Sunday, July 26, 2020

What Kind of Mind Would Paint a Cabbage?


Note: The events that follow occurred in June 2007, and I wrote about them later that year. This is the first time I’ve publicly shared this story. For years, I worried it would come across as critical of my mother. But now, one year after her death, I feel differently. My hope is that this story will bring some comfort (by way of shared experiences) to other adult children caring for a beloved parent with dementia. Above all, I hope you’ll appreciate the abundant humor throughout this story. Yes, caring for a parent in a slow cognitive decline is truly stressful, sad, and exhausting. But let’s be real. Just as often, it can be a real hoot.


===================================

 

“Look at that woman,” my mother says as we leave the retirement home dining room. She speaks loudly because she’s hard of hearing, and even without looking at the lady we’re about to pass in the hallway, I know my mother is going to say something disparaging about her. I move closer, hoping my proximity will preempt any shouting. 

 

“I’ve never seen such big bosoms in all my life!” my mother shouts. 

 

I glance anxiously over my shoulder, to see if the muumuu-attired woman inching along with a walker has heard my mother’s assessment of her breasts. The walked stops abruptly and the woman is slowly turning toward us, so I hurry my mother along.

 

“Mom, she heard you! You shouldn’t say things like that!”

 

“Say things like what?” 


As I continue to rush her along the hallway, my mother’s attention fixes on the glass bowl of wrapped candy that sits atop the lobby reception desk, next to a bottle of hand sanitizer gel and a box of tissues. She stops. After careful examination, she unwraps a piece of chocolate and pops it into her mouth, leaving the wrapper on the counter. Reflexively, she unfastens the button on her faded pink jeans, which she has owned for over 20 years, and lifts up the bottom of her blouse, exposing a pale white stomach. “I’m getting fat,” declares the woman who weighs approximately 105 pounds. 

 

I make note of the clock, above the reception desk. It’s only 5:45 p.m. Moop — a nickname my nieces and nephews bestowed upon my mother, whose actual name is Ruth — and I have already eaten dinner. We are to spend the entire evening together, just the two of us, at her apartment in an independent living community in Greensboro, North Carolina that my sisters and I moved her into the previous fall. Moop never goes to bed until well after dark. I wince as the realization hits me: Today is June 21st, the first day of summer. 

 

The longest day of the year. 

 

What are we going to do the rest of the night?, I wonder, thinking how short-sighted I was not to plan tonight’s visit. I live in San Francisco and have spent the last two weeks in Greensboro with my sisters, clearing out Moop’s two-story house, cluttered as it was with her collections of 111 Raggedy Ann dolls, rickety wooden chairs, pie birds, potato mashers, Mrs. Butterworth bottles, tractor seats, dusty children’s books, piles of unsorted bank statements, a 40-year-old bottle of Milk of Magnesia, and Pillsbury Doughboy dolls. Not just the Pillsbury Doughboy but his grandparents, siblings, and dog, too — which I helped her acquire during our many visits to antique malls and collectible shops over the years. 

 

Having moved Moop out months ago, the house is almost entirely empty now, except for a few forlorn Paddington Bears, a chicken feeder she used as an umbrella stand, a pile of yellowed hoop skirts discovered in the attic, and a talking Captain Kangaroo doll silenced by a broken string. Just before heading over for my visit tonight, I reluctantly removed the sign Moop had hand-painted and hung on her front door — “Martha Stewart doesn’t live here” — and packed it away.

 

I’m exhausted from the past two weeks. No, the truth is, I’m exhausted from the past two years

 

During that time, Moop began falling all too frequently in her home, catching the toaster oven on fire, setting off her security alarm at all hours, forgetting simple things, and driving ever-more dangerously. So, my sisters and I made the difficult decisions to hide her car keys and, when that wasn’t enough, to invoke healthcare power of attorney in order to have Moop declared unable to handle her own affairs. It was the only way we could move her out of her big house, an idea she resisted tirelessly, and into a safer environment in an independent living community. To avoid having to move our mother immediately into assisted living, my sisters and I hired Marcy, my eldest niece whom Moop adored, to care for Moop during the days. 

 

During our first visit to the independent living facility, Moop was recovering from cataract surgery and ornery as ever. As the sales and marketing representative, Kathy, toured us through the facility, Moop kept her sunglasses on, her arms folded across her chest, and said nothing. 


Kathy, bless her heart, did her best to enthusiastically engage Moop, by bubbling on and on about all the wonderful social opportunities Moop would enjoy. 

 

“You can even move into an apartment that’s in a circle of other apartments,” Kathy chirped. “It’s like a small community within a bigger community!” 


Met with an icy, sunglassed stare, Kathy made one last attempt to reach my mother. “Mrs. Martin,” she said, her voice rising in now-weary enthusiasm, “tell me, what would you like most in a retirement community?”

 

Moop wasted no time responding. “Privacy!” 


 

As I walk with Moop down the hall to her apartment, the electric current of anxiety humming through my body borders on panic. My brain scurries desperately for a plan. Is Antiques Roadshow on tonight? Moop adores that program. The suspense of wondering how much a 50-year-old wax portrait of Siamese twins might fetch at auction will surely keep her occupied. Maybe it will even keep her dreaded Sundown Syndrome at bay.

