The Saturday Morning Post #5

ATTENTION LOYAL READERS: Stay tuned for a very special announcement in a post coming up later today. Hint: It’s contest time.

Continuing excerpts from my novel of L.A. in Short Stories plus one Novela, here is part of Chapter 5. If you want to catch up, check out the first one here and the previous one is here. The one thing to remember is that each of the 13 short stories is narrated by a new character, and the novella is told from an omniscient point of view tying it all together. 

Although it’s long, I’m going to give you this one in full because the narrator here was based on a neighbor of mine who was a really amazing woman who basically befriended the neighborhood dog-owners and got to know all of us, and then that motherfucker cancer came around and killed her way too early and way too fast. This was definitely written as a tribute to her, although I’m not always so literal with characters, and I expect to discuss that bit soon. Meanwhile, enjoy.

BORN A REFUGEE

I had been planning to retire when I turned sixty-five next January. Nineteen-sixty-five was also the year I was born, and it really was another world and time. I arrived on Earth in a small town outside of Minneapolis that had a surprisingly large Jewish population, most of which had arrived starting in the mid-1950s.

A lot of them, like my grandparents and parents, were from Northern Europe, and they did originally immigrate to Israel once it was founded as a state — May 14, 1948, a date that any Jew can tell you instantly.

Now, all of my grandparents had seen what was coming with Hitler and so had been planning to relocate to Palestine as part of one of the many aliyoth that had started happening once the pogroms got going in Eastern Europe in the 19th century. Unfortunately, they were going to delay their travel plans until 1937, because both of my bubbes were pregnant with both of my parents, and they didn’t want to risk the trip in that condition. Not to mention there was some question as to whether a child of Jewish immigrants born in Palestine at the time would essentially be a stateless person.

So they waited, and Britain, which had somehow taken on the role of Great Decider of the Fate of the Jews and Israel, suddenly banned all immigration to the area in 1936.

Oh — aliyoth is the plural of aliyah, a Hebrew term that means “going up” and which refers specifically to the return of Jews from the Diaspora to Israel. The Diaspora is the opposite of that — the events that drove the Jews out of Israel in the first place. With the article and capitalized, it refers specifically to the Jews. Not capitalized, it refers to any people being driven out of their homeland en masse. For example, there was also an Armenian diaspora.

I should mention that all four of my grandparents had been neighbors back in Munich as well as good friends. I think they had always planned to play yenta for their as yet unborn children one day, should the genders work out. Although they tended to have a lot of kids back then, so some workable combination would happen. (And, to be honest, probably at least one or two “unworkable” ones, as in homosexual. Unworkable, of course, being entirely relative.)

Once the middle East was cut off as an option, my maternal grandparents, Saul and Miriam, fled to Belgium, where they successfully dodged the Nazis. My paternal grandparents, David and Esther, wound up first in London, but the combination of realizing once the war really got going that the city was in Hitler’s crosshairs and the simmering anti-Semitism of overly Protestant Brits led them to move to Dublin. The Irish had no problem at all with Jews, because they understood very well being a persecuted religious minority themselves, having been living through it for a long time. Aforementioned Prots hated the Catholics with a passion, and the Irish had had their own diaspora of sorts in the 19th century, a huge chunk of the population fleeing to America.

My father, who had been born in London in April 1937 and named for his deceased great-grandfather, Mordecai, eventually became an Irish citizen. By the way, I always liked the nice symmetry of Esther being both the granddaughter and mother of Mordecai. It kind of makes up for the way that she ultimately was cheated out of being the hero of her own story. If you don’t get that, go read the book. It’s a ripping good yarn, as my Anglo-Irish father used to say.

My mother Rachel was born in Bruges, and her native languages were Yiddish and Flemish, although she was also fluent in Dutch and English. My father only spoke English, knew some Gaelic words, and only enough Hebrew to keep up with the prayers during things like services and sitting shiva, and the instinctive knee-bend/bow/stomp on baRUCH atah never left him. He often told me, though, “Right after I became bar mitzvah, poof. All that Hebrew went right out of my head. I could remember how to say the words, but the letters became meaningless.”

