The T-Shirt in the Closet

To be on TV or not to be on TV, that was the question. And I chose to be on TV.

I look back at that decision, and I am thankful, because, were it not for my presence at that early Gay Pride event, I may have remained behind an ajar closet door for more than an already eternal seven years. But it was that picnic and a KOMO-TV news crew that kicked that door from ajar to wide open.

I came out in the summer of 1970. But it was a limited “coming out.” Close friends from high school and college were informed why my social life veered away from them and began to revolve around gay people, parties, events, and gay bars. But I did not come out to my family.

There were many reasons for my familial secretiveness, reasons too complicated to go into here. It was not until 1977, therefore, that I came out to them. I had to.

My parents were in Europe that late-June. Seattle’s Saturday Gay Pride March, and it was a political march then, not a celebratory parade, had meandered through downtown Seattle, ending up, I believe, in Pioneer Square. A picnic was held the next day at Seward Park. I attended, wearing a t-shirt announcing “A Day Without Human Rights is Like a Day Without Sunshine;” it mocked the Florida Orange Commission’s “A Day Without Orange Juice is Like a Day Without Sunshine” campaign featuring homophobic entertainer Anita Bryant.

KOMO’s reporter Ken Schram noticed my shirt and approached. “May we photograph your shirt?” he asked.

“Sure,” I answered without hesitation.

“May we pan up to your face?”

In an instant, Gay Liberation and “coming out” became personal, real, and risky. And I knew I had to say yes or I would be a hypocrite and chicken-shit activist. Therefore, my shirt and my face, although not my name, aired throughout Western Washington on that evening’s local news and I knew I had to inform my parents as soon as they returned home, before someone else did.

At the time, I worked with my father, a man who spent the early hours of every Saturday morning at the office catching up without being interrupted. Nevertheless, I interrupted him there, on his first post-Europe Saturday. His response to my announcement was calm, accepting, and true to his progressive, tolerant political philosophies.

“I’m telling Mom next,” I told him as I stepped to the door.

“Oy vey,” he moaned.

I drove to the family home and was greeted by my mother. “I have something to tell you,” I announced. “Sit.”

“Oh, no,” was her typically negative response. I explained that I had been on the local news and why.

Was she supportive? Was she calm? Hardly.

“Where will I move to? was her self-involved response to my being gay. She said this in her thick German accent. “They will be whistling from the rooftops.” Her shocked, muddled mind reverted to a German idiom for gossiping and translated it to English.

“Who will?” I asked.

“My friends. They all will be whistling from the rooftops. I will have to move. Where will I move to?”

Suddenly, my coming out was about my mother. She was the victim, the inconvenienced one. “Why would you have to move?” I asked.

“Because they will talk behind my back. They will abandon me.”

“Well, if that is the case, Mom,” I said, “you have a bigger issue to deal with than a gay son. You’ve picked crappy friends.” She gazed down, at her lap.

“Yah. That is easy for you to say,” she replied, minimizing the challenges and difficulty I may have endured prior to coming out. “I can’t look at any of them.” Her eyes shot up. “Oh, now I understand what Betty meant.”


“Yah,” Mom continued. “I talked with her on the phone Thursday. She said she saw you on the news at a picnic. ’What picnic?’ I asked. But she did not answer. She changed the subject.”

“So, Betty saw it,” I said. I wonder how many others saw it, I thought. I never found out; no one else ever said anything to Mom. No one ever said anything to me about the picnic, my t-shirt, or my being gay.

In the end, Mom did not move, nor did her friends abandon her. And I no longer had to play closet games with my family. It only had taken me seven years since I began living as an “avowed homosexual.”

And I proudly thank Gay Pride and KOMO-TV News for that.

He Made Me Feel Uncomfortable

“He made me feel uncomfortable,” she said and, I, as a longtime feminist, should have understood better and supported her more. But I didn’t.

“She,” Lucy Flores, the 2014 Democrat nominee for Nevada’s lieutenant governor, was speaking on CNN in Spring 2019. “He” was Joe Biden, the former vice-president and then undeclared, but front-running, candidate for the Democrat nomination for president. Flores was discussing a recently-published article she wrote in which she recalled, while campaigning, Biden touching her, smelling her hair, and gently kissing the back of her head. “As I was preparing myself to make my case,” Flores penned, “I felt two hands on my shoulders. I froze. ‘Why is the vice-president of the United States touching me?’”

I immediately became suspicious. The timing for telling this five-year-old tale seemed odd. Why now? We knew Biden was a touchy-feely guy; we had seen the film clips and photographs. We knew he hugged and patted people, often touching their faces. He also was known to make inappropriate comments. That was his style. That was why he became known as “America’s Favorite Uncle.” Flores should have known that. Or at least been warned by her staff.

But when I learned Flores supports and has contributed to the campaigns of several Democrats seeking the presidency, candidates more progressive, more left-leaning than Biden, her motives became clearer; she wanted to cast doubt on him and diminish his early lead.

