Monday, July 04, 2005

In America

July 4, 2005 (Los Angeles)

I haven’t posted anything since I got back to the US a few weeks ago, mostly because I had been thinking of the blog as a way to keep a kind of travel diary and also keep friends and family and whoever might be interested posted as to my whereabouts and daily doings. But I guess I’m still sur la route, in my fashion, some fashion — although it feels as if I’ve suddenly come to a halt, which is much more disorienting to me than being in motion — and some have asked me to post, and friends and family on the other side of the pond want to know where I am now, so I’ll try to catch up a bit here …

A few thoughts about “blogging” first: I’m still not sure what I want this to be, what it should be, still finding my way, and always thinking about things like intimacy and privacy, too — because it is a public forum, after all, much as I might feel as if I’m just writing to a few close friends and family — so I’m still struggling to find a balance. Of course there are things that I leave out — some of the juiciest details, perhaps — and then there are things on which I’d welcome comments, things I’d like to discuss with whomever is reading, but I haven’t figured out yet how to respond to comments posted on the blog on the blog itself. So forgive me if you’ve posted a comment to which I haven’t responded, and feel free to e-mail me if there’s something you’d like to talk about more. But another thing I’m always struggling with is time, how to find enough time to keep up with everything. And America — or maybe it’s just L.A.? — seems so much more rushed to me than any place in Europe.

On my last day in Paris, I gave in at last and bought the princess skirt — really, Jenny made me do it. And then we took the train to Alfortville and had dinner with the Poilloux family in the magic house. Played a rousing game of duck-duck-goose around the table after we’d all eaten our fill. “Would you like a coffee, Cecilia?” Isa asked. And then “Would you like a whisky, Lila?” (Lila hadn’t stopped dancing since we arrived.) “No, Mama, je n’aime pas le whiskey.” It was a lovely way to spend my last evening in France, and I left a shopping bag full of books and things so that, as Isa said, I’d have to come back. And soon.

And the next day I flew from Charles de Gaulle to the Cincinnati International Airport, where I experienced what my sister Rebecca calls “Home Depot Security.” So much of it is absurd, and does so little to make anyone feel any safer. But my brother John collected me in his big red pick-up truck and we drove to Mom’s, where almost the whole family was waiting. “You’d better be hungry,” my mother said. I’d lost track of what day it was by then, and how many meals I’d already had. Chloe screamed “Aunt Cel-ee-ya!” when she saw me, and took a flying leap into my arms. Post-pork-chops-and-all-the-fixings, I sat on the porch and smoked with my sisters and watched the kids playing in the yard. And that pretty much set the rhythm and tone for my time in Kentucky.

I retrieved my own pick-up truck a few days later — not without some trauma involving the ex-friend who’d borrowed it while I was away — and then, over the next weekend, my mom and I made a road trip to Pittsburgh. We got lost — or I got lost, since I was the one doing the driving — twice before we ever got out of Louisville. We got as far as Columbus, Ohio, then stopped for the night to visit mom’s brother Richard and his wife and their kids and their grandkids.

The next day we arrived in Pittsburgh in the late afternoon and went straight to Mercy Hospital to see my godfather, my great-uncle Paul. He’s 83 now, the last surviving family member of my grandmother’s generation, and though he’s not in good shape, physically, his mind is amazingly sharp, and his memory. As soon as I went to his bedside and took his hand, he looked me in the eyes and said, “Oh honey, it’s seven years and two weeks since Harry’s been gone.” It was June 17. I counted back in my mind. Yes, seven years and two weeks, to the day, since my father had died. My dad’s cousin Mildred was in the room, too, and she said, “Now make him tell you everything. Even the things he doesn’t want to tell.”