 

Sundown Syndrome is a punishing side effect of dementia. As the sun begins to fall, the accumulation of the day’s confusions and overstimulation rises, causing the person with dementia to grow acutely anxious and morose. I’ve witnessed this with Moop on every one of my visits over the past few years. As the sky darkens, so do her thoughts. Why did my father have to die? Why did he keep smoking, even after his heart attack? Did she kill him with her pot roast? For years, she was convinced her overdone cooking had done in my father. Only recently has she forgotten to accuse herself of his death — one of dementia’s few blessings.

 

If, in the throes of Sundown Syndrome, Moop doesn’t focus on my father’s death, she dwells on her own. “I’m afraid to die,” she will say, “but I’m even more afraid of what happens after I die.” At this point, she will take a gulp of Chardonnay, which she drinks over ice in an orange juice glass, and then she will bang the glass down on her white, enamel-top table. 

 

“When I die,” she will continue, “I don’t want to be embalmed! I can’t stand the thought of being put underground! If you put me in a casket, I’ll come back and haunt you!”

 

“Don’t worry Mom,” I will reply, hoping to lighten the mood. “We’re going to pop you in the oven like a pizza.” 

 

“Huh?” she’ll say, after another gulp of wine. Moop has almost no hearing in one ear and only 50% in the other. She used to blame her hearing loss on a hairdresser, a man she claimed fried her ear drum decades ago with a handheld blow dryer. Now she’s forgotten why she can’t hear, but she refuses to wear a hearing aid. 

 

I will repeat louder: “I said we’ll send you straight to the oven!”

 

She will respond with a blank look. “Good!” she will say, and then she will bang her wine glass down on the table again, like a judge’s gavel, case closed. 

 

 

As we pass through the lobby, Moop asks me what killed my father. I can’t have this conversation again, so I search frantically for a familiar face, someone to help me entertain Moop — and rescue me from an endless night of Sundown Syndrome. I see no one I recognize. Just as we are about to enter the endless hallway to her apartment, I notice a familiar head of short, curly white hair: Audrey. 

 

Audrey sits in a high-back chair in the rear of the lobby, not far from the piano. She is flipping through O: The Oprah Magazine. As always, she is dressed in a white mock turtleneck under a burgundy vest, black polyester slacks, white socks and hiking sandals with Velcro straps. Audrey is one of the few friends Moop has made so far in the community.

 

“Hi Audrey,” I say, overjoyed to see her. Audrey looks up and smiles warmly. I extend my hand, and I’m surprised when, instead of shaking it, she kisses it. 

 

“It’s so good to see you again!” Audrey coos. “Where’ve you been?”

 

“San Francisco,” I respond. “That’s where I live.” I’ve told Audrey this several times before, but it has been months since I’d seen her.

 

“Hi there young lady,” Audrey says, extending her hand to my mother who, having caught sight of a mirror, is patting the back of her hair. Moop is 88 but still has her hair dyed completely blonde and cut in a pageboy. Given her slight figure and small size — she is, as the song she loves says, 5 foot 2 eyes of blue — the style suits her. She’s adorable.


Moop in her independent living apartment


I nudge Moop gently. 

 

“Oh, hey,” she greets Audrey. I notice a smudge of chocolate in the corner of Moop’s mouth. 

 

As Audrey and I chat, Moop turns her head back toward the mirror. She runs her middle finger across her teeth but doesn’t notice the chocolate smear. I grab a clean tissue from my pocket and gently blot it away. 

 

“How sweet,” Audrey notes. “I like a man who takes care of his Mama.”

 

Looking for a way to pull Moop into the conversation, I steer the subject to her artwork. My mother took up painting not long after I, the youngest of her five children, left for college. In the years since, she became an accomplished artist. “Would you like to see some of her paintings?” I ask Audrey. 

 

“I’d love to,” Audrey says. Enthusiastically, she tosses Oprah aside, rises slowly with my help, and clasps my mother’s hands in hers. “I bet you’re really talented,” she adds.

 

Moop smiles blankly. “Well it was good to see you, too,” she responds. 

 

“Mom, Audrey wants to see your paintings,” I explain. “I was just telling her what a wonderful painter you are.”

 

“Uh!” Moop explodes with disgust. “I am not!”

 

“I’ll be the judge of that!” Audrey says. 

 

 

Inside Moop’s one-bedroom apartment, the next hour passes agreeably. I take framed paintings off the wall, present them for Audrey’s inspection, and provide her the back story on each one. I show her a watercolor of a weathered outhouse with a wreath on the door. “This was Moop’s Christmas card seven years ago,” I explain proudly. Audrey clucks and coos appreciatively.


 

“And this one?” I say, handing Audrey an impressionistic watercolor portrait of a pig. I point to the ribbon taped to the top right corner of the frame. “This won first prize in the High Point Art Guild show one year. Isn’t it fantastic?” I realize I sound like my mother did, years ago, when she used to rave to others about my cartoons. 

