Chapter Five: Los Angeles

We come to know ourselves, if at all, in our declining years, and sadly by then the past is set in stone.

Chapter five is now available as a pdf from the drop-down menu above if you wish to read it straight through in its entirety.

Ten of the fourteen sections have previously been posted as stand-alone blogs, four have not – including the final two new sections on Donna at the very end of the chapter.

Donna was the incarnation of every quality I could have hoped for in a partner: warm and open and enthusiastic, curious and perceptive and intelligent, confident but not brash, an innocent “girl-next-door” beauty without pretense or guile. Years of bottled up feelings exploded like a Molotov cocktail in an orgy of delight and in my thirty-second year I knew love the way a poet knows love, for the first time.

Click to read Chapter 5

No Regrets

[Excerpt #12 from forthcoming Chapter 5 (Los Angeles) of my memoir,White Noise, is included below.]

 

Fortuitously, Donna was fond of live theater, too, and our first ‘real’ date, a week after we ‘bumped’ into each other at the Mall, was to see Jason Robards at the Huntington Hartford in A Thousand Clowns. Each night after her daughter was asleep we would talk for hours on the phone, and on weekends while her mother, blind since a childhood accident with a coat hanger, watched Erin, we canvassed the theatre district near Hollywood & Vine for stage plays, both traditional and avant-garde. Vanessa Redgrave and Charlton Heston in Macbeth, Colleen Dewhurst and Jason Robards in A Moon for the Misbegotten, Ben Gazzara in Hughie, two females boldly cast as Vladimir & Estragon in an experimental staging of Waiting for Godot, Robert Foxworth (and in a second production, William Devane) in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Boys in the Band – whatever was flashing on giant marquees in the city of tinsel and red carpets, we bought tickets to see. In the wake of an impending divorce Donna had started reorganizing her life, including enrolling in Pasadena Community College, and afterwards, over coffee and pie at the original Bob’s Big Boy in Glendale, we had impassioned conversations as to the merits each play. My future interest in academics had not yet fully reasserted itself and I was painfully aware of being woefully inarticulate in such discussions.

Donna was marginally connected to ‘Hollywood’ in that she worked as a receptionist for Sid & Marty Krofft – producers of H. R. Pufnstuf and other children’s television programs – and she had appeared in a “very minor role” in a commercial. “A soap commercial,” she would explain, with a wry smile, “all you could see were my hands.” In a teasing mood I would grab her fingers and kiss them in mock supplication, murmuring pseudo-nonsensical Latin words I had once memorized years ago in another context: “Levator labii superioris alaeque nasi.”

donna50 as Smart Object-1

Erin was an integral part of our togetherness and we spent many an afternoon at Griffith Park – swinging, hiking, picnicking, marveling at the puniness of the planet Earth in the Milky Way laser show inside the Observatory. Donna wanted to buy a saddle for Sundance and the three of us drove to Tijuana, where I got my first lesson in how to barter. I was also reminded once again why it might be prudent to think ahead before visiting a ‘foreign country,’ as we quickly realized the saddle she wanted would not fit in my small VW. We laughed and got a cheap motel for the night. When Erin finally fell asleep we made love on the cold hard floor so as not to wake her.

erin42 as Smart Object-1

Sunday mornings we played volleyball with a group of regulars at a private home in upscale Shadow Hills. Kids and dogs ran wild, inventing their own games, while adults chose sides and acted like kids again, pretending that the start of a new work week was not just around the corner. Male and female, old and young, tall and short, hefty and skinny, one former grunt, Bob Detweiler, had a wooden leg – with such a motley crew it quickly dawned on me to reign in my competitiveness, never to spike the ball, as it was not about winning but enjoying the warmth and fellowship of others.

After working up an Easter morning sweat on the volleyball court I beckoned someone to take my place while I went inside to place a collect call to Lakeland. I waited until they were home from church, and Marge answered on the second ring. Conversations were always stilted between us, egg-shell shallow and lacking any semblance of heart-felt emotion. But it was springtime, Donna was a part of me now, my heart was singing, and to my horror, before I could stop myself, I blurted out: “I’m in love.”

A deafening silence magnified by the two thousand miles between us surged through the phone. I had uttered a four-letter word that had never been acknowledged in my family, and there was no getting it back.

“Do you have a job?” Marge finally asked.

