It was 1964. I was 12.
The dull sameness of my prepubescent life in Brooklyn was about to pivot toward the good, spirited on by a boy with green hair and a beat-up manual typewriter.
I was an introvert, an observer most comfortable tucked inside my own, sometimes very thin skin.
My big frustration that year, the year following the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, was the inability to communicate my heartfelt feelings of loss and grief. They remained inside me, raw, visceral, unexamined, spilling out only occasionally onto the deaf, unempathetic ears of my parents.
Wanting to be understood, to be heard, I became obsessed with the potential of my brother’s Smith Corona electric typewriter. It mocked me as it sat ever-locked in its case on the desk in the room we shared. I regularly searched for the key, without success, under books, at the bottom of his underwear drawer, inside of dusty shoes at the back of the closet and sometimes, when feeling particularly invasive, in the pockets of his trousers.
I thought, as most children must, that I would be stuck in this part of life for eternity until fate intervened. On the other side of the country, my cousin Donna, smart, gutsy and infatuated with all-things intellectual, declared her independence one morning by ditching classes at UCLA. She and a close friend would hitchhike to Boston, ostensibly to follow the The Clancy Bros., an influential Irish group during what is now called The Great Folk Music Scare of the 1960s.
Donna’s path of flight toward the family’s east coast contingent placed us on high alert.
This was heady-stuff. Not that far out of the 1950s, we were busy play-acting our version of Leave It To Beaver. In that show, problems were solved during the last five minutes of each segment. In a bedside chat with his sons, Wally and The Beav, Ward Cleaver would admonish them for misbehavior that seemed remarkably tame even then. He would then shut the light, close the door and leave the boys to ponder their misdeeds. Lesson always learned. Not so behind our closed doors. Problems were left to fester. Voices were raised. Insults tossed. Frustrations vented.
As Donna closed in on the east coast, I sensed freedom in the winter wind blowing toward us.
The family army began to mobilize. Donna’s father, a scrappy Brooklyn boy, had migrated to the west coast, hitting it big with a Lincoln Continental car dealership in Los Angeles. Short and stout, with a brassy unchecked bravado, my parents mixed their admiration for him with low-voltage bouts of envy. When he called to ask Dad to join the search for Donna in Boston, I can remember my mother saying, in a stage whisper, as if money to fly to Boston grew on trees.
My father cupped his hand over the phone receiver and stared her out of the room.
By mid-morning the next day, the two world-class sleuths were traipsing through the frozen winter streets of Beantown. My mind ran amok with scenarios more suited to a low budget detective flick like Murder Most Foul than the reality of two desperate men dressed in overcoats and hats, presenting a torn Polaroid to waitresses, asking: have you seen this girl?
Three days in, a lead from a family acquaintance sent the men scurrying back to New York. Donna would allegedly hook-up with her pen pal, my brother, at the coffee shop my father owned in Manhattan.
My brother claimed no knowledge of the meeting, but the lead turned golden and on a snowy November day, as she walked down West 27th Street toward Broadway, Donna was apprehended by my exultant father.
I was not privy to the post-capture machinations, but a stalemate had apparently ensued. Donna adamantly refused go home.
I had not imagined one could so massively defy parental authority.
No amount of browbeating by the domineering Bernie would convince his daughter to obey. My parents, ascending to their highest Ward and June Cleaver, suggesting that our cousin, the transgressor, live with us.
This was a development both exotic and intoxicating to my sister and me.
At the beginning, like all kids, we were distracted for a time by the shiny new object. We viewed our cousin like a new pet we’d begged our parents to buy. Lots of attention lavished early on, but someone else would eventually end up walking her.
My Mother had grander ambitions. Imagining Donna as the fourth child, she used misguided mentoring skills made manifest with bribes of clothing and joint trips to the hairdresser. Exhibiting the grit she’d used on her own father, Donna pushed back, using her intellect to stave off the onslaught.
Mother’s valiant effort eventually descended into a set of Draconian not while you’re living in my house rules, most of which her own children wouldn’t follow.