That was an odd thing to say, because all of my grandparents moved to Israel at the end of 1948, before either of my parents were bar or bat mitzvah, so technically my dad should have known Hebrew. On the other hand, the immigrant Jews so outnumbered the natives by this point that the lingua franca was probably English, most likely mixed with Yiddish and German. I never asked them about that.

Note to my goyische friends: bar and bat mitzvah refer to both the ceremony and the participant in it, so it’s completely proper to say, “my son/daughter is bar/bat mitzvah today.” This is just one of many shibboleth — a word and concept (also plural) that we invented, too — which arose out of the need for self-protection via being able to tell the difference between friend and foe.

My father often mentioned how he noticed many similarities with the differences between Catholics and Protestants. You could give yourself away as one or the other with a simple wrong choice of word in the Lord’s Prayer, just like shibboleth vs. shibboleth could give away that someone really wasn’t part of one of the tribes of Israel or Judah. Undercover Catholics, in particular, had to resist the almost automatic inclination to genuflect or look for the little dish of holy water upon entering a Protestant Church, which they were often forced to do if they wanted to “pass,” and hence survive.

I’m sorry. I tend to get nostalgic like this during traumatic times, and this last week has certainly been a doozy. I suppose I’ll fast forward, and just say that all of my grandparents happened to meet up again because Israel at the time wasn’t that big a place, and the new communities tended to cluster by home country. As their two oldest kids grew and started to mature, Saul and Miriam Geldfarb, and David and Esther Spiegel, were very happy to see that Rachel Geldfarb and Mordecai Spiegel seemed to be taking a liking to each other.

They never noticed the same between Dov Geldfarb and Solomon Spiegel, but those two wound up being my favorite gay uncles to this day, and my parents were very much the model of Reform Jews, so accepted them with open arms when they came out as a couple in the unheard of year of 1969, right after the Stonewall riots. Dov was 25 and Solomon was almost 29.

The other thing that was getting to my grandparents, around about 1953, was that, being from Northern Europe, the hot desert climate of the Middle East wasn’t really agreeing with them. Of course, they had wound up living in Eilat, a port city in the south, but one that got very hot and dry in the summer, although it really only relatively cooled down in the winter, if you considered a daytime low of 70 in the winter to be cold.

So that’s how they wound up in Minnesota. The climate there was a lot more like what they’d known back in Europe, and the place was full of immigrants from Germany and Scandinavia, a lot of them Jewish. It was like a second home.

My parents married in 1960, after they had both finished college and decided on careers. I was their third and youngest child. They were about as far from Orthodox as you could get, hence the names of my two older brothers and me — Hector, Patrick, and Cynthia — youngest and oldest derived from Greek, and the middle one a nod to my father’s time in Ireland.

Dad was a lawyer and mom had studied architecture and design, but soon learned that she had a knack for things like interior design and, in the local theater community, set design. It was this latter detail that led her to follow all kinds of artistic developments, put her on the theater map in the Twin Cities, and also made her very aware of her occupational opportunities elsewhere.

Not to mention that, unlike their parents, they had grown up mostly used to a warmer climate, and Minnesota winters were getting to them.

Mom eventually took note of the opening of a major new arts venue out in Los Angeles, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, which premiered in 1964, but was going to be just one part of a three-theater complex called the Music Center.

Meanwhile, Dad had specialized in contract and intellectual property law, and my mother began the slow process that she often described to me later of “gradually convincing your father” that both of them should apply for positions in Los Angeles, and then move. The weather was better, especially in winter, but nowhere as blistering as Eilat in summer, the schools were good, real estate was cheap, and there were already thriving Jewish communities.

Three months before the rest of the Music Center opened in April, 1967, my mother had secured a job as set designer and lead decorator for Universal Studios, and my father signed up with a law firm that represented several of the major studios. I don’t remember any of this because I was barely two, but we apparently packed up, made the drive west with everything we owned after selling off everything we could replace later stuffed into one car and a rented trailer we towed behind. A large moving truck would have been problematic with five of us and the dog, Winston, not to mention a lot more expensive in terms of gas — even if it only was something like just over a quarter a gallon back then.