OK, I thought, that’s politics. But when she said that while his actions were not threatening or sexually motivated, “He made me feel uncomfortable.” I became angry. No, Ms. Flores, his behavior did not make you feel uncomfortable; you chose to feel uncomfortable. You are responsible for your reaction.

We all are responsible for our actions and reactions. Flores was responsible for her feelings, not Biden. He is only responsible for his actions. Other people might have been flattered, comforted, or sexually aroused. Flores chose to feel uncomfortable.

Flores stated that she was “preparing herself” to make a speech. Biden was behind her on the dais. He, perhaps, observed nervousness or tension, and may have wanted to offer support and, with countless witnesses, placed his hands on her shoulders. Her reaction was to freeze, to react negatively to a kind gesture. “Why?” I ask. Do you, Ms. Flores, have experiences from the past that have conditioned you to respond as you did? That would be understandable. I don’t need to be a woman to understand that. But that is no reason to smear Biden. Unless you had ulterior motives.

I am certain we all have, at times, overstepped personal space or misinterpreted boundaries in relationships. Have you never been introduced to a Robert or Susan and called them Bobby or Suzie only to be sternly corrected? Have you never greeted someone at a social gathering, an individual you haven’t seen in a long time, and warmly hugged them only to realize they were resisting your embrace? Awkwardly, you retreat and wonder why that person doesn’t hold you in the same esteem you hold them. Have you never had someone you know so casually you are not certain of their name greet you with a kiss on the cheek and wonder why (s)he felt it appropriate? I know I have.

Therefore, I am Joe Biden. And you are, too.

I believe all Joe Biden meant to do when he touched Flores was to communicate care, support, camaraderie, and his desire to connect. Yes, his style may have been aggressive or insensitive but it was well-meaning. It also, to his detriment, contradicts the American cultural norm of over-emphasizing personal space, a norm I do not see here in Mexico.

While I may be defending Biden here, do not assume I am touting him for the presidency. I am not. He is not even in my Top 3 of the 3,467 declared and undeclared Democratic candidates being considered for the nomination. Chances are I am much more in line with Ms. Perez’s choices than I am with the ex-vice-president.

And do not assume I have abandoned my fight for women’s equality or my support for the Me Too Movement. I have not. Claims by women, or men, that they were sexually abused or assaulted should be listened to and believed. Claims that one’s personal space was violated or that they were made to feel uncomfortable, should not be taken as seriously.

It’s Not What You Know, It’s . . .

“Man, am I glad to see you,” Jake greeted his friend. “I was afraid I was in front of the wrong McDonald’s. There’s like a million on Manhattan.”

“Well, I said the one across from Starbucks,” Matt panted as he rushed to Jake’s side. He looked at his friend. “I can’t believe it’s been thirteen years. Thirteen years since college,” Matt pulled Jake into an embrace. “Look at you. You haven’t changed.”

“Of course, I’ve changed. I’ve got two kids and a dental practice giving me ulcers. And,” he added with pride, “I’ve overcome my shyness. I’ve developed my social skills. If it hadn’t been for you in school, Matt, I wouldn’t have had a social life. You knew everybody.”

“I didn’t know everybody,” Matt protested. “But you were my sensible rock. You were disciplined. You were stable. I should have learned from you. I have no stability in my life. I’m ending another marriage and am at my fourth TV station,” Matt said with defeat. “I thought I’d be more settled by now. No longer a reporter, but an anchor. And in a bigger market than Rochester. I thought I’d be a recognizable television journalist. A star.”

“But you are, Matt. In upstate New York.”

“Whoopie,” the newsman snorted with sarcasm.

“Let’s walk,“ Jake suggested, “until we find something better than Micky D’s.”

“Fine with me.” The friends started walking. “So, you and Emily are on Long Island and both your kids are in school.” Matt paused. “Instagram sure is a godsend. I wouldn’t have found you without it. I had no idea you were in New York State.”

The duo reached the corner. A red light glared at them. Traffic flitted by, roaring obscenities. Jake gazed across the intersection. “Hey, isn’t that the mayor over there? Bill Di Blasio?” Two men, apparent bodyguards, boxed the mayor in as they waited for the light to change. “Who’s he waving to?”

“Me, I think,” Matt said.

“You? Why?”

“I interviewed him at length a few nights ago.”

The signal turned green. The mayor and his entourage neared Matt and Jake. “Good to see you, Matt,” Di Blasio greeted as they passed.

“You know the mayor of New York City?”

“Yeah,” Matt answered matter-of-factly.

They reached the end of the block and turned. A limousine pulled into a loading zone ahead of them. Two security men stepped from the vehicle. One opened a curbside door. A man stepped out.

“Oh, that’s the governor,” a startled Matt sputtered. “Andy. Andy!”

“Jeez,” Jake gasped. “I’m looking at Andrew Cuomo, governor of New York State.”

“Matty,” the man called in their direction. “How’s it going, my friend?”

Matt signaled a thumbs up to the governor.

