Ten Decembers

Dec

Inspired by the DP Challenge Ghosts of December 23rds Past and particularly by Jeni’s delightful post Nine Decembers on Joy and Woe.

December 1977

No room at the inn.  Transferred colleges and couldn’t get into the dorms, so lived in a tiny hole in a decrepit, single room occupancy hotel in downtown Albany.  Took the bus back and forth to campus, five miles away, even when the temperature was below zero.  Glad to go home for the semester break.  Bundled up and walked a mile to the record to store to buy the double album Barry Manilow Live to bring home with me.  Planned to take Amtrak down to the Hudson Valley, where a friend would pick me up.  Had to take a taxi across the river to the train station in Rensselaer.  Had the hotel bellhop call me a cab and carry out my luggage.  Became frightened when he started to yell at me.  Later realized I was supposed to give him something called a “tip.”

December 1978

Slacking and slouching my way through college.  Finally got into the dorms and hated living with a bunch of creeps. Accidentally bumped into the dorm Christmas tree and knocked it over.  Hated taking political science courses to please my parents, who wanted me to be a lawyer.  Allowed my mother to talk me into taking Constitutional Law.  Hated it with a passion but was afraid to drop it.  Plowed through piles and piles of mimeographed cases, understanding next to nothing.  Final paper was due right before Christmas, but I put it off until it was too late.  Stayed up all night to try to put something together.  Couldn’t.  Wrote a note to the professor explaining that I am a square peg being forced into a round hole.  Walked across campus to the PoliSci office and gave the note to the secretary.  Told her to tell the prof to just fail me and get it over with.  Walked back to the dorm and went to bed.  Went home for winter break the next day.  Shouted “I hate the Constitution!” in front of my parents, earning a tongue-lashing from Mom.

December 1979

My parents had recently won some money in a lawsuit and purchased a Honey motor home.  The thing slept eight, got nine miles to the gallon and drove like a tank.  Rode down to Florida in it with my parents and sisters.  It was my senior year of college and I figured this would be my last chance to do this.  One of my college friends had taken a shine to my sister, and she really liked him.  Unfortunately, he wasn’t Jewish and my mother was having none of it.  Mom and Sis fought and carried on the whole trip.   My sisters and I slept on chaise lounges on my grandparents’ lanai in Florida.  Sis cried all night and my heart ached for her, particularly since it was my stupid friend who caused this mess.

December 1980

After graduating college with a useless liberal arts degree in May, my job prospects were exactly zero.  My mother was working in Rhode Island, so I lived with her and started taking the courses I needed for a teaching credential.  Took summer and fall classes, but Mom quit her job in November and moved back to New York.  I moved into the dorms (where I lit Hanukkah candles but blew them out after about 30 seconds for fear they would set the curtains on fire or set off the smoke alarm), but when the semester was over in December, my parents said they were done with Rhode Island and I should come back to New York and look for a job.  A few days before Christmas, my father arrived to pick me up.  I cried as we drove away.

December 1981

Quit my first job.  Eleven months on the night shift at minimum wage was enough for me.  I had found another job, so I just called in and quit without notice.  It was a weird feeling, half guilt, half liberation.  On Dec. 8, started working at a huge, stinking chemical plant that I will call Carcinogens R Us.  Thought I had won the lottery because I was making union wage, $8.07 per hour.

December 1982

Threw a thirtieth anniversary party for my parents on Christmas Eve.  Tried to keep it a secret, but then learned that they were planning to fly to Florida for Christmas and had to tell them.  Invited distant relatives whom we hadn’t seen in forever.  Most of them came.  Spent a lot of money on catering but had no music.  My girlfriend, who was also Jewish, kept asking me if this was a Christmas party.  Dumbass.

December 1983

In charge of the Christmas party for our section at work.  There were a hundred of us.  Arranged for the food, but there was no money in the budget for music.  Didn’t have any Christmas music because I still lived at home and, well, we’re Jewish.  Went through my collection of vinyl records and made a party tape using the cassette player on my stereo.  Discovered that a lot of people really hate Barry Manilow.  Was mildly embarrassed when my coworkers kept rewinding the tape to play Gloria Estefán singing “Conga” over and over again.

December 1987

Quit my job back in August to go to law school full-time.  Quickly found that I was in over my head.  I had begun exhibiting agoraphobic tendencies a couple of years before and started having full-blown panic attacks as exams approached.  At Christmas, foolishly decided to ride to Florida with my parents again, with yet another girlfriend along for the ride.  We were staying with my grandparents while the girlfriend was staying at her father’s house down there.  My sisters had wisely flown the coop.  Mom hated everyone on my father’s side of the family and hated my girlfriend even more.  She decided to take it out on me.  Endured ten days of listening to Mom scream, yell and curse at me.  Never rode to Florida with them again.