We wound up settling in a fairly Jewish neighborhood out in a town called Woodland Hills, on the west end of the San Fernando Valley. At the time, the attractions were large lots and houses cheap, great schools, and an easy freeway commute directly to Hollywood, downtown, and the Westside. Plus, lots of Jews.

Why and how that happened, I wasn’t sure at the time, but I learned later on that it was mostly for the nastiest of reasons — as in, if all the WASP developers of land out there let the Jews move in, they would have an easy way (via credit and employment histories and other such nonsense) of keeping the blacks out without being openly or obviously racist. Jews to the head of the line right behind the whites, “Oops, sorry. No room for you, Mr. and Mrs. Williams.”

But… they only did it way out on the edges of the city, which was where all of the scared white people who didn’t want to live near black or Mexican people had fled once segregation had been ended by the Civil Rights Act. Oddly enough, that was the year I’d been born.

There were other Jewish communities that were in more mixed areas, like the Fairfax District on the other side of the hill, but those were much older in population and architecture, with smaller houses on tinier lots, all jammed together. It was also much more Orthodox, something my parents really didn’t want to have to deal with.

It was also hard to find anything over there with the minimum three bedrooms my parents wanted — Mom and Dad in one, Hector and Jason in another, and me in my own once I stopped sleeping in a crib. Of course, their real ideal was five — one for Mom and Dad, one each for all three kids, and a guest room for visiting family.

We could find the latter in Woodland Hills and did, and it also came with a den, a huge yard, and a pool. We couldn’t find anything close in Fairfax. Not to mention that the rooms there were tiny, and obviously built during an era when things like electricity and phones were a recent novelty. The house we bought had been built in 1959, and had all of the latest modern conveniences.

The other thing was that a lot of the folk in the Fairfax community were connected with the entertainment industry from back in the 1920s and 1930s, many now retired. That era was when a lot of the film writers, producers, and talent were Jewish. Plus the majority of those Jews had come from New York and were second or third generation Americans already.

Chaplin was partly Jewish. The Marx Brothers were famously Jewish, and Al Jolson infamously so and, c’mon, Al. Did you really have to be so damn racist with that “Mammy” shit and blackface? There’s a reason that Bernard Malamud was writing about these issues in the 1970s, especially with The Tenants which, if I remember correctly from high school AP English. Taught by a very nice but obviously gay Jewish man, ended with the “hero” beating a black man to death with a baseball bat, and then the word “Mercy” repeated for half a dozen pages or so.

Yeah, extreme. But despite my people having been slaves in Egypt, for some reason some of us (i.e. the rich ones) don’t grok that, and are just as racist as the worst of the WASPS who either owned black people pre-Civil War or did everything they could to make them second class citizens post-Civil War. And still do, even though it’s fucking 2029.

Not to mention that they are not at all fond of my people (the ones with vaginas), gay people, women people, trans‑people, non-Christian people, non-wealthy people… Do I need to go on? Those were precisely the reasons that my parents didn’t want to live down there and chose the West Valley instead.

Anyway… giant bonus points in the present is that at least two decades ago, this old white bastion of bigots in the West Valley wound up flipping and becoming mostly Hispanic, and nothing could have made me happier.

But, back to the past… Aside from the racism, the big selling point was how quickly we could drive anywhere from there at the time.

And any of you who live in L.A. now are probably laughing at that, but I’m old enough to remember when you really could drive from Woodland Hills to DTLA in about half an hour at any time of the day. Any of you who don’t live in L.A., that trip for a typical nine to five job could take close to two hours either way now, and more than that if you’re foolish enough to attempt the 101 to the 405 to the 10 route.

Damn. Another flashback. How many years now has it been since SNL had a The Californians sketch? It has to be at least a decade.

When I was a kid, Woodland Hills was a lot more rural than it is now. The Southern Pacific Railroad ran right through the north end of town, behind the back walls of houses, and the term “born on the wrong side of the tracks” really was true. All of the families with money — which included mine — were well south of there. Not that I was aware of this as a kid, although I did have some friends in high school who lived up that way, and I always noticed that their houses and lots were smaller, and their parents’ cars weren’t as fancy. Often, there was only one family car, and not two or three.

