Lately, I’ve been thinking of all the people I know who have died. I’m unearthing vivid memories of the past. I remember my mother as a young woman, my aunt’s generous briskness, my father’s slightly tired affection. In those memories, I am a child, a teenager. The death of my two cats last year has altered my mood, and I’m apt to start crying at the photos on the fridge–Sirenita almost invisible against a black shirt, Milagrito lounging against my chest, held in one arm while I support myself on a crutch with the other arm. Crying about cats triggers a cascade of loss. Dead people and cats populate my mind. I feel alienated from the present and long for the past.
After a squall of tears while folding the blanket on the day bed, the one with the picture of the black cat that I used to position over Sirenita when she was napping (she loved having a blanket on top of her), I was making my way to bed. Going to bed is always hard, because of death. When I was nine, I went to bed one night, and the next day when I got up, my father was dead. Without knowing when I knew it, I realized there was safety in never going to bed. Things would not change as long as it wasn’t the next day yet. All these years later, I’m ambivalent about going to bed. I want to rest. I want to be warm. My husband wraps his arms around me, transferring his warmth, comforting me, protecting me. I’m safest when I get in bed. But, like Sirenita, who would flee when you tried to pick her up but would relax and purr the instant you caught her, I’m afraid of going down the path to sanctuary.
One way I deal with the ambivalence is not to notice I’m going to bed. I do that by reading while I brush my teeth, pee, or towel off from the shower. It’s a tricky time, that moment before bed. I could be drawn off the path and not find my way to bed for several more hours, perhaps because I thought I’d do a few minutes of work and got involved, or decided to check my schedule, which reminded me of something else, or sat down to read one last post that required a thoughtful response from me. Maybe I got trapped reading something interesting. I’ve learned not to do that. That night, I was reading the Science Times section of the New York Times, which I used to enjoy very much but which seems to be getting dumber. Easy-to-read articles on personal health are not science. But it was good for my purposes. Distracting but not riveting was what I was looking for.
There were a few interesting things in this edition, like a story about a group of extinct humans, the Denisovans, of whom I had never heard but who apparently outnumbered the Neanderthals. There's a mildly interesting piece on discoveries in immunity by a Russian scientist, though it was more human interest than science. I saved the article on Edison and some old wax recordings for last, after I was done reading all the dumb stuff. It was about a trove of recordings made in the late 19th century in Europe by an assistant of Edison, who recorded the voices of Otto Bismarck and other prominent Europeans.
As I stood in the bathroom holding the newspaper, the themes of the evening came together in a sudden, stunning memory from my teens, a memory of something I wanted so badly and couldn’t have, that the regret still lives in my gut today.
I was in high school. Adults were more repressive then, or maybe it was just my family. Nothing I did was right, but I accepted that as natural and it never occurred to me to think my family should have been more supportive. Nothing my mother told me suggested that I was much good for anything, though I had some natural qualities, which, in another person (my mom had examples) would have been quite laudable. I was smart, but. I was pretty, but. Those were complete sentences. I remember a time before adolescence when I had been “a good kid” but that was way in the past when I was 16.
In her angrier moments, my mother would say that I was a curse, that she hated my dead father for giving me to her, that there was insanity on his side of the family and I had it, that I was a whore. When I was 13, I caught her arm in mid-air as she swung a belt at me and told her I would never let her hit me again. But the devastating commentary on my worthlessness continued. My natural optimism co-existed with the conviction that I would be dead, in jail or in a lunatic asylum by the time I was 21.
I can think about those days without bitterness. My mother’s cruelty happened only after my father died, when she was left alone in a country she did not grow up in, with small kids to support and few practical skills other than her natural ability with language. Death made her mean, in a way she never intended, and which horrified her after I was grown. Her verbal impulsiveness, sudden fits of temper and lack of filters, I recognize in myself.
Because I was the oldest and the toughest, but also the most impulsive and unmoored, her anger was directed at me. I couldn’t be a good kid to save my life. I read, but I never did homework. I lost things, in my mom’s mind because I didn’t care that she slaved for everything we had. I could pay attention in class, but once class was over, I forgot all about it. I needed stimulation and novelty. Risk seduced me. Today, someone would diagnose ADD. Someone eventually did. As a kid, I was on my own. I was smart enough to be admitted to Lowell, the all-city academic school where rich folks sent their kids in preference to private school, and flaky enough to get thrown out in my senior year.
I remember a youth characterized by struggle and conflict, but also by rapprochement as my mother began to allow herself some forbidden fun, following my example and kicking over the traces just a bit. We recognized something of ourselves in the other and, when I was grown, found that we could have a damn good time together, taking in a jazz concert or laughing around the kitchen table, sharing a bottle of wine. A perennial late bloomer, I nevertheless resolved the parental conflict, internal and external, by age 25.
But at 16, I was still a black sheep, barely tolerated at home. We were poor, and I was even more broke than I needed to be. I was supposed to have an allowance of $2 a week, but I never got it because I did not “deserve” it. I got by on a nickle a day and my bus pass. The school cafeteria sold enormous cookies for 5 cents. I favored what I called the “oatmeal and cement” recipe. It filled you up like a road crew fills a pot hole, with something so hard and indigestible that you were not interested in eating another thing. I didn't care if I ate at school anyway. Money was nice, but I wasn't desperate for it. I would like to have bought the occasional concert ticket, with all the fabulous bands of the 60s playing in town, and I might have liked to go on a fancy vacation like my affluent friends. But mostly, I shifted for myself, borrowing money for lunch and expertly stealing my school clothes from department stores. I didn’t expect to be given anything. I asked for nothing.
