Saturday Morning Post #80: Sunday Supper, Part 2

In another short story from the 24 Exposures collection, I present the second of two parts, in which I steal from my own life — sort of. This is a highly fictionalized account of what I imagine my mother’s life was like when she decided to escape from her family back east and wind up in Los Angeles. In part one, we see her large family back home in action as she announces her big move to their shock, then arrives in town and gets a job as a waitress on Wilshire Boulevard. I think this is the only period piece in the collection, although all of the stories were written in 2000-2001.

The hours and the days and weeks went by, and Anne was enjoying herself, even though she was just covering expenses with very little left over. Things in L.A. were more expensive than back home, but the pay was better as well, and there wasn’t a coal mine in sight.

And she seemed to have become popular with the businessmen of the boulevard, who filled her stations as they piled in for breakfast, treated her politely and tipped well. There was one in particular she had noticed, a man who looked amazingly like that actor, Tyrone Power, but he always sat at the counter.

She was nowhere near forward enough to talk to him. Besides, there was an unwritten rule that the girls didn’t steal customers from one another. Still, she often contemplated smacking him with a menu as she went by, telling him, “There’s a really nice booth over there in the corner, honey…”

She’d had to buy new shoes after a few weeks and got them at Woolworth’s, cheap sneakers but at least her feet didn’t hurt as much anymore. That was about the only extravagance she could afford herself, even though it was no extravagance nor a luxury at all.

The luxuries lived behind the plate glass windows of the May Company, and every day after work she’d walk by to stare in the windows, watching as the fashions on the aloof mannequins changed from week to week.

It was a Tuesday in March, the first Tuesday in March in fact, that she realized two things. She hadn’t gone to church since she’d come here — she’d felt no need. And, tomorrow was Ash Wednesday, something she didn’t even remember until she heard a couple of customers talking about how disappointed they were that they couldn’t make it down to Mardi Gras this year.

She thought for half a second about finding a Catholic church tomorrow, getting the old smudge on the forehead, then realized there was no point. Her mother wasn’t here to watch her. No one was. Ash Wednesday had been one of those few moments of collaboration among the children growing up.

Every year, one of them would be designated to go to church, then they’d all meet up secretly near the playground and swap the ashes around, hoping Margaret would never be the wiser. At least they never had to include Jimmy in their plans. Margaret always took him to church herself, and he was too mentally deprived to fear or loath it.

At least Donal had stayed in touch. He wrote to her every week, and she wrote back occasionally, sending her letters to his office at the College instead of to home. He was coaching the school debate team now, and if they did well enough, they might be coming out to UCLA in the summer. She hoped they did. He was the only member of her family who had grown greater with distance.

And she stood in front of the May Company windows again, but since it was a special day, she decided to go inside, just for the hell of it, see what the big attraction was. She pushed her way through the glass and brass revolving door and found herself in Mecca, racks of clothes and housewares and all the latest fashions and technology of the day arrayed before her and above her. There were a thousand Siren calls in the place, but any approach would be dashed on the rocks of insufficient funds.

Still, she wandered and gazed, avoiding the helpful salesgirls with sorry downcast “Just lookings,” finally finding herself standing in front of a tall revolving rack covered with hats, each one lovingly balanced on a small velvet dome just so.

She turned the rack, admiring them all but not touching, and then her eyes fell on a simple low-brimmed cloche in tan, the exact same color as her one good pair of shoes, the ones she never wore because she had nowhere to wear them.

The ones that went perfectly with her green wool skirt suit, which she also never wore but kept wrapped in plastic in the closet so the moths could not enjoy it before she’d had a chance to. She imagined herself decked out in that outfit, wearing that hat, maybe even a purse to match, going somewhere interesting, having Sunday brunch served by someone else, perhaps running into that man who looked just like that actor, Tyrone Power, finding out who he really was…

“That’s a beautiful hat,” a Salesgirl had materialized, a perky young woman in a May Company blazer, hair and make-up perfect. “Here, try it on.”

“I… I was just looking — “ Anne protested, but the girl plucked the hat from its pedestal and placed it on Anne’s head, adjusting it to her satisfaction.

“Oh, you look lovely in that. Here, see?” The Salesgirl picked up a hand mirror and held it up and Anne caught her breath when she saw herself. The hat was beautiful, adding just the exact something to her appearance, her auburn hair emphasized by its fawn back hue. She stared for a moment, imagining herself owning it — then imagining it sitting in the closet, with her good shoes and green suit, gathering dust, a dream deferred, something to wear and nowhere to wear it.

She carefully took the hat off and set it back on the pedestal.

“It’s lovely, but…” she shrugged.

“You can never have too many hats,” the Salesgirl chirped, annoyingly perky. “We also have bags and gloves to match.”

“I really… No, thank you.”

“Okay. But if you change your mind, let me know, Anne.” Seeing a no sale, the girl vanished. Anne looked down at her blue and white uniform, realized she was still wearing her name tag and took it off, slipping it into her pocket. She looked at the hat again, turned the rack and looked at the others, which only made this one object more desirable. There was nothing else on that rack she wanted, but nothing she could afford.

Or, was there? She realized she had no idea how much that hat was, so she picked it up again, making sure the Salesgirl was nowhere in sight, then turned it over and fished out the price tag, turning it over, seeing the number.

Seven-fifty they wanted for it. That was dinner for two weeks, bus fare for a month. That was… it was ridiculous, is what it was. Maybe seven-fifty was nothing to all the women who came here to visit their husbands at work, then go shopping, then go back to their big houses with maids and tennis courts and swimming pools.

But to Anne, right now, seven-fifty might as well have been a million bucks. She put the hat back and quickly walked out of the store.

* * *

Celebrities lurked in L.A, and quite a lot of them wound up at Anne’s tables, although she didn’t recognize half of them. That was never a problem, though. Gladys, now one of her best friends, would always sneak over and whisper to her. “Do you know who that is at your station?”

And Anne’s reaction was always, “Yeah. So?”

Before she’d come to L.A., she’d imagined what it would be like to see stars in person. Her first encounter had been Lana Turner, in the grocery store, looking decidedly unglamorous. She wasn’t wearing a tight sweater, but a loose-fitting blouse, dungarees, and a scarf on her head. If she was wearing any make-up at all, it was nothing more than a discreet splash of lipstick.