“You know the governor of New York State?” Jake asked with disbelief.

“Through work.”

“Wow.” Jake thought a moment. “It’s like you still know everyone. Everyone. Important people.” He tilted his head. “But they’re all locally important. Do you know anyone of national importance? Do you know Trump?”

“No. Does anyone?” Matt smiled. “But I do know Barack Obama.”

“No way, Matt.”

“I play golf with him.”

“I don’t believe you.”

Matt pulled his cell phone from a coat pocket. “Well, I’ll show you,” he said, accepting the unstated dare. He dialed. A moment passed. His eyes widened. “Hi, Mr. President. It’s Matt. Listen, I’ve got an old college friend here, Jake, and he doesn’t believe I know you. Could you say hi to him?”

Jake could hear muffled laughter as Matt reached the phone toward him. He took it with trepidation, placed it to his ear, and said “Hello?” He listened and nodded. “Yes, sir. This is Jake.” He swallowed. “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to—” Jake returned the phone to Matt with a snap. “He’s eating his lunch. I interrupted his fucking lunch!”

Matt laughed, took the phone, and replaced it in his pocket.

“Well,” Jake exhaled, “you know everybody. But that has to be as high as it goes, the top of the line. I’m impressed.” He chuckled and shook his head. “I know people, too, you know. The West Islip Rotary Club president and I are very close,” he said with exaggerated sarcasm.

Matt smirked. “I can go higher than Obama.”

“Who’s higher than the president of the US? Jake stopped and glared at his old friend. “Don’t tell me you’ve gone all religious on me and that you know God.”

“No. But I do know the pope.”

“No, you don’t,” Jake challenged. He started walking again. “You report from Rochester, not Rome.”

A beat passed before Matt responded. “Care to make this interesting? I’ll make you a bet.” He eyed Jake as his friend stared with skepticism. “We fly to the Vatican. If I know Pope Frederic, you pay for the trip. If I don’t know him, I’ll spring for it.”

Jake assessed the proposal. “You’re not even Catholic. You’re Lutheran and never go to church. There is no way you know the pope. Deal.”

Two Sundays later, as Jake and Matt stood in St. Peter’s Square, amid thousands of pilgrims, they gazed at the small porch from which Pope Frederic would give his blessing. Matt looked at his watch. “It’ll be at least twenty minutes, more like thirty before he appears. I’m gonna run to the bathroom.” Matt disappeared in the crowd.

Several minutes later, a dark-haired boy, perhaps nine, sidled next to Jake. He stood on tiptoes and craned his neck to see the balcony. He peeked at his watch, then back to the small perch. The boy glanced at Jake and, realizing he was American, used the opportunity to practice his English. “You come see important man?” he asked. “I want see him too.”

Perhaps ten minutes later, Pope Frederic stepped from the Vatican onto the balcony. A man was with him. It was Matt. Jake stared slack-jawed. The pope raised his arms to bless the crowd. The thousands roared.

The young boy tugged at Jake’s sleeve. “Who,” he asked, “is man with Matt?”

Roger Daltrey, The Who, and Me

The Who claimed, in 1967, they could see for miles and miles. It might have been the hallucinogenic drugs. I also can see for miles and miles. But for me, it is the result of my recent cataract surgery.

I didn’t—no pun intended—see it coming. The need crept up on me like a mugger in the night, tiptoeing closer, then robbing me blind. My distant vision, I was shocked to learn, had diminished by about forty percent. I should have had clues when, while watching TV, I could no longer read bottom-of-the-screen crawlers during newscasts and sporting events. Then I realized I couldn’t decipher the state names on the sashes of the Miss Silicone Breasts contestants. When watching “Wheel of Fortune,” I realized I couldn’t tell the difference between Pat Sajak and Vanna White. Hell, I couldn’t even see the program’s wall-size puzzles.

The improvement was immediate after the first surgery. With just one eye repaired, I saw details in the room I hadn’t observed prior to the procedure. The staff had faces, with masks over their mouths.  I had thought they all had Cheshire Cat grins. I looked toward the far wall and discovered a Starbuck’s, law office, and bus stop. And then I realized I was looking out a window I had not noticed before. When the surgeon, who had been merely a soothing and reassuring voice before, spoke, she now was a beautiful woman. Had I known that, I thought, I would have shaved, brushed my teeth, and worn deodorant.

I donned sunglasses and walked outside. Sunlight was no longer seen through a gauze filter like Lucille Ball’s face in Mame. Shapes had sharp details. I peeked over the top of the dark lenses. Colors popped. Mexican flags had three colored sections, none of which was gray. McDonald’s had golden arches.

But it wasn’t until the next morning that I truly grasped the improvement in my vision. I awoke and looked through my bedroom doorway into the living room. I actually saw it, the living room.  My paintings had colors. My recliner, that I thought was charcoal when I bought it, was green, forest green. I got up and looked out the window. The wall of eggplant-colored bougainvillea across the way was really psychedelic purple. I noticed for the first time a neighbor’s pink patio umbrella. A nearby tree had orange spots in it. “Oh, my god,” I gasped. “Those are oranges?” I had thought they were bird nests.