One day after class (or cutting class, I don’t remember), pretending to be one of the middle-class kids who went to my school, a potential shopper, I walked to the nearby shopping center. Of course, I never shopped. If I got anything, it was stolen. But that day, I was in the mood to check out the new music store. I never stole anything from music stores. For one thing, music stores were not rich, like Macy’s. Then too, music stores were great. There was no hurry. People were expected to page through racks of standing albums, looking at each one. No one did more than offer to help you find something, then leave you alone. They didn’t keep an eye on you. They were mellow.
The store sold mostly new LPs and singles, rock, jazz and classical, but there was a small collection of used records. I had 35 cents in my pocket. My oddball upbringing manifested itself, away from my hippie friends. I ignored the acid rock. I looked at some jazz records, artists I had heard of, and imagined a cool future in which I slid one of those out of its sleeve onto the turntable, then settled back to listen with a glass of wine in my hand. I looked at some symphonies, works played by orchestras that I was familiar with. Those were records that even in our shabby, transitional immigrant household, we might own. My family loved classical music, and records were the one thing my mother bought. I drifted to the used section. Maybe there was something cheap enough for me to actually buy. A single was 50 cents, but maybe a used single?
I flipped through the odd collection of used records, and after a moment, I saw it. The thing I wanted most powerfully in my life. Maybe it was my age, an age when wanting is at its peak. Maybe I recognized it as something belonging to another life, something that could transport me away from my own life. I didn’t believe the record I was holding in my hand. It was some kind of miracle. I picked it up and stared at it with a visceral longing that made me wonder if I should, after all, steal it?
It was a 78, a vinyl record smaller than an LP. I have a poor visual memory, but I vaguely remember a cover with piano and pianist. I only clearly remember the desire, stronger than any desire for an object that I had ever experienced, or would experience again. It was Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto, played by Rachmaninoff himself, recorded in the 1920s with an American orchestra. Not only did I love the piece, that record offered something that in my limited experience was never to be had again–a genius playing his own music, playing it as he heard it in his head.
It cost $25, a fortune for a record especially in 1968. But even I could tell that it was worth more. Perhaps the owner of the store, located in the closest thing San Francisco had to a suburban mall, then as now, did not expect to attract many buyers of rare recordings.
It might have cost ten thousand dollars, for all the chance I had to raise that much money. I could no more imagine asking my mother for $25 to buy a record than I could ask to spend a summer in Europe like my friends did. My sense of alienation from my family, of being loved but more tolerated than wanted, would never have allowed the thought to form. Could I have gone to my aunt, the generous one, the one who had no kids and made her own money and who loved music, and asked her for the money? It wasn't even a thought. She was generous, but not extravagant. Looking back, I think my mother might have given in, though that much money was half a week’s groceries, had I worn her down with nagging and promised to do the ironing for a year. After all, she found money from somewhere when the roof leaked. But I could never have asked. I didn’t deserve it.
Stealing it was a moment’s desperate thought, reluctantly but firmly rejected. I did not steal records. I calculated my risks, and records could only be stolen by the stupid method of grabbing and concealing. Besides, I did have my (tiny) scruples. The record itself demanded respect, as did the store owner who acquired it. So I contented myself with gazing at it. I swore to figure out a way to buy it, but I never did.
Would it have changed my life? I would have been a person who owned something of great value, more so than something merely expensive. Would I have been a different person, at least a different teenager, if I had ever owned a single damn thing of any value–a piece of jewelry, a musical instrument, a special book–hell, even a radio? Would I have stopped stealing earlier–not, as I did, at 18, because if you got busted then, it was an adult rap–or maybe not started at all, if I had any idea what it meant to own something?
Though I never stole from people (with the exception of cars, because I thought the insurance just bought them a brand new car and I was doing them a favor), I had no respect for property. I had very little idea of what it meant to own things, to feel proprietorship. I remember the meager stuff I had as a teenager–a small, woven straw box for my needles and thread (I had to have that, because clothes were mended, not thrown away), a darning egg which was really an empty L’Eggs container, a stuffed snake that had I pleaded for, and my prize, a leopard print nightgown that my mother bought me in a surge of generosity for my 15th birthday, which I thought was the most glamorous thing in the world and which I wore until it shredded. The best things in my room at any time were library books. We kids did own a few 45s (though no albums) which we played on my dead father’s nice hi-fi, the last good thing my family bought before becoming poor.
I was remarkably free of envy, given the economic difference between me and my friends, but I had no idea of what it meant to have your own stuff. To some extent, that could not be helped. But my mother enforced even greater poverty on me as punishment in our years-long struggle for control, and I rebelled against it. I often think of the truly poor kids in this country. Why should they bother to respect my belongings, why should they refrain from tagging my house or breaking my car windows, when they have no concept, no framework, for understanding the damage that they are doing?
I was a hippie, which absolved me to a great extent of having possessions. The culture is different now. A lack of possessions is a shameful thing. Poor kids in my neighborhood steal or damage your stuff, not just because they want it or even to fuck with you, but because they have no experience of ownership, which is necessary to understand what loss feels like to other people. While our culture is overly materialistic, being bereft of belongings is not healthy, either. It can make you a menace.
I was fortunate. I finally settled down to school, skipping a high school diploma altogether and going to college (you can do that!), becoming a teacher, then a technical writer, then earning a law degree, where I studied criminal defense. While health did not permit me to practice law, learning it at least focussed my thoughts on the root causes of crime and the twists that the development of a social identity can take in kids. We're all safer when kids have a chance to grow morally, develop empathy, and learn how to legitimately acquire their own things.
Back then, in 1968, a recording might be a rare thing. Now, music can be reproduced so easily that just about anything is available somewhere. I finally got my record, at least part of it, for free. This is the first movement of the recording that I held in my hands, Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto, played by Sergei Rachmaninoff with the Philadelphia Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski conducting, recorded in 1929: