you‘re not going to appreciate it”. The first time that happened I was left staring at a box of Cocoa Munchies wondering if it was really worth getting a job for. By the time I was ten years old I knew instantly they were back to discussing my car ownership. These random outbursts lasted up until the day before they bought me a car.
Our house in the Missouri suburbs was at least a mile from anything that looked like a business and, though I had a paper route of over a dozen house and the odd baby sitting job, there was no way I could afford to buy a vehicle. I was stuck because to get a real job I would need a car and to get a car I would need a real job.
I presented my dilemma to my mother and stepfather and with the situation spelled out they had to agree we needed a different solution. That solution being I could borrow the family car. A huge yellow Mercury any old lady would be proud to see driving. My mom was working a night job so it was decided if there were any problems with scheduling we would just handle it somehow.
It was a solution but not one I liked. Not the one where I was handed the keys to a new Mustang Convertible. The family car was like driving a boat. In the seventies it would have been considered a high end luxury car but this was the eighties. Times had changed. And I was sixteen. I didn’t want to drive that grandma car everywhere! I had an image I was trying to create.
What made it worse was I couldn’t just ask for the keys and run off for the occasional errand. Before getting the car I had to beg for the keys, justify my trip and then sit through a speech about seatbelts and speed. The speech always ended with the condescending statement from my mother of “Don’t wreck my car”. This always pissed me off. I was a good driver. No, I was a great driver. I was sixteen.
Getting a crappy teenager job turned out to be pretty easy and and had one in a week. To celebrate my first day in the great world of fast food I offered to go get lunch for me and my siblings.
“Mom, can I use the car to go to McDonalds? I have to feed Bubba and Becky” I whispered through her closed bedroom door. I didn’t want to wake her but getting what you wanted was a little easier when she wasn’t totally in charge of her senses. She told me to come in.
“Here’s my purse, take out some money, come right back” She was asleep again before I sat her purse back down on her dresser. If she was ever awake.
It was a gorgeous day. The sun was shining but it wasn’t the oppressive Missouri heat that could melt cassette tapes on a front seat. I cranked up the air conditioner to insure my comfort and rolled down all the windows to insure full visability. I changed the radio station from the old time twangy country music my family favored to a station playing Flock of Seagulls.
It was one of those moments in life when mentally step back and take stock in your life. I had a real job I was starting that evening. I was at the beginning of adulthood and the rest of the world was starting to see it. I was given more responsibility and was trusted more at home. A smile came across my face when I realized Mom didn’t even say “don’t wreck my car” this time, in that way she always did.
Then I wrecked the car.
I was making what could only be referred to as a long curving left turn when I made impact. The Jeep in front of me was stopped trying to make its own left turn and I didn’t see it in time. My life didn’t flash before my eyes but french fries did.
When I did see the stopped vehicle in front of me two things happened. I slammed on the breaks and, like every mother I’d ever seen in the same situation, some deep seeded visceral response kicked in and I threw out my right arm to protect the precious cargo riding in the seat beside me. Not a child in this case but two large back from McDonalds. The impact my arm on the bag made it explode forward in a storm of fries and nuggets.
In slow motion the lemon yellow hood of the family car exploded up to completely block the windshield. Then, In a moment of extreme clarity, I noticed the yellow exterior against yellow interior while yellowish fries and nuggets rained down in front of me. I didn’t have the presence of mind to fear bodily injury for myself or for the people in front of me. I didn’t worry about what would happen when I got home. The only thought going through my mind at that stretched out split second was that the world had all become some shade of yellow. There was an art term for that and I mouthed the word “monochrome” like a curse word.
I wasn’t hurt and the people in the vehicle I hit were fine. The police came and I had the car towed to the closest lot and a passing neighbor gave me a ride home. In all of the excitement I still had the presence of mind to grab what was left of the undamaged lunch and, in a moment of charity, even took the time to scoop some french fries off the floor and seat of the car for my brother Bubba.
Some psychic message woke my mother before I got home so I didn’t have a break before she yelled at me for arriving home without the car. “Your father is going to kill you”. The timing didn’t seem right to correct her on the fact he wasn’t really my father so I let it slide that time. Not that she would have heard me anyway since she was still yelling “I can’t believe you wrecked my car!” she started crying then. It probably wasn’t a good time to remind her that she didn’t specifically tell me NOT to wreck her car before I left this time so I let her off the hook on that one too.