I again put on my sunglasses and climbed to my rooftop mirador. I looked to the north, toward Alaska. I could see Sarah Palin. She was gazing at Russia from her porch. I followed her eyes and saw suburban Vladivostok. I spotted a darling little brick house with three windows. I peered inside one and saw wooden Russian nested matryoska dolls lined up on an oak credenza; the tiniest one had a slight nick.

I turned and surveyed the northeast horizon until I saw Mar-a-Lago and I saw Melania’s stripper pole. Then I noticed a double-wide bathroom door and a Just For Men hair-dye box on the counter. It was #45-F, Pumpkin.

Looking further north, I spotted Washington, D.C. and details new to me. I could see Elizabeth Warren. “Hell!” I yelled so loud, a startled vacationing gringo in Puerto Vallarta spilled his 8 a.m. margarita. “She’s not Native American!” All this time I had thought she looked like Marlon Brando’s Oscar-surrogate Sacheen Littlefeather. “Warren looks more like Sacheen Littleliar,” I chuckled.

My gaze landed on Bernie Sanders. He was talking with a severely-acned senate page whose nametag read “Aaron.” “Holy shit!” I exclaimed, and then bit my normally PC tongue. Damn, I thought, Bernie’s old! Who knew? His voice always sounds so soft, soothing, and youthful.

I pivoted slightly and saw Mitch McConnell. I got queasy. “Oh, horrors. He’s even uglier than I thought,” I mumbled. Then I threw up over the railing onto an ant with a back tattoo of ’80s rocker Adam Ant. OK. Maybe it was a T-shirt; I couldn’t tell. My eyesight isn’t that good.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw someone waving at me. I turned toward Boston. It was Tom Brady in his MAGA cap. They’re red? I thought. Tom had five of his Super Bowl rings on his hands. A sixth was—How shall I say this tactfully?—lower. And it fit. Yes. I could see that. Because he was wearing skinny jeans. Commando. Then, with his right hand, Tom threw a football in my direction—not an official one marked NFL, but one with a picture of #45-F, Pumpkin and the initials DJT on it. It, however, was intercepted at the border by an ICE agent and sent back to China where it had been made.

After I recovered from the shock of all I had seen, I looked due north again. I could see a wall at the US-Mexico border. That cracked red, white, and blue wall seemed to have no purpose other than to divide America. I saw no one climbing the wall or digging under it on the south side, nor anyone calmly talking about the barrier with others on the north side. Instead, I watched politicians tag the wall with preaching-to-the-choir graffiti. But the writing wasn’t in English or Spanish. It was in Russian.

Two days later, I had the surgery on my other eye. I won’t even start to tell you what I could see after that.

Recycled Tears

He was fifteen and crying. No. He was sobbing. And I couldn’t help.

The frustration of that situation has haunted me for a decade. The images and sounds of that pained boy have flickered and echoed through my soul since I stumbled upon him. Those visions and sounds, however, became clearer and louder, recently, as I imagined a scene in a novel I am writing. In the scene, a teenage boy, drowning in difficult decisions, has an emotional breakdown. My fictional character’s path through his traumatic journey is inspired by that real boy.

It was at the beginning of fifth period, just after lunch, at the high school at which I served as a special education assistant. The teacher with whom I worked and I had taken our class to collect recyclables from the school’s classrooms and offices. As we stepped into Senior Hall with our wheeled plastic garbage cans, I discovered a boy sitting on the floor, slumped against a locker. He was crying. A girl was crouched next to him, trying to comfort him. Neither looked to be seniors. They were freshmen, sophomores at best.

I recognized that although they should have been in class, that boy, for whatever reason, could not, in that condition, concentrate on classwork. As I passed the duo, I leaned in and whispered, “Do you want me to get help?”

“No,” the girl said without looking at me.

“Do you want me to tell your teachers what’s going on so they won’t think your cutting?”

“They know,” the girl snapped.

“OK,” I replied, unconvinced, and rejoined my group.

The recycling crew finished its first-floor loop perhaps forty minutes later and was headed to the Dumpster, when we found the distressed couple where we had left them. Only now, the boy was standing, facing the lockers, his arms forming a pillow for his face, and sobbing so hard, I could see his shoulders bob. When we returned from tossing our recycling, the girl was holding the boy who had buried his face into the crook of her neck.

I said nothing. But I wondered why this young man was so distraught. Had a grandparent just died? Had he been fired from an after-school job? Was his family moving, separating him from his girlfriend? Had poor grades disqualified him from participating in a sport? Had he been bullied or bashed during lunch?

The couple was gone when we returned from the second-floor recyclables. But that boy did not leave my thoughts. Days, perhaps weeks passed before I saw him again. He was exiting a classroom. I rushed in and asked the teacher who the boy was.

“That’s Mo.” She smiled with pride. “He’s an incredible soccer player. Like the star of the team. And he’s only a sophomore,” the teacher told me.  “Why?”

