Saturday, August 28, 2010

The One to Catch

I always loved the ringers. It was a big metal piece of playground equipment that was standard at all Denver elementary schools. It had 10 metal rings hanging from chains. These rings were attached to a lager circular piece of metal that was supported to hold it up in the air by metal rods coming up in the center and branching out. The starting point had a stack of tires so you could reach the first ringer. The point was to go around from ringer to ringer without touching the ground. Unlike most schools where a turn meant you went around them once, then went to the end of the line to wait for your next turn, at Whittier Elementary there was a game that was always played on them. I don’t remember if we had a name for it, But I loved it.

The first kid was the starter (let’s call him Mike). He started out first and when he grabbed the third ringer a second kid (Sherri) started out. If the Sherri caught up with Mike, and was able to touch him before he got back to “home” (the stack of tires) he was “out” and had to drop off. Sherri was the winner and got to be the starter in the next game. However if Sherri was unable to catch Mike, then he got to be the starter again and would get to stay in the game until someone tagged him. I loved this game and would play it as much as I could and had the calluses to prove it. I was good at this game for the following reasons: I weighed almost nothing so it didn’t require a lot of upper body strength to support me. I was fast, fast, fast. I practiced, a lot.

My ringers passion started at Emerson Elementary when I was in the first grade. One of my friends’ older sister and her friends played on them and we wanted to too, so we could be like the big kids. But those big kids took over those ringers every lunch. You had to “prove” you were worthy enough to play on them by going all the way around them once without dropping or the big kids wouldn’t let you on them. I was determined. I started to practice whenever I could. At my class’ recess, after school, on the weekends. The hardest part was turning the soft virgin skin on my palms below the fingers to tough callused skin. The only way to achieve that was to keep going even when you had blisters. Ouch.

One Sunday I went to practice at my school a half a block from my home. On the south side of the school I passed two of my older brother’s friends who were playing basketball. I didn’t bother greeting them since I knew they would never respond, me being “little” and “a brat”. I continued to the playground on the north side of the building and was happy to see nobody was on the ringers. That meant I could practice all I wanted without sharing. As I got closer I realized no kids were at the playground at all. The only other person there was a guy sitting in the sand by the fence leaning against the side of the building, I didn’t think twice about him. The school was just off East Colfax with just a gas station between the playground and the street. Lots of the hippies that lived around there hung out all over the neighborhood. This was nothing new.

Today would be the day, I was resolved to go all the way around without falling off. It was spring and school was almost over and I was going to play with the big kids before school was done. I was almost there too. It was a consistent ¾ trip around before I fell off. After a few minutes the man leaning against the building called to me telling me to come join him. “I can’t, I’m practicing.” was my reply.

After a few more unsuccessful attempts to go around he called to me again, wanting me to come over. “Not now.” was my answer. I was getting so close but just couldn’t get those last two ringers. It was so frustrating, I was almost there! But by then I was also getting tired, and was beginning to feel that maybe today would not be the day after all.
The man called to me again. “Sheesh!”, I thought. My ringers frustration and the frustration at this annoying man blended together. Ignoring the repeated lecture “Don’t talk to strangers”, I stomped my way over to him. “What?” I demanded. “I just wanted to talk.” he replied.“About what?” I asked, still feeling my frustration.

He was not a hippie after all I realized. He was sitting down with his legs straight out in front, he seemed tall. He was almost eye-to-eye with me standing next to him. I also noticed he was thin. He had on light khaki pants with very narrow legs and a madras plaid button down shirt. His hair was short brown, parted on the side but with longer bangs. Not hippie long, not even Beatles long. It was Beach Boys long. He reminded me of the son Jerry in the TV show The Mothers-in-Law that I liked to watch.

