get a sick feeling when you realize your family isn't just odd --
they are out of the park eccentric, and your hopes of just blending
in will never be realized.
I was nine, two older girls went around our suburban neighborhood
and left notes rating everybody's Christmas decorations. I could
handle the fact that they gave us demerits for our lack of lights,
roof Santas and nativity displays -- it was just some eighth graders'
opinions. What the hell did they know about holiday décor?
(Though secretly I was mortified.) When my brother was kicked out
of school for being so out of control on drugs that he imitated
a fire engine, I took it in stride. "Fire Engine Fritz,"
ha ha now there's a funny nickname. Ha ha funny until somebody called
me "Fire Engine Chris," but still I handled it.
there was one secret I could not handle. One secret that if it ever
became public knowledge, the Schoenwald family would be branded
with an F for Freak for the rest of our natural lives. I can barely
say it now, it pains me so. Okay, I'll just blurt it out: My parents
didn't drive. They didn't drive. And needless to say, we didn't
have a car. Gasp!
if we had been native New Yorkers it might have been different,
but we lived in San Jose, California, a bedroom community south
of San Francisco that just reeks of commute and drive time and car
pool and drive-ins and everything automotive. Everybody had at least
one car, maybe two, maybe three. Parked in the garage with the Genie
door opener, or in the carport, or proudly in front of their tract
houses. Sometimes people haughtily parked their cars on their lawn
as if to say, "Fuck greenery, our Impala is as beautiful as
any flora or fauna." Washing their cars, waxing their cars,
and working on their cars was what they did every weekend. With
carburetors and engines laying prostrate on the parkway, these car
owners were real Americans, normal people who ate hot dogs not wieners,
and apple pie not apple strudel. My father was from Vienna, Austria,
and I knew that was our first strike. He was used to walking or
using public transportation. He took the Orient Express to Shanghai
during the war, and a ship to San Francisco after. He may have also
had a fear of driving, I don't know. I do know he had a fear of
flying. He never flew in an airplane -- ever! He would take the
train from San Jose to San Francisco every day for work. Like a
New Yorker, not like a Californian.
mother had one driving lesson in 1955, crashed into a curb, got
out of the car and never got behind the wheel again.
lie to my friends about our lack of wheels. Crazy lies about how
my father wasn't the financial consultant for Dole Pineapple Company,
but a race car driver. "Yeah my Dad drives, he just doesn't
want to bring his work home with him."
My father walked everywhere, and speedily -- like he was always
in a race! He would also take the bus. No object was too big or
cumbersome for Dad to take on the MTA. I'm pretty sure my father
is the only one in San Jose to have brought a five foot tall, bushy
and undecorated Christmas tree onto the Northbound 82. When I got
a bike for Christmas he brought that on, too. Of course I didn't
appreciate that effort on his part, I was too angry that he had
bought me a bike with a curved bar. A curved bar!? How queer --
and not queer in stylish cool way, but queer in a deeply embarrassing
way. No one had curved bars on their bikes. Could he never get me
anything normal? Could he never be like all those other normal dads?
anywhere with my parents was excruciating. If I could have disguised
myself with a big floppy hat and sunglasses a la Lucy Ricardo, I
would have. Around this time my mother became what was then called
a "health nut," which is now called "someone who
eats right". Her "health nut" status could explain
all the walking we did. It was for health reasons. Nobody went to
the gym in the seventies. Gyms were for muscle bound meatheads,
not regular people. Health conscience people had stationary bikes
in their rumpus rooms and took long walks around their neighborhoods.
That's why it was O.K. for my mother to be seen walking and it wasn't
as demoralizing for me to be seen with her. She was just getting
some exercise. "Working out" hadn't been invented yet.
a miracle happened when I was in the fifth grade. Somebody gave
my parents a car. It wasn't even a junky car, but a station wagon
in fairly good shape. A car that any normal mother would have been
proud to take the kids out to Dairy Queen in. Having a car parked
in our driveway was the back-up I needed for my lies. "See
we've got a car, it's right there! Why would we have a car if no
one was driving it?" Yes, why indeed? Unfortunately that's
what my parents thought, and gave it away to some deserving family!
Didn't they realize we were the deserving family? We were teetering
on the brink of weirdo-land, and they were oblivious to the danger.
you would think that with all this shame I felt about my family
not driving and not owning a car, that I would have gotten my driver's
license immediately upon turning 16. But I knew they would never
buy me a car and I couldn't afford to buy myself one. I needed to
save my babysitting money for important stuff like Partridge Family
records, Bonnie Bell lip gloss, and Lemon Up shampoo. I didn't get
a license until I was 30 and my father had already passed away.
mother still doesn't understand the need for having a car. She lives
in a small town called Walnut Grove now. She'll take the one bus
on alternative Thursdays into Sacramento if she needs something
out of the ordinary like yogurt or wheat germ. (She's still a "health
nut".) She continues to walk everywhere. When my first car
was stolen and then my second car, I was perplexed about what I
could do to prevent the third one from getting stolen. My mother
had what she felt was a genius idea. "What you should do is
keep a bag of poop in the car, that way it will smell really badly
and no one will want to steal it."
Mother," I countered," but it will smell while I'm driving
"No silly, you take the poop out when you're in the car."
the famous bag o' poo security system, so much more effective than
in L.A. on Cloverdale, a street where parking is at a premium. It
is not unlikely for me to spend hours driving in circles looking
for a space. I work some nights too. Does she expect me to spend
an hour looking for parking and then another hour looking for poop?
I have cats -- perhaps I shouldn't throw out the old litter, just
dump it into the back of the car.
car is so crappy," I could say honestly. I could then become
the girl who carries shit in her car, and that would be far more
eccentric than just having parents who didn't drive.
your prodigal daughter has come home.
version for easy reading
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