She pushed her cart down the same aisles that Anne did, buying all the same things, although the more expensive versions. Anne had played the old game of staring while pretending not to and wound up quite by accident behind Lana in the checkout line.

When Anne saw that this screen goddess was buying TP and tampons, too, a lot of the truth about what L.A. really was sunk in, and she was never starstruck after that. L.A. was a factory town, just like Detroit or Muncie or Wilkes-Barre; the only difference was that instead of cars or clothes or coal, L.A. made movies.

“Guess who I saw at the store today,” she imagined the conversation in a motor city suburb. “The guy who paints the red parts on the Chevy.”

“Wow.”

And, after all, weren’t actors just the same? The visible result of all the work of many unseen faces? They were the tail fins and paint jobs; but the real heroes were the ones who designed the cars in the first place and figured out how to make them run.

In Detroit, the engineers were king. In L.A., the engineers who were screenwriters and directors and editors and stunt-folk could walk down any street at any time and not even be noticed unless they were someone like Alfred Hitchcock or Orson Welles.

“You hear about the Polish actress who came to Hollywood?” Shirley had told Anne once, one in a series of many off-color jokes.

“What about her?” Anne asked.

“She was so stupid she screwed the screenwriter.”

Anne supposed that if Frank Sinatra or Nat King Cole had sat at her station, she might have been impressed and a little fidgety. Then again, Sinatra was, well, Sinatra, and Cole was, despite everything else, a black man, and Anne had never met a black man in person before coming to L.A.

Her first, in fact, was Otis, the fry-cook, who was always singing in the kitchen, but the two of them hardly had time to speak to each other, beyond cryptic shouts of “Adam and Eve on a Raft” and “Burn one!”

And, among the waitresses, eighty-six. This was an ancient secret code, and Shirley had told her that it came about because it rhymed with “nix.” It meant that the customer coming in was to be avoided at all costs.

Either they were a lousy tipper, or extremely demanding and petty, the type of person who would send their toast back three times because it wasn’t done exactly right. Maybe people could act like that at Ciro’s or the Brown Derby.

But this was Van de Kamp’s, for Christ’s sake, a store-front diner of good reputation but low prices for the working stiffs of the Miracle Mile. As far as Anne was concerned, if a customer was a royal pain in the ass, they’d get the same right back, and to hell with a tip. Politeness got politeness, and she refused to take any crap from anyone.

And, so, after a few months, Anne had developed a reputation as a hard-boiled waitress. The other girls were in awe of her ability to lay it on the line and tell the nasty truth to a customer, at risk of tips. Anne managed to offend a lot of the women who came in, but endeared herself to many of the men, who would take her abuse and leave generous tips, almost in spite of themselves.

Anne had permanently endeared herself to Shirley the first time Mrs. Rothburn had come in during Anne’s tenure. Mrs. Rothburn was somewhere between sixty and death, a specter of wrinkled parchment skin stretched tight over a skull, always wore the same red wool suit with matching tam, and always brought in her dog, a miniature Doberman, Baby. Mrs. Rothburn and Baby would sit in a booth, and any comments about violations of the health code would be met with a cold, haughty look that said, “So? Insult me and kiss your tip good-bye.”

And, for months, the other girls had silently served the two of them in their back booth, returning the toast to the kitchen four or five times, enduring diatribes about the runny eggs, and waiting anxiously for the moment when Mrs. Rothburn would clear the booth, leaving a lousy five per cent tip, opening up the space for a more gracious customer.

Until Mrs. Rothburn entered one morning, amid whispers of “Eighty-six,” and wound up at Anne’s station. Anne grabbed a menu from the rack, turning to Shirley to ask, “Isn’t that illegal? Bringing a dog in here?”

“You try telling her that,” Shirley spat back.

“Okay,” Anne replied, strutting to the booth.

“You can’t bring the dog in here,” Anne said by way of introduction. Mrs. Rothburn eyed her up and down with a withering stare.

“Baby and I have been eating here since before you were born, young lady,” she said, snatching the menu away and slamming it, unopened, on the table. “I would like the breakfast special, eggs over easy, not overcooked, toast well done, and a glass of orange juice for Baby.”

“I can’t serve the dog,” Anne answered, unaware that every waitress in the place was watching from afar.

“You certainly will,” Mrs. Rothburn shot back.

“I certainly won’t. It’s a violation of the health code.”

“Health code, schmelth code. You will get Baby her orange juice, or I will have her bite you.”

Anne inhaled, glaring at this strange creature. “Lady,” she said, stuffing her order pad into her apron, “Either of you bitches gets their teeth near me, I will bite that little rat right on the ass.”

Everything stopped for half a second, while Mrs. Rothburn stared back in disbelief. Finally, she stood, stormed from the booth to the door, and announced dramatically, “I will never come back to this place again. Really. The nerve.”

As she swept out the door, the other waitresses and the regulars applauded. Anne took a modest bow and, when Mrs. Rothburn finally returned two weeks later, it was without Baby, and she insisted on sitting at Anne’s station, was practically deferential and actually left a fifteen percent tip. Anne only wished her mother could see her now.

After all, she was the one who had unintentionally taught Anne how to handle difficult, pushy, obnoxious women by giving her plenty of practice in doing it.

She realized, though, the morning that Mrs. Rothburn came back, that this weird town called L.A. was her home now. Pennsylvania was a distant memory, with no reason left there to ever return.

* * *

Easter was approaching, only a few weeks away, and Anne felt that she had to do something. Despite the miles, that old Catholic guilt still lurked. No way she was going to waste her time following her mother’s old weekly rules, but it was The Day, the one day of the year when lapsed Catholics still felt compelled to play along.

There was a church down the block from her house, and for a long time she thought it was a Catholic church. It looked like one, it was named after a Saint, it was always jammed on Sunday. Maybe she’d go there. She’d almost talked herself into it when she walked by one Saturday afternoon, then read the sign for the first time.

It said, “Anglican Catholic Church.” Not Roman? She didn’t know there was anything besides Roman Catholic. Well, okay, there was that Armenian Catholic church back home that she had gone to with her best friend Beverly once, to Margaret’s consternation. But if it wasn’t Roman it wasn’t Catholic, as far as Anne’s mother was concerned. There was only one church, accept no substitutes.

