"If writers possess a common temperament, it's that they tend to be shy egomaniacs; publicity is the spotlight they suffer for the recognition they crave." Gail Caldwell, from her book "Let's Take The Long Way Around"

"To look life in the face, always to look life in the face and to know it for what it is. At last to know it, to love it for what it is, and then, to put it away. . .always the years. Always the love. Always the hours." From the movie "The Hours", based on the book of the same name by Michael Cunningham

"Do not read beauty magazines. They will only make you feel ugly." Baz Luhrman, "Everybody's Free (to wear sunscreen)"

"A writer can do nothing for men more necessary, satisfying, than just simply to reveal to them the infinite possibility of their own souls." Walt Whitman

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant or talented?’ Actually, who are you not to be?” Marianne Williamson

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

1982-1983: Disconnect

As Direll's cocaine use escalated, so did his immersion in the gangster world of drug dealers.  If he wasn't using at home or sleeping it off, he was out and mostly he was out at night, all hours, all night.  Fortunately, at that time, Mom could walk to work if she had to, and we were walking to school ourselves.  We didn't have to rely on the car being available.  The phone would ring night and day for him.  Direll himself ran up charges on the phone so high that phone bills were often $700 or more.  He would call collect, bill calls to our phone and straight out talk long distance.  At that time, in the early eighties, LA and its suburbs had only one area code (213) but many calls were considered "toll" calls depending on where you were calling.  Santa Monica might have had its own area code at that time - I don't remember.  Within a few years though, areas became broken out and area codes like "818" and "310" were created and counted as long distance.

In seventh grade, I started asking my mom for my own phone line.  At first, she compromised and bought me my own phone for Christmas or something - a beautiful, old fashioned looking phone which suited me perfectly and I loved.  Eventually, she gave into giving me my own phone line (how cool!), but I realize now she was only preparing for the inevitable:  the main line would be disconnected for non-payment and only the phone in my room would work.  I woke up at least once in the middle of the night to find Direll, sitting at my desk (gentle with the broken chair!) and talking on my phone, loudly, having no consideration at all of my privacy or the fact that I had to go to school in the morning.  The next day, I would always have to wipe the dirt and scum off the mouthpiece.

That's me at the top, mouth open, eyes looking up, having
the time of my life at one of our sleepovers.

I loved seventh grade.  I was in junior high then - John Adams Junior High, and felt so grown up going to different classes with different teachers throughout the day.  I finally had friends - a large group of friends - who embraced me and loved me for who I was.  We had great sleepovers (except at my house) during which we would often go TP someone's house.  We played "scary" spirit games like "Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board."  We watched movies.  We had a blast.

I became recognized as a top student as well and was placed in honors classes.  I took pre-algebra which by today's standards is nothing special but it was in 1982.  We even got to learn a few things about computers which I know is hard for some of you younger readers to fathom, but it was very new to us and not every math class in the school got to use the computer lab.  It was hard; sometimes I didn't "get" the equations, but later it proved very helpful to me to have taken this class.  I would never struggle in math again, thanks to Mr. Green.  I struggled a little in science class, too, making a meager showing with my science project (remember I said I hated those?) but redeemed myself immensely with my leaf project, the final project of the year.

The leaf project.  Have I ever mentioned that I am a horrible procrastinator?  I'm better now, but it's something I struggle with all the time.  Most projects, most papers I ever had to make or write, I waited until the last minute, usually the day before they were due.  The leaf project was one of the first major projects that I let go until exactly the day before it was due.

I did have some foresight.  It was a weekend we were going to dad's house and I managed to check out from the library a book on leaves to help me identify them.  I don't know what I was thinking.  I had to collect, I don't know, maybe 20 different kinds?  Then I had to identify them, say something about them and display them in my notebook.  There was no faking it here.  No leaf meant no dice.

My dad was awesome.  He said he was sick over the weekend, but I'm pretty sure now that he was either drinking or hungover or coming down from something.  Or maybe he was legitimately sick.  Drug addicts and alcoholics don't exactly have great immune systems. 

Anyway, Sunday came and he drove me all around on his motorcycle to collect leaves.  He was a good sport about it.  Everytime we saw a different kind of tree or plant, he pulled over to let me collect it.  When we got to 20, we went back to his condo where he was living and I went to work on the project.  I was pretty sure I was going to get a C on this one (shameful!), but I dutifully worked until it was done (it was worse to not turn in an assignment at all).

Here's the coolest thing:  Mr. Hansen, my science teacher, loved my project so much that he told the whole class how great it was.  I got an A+ on it and he was hard-pressed to give it back to me.  He wanted to keep it.  Maybe I let him.  I don't know where it ended up if I kept it.  All I knew was that by some miracle, I had pulled it off and it got me a B, maybe an A in the class by the end of the year.

Here's where my timeline gets a little confusing to me.  By the end of seventh grade, I knew that we would be moving out of Santa Monica.  Mom was going to buy a condo in Reseda, the San Fernando Valley, home of "the" Valley Girls.  My friends and I had spent an entire year making fun of valley girls and their sayings:  Gross me out the door!  Gag me with a spoon!  Like, for sure!  Now, I was about to become a valley girl and my friends teased me to no end, although they definitely expressed disappointment in my moving.  I was disappointed, too.  I didn't want to leave these great friends I finally made.  Socially, the Santa Monica years had been hard!  But part of me, a little part, was excited.  Maybe Direll wouldn't come with us.  Maybe things would be better at home in a new place.  Maybe, maybe, maybe.

