Or maybe Juniorette! Due date late January, 2014.
How about that!
I was surfing the internet when I found a trailer for the upcoming Superman movie, Man of Steel. When I was done watching it I realized I had tears in my eyes.
As I get older, I find myself choking up more at things – just like my father. But it didn’t take much to figure out why my emotions were stirred. Yeah, I’ve always had a soft spot for The Supe, but it wasn’t just the thought of a guy in a cape generating sonic thunderclaps as he soared though the clouds – though that was wicked cool. No, it was something older, sacred and powerfully wrapped up in the DNA of world culture – the idea of a champion. The superman. The One.
The Song of the Hero.
The literatures of the world abound with tales of strong men tested to the limit but whose virtue remains unbroken. Religion is filled with prophesied figures that defeat death; free the oppressed and spread hope to the living. It’s an ancient archetype that Joseph Campbell explained better than I ever will.
Whether we admit it or not, we all yearn for a protector. We’re always on the lookout for a savior. The Hero is one of our oldest myths and it resonates throughout the human experience. And like all myths it developed from peoples’ need to assuage their greatest anxieties on a communal level. Stories have always been how we cope with our deepest fears and express our greatest hopes. We yearn for someone who is incorruptible, who can boldly go where we fear to tread.
Yet as we get older we realize we are weak and corruptible. We stumble and fall. Religions burn us, politicians lie to us, love withers and we become too jaded for our own good. We stop believing in people who are good for goodness’ sake. All motives are mixed and somebody’s always on the take. An overgrown Boy Scout running around in a costume looks ridiculous and naïve. That’s for children. That’s not how the world works.
But as I watched that clip, I was reminded The Hero is unstoppable. He has always been there for us. He has a thousand faces and his story has been told in a multitude of tongues. He is the personification of the best of us in spite of us. We all need to listen for his song.
We’ve heard that song when astronauts launched into the heavens and walked on the moon. We heard it when men raced into burning towers to save their fellow man and when a girl got shot fighting to educate her sisters. We’ve heard his call watching someone dive into a river to save drowning boy, staring open-mouthed at an athlete scoring an impossible point or when a scientist changes how we look at the world. Sometimes the song is a quiet one – a couple struggling to take care of their children, a person finally learning to forgive and move on.
Far from being a kid’s cartoon, The Hero calls us into the fullness of adulthood. He inspires us to follow his lead – to face our fears, grow up and, most importantly, to be of service to others. He prods us to accept the great dictum of life – that living for others is the only way to truly live.
When I have kids of my own, I know they will put a red towel around their shoulders and pretend to fly around the house. That’s because at bedtime I will have sung to them about a hero who is faster then a speeding bullet, more powerful and a locomotive and can leap tall buildings in a single bound. Of course, when they are older and I am dead they’ll know it was only a story – but a good one. One they can turn to when the going gets tough, when they need inspiration to sing their own song.
I hope my children will always look to the heavens, secretly trying to catch a flash of red and blue thundering through the clouds. I hope they will always believe a man can fly.
Annie loves Trader Joe’s. I mean loves them. I’m surprised the company’s logo isn’t tattooed on her butt. Until I met her, however, I had never stepped inside one of their stores.
I’ve experienced jihadist attachment to supermarkets before. I dated several women in Manhattan, and for them it was Whole Foods, Fairway or starve. After a couple of years chauffeuring them on grocery runs, I began to suspect they liked me because I owned a car. When I discussed the possibility of living in Dirty Jerz they exclaimed, “But my stores aren’t there!” You have to hand it to those marketing guys; they’ve fetishized these places into indispensable components of city life – making urbanites loathe escaping stratospheric rents for bigger homes in the suburbs.
Ironically, over the past few years, Fairway and Whole Foods opened outposts a short drive from my house. A Trader Joe’s sprang up five minutes away. In response all the local chains are imitating their new competitors, turning my shopping choices into focus grouped homogenized clones of one another. They also opened an ALDI a mile away. I went in it with Ann and didn’t like it. “So this is what supermarkets used to look like in the Soviet Union!” I said. “Swimwear! Evening wear!”
Ann does most of the food shopping so I don’t bitch about where she goes. She’s a very savvy and thrifty shopper. But when she recently shanghaied me to Trader Joe’s, she got angry with my foot dragging. True, I can be lazy, but that wasn’t the reason.
“What’s your problem?” she says, exasperated. “You like the food from Trader Joe’s!”
“I do,” I say. “But the place gives me the heebie-jeebies.”