“Just curious,” was my evasive answer. I was conflicted about the boy’s need for help versus his right to privacy. “I’ve seen him around and he seems like a nice kid,” I lied and left. But I continued to wonder about the boy’s emotional well-being.

Sometime later, as my teaching partner and I jogged with our students on the school’s track, we noticed a woman briskly walking on the oval. We saw her on subsequent walks, too. Eventually, we began acknowledging each other’s presence, nodding, smiling, even saying hi. Then, one Saturday while the teacher, who lived near the school, walked his dog on the track, the woman appeared and instigated a conversation.

“It was obvious,” my teaching partner told me, “she was taking advantage of our being alone and was flirting with me. She made it clear she was recently separated and was getting a divorce. I faked interest in her story, but kept thinking, ‘Lady, do you not see my wedding ring?’ And then she mentioned that her son, who attended our school, was struggling with the situation.” The teacher asked her son’s name, although he was certain he would not know him since we, as special ed staff, were often unfamiliar with most mainstream students.

“Mo,” the woman answered.

The synapses in my brain crackled. “Mo is the kid we saw crying in the hall,” I yelled. We realized in an instant why Mo had been so upset that day. He had just been told his parents were divorcing, that his family, and life as he knew it, was being torn apart.

I saw Mo many times between that day in his sophomore year and his graduation. He never acknowledged me, but instead made a point to avoid eye-contact. His actions made it clear that I could not ask the question aching in my heart, “Dude, are you OK?”

Mo probably has long forgotten me. But he, his pain, and my helplessness, have stayed with me through all these years. And now a piece of Mo has found its way into a novel I am writing, a book he likely never will read or know about. But maybe, through my fictional character, I finally will be able to let go of that haunting painful memory.

A Christmas Con-job

January 28, 2019


I’m sorry my Christmas greetings are so late, but I wasn’t released from prison until January 15. So, I want to begin my annual letter by clearing up one thing. Regardless what you might have heard about my conviction, I did not have sex with that horse. Yes, orgasms did occur, but there was no penetration and all parties had given written consent.

Many exciting things happened to the Henshaw Family since last year’s letter. As I was unable to witness firsthand any of the Henshaw Happenings due to my unjust incarceration, I am, of course, reporting what was told to me through the plexiglass window by my wife Carleen on her visit, her one visit. Wait. There is one thing I can report on first-hand, my marriage to my prison husband Chester “Bubba” Dinwiddie.

Like mine, Bubba’s conviction was the result of a misunderstanding and communication breakdown. Apparently, forgetting you are carrying $143,000 when you board a plane for a Caribbean island that no one in my family never heard of is considered “suspicious.” Especially when they can trace the money to a bank some people you were with but swear you hardly knew them were robbing without telling you. And you were holding a loaded gun.

Anyway, my Bubba should get pardoned in about 25 years, provided he doesn’t kill any other inmates.

As for Carleen, she hasn’t been the same since her father’s white sheet caught fire at that alleged Ku Klux Klan meeting on the Fourth of July. The shock of his death caused Carleen to gain 65 pounds. But don’t worry; she still wears her Daisy Dukes shorts and sequined halter top when she shops at K-mart.

Carleen has finally enrolled in school; she says it is never too late to better yourself. She’s studying pole-dancing at the local campus of Melania’s School of Classy Shit. Carleen also got a tattoo on her inner-thigh in spring, a life-size replica of Ted Nugent’s face. She likes it so much, she’s returning to Tats Amore next month to have Sean Hannity’s face inked onto the other thigh. People say it’ll look like they’re kissing when she has her legs together. But don’t worry. Carleen don’t keep her legs together all that much.

You might recall from last year’s Christmas letter that we signed up to host a foreign exchange student. We didn’t know, however, he’d be a coming from Nigeria. He arrived just about the time I reported to prison. But to Carleen’s surprise, our kids got along fine with him and his stupid back-wood ways. I mean back-jungle ways. Especially Candi Lee. As a result, Candi Lee was unable to attend her high school graduation as the baby was born just hours before Commencement.

Billy Bob Jack Jo is 15 now and in the sixth grade. Finally. His learning disabilities, his doctor says, are the result of the syphilis he caught from his Aunt Lola Mae when he was five. But what does that quack know? If he’s so smart, why’d he go to Harvard and Johns Hopkins when he could have gone to Trump University?

Our pit bulls, David and Duke, only attacked three neighborhood children this year, but the judge said we had to put them down. I didn’t think that was right, but I had Carleen do it. The trailer park is much quieter now without those three yapping neighbor kids.

Carleen added an orange parakeet to our home while I was away. She named him Donald T because he’s always tweeting. That Carleen has the best sense of humor, even better than Anne Coulter.

By the way, Carleen had some work done on the house last summer. Now all four tires have air in them. She also dusted and vacuumed the place. I think that was in June or July. It was one of them “J” months. Wait. It was a year ago, in January.