December 1988

My parents drove to Florida by themselves.  I stayed up at law school in Massachusetts.  I was renting a room along with several other law students in a huge house owned by empty-nesters.  They invited me to stay for their family Christmas and I eagerly accepted.  Their four children came home for Christmas with their spouses.  The depth of the pile of gifts around the Christmas tree staggered my imagination.  It took hours to open them all on Christmas Eve.  My landlord’s son-in-law referred to this exercise as “death by presents.”  I just called it awesome.

December 1990

Quit my job as a clerk (Do you see a pattern here?) when I realized the temp-to-hire position was all temp and no hire.  Also because I had failed the bar exam once already and figured I’d better study full-time for a couple of months if I were to have any chance of passing in February.  Also because I was sick and tired of the boss and his secretary imitating my parents by having daily screaming matches with each other.  The first Gulf War got underway in Iraq and I was horrified.    Wrote my first letter to “any soldier.”  Wrote an anti-war poem and had it published in “Yellow Ribbons,” a tiny local mimeographed piece of shit.  Wrote another poem titled “Daddy Hates Chicken.”  My agoraphobia worsened and I tried to stay at home as much as possible.  Of course, “home” was still my parents’ house, where I figured I’d have to live til I was old and gray.  Had multiple fights with my girlfriend (who still lived with her mother) because she didn’t know how to explain to her friends that I wouldn’t go places.  Memorized the causes of action for all the intentional torts and wrote one practice essay after another, lying on the blue carpeted floor of my childhood bedroom.

 

All I can do… is be there for you

niece

Your aunt and I drove over to the community college to pick you up yesterday afternoon.  You texted us:  You would be a little late because you were taking a test.  We ended up waiting a little bit in the lovely fall sunshine of northern California.  I grabbed my Starbucks soy latte and sat on a bench situated on one of the college’s expansive lawns.

When you appeared, I asked you about the test.  Was it math?  Yep.  Did you do okay?  Nope.

Alrighty, then.  I asked you whether you have the opportunity to take it again.  You said you think so, but I could detect a note of disgust creeping into your voice.  I asked whether you had the graded test with you and whether your errors were marked.  Yes.  I offered to go over the test with you and help you work the problems if you want to try it again.  Silence.

I get the message.  You really don’t want to talk about it.

I know.  I had a hell of a time with math in high school and college.

I’m not going to push.  I will be here if you want my help.  If not, that’s okay, too.

I have never stood in your shoes.  I never had a baby daughter to care for at the age of sixteen (or at any other age, for that matter).  I never had to take a full load of college courses and also work a zillion hours for minimum wage at a fast food restaurant filled with rude, ungrateful customers.

I had the privilege of going away to college and living in a dormitory with lots of friends and music and fun.  I ate to my heart’s content at the dining hall three times daily, without ever having to think about shopping and cooking and cleaning.  I got to stay up all night having ridiculous bull sessions without a thought as to what time the baby would wake up and who’s turn it is to watch her and am I running out of diapers and do I have a few bucks to put in the gas tank so I can get to school and work and do it all over again tomorrow and the next day and the next day.

My sisters were back at home, attending high school and being taken care of by my parents.  I never felt I had to give money to the brother who is unemployed and facing having his utilities shut off.  I never had to worry about the other brother who broke up with his long-time girlfriend but still has to live with her in a tiny trailer because neither of them can afford to move out.  I never had to worry about being grounded by my mother and having my car taken away from me because I didn’t put the laundry away or accidentally left the garage door open or let a few too many four-letter words fly out of my mouth in a fit of anger.

No, I never had to worry about any of these things.  College was a carefree time for me, as it should be for you.  And it hurts my heart, dear niece, that you are missing out on the experience of being young while you can still enjoy it.

So next Saturday, when I drive you two hours down the road to a group tour of Mills College, please keep your eyes and your ears and your mind open to the limitless possibilities that are open to you.  We have discussed on a number of occasions about the full-day child care program, the housing for mothers with children, the financial aid opportunities made possible by the college’s foundation grants.

I think I understand how much you rely on your extended family for emotional and financial support.  I know you depend on your aunt and your nana and your mom to help take care of that little sweetie.  I know you depend on your friends from high school to keep you sane and your brothers to remind you that you are loved.  And I know that, for these reasons, you are reluctant to leave the nest and cast your net out into the big, bad world.