“Have you ever noticed the staff is way too happy to see you and have box-cutters?”
The staff at Trader Joe’s are actually very nice. The bell thing drives me batshit, but I’ve never run into a surly cashier. Ever. Not even a sad looking stock boy. The cynical part of me that’s lived through corporate jingoism and foodie bootlicking propaganda finds this very unsettling. Trader Joe’s, for all it’s semi-hippie commune branding, is part of a retail empire owned by a multi-billionaire. I have to wonder if there’s a corporate apparatchik in the back exhorting everyone to smile and dumping Zoloft into the Kool-Aid dispenser.
Before the culinary evangelization of the past fifteen years, going to the store was just that, going to the store. When I was a kid it wasn’t a lifestyle choice or religious experience. It was a vital function. You bought your Wonder Bread without an iota of guilt and didn’t agonize over whether the tuna you bought was sustainably farmed or genociding Flipper’s kin. Today’s food stores are a far cry from the working class food marts of my youth.
That’s to the New Food Movement; we now have an endless amount of stores and food choices to plow through. That’s not altogether bad. The coffee selection is a hell of a lot better than the old days. I can get Hawaiian Kona just about everywhere. I can buy crate loads of good tuna and Kirkland Gin at Costco, Fairway has the best cheeses and Trader Joe’s puts out very good pre-made meals – TV dinners basically – but good. And in all these places, the selection of produce is an improvement over the supermarkets of the 1970′s.
But, if I’m honest, it’s not Trader Joe’s shtick that bugs me – it’s the customers. Watching yoga-panted mommies sipping those tiny paper cups of coffee while scrutinizing package labels induces flashbacks to my food-service combat days at The Bistro; struggling to placate pretentious food-as-lifestyle drones who somehow managed to sexualize, politicize, over-romanticize and polarize the most basic human function – eating.
The whole organic hoopla is a case in point. If I had a nickel for every time a customer grilled me over the philosophical and ecological provenance of the food, I’d be writing this from my mansion in the south of France. I’m not going to bore you with studies that have shown organic food isn’t any healthier than its non-organic counterparts – or that organic farming isn’t a viable option when trying to feed billions of people. I am absolutely sure many people pick the organic option because they honestly believe its better for them and their children. Fine. But let’s face it; many people are organic because they want to feel better about themselves. For them food isn’t sustenance, it’s a statement. It’s often a quick, easy and rather masturbatory piece of faux virtuousness. How else can you explain purchasing organic vodka? Are you kidding? You want to pickle your liver and stroke your social consciousness too?
Of course, the advertising guys took this and ran with it. Now there are people who are really sincere about this stuff. God bless. But too many people jump on the sustainable/organic bandwagon because it’s fashionable feel-good horseshit. I will never forget restaurant customers who were more concerned about the ethics of their food, but couldn’t be bothered about ethics among humans. I’m talking about those smug patrons who demanded free-range chickens but told me to get rid of the homeless guy looking in the front window. That disconnect disgusted me. It still does. That’s why I get aggravated in Trader Joe’s.
Now before you all start sending me hate mail, I don’t think everyone who goes to Whole Foods, Fairway or Trader’s is a deluded Yuppie snob. I go there too! But because I was brutalized by food Nazis, I’ve developed a hyper-vigilance about this stuff; like an ex-serviceman always on the lookout for snipers. It’s probably unhealthy and yes, I’m being a bit of an asshole. But if you’ve trawled the aisles of these stores, I’m sure you’ve encountered some of the food Taliban and their outsized precious sensibilities.
I tell all this to Annie but she’s unimpressed. She’s not an ideologue regarding food and looks on my rages with a healthy amount of skepticism.
“Yeah,” she says. “But I bought a pound of Trader Joe’s chocolate three days ago and it’s gone.”
“Okay,” I sigh. “Let’s go.”
Busted. I love the chocolate at Traders. I just wish they’d bring back those Thai tuna dishes in the foil packs. Where the hell did they go? Why do they turn you on to a product and then get rid of it? I swear, those little snacks in the back remind me of heroin dealers hooking people on free samples.
It’s half an hour before closing and the parking lot at Trader Joe’s is mobbed. Once inside I have to navigate my shopping cart around throngs of people nibbling on freebies and doing biblical exegeses on the ingredients in the organic shepherd’s pie. But as I begin to hyperventilate, Annie shoots me a wicked look.
Time to keep my mouth shut.