Addiction, of course, has touched our family, like it has so many others. But Carleen and I are proud of Candi Lee for overcoming her dependency on e-cigarettes and vaping. Thank god, she’s back to normal and her pack a day of Marlboros. Billy Bob Jack Jo, on the other hand, continues to struggle with his sex addiction and his masturbating to reruns of The Golden Girls. But we are hopeful he can go clean in ’19.

So, I wish you a Merry Christmas and a year filled with peace and harmony. And I’m sure you wish me the same, even though I didn’t hear from any of you during the Holidays…or for the entire time I was imprisoned. Because of my Christian upbringing, I do believe that was an oversight. But if it wasn’t, you all can go “F” yourselves.

With Love,

Carleen, Candi Lee, Billy Bob Jack Jo, David and Duke, Donald T, and me, Caleb Henshaw

Listening With a Deaf Ear

I knew, when I retired to Mexico in 2015, my Spanish was limited. While I did know many words and could form simple sentences, I was, by no means conversant. But worse than my speaking skills was my ability to comprehend. No where was this more apparent than when I rode the bus and tried to eavesdrop on the conversations around me.

So, as any respectable language-challenged snoopy-nose would do, I brought a mini-recorder with me on bus trips. That way, I figured, after attempting to translate nearby conversations, I could have my interpretations verified later by playing the recording for a fluent Spanish speaker.

My first experience with this system proved quite enlightening. I overheard a fortyish, female passenger say her mother was away visiting a woman named Vera. Her mother had never seen Vera before, the passenger said, and was excited to go to her museums, shops, and restaurants. That Vera woman, I thought, must be very rich to own so many businesses. But the passenger said one thing that puzzled me.  Why, I questioned, would Vera live in a state made of legs? So, I brought my recorder to a neighbor, a gringa who has lived here for twenty-plus years. She listened to the conversation and laughed.

“OK,” she said, “first, the woman’s mother didn’t visit someone named Vera. She went to the city and state of Vera Cruz and saw many museums, shops, restaurants, and statues. And the statues were made of stone. Not the state was made of legs. Piedra is stone; pierna is leg. Couldn’t you hear the difference?” my neighbor asked.

“It’s not my fault. They talk too fast,” I said defensively.

On a subsequent ride, I listened to two high school students discussing the Beatles. I knew that because one said Ringo was his favorite. How nice, I thought, that a new generation, and one from a different culture, had discovered the Fab Four. When I played back that recording for my neighbor, she informed me that the youth had said nothing about The Beatles or Ringo. What he had said was, “That old gringo is listening to us.”

On that same ride, a small child sitting across the aisle from me was making sucking noises and asked her mother for some walnut games.  What the hell are walnut games? I thought. Later, I learned she had asked her mother for her new juice box. I also learned that I can’t tell the difference between nues juegos and nuevo jugo.

More recently, I sat in front of two college-age boys. One was telling the other about a teacher who was a witch, a bruja. I laughed. Some teachers just aren’t liked by their students, I thought. I turned to the young men and said, “Soy maestro y comprendo” or “I’m a teacher and I understand.” They looked at me strangely. “Well, no wonder,” my neighbor said when I shared that recording. “The guy,” she said, “told his friend that a waiter spilled water on his arm the night before.” I was surprised. I know all the words involved. I know how to use them and how to read them. But, apparently, I can’t differentiate between “maestro” and “messera” or “bruja” and “brazo” when listening.

On yesterday’s trip home from Margaritas R Us, I overheard two men sitting near me. Their conversation grabbed my attention when they began laughing. “Si. Si. Si,” one said between chuckles, “Trump is a pendulum.” Why, I thought, is he a pendulum?

“Because,” my interpreter told me, “you don’t know the difference between a pendulum and a pinche pendejo. And I am too much of a lady to translate pinche pendejo for you.” And then she called me a pinche pendejo, took my mini-recorder, and threw it on the floor shattering it into hundreds of tiny little plazas.

Just Like Lizzie Borden and Caligula

Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. I have done the unspeakable. I have killed.

Yes. I am a murderer. And I feel horrible about it. But I can’t undo what I have done. It can’t be reversed. I can’t bring that cockroach back to life.

In my defense, I must say, though, he was huge. Ginormous. He was three feet long. At least. Maybe five. But there he was on the kitchen counter, frozen by the sudden illumination created when I turned on the light, shattering the pre-dawn darkness. Or maybe he was petrified by my sudden shrieking. Who knows? Nevertheless, I was able to compose myself enough to grab the Raid so slowly and carefully my movements did not trigger that behemoth’s fight or flight response. I sprayed him, not once, not twice, but 417 times with what is the napalm of the insect world. The burning chemicals sent him in a frantic, helter-skelter run to the nearest cockroach-serving hospital or funeral home.

I dashed to my bedroom, glanced at the 5:08 alarm clock, and climbed into bed, shaking and whimpering. OK. I was full-out crying. I had, after all, killed. I was a killer and would now be forever lumped with Lizzie Borden, the one-armed man on “The Fugitive,” and Caligula. But my sobbing did, eventually, cease and I fell asleep. When I awoke, daylight filled my room.