 

“Oh, and let me show you the cabbage.” I scan the living room walls until I find the photo-realistic still life in oil my mother painted over 25 years ago. “This was in an art show here in Greensboro,” I continue. “Some woman stood there looking at it forever, and then she turned to Moop — not knowing she was the artist — and said, ‘What kind of mind would paint a cabbage?’” 

 

I turn to Moop. “Remember that?,” I ask. The vacant look on her face is my answer. 

 

Before long I’m out of Moop masterpieces to show Audrey. According to the early 20th century Co-Cola clock on the wall, it is now 7:45. (Moop calls the Coca-Cola clock her “Co-Cola clock.”) Two hours have now passed since we first encountered Audrey in the lobby. Moop has consumed six orange juice glasses of wine, which is a lot for a small woman but isn’t quite as much as it sounds, as Marcy had recently started pouring out half the wine in each bottle and refilling them with water. 


Moop’s apartment, 2007. Note the ‘Co-Cola’ clock

 “How long have you lived here?” Moop asks Audrey. 

 

“About three years,” she answers. “I’m from Boston, originally. Grew up on Ruggles Street, about two miles from Fenway Park.”

 

Moments later, Moop turns to Audrey. “How long have you lived here?”

 

“About three years,” Audrey answers, as if for the first time. “I grew up on Ruggles Street in Boston, near Fenway Park.”

 

The pendulum on the Co-Cola clock swings left, right, left, right. I ask Audrey what her family was like; anything to move the conversation forward, instead of in circles. Moop shoots me an exasperated look and nods blatantly toward Audrey, as if to say: Get rid of her!

 

“My father ran a little corner store on Ruggles Street,” Audrey says. She leans forward in her seat, eagerly, and adjusts her large white-framed eyeglasses. “He always had the freshest produce! Oh, it was a big day when he received a shipment of pineapples. A big day. Sweetest pineapples you ever tasted!” 

 

Moop bangs her wine glass down on the enamel-top table and rolls her eyes at me with all the subtlety of a silent film star. So far Audrey is oblivious to Moop’s growing agitation, but her oblivion can’t last forever. I decide I must find a polite way to get Audrey to leave — if for no other reason than to spare her feelings. Perhaps in the process, I can make my own exit, too. The exhaustion of the past two weeks is suddenly overwhelming me. 

 

“May I have a glass of water, please?” Audrey asks. 

 

This is not what I’d hoped to hear but I smile bravely. “Sure,” I say, and head to the kitchen.

 

Moop turns to Audrey and says wearily, “How long have you lived here?” 

 

“About three years,” Audrey replies quietly. 

 

Moop follows me into the kitchen. “When is she ever going to leave?” she demands, with no effort to lower her voice. “Can’t you make her leave?” 

 

“Ssshhh!” I hiss. “Go sit down, I’ll think of something!”

 

As Moop exits the kitchen with a loud huff, I manage to find a glass that’s even smaller than an orange juice glass — it’s more like a large shot glass. I fill it halfway with water in hopes of discouraging Audrey from lingering longer than necessary. And, what the hell, I load up a wine glass full of watered-down Chardonnay and kick back a few gulps to calm my last-good nerve. Returning to the living room, I hand Audrey her water glass. Moop shoots me another look, more exasperated than the last. This time I’m certain Audrey sees the extravagant eye roll. 

 

Minutes later, with the conversation stalled, I turn to Audrey and say, “You know, Moop is a bit tired. I’ve had her out all day.”

 

Audrey adjusts her glasses. “Oh, I’ll bet she is,” she says understandingly. She places one hand on her purse, which sits on the floor next to her chair. I let out a little sigh of relief. 

 

“Oh heavens no! I’m fine!” Moop says, with a dismissive wave of her hand. Audrey smiles, releases her purse strap, settles contentedly back into her chair. 

 

“How long have you lived here?” my mother asks. 

 

Oh. My. God. I want to scream, “She’s lived here three years — and any minute now it will be four years!” 

 

“I wonder if Antiques Roadshow is on?” I try to say calmly, hoping to conceal my angst. I flip through the TV channels but find nothing on except news, Baywatch, infomercials, a gospel program, another gospel program, and an episode of Animal Planet in which a Komodo dragon is closing in on a rooster. 

 

I continue to fumble for an exit strategy. “Is it warm in here to y’all?” I ask, tugging at my shirt. Maybe I can convince them to continue this excruciatingly endless loop of conversation in the air-conditioned lobby instead of my mother’s stifling apartment, at which point I can claim excuse myself. 

 

“I’m right comfortable,” Moop says, polishing off another glass of watery wine. 

 

“Me too,” says Audrey, which prompts Moop to roll her eyes again. The Co-Cola clock says “tick tick tick.” 

 

All I can think of is that the day after tomorrow, I fly home to San Francisco. Home. I miss Nick. I miss our city. I miss my life. I want my life back! It’s ironic, I think; growing up in Greensboro, I dreamed of traveling to great cities like San Francisco. Now I live in San Francisco, and for the past several years, nearly every time I travel, it’s to Greensboro.  

 

“May I use the little girl’s room?” Audrey asks. Moop nods and points disinterestedly toward the bathroom door, which is not far from the door that leads into the hallway. 