I know it’s scary being the first.  The first in your extended family to pursue a four-year college degree.  But I also know that you are concerned about being able to support yourself and making a good life for your daughter.  And I know you are aware that there are no guarantees in life, not even with a B.A.  I only hope that I can set an example for you.  It’s not really fair for me to say “take my word for it, college is the way to go.”  But I am hopeful that you will give it a chance and figure this out for yourself.

I know you think it’s more than a little strange to get your education at an all-women’s school.  But I have reminded you that the Berkeley campus, filled with guys, is just a few miles away.  I know you’re afraid of living in Oakland with all its grime and crime.  I have tried to explain how the campus is a self-contained enclave, a port in a storm where the green surroundings can make you forget that you are in the midst of one of the nation’s largest urban areas.

I can refute your arguments and try to allay your fears, but only you can make the final decision.  I realize that we are playing a game of détente here.  Since your aunt and I moved to town a month ago, I have tried to forge a different type of relationship with you.  Not a long-distance relationship based on a visit every few months and an occasional phone call.  A relationship built on trust.  Trust and being there for you.  Because I am your biggest cheerleader and because, in the end, being there for you is all I can really offer.

And I will still be here for you, no matter what you decide.

Even if you need help with quadratic equations.  Even if you need someone to babysit because you have an exam coming up and you’re starting to lose it (or just because it’s Saturday night and you have a date).  Even if you just need someone to talk to.

Even if I have to jump in the car and drive two hours.

Because that’s what uncles do.

 

NaBloPoMo November 2013

An Open Letter to My Niece About Drugs

To my niece, who I love dearly:

Yesterday, I tried to help you with an essay you were writing for psychology class. It brought back many memories of my own college days.  After reading an article on the effects of alcohol and various types of illegal drugs on the brain and nervous system, you were supposed to write a short theme expanding upon how the information presented applies to your own life.  I suggested that you must have a wealth of anecdotes to draw upon from the experiences of your high school classmates.  (I sincerely hope you have no personal experiences to relate, and if you do, I’m not sure I want to know.  But let’s talk about it anyway. I know your two brothers use marijuana and I am concerned that your love for them might influence you in the wrong direction.)

“I don’t know what things are like in high school these days,” I told you, “but when I was in school a long, long time ago in the ‘70s, drugs were a really, really big thing.”

Without skipping a beat, you responded “it’s just like the 70s again.”

Well, then.  I guess drugs are everywhere.  Umm…

I have lots of stories I could tell you, dear niece, but I have a very distinct feeling that they wouldn’t even come close to the ones you could tell me.

Despite having graduated from a suburban high school in a wealthy school district and then having attended the local “drug central” state university campus, I never used drugs.  Not once.  Never experimented, never even was curious.  Bill Clinton may not have inhaled, but in my case, I just said no.  To do this, I had to be an island in the midst of a swirling sea of pot smoke, pills and worse.  And I had some close calls.

Drugs scared the crap out of me, and I ran away as fast as I could.  I spent four years of my young life doing the bob and weave.

Alcohol was different.  It didn’t scare me, it just disgusted me.  Dorm mates would get drunk and pull the fire alarm at two in the morning, causing those of us living at the top of the residence hall tower to roust out of bed and run down 21 flights of stairs to gather out in the below zero temperatures of the quad in our PJs.  Keg parties would be held on Saturday night; on Sunday morning, the dorm carpets would be sopping and sticky so that sloshing my way to the elevator (squish, squish) caused my socks to get wet.  The pervasive smell of beer and vomit was just another day in paradise.  The Who’s classic tune “Teenage Wasteland” comes to mind.  (I’m sure you can find it on You Tube, my dear.)

I remember celebrating a friend’s birthday with a bunch of students in a bar down on Quail Street and ordering an amaretto sour.  I didn’t even know what it was, but I had heard that it was pretty sweet and figured I had a chance of being able to sip at it without gagging.

I found beer as revolting as it was ubiquitous.  To this day, I do not know how my father (or anyone) drinks it.  “It’s an acquired taste,” Dad tells me.  Ugh, bully for you, Dad.

Then there was the wine.  The student choice appeared to be a cheap rosé called Lancer’s, often consumed with local favorite Freihofer’s chocolate chip cookies.

Let us not forget the many variations of Cuba Libre that were passed around.  One type involved buying cans of Coke out of the soda machine, drinking half the can and filling the rest with rum.  Then there was “rum and cherries,” served in a Dixie cup, that contained just a smidge of Coke for coloring.  I’m probably too old to use the word “yucky,” but there you have it.

