MY PHONE SHOWED three consecutive voicemails from my dad’s wife. I told myself, this can only mean one thing. Fortunately, it meant something else. You know your father is getting on in years when a fall and bleeding and a hospital stay are good news.
THE JAIL DOOR SLAMMED and I was left in a women’s holding cell with seven teenage girls. There were no benches so we sat on the floor. I was fifteen but looked twelve. With long hair on my head and not a whisker to my chin, I resembled a homely girl, although the plainclothes officer who frisked me could have verified otherwise. The cops had picked us up in Point State Park after observing us pass a joint. They’d intended to bust a big dealer named Lonnie—a white guy with long red hair. Fortunately for Lonnie but unfortunately for us, a white guy named John also had long red hair, also happened to be in the park, and also happened to possess and publicly share a joint.
I was there after trying to find a summer job selling hot dogs at Three Rivers Stadium. 10,000 other boys my age had had the same idea that day. Possibly a dozen of them landed a job. My friend Mike and I did not. It was a hot day, and after waiting in line for three hours to fill out a job application, we were ready to go home. But first we had to pick up Mike’s friend Donny, who was tripping in Point State Park.
Donny was our age but looked eighteen. His dad was in the Mob. There were guns in his house. Mike looked up to him the way I looked up to Mike.
Mike and I found Donny sitting in a circle with a bunch of teenage girls and a red-haired guy resembling Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull. We were tired and they were girls so we sat with them. Someone passed a joint and I pretended to smoke it so nobody would know how uncool I was. Moments later a half-dozen men in suits and dark sunglasses burst from the bushes like clowns from tiny cars and began frisking and collaring us. Nobody tried to run away. It took a while to realize these guys were cops. A man in a hat made me stand up, then felt my balls. I asked if he was gay and he hit me in the face. After that I didn’t say anything.
We rode downtown in the back of a genuine paddy wagon. It must have been more fun, or scarier, for the kids who were actually high.
The officer who separated us by sex put me in the women’s cell, which was good with me. We were the cell’s only occupants; me and the girls hung out playing with matches, learning each other’s names, and wondering what our parents would do to us if we ever saw them again.
A few months before this, I’d been picked up for shoplifting. I hadn’t actually done the shoplifting—my friend Paul had. I didn’t even know he’d taken anything. But the sales girls at G.C. Murphy’s hated Paul and me, and the cops believed their story, so I now had a juvenile record in my parents’ suburb, and was about to get one in Pittsburgh for drug use.
I’d spent the previous year getting beaten up for moving to Pittsburgh from somewhere else, and for being Jewish, and for being small, and for having no facial hair, and for not knowing how to fight, and for not swearing, and for not stealing, and for not smoking, and for sucking at gym, and for raising my hand in class, and for knowing the answers to the teacher’s questions. Now I was a delinquent and almost nobody picked on me. Maybe there was an alternate path out of being the class punching bag, but, if so, nobody had clued me in.
There was a little window in the jail door, just like on TV. After a few hours a lady cop appeared in it and began taking everyone’s information. I was the last one to go to the window. The lady cop asked my religion and I said none. She didn’t like that, although it probably explained things in her mind. She shut the jail door window when she left.
Two minutes later she was back with a male cop—a huge black guy named Tiny, who made me leave the cell and follow him. During the jail door window interview, I’d given my name. I guess somebody had looked twice at it and realized I was a guy. Tiny escorted me to the cell where they were holding John, Mike, and Donnie. I joined them and the door closed. We all watched Donnie come down from his acid trip. It didn’t look like fun.
My father cut my hair short and grounded me for two months. He cut it himself with a hair cutting kit he’d bought at the drugstore in the town we’d lived in before Pittsburgh. The box the kit came in said “Cut Hair At Home And Save!”
We were tried as a group in juvenile court. My parents and Mike’s parents attended. Donny’s dad did not. Before the trial my lawyer instructed me not to deny I’d smoked pot because nobody would believe me. I was to plead emotional instability and request probation on the grounds of being from the suburbs. Right before our trial began, they sentenced a 14-year-old black kid to six months in a juvenile detention center for stealing chewing gum. I stood up. I don’t know what I intended to do. Yell at the judge for being racist, I think. My dad grabbed my hand and pulled me back to my seat. I could see in his eyes that he was afraid for me. My whole life, I’d never seen my dad look afraid. His eyes made everything real.
As part of a plea bargain, my parents agreed to send me to a psychiatrist. I was given a year’s detention and forbidden to enter Point State Park.
I started using drugs the next day. If I had a record, I was going to live up to it.
6:00 AM, AUSTIN. My nine-year-old vegetarian daughter just phoned from New York to inform me that matzo ball soup is made with chicken broth. She has just learned this fact, and wanted me to know so I wouldn’t accidentally eat food made from animals while I’m away. I thanked her and assured her that matzo ball soup is not a thing in Texas.
While my ex has been away this month, I’ve watched her two small dogs. And so have my two cats—especially the black alpha. Add an active eight year old girl to that menagerie and you have 34 busy but blissful days.
That time ends now.
This morning my daughter and the dogs shuffle off to her mother’s apartment, where her grandparents will take loving care of them all.
I mark the occasion by packing my bag for Boston and clearing away a last wet wee wee pad.