As a thanks for playing memento, however, Donna was given a pair of soft white patent leather gloves for traveling to and from work on the subway, because apparently, that’s what ladies wore.
Donna quickly landed an assistant’s position at the renowned publishing house, Houghton Mifflin. In short time, the routine of daily bus and subway travel to and from a tedious job in Manhattan dimmed her internal pilot light. When she joined the family for dinner each night she barely said a word. She was likely, stupefied. We were an unruly bunch and communal eating brought out our worst behavior.
My sister of a thousand surprises might show up having shaved her eyebrows. Or speaking only Pig Latin. Or boycotting food, a capital offense in Mother’s penal code.
For me, no two food groups could touch. Mother would carry my plate to the dinner table as carefully as an African woman balancing a trough of water on her head while walking back to the village.
My brother, older and smarter by seven years, was rarely home for a meal. He’d already learned that the possibility of escape was not futile.
Like Dian Fossey, Donna observed us for months, studying the tribal customs of the gorillas in the mist. When I least expected it, she discreetly approached me, slipped a book underneath my arm, and said: Read this. You’ll love it.
The Once and Future King, by T.H. White, a sophisticated, complex version of King Arthur and Camelot, set my reading experience on fire. No parent or teacher had entrusted me with the psychology of iconic ideals like justice and power in the hands of imperfect people.
I was then introduced to science fiction. Robert Heinlein’s, Stranger in a Strange Land, was a depiction of a post-World War III civilization where religions are politically powerful and social mores surrounding sex and money are questioned. Although controversial at first printing, it was later named by the Library of Congress as one of the 88 Books that Shaped America.
Next up, Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, a dark exploration of good and evil, a theme that would cling to me throughout life. The combination of horror and mystery made my head explode. I began to consume all things Bradbury, one after the other, barely stopping to breathe.
Books became my Nirvana. I hid inside their pages, burying feelings of inadequacy and otherness by distancing myself from the tribe.
Clever Donna. Instead of joining the pack she had rewired one of the animals to be like her.
One Saturday morning she announced a field trip. A dilapidated art house in a gritty section of Brooklyn was showing the film, The Boy With The Green Hair. Reflecting the attitudes of an America still coming to terms with World War II, this late 1940’s story explored the ridicule of a haunted townspeople against a young orphan whose hair mysteriously turns green. I was too young to connect up to the generational zeitgeist or parallels to the Holocaust. I saw the film as an expression of an awkward, self-conscious boy in the midst of a messy childhood.
I imagined Donna had chosen it in order to rip the scab off of my boyhood wounds. I felt self-conscious and exposed.
After the film we shared a Charlotte Russe, custard enclosed in sponge cake, smothered in whipped cream. We discussed the film. Or rather, she did. I listened, careful not to give wing to my neurotic fantasies.
Later, walking underneath an elevated subway toward the bus stop, we came upon a curio shop. Random objects were placed haphazardly on a ledge behind the storefront window. In the center of the arrangement, sitting inside a scratched black case lined with shredded grey felt, was an ancient portable typewriter.
Donna slipped quietly into the shop, waving at me to follow. Once inside, the loving hands of the store’s curator gently placed the machine in front of me.
It’s only ten dollars. It’s not electric. But it’s yours, Donna said.
I could barely speak. On the ride home I daydreamed about stories codifying my life that would be tapped out onto its keys.
I learned that same day that the typewriter was a parting gift.
Donna soon moved to Manhattan to live at the 92nd Street Y, where she wrote and produced a musical, The Life of Love and Adventure. My family drove into Manhattan to see the production. I sat there, more the proud boyfriend then the adolescent cousin.
Months later, for reasons I can’t remember, she would return to Los Angeles.
I would sit in front of the typewriter, night after night, trying to live up to its promise. Unlike my brother’s Smith Corona, this machine was unlocked. But I had not found a way to unlock what was inside of me, nor did I have the skills to analyze or organize scattered, disconnected emotions into words or sentences so that a story could be told.
I had not yet learned how to connect my head to my heart.
That would be a long journey.
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