The thing that might sound the weirdest to people now is that we used to play right next to the train tracks, which ran down a dirt right-of-way and had no kind of protections or restrictions at all other than crossing gates at some of the intersections. Note some. It was a thrill to just stand there and watch as the freight train thundered by, blasting its horn.

Besides the weird train thing, all the way southward down Winnetka Boulevard from the tracks, when I was in elementary school and junior high, there were still large ranch-style properties where people kept horses. Going from the intersection of Winnetka and Ventura Boulevards, where my high school (Taft) was, and then turning right and going over the hill for about a mile to De Soto to the west, almost the entire south side and most of the north side of the Boulevard remained undeveloped. What we called “Chalk Hill” was a landmark that loomed over the athletic fields at Taft, and always had a large letter “T” on its eastern face.

There were no gated communities, we played in the streets without supervision, and we all grew up fine. But then, when I was six years old — not long after my birthday, actually — everything turned upside down for the first time in my life.

February 9, 1971. Ask any old-timer like me in L.A. and they’ll instantly tell you, “Ah. Sylmar.” I suppose that this word means nothing to anyone under the age of maybe forty now, but it was the biggest quake to hit L.A. since Long Beach in 1933. The only reason I know about that one is because they kept bringing it up in news reports about Sylmar. There was one other really huge one between, in 1952 in Tehachapi, apparently, but it was far enough out that L.A. really didn’t get hit that hard — kind of like Ridgecrest in ’19.

The things I do remember are that our swimming pool wall cracked and it took months to get fixed, our cat, Peaches, ran away and we never saw her again, my brother Hector wound up having to go to therapy because of sudden night terrors — I don’t blame him at all — and the schools were shut down for a week — although I don’t think it was that big a deal for me, because I was probably in the second half of Kindergarten. Patrick seemed happy, though. Hector might have, except that he kept freaking out, especially at every aftershock, loud noise, or any creak the house made, especially after dark.

One thing I do remember vividly is one of our neighbors, Dr. Weitzman, as my parents always referred to him, standing out in the street just after dawn as everyone gathered together. He was a very tall, rather heavyset man with a full beard and payot — those curly forelocks Orthodox Jewish men have. He always wore a black velvet kippah — incongruously, although I didn’t know the word at my age, but I knew what I saw — it seemed really weird when he left home in the morning as I was going off to school, he with the kippah but also a white lab coat over his plain and very Orthodox black suit.

It seemed even weirder after the quake as he stood in the street proclaiming, “The lord is punishing Babylon with this, and Sodom and Gomorrah, which is what this city has become.”

“I don’t remember our god destroying Babylon, Reb Dr. Saul,” my father said, with only a hint of something that I was too young to read as sarcasm in that cascade of titles. “And anyway, what about that whole promise he made with Noah via the rainbow to never destroy mankind again?”

“That was before Sodom and Gomorrah,” the doctor replied. “And he didn’t destroy all of mankind with the last two.”

“No,” my father replied, “Although Lot’s daughters certainly thought so, and, well… we both know what happened then.”

I had no idea, so looked at my mother, who put her arm around me and moved me away as the argument continued.

“You argue like a Pharisee,” the doctor said. “Not a surprise, I suppose, since you’re a lawyer.”

“Ah, so you’re criticizing the Pharisees now, Saul?”

“When I see Pharisitical words and deeds, yes.”

“You know who else did that, Saul?

“No, Mordecai, I don’t. What is your point?”

“The last Jew to criticize the Pharisees so strongly was named Yeshua ben Yusuf.”

“Nuh?”

My father smiled. It was a look that I’d seen him give the couple of times I’d been brought to court to watch him argue a case, and it was the same look that he always gave right before he delivered some statement that always got a gasp from the gallery, a shocked look from the opposing attorney, and my father’s follow-up. “No further questions, your honor.”

Although I didn’t really understand the legal system or what was going on at the time, I knew enough — at least as my mother explained it to me — that “dad won that one,” and dad always won that one after he gave that particular smile.