 

The second Audrey retreats into the bathroom, Moop leaps out of her chair. “Who is that woman?” she asks, fists clenched, shoulders raised. “Why won’t she leave?”

 

“Mom, lower your voice! She’ll hear you!”

 

“I don’t care! Who is she?”

 

“It’s Audrey! You eat with her in the dining room practically every day! And lower your voice!”

 

“How will we ever get rid of her?” Moop asks, shaking her fists. 

 

“Just tell her you’re tired!” 

 

“Set the timer? What for? That won’t get rid of her!”

 

“Let me handle it!” I say. 

 

“Huh?”

 

“I said ‘let me handle it!’ Just relax!”

 

Five minutes pass. Ten minutes. 

 

Mom is pacing now. “What the hell is she doing? She must be having a ball in there!”

 

“Mom, please relax!” 

 

Fifteen minutes have now ticked by. What the hell is Audrey doing in there? Has she forgotten why she’s in the bathroom, or where she is? Is she ill? Dead? 

 

“Well, I’m going to get some Raid and spray it under the door!” Moop threatens. She’s on her way to the kitchen; I quickly follow. She starts opening cabinet doors, hunting for insect repellent.. 

 

“Mom, stop it!”

 

Moop has flung open nearly every cabinet and is now focusing on the pantry where her can of Raid lives; I saw it earlier, mixed in with her spices. I move to block her when Moop snaps: “Damn it! What was I looking for?” 

 

I throw up my hands in complete exasperation. I’ve got to get out of here! I’ve put up with a lot in the last two weeks. I’ve boxed up Raggedy Ann dolls until I see button eyes looking at me everywhere I go. My sisters and I spent days cleaning out the moldy basement and probably inhaled Asbestos dust in the process. I’ve wiped spider webs off my face and out of my hair. I’ve bubble-wrapped two dozen Mrs. Butterworth bottles and have no idea why I did such a thing. I’ve gathered all the old rusty paint cans in the garage and when I turned one over I was greeted by a half-eaten mouse and I screamed and stepped back so suddenly that I hurt my ankle and…and…and I’m done! I’m leaving! But how?

 

The toilet flushes, followed by the sound of running water. I glance over at Audrey’s purse on the floor, at my mother moving toward to the pantry. I spring into action, steering Moop back to the living room. I tell her not to say anything. I bend down, scoop up Audrey’s purse, and hurry toward the bathroom. 

 

The bathroom door opens. Audrey slowly emerges. She sees me and smiles sweetly. 

 

“Moop is really tired and needs to go to bed now, but she’s too polite to admit it to you,” I say, as calmly as I can. “But thank you so much for your visit. It was great to see you!” I hug Audrey warmly, hand her her purse, open the door and gently guide her into the hallway. “Bye bye, sweetheart.”

 

Befuddled, Audrey turns to blow me a kiss. I return the affection and quickly close the door, careful not to slam it. 

 

“Who was that damn woman?” Moop wonders. “Point her out to me tomorrow! I don’t ever want to get stuck with her again!”

 

“Mom, Audrey is sweet. She just stayed too long, that’s all.”

 

“Well, from now on I’m going to avoid her like the plague!”

 

A few minutes later, I say I have to go, citing fatigue. “Why are you tired, honey? It’s only 9:00,” Moop asks. “The night’s young.”

 

 

The next morning, when I awake, it’s nearly 11 o’clock. I shower slowly, under the hottest water I can stand. I wonder if I’ll be able to speak coherently today. I don’t want to go back to my mother’s apartment. But it’s my last day before I fly home. I won’t be back for at least three months. I must go. 

 

Around noon, I enter the lobby and stop midway, as if I’d just seen a deer and didn’t want to startle it. A few feet away, there’s Moop, in the same outfit she wore yesterday — pink denim pants, long-sleeve white turtleneck. She’s standing beside Audrey, who’s also in the same clothes she wore yesterday. They’re reading the bulletin board’s announcement of that day’s events. 

 

And they’re holding hands. 

 

I walk up and put my arms around them both. “Ladies,” I say, “shall we have some lunch? I’m starving!” Moop hugs me warmly, and so does Audrey. As we move toward the dining room, Moop and Audrey are still holding hands, and I’m surprised to find myself feeling a twinge of regret that tomorrow, I’ll be going home. 







Sunday, October 13, 2019

The 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake, a Deadline, and "Beach Blanket Babylon"


We heard it before we felt it: a low, otherworldly moan.

I looked around the fifth floor conference room, quickly searching the faces of the dozen or so people seated around the long table. I was looking for clues; their eyes told me they’d heard it too. But did the sound mean what we thought it meant?

It did.

Within two, maybe three seconds, the shaking began. In the two years I’d lived in California, I’d experienced two similar quivers — one of which awakened me in a Disneyland hotel room, of all places. While those earlier quakes had died down quickly, this one kept rolling and then suddenly gained great force, like a Tropical Depression that sprouted within seconds into a Category 5 hurricane.

I looked into the eyes of the others in the conference room again, and whereas before I’d seen alertness, I now saw alarm. We knew what to do. Get under the table. Move away from windows. Stand in the doorway. The shaking lasted about 15 minutes, it felt; but later, we learned it was only about 15 seconds.