She asked Shirley later if she knew the difference. Shirley’s father was Jewish, her mother was Lutheran and her husband was Catholic, and she’d actually had one semester of college, so she knew a bit about religion and history. “Anglican Catholic,” she explained, “is the church started by Henry the Eighth when he got all snippy about the Pope not giving him a divorce.”

“So… it’s Protestant?”

“It’s English,” Shirley said. “All the ceremony, none of the guilt, from what I hear. You’d almost never know the difference.”

“Really?” Anne thought about it. All of the ceremony. Everything necessary for Easter. And a good Irish Roman Catholic girl spending that holiest of days in an English Protestant church would be enough to make Margaret dig a grave and then roll over in it. If only she ever knew, which she never would.

Or, hell, maybe she’d just go to the movies on Easter. She assumed that, unlike Wilkes-Barre, the theatres in L.A. would still be open that day. It was still just a factory town, after all, and movie palaces were the real houses of worship here.

* * *
One late morning the Monday of Holy Week, Gladys grabbed Anne’s arm, whispering anxiously, “Do you know who that is at your station?”

Anne shrugged, balancing two trays.

“So?” Gladys stared at her. “You going to get his autograph?”

“Of course not.”

“Why not?”

“He came here to eat and be left alone, just like anyone else.”

Gladys stared at Anne’s customer, and Anne gave her a cautionary stare. Gladys vanished into the kitchen then, and Anne continued on to serve her stations, starting with her celebrity in the back booth; grilled cheese and chocolate shake.

And… he came in for an early lunch, the man who looked like Tyrone Power, with a couple of associates, and they took a booth in Anne’s section. She wasted no time in getting their menus to them, and as she passed them out and asked if they wanted coffee, she noticed the man look at her, then look again intently.

He glanced away before she looked back, but she stared at him a moment. He was handsome, with a brilliant smile, and seemed like the kind of man who would completely care about anyone he loved.

“‘Scuse me, miss…” It was her celebrity, two booths away. She walked over and he asked her for more water and she came back to refill his glass. He seemed like a nice man, too. Just a person, despite his fame, despite the fact that everyone else was trying to stare at him without being noticed. That had to be utterly nerve-wracking.

If that’s what fame meant, then Anne didn’t want it, didn’t want to be a product of the L.A. factory. Then again, Memphis was just a factory town, too.

And the man who looked like Tyrone Power seemed to take special notice of her when she came by their booth, smiling yet looking away coyly as he ordered, but doing nothing more. She was trying to think of a way to impress him when she noticed the wedding ring on his finger and her heart sank. So much for that.

But when she came back with the check, she noticed the wedding ring was gone, and the man looked at her name tag, said, “Anne is a beautiful name.”

“Thanks,” she said. “What’s yours?”

“Bob,” he said simply.

“Hi, Bob. You know, there’s usually a booth when you come in in the morning. Much more comfortable than the counter.”

She walked over to her celebrity customer then, hearing the quiet comments from Bob’s friends. Yes, he was interested in her, and they all knew it and… well, she’d find out, wouldn’t she?

But she’d be cool about it. She always was. That was her other survival technique. Yes, she could fire off blistering retorts when offended, but she could also hold it all close to the vest when she was interested, and she was very interested in this man named Bob, even if he did have a wedding ring.

She gave the celebrity his check and went back to the order window, where Gladys was grabbing dishes.

“Are you going to get his autograph?” she asked.

“No,” Anne said.

“Can you, for me then?” she asked.

“Gladys, he just wants to eat and be left alone.”

“Yeah, but it’s — “

“It’s a customer,” Anne said.

And that customer was leaving now, but he called out thank you to Anne as he left and when Anne got back to the table, she found out that letting him eat in peace had paid off. Sitting there for his dollar-ten order was a ten dollar bill, and he’d written “thank you” on the check, signing his name beneath it: “Elvis Presley.”

She gave Gladys the autograph, but she kept the tip.

* * *

On Easter Sunday, Anne went to church for the first time since arriving in L.A., deciding to try the Anglican place down the block, and enjoying it very much. Shirley had been right. It was all of the pomp and ceremony, all the glitz and glamour of Catholicism, with none of the guilt.

The place was not oppressive or gloomy, and neither were the people. In fact, at the post service coffee klatch, everyone came over to introduce themselves, welcome her to the church, and mention how much they just adored her new hat.

* * *

Saturday Morning Post #78: Sunday Supper, Part 1

In another short story from the 24 Exposures collection, presented in two parts, I steal from my own life — sort of. This is a highly fictionalized account of what I imagine my mother’s life was like when she decided to escape from her family back east and wind up in Los Angeles. It didn’t happen this way, really — she was both younger when she came here and it happened at a later date — but, you know. Artistic license. I think this is the only period piece in the collection, although all of the stories were written in 2000-2001.

Sunday dinners should have been happy, festive occasions, but were not. Especially not in the 50s, when Sean was getting older before his time, lungs clotted with years of anthracite dust, when Margaret was getting drunk more often than she should and turning into a shrill harridan that belonged in a James Joyce short story, and when most of their seven kids hated each other but pretended to be a loyal family.

Donal had not yet moved to the head of the table, but sat to the right of his older brother, Little Sean, or just Junior, who sat at Sean’s right hand. Margaret was at the foot. At her right hand sat twelve year-old Jimmy (aka Seamus), who was the family’s reminder from god of their own unworthiness.

He was born with Down’s Syndrome when Margaret was 44, a condition she blamed until the day she died on “that damn Jew nurse who didn’t know what she was doing when she stuck that needle in him right after he was born.” No amount of science or lecturing in genetics would convince her otherwise. After all, to admit that Jimmy’s condition was caused by her age and her drinking would be to admit to… unpleasant truths.

There were no unpleasant truths at this table, only unpleasant subtext. Junior constantly harassed Donal, the only one of them who’d gone to college. Even now, when Junior was thirty and Donal was in his late twenties and should have just said, “Cut the shit, asshole,” the sniping and bickering went on.

And, the sisters. What a collection. Four women who truly despised each other but pretended to be best friends. There was Brigid, the oldest, married but always attending these dinners alone. Donal had guessed that she was prone to mother’s condition, but his sister blamed her weight gain and spidery facial capillaries on “my glandular problem.”