Annie loves estate-sales. So, after sampling wedding cakes at a bakery in Park Ridge, we decide to harness our chocolate ganache-boosted energy levels and drive to a sale on the other side of town.
Park Ridge is a very affluent Jersey burg so you can’t miss the estate sale – it’s at the mansion with the long line of cars snaking out of a driveway the size of an interstate. I park behind the very last car near the entrance to the street.
“There’s more parking up front,” Annie says. “Move up.”
“No,” I say, taking the keys out of the ignition. “I want to be able to get out of here fast.”
Annie rolls her eyes. When we go to shopping malls I usually park by the exits and make the long walk to the stores. If something happens I don’t want to be fighting panicked crowds out of the lot. Always have an escape route. I read too many thrillers.
When walk into the mansion’s foyer I’m immediately hit with a feeling of sadness. Now, I’m not saying I’m psychic or anything. But I think there are people out there who can process hundreds of subtle clues on a preconscious level and then work out good hypotheses as to what happened in a given place. Usually the feelings arrive before any theories form. And the first thought I have is, “Everyone who lived here died quick.”
Ann makes a beeline to the upstairs bedroom to look at clothes, leaving me to root around the house. I rarely buy anything at these sales. That’s Ann’s job. When I go to these things I play homicide detective.
There’s no body of course, and the crime science is beyond contaminated. Family members have carted off the most valuable items and the people running the sale have turned the house upside down. But good detectives are sort of like psychics; often going on “hunches” and getting a “feel” for a crime scene before strip mining it for facts. It requires a different sort of eyes. So for a few minutes I’ll pretend I’m Harry Bosch of the L.A.P.D..
My first stop is the kitchen. Judging from the décor, it was last decorated in the late-eighties or early nineties. The Sub-Zero fridge and Jenn-Air stoves are vintage, but in good shape. The knives in the block are Wusthoff. I own the same set. The pots and pans are gone. Since the sale just started, I figure they were good pieces, cooper maybe and the family took them. Maybe a sharp-eyed buyer snapped them up the moment the house opened. There’s a lot of booze. Half-drunk bottles of scotch are selling for ten bucks. Someone liked Glenfiddich a lot.
A lady almost knocks me over and scoops up the block of Wusthoff knives. Once they’re firmly hers, she smiles at me – her face a mix of avarice and triumph and age. She has to be eighty. I’ve never understood why old people like estate sales. Soon I’ll be going to one at her house.
The dining room features a mahogany table that could seat twelve with an asking price of eight hundred bucks. A china set is arranged on top of it – middle of the road stuff, not Minton or Wedgewood – going for three-fifty. Sliver plated flatware in boxes lay on top of a cold radiator. Never used.
I move into the living room. Its floral wallpaper was in style twenty-years ago and is just beginning to peel. The house is in good shape over all – expensive but just on the cusp of being an oldster’s place. Board games from the 1970’s are piled on a couch. I had the same games as a kid. That means the children who once lived here are roughly my age. As I pick though the knickknacks and designer chotchkies, I notice that the books on the bookshelves are all from the past decade. The newest one I can find is from 2010. That gives me a timeframe. Whatever happened to the people who lived here occurred in the past three years.
Looking through the large picture window overlooking the backyard, I see a Big Wheel and a Barbie scooter thing with pick tassels coming out of the handlebars parked next to a garden shed. Grandchildren. At least two. Girl and boy. Judging from their condition, the toys are only a few years old and are suited for kids my nephew’s age. Probably bought by doting grandparents and kept here for when they pulled baby-sitting duty.
As I move towards the stairs I see some trophies piled on a serving board. One trophy is a silver plate from a women’s high school tennis championship held in 1960. Another trophy is from a Dartmouth men’s tennis tournament dated 1963. Tennis probably brought this couple together. Judging from the dates, I figure the couple was in their late sixties or early seventies.
When I get upstairs, the master bedroom is filled with men and women’s clothing. Annie is there, looking at pairs of Stuart Weitzman shoes in boxes. They’re expensive items.
“This lady had nice stuff,” Annie says. “She was thin and had good taste. Lots cashmere.”
“See anything you want?” I ask.
The master bedroom is large with his and her walk-in closets and separate sitting areas for each. As I look though the man’s clothes I note his shoes are preppy and expensive, but scuffed up. Same thing goes with his suits. They’re all classically cut Brooks Brothers’ pinstripes but well worn, even frayed in places. Some guys who are old money treat their clothes that way. Good stuff but not flashy. A uniform, not a sartorial display designed to impress people. The man was probably a banker or corporate lawyer who didn’t have to impress clients or juries; a guy who worked behind a desk all day.