When my stepfather got home from work he walked into the house to see mom and me sitting on the couch, red-eyed and scared of what we were sure was his coming wrath. With the only other two drivers besides himself in front of him and no car in the driveway the situation should have been obvious but he still asked. “Where’s the car?”.
“We wrecked the car!” my mom blurted out through tears.
Well that was weird, I thought. Did she think he could be convinced that more than one person could wreck a car? She was throwing herself on a grenade for me. Trying to save me from the anger explosion she expected. Sort of. She still said “we” so it wouldn’t be all her fault.
Not fooled my stepfather asked. “Who wrecked the car?”
“I wrecked the car”. I braced myself almost daring the fight that was to come. But never did.
“Where is it?” He said with a sigh setting down his lunchbox.
I told him where I had it towed and we rode out in his truck to retrieve it. It looked terrible but it turns out the car was still drivable after a little pounding, the application of a crowbar and a little rope. I drove his truck home wondering about his uncharacteristic calm. The stress of anticipation and speculation about his unexpected behavior was almost worse than an explosion. Was there going to be some retribution at a higher level I’d never seen before?
This was what was going through my head as I go ready for my first day at my new job.
Wednesday, February 23, 2011
“You should have seen her when the cops came and arrested her right out of gym class” Yolanda Zigler was telling me with the glee that only comes from having witnessed really really good gossip “She punched one of the cops and tried to run but she’s so fat they caught in like three steps and knocked her down. They had to use two sets of handcuffs on her because they couldn’t get her hands together behind her back! Because she was so fat”
“Wait a minute” I stopped her “I’m talking about Jody Cordova. That girl over there smoking in the bushes” I pointed toward the bad kids to a girl at least six feet tall with a thick layer of base make up two shades darker than the rest of her skin. Her heavy eyes were painted with, not one, but two shades of blue eye shadow. Her solid helmet of heavily feathered and heavily sprayed hair sat on top of a frame that couldn’t have been weighed more than one hundred pounds.
“That’s her” Yolanda said. “She lost weight”. Yolanda, who could be described as pudgy if not exactly fat, got a funny look on her face as if something unpleasant had occurred to her and then simply walked off.
Within a few days I found myself next to Jody again. I don’t remember if it was while waiting in a line or on a bench in the cafeteria but I took the opportunity to get a really good look at her. I was looking for some evidence that this was the same girl that was so fat she needed two sets of handcuffs but I didn’t find anything. She was pretty, though. Pretty but not gorgeous. Something about her big hair and the way her make up was applied made her look like a new prostitute or maybe she looked like a mannequin in a consignment store. This can’t be the same person, I thought. Could it?
“What are you staring at, faggot?” Her voice was deep and husky and pitched in such a way to convince whoever she was talking to that she had a sharp weapon hidden somewhere on her person. I suddenly had no problem believing she’d been to prison.
I ignored the fact that she called me Faggot. Most of the school had heard a rumor that I beat up a football player from our rival school. A rumor I started. This stopped most teasing from classmates. The fear of getting beaten up was bad enough but the fear of getting beaten up by a faggot was worse. Jody hadn’t heard the rumor and it probably wouldn‘t have stopped her from stabbing me even if she had.
“Someone told me you used to be fat” I blurted out with not a trace of tact.
“So?” She pulled out her vented hairbrush and started to fix a hairdo that hadn’t moved since right before she left home.
“So how did you lose all the weight?” I asked. I must have sounded like I sincerely wanted to know because, although she didn’t stop brushing, she answered me.
“Drugs” She was so blunt with her answer I didn’t take her at face value.
“Oh, you mean like Maxi-trim?” I asked her, thinking back to the caffeine based over the counter diet pills I had tried and failed at.
In the same matter of fact way that she used while brushing her hair she answered “No, speeders, cocaine, heroin... you name it” She switched sides of her hair making sure the part was severe and the back of her head had enough volume to look like a well rounded ass “But no pot, pot will make you fat.”
I don’t know what visceral knee jerk reaction kicked in but I suddenly took on my superior air and said “You know that stuff will kill you”.
“I know that’s what I was trying to do but now I’m thin and people like me.”
For a split second I had the urge to tell her that wanting to have sex with someone wasn’t the same as liking them. I wanted to tell her that people would like her even if she wasn’t thin. I wanted to tell her that it’s the inner person that makes friends and that beauty was only skin deep. But I knew it wasn’t true. I had struggled with my weight for a few years at that point and I knew how cruel people could be to someone too fat to chase them down and kick their ass.