Next to her was Mary, the nun, who claimed to be the youngest but was, in fact, two years older than the next sister. She used her status as the only religious in the family as self-defense and self-justification. Her habit was her shield.

She also constantly whined, privately, to Donal about how Mother Superior was always confiscating their money, and they had never taken a vow of poverty, only chastity, and could he perhaps lend her ten dollars until…? And he always lent her the money, mostly because she was so seemingly guileless in her entreaties, but mostly because that was what family was supposed to do for each other.

Otherwise, if anyone ever mailed her money at the convent, they would stick it in a separate envelope inside marked “Family Photos.” For some reason, this kept ol’ Mama Supreme from dipping her claws in and taking the cash.

Then, there was Anne. Just turned twenty-one, she was the other rebel in the family, besides Donal, although Donal’s rebellion was a deep, dark secret that only Anne knew.

Anne’s, secret though, was quite out in the open. Of all of them, Donal loved and admired her the most, so the rest hated and resented her the most. When it was the fashion for girls to wear their hair up, she let hers trail down her back in a curly auburn spill that would have made Veronica Lake jealous.

When women were supposed to be quiet slaves to men, she’d let her boyfriends know that she wasn’t going to take any crap, and in private with Donal, she could curse like a sailor and drink like a Jesuit — not out of the sad necessity of many of her family members, but out of the need to say, “Fuck the world. I’m as good as any of you.”

She’d already been married, at eighteen, to some Polish boy from Forty Fort — a beautiful but brutish man who was probably more her attempt to escape early than her true romance. Married, and annulled, because he beat her once too often, which was once, and she just wouldn’t put up with that from anyone.

Mary had once told Donal, in strictest confidence, that she had heard Anne tell Sean, when he slapped her for some minor infraction at sixteen, that if he ever did that again, she would kick him so hard where it counted “that he’d be gagging on his man thing.” Donal had always wondered if it was just Mary’s dramatic side playing at trash the sister, but also never doubted it was true.

It was just so much like Anne.

Finally, there was Lucy, the youngest sister, and the most stoic. In a couple of years, her biggest claim to fame would be an uncanny resemblance to Jackie Kennedy. Meantime, she was the shy, quiet eighteen-year-old sitting to Mary’s left, across from Anne, staring at her plate, occasionally looking up to flash an incredible smile that seemed reserved only for people she already knew. In public, she rarely smiled and rarely looked up. Donal knew in his heart she was a jewel, and that she would never know it, because she was next to last, forgotten.

There had been six other children, but times being what they were, they had not survived. Thirteen times, Margaret had done the squat of life and spat out a baby. Six times, they had died. Most of them made it a week or a month or two. One of them had made it to age twelve, but had died in his sleep one night, victim of a genetic condition the doctors had predicted would get him at either seven or twelve or twenty-one.

His name was Peter, next in line above Anne, and her closest friend until that fateful night when she woke up at three a.m. in the bed all of them shared and realized that her brother next to her was stone cold dead.

She would claim later, whenever she told the story, that she found him that way and calmly told Mom and Dad. Actually, she had completely freaked out and ran screaming through the house because she had lost the one person she loved, and was left alone with the others, who were family only because of biology, not affinity.

It was a house full of death, she always thought after that night. Babies dying suddenly, a brother going cold in her bed. Death a regular visitor, and then those goddamn Sunday services her mother dragged them all to, in which sad and silent people paid homage to a dying god. This wasn’t how life was supposed to be. Life was supposed to be fun. We were not supposed to crucify ourselves every day. But the rest of them did, in one way or another.

Anne especially dreaded going into Margaret’s bedroom (separate from Sean’s since Jimmy’s birth) where the religious statues were absolutely morbid. Margaret had a bizarre fascination for the Infant of Prague, a tiny crowned white and blond baby Jesus who showed up in Czechoslovakia one day, or so the story went. That, and the bust of Jesus, crown of thorns jammed on his head, dripping blood lovingly painted down his face.

This was god? This was the noble thing toward which they were supposed to aspire? No, thank you. Anne had had enough of martyrdom when George slapped her around that first and only time. He had seemed the perfect man, a big, dumb blond with shoulders to die for, an incredible face and not much to say. But here he was giving her thirty-nine lashes. Different church, same story. To hell with it.

And her family had been absorbed. Mary, the nun. Brigid, with her bizarre fascination with every alleged appearance by the Virgin Mary. Lucy, the quiet sufferer who dumped tons of self-loathing on everyone. At least Anne could take gleeful advantage of Lucy’s every revelation, playing her for the stupid patsy she really was.

And — Margaret. Mother. Hypocrite, Anne would have called her, had she gone beyond the eighth grade and learned such big words. But, not knowing such big words, she only knew that this woman would ignore any sin committed by any man in a Roman collar, while digging incessantly into any imagined sin performed by her own children.

A bitch-and-a-half for six days, and madam pious on the seventh. Anne hated her for that. Not that there was any love lost between her and the rest of them. Except Donal, because he seemed to understand. Dad was useless, a small, gray man with a benign smile and a nasty cough — off to the mines before dawn, return after sunset, way too often with a rat having eaten its way into his metal lunch box.

“Hi, kids!” he’d rasp. And thence to bed, church and Sunday dinner the only time they ever saw him for more than a few minutes.

Which was why the idea of moving away — far away — had gotten so attractive of late. And why, at this last dinner of the year, she had news to drop on them like the bomb on Hiroshima, and not only did she not give a damn what they thought, she relished the idea of seeing utterly horrified faces at this table, mouths agape and eyes wide above the roast beef and mashed potatoes.

So, when seconds came around and Junior paid ass-kissing lip service to thanking Jesus (not his four sisters) for the meal again and Sean, Sr. coughed and Margaret poured herself another glass of wine and Mary made the sign of the cross while Brigid stared at Margaret’s glass and Donal stared at Anne and Junior scratched his crotch and Lucy stared at her plate and Jimmy muttered out incomprehensible sounds that only Margaret, Donal, and Anne bothered to decipher, her news became even sweeter, and more devastating and more impending, and she grabbed another slab of red meat, threw it on her plate, and tossed out to the world, “I’m moving to Hollywood.”

