This begins a series of posts as I try to make sense of the world (my own and the world at large).
“I’m trying to make order out of chaos,
trying to find some way of rationalizing the
horrific things that people do or the way the world is.”
My mother was a heroin addict before I was born. She implored my grandmother for help and went cold turkey as my grandmother cared for her over a harrowing week. More than 20 years later, I sat at the Alhambra Cinema with my mom watching Diana Ross in “Lady Sings the Blues.” As Lady Day detoxed cold turkey in a jail cell, Mom shook and cried beside me. “It’s just like that,” she plaintively whispered in the dark. Mom would trade addictions through the years, sometimes extinguishing the monsters, other times being devoured by them.
My father lived just the other side of the law. He was a promoter for the Showboat Casino in Las Vegas around the time I was born. Although the Showboat was “fronted” by reputable gaming impresarios, there were ties to organized crime. Dad apparently “skimmed” receipts from the newly opened casino and had to flee Las Vegas when the Cleveland Syndicate got wind of his shenanigans, leaving me and Mom behind as he moved in with a woman in Los Angeles. I was two years old. For the next forty years, I saw my dad sporadically, often going years without contact. His financial support was equally remiss. Mom did credit him with helping her stay off of heroin. Him and me—a heavy responsibility for a little girl.
A few years ago I was doing some family research and found Dad’s name in a current gambling application in Atlantic City by some man who had worked with him 60 years earlier in Las Vegas. The judge questioned whether or not to grant the man’s application because of his association with my dad—an “unsavory character.” My dad had been dead for 20 years. It was unsettling to see his name hold such infamy long after his death and even longer after his time in Nevada.
My stepfather ran a small grocery store in downtown Los Angeles. It was a family business that had been there for decades and afforded a very comfortable living for my step grandparents and their sons. What I didn’t know, until it had been closed for over two decades, was that it was a front for a bookie joint.
I remember the colorful characters who frequented the place as I sipped a Yoohoo or a Kern’s Apricot Nectar sitting atop an ice chest filled with assorted soft drinks. Eddie, always in a tattered brown suit, used to bring me small trinkets as he talked in hushed tones with my stepdad. I didn’t understand the import of the two-story backroom until I was an adult and saw “The Sting” wherein giant chalkboards were used to tally races. My memory flashed on the store’s backroom. That room and the dusty groceries that no one seemed to buy suddenly made sense.
In the months following the store’s closure, my stepdad took refuge in a bottle. One night I was awakened as my stepdad waged drunken war on my mom. I opened the pocket door that closed off the secondary bedrooms as Daddy ripped the phone out of the wall (they were wired into the wall in those days) and threw the phone at Mom’s head. I was crying and screaming, “Daddy! Stop! Don’t hurt Mommy!”
“Close the door!” Mom screamed. “Get back in your room and close the door!”
The violent eruption had also awakened the neighbors and soon the police were at the front door hauling my stepdad away to dry out in jail. That was the night my corner of the world truly shattered.
Mom divorced my stepdad because of his drinking and violent rages. We had to sell our home. When I was 11, Mom moved my baby sister and me to an apartment in another city, completely uprooting my life and removing me from everyone I knew. By the time I was 14, Mom had become the raging alcoholic.
I once said to her, “Too bad I can’t divorce you.” She pulled a bulletin board off of the wall over my desk and hurled it at me, her diamond ring slashing a 13″ gash down my arm. She would drink for the next 17 years.