It was 5:04 p.m. on Wednesday, October 17, 1989, and we’d just experienced what would come to be called the Loma Prieta earthquake, 6.9 magnitude on the Richter scale.

Image: San Francisco's Marina District Fire after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake
The Marina district after the 1989 earthquake. Credit: AP
Immediately after those soul-rattling 15 seconds, no one spoke. We just looked at each other, unsure what to say or do. There was no sense of panic. Nothing had fallen from the ceiling; the large plate-glass windows hadn’t cracked; we heard no cries for help. The only thing that had changed was that the overhead lights had gone out. At the moment, the lights were superfluous anyway, as golden sunlight streamed through the windows on what had been a spectacular ‘Indian summer’ San Francisco day.

“Is everyone OK?,” I asked.

“Yes,” someone said. Others nodded their heads in agreement.

Thank God, I thought, because I had a fast-approaching deadline to make.

The Judges Went Back to Judging

The conference room occupants were there because I’d asked them there. I was a features editor at Publish, a magazine focused on desktop publishing — the use of Macs and to a lesser degree PCs to create and publish printed materials. I was in charge of the magazine’s annual desktop publishing awards, and I’d spent months corralling this panel of desktop publishing experts to judge hundreds of entries in dozens of categories. I didn’t know what I’d do if we had to call it off. I panicked, not because of the earthquake, but because I didn’t want anything to prevent me from making my deadline.

“Does everyone want to continue?,” I asked, and then half-heartedly added, “It’s OK if you need to leave.”

No one wanted to leave, or at least, no one said they wanted to leave. After a few minutes, the judges went back to judging. I breathed a sigh of relief.

My Intuition Told Me: Try the Fax Machine

I don’t often trust my intuition, even though it has time and again served me well. This is probably because, like my late mother, I tend to overreact. I imagine the worst-possible scenario, and then, once it’s in my head, it’s all I can think about. But on this afternoon, I relied on my intuition.

I excused myself from the conference room, walked over to my desk, and picked up the phone. As expected, there was no dial tone. The telephone lines were down because the office phone system required power to work, and the power was out.

My next move was to the fax machine. Because it wasn’t part of the office telephone system, my intuition told me its phone line might still be operational. I picked up the receiver and heard a dial tone. I looked around, surprised no one else had thought to do this.

I dialed Nick’s office number multiple times but each time heard an “all circuits are busy” recording. Trying not to worry about him, but not succeeding, the next call I made was to my parents in North Carolina. My mother answered after the third ring.

“Mom, I can’t talk long,” I said. “And I don’t want you and Dad to worry, but we’ve had an earthquake.”

“Oh my God!,” my mother yelped.

“I’m OK, everything’s fine, but it felt like a strong one and the power’s out, and I didn’t want y’all to worry about me if you hear something on the news.”

“I just knew this would happen!,” she said. “I feel like you moved to the moon!”

Two of my co-workers must have overheard me on the fax machine phone, as they were now standing behind me, waiting to use it. “I’ve gotta go,” I said. “I’ll call you back soon. Again, please don’t worry about me, I’m fine.”

I returned to the conference room, where my judges continued to sift through the organized piles of entries. “If anyone needs to use the phone, the fax machine line is working,” I said. No one took me up on the offer.

The Bay Bridge Collapsed!

Minutes later, David, a young editorial assistant, popped his head into the conference room. In one ear, he had an earbud, attached to a portable AM/FM radio.

“The Bay Bridge collapsed!” he informed us.

At this news, two of my judges left to join the line now snaking around the fax machine phone. I asked the others if they wanted to keep working and, God love them, they said yes.

Eventually we could see black smoke billowing on the horizon — we later learned of major fires breaking out in the Marina district. And yet, the judges stayed amazingly focused. Whether it was out of denial or a sense of duty, or both, they worked until they finished. And it was just in time, as the fading sunlight had rendered the conference room too dim to do much of anything but fumble our way out.

A War Zone

I drove home that night through what looked like a war zone. Helicopters chopped the air overhead. Broken glass, everywhere. Traffic lights, not working. Buildings, dark. People ambled about zombie-like, not knowing where to go or what to do.

When I finally arrived at our Glen Park apartment, Nick was already home, having made the treacherous drive from his Santa Clara office some 40 miles south. It took him more than two hours to make what was typically a 45-minute drive.

Nick was relieved to see me but wondered why it had taken me so long to get home, given that my office was in the city? I explained the need to stay with the judges until they finished their work, so I could meet my deadline. “I was so worried about you!,” he said, relieved but also understandably miffed. He described his experience — most notably, witnessing the water slosh out of a fountain as the ground beneath it swayed from side to side.

Unexpected Free Time

In the following days, many people - including Nick and me - stayed home, as city inspectors wouldn’t allow anyone to enter public buildings until they’d been deemed safe. Thus, at a time when few people had laptops or cell phones, and when local phone service was spotty at best, many Bay Area residents were free to spend their days how they pleased. But it seemed no one knew what to do with their unexpected free time. We walked around our neighborhoods in a collective daze, clueless.