So over the course of the next few days, Uncle Paul told me family stories, most of them terrible and dark — “Oh honey, the trouble this family has seen.” How his father had owned so much land in Poland, and then had lost everything — “Some people lose everything,” he said — and how he’d sent him into the streets in Pittsburgh’s wealthy neighborhoods, as a little boy, to beg. How his father, my great-grandfather, this “Guido,” was so dark that people whispered “nigger” when he walked the streets of the southside. How all the children fled — “Here comes Guido!” — when they saw him coming. (“A little man, “ my father used to tell me, “who always carried a long blade.”) How his mother, my great-grandmother Justyna, survived by taking in laundry and making whiskey when Guido disappeared for long stretches— months, sometimes years at a time. (“Where did he go? Why?” “New York. I don’t know. That’s just the kind of person he was.”) How they all lived crammed into a few tiny rooms, in an apartment down by the warehouses that had to be entered via some kind of tunnel; how one had to turn sideways just to pass between the rooms. Or was it Mildred who told me that story? Mildred told me stories, too. How Aunt Sue’s five-year-old daughter, Anna, died of a concussion suffered when she tried to stop her father from going out drinking, got caught between the doors and he slammed the door without knowing she was there. How there wasn’t money to bury her. How the father never came back. How Aunt Sue was determined to do anything – anything – to keep her two surviving daughters with her, and not put them in an orphanage. How my grandmother Mary’s little boy – was it Earl or was it Junior? – was scalded to death when he fell into the cauldron of hot coffee Justyna kept behind the stove. A story I’d heard before, though I’d never before really imagined the horror of it. Mary trying to comfort the screaming child; his flesh coming off on the towel in her hands.

On the last afternoon before we left Pittsburgh, Uncle Paul even talked about Mary’s death – a death he’d once told me had been caused by a heart attack, dismissing then the rumors I’d heard that she’d committed suicide or been murdered. This time the story was different. He told me how he and Aunt Sue had been away when the news came of Mary’s death. How Uncle Andy – big Uncle Boog – had cried like a baby. How young she’d been – only 48 or 49 – and how beautiful, still. How she “looked good” when they laid her body out in Detroit. How nobody knows where she was buried. How her last husband, the Russian, had taken charge of the funeral. “He took charge of everything.” Then Uncle Paul looked at me and said very firmly, “And he killed her. And there was politics involved.”

Was this what I’d come here to hear, to find out, to have confirmed? It was enough, at least for now. There are so many pieces of such a big puzzle to be put together, and some larger mystery, and some mysteries that may never be solved. I blew kisses to my uncle as we left the hospital, saying I’d see him again before long, praying that there’s still time. “God bless you,” he said as we left. God bless us all.

So it was a bittersweet visit, to say the least. I think it must have been hard for my mother. So many of those we loved there are gone now that Pittsburgh seems like a kind of ghost city to me. Though there are chic shops and expensive restaurants on the riverfront in the southside where the steel mill used to be. The warehouses are being turned into lofts. One church has been converted into an upscale coffee house. The sidewalks are packed with a young, hip crowd; but every so once in a while I’d see an old woman in a headscarf, a shopping bag weighing her down on either side, standing on the curb and looking around as if she’d just landed in a strange foreign country, looking disoriented, looking lost.

Which isn’t to say that we didn’t have some laughs, too. Like when I was standing by my uncle’s hospital bed telling him all about the man I’d met in Paris, how he managed to get every detail of the story out of me. “I can’t believe I’m telling you this,” I laughed. And my mother and Mildred across the room called out, “We love the details. Keep going.” And then my uncle took my hand and said, “Honey, I don’t want you to be alone. When are you going to marry him?” “Just as soon as he asks me, uncle,” I promised. Mom and I also spent some time with my old friends Betty and Don, who’d driven in from Philadelphia to meet us and to see a little of Pittsburgh – the first time for them, though they’ve been everywhere else in the world. Don zips down the sidewalk in his electric wheelchair ahead of everyone, taking in the scenery. He flirts more outrageously with waitresses than I’ve ever seen any man flirt, but manages to do so with the utmost gallantry. Betty rolls her eyes and smiles. Mom and I also stopped to visit her sister Eleanor and her brother-in-law Kenny on the hill, on Mission Street. Aunt Eleanor made us coffee and she made us giggle. There’s still an amazing view of the downtown skyline and the river from their front porch – even more amazing now that the mills are gone, and all the smoke. It’s beautiful, but something seems missing, too.