“So what do you think?” Annie asks, knowing what I’m up to.
“The couple was around my parents’ age,” I say. “Give or take a year. The husband probably came from money, Ivy League educated and a lawyer. They liked tennis, had at least one child, two grandchildren and a lot of money. They either died at the same time or within months of each other.”
“What makes you think they died so close together?”
“When a spouse dies,” I say, “The first thing the survivor usually does is pack up the old stuff and give it away. That didn’t happen here. There was no time.”
“Maybe they couldn’t live with out each other.”
I say nothing because I’ve slipped out of Harry Bosch mode and am thinking about my own parents. If mom died I wonder how long my father would go on without her? If the situation was reversed, however, I can see my mom soldiering on into her nineties.
Annie heads back downstairs. As I turn to follow her, a neatly stacked set of luggage catches my eye. The paper tags affixed to the handles tell me they belonged to Phil and Donna Smith en route from JFK to Miami. Now I have names to go with the address. Soon I’ll know all about them.
Pulling out my smartphone I input the information into Google. The obituaries reveal that Donna died in September 2011 in a hospice at the age of 68. Probably cancer. She was active in her tennis club and crazy about her three grandchildren. Phil died in March of 2012 at his summer home outside Miami. He lived 71 years. His dad had been the president of a New York department store – old money – and Phil went to Yale Law before serving as corporate counsel for a couple of banking firms. Phil and Donna married in 1966 and had a son and a daughter.
Their son’s name is also Phil and Linked In tells me he’s a Cornell alum and also a lawyer. He’s two months younger than me and lives in Saddle River with his wife and two children. He’s loaded like his dad. Before you know it, I’m scrolling through the family albums on his Facebook page. His daughters look to be about eight and five years old. Then I find a picture of Phil and Donna.
The picture was taken late sunset at a beach in Florida in 2010. Donna is smiling with her arms around smaller versions of the grandkids. She’s blonde, thin and fashionably dressed. I can tell she was a sharp number all her life. Behind her the ocean is dark and impenetrable and the sky is fading to black. Maybe Donna doesn’t know the time bomb inside her has just begun to tick. Phil is chubby and looks a bit confused, his eyes unfocused. He might have known things were coming undone. Maybe it was the Glenfiddich.
I turn off the phone and take a deep breath. After Donna died, Phil probably went down to his summer home right after the funeral. Grief stricken, he had probably planned to pack up his wife’s things upon his return. He never came back. Give a year for wills and probate stuff and now we’re at the end – an estate sale. Soon another family will live here and the cycle will continue. Case closed.
As Annie and I walk to the car I tell her the results of my investigation. When I finish she says, “I heard that if you live two years after your spouse dies, you’ll probably live another ten.”
It’s only twenty-six years until I’m seventy-one. That’s not a large number. Nineteen seems like yesterday. Statistically speaking, I’ll probably be in the ground before Annie. Hopefully I’ll have more time than Phil but who knows? What if Ann goes first? I can see myself not pulling through those first two years.
Yes, I know I’m just starting my married life and already picking out grave plots. But it’s good to remember that love is impermanent and always exacts a price of suffering and loss. The object of your love will die. Some people, including myself at times, are so afraid of this that they hang out on the periphery of love, maybe bask in its glow, but never commit to anyone – not even a pet. They never want to be tied down or be “just like other people.” That may make for less painful life, but certainly a more diminished one. I wonder how Phil and Donna handled it. I wonder how their children are doing.
“Ready to go Mr. Doomsday?” Annie says, buckling her seat belt. “Ready to flee the hordes?” I smile and slip the car into drive.
I no longer need an escape route.
Annie and I are watching a news story about billionaire George Soros on television. His 27-year-old ex-girlfriend, miffed that the financier gave a New York City apartment he allegedly promised her to another woman, is suing him for fifty million dollars.
“That’s disgusting,” Annie says.
“What’s disgusting about it?” I reply.
“The woman’s a gold-digger. I mean, c’mon. No pussy is worth fifty million dollars.”
Ann laughs. “That’s sweet of you, honey. But you know what I mean.”
“I think Soros owes the girl something,” I say. “Not fifty million, but a good chunk.”
Ann looks at me wide-eyed. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“No. The girl deserves to be paid.”
“She did nothing to earn it! That’s his money!”
“How many eighty year olds do you know who are banging girls in their twenties?”