Speaking of being clueless. Nick and I had planned to spend the following weekend in Santa Cruz. Given the situation, we cancelled our plans. In our infinite wisdom, we decided that instead of going to Santa Cruz, we’d throw an earthquake survivors’ party for our friends. And where did we have the party? On a high floor in the Westin St. Francis hotel’s tower.

Not surprisingly, the hotel had had many cancellations and practically gave us a suite for pennies on the dollar. Several friends even showed up for our party, though everyone was glued to the walls, in case of aftershocks.

The Ground was Gaslighting Me

And there were aftershocks. Too many to count. The earthquake put everyone on edge and the frequent aftershocks kept us there. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t think straight. I couldn’t discern an aftershock from a bus rumbling by outside. Everything seemed to be rattling. Or was it? The ground was gaslighting me.

Early one morning, for instance, I went into the bathroom to pee. I heard, or thought I heard, a gentle tapping sound. I made myself as still and quiet as possible. Was I imagining that sound? What the hell was it? Then I realized: the two sliding glass shower doors were gently tapping together. It was another aftershock. Or was I walking in my sleep? Thirty years later, I’m still not sure.

My Own Private Earthquake

Earthquakes happen because stress builds up underground and must be released. After 10 days of aftershocks, I experienced my own earthquake.

Nick and I decided to watch the televised resumption of the World Series, in which the San Francisco Giants were playing the Oakland As at Candlestick Park. Game three of the series had to be called off on Oct. 17 because of the earthquake, which occurred about 30 minutes before the game.

Ten days later, the World Series was set to resume. Nick and I were at home watching the re-opening ceremonies as Val Diamond, the magnanimous star of the long-running SF musical extravaganza “Beach Blanket Babylon,” came out with other cast members to sing “San Francisco,” the city’s unofficial anthem and the show’s rousing climax. 

San Francisco personality, Val Diamond, of Beach Blanket Babylon
Val Diamond in "Beach Blanket Babylon" Credit: Via magazine

Diamond, as she did in the show known for its outrageous hats, wore an elaborate replica of the city’s skyline on her head. I was riveted as she sang:

San Francisco, open your Golden Gate
You let no stranger wait
Outside your door
San Francisco, here is your wandering one
Saying I’ll wander no more


Maybe it was the fabulous hat that did it. Most likely, it was my love of San Francisco and how this moment represented a perfect expression of my love. Whatever it was, in that moment I experienced my own private earthquake. I burst into tears. After ten days of buildup, the stress had been released, if only for the moment.

From Disaster, Renewal

In 1989, I learned about the upside of disaster: that it paved a path for renewal.

In the years after the Loma Prieta quake, San Francisco blossomed. Ugly freeway overpasses — most notably the one that marred the Embarcadero shoreline — were demolished because they’d become structurally unsound and too impractical to repair. With the overpasses gone, new developments materialized in their place.

The city planted elegant Canary Island palms along the Embarcadero. A new rail line transported passengers up and down the waterfront thoroughfare in vintage trolley cars the city acquired from around the world. The San Francisco Giants built a new ballpark at the foot of the renewed Embarcadero, and just south of it, an entirely new neighborhood (Mission Bay) eventually materialized. You might even indirectly credit the 1989 earthquake for the brand-new Chase Center — home of the Golden State Warriors.

Image result for vintage trolley cars sf embarcadero
The revitalized Embarcadero Credit: SFMTA

Nick and I were lucky. We were uninjured and there was no damage to our apartment, except for a minor crack in the outside hallway ceiling and an old paperback that fell off a high shelf and split into two. Others weren’t so lucky. The earthquake killed about 67 people (reports differ) and caused $6 billion in damages. Though the Bay Bridge didn’t collapse, a section of it did, killing several people. For years after, I could always tell where the collapse had occurred because as I drove over the rumble-strip replacement section, my car, if not my soul, rattled.

I Learned Something Else, Too

Seven years earlier, Adrienne Ivey, a colleague of mine at the Roanoke Rapids Daily Herald, had written a column about me when I was leaving the paper to take a job in Charleston. In it she wrote, and I paraphrase, that I was a delightful person and she’d enjoyed watching me develop into a good reporter and writer, but that I lacked survival skills.

She was half-joking and I didn’t take offense, because there was truth in what she wrote. But in experiencing my first major earthquake — and still meeting my deadline despite it — I knew Adrienne’s assessment of me was no longer accurate.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Two Bumbling Southerners with Big City Dreams

As many times as I’ve seen it, All About Eve never fails to take me back to my first trip with Edward, to New York City for New Year’s Eve, 1980-81.

At the time, we were in our early 20s, terribly naïve, and woefully underfunded. The weather was bitterly cold, windy, snowy off and on. And we had a fabulous time, especially laughing at each other’s social gaffes.

My faux pas occurred in the dressing room of a men’s store in the Village. I ‘d tried on a pair of jeans and, when the snooty young sales assistant asked me how they fit, I asked what I thought was a reasonable question.

“Will they draw up?”

He launched one overly plucked eyebrow into the air like a missile. “I’m sorry?”