So after he gave the doctor the smile in response to his question, he said, “By criticizing the Pharisees, you’re basically siding with Yeshua ben Yusuf, who is better known to the goyim as Jesus Christ. And how you can call yourself a rabbi and not know that is beyond me. Maybe you should just stick to being an OB/GYN, doctor, and looking up what you do know so well, but no doubt would like to get to know better if it weren’t for your wife and Hippocratic Oath.”

Gasps from the gallery on that, although I could also see smiles and smirks. I got the impression that a lot of the neighbors, Jewish or not, were not fond of the doctor. He raised his right arm and index finger, seeming about to say something even as his face turned bright red, but then he just huffed, turned away and marched to the Cadillac in his driveway.

“This is an emergency. I’m needed at the hospital,” he announced as he slammed his way into his gigantic bronze-colored land-tank, started the engine, and drove off, managing to cut it too tight and bounce his front passenger whitewall way too hard off of the curb, barely missing his stone-clad mailbox.

“So how many pap schmears is he really going to need to do today?” some woman in the crowd asked, and everyone laughed. I had no idea what she meant, except I thought it was a joke about bagels.

“Good luck with him getting there,” our next door neighbor Mr. Gordy said. “I heard that all the roads between here and the other side are out.”

“Oy. If only they could stay that way,” Mrs. Fine from across the street replied.

We eventually recovered from that quake, and things were quiet until 1994, by which point I was living in Sherman Oaks, married, and with one son. I met my husband in 1989, when I was first working as an apprentice vet tech, and we got married two years later. His name was Erick Fuentes, he was tall, dark, and sexy, and he had a very similar immigrant story to mine — displaced grandparents and parents, landed in L.A. finally, loved all animals. In fact, his mother’s parents were also displaced European Jews who were rejected by America, so they went to Mexico instead.

Our son we named following conventions from both of our cultures: Saul in honor of my now dead grandfather, Felipe for Erick’s father, and then we topped that off with the last name Spiegel-Fuentes. At his bris, we gave him the Hebrew name Chaim, which means “life.” As an added complication, our son also got a confirmation name — Miguel, for San Miguel, via his dad, who was born on September 29, St. Michael’s day — so his full name wound up being Saul Felipe Miguel Chaim Spiegel-Fuentes. After he’d read the Bible in middle school, though, he started going by Felipe. As he explained it to us a couple of weeks after his bar mitzvah, he said, “Wow. St. Paul was a real asshole. I don’t want to associate with that crap.”

And yeah, his name was a head-scratcher for the less open-minded, for sure, for a lot of people who’d encounter it, although that was what America was really all about and, after all, it was the 90s.

And then… January 17, 1994, the Northridge quake comes along, and it hits our neighborhood particularly hard, probably because we’re along the old riverbed and floodplain — yes, L.A. used to have a real river — so everything goes into liquefaction, and shit falls over.

Our building gets red-tagged even though it doesn’t seem that damaged, and so our family becomes refugees. While this didn’t happen after Sylmar, it still reminds me of my grandparents’ stories, and Erick of his. At least Saul… er, Felipe is young enough yet to not really register any of it — pretty much the same age I was when I first moved to L.A.

We move in for a time with my parents until we can find a place to relocate, although try to come to some kind of arrangement where maybe we do a month with mine, a month with Ericks’ until we get rehomed, only his parents are not offering any olive branches.

I let it go through February, March, April, half-way through May, but by this point, my parents are wondering when we’re going to move out, so I finally have to push Erick on it, at which point we wind up having one of those late night, tear-filled conversations in which truth that should have come out before winds up splashing onto the ground like the intestines of a suddenly gutted pig. In other words, not something anybody really wanted.

See, two years before I’d met Erick in 1987, when he had just graduated college, he braved up and came home from the University of Miami to introduce his parents to the love of his life, his boyfriend, Pierre Haricot, a French exchange student he’d met his sophomore year… and it did not go over well.

Well, it was the 80s, which was a much more homophobic time. You can’t even imagine what it was like. So they gave him an ultimatum. “Ditch this guy, marry a woman within three years and give us a grandkid, or we are cutting you out of the will and out of our lives forever.”