A brief moment of silence, in which Sean snorts, Donal nods imperceptibly, Brigid considers grabbing the wine, Lucy does nothing, Jimmy stuffs food into his mouth and Mary tries to appear outraged, because no one has offered her the money to move to Hollywood. Then Molly takes a goodly hit off her goblet, red lipstick smearing the Woolworth’s cheap class “crystal,” before she blearily focuses on that troublesome daughter and says, “The hell you are.”

Let the games begin.

“I’ve saved up enough to fly to California, and I’m going,” Anne continues.

“Why?” Molly shoots back.

“What the hell is here?”

“Watch your mouth.”

“You just said it.”

“I’m your mother.”

“So?”

In his mind, Donal racks up 15-Love. Anne’s serve.

“Don’t talk like that.”

“I’m flying out in two weeks,” Anne continues.

“So you’re made of money. Flying first class?” Molly shoots back.

“Of course not.”

Oh, bad self-defense, Donal calculates. 15 all.

“Why would you want to go there?” Molly demands. “Nothing but queers and hookers.”

Jimmy snorts around his food. “Hoo-ers,” he echoes, inadvertently giving a synonym for a word he doesn’t know.

“Better than coal miners and nuns,” Anne responds, pulling an ace in Donal’s estimation.

“Coal mining gave you everything you have, missy,” Molly spat.

“Except the bruises from George,” Anne smirked, popping a hunk of meat into her mouth.

“He was a nice boy,” Molly countered.

“Until the first time he got as plastered as you do,” Anne replied, sending Brigid and Lucy into deep self-denial while Sean suddenly found his cutlery very interesting, and Junior remembered all the words to his rosary.

“So nothing I do is good enough for you, is that it?”

“Yeah, it isn’t.”

“After all your father has done, slaving in the mines just so you could have shoes to wear to school. And me. Should we talk about me for a minute? Thirteen children I bring into this world, only to have them all turn on me. It’s terrible.”

“Not me, ma,” Junior moaned.

“I love you,” Mary spoke.

“I — not me,” Lucy offered.

Brigid grabbed the wine and poured.

“Hollywood is full of faggots,” Junior suddenly opined, eyes glued on Donal, who ignored him.

“At least they’re not wife beaters,” Anne replied.

“George may have gone to a different church, but he was a good Catholic boy. You think you’ll find that in California?” Molly spoke slowly, knuckles white around the stem of her glass.

“Of course not,” Anne answered, standing. “Why the hell do you think I’m going there?”

“Language!” Molly warned.

“Oh, bullshit,” Anne answered. “I hope I find some nice Jewboy to marry. Some rich doctor, and I may even damn well convert. “

“Don’t shout, please. No shouting,” Sean, Sr., finally spoke, voice heavy with phlegm.

“This whole goddamn town is choking us,” Anne added, stepping from the table.

“Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain!” Mary spewed, smug expression of righteousness aimed at Molly.

“God, god, goddamn,” Anne aimed back at her. “You wouldn’t know god if he bit you on your fat pimply ass.”

Lucy suppressed a giggle and Donal hid his smile behind his hand. God, if only he had the balls his favorite sister did. Then he could do things. But, instead, he watched in silence.

“You are not going to California,” Molly finally proclaimed.

“The hell I’m not,” Anne ended the conversation with a toss of her hair and a stomp out of the room. The momentary silence was deafening, until Molly finally demanded the wine bottle back, and Mary quickly grabbed it from Brigid and poured, over-filling the glass and staining the tablecloth. Molly took a deep swig of the red, then stared at Sean.

“She’s your daughter,” she said. “Do something.”

But Sean just shrugged and Junior shook his head and above them, on the second floor, a door slammed, and the rest of Sunday dinner — like so many of them — was consumed in silence.

* * *
“So what do you know how to do, honey?” Shirley eyed Anne over the dark bags under her eyes, flame red locks drizzling from her hair-net, the filter of her lit but neglected Chesterfield spinning idly between her lips as she spoke.

“This,” Anne answered, gesturing at the long chrome counter at Van de Kamp’s. “I worked a few places back home, coal miners for breakfast. These suits will be easy.”

“So you say now,” Shirley sneered, hiding her instant liking for this girl. “We get some real weirdoes in here.”

“Good,” Anne answered. “Keeps it interesting.”

“You union?”

“There’s a union for this?”

“Honey, in LA there’s a union for everything. Mostly good for leeching dues from you, then telling you when you can’t work because some honcho in a three piece gets a wild hair up his ass. The bright side is, we get paid more here than places that aren’t unionized. I take it you ain’t union?”

“No. I just moved here.”

“Ninety days, you get in. Hours are four to noon, and a half shift Saturday or Sunday, your choice. Personally, I recommend any time but Sunday afternoon. Those churchy bastards are really lousy tippers. When can you start?”

“I got it?”

“You want it, you got it. So, when?”

Anne glanced at her watch. “Now?”

Shirley laughed with a racking wheeze and smiled for the first time. “Kid, I like you. You’ll light a fire under some of the lazy keisters around here. Tomorrow morning?”

“Sure. What do I have to do?”

“Show up. Three-thirty, let’s say. I’ll let Miss Liberty know. She’s the night supervisor.”

“Miss Liberty?”

“That’s her real name, and believe me it ain’t ‘cause this broad has ever carried a torch. Don’t worry. I come on at four, so you only have to put up with her for half an hour. Oh, we’ll get you a uniform. They deduct twenty cents a week for that until it’s paid for, but it’s completely tax-deductible. For the moment. Bastards. And that’s about it. See you tomorrow morning, then?”

“See you then.” Anne said.

“Unless I win the Irish Sweepstakes tonight,” Shirley laughed back.

Anne stepped through the heavy glass door and onto Wilshire Boulevard, which seemed to glow in the winter light of a late mid-morning. They called it the Miracle Mile, and right now she could see why. She pulled the list out of her purse; a dozen restaurants within walking distance of the bus-stop at La Brea, and Van de Kamp’s had been the first she went into. She considered the rest of the names briefly, then crumpled the paper, dropped it in a nearby trash-can, and walked back to the bus-stop.

Why check anywhere else? This had been easy, Shirley looked like fun and it was union. Anne wasn’t exactly sure what that part would involve, but it sounded great, and her father was a union man, close to retiring on disability now, and the union was taking care of the family, so it must be something good.