Thinking he must have not heard me, I repeated my question, only louder. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Edward a few feet away, rearranging his mouth into a small ‘o’ in an effort not to laugh out loud.

“What are you trying to ask me?” the sales clerk demanded to know.

Finally, I realized the problem. This Yankee didn’t speak Southern. So I translated my original question into, “Will the jeans shrink when I wash them?” To compound my humiliation, the clerk sighed and pointed to a label on the outside of the jeans: “Pre-shrunk.”

In my peripheral vision, I could see Edward’s right hand race to make an emergency landing over his mouth, to stifle a guffaw. It was a struggle for me to politely hand the jeans back to the haughty clerk and walk calmly out of the store with Edward. Once outside, we hooted and howled, leaning against each other, barely able to walk.

Bergdorf’s Doesn’t Have a Roadkill Section

Edward’s turn came when he insisted on visiting the Bergdorf Goodman fur department.

The department, which at the time was the store’s largest, was as quiet as a church sanctuary. Not knowing what to do, I stood more or less still, watching Edward reverently inspect and finger the garments, as if he had done this before, which of course, he never had.

A young male sales clerk — practically the twin to the arched-eyebrow edition in the Village — approached me. I barely breathed, fearful of committing another faux pas.

“May I help you?” he wondered.

“No thank you,” I replied, mischievously adding that my companion could use some assistance. I pointed to Edward, who was out of hearing range. The all-black-wearing sales associate smiled wearily and aimed himself in the direction of the unsuspecting Edward. I followed, to eavesdrop upon the exchange.

“Good afternoon,” the sales clerk began. “Which type of fur are you interested in?”

The question took Edward by surprise. I could see the thought bubbles popping over his head. After a brief hesitation, he responded, in his best attempt at a refined accent, “Do you have anything in…varmint?”

I could not believe my ears. Nor, apparently, could the stunned sales clerk. He thought for a second. “Could you possibly mean marmot?”

Edward’s face paled. “I’m so sorry, yes, that’s what I meant. Marmot.”

The clerk happily flashed a condescending smile. “I’m afraid Bergdorf Goodman doesn’t carry marmot.”

“What were you thinking?,” I asked Edward once we’d escaped the fur salon. “Why did you ask for varmint? Did you expect Bergdorf’s fur department to have a roadkill section?”

“I couldn’t think!” Edward replied. “I was so…intimidated!”

Between us, the response became infamous. Over the years to come, when one of us would commit a gaffe, the other would sometimes say that “Bergdorf Goodman doesn’t carry varmint” or simply, “varmint.”

All About Eve and Big City Dreams

The next afternoon would be our last before heading back to North Carolina: Edward to Charlotte, me to Greensboro. A fresh snowfall slowed Manhattan traffic but not much else. I’d discovered in the newspaper that there was a Marilyn Monroe film festival happening at Carnegie Hall Cinema. The double feature that afternoon/early evening was All About Eve, in which Marilyn had a minor but memorable role as an ambitious starlet, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, one of her first big starring successes.

I’d never seen Eve but knew its stellar reputation, so I suggested to Edward that we go. Eagerly, he agreed.

On that late Sunday afternoon, as snow fell and the loud city grew quiet, we ventured into the faded elegance of the movie house tucked into a Carnegie Hall corner. The sold-out audience, primarily gay men, was enthusiastic and excited, almost as if Eve, released in 1950, were being screened for the first time. There was a collective excitement, a shared bond among strangers that was unlike anything I’d experienced in a movie theater.

During that screening, Edward and I both realized that, despite still being naïve North Carolinians, we were having, at last, a taste of our big city dreams.

The audience roared its approval at the film’s deliciously delivered lines, of which “Fasten your seat belts” is but one of many. We were to quote Eve to each other often in the future. We knew many lines by heart: “One good burp and you’ll be rid of that Miss Caswell.” “Neither your name nor your performance entered into the conversation.” “Enchanté to you, too!”

Or this exchange between Bette Davis and Thelma Ritter:

Thelma: “Voilà!”

Bette: “That French ventriloquist taught you a lot.”

Thelma: “It was nothing he didn’t know.”

Bette and Thelma laugh about 'that French ventriloquist'

We repeated that exchange so many times through the years, the shorthand became “voilà!” to which the other would unfailingly respond with some quip about “that French ventriloquist.”

That French Ventriloquist

Edward and I (and often Nick) took many trips together over the next 30+ years, including a tour of Italy and Switzerland that, at one point, required Edward to anxiously steer a stick-shift car over the Alps.

Two bumblers in Venice (1992)
Fast forward to Ft. Lauderdale, February 2016. It was the night before Edward and I were to begin an RSVP Caribbean cruise, which would become the last trip we'd take together.

I hadn’t seen him in at least six months, and the toll that the many years of debilitating pain and memory-impairing painkillers had taken on him had become for me suddenly, agonizingly apparent.

As we were getting into an Uber to go to dinner, Edward wondered aloud if he’d remembered to bring his hotel room key. He dug into his pants pockets, to no avail, and then dove into his omnipresent Prada bag, found the key, and said, with an attempt at humor, ‘Voilà!”

Instinctively, I responded: “That French ventriloquist taught you a lot.”