Then and there I vowed never again to open myself up to her emotional indifference. Forty-one years later, on her deathbed, the other thing she said to me as I leaned in close, was, “You’re the one I know the least.”

I smiled to myself, and had no regrets.

 

Strawberry Waffles

[At the end of the previous Excerpt, #10 (Donna), I went back and added a final conversation (+ picture of Donna) to help bridge the transition to Excerpt #11 from forthcoming Chapter 5 (Los Angeles) of my memoir,White Noise, included below.]

Donna had recently retired Vic, a dappled mare, gentle but past her prime, and taken on the challenge of a young inexperienced Palomino, Sundance.

“He’s still green-broke,” Donna explained, “too frisky to mount but he loves round-penning, and is starting to respond to voice and body language.”

“Round-penning?”

“You’ll see…”

I climbed up on the wooden fence of a small circular exercise area and Donna brought Sundance out on a lunge line. He reared and snorted, locked eyes on me and charged. I swung my legs out of the way and quickly jumped back down.

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“He likes you,” Donna said, laughing.

“And no doubt just wants to play,” I replied, “but I think I’ll watch from over here.”

Round and round she walked, trotted, and galloped Sundance. When she dropped the line he thundered toward her, skidded to a halt and reared up on his hind legs.

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Donna picked up a switch and like a circus trainer barked out commands for Sundance to kneel, whirl, back up. The morning sun peeked over the foothills and filtered through sparse winter branches of towering oak trees to reveal the thick golden mane and white feathered fetlocks of a stallion who obeyed reluctantly, with a playful gleam in his eye, betraying a streak of independence it was difficult not to admire. It was also not lost on me that I was in the presence of a beautiful woman who could growl and crack a whip and match wits with such a splendid beast.

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Later after she groomed Sunny and cleaned his stall we stopped at a little diner for breakfast. I was jittery and found myself riddled with self-consciousness, my old nemesis, rehearsing conversations in advance and telling myself when to smile, when to nod, cursing my awkwardness.

“Are you, uh…”

“No, not married,” I replied, finishing her sentence. And just like that we were in the groove again, the same shared rhythmic space I fell into following her in the Mall and talking with her last night on the phone.

Without looking at the menu Donna ordered strawberry waffles with two scoops of chocolate ice cream on top, and I knew I was falling in love.

Donna

[Excerpt #10 from forthcoming Chapter 5 (Los Angeles) of my memoir,White Noise, is included below.]

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We would lie like that for hours, Donna and I, the two of us still comfortably entangled, talking. Mostly I listened, or daydreamed, the ashtray balanced on my stomach, while she talked. I enjoyed that. Leaf, the stray tabby I rescued, would burrow under the covers, purring, his tail twitching hypnotically. The days were lengthening now, and this was one of those moments in which everything seemed to fit ‑ Donna, myself, the cat between us. Outside the rush of Saturday afternoon traffic on Foothill Boulevard, children running and playing in the neighbor’s yard, even the whining and clawing of the animals caged in the clinic below. Sounds normally discordant were momentarily wedded by a nameless, elusive rhythm; a gentle rhythm, one I sought to retain. Everything dropped away in such moments, too. All the trappings of the past, the nearly ten years since graduation. Lean and hungry years they were, blind-driven, the whole slew of dead-ends and wrong-turns suddenly compressed into a single fallow season by the grace of the moment. Why? To what end? I didn’t know. I knew only that I had abandoned Florida and I was here, not there, here and now, curled up this very moment with Donna. . . purring.

“John?”

“Uh-huh…?” I snuggled closer.

“Did you really follow me around the Mall that night before we met?”

I jerked back the sheet and lowered my head and began to nibble the inside of her thighs with exaggerated little slurping noises. “I was stalking you big time, Sweets, couldn’t help myself. Aren’t you glad I finally found a way to ‘bump’ into you?”

Donna giggled and squirmed and playfully pushed me away. “I’m not making love to a pervert!”

Leaf bolted from the bed and darted into the living room. Like his owner, Leaf was fond of his alone-time. Time to notice, time to ponder. A faint tingling, a barely perceptible shudder not unlike that of a predator catching first whiff of prey quickened my senses that Friday night in the Mall. I glanced furtively right and left, struggling to identify the source. A few feet in front of me I caught sight of a girl’s reflection in a store window and realized I must have unconsciously adjusted my rhythm to hers, step for step. Plain leather riding boots, faded brown jeans, matching corduroy jacket, face hidden behind long brown hair falling loosely over her shoulders. My stomach tightened. She moved easily, almost too easily, unnaturally so. Methodically, with the instinct of a tomcat, I began to weave in and out of the crowd and hone in on the girl ahead of me.

