An Essay I Wrote about the Past
This essay I wrote about the past was recently posted on a groovy newish online magazine started and edited by some local writers, called The Weeklings. They did a special feature on Mad Men, and included mine. Here it is:
Mad Men, My Dad, and the Hopes and Dreams that Drove the Jag
I have always been a faithful Mad Men devotee, but this season crossed a line. One show in particular actually made me sick.
It was after the “Christmas Waltz” episode where Lane forged a check to get himself out of debt. I woke up in the middle of the night, and raced to the toilet, calling out for a bucket on my way. Even though my kind and gentle husband who lingered outside of the bathroom making sure I didn’t need an ambulance, insisted in the morning that it had been some kind of food thing or even a rogue two-hour flu, I begged to differ. To be sure, I checked with our friends, with whom we had spent the day eating and drinking on our deck, wanting to be certain we hadn’t poisoned them, and just as I suspected, everyone was fine. And in the morning I felt ok, too—dare I say, excited. Of all the highs I love, getting real is my favorite.
What’s so real about retching? It wasn’t the illness that delighted me, but the fact that my body was confirming something terrible, something I had always felt like a jerk for believing. Ever since I was little, I had heard rumors that my dad was a wee bit of a crook, and now, after having such a visceral reaction to watching Lane, the anxious embezzler, I figured it was probably true. It was like the time I watched Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf with my INSANE boyfriend, and as I knelt in front of the toilet, I heard this little voice saying telling me exactly who was afraid, and why she should be. Ah, sweet clarity.
The story is that my dad, one of a long line of Jewish peddlers, had three kids and a wife, and worked in his Uncle Sam’s auto parts warehouse, and then, determined as he was to get out from under The Man, opened up his own store and called it Great Lakes Auto. While it seemed his first order of business was to pack the greasy bathroom with piles of Playboys (apparently the drawer in the bathroom at home was too small for a fully satisfying stash), his second was to open another store. And do things like bring home a giant Lincoln because my mom had mentioned that she thought they were neat. Things that were not high on his list were the less glamorous items like saving money. All along my dad had a business partner, Nick, who somewhere in the mix of my own aching coming of age, became an ex-partner. And the dark cloud that I had always seen hovering over the entire family, but especially my dad, formed itself into coherence: A Parting of Ways. Bad Blood. Accused of Stealing. Ugly as they were, I was happy for the words.
I thought a lot about this chain of events after my night of reckoning in the bathroom. I remembered what it was like in the early 80’s when my parents started fighting a lot, usually over money. My two older brothers began trying to kill each other (and me) with even more sincerity. Soon my dad had a heart attack, and then my parents started fighting about that—for instance, the way my dad refused to stop eating the fat off his steak, or quit smoking. And then, as the purse strings got tighter and tighter, cutting back on my ballet lessons, eating out, the clogs I needed, he finally declared bankruptcy and lost it all. Both stores, everything. We had to move from our rambling but flimsy ranch house at the end of a dirt road, with the pond out back, surrounded by the edgeless woods I wandered. One brother would have to leave the golf course where he hit a hole in one, the other his favorite stoner caves. My mom might have to get a job.
While it wouldn’t be long before my parents divorced, which I can assume was a blow to my dad, I think it was equally dreadful having to let go of the dream of being his own boss. He was desperate for that, to be Mr. Big, in charge, successful. Clearly. And considering where he came from, it made sense. His own father died young of a heart attack, leaving my 16 year old, chubby, flat-footed, practically blind future dad as the man in charge of his lovely but mentally ill mother, and his charismatic younger brother who developed a voracious appetite for and facility with making gobs of money. My dad’s life was a deep pocket of insecurities and impossibilities.
So while losing his wife and his position both stung his fragile ego, I’m sure, there was one loss from that horrible time that I imagine struck even deeper. And that was the day his Jaguar went away. His “baby,” he would say. His very own Jag. Unlike Lane, whose wife was the one to surprise him with the gorgeous lemon, apparently, my dad just showed up with it one day. For himself. “That’s the way your dad was,” my mom said.
My dad has always been a major car guy. At the end of his life, basking in the glory of his baby brother’s generosity, he was able to live a dream and race vintage Porsches. His ashes were sprinkled at the Las Vegas Speedway. The guy loved cars, but the sable colored E-type Jag, the same one in which Lane failed suicide, was special. He washed it in the driveway every weekend, hands and feet moving fast, a cig hanging from his mouth, saying things like “so cool, man.” He drove it fast down our country roads, and made me ride with him once, so when Lane was in the car, trying to get it to start, I was hauntingly familiar with the interior, the clicks on the dashboard, the skinny little stick shift. My dad smiled from deep down when he talked about the jag, and even took pictures of it, framed them, and hung them on the wall.
Finally, something beautiful he could truly own.
And then, not.
Yesterday I talked to my dad’s “ex-partner,” Nick, on the phone. Obviously, he was surprised to hear from me after all these years, but it also felt like he had been sitting next to the phone waiting for my call. After he hesitated out of “respect for the dead,” and with questions like, “honey, does your mom want you to know all of this?” the door was open, and the truth came easily. Like rain from the sky.
In the scene after Lane’s fateful middle-of-the-night phone call, where he learns that he owes big money, but before he actually steals the money, he goes into Harry Crane’s office to see how the TV projections look, and they look good. Seeing that Lane looks excited, Harry reminds him of what a projection actually is: “Derived from reality, but they’re hopes and dreams.” Sometimes it’s hard to know the difference. Lane’s debt was an honest one—he had put money into the firm with hopes and dreams of riches—but he was losing ground, important as it was for a man in his position to maintain a certain lifestyle. When he got into trouble, he really wanted to do the right thing, to just get some credit, cut some Christmas bonus checks, pay it all back. He tried! And he didn’t want the damn car. (In fact, his reaction to the gift was to hide behind a wall and threw up.) But the vision of having to return to England, a failure in front of his ghoulish father was too much. You could call that all a projection, a ghostworld of doom, or you could see where he was coming from. Reality is a strong word, but….
And then there is my poor dad, trying to run with the big boys. In his head. Chasing a fantasy of cars and power and who the hell knows what else. I can honestly say that while I have never worried much about my dad’s feelings, the thought of him watching some re-po dude take off in his baby makes my heart squishy. And if it hadn’t been for his impractical longing, I probably wouldn’t even care. As much as I cringe when I think of my dad’s life and legacy, including the way I have inherited his impatient and persistent craving for the good life, I also feel oddly lucky to have learned passion from a master, from someone who was, in fact, willing to go to great, unsavory, (illegal) lengths to make contact with the vivid, lusty, I’m alive! magic we humans feel about certain things. And even though my dad might have tried to skip a few steps in trying to gain access to the material pleasure-realm, we shouldn’t have to earn the right to beauty. And I am glad he had the balls to be so devoted.
In other words, my dad might have been kind of a loser, but boy, could he teach a class on love: From his famous “ass-kickin chicken,” to Big-Boy’s Egg’s Benedict, to the Beatles, to Cheech and Chong, to the perfect leather chair, to that crazy looking car sitting outside our house, and to every hope and dream that drove it straight into someone else’s garage.