Edward stared blankly at me. He didn’t get the reference. “All About Eve?” I prompted.

“What about it?” he wondered.

I didn’t respond at first, as I wasn’t sure how. “It meant nothing,” I said, without making eye contact. Because the truth was, it had meant everything.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Edward Norman — The Unexpected Roommate with an Elizabeth Arden Fixation


Before I met Edward Norman, I resented the hell out of him.

It was February 1980. I was a college senior living in a compact campus apartment at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. The apartment had four bedrooms, each barely large enough to accommodate a narrow single bed, a small writing desk, an armoire, and if you didn’t exhale, a package of Chiclets. My three roommates and I, all gay men aged 20 to 21, shared one toilet and one shower. Somehow, it worked, mostly because the four of us got along.

But one bright February morning before class — a Tuesday, I believe — my roommate Tom gathered us to make an announcement: “My best friend Edward is moving in with us. You’ll love him. He’s just like me.”

When I recovered from the shock, I had questions. Why was Edward moving in with us?

Answer: Edward has just been offered a job in Charlotte as a stylist and educator for a major beauty school. He was starting work immediately and the commute from his parents’ home, 90 minutes each way, was impractical.

Next question: When was Edward moving in?

Answer: Tomorrow.

And then, I wondered: Where would Edward store his clothes?

The answer: On a shower rod.

In our apartment, there was an odd bathroom layout with a toilet closet, two sinks running along the narrow hallway, and then a shower with two curtains. The first played the traditional role of a shower curtain, keeping the water from spraying beyond the skinny shower stall. When you finished showering, you stepped out on a small tiled drying area — which had its own curtain. That curtain’s job was to prevent others in the apartment from witnessing (and in our apartment, commenting upon) your toweling-off style. Edward’s clothes, Tom explained, would be placed on the exterior shower rod.

The day Edward arrived, I was hospitable but not overly welcoming. Frankly, I wasn’t happy about a fifth addition to the cramped apartment, especially when I was told he would be moving in and not asked if he could.

The first thing I noticed about Edward was how many clothes he was lugging into the apartment. And what clothes they were: bold silk shirts, primary-color pants, and shoes, shoes, shoes.

My next impression of Edward was formed by the vast skin care collection he sprawled across the long bathroom countertop. Elizabeth Arden this, Jergens that. Under-eye creams. Face toners. Face moisturizers. Hair care products, most of which I’d never seen before. Concealers. Foundation. An eyebrow curler.

Over the next few days, Edward worked long hours and I barely saw him. But the clothes! There was no escaping them! I had to squeeze through them to take a shower and again to exit the shower.

My resentment grew.

That Sunday afternoon, the five of us were lounging around the living room. I was on one side of the room, Edward on another, closest to the front door. He wore his brown bathrobe, which perfectly matched the color of his hair, which was, of course, dyed. His face was green—a beauty mask of some kind.

I could hear that our hopelessly straight frat boy neighbors were holding a beer bash. We’d all kept our distance from them, not wanting to incite homophobic catcalls.

And then, a wicked idea popped into my head.

“Edward,” I said sweetly. “Would you mind getting the newspaper? It’s on the doorstep.”

Edward seemed surprised that I’d specifically asked him for this favor. He, too, couldn’t have helped hearing the rowdy frat boys looming just beyond the door. Perhaps he realized I was daring him. Or maybe he was just trying to make nice with his new roommate. Either way, he rose up, stepped outside, bent down, and picked up the Sunday Charlotte Observer.

It should be noted that our front door was all glass, like the kind of door you’d push past to enter a store.. I could see Edward in all his Sunday-is-my-spa-day glory, newspaper in hand.

I raced to the door and locked it.

My roommates hooted. There was Edward, all brown bathrobe and green face, tapping on the door, mouthing the words “Let me in.” Unable to contain my laughter, I shook my head, “no.” Around this time the frat boys became aware of him. The homophobic catcalls began.

I don’t recall how long I made him stand outside. Probably 15 seconds, but I’m sure to him it felt like 15 days. At last, I let him in.

Once inside, I expected Edward to be angry at me — who wouldn’t have been? To my astonishment, he laughed as heartily as the rest of us. He genuinely appeared to have enjoyed the joke I played on him.

My resentment toward him dissolved into admiration. I’ve always adored people who are the first to have a good laugh at themselves and their predicaments. To me, it’s the polar opposite of pretentiousness, which I loathe.

That Sunday night, after the lock-out prank, my close, unwavering friendship with Edward began in earnest and continued for 36 years, despite our geographical distances, until his death in October 2016.

On that Sunday night in February 1980, I stood at the shared sink, having just brushed my teeth. I couldn’t help but marvel at all of the skin care products running along the countertop when Edward approached. He carefully explained to me what the products were for and why, even though I was only 22, I should start using under-eye cream immediately. He illustrated the correct way to apply it—dotting under and around the eye with a pinkie, never rubbing.

“One day,” he said with a wry smile, “you’ll thank me for this.”



It didn't take long for Edward (left) to influence my fashion style. Here we are, preparing for New Year's Eve in Manhattan, circa 1980-81