We made the long drive back to Kentucky without stopping for anything but gas and junk food. And then I had a few more days to spend with my family there, and to play with Chloe Balou, who never wants me to leave. She’ll start first grade in the fall but she’s already reading whole books, reads out loud to me with great glee, especially my favorite, “But not the Hippomapotamus.” I also spent an evening with Jim and Mary Ann and Rebecca in Sadieville, and an afternoon with my sister Bekki and my nephew Jesse in Lexington. And had a little picnic with my sister Mary on the porch of her beauty shop. And went swimming with the kids in my brother Chuck’s pool. That was midsummer’s night.

And then I flew back to Los Angeles. It was kind of strange to be here, at first, but I’m settling in. The traffic is worse than it was six months ago, and the divide between “have” and “have not” Los Angeles seems to be growing by leaps and bounds, as that divide seems to be growing all over the country. According to OECD statistics, the U.S. (as of 2000) has the highest poverty rate in the developed world, with 13.7% of the population having disposable income below half the median disposable income, and public (non health) social spending at 2.3% of the GNP. In France, only 6% of the population lives below this line, and public social spending — excluding health care, which in France seems nothing short of miraculous to an American accustomed to paying hundreds of dollars for prescription medicines that cost a few euros in a Parisian pharmacy, and I don’t even have French health insurance — is 9.1% of the GNP. Even Poland only has 8.6% of its population living in poverty, and spends 7% — more than three times the percentage the US spends -- on social programs.

In the June 11-12 edition of the International Herald Tribune, columnist Paul Krugman cites a New York Times series on class in America that presents compelling evidence that the middle-class society — once sustained by social norms that favored equality, strong labor unions and progressive taxation — has been lost since the 1970’s. Since 1980 in particular (the Reagan years), U.S. government policies have consistently favored the wealthy at the expense of working families — and under the current administration, that favoritism has become extreme and relentless. From tax cuts that favor the rich, especially those who derive most of their income from inherited wealth, to bankruptcy ‘reform’ that punishes the unlucky, almost every domestic policy seems intended to accelerate the march back to the robber baron era. Krugman writes: “It’s not a pretty picture — which is why right-wing partisans try so hard to discredit anyone who tries to explain to the public what’s going on ... To show concern over the growing inequality is to engage in ‘the politics of envy.’ But the real reasons to worry about the explosion of inequality since the 1970s have nothing to do with envy. The fact is that working families aren’t sharing in the economy’s growth, and face growing economic insecurity. And there’s good reason to believe that a society in which most people can reasonably be considered middle class is a better society -- and more likely to be a functioning democracy — than one in which there are great extremes of wealth and poverty.” Or as a friend of mine in Paris said, “How can the U.S. export democracy when it doesn’t even have democracy?”

But I’m heartened by the evidence that popular support for W. is declining, and many here in L.A. are heartened by the election of Villaraigosa, L.A.’s first Latino mayor. On my second night back in town, I went with Andrew to a screening in Echo Park of my old pal Ed Landler’s long-awaited documentary about the Watts Towers, “I Build the Tower.” It took Ed almost 20 years to make it, but the results are wonderful. It’s a subtle and complex film, and deeply moving. The interviews with Mike Davis and with Buckminster Fuller are especially illuminating — the phrase I used earlier, about “have and have not L.A.” is Davis’s — and the portrait of Simon Rodia — the Italian immigrant laborer who single-handedly built those crazy, beautiful towers in the heart of Watts — is, ultimately, a portrait of the kind of flawed and heroic American whose story might have been lost if it weren’t for the vision and determination of someone like Ed. Those towers are L.A.’s Eiffel Tower, I think, and more a symbol of the city’s crazy, beautiful spirit than that sterile palace on the hill built with Getty’s millions or the monstrously inhuman architecture of Disney Hall.

It’s Independence Day as I finish typing this, sunny and breezy and blessedly quiet, for a change, on Whitworth Drive. I’ll be giving some readings in the coming week, and then my brother John will arrive from Kentucky with his girls, and we’ll take a beach day before heading up the mountain to Idyllwild. It will be good to see old friends again there, too. As Stanley Kunitz wrote in “The Layers,” “Oh I have made myself a tribe/out of my true affections,/ and my tribe is scattered!” Bisous …