Thank God, it was daylight. I would be able to see the dead cockroach, whether he still was on the counter, on the floor nearby, or sprawled across my current read, “How to be More Masculine in the Time of a Cockroach Crisis” spread on my La-Z-Boy armrest. He wasn’t, however, in any of those places.

Where could that monster be, then? I wondered. In my slippers? Oh, God, I hope not. I was wearing my slippers. My coffee cup? Oh, hell no. I was just about to guzzle my morning margarita from my coffee cup. I didn’t know where he was, but I wasn’t about to examine either of those things. I just kicked off my mauve, velvet Gucci mules, grabbed my morning margarita mug, and ran them to the garbage where I tossed them faster than I had shrieked at 5 a.m. Neighbors stared out their windows as if they’d never seen a lemon-yellow baby doll negligee with taupe knee-high nylons before.

I returned to my casita and continued looking for my murder victim. And then I found him, lying on his back in the kitchen sink. To my surprise, he had shrunk while dying. He now was but two inches in length. I studied him for a moment and then realized he deserved a more dignified burial than being washed down the drain or flushed down the toilet. It was then I realized he, with his Raid-induced lack of bodily control, had urinated in his multi-legged pants.  I needed to change them for his garden interment. I gently lifted him from the sink, using my eyebrow tweezers, and delicately removed his wet skinny jeans. It was then I realized he was, in fact, a he, for that cockroach was hung like a…like a…like a horsefly. He apparently was a Jewish cockroach, too. This was confirmed when I noticed a small Star of David dangling around his neck.

I continued assessing my victim and noticed a tiny square item lying next to him. It was a wallet, opened, exposing pictures of his family, his wife and children. He had, it appeared, wanted to look at his family one final time before going to the Great Insect Inn in the sky. Oh, my lord, I moaned to myself, I killed a family man. His kids…Cookie, Corky, Ckhaki, and Carkey Cockroach…were darling. But his wife, Kardashia, was beautiful. She could have been a former competitor in the Miss Cockroach Pageant.

I studied his wallet a bit more. There was his blood donor card; he was nearing 1,000 milliliters. There was his military I.D. “Oh hell,” I cried out loud, “I killed a veteran.” He had fought to make this world better for all of us… cockroaches, humans, politicians…and survived, only to be killed because he had trespassed on my damn faux-granite counter. Another card peeked out from behind the military I.D. It was his Barbra Streisand Fan Club card. I was wrecked. How could I have killed another Barbra-fan? I didn’t know what to do. Then it came to me, the right thing to do after killing a cockroach who is a Streisand fan. I sang “People,” albeit an adapted version, because cockroaches are people, too. I can still hear the melody and lyrics lingering in my head as I grieve. Roaches, roaches who need roaches are the luckiest roaches in the world, I sputtered, drowning the words in tears.

I needed to find some dry pants and make him presentable for his burial. I checked the walk-in closet of my Ken Doll. No luck. Everything was too flamboyant. I was at a loss. Where am I going to find pants that fit a cockroach? A mental lightning bolt struck me. OMG! OMG! OMG! Amazon!!! I did an Amazon “search” and, sure enough, they have an assortment of cockroach clothes. I ordered the green pants, because the color was called Evergreen and they were described as “soft as an easy chair, fresh as the morning air.” Barbra would have liked that.

So, here I sit waiting for the Evergreen pants to arrive. I have placed the cockroach in a safe place until then; he is resting in a still-unwashed margarita glass from a Cinco de Mayo Party last May or June. I’ve hidden his temporary casket in my microwave. No one can hurt him there.

If there is one thing I have learned from this ordeal, it is that cockroaches, no matter how large or small, have families, have made contributions to the world, share more with us than we realize, should be respected, and deserve to live as they please. It has been difficult acknowl—oh, there’s the bell. My coffee is ready. I just zapped it in my microwa—oh, damn!

Does anyone need a pair of multi-legged Evergreen cockroach pants?

The Stained Mouse-Mattress

The Yom Kippur service had just ended, the shrieking of the shofar still ringing in our ears. Our Day of Atonement obligation was over. Steve and I stood on the synagogue steps in our bar mitzvah suits—both of us had recently experienced that right of passage for 13-year-old Jewish boys, that religious transition from child to man—and we were saying goodbye to our parents as we set off on a walk downtown. It was Fall 1961.

We had told our parents we wanted to check out the new cars in the dealerships along the way; back then, all makes introduced their new models in September. But we weren’t taking this hike to look at new cars. We had lied. That was our cover-story. We had another reason, one we could not share with our parents.

We arrived downtown, focused on our secret purpose, scanned several tall office buildings, and decided on a decades-old, narrow, gray one. We entered, looking like junior junior junior executives in our suits…Steve’s was a standard brown, mine a greenish brown described as the color of “baby diarrhea” by a young female bar mitzvah attendee…and took an elevator to an upper floor. We crept out, cased the joint, and saw the door we were looking for at the end of the hall. We tip-toed to it without speaking.