FOR TWO YEARS, our daughter was bullied in school. The school didn’t notice and our daughter didn’t complain so we didn’t know. Finally a mom saw and told us. After that, things happened quickly. One result is that we changed schools.
During those first two years, our daughter shut down emotionally and psychologically from the moment the bell rang in the morning until school let out at night. Maybe this shutting down was a reaction to the bullying. Maybe there were other causes. What’s certain is that she didn’t learn. She didn’t learn the kindergarten stuff. She didn’t learn the first grade stuff.
The old school noticed the learning problems and provided support programs that helped, but did not close the gap. The school warned us our daughter would probably flunk kindergarten, but in the end they passed her along to first grade. The first grade teacher worried, but in the end passed her on to second grade.
Now she is in a school where they pay attention, in second grade, lacking skills her peers learned in kindergarten.
Catching her up takes hours of extra homework a week. It takes patience and cunning as we work to cool a fear and dislike of learning that’s been baked into her soul for two years. Some days I want to cry. But for her sake I smile.
LISTENING to Coltrane. Taking a break after assembling American Girl doll bunk beds. The tuxedo cat has appropriated Ava’s American Girl doll tent as his personal summer house. Ava is making up a song about wishing on a star. End of summer. Happy.
Here is a story my daughter wrote in school today. I’ve corrected the charming first-grade spelling.
I was going to school with my Dad. I did morning meeting lunch recess and I went to Miss Vickie’s. We made stories. I wrote about Toys-R-Us. It was the end of the day. My dad picked me up from school. I played with my cats and with my Smurfs. I watched a movie. My Dad made me dinner. I rang my neighbor’s doorbell. I asked for a play date but I couldn’t ’cause she was taking a bath. So I watched the Simpsons. My Dad read me a story. I kept on wanting my water. I tried to sleep but I could not. One of my cats bit my hair. So my Dad put him in the kitchen. But I still couldn’t sleep. I got scared but my Dad held me tight. So I wasn’t. I looked at the ceiling. My Dad was snoring so I went to sleep.
MY EX-WIFE is one of my heroes. Six years ago today, during 33 hours of labor in a stiflingly hot room, she brought forth our daughter. When my body rebels in the gym, I think of her courage and push out another rep. When a lift or stretch hurts, I remember what she did and breathe through the pain. From her and those long moments, I learned mind over matter. From witnessing and helping during those 33 hours, I learned that life is blood and bone, and that we can achieve anything if we push hard enough.
Thank you, Carrie, for that lesson and for this girl. Happy sixth birthday, dearest Ava. And, by wonderful coincidence and similar courage and marvels, joyous first day on earth, Nash Thomas Hoy. Fill your lungs and holler, boy!
When I was twenty, Barbie was a symbol of oppression with obvious food issues. No way would a future child of mine identify with that.
When I was twenty, “princess” was another word for “child of oppressor.” Monarchs went with pogroms and capitalists.
If I ever had a daughter, she would be one of the people. Or a leader of the people. Or an anarchist. Or most probably an artist. Art was problematic because it also went with corporate capitalism (when not going steady with poverty) but at least the few artists who made money disdained it, if only publicly.
Twenty wasn’t easy.
When I was twenty, when I considered bringing a child into this world of wrong, I pictured her enjoying organic produce and healthy ethnic cuisines.
Decades and chameleon lives later, I was married and we were expecting.
After our daughter was born, I suggested raising her vegetarian. It seemed wrong to feed an angel on the blood and limbs of slaughtered animals. Her mother said she’d go along with the vegetarian angle as long as I did the research and committed to preparing fresh, nutritionally balanced meals that supplied every nutrient our child would need.
So she eats meat.
Mostly she eats french fries.
She sometimes eats at McDonald’s. Also she eats candy and plays with Barbies. She says she is Barbie’s biggest fan. Soon after learning to say Dada and Mama, she asked if she was a princess. We said yes.
What used to be my elegant teakwood dining table is now the staging area for a Barbie apartment. The Barbie pool, Barbie camping van, and Barbie salon that comprise the “apartment” barely leave room for the Barbies, Stacies, and Kellys who make use of these facilities.
The princess turns six in September. She’s working on the party guest list and we’ve already decided on her birthday present: a Barbie house.
Barbie is now fifty. But fifty is the new 49. There’s a reason she’s stuck around all these decades. Turns out it has nothing to do with theory and everything to do with girls.
When I returned from Boston, my little white dog was much sicker. It’s the lungs. There’s a constant honking gasp, except when he’s sleeping. The doctors said this would happen, they just didn’t say when. Despite the constant meds and steady love, there comes a time when the animal can’t breathe—and nothing medical can be done, other than the merciful horrible.
So today is the day. I feared it on the afternoon I came home and I knew it for sure last night. Where there is life there is hope, until there is no hope. It’s time for Emile to go gently to foreversleep.
If my daughter wasn’t with me, I’d have taken him in for the procedure yesterday. As it is, to minimize my daughter’s trauma, I’ll have to squeeze it in today, while she is at school. Death on a schedule: between my workout at 9:00 and my first business appointment. Tears at eleven.
At this second, little Emile sits comfortably on his dirty red cushion, cleaning himself after a hearty breakfast of flavorless hypoallergenic food stuffed with pills. His breathing is normal enough to fill me with guilt, hesitation, and denial. Is there still hope?