Her jeans ‑ they were too tight, outlining the alluring contours of her butt. Yet, that couldn’t be deliberate; her walk was not the saucy bounce of a street-gal, and a certain softness, a polite demureness, a subtle shade of innocence radiated from her.

As I closed the gap between us and mimicked her gait I felt in her movement a slight trace of hesitancy. She’s uncomfortable! For some reason she’s nervous, feels out of place.

The signs of self‑consciousness were minute but unmistakable, and I knew them well. The walk and posture a studied casualness alternating with slight awkwardness when one suddenly becomes aware of one’s body. The timed glances from side to side. The feigned interest in every thing, yet no thing. The pose of being preoccupied quickly contrasted with embarrassed indifference.

As we approached a cul-de-sac thick with the smell of buttered popcorn she hesitated, as if deciding which movie she wanted to see. I checked my wallet to make sure I had enough money and then stood behind her in the ticket line to a Burt Reynolds movie. My heart was a-flutter, telling me something in a language as old as the human race, and I was determined not to let self-doubt keep me from meeting someone special.

“That was my first time out by myself on a Friday night since Mike and I separated.” Donna said, interrupting my reverie.

“Lookin’ for a one-night stand?”

“No! But it’s awkward for a twenty-two year-old single mom with a three year-old daughter. You feel alone, exposed, just going to a movie by yourself is a big deal.

“Gallant of me, wouldn’t you say, sitting beside you in the dark?”

“I was afraid to use the armrest between us.”

“So was I, didn’t want to bump you.”

“Then you had the gall to ask me for my phone number!”

““Were you surprised I remembered it?”

“I figured you would write it down once you got back to your car, but to call me that same night, after midnight, just as I was getting home – that was special!”

“We talked for two hours and I’m not even a talker.”

“What DID surprise me was barely four hours later you meeting me at the stable at sunrise while I exercised Sundance.”

“It’s exciting to watch a pretty lady shovel horse shit…”

“That’s gonna be YOUR job from now on,” she said, rolling on top of me and pulling the sheet up over us like a tent.

donna49 as Smart Object-1

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Is Your Life The stuff of Dreams & legend”?

How dare someone like myself write an autobiography after the bar has been set so high by the likes of a JACK LONDON!

…the unembellished facts of London’s career are the stuff that dreams and legends are made of, more fabulous than anything Horatio Alger ever imagined. He was an infant born out of wedlock into near poverty, one whose paternity has never been definitely established. Here was the child who spent his precious boyhood years delivering newspapers, hauling ice, and setting up pins in bowling alleys to augment the family’s meager income. Here was the mere youth forced to become a factory “work-beast,” apparently condemned, like thousands of other poor unfortunates in his social class, either to die an early death from overwork, malnutrition, and disease or, if he deserted his post at the machines, to spend what miserable life that was left in him wandering the underworld among the social degenerates and misfits known as the “submerged tenth.”

Yet by means of luck, pluck, and sheer determination – undergirded by rare genius – he succeeded in escaping “the pit,” transforming himself into “Prince of the Oyster Pirates” and a “man among men” at the age of fifteen, able-bodied seaman and prize-winning author at seventeen, recruit in General Kelly’s Industrial Army (also hobo and convict) at eighteen, notorious Boy Socialist of Oakland at twenty, Klondike argonaut at twenty-one, the “American Kipling” at twenty-four, internationally acclaimed author of The Call of the Wild at twenty-seven, Hearst war correspondent at twenty-eight, celebrated lecturer and first president of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society at twenty-nine, world traveler on his famous Snark at thirty-one, model farmer at thirty-four, blue-ribbon stock breeder and rancher at thirty-eight, and the producer of more than fifty books (several of which have achieved the status of world classics) before his death at forty. The sum total of these achievements underscores Alfred Kazin’s comment that the “greatest story Jack London ever wrote was the story he lived.”

London’s story is quintessentially American. It is difficult to imagine his meteoric rise from rags to riches in a different setting or in a different time in American history. E. L. Doctorow remarks that London “leapt on the history of his times like a man on the back of a horse.”