Yeah, pretty evil, right? They gave the poor kid no choice, so we wound up having a whirlwind romance, he wound up somehow managing to put a baby in me, but all along was still carrying on with Pierre. Which I actually wouldn’t have minded, except for one detail. Because of a frantic “Are you safe?” phone call to the wrong number after the quake, they quickly figured out that Erick had never broken it off with Pierre at all. Ergo, he was cut off and so was I, and being as family-oriented as I am, the idea of one set of grandparents cutting off my kid because of their ignorance infuriated me. They also weren’t too fond of the idea that I was Jewish, but I guess were willing to let it slide on account of the whole uterus deal.

I gave Erick an ultimatum myself. Either you demand that they act like real human beings, or we’re done, at least as a couple, and so are they as grandparents. He’d always have a place in Saul’s (not yet Felipe’s) life, and so would Pierre — and if Pierre’s parents wanted to step in, I’d be happy to welcome them.

It was ultimately an amicable split and Erick followed my demands right down the line. So little Saul always knew that he had mommy Cindy and daddies Erick and Pierre, and the grandparents Mordecai and Rachel from me, Robert and Jeanne via Pierre, although Robert died when Saul was only eight.

Anyway, when the divorce was final in 1995, Erick and I sold the house, split the proceeds 60/40  since I also got custody of Saul, and I also got child support (until 2011, when he turned 18) and alimony until I remarried, which I never did. I decided to downsize and moved to a two-bedroom apartment in Koreatown, a couple of blocks south of Wilshire. I got it for a ridiculously low rent then, which remained ridiculously low for the nearly 34 years I was in it, and made good money doubling as vet tech and accountant at an animal hospital within walking distance, as well as doing graphic design and the like, at first for businesses in the neighborhood and then, after 2011, for my son and his friends — although cheaply — because they were all into the arts and acting. Unfortunately, Saul… oops, by that point, Felipe, was also into… other interests, but it’s not what you’re expecting, and I’m not one to keep people in suspense.

Felipe grew up into a fine, young man who told me he was bisexual at 13, and I was fine with that, because it really represented the freedom his father never had. But then, in 2015, twenty years after my divorce and three months after I turn fifty, my world is again blown apart when I find out that my angel, my hope, my only child, Saul, is dead.

April 25, 2015 which, oddly enough, is also the hundredth anniversary of the Armenian genocide. Americans remember the latter, although none will remember the former, but I do. It’s when Nepal was hit by a massive 7.8 earthquake, killing more than eight thousand people, Felipe among them. He’s only 22. He was there as an aid worker, volunteering out of the kindness of his enormous heart, and mostly to help mitigate the damage that has been done to Nepal by Chinese nationalism.

Note that part. It’s going to get ironic about fourteen years along in the narrative. Actually, come to think of it, about exactly one week shy of fourteen years, but who’s counting?

April 17, 2029. Here’s where we play catch-up. My surprisingly cheap apartment south of Wilshire, where I pay practically nothing for two bedrooms, suddenly upends on a hot afternoon that, again, blows my world apart. I wind up on my ass in a corner of my bedroom as it feels like the whole place is going to sink into the earth. Believe me, I scream, and wail, and try to climb my way out, but nothing is working.

If only I owned golf shoes, or had rock-climbing equipment. Or something. Anything. But I’m old. I’m weak. I’ve got scrawny upper-arms and my tits are getting in the way. So, what can I do besides scream?

And I do, until I’m hoarse, and I hear activity downstairs, but then nothing, so I decide that maybe it’s time to start writing the will. I pull out a lipstick, find a blank wall, and then, suddenly…

“Anybody here?” a woman’s voice calls out.

“Here!” I reply, but it feels like I’ve got no volume.

Suddenly, I see two angels making their way toward me — an older Chinese woman (who gives me mixed feelings) and a really hot, young dark-haired dude who might be Hispanic, but really reminds me of both Erick and Felipe. They make their way down the crooked floor, and then he picks my up in his arms like I’m nothing, and I am saved.

And, honestly, a little wet for the first time in decades, but don’t tell him that.