What prompted the move though was this:  one night at home in the Santa Monica townhouse, while the four of us - Mom, Matthew, Julie and I - were watching TV and having a normal weeknight while Direll was out, a bunch of strange men came home with Direll.  They took over.  They went into the kitchen with canvas bags and started unpacking them.  I believed they were coming over to do drugs.  That was what upset me.  I started to cry.  I wanted to ask my mom what was happening, tell her I was upset, beg her not to let it happen.  She was caught up with Direll and asking her own questions.

One of the men - he was big, white, with a beard, kind of scary on his own - he came over to me and tried to tell me everything was okay.  I don't know why.  It turns out they weren't coming over to do drugs.  They had guns which they'd unpacked from their bags.  They were coming over to execute my mom and Direll for something Direll did, probably stole drugs or money from them, and yes, I said execute.  My mom begged for her life, for the sake of her children.  They let her go, but took Direll with them.  Direll eventually returned, but all was not at peace.  One of his cohorts had his house shot up in a drive-by (a newly-coined term back then).  I guess that's when Mom decided for sure that we had to get away.

When school was out, we went, I think, to my grandparents' house in Phoenix - just us kids, maybe for a week or so.  I can't remember if it was pre-planned or a last minute decision.  Mom was very cool-headed - or rather she maintained a cool-headed facade - while all this was happening toward us.  She acted like always, like this lifestyle was no big deal and nothing significant had happened.  I, in fact, didn't know the whole story of the home invasion until years later when Mom was able to talk about it.  I'm pretty sure now that we went to Phoenix to keep us safe. 

In the meantime, while we were gone, there were more threats.  This may have been when Direll's partner/cohort/whatever had his house shot up.  What Mom remembers most and which still makes her visibly physically ill is that one of the men later said to her, "It was especially nice meeting your daughter, Shelley." 

When we got home, Mom told us not to unpack.  After driving around a lot, we ended up in West L.A. where we stopped at Jack in the Box for lunch or dinner.  I had no idea what was going on - I am so disconnected from those feelings of that time.  My memory of that outing is that at Jack in the Box, I spilled hot sauce on my white sweatshirt, my favorite white sweatshirt, and I was more upset about that than anything else.  We ended up at a motel that night in the same area.

Why were we spending the night in a motel?  Did I ask that question?  Did I just keep quiet to be good and mindful and keep Mom happy?  Direll showed up at the motel that night which was mildly upsetting.  I thought we were getting away from him.  Maybe that's why I don't remember being worried or upset.  He didn't stay, but during the time he was there, he and Mom were in the bathroom and I could hear voices but not make out the conversation.  I had started becoming good at eavesdropping and making sense of things unspoken, feeling the atmosphere and knowing whether something was really wrong or not.  I was slightly concerned that he had drugs, but knew that Mom would not get high with him.

He left and I guess the next thing that happened was that me and Julie and Matthew went to Dad's house for the next month. 

Here's the thing about my dad:  he was using drugs just as often as Direll.  If it wasn't cocaine, it was marijuana and who knows what else.  And he was drinking.  Direll wasn't a drinker, strangely enough.  But where Direll was violent and loud and abusive, Dad was sensitive and still loving, funny and fun to be around.  We always looked forward to seeing him and going to his house for the weekend.  Unless he was depressed, which he often was.  Or he happened to have an opportunity to freebase, which occasionally he did.  For the most part, he did try to keep his drug abuse hidden from us, although I remember one time, his drug buddy, Jeff Brown, showed up at Dad's condo with cocaine and another person and immediately the three of them were sitting around the dining room table getting high.  Dad might have told us to go in the other room but I'm not even sure that transacted.  At one point, Jeff went into the bathroom and vomited violently, then went back out to continue smoking.  Dad had no idea he had even left the table.

It was impossible to ignore but impossible not to pretend it wasn't happening - all of it.  I would get angry, but I stuffed it inside.  I would turn to Julie and Matthew and try to distract ourselves.  We didn't talk about it among ourselves.  It was just the way it was.  If anything, I turned my anger and fear about the drugs into anger and frustration that Dad wasn't spending time with us.

Everytime he did get high when we were around, the next day, when he was coming down, he got incredibly depressed and would feel terrible about himself for having used.  He used us as a crutch, would talk to us about how he felt, how awful he felt and we would comfort him and tell him it was okay.  I have this vivid memory of him curled up on the floor in a blanket, nose sniffly from crying, and the three of us sitting around him.  "Just don't do it anymore, Daddy," I advised, as though it were that simple.  And it was, but it wasn't.  He was sucked in.  He was an addict, severely depressed and at times, suicidal, with no emotional support to fall back on.  No one understood the devastation of the cocaine/crack epidemic at the time. 

A few years later, he would have us believing he had quit using cocaine, and we believed him.  I believed him.  What I found out later was that he only became good at hiding it from us.  It was a problem he would live with for the rest of his life.

At the end of that month - or one of the months anyway - when Mom came to pick us up, Dad cried openly about being sad to let us go.  Seeing him cry made me cry and I felt so guilty about leaving him.  His behavior made my mother angry because it upset me so.  She knew he wasn't perfect, she knew him as one adult to another, but he was untainted in my eyes.  I didn't love him more than Mom or less than her; I always loved them both the same.  Dad was just really good at allowing us to parent him, rather than him parenting us, and it stayed that way, even after he got sober.  There's only one time that he stepped up and acted like my parent, but that story comes years later.  There's so much in between.

1 comment:

  1. I was thinking about your post. The first reading had me really upset for your Mom and how she must have felt. I couldn't get it out of my mind for a couple of days. I felt for you, Julie and your brother also. Somehow though, this really made me ache for your mother's pain and all the different emotions she was experiencing.