At a Time like This
The day before the Rodney King riot started, my father died at home in L. A. As he was a widower and I was his only child, it fell to me to bury him.
I flew out from Chicago, where I’d lived and worked for years, landing at dawn under falling ash, skittering embers and smoke from ghetto fires. The sight from two thousand feet of my old home town in flames brought back memories I could have lived without: Watts, Newark, Detroit in ’67—the whole macabre side of the sixties. I’d lived through that decade. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say I’d lived it, passionately. Idealism was all I cared to remember of it, if I had to remember anything.
After a brief graveside service, I thanked his friends and went back to my hotel to pay his few debts and list his house for sale. Then I tried to decide what to do next. My return flight wasn’t until the following day.
I decided to call the only other person in town whom I still cared anything about. Steve Grossman had been in my class at Berkeley, had marched with me for peace in San Francisco, been arrested at the Pentagon with me, spent part of a summer with me in rural Georgia, registering black voters. That made us kinsmen, I liked to think. I remembered him fondly, whatever it made us, and if I had misgivings about calling him, it was only because so many of my old friends from the sixties had become ordinary or, worse, amnesiac about their pasts. Which meant they might remind me of what I’d become. I hadn’t seen Grossman in fifteen years or talked to him in almost ten, but we sometimes neglect family, and besides, I had excuses: I lived two thousand miles away, and a large part of me wanted to forget the past. Nostalgia can be a sad business. So can middle age, if you don’t much like what you’ve become.
But I called, and when I told him who was on the line, he sounded ecstatic. “Ned!” he shouted. “My main man!” I hadn’t heard that bit of vernacular since Jesse Jackson was young. We talked, I told him why I’d come to town, he expressed sympathy, and we decided to have lunch the next day. By the time our conversation ended, however, I thought I’d heard an oddity in his tone: a note of caution. Was he as wary as I of being seen for the man he now was?
The restaurant he’d chosen was a Hollywood institution, which I’d passed on many occasions. Once it had been a watering hole for screenwriters, Reds, and other aspiring thinkers. But since the demise of the movie studios and the Left, who knew what it had become?
Hollywood Boulevard was hung with ribbons of smoke when I drove to meet him. Ash was falling everywhere, and shopkeepers were boarding up their display windows and moving merchandise into back rooms. Outside a ladies’ underwear emporium, a guard sat in a folding chair with a shotgun cradled in his lap. When I stopped for a red light, I saw the driver to my right looking back at me in terror. I turned on the radio; the news said that armed gangs had been spotted a few blocks from where I was stopped.
When I arrived, I drove into a half-empty parking lot behind the restaurant, gave my keys to a skittish attendant and went through the back door into a long room lined with booths of dark, varnished wood and banquettes of red leather. On one side of the room ran an open grill in front of which a white-toqued chef kept busy turning chops, occasionally looking up to see what luminaries might be passing. Customers were few. Most were solitary old men who looked like theatrical agents with fading hopes of signing anyone promising. I supposed everyone else was cowering at home, lunching on TV dinners. I gave my name to the headwaiter, who led me to a table in an adjoining room. On the table reposed a half-finished Dos Equis and a fringed buckskin jacket. “Your frien’ in the men’s room,” he said, handing me a menu before pirouetting on his heel and starting off. I stopped him, ordered a bloody Mary and sat beside the jacket.
In a minute Grossman stepped out of an alcove, absent-mindedly adjusting his fly. He was as lumbering and disheveled as ever. His thinning, hamster-brown hair hung almost to his shoulders, his jeans were covered from knees to crotch with appliqué flowers, and he wore a Mamas and Papas t-shirt a size too small. The sight of him brought me such a flood of memories that for a moment I didn’t know what to say.
“Ned!” he shouted. “What a gas!” He was beaming. The other patrons looked on in wonder. “I feel privileged, man.”
I stood, and we embraced. When we disengaged, I must have looked a little embarrassed, because he said, “Aw, professor, I’m sorry. It’s just that I don’t usually get to lunch with such distinguished company.” He laughed and cuffed my cheek, and when we sat, he leaned toward me with a conspiratorial air. “You look the same, you know that? Like a good, worried bourgeois. I’d know you anywhere.”
“Of course you would. That’s just what I am.” I searched his face for disapproval, but saw only tender understanding.
“Well, it was inevitable, wasn’t it,” he said. “Personally, I’m a case of total moral and intellectual collapse.” He noticed my cocktail. “I see you already ordered.”
“I hope you don’t mind.”
“Knock yourself out. You’re paying.” He waited for my laugh. “Seriously, man, I can’t remember the last time I was so happy to see anyone.”
“You look good, Steve.”
“I may look it, but I don’t feel it. I’m scared. I mean I’m scared to go outside. I had to go through three police checkpoints just to get here.”
“Aren’t the memories awful?”
“Tell me about it. But good, too, don’t forget. We really counted for something back then. We were moving a country. Now look at us. Well, Malcolm said it. Sooner or later the chickens come home to roost.” What Malcolm and chickens had to do with our inglorious little slide into total predictability I couldn’t quite decide. “The problem is, good people suffer along with the rest. Know what I mean?” He raised his glass and drank my health.