– from the Preface to Jack London: An American Life, by Earle Labor, 2013.

Veterinary Assistant

[Excerpt #9 from forthcoming Chapter 5 (Los Angeles) of my memoir, White Noise, is included below.]

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Dr. Shaw had once been a country Vet in Oregon and was only too willing to share his knowledge with farmers and ranchers who by and large preferred to give their own vaccinations and perform their own procedures. And he encouraged his Assistants to let him know when they felt comfortable giving shots, drawing blood, debriding and suturing wounds – even spaying and neutering cats and dogs.

Before unlocking the doors in the morning I would mop floors and disinfect exam tables with a spray bottle of Phisohex. Needles and syringes were reusable in those days and I would refill with fresh sterile solution the Tupperware containers we soaked them in. George’s patients were mostly family pets and during exams I would comfort and restrain them while he poked and prodded, peered down ears and throats, and otherwise ‘molested’ those who were irritable and defensive and sometimes not averse to biting the hand that cared for them. We both got fingers chewed to the bone on more than one occasion and had to reach for needle and thread to close each other’s wounds. George always refused any deadening lidocaine injection before I put in a stitch on the assumption that the area was still numb from the trauma of the bite, but I never trusted that theory on myself.

When George made a diagnosis I would dart next door to the storeroom to fetch vaccines and pills and topicals which he then administered or prescribed, and it wasn’t long before I could anticipate what he needed before he asked. X-rays were developed in a tiny bathroom in the basement. I would turn on the red bulb, open the heavy metal cannister, dunk the glossy film in the developer tray on the back of the toilet, set the timer and light up a cigarette. When the buzzer rang the film got transferred to the fixer solution and I plopped back down on the crapper and finished my cigarette. I could stretch the whole process into a ten to fifteen minute break before rushing back upstairs with a picture  .

I discovered with some pride that I had a knack for handling animals, especially for giving pain-free injections before a dog or cat had time to notice. Pet owners began to ask for me by name and George obliged by setting me up in my own exam room. Mostly I gave puppy shots, expressed impacted anal glands, and treated minor infections, often with a tube of Panalog – a highly effective antibiotic which George referred to as “liquid gold.” The two adjacent exam rooms were only partially partitioned off so George was never more than ten feet away and always monitoring my activities.

Surgery was scheduled during lunch time, from noon to 2:00. George charged fifteen dollars to neuter, $22.50 for a spay. Broken legs requiring a pin were not uncommon. A stainless steel rod has a wickedly sharp and grooved tip for drilling into bone and joining together misaligned fragments, and once George was inserting a pin through the marrow of a cat’s femur, pushing hard with his right hand and bracing the cat behind the hip socket with his left. The pin suddenly shot through the socket, out the back of the cat and all the way through George’s thumb. Dr. Shaw, impaled on a cat whose anesthesia was slowly wearing off, nearly fainted, and I was to receive more than my share of OJT that day.

The general anesthetic we used, ketamine hydrochloride, packaged under the brand name Vetalar, was widely thought to be hallucinogenic and although we never suffered a break-in, it was a hot item often targeted by druggies. Animals had a tendency to moan and twitch during surgery while under the effect of Vetalar, allegedly having ‘visions’, and thus the myth of its psychedelic powers. Amputations in particular, gruesome as they were, triggered the most eerie vocalizations and was felt, I always suspected, at some level by the inert patient no matter how much anesthetic they had been given.

After watching George spay dozens of cats I finally got my chance on a stray female no one wanted to adopt and was probably going to be put down anyway. Dr. Shaw was actually in another room, so I spayed her all by myself. Depending on weight, most cats need from between 3/4cc to one & 1/4cc of ketamine hydrochloride to reach a sufficient level of anesthesia. You place them on their back, tie their legs out, and shave a small area of the abdomen to reveal the linea alba, a thick fibrous connecting tissue that separates the right and left abdominal muscles. Because that ‘white line’ doesn’t contain much if any nerves or blood vessels, that’s the place to make a median incision. The uterus is Y-shaped with an ovary at the tip of each horn and you have to remember to tie off both above and below before removing. We were careful to disinfect our hands and the incision area, of course, but George never used sterile gloves or drapes. A quick shot of ampicillin after surgery did the trick and there were never any complications. A spay he could perform in ten to fifteen minutes took me forty-five, but it was a successful milestone in my short career, and I was proud of my accomplishment.