Her father. He was the only thing she really missed about home. That and the river, the Susquehanna, crossing under the two bridges that connected Kingston and Wilkes-Barre. It was a small town, but the view of the Market Street Bridge as you crossed up and over, passing the huge and elaborate 19th Century Courthouse, made it seem almost cosmopolitan, a mini New York City plonked into the despoiled greenery of Eastern Pennsylvania. The river was beautiful, at least when it wasn’t turning on the town and overflowing its banks. A lot of things were like that.

For the moment, L.A. was beautiful. Above her, a blue glass windmill spun in the still air, the long windows giving diners a view of passers-by on Wilshire, and vice versa. And there were plenty of people here, dumped out of offices, bustling back and forth. Men in sharp suits and fedoras, crewcuts and wide ties, the cuffs of their pants just so and sharply pressed, stepping in and out of office buildings, carrying briefcases and all of them in intent conversation, with plans, ideas, goals, and dreams.

Dreams that were happening above and around them in quiet offices where the miracle of air-conditioning had banished the outside world and fluorescent light made the rooms glow with hope. The tide of men was counter-washed by a flood of women in matching skirts and jackets, perfectly accessorized, purses clutched purposefully under their arms, a profusion of hats as they tottered along on three-inch heels, guided missiles aimed for the May Company that towered above Wilshire, all five stories of it.

Anne glanced down at her shoes; simple black flats she’d worn since High School. And her purse — brown, plain; she wondered if Shirley had noticed the mismatch, or if she’d care.

And then Anne saw the window at the May Company, a line of mannequins in the latest from New York and Paris and Dallas, all of them looking like Audrey Hepburn, staring aloofly at some point far above everyone’s heads, perfectly accessorized and coiffed and immune to it all. They wouldn’t have cared if their purses and shoes didn’t match, but all of their accessories did.

“A hat,” Anne thought. “I need a hat.” That and so much more, since she had come to town with so little. But she wouldn’t be working until tomorrow, and was sure she wouldn’t be paid for two weeks at least, so would have to set her dreams aside.

Except… this was the Miracle Mile and miracle times, and the businessmen who came in for breakfast on the way to hopeful prosperous days were optimistic and friendly and generous. Anne had started on a Thursday, and took Shirley’s advice regarding Sunday and, by Monday afternoon had made enough in wages and tips to cover half a month’s rent, pay the twenty cent a day round-trip bus fare and see three movies, with money left over. Breakfast was free, and she could manage lunch and dinner cheaply and every day was sunny.

Maybe this had been the place to come and the time to do it, after all.

* * *

Talky Tuesday Special: Erin go, bro!

In which I don’t so much write about language as indulge in my Irish gift of gab in the most meta way possible.

Americans may or may not be celebrating St. Patrick’s Day tomorrow, depending upon which state they live in and whether big gatherings have been allowed yet, although I don’t think that’s the case anywhere. Last year, New York City  cancelled theirs one (of the biggest in the country), along with Chicago and Boston.

But the salient point is that, like Cinco de Mayo to actual Mexicans, St. Patrick’s Day isn’t all that big a deal over in Ireland. It’s more of a religious holiday than a boozefest. They still celebrate it, just not on the same scale as… oh. Never mind. Ireland has cancelled, too.

In honor of the day, I’m bringing up my mother’s people because the Irish in America are a very good example of a group that was once an identifiable and hated minority that went on to assimilate with a vengeance.

If you trust traditional sources, that might not seem the case. According to the Census, 10.5% consider themselves of Irish descent. But, of course, that’s totally unreliable because it’s a self-reported figure. Some people may have no idea where their grandparents or great-grandparents came from. Others may not care about their Irish ancestry, or may identify more strongly with another group or country in their background.

But when you look at objective sources and include any degree of Irish heritage, the number changes dramatically. DNA tests via Ancestry show that two thirds of all people tested have at least some Irish blood in them.

In other words, in that regard, the Irish are the hidden majority in this country. Nice trick, considering that for so much of their history here, mo mhuintir (my people) were a much hated minority.

A group of refuges, fleeing what is basically an attempt at genocide back home, suddenly flood the country. Many of them speak a foreign language or speak English badly; they practice a different religion than most Americans of the time; they are perceived as a big threat to American jobs (although they only took the ones Americans didn’t want); and they are accused of being violent criminals, addicts, or rapists.

Sound familiar? Ripped from recent headlines?

Yes, but all of those attributes were applied to the Irish who came to America in the wake of the potato famine, or the Great Hunger, of the 1850s. A big part of it was religious discrimination. At the time, America was predominantly Protestant, thanks to its initial British invaders… sorry, settlers, but another big group who came over, the Germans, tended to be Lutheran. The Catholic Germans of the north stayed home.

The English never had any problem with the Germans because, surprise, by the time America was founded, the English royal family was actually… German. They ruled via four Georges, one William, and somebody known as Victoria.

After she died, the name of the house changed twice, first with her successor, and then again during World War I (then known as the Great War) because Windsor sounded so much more British than the German Hanover, and the British were fighting the Germans, after all.

That’s right. World War I wasn’t so much a war as a family squabble.

The Germans in America did just fine, though, and I have plenty of them in my background as well. My last name is German, and my great grandfather came from there. He was pretty successful as well, and as far as I know, the only elected official (mayor) who’s my direct ancestor for at least four hundred years.

My Irish ancestors, not so much. They were depicted in the press in completely stereotyped and racist ways — and yes, even though Irish is a nationality, the prejudice they faced was a type of racism because the Irish were not considered to be white by the native-born of the era.

Note that the mention of Germans also being stereotyped in that era refers to the Catholic ones, who finally came over as Germany dissolved into civil war in the mid to late 1800s. Note that this is exactly when my great-grandfather came over with his family.

It was 1883 and he was 18. The village he came from was Michelbach, in Gaggenau, just outside of Stuttgart. It’s close enough to Hamburg to assume that it was very Catholic, but I don’t have to assume.

Thanks to a genealogist who, while studying the village as a whole, found my query online, I know all about all of my ancestors from there back to the late 17th century, thanks to the Catholic Church they were preserved in. So those Bastians were probably Catholic. My dad was definitely not.