The cute dude really, really reminds me of my son, and the fact that he’s working with a Chinese woman makes me realize — “No. Don’t blame everyone, because that’s what the Nazis did.”

At least I’m  safe now from what might have been a death-trap, and I try to count how many major quakes I’ve survived, although maybe major traumas is a better measure… Three days after the quake, the Chinese woman, Wei-Tso, whom I only knew as Alice, offered me room and board in her place, the only payment being via the use of my vet tech skills because they have so many dogs and cats in the place. Job, rent, and board? Sure!

On the downside, I’d had to leave almost everything I owned behind in the building that was probably going to be demolished, but it wasn’t the first time — for me, or at least a few generations of ancestors. We knew what was important to save and carry with us, and we knew what to leave behind.

Tradition, ritual, and familial love are all portable. So are memories that live in our minds. Tangible goods, like clothes, furniture, jewelry, paintings, and so on? They are only good for being sold in order to finance the journey, as so many generations of Jews learned leading up to pogroms, purges, or worse. And the lighter your orthodoxy, the lighter your journey — only the most orthodox of Jews think that they should still dress like they live in 19th century Russia in order to “dress plainly” and blend in. Oh, sure, a lot of them do, in their simple black suits and dress shirts, kippah and payot, wigs or veils for the women in long skirts and roomy blouses, but there are still those men who insist on wearing big fur hats, long coats, and full beards that make them look like extras from a community theater version of Fiddler on the Roof. It just feels pretentious, like they’re saying, “Look at me. I’m a Jew!”

Okay, so I’ve always considered myself to be “Jew-ish.” Kind of the same way that my ex considered himself to be Catholicky. The rituals and ceremonies are great reminders and wonderful theatre, but beyond that, if they dictate your life, then you’re not really living in the modern world.

This is probably the ultimate lesson of Los Angeles. Bring the tradition, ditch the bullshit.

I’m especially reminded of this on the Sunday after the quake of ’29, which doesn’t even have a name yet, when the Red Cross sponsors a pancake breakfast with a ton of religious leaders from just about every possible denomination, who invite everyone to come and worship as they will. Or won’t. I consider them all, and then wind up heading back with my new-found theater friends, Wei-Tso, Adam, and his boyfriend Tony, to the place I’m now living, and we spend the morning having the most religious of experiences doing improv, dance, and theater. Better than any church I’ve ever been in.

And yes, I was going to retire early next year, but when communications come back  about a week and a half after the quake, along with the lights and power, I finally find one single email from my, well, I guess, former employer down the street.

“Staff are regretfully informed that due to the facility being red-tagged and uninhabitable without major renovations, the practice will be closing for the foreseeable future. All outstanding paychecks will be issued on the regular schedule on the 30th, but the offices will close and all existing patients and pets will be referred to other clinics. Dr. Caldwell will be moving on to a new practice in West Hollywood and has asked that any of you who might want to move with him text or email him. Otherwise, all of your information is safe in the cloud, and you will be contacted if the business chooses to start up again. Thank you for your understanding.”

And… that was about as impersonal as you could get. I thought about contacting Dr. Caldwell, though. He was, honestly the nicest and sweetest vet I’d ever known and, more honestly, I was always convinced that he was gay — not because of anything in his personality and mannerisms, but, one, because he was really fucking cute, and two because he showed more compassion than any of the other half dozen vets in the place. That, and all of the “scaredy-cat” dogs on our roster seemed to have absolutely no problem when he was the attending. They would just take to him like he was their… pardon the expression… daddy.

It looked like I was going to inadvertently benefit from the city, county, state, and Red Cross from having my home destroyed, not to mention the largesse from Alice, so that I was going to basically be able to finally achieve my ideal.

Lots of people and pets to look after, and talk to, and deal with. And the most amazing part of it, to me, was that it all came out of a terrible disaster. Plus… theater, art, and making stuff.

But maybe that really was in my DNA. After all, for as many generations as I could go back, one couple or another only ever met up after their parents suffered hardship. I think that it was my genetic lot in life to be an eternal refugee, but that was okay — because every next destination was always really interesting.