Although I tried to fake it for a while by taking a sip of whatever was being served, about midway through college I had an epiphany that made me decide I wasn’t going to put up with it anymore.  Funny thing is, nothing dramatic happened to push me in that direction.  I was at a party at a dorm across campus, someone put a plastic cup of beer in my hand, and I proceeded to sip at it, trying very hard not to make faces at the horrible taste.  I walked around with it as a prop, as I always did, and finally braved a few more sips.  I realized it wasn’t as terrible as I had heretofore imagined and I drank about half the cup.  It was at that point that I woke up.  “This is not me,” I thought, “this is not who I want to be.”  I set down my beer, walked out of the building and never touched a brew again.  I had finally had enough of playing games for the sake of fitting in.  After that, I would just tell people that I didn’t drink.  If that made me a wussy, tough cookies.

The article that you were assigned to read, dear niece, mentioned something called a “keg stand.”  This is a phrase I had never heard of before.  I had the distinct impression that it did not refer to a platform on which to set the keg.  So, of course, I had to look it up.  Your assignment descriubed it as a dangerous form of binge drinking.  Turns out it’s an acrobatic drinking game (thanks, Wikihow).  What’ll they come up with next?  Sheesh.

In my first year of college, I quickly learned that a bong was not the sound that the carillon made to strike the hour.  I also learned that “hits” did not refer to music and that a “tab” did not refer to a bar bill or a typewriter key.  But then there were lots of strange terms I had to learn in college.  Many of my dorm mates hailed from Long Island and had a vernacular of their own.  A “pisser” was not a urinal; it meant that you were quite a character.  A “piece of work” was not an assignment to be turned in for credit; it meant that you were a hopeless nerd.  Furthermore, “taking a dump” did not mean that you were going out to empty the trash and “tossing your cookies” did not have anything at all to do with Freihofer’s.  And “worshipping the porcelain god” was decidedly not something that one did in church.  I’m sure all this stuff carries totally different monikers today, dear niece, which is far out, man.

Living in the college dormitories was intolerable for me; I made a go of it for two years before settling for a cubbyhole in a single room occupancy firetrap of a hotel downtown.  Being straitlaced resulted in merciless teasing that got old after a while.  And I found myself in a no-win situation involving eight students in a suite trying to make do with one bathroom.  I won’t go into details here, but it wasn’t pretty.

The swirl of pot smoke never seemed to end.  If I walked into the suite and they were at it again, I would turn around and walk out.  I’d take a bus downtown or wander around the campus.  The big question should have been:  Why isn’t anyone calling the cops?  The answer, of course, was that the city police stayed out of the campus and the Kampus Kops turned a blind eye.  The administration didn’t give a flip.

As a freshman (first time away from home and all that), I was terribly naïve and very nearly stumbled into disaster one day.  I should preface this story by explaining that I was caught up in a nightmarish game of Musical Roommates.  My first roommate, a very friendly guy, left me after three days to go bunk with his homie down the hall.  My next roommate got homesick and let after a couple of weeks.  At this point, I was paired with an older student, a druggie who did not appreciate wimps like me who told the residence staff just what was going on (which I finally did after walking in on him and his girlfriend doing the nasty).  My lovely roommate found the perfect way to get back at me.  He knew my Achilles’ heel:  Food.  In this case, homemade brownies.  His sex partner had made an entire pan, cut into nice little squares, and wouldn’t I like to have one?  I wanted so badly to take one, and it took all my willpower to say no.  I had read something once about druggies consuming marijuana that way.  Only later did I learn that the brownies were laced with hashish.

Pills of all kinds were for sale in our dorm.  The local drug dealer lived two doors down and across the hall from me; he kept his wares stashed in one of his dresser drawers, beneath his bulky sweaters.  He warned me that I would get hurt if I told anyone.  I have no doubt that he was telling the truth.

I suppose the ultimate in my college experience of dodging the ever-present barrage of drugs occurred at a party I attended in my senior year.  I was one of the editors of our student newspaper and an end-of-semester bash was held by the staff at another editor’s home downtown.  It was a three-story Victorian and they took advantage of the party possibilities that this arrangement afforded.  I walked in the front door to find people milling around with cups of beer.  Nothing unusual there.  Then I saw the sign.  “Liquor, first floor.  Pot, second floor.  Hard stuff, upstairs.”  I turned around, tore open the door and walked as fast as I could to the nearest bus stop.

And so, dear niece, if indeed it is the 1970s again in your high school and now your college, I feel for you.  I truly sympathize with what you are going through and I hope, for your sake and that of your little daughter, that you will emulate your uncle by turning and running the other way as fast as you can.

I know I’m over fifty years old and that I can’t possibly understand the challenges that your generation is facing today.  But I like to think I know a thing or two about peer pressure and how it is possible to respect yourself enough to say no.

And one other thing.  I love you and I kind of want you to be around for a while.