“You go in,” I mouthed to Steve.

“No. You do it,” he whispered, quieter than a closing elevator door. “It was your idea.”

“I’m not going in there,” I murmured with determination. “You can do it faster. You’re good at this sort of stuff. If I do it, we’ll get caught.”

“OK.” Steve groaned and reached for the brass doorknob.

Months before we stood in front of that mysterious mahogany door, long before Yom Kippur, I was with another friend and his parents being driven home after a weekend at their house an hour away from mine. “I really have to go the bathroom,” I announced about midway through the drive. “Can we stop at a gas station?”

Within seconds we pulled alongside a Shell station with its bold yellow logo…its color so ironic and inducing…and parked near the bathrooms. I bolted out of the car and dashed to the restroom, unzipping my fly as I ran. I exited the bathroom 47 seconds later and jumped back into the sedan to a cacophony of cackling laughter.

“You know that was the women’s bathroom, don’t you?” Donny’s dad said, between snorts.

“No, it wasn’t!” I argued. Then I noticed the skirted form on the door-side sign. “Well, I really had to go and no one was in there and it doesn’t even matter anyway,” I blathered a defensive stream-of-consciousness justification.

“No, it doesn’t matter, Thomasina,” Donny’s dad replied, triggering another fit of laughter. But as we drove away, synapses in my brain crackled and I blurted, “Oh, that’s what that machine on the wall was for.” Parental chuckles followed. Donny looked at me with pre-pubescent naiveté, question marks darting from his eyes.

And that is when I got the idea. That is why Steve and I stood in front of that office building’s out-of-the-way women’s restroom on Yom Kippur. We were going to buy a sanitary napkin.

Steve pushed the wooden door open and stepped into the ladies’ room. I stared at the elevator, then my eyes flitted from office door to office door along the hall. I held my breath, but, seconds later, he charged out of the bathroom holding a small package, an individually wrapped Kotex.

“Let’s get out of here!” he whispered with urgency. We ran to the elevator, Steve struggling to cram the blue-and-white packaged product inside his suit coat’s small inside pocket. I pressed the down button. It took what seemed like a menstrual cycle to arrive. Once inside the elevator, we snickered and snorted with glee over the success of our mission until the elevator stopped on the third floor delaying our getaway, and a businesslike woman with several red folders under her arm got in. When the door opened on the first floor, Steve and I spilled out like the blood of a sudden nosebleed, rudely pushing past the woman. We raced out of the building and onto the sidewalk, then rushed away from the entrance and turned toward the building’s concrete facade, shielding our treasure with our torsos.

“Let me see,” I pleaded.

“No. I got it. I get to look at it first.” Steve pulled the soft package from his suit coat. Even though Steve had dibsed first look, we stared at it together, reading as fast as we could, puzzled by phrases and instructions more foreign to us than the hooks on the back of a bra.

Then Steve ripped the Kotex from its wrapping and we examined it with curious eyes and cautious fingers. “Oh, I get it,” I breathed.

“Get what?”

“Why Annie calls it a mouse mattress.”

“Mouse mattress,” Steve snorted and doubled-over with laughter, banging his head into the concrete wall, causing him to drop the crumpled blue-and-white packaging. I picked it up a nanosecond after it landed on the sidewalk and crammed it in my pants pocket.

“Shit. Someone could see what we have,” I said with panic.  We looked at each other as smiles mixed with amusement, satisfaction, and an anti-climactic letdown tickled our faces. I then noticed Steve’s forehead. Its collision with the wall had scraped the skin causing a trickle of blood. Logically, but perhaps not appropriately, I took the Kotex from Steve and dabbed his injury with it. We looked at the slight bloody smear against the white pad, giggled for a moment at the ironic sight, and then gazed up and then down the street.

A breath later, my partner asked, “OK. Now what?“

“Throw it away!”

There was a pause. “No,” he said. “I have a better idea. Start walking to the bus.”

My accomplice attempted to hide the Kotex in his not-yet-man-sized hands as we strode away. But I could see he also was studying the women coming toward us. “Her,” he whispered as a tottering elderly woman with a royal blue cloth coat and a matching veiled pillbox hat neared us. “You dropped this,” he spewed, as he shoved the Kotex at the gray-faced, gray-haired woman. Startled, she blocked the hand-off with her forearm. The bloodied female hygiene product, recognizable to all around, fell to the sidewalk.

We raced to a bus stop, not the nearest one as we wanted to distance ourselves from the scene of our prank. We laughed, tears included, at what we thought had been an embarrassing moment for the woman while we waited for our bus, never realizing that she probably had not needed a sanitary napkin for 30, maybe 40 years.

When it arrived, we boarded the bus, strode to the long rear seat, and sat. We smugly eyed other, so mature-looking in our suits, unaware how childish and typically-thirteen we had behaved.