Annie furrows her brow. “None.”
“That’s because you don’t know any eighty year old billionaires.”
“Give me a break.”
“George Soros didn’t make all that money by being stupid,” I say. “He is a self made man. To achieve that level of success he has to have a good sense of what incentivizes people.”
“So he has to understand gold-diggers?”
I sigh. “Soros is surrounded by people who want something from him everyday – employees, charities, business partners, venture capitalists, politicians, media types – they all want a piece of him.”
“That sucks,” Annie says. “Wondering if people like you for you or your money.”
I shrug. “That’s the price of fantastic wealth. If you don’t make peace with that early in your fortune making, you’re in big trouble. And he leverages what people want from him in order to further his own interests. And when it comes to pussy, money gets you a lot of leverage. Money has its own kind of sex appeal. And George knows that if he were running a paprika stand in Hungary, twenty-something vixens wouldn’t look at him twice.”
“So a girl can’t fall in love with an eighty year old?” Annie asks.
“She could,” I say, spreading my hands. “But my experience tells me the odds are low. And I refuse to believe Soros is naïve enough to think otherwise.”
I don’t know George Soros. Other than his vast philanthropy I couldn’t tell you a thing about him. At this point in my life, I think twenty year olds are almost babies, but if Soros wants them hanging on his arm, that’s his business. I can’t judge. Call me when I’m an eighty-year-old billionaire.
“But,” I say, “If he just cast this woman aside, gave her nothing, which I seriously doubt, then he’s at fault. He knows the deal. All guys know the deal. Pussy is never free.”
“You’re cruising,” Annie says.
“George wants young women,” I say. “So he has them for a few years, the best years of their lives maybe. He isn’t going to live a whole lot longer, so why shouldn’t the women get something out of it? They should get what they need and then move on, with a nest egg perhaps, and then start their own lives. When you’re a billionaire, not to set your mistress up is unethical.”
“I wouldn’t take his money,” Annie says.
“It’s tough to be rich,” I say. “Imagine if you won the lottery tomorrow, scads of cash, how would you respond to the financial needs of other people? Would you ignore your brother if he were underwater on his mortgage? What would you do about a lover who needed cash? If your friend’s business was failing? I’d be writing checks left and right. But giving people money changes relationships. If you help someone out they will probably feel indebted to you. So it is up to the person on the receiving end to refuse.”
“What?” Annie says. “I don’t follow.”
“When you’re rich, you are obligated to give. It is the recipient’s judgment call to accept that money or not. Soros must give the girl the chance to say, ‘I don’t want your money.’ If it was you, and I know you, you wouldn’t take it. But that doesn’t mean no one should.”
“It can’t be all about money,” Annie says.
When I was in the seminary I was taught that one of the few things in the Gospel we can be sure the historical person of Jesus said was the Lord’s Prayer. Now us Catholics use the “Forgive us our trespasses and we forgive those who trespass against us” formulation. But as I’ve gotten older, I think truer translation is “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Relationships are filled with power dynamics. We gave this to so and so. They owe us this and that. We expect this. I didn’t get a pony so cough up. Over time this can breed resentment and drive a wedge between the closet friends and family members. The currency involved is often emotional, but it seems to find its most conscious expression in coin. Look at most divorces.
But to be able to say, “You don’t owe me anything,” is really a profound act. Redemption is basically picking up the check with no thought of future payback. It means letting go without even the expectation of gratitude. It’s taking a hit so another person can be happy. Sometimes that means giving someone money and saying “Have a nice life.” And sometimes it means not taking that money. Every situation is different and complex. I don’t know what Soros’ situation is. But it would be nice if love got involved somehow.
“So how much should Soros give her?” Annie asks.
“I don’t know the situation,” I reply. “But five million sounds reasonable.”
I say, “If I was an eighty year old with a penchant for young things I’d call my accountant and ask, ‘How much should I keep in reserve for pussy?’”
“Well honey,” I say. “You’re never going to have that problem with me. I don’t see being a billionaire in my future.”
Annie grins. “But if you do become rich,” she says. “You will remember I fell in love with you when you were poor.”
Yeah, that’s an indebtedness of sorts. But the nature of the human condition is that we’re always in hock to someone to some degree. It’s how we handle those debts that define our character. And there’s no one I’d rather be in debt to than Annie.
“But it’s important to note something,” I say.
“What?” Annie says.
“You almost never hear about rich women screwing their young lovers out of money.”
“That’s because women are smarter than men.”
No argument here. God probably is a woman.