“You mean us?”
“Who else? We’re right thinkers.”
He had said that without apparent self-consciousness, and I fought to keep from asking him what was so right about our thinking these days.
“You know, half my workers didn’t come to work today. They’re afraid to get on a city bus. I may have to organize a carpool.”
I tried to adjust to his being an employer. It was the last thing I would ever have predicted for him. At Berkeley he’d been a Russian studies major with ideas of slipping into the Soviet Union and agitating for a loosening up of the system. Give them Levis and Janis Joplin, he used to say, and the rest will follow. “It’s bathing suits, isn’t it?” I asked.
“Terrycloth robes. What old ladies wear at the beach to hide their cellulite. It’s a family business,” he added with a faint note of apology.
“Funny,” I said, “I always thought you’d become an academic, like me. That’s what you always said you wanted. I was sure you’d be a prof at some leafy little college in, oh, New England. I thought I’d walk into a bookstore one day and find some of your titles on the front table. Standing Up to Stalin. Why Trotsky Still Matters.”
He forced a smile. “What can I say? I took the easy way out.” He finished his beer and waved for another. “Really, man, how are you?”
“Fine. As you observed, a good bourgeois. Can you believe I own a house and a stock portfolio? I go to neighborhood watch meetings and mow the lawn on Saturdays. I have a wife and a kid who takes ballet lessons and dreams of cavorting with Baryshnikov in the forest under a full moon. I own four suits and a drawer full of white shirts. I make car payments. I haven’t signed a petition, marched for or against anything, or spoken out on one issue since 1971. And the funny thing is, I only hate myself when I try.”
“If you meet someone from the old crowd who says he doesn’t do all of those things, spit on him. He’s a fraud.”
The waiter brought menus and his beer. We left the menus on the table.
“Where are you staying?” he asked.
“Why don’t you stay with me? I’ve got all kinds of room. Not that I can compete with the Marmont. Isn’t that where movie stars used to overdose?”
“So I gather. I’m leaving tonight or I’d take you up on it.”
“Too bad.” He gave the impression of great regret. “So what do you do for fun? I mean when you’re not bringing wisdom to the young.” He was looking at me slyly, and I knew what he had in mind. He’d been one of the great womanizers at Berkeley, with a fondness for boasting of his conquests.
“I’m married, Steve, remember?”
“So tell me about her.”
I told him something of Madeleine, of her work as a union organizer in the car parts factories around Gary, her courage in standing up to the hired goons management sometimes put in her way, her break with her parents who’d raised her in a twelve-room house in Glencoe, sent her to Wellesley and tried to teach her to despise the very people she wanted to help. I told him about my teaching, my writing on anthropology, my field work in tiny Andean villages. I spoke for several minutes and had the impression he was listening with respect. By the end of my recital I was fairly sure he envied me my life. At least one old friend of his hadn’t taken refuge in law or business, moved into a moribund commune, or found a trophy wife and a seat on some corporate board.
“I used to be married,” he mused. “Can you believe it? Nice lady, you’d have liked her. A psychotherapist. We were married at the foot of Denali. She came from Alaska originally. The wedding guests were dressed as Eskimos, and I wore reindeer antlers. There was a non-denominational minister who never mentioned God, and the women wore flowers in their hair. We were all loaded, needless to say, including the minister. After the ceremony we danced nude in the meadow. People were talking about it for months afterwards.”
“I’ll bet.” Restless, I glanced at my menu, my eye coming to rest on the chiffonnade salad. “What’s a chiffonnade salad?” I asked him.
“Who the fuck knows?”
I waved for the waiter and ordered it. He ordered enchiladas.
“So what became of your wife?” I asked when the waiter had gone.
“We got divorced two years later. I’m not made for monogamy. Not yet, anyway.” He grinned a cocksman’s grin, salacious, single-minded, a little absurd on a man his age.
He reached in his jeans pocket and brought forth his billfold. From one of the compartments he took a photo of a honey blonde of about eighteen dressed in short shorts and a narrow halter with sequined letters that read, “Ask First.” She had one of those bright, implacable California smiles that hides the void beneath. “Her name’s Kelly,” he said. “We’ve been dating for a couple of months now. Isn’t she a honey?”
Kelly. Of course. Kelly, Lacey, Stacey, Tracey, Ashley, Brandi, Brie. This was the place for them. “Nice,” I said. “You’re a lucky guy, Steve.”
He smiled in gratitude, and I handed the photo back. His penchant for juveniles was new to me. In the old days it had been ageing artistes in the Berkeley hills with looms in their living rooms and kilns in their garages. They’d been charmed by his revolutionary spiel and unkempt charm.
“What’s Kelly do?”
“She’s a hairdresser out at Warner Brothers. Isn’t she wonderful?”
Fire engines went by, followed by two police cars with their sirens on. The restaurant fell silent. We looked at each other. When the sirens had faded, a panhandler walked in, but before he could canvas the room, the headwaiter swatted at him with a napkin, driving him out. He shouted something about Christ and the leper and slammed the door behind him. Grossman was about to say something when I put a hand on his arm. “Why didn’t you go into teaching?” I asked. I was trying to distract him.