I don’t think he practiced any religion except for the Ritual of the Earliest Tee Time via its patron, St. Golf, but I suspect that it was because his mother, who was a combination of French, Welsh, Scottish, maybe Native American, and who knows what-all else, wasn’t at all religious.

But if it was one civil war that brought my German ancestors to America, it was another that really messed with my Irish ancestors. This would be the American Civil War itself, and, ironically (or not) it was a perfect example of the rich pitting one downtrodden class against another.

April 1, 1863 was the date the government in the north set for all men between 20 and 45 to register for the first ever draft, whether they were citizens or immigrants seeking citizenship. On top of this, while you’d think that everyone in the North was against slavery, you’d be wrong. In fact, not only did the business elites in New York support it because they profited off of the cheap labor, too, but so did the lower classes, because they feared the possibility of freed slaves coming to take their jobs.

Hm. That whole mishmash sounds familiar, too.

Oh… there was one other big flaw in the law, and it was this. Anyone could buy their way out of being drafted by either finding a substitute to take their place, or paying $300. Obviously, this meant that buying their way out was impossible for the poor and working class, and these people went apeshit.

This led to the draft riots, the second largest act of civil insurrection in U.S. history, ironically only beaten out by the Civil War itself. Of course, as the riots started, the disgruntled poor, largely Irish, didn’t go after the rich bastards in charge. Nope — they went after the black community instead.

Even then, America used divide and conquer. An object lesson for today. Keep in mind that before the Civil War, the Irish were shoved into the same social circles as blacks who were not slaves, and there was a lot of intermarriage and the like going on. Sadly, the above scare tactics of “they’ll take your jobs” during the Civil War worked, permanently damaging the Irish/Black relationship.

But… it planted a seed, so to speak, and there are plenty of black Americans today who happen to have Irish genes in them.

So how did the Irish manage to climb up the ladder to become respected and considered “white?” Simple… America, never one to back down on xenophobia, simply found new targets. After the whole Irish thing, there were suddenly Italians, Eastern Europeans, Chinese, and Mexicans flooding our shores.

After all that, the Irish didn’t seem all that bad.

By the time that Great War ended, the Irish were totally assimilated. And they saw their first president elected in 1960… wait, right, no. JFK was not the first Irish-American president. That would have been bloody, bloody Andrew Jackson. Too bad he didn’t also claim the title of biggest racist asshole prior to… well, you know who.

But, surprisingly, even as recently as 1960, the big worry was whether an Irish Catholic president would follow the Pope instead of the Constitution. (Hint: It was unfounded.)

So happy St. Patrick’s Day. Although it’s not really celebrated that much in Ireland, it probably is in America because, if all y’all strip down to your genes, you probably do have a little Irish in you. Erin go bragh!

The unbearable whiteness of eating

I’ve probably mentioned bits of my family background before, so some of this may be a repeat, but it’s heading toward an entirely different story, and it was brought to mind because of a coupon.

I’m a regular shopper at Ralphs, a supermarket chain owned by Kroger, and I have their rewards card. It’s the only chain I’ve shopped, other than Trader Joe’s, my entire adult life.

So, for a while now, every six weeks, I get about a dozen coupons in the mail. They come in two sheets of six each, and it always works the same way. The first page: Coupons for stuff I buy all the time. This one gets used up.

Second page: Stuff I might have bought once in the past, or lasts so long that I don’t need it, or is something I never have or would buy. This one usually stays intact.

One of the coupons they always send me is for a free jar of mayo — sometimes my preferred brand (Kraft) and sometimes not (Best Foods.)

Tonight was a free jar of Best Foods, and as I put it in the fridge, I realized, “Damn, I have a lot of unopened mayo in there.”

Fortunately, and contrary to popular belief, mayo has a long shelf life despite containing eggs because it is full of vinegar, too. Why do you think they leave it on the non-refrigerated shelves in the market?

But this surfeit of mayo reminded me that, when I was growing up, my fridge at home was not like this at all. There would be nary a jar of mayo to be found.

Flashback to my mom’s origin story. She was the daughter of an Irish Catholic couple from a suburb adjacent to Joseph Biden’s birthplace, Scranton, Pennsylvania. Grandfather was a coal miner. Grandmother was a baby machine.

No, seriously, that seemed to be all she did. Over the course of twenty-six years, from the ages of about 19 to 45, she popped out thirteen babies. If you’re counting, that’s one every two years. She started all of that not long before the Great Depression — not a good time for a laborer, even one in a union, to try to be raising that many kids.

Only seven of them made it to adulthood. There were a lot of stillbirths, and one who died in middle childhood. I’d assume miscarriages as well. But my mother was right in the middle of the surviving bunch, so she and her one older sister wound up helping grandma raise the other kids.

The oldest was one of her sisters, and the two boys, of course, were never expected to do “women’s work.” (Rolls eyes.) This left her two younger sisters and the youngest, who was born with Down’s Syndrome right around the time grandma turned 45.

He was her last.

Anyway, my  mom learned everything she knew about homemaking from Grandma Molly and Aunt Pat, particularly cooking, although food at home at the time was necessarily… not great.

They had nine mouths to feed on a limited budget, not to mention that a lot of them were not very adventurous when it came to what they ate, so it was apparently a lot of meat and potatoes. It was a typical Irish-American diet, I suppose.

But it all had to be done in bulk and cheaply, and there was a World War in there somewhere as well, so for a while they had to deal with rationing.

By the time my mom married my dad, who was a white collar professional and decidedly middle (if not upper-middle) class, she had improved her culinary skills enormously, but she still leaned toward the money-saving choices from her childhood.

She was also the only one to move all the way across the country to California, and I think being here influenced her cooking enormously — she had quite a few specialties of the Mexican and Italian food variety, which played nicely into a genetic thing that I improbably share with my dad’s half-German side of the family.

For the Bastians, the rule is “the spicier the better.”

But… the occasional lasagna or enchiladas or tamale pie were rare treats, maybe once a month, because I watched and learned from her, and they were involved and complicated.

Spaghetti and meatballs, not so much, since the only intricate part there is the meatball prep, but the cooking the spaghetti part was so simple that Mom could and did trust Dad to do it. (Took me years to figure out that was because it was something he could basically not screw up.)