Instead I asked “Was it worth it?”
“Yes, and I would do it again”. The phrase fell out her mouth like it had been practiced or, at least, repeated several times. Like maybe to a parole officer or court appointed psychiatrist trying to convince her to love herself for who she was without the the use of pharmaceuticals.
This changed my life and the following Summer because I decided that anything was worth it to be thin again. To be the person people wanted to be around just for the way I looked. I was ready to do absolutely anything to make it happen. No matter what it took. “That’s right”, I told myself, “anything”.
Like as is so often the case my unbridled “anything” very quickly acquired some restrictions. I didn’t know how to get cocaine and was too afraid of needles for heroin. Of course if I couldn’t find cocaine how could I find heroin? There were pills for sale in the backs of magazines for truck drivers and to stay awake but I assumed they were the same thing as the over the counter diet pills I’d taken before and all they did was make me eat faster.
In the end I resorted to losing weight the old fashioned way. I started a regimen of heavy exercise, I avoided fat and salt and drank only water. After one week and one pound it occurred to me that if losing weight was really this easy then everyone would be doing it. I needed to up go that extra mile to get results so I started vomiting up everything I ate. Maybe it wasn’t showing the dedication Jody had shown when shooting up heroin and popping speed like they were jelly beans but it worked and was surprisingly easy.
I’m not a medical professional and would never recommend street drugs or bulimia for weight loss. but if you’re going to have days full of vomitting there are a few rules of thumb to follow.
First. If you’re going to binge know where you’ll purge.
You don’t want to accidently end up with a medium pizza and a pitcher of soda starting to bloat your midsection just to find there’s no place to return your lunch to the environment. The toilet is always the best and logical choice but garbage cans, planters, large drink cups and sinks will all work in a pinch. If you end up purging into a sink try to pick one with a garbage disposal.
Second. What goes in must come out. Liquids.
Drink a lot of fluids with your meals. It doesn’t matter what those fluids are and you can develop your own favorites but I always found dairy based drinks would sour while sodas would cause a burning sensation. Water always seemed like a waste of time since it already had no calories and you could drink that anyway.
What goes in must come out. Solids.
Chew your food. for some reason the tube in your throat coming back up isn’t as wide as the tube going down. Fast food and Italian food are perfect for bulimia since, for the most part, they taste the same coming up as they did going down. That’s handy to know if you’re going through morning sickness too.
Third. Antacid. In bulk.
Once your body gets the signal that there’s food coming it dumps the necessary acids into your stomach to dissolve and digest whatever you’ve consumed. Not finding any food there the acid turns on you and starts to digesting your stomach and throat. I was buying white chalky antacid tablets in bulk and hiding them everywhere. I don’t know why I hid them. If anyone found them they would probably just assume my mother was a terrible cook.
Fourth. Vomit breath.
Like alcohol breath or smokers breath vomit breath is almost impossible to cover up. After trying gargles and multiple toothbrushings throughout the day I switched tactics and, when I could, chewed a piece of raw onion or something equally as obnoxious. The hope was that anybody that smelled something bad would assume it was something I ate and not something I ate and threw up.
Fifth. Don’t get caught.
I was very careful. It’s a little bit ok to be seen huddled over a public toilet when there’s alcohol involved but being seen doing the same in the Pizza Caboose just after noon on a Tuesday is going to send someone for a doctor.
Getting caught usually only means one thing. Intervention. In which case a well meaning counselor or doctor who never lost a modeling job because of extra weight or never had his mother comment that your boobs are getting bigger than hers will tell you it’s not worth the risk to your health. Even worse, the same people who teased you when you put on the weight will tell you they love you just the way you are.
I guess nobody in my immediate family ever looked at me often enough to see the lbs melt off. By the end of the Summer I was down thirty five pounds and two pants sizes. I looked good and had a great deal of confidence. People treat you different when you look good. Or when you think you look good. Every day was a happier day when I didn’t struggle with jeans or wonder what people were thinking about my ass when I walked past.
To this day I haven‘t noticed any negative side effects of that Summer of extreme weight loss. I’ve since read about people losing teeth and hair and developing permanent damage to their esophagus and stomachs but I must have quit before it got that bad.
I never got caught and I never told anyone my weight loss secrets so nobody had the opportunity to ask me if risking my health was worth it to look good for a little while but I’m sure, like Jody or anyone who has gone through plastic surgery, I would have answered “it was”.