His answer came swiftly. “Because I’m not interested in today’s students. They’re empty vessels. I don’t want to listen to their rap, and I don’t want to help them with their problems. I also don’t want to toe any intellectual lines. I’m not a party man, never was. I don’t like schools of thought.” He peered at me. “Really, man, are you sure you’re okay? I mean in general. I’m not going to hide it from you: I’ve seen happier-looking men. Are you struggling? Got a girlfriend out in Chicago? You can talk to me.”
So I talked. “I like my work, and I love my wife. No struggles. Until I came here, that is. I’ve been struggling since I looked out the airplane window and saw my old city on fire.”
“Memories,” he muttered.
“They’re forcing me backward, Steve. I mean to whom I used to be. Most of the time I can ignore the past, but not in this mess. Madeleine’s nine years younger than me but she’s got more of the Movement in her than I’ve had in twenty years. Think that’s easy to contemplate?”
He looked sympathetic. “I know how you feel. It’s not easy to grow old.”
I could see that his mood had plummeted, and I felt bad about it, so I tried to change the subject. “Tell me about terrycloth robes,” I said.
“Well, there’s not a lot to say. What do you want to know?”
“You own a factory?”
“A small one.”
“You have an office on the premises?”
“Biggest one in the building.”
“With a picture window?”
“Floor to ceiling.”
“Do you stare out at the blue Pacific?”
He looked uncertain. “At an insurance company parking lot.”
“Isn’t there another window? So you can keep an eye on all the little elves at their sewing machines?”
I hadn’t meant anything by that. I was only trying for levity. But when I saw him tighten, I realized I’d touched a nerve.
“I don’t know what you’re driving at,” he said. “What’s your point?”
“Are you asking whether I run a sweatshop? Is that it?”
“Where the hell did you get that idea?”
“Elves. You mean you think I exploit illegals, right? Maybe truck them in from Tijuana?”
“Come on, man. The idea never even occurred to me. I know who you are.”
He paused. I suppose I’d reminded him that I could remember him when. We never fully shed the person we were. “I’m sorry, okay? I’ve been judged too much lately, by people who ought to know better. Remember Jack Libby at Berkeley? He was in town a couple of weeks ago, and I took him to dinner, and he climbed all over me because of how I make my living. Mr. Sellout, he called me. You know what he does? He owns a winery, for Christ’s sake! Which he inherited. He employs Mexican farm labor at four bucks an hour. He sprays pesticides on them. Ray Pettit pulled the same stunt last month. Know what he does? He’s a lobbyist for agribusiness. Agribusiness! Can you believe that? I said to both of them, don’t get saddle sores sitting in judgment on me. It’s the bullshitter’s way out of a bad conscience.” He pushed his empties to the end of the table. One fell on the floor. A waiter rushed over. “People need to remember who they’re dealing with here. I’ve inhaled more tear gas than Libby and Pettit and you put together. And I’ll tell you something else. I saw the three of you run from that march on the Oakland Army Terminal. You ran like scared rabbits. I saw you because I ran too. I was fifty yards behind you. I almost shit my pants when the soldiers fixed bayonets.” He was flushed and damp at the hairline. “So don’t anyone polish his halo quite yet. We’ve all got stuff in the closet.”
“Steve, man, relax. This just isn’t necessary.”
Lunch arrived, but neither of us ate. We didn’t even pick at our food, and we didn’t look at each other. We didn’t look anywhere except into the middle distance. It was too late to salvage this little reunion; both of us had said too much, both were carrying too much weight. It had been a mistake to get together, my mistake, and I was fairly certain that the memory of the afternoon would prevent us from seeing each other again.
I didn’t think he needed to explain further, but he went on. “I employ a few illegals, sure, everyone does. You can’t always tell them apart from the real thing, and I’m not into checking papers. But I exploit nobody. I pay fifty percent over minimum wage, and if someone gets hurt on the job, I pick up the doctor’s tab. Tell me I’m a filthy capitalist.”
“I don’t use that kind of language. Not these days. Some of it may stick to me.”
He moved his enchiladas around his plate, then put his fork down. “Look, man, everyone bullshits himself to one degree or another. Otherwise no one could get up in the morning.”
“The thing is,” I said, “I’ve passed the point of happy oblivion. This riot tends to have that effect.”
“You’ll relapse. Give it time. Anyway, happiness isn’t the point. What counts is where your head’s at. You’ll never be a Neanderthal and neither will I. We’re right thinkers.”
“That’s the second time you’ve said it,” I told him. “I’ll tell you what I’m thinking. I’m thinking I’m half alive. I’ve been half-alive off and on for twenty years. Isn’t that one of the risks of leaving it all upstairs?”
He didn’t answer, and I didn’t press the point, because I’d done enough already. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d made anyone else so miserable. Not without trying.
When he stood to leave, he had the check in one hand and a credit card in the other. I did nothing to stop him. As he walked to the register and then outside, I noticed that he limped. Did he have arthritis? Had we reached that age?
I stayed put. Moments earlier I’d heard gunfire from somewhere on the boulevard, and I wasn’t about to rush out after him.