Outside of the specialties, though, we were also pretty much meat and potatoes, with Sunday dinner traditionally being a huge rump roast with potatoes, usually mashed, and a side of thick-cut cooked carrots if I were lucky, or green beans if I weren’t.

I despise green beans. No one can convince me that they do not only exist as wax fruit that is inexplicably slipped into cookpots for no good reason.

But, without the sides, that Sunday dinner would turn into roast beef sandwich lunches for both Dad and me for the rest of the week, and I had no complaints.

And those sandwiches? Roast beef on Wonder Bread with Miracle Whip. Our house also lacked butter — for Mom, it was Parkay Margarine all the way or, as I say now, “¿por qué margarina?” We also had Carnation instant milk, which was (is?) powder mixed with water, and the only “cheese” I ever knew were individually wrapped Kraft American singles, which IIRC were always referred to as “cheese food product,” which sounds about as unappealing as possible.

The plastic each slice came wrapped in probably had more nutritional value and tasted better.

Mom also committed what I now consider from my own experience cooking and baking as the ultimate culinary sin. She used Bisquick.

In case you’re not familiar with it, it’s a product designed for people who couldn’t be arsed to measure out and whisk together a little flour, baking powder, salt, and baking soda — and anathema if you need to leave out the last two ingredients for health reasons.

So, yeah… Other than the occasional ethnic meals, my culinary upbringing was about as damn white as you could get. In the case of the bread, mayo, and Bisquick, quite literally. It always amazed me, because she certainly could have afforded a lot more and better, but the habits we develop in childhood, especially when it comes to food choices, can be very hard to break.

Then I went off to college. It was a Catholic university — which I attended for the film school, not the religion — but, ironically, it opened up a whole new world of food for me.

On my first lunch from campus food service on my first day living there, I had a burger and I had real mayo on it, which I had never tasted before.

OMFG, what a revelation. The sugary blandness of the very misnamed Miracle Whip faded into memory as I discovered the sassy, tangy goodness of real mayo enticingly teasing my taste buds.

And then there was wheat bread, which actually tasted like something, and delivered every bite of sandwich with a little hug. Don’t get me started on tasting real butter for the first time, and then the goodness of butter spread thick on hot wheat toast.

Then there were the real cheese and milk that, like the butter, actually came out of a cow and were not created artificially or reconstituted. Swiss cheese. Cheddar cheese. Mozzarella. Gorgonzola. Bleu cheese. Feta. Goat cheese. Cheese, cheese, cheese, cheese, cheese! Glorious cheese!

And I was absolutely addicted to milk. I still am. But even real non-fat milk was better than the reanimated corpse milk I’d grown up on, and I’d even occasionally dare a 2%.

This was also when and where I first took my tongue around the world. In a culinary sense, you pervs. I was already familiar with Mexican and Italian food, but discovered Chinese, Indian, Thai, Indonesian, Salvadoran, and German cuisine — I’m probably missing a lot on that list — largely thanks to my university having a very diverse student body, both of native-born Americans from different cultures and international students from different countries.

Did I mention that my very Catholic university had an amazing bagel bar every morning, with every conceivable kind of bagel and shmear, along with lox and onions and the works?

And how amusing it was to see the Catholic high school kids the first week not know that you cut it in half and the stuff goes inside, you don’t spread it on top?

But, like I’d been, they were also clearly lacking in certain culinary experiences, so I shouldn’t really make too much fun of them. I’ll reserve that mocking for people who are having authentic tamales for the first time and don’t know that you have to take the corn husks off before eating because, I mean, duh. That should be obvious, right?

That’s like trying to eat your Taco Bell burrito while it’s still wrapped in the paper. And that’s just silly.

About as silly as what I was stuck eating until I turned 18 and went off on my own, but I really can’t fault my mother for it. She did amazing things with what she was limited to, but she also went beyond those boundaries.

It was just the common basics of the everyday that were so much wrapped up in her past as the daughter of a poor working man with a big family. On the other hand, it kept me also stuck firmly to her roots instead of realizing how well-off dad actually was, so it kept me from growing up to be an entitled brat.

At least I’ve come to terms with it, and no longer consider having grown up on Miracle Whip and Wonder Bread to be child abuse. But, nowadays, it should be. Oh, yes, it should be.

Image “White bread sandwich with cheese” by Freefoodphotos at FreeImagesLive. Licensed under (CC by 3.0) Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported.

Better seen than heard?

If you’ve ever tried to learn Gaelic, then all those silent letters may have stopped you. But there’s apparently a method to that madness. Not so much in English, where there’s only one letter that is never silent.

First, a quick quiz to be answered later. Without cheating in Google translator or something, how would you pronounce this Gaelic surname? Mudhean. Hint: The answer is not “mud hen.”

Now, I’d mentioned previously that I’m glad I learned English first because it’s the hardest to pronounce. However, I’ve tried several times to learn my mother’s family’s mother tongue, which is Irish Gaelic, and have failed completely for exactly that reason: It is impossible to pronounce!

Seriously, look at these Americans trying to pronounce common Irish first names — and trust me, I once watched my own father being totally clueless on how to pronounce the very common name “Sean.”

Now look at this liar of an Irishman (because all of us are liars!) claiming that it’s so easy! Right. Maybe if you get rid of all those damn extra H’s and silent letters and dipthongs that bear no resemblance to the vowels in them!

But… this brings me to the point of this article. As difficult as Gaelic pronunciation can seem to English speakers, our language is still weirder because almost every letter in it can be silent. In fact, Miriam-Webster only found one and a half exceptions in their very fascinating article. The first is kind of a cheat because it comes from a direct borrowing from Spanish, and it shouldn’t exactly be unpronounced. I’ll give it to you here as a freebie: it’s the “J” in marijuana. And it isn’t silent, it’s a “y” sound, but hey, I don’t expect gabachos to know that.

The other letter might surprise you, though, and I’ll give you a free hint: It’s not a vowel, so you’ve only got 21 guesses. Well, make that 20, since we’ve already eliminated J. So… which letter in the English language has no examples (to date) of words in which it is silent? To find out, you’ll have to read the Miriam-Webster article.

And, to answer the original question, the name “Mudhean” is pronounced like “Moon,” but with a very, very liquid “u” sound in the middle. Imagine it like drawing that “oo” out a couple of syllables.