There were, however, certain procedures I had no desire to learn. Castrating bulls, for example. And horses would occasionally be trailered into our parking lot for George to treat even though his was primarily a small animal practice. Tube worming involves inserting a tube into the nostril and threading it up and then down into the stomach but it can take a dangerous wrong turn and end up in a lung. You have to trace the tube’s descent down the outside of the horses’ neck with your other hand, and pretty much know what you are doing. And I shudder to think of my fingers inside a horses’ mouth trying to ‘float’ their teeth, see-sawing back and forth with an abrasive file at burrs and sharp edges.

Animals die, of course, in Veterinary Clinics, and some are compassionately and painlessly ‘put to sleep’. I was fascinated by the moment of death, and always strained to detect any observable change in the transition. I was convinced secrets of the universe were lurking in that last breath but the invisible line between the quick and the dead forever eluded me. Equally mysterious but infinitely more gruesome was the severing of the skull of a dog or coyote suspected of rabies, the head then being shipped to a State Forensics Lab for analysis. An objective clinical mindset is essential for medical workers but dissociating yourself from the locus of consciousness and personality, definitive Platonic traits of a species, is nearly impossible unless you’re pathological. As I write this, unfortunately, horrific accounts and videos of two-legged beheadings have become all-too prominent in the news.

The Emasculator

[Excerpt #7 from forthcoming Chapter 5 (Los Angeles) of my memoir, White Noise, which will not be published separately, describes my involvement with the LA Schutzhund Dog Club in the 1970s.]

[Excerpt #8 from forthcoming Chapter 5 (Los Angeles) of my memoir, White Noise, is included below.]

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In those days, before the proliferation of workforce programs at Vocational Schools and Community Colleges, you didn’t take courses to become certified as a Vet Technician. You jumped in medias res and learned on the job. From the beginning my instructions were simple: follow Dr. Shaw around and ask questions.

“Grab the emasculator and let’s go,” he said to me on my first day at the Clinic.

“What’s an ‘emasculator’ and where we going?”

“In that bucket over there, I’m driving.”

George pointed his Subaru Outback up Foothill Boulevard and we zoomed past Tujunga into La Canada, then over to La Crescenta until it turned into Montrose.  From the front when he pulled into the driveway the house was ordinary enough. Brick and stone, split-level, rock garden, a smattering of shade trees. But out back a series of terraced paddocks dropped rather steeply down the side of a canyon. Squatting on her haunches up against a rusty gate and chewing on a twig was the owner of a frisky young snortin’ thing chained to a post on the other side of the fence. Both the young bull and his older bull-dyke mistress were short, stocky, barrel-chested. Only difference, I couldn’t help thinking to myself, was that the four-legged creature was still twitchin’ with desire.

Dr. Shaw tried to explain what was going to happen but there’s no way to be prepared for that first cut.

“He’s gonna go down like a lump…”

“With an attitude ,” she chirped.

“…and you gotta hold on to his back legs.”

“Grabbing ’em just below the fetlocks is best,” she snorted.

“Keep outta the way,” Dr. Shaw cautioned.

“Or there will be fingers in that bucket too,” she smirked.

Using a little Bard-Parker stainless steel #22 scalpel blade without a handle (“More manageable, less danger of me cutting myself“), Dr. Shaw sliced through the fascia with one hand and with a quick squeeze from his other hand a fist-sized chunk of innate bestiality popped out and dangled on a bloody-white sperm cord.

The fence creaked, the ground shook, the gulch rumbled.

Something in me cringed as Sister Butch reached into the soapy-white bucket, grabbed the emasculators, and slapped them breech-first into Dr. Shaw’s outstretched hand. They were like pruning shears except that the cutting edge was serrated. (“Chews at the tissue so that it clots faster, bleeds less.”) He chomped away on the cord until it zinged back inside a quivering cup of emptiness. I struggled the best I could with flying hooves in the midst of clashing egos. Dr. Shaw was whacking blindly at the one remaining testicle while centuries of brute instinct thrashed and bellowed in defiance. Sister Butch licked her lips and one by one floated the bloody oysters in the soap bucket. (“Bread ’em and deep-fry ’em, kiddo, lots of sauce.“)

Then it was over. In two fell swoops bull was not-bull and just like watching Brenda’s autopsy in the morgue a dozen years before I was baptized once again in the blood of the innocent.

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