He started asking me question like where did I go to school, who was my teacher, did I like school, what was my favorite class. At some point he told me I should sit down and put me on his lap facing him. He just lifted me onto him before I could say anything. I was startled but he was asking me other questions, repeating ones I didn’t answer quickly enough. I was confused and distracted by his quick questions and wasn’t feeling comfortable sitting with him. He put his hand up the back of my shirt and started to rub my back. “How does he know I like it when my mom does that?” I thought.

I was not feeling safe at all, and by then I had already learned to trust that feeling. “I have to go.” I lied, while standing up. I didn’t really have to go home, no one was expecting me or would even miss me for hours. He took my little wrist. “No you don’t.” he replied. It wasn’t a challenge, just a statement. I didn’t understand how he knew so much about me. He knew about my Mom rubbing my back and he knew that I was lying just then.
But my wonderment was overshadowed by the fact he was stopping me from leaving. I didn’t know why he wouldn’t let me go, but now I was scared. I just wanted to go.“I’ll scream.” I threatened, knowing my brother's friends would come.“I’ll scream too.” He replied calmly.

That confused me so much. He can’t scream, people will think I did something wrong. I had started to pull away and was moving my wrist all around trying to make him let go. I did this when my older brother or sisters had a hold of me; it was how I could sometimes get away. He was so composed during my little struggle, but he had to lean forward to keep a hold of me as I pulled away. His grip was no looser however, his fingers wrapped completely around my tiny wrist. I was right by the gate, so close to an escape. I thought if I could just get through the gate I would be alright. We didn’t exchange any words that I remember, but at some point his wrist bone hit the fence post and his hand opened on reflex, I ran.

I ran out the gate, through the courtyard to the other side of the building, I didn’t look back until I was on the south side of the school, by my brother’s friends. Even though they were my brother’s friends and ignored me, I knew they would defend me and not let anyone take me away.

I looked back and the man from the playground wasn’t there. I ran the half block home as fast as my seven-year-old legs could run. When my sneakered foot touched the porch I knew I was safe. The evening paper was there so I knew it was after 4:00. I picked it up and walked inside. My Mom was sitting on the couch smoking a cigarette, an open book in her lap. She was watching ABC’s Wide World of Sports, so I knew it wasn’t yet 5:00. I set the paper down and went to my room. No one noticed my coming.

I never watched Mothers-In Law again. Twelve years would pass before I would tell anyone about that day. I never went to any playground alone after that and for years it made me nervious to even look at an empty playground.

There came a day years later when I realized what the man on the playground would have done to me if I hadn’t gotten away. I then felt so guilty about any child that he might have hurt because I didn’t tell. Some years after that I realized that I was only a child 7 years old, who had made a child’s choice out of fear of punishment. I also realized that he was an adult responsible for his actions and that his shame would be his alone and no longer mine to share.

And although it was one of the most frightening things that had happened to me up to that point in my young life, I continued to practice on the ringers and played on them with the big kids at Emerson Elementary before school was out. And I became one of he fastest kids at Whittier, the one to catch.

Friday, August 6, 2010

“Social Media” from my childhood

Transistor radio
Eight track player
Rotary dial telephone
AM Radio
US Mail
Rocky Mountain News (Morning Paper)
Denver Post (Evening Paper)
Reel to reel
Cassette player
TV with only 5 stations (and no remote):

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Lessons of an eight-year-old

When I was 8 we moved. Again. School had already started and that made me “the new girl”. Again. It would start with the staring as I walked in the room. I would want, so badly, to look around the class and spy the open desk so I would have some idea where I would be sitting and who I would be sitting next to. But the feeling of thirty pairs of eyes staring at me always stopped me. The mispronunciation of my name came next. This unique name that I really loved always brought me discomfort at this time. It would cause anyone who had looked away to look up at me again, a little more intently, thinking they misunderstood. And those who hadn’t looked away would frown trying to figure out my name.

A new school was only part of it. There was always a new neighborhood as well with all the social obstacles that came with it. There were always safe people and mean people and hateful people and they all looked alike at first. It was hard to know which was which until someone either told you or you found out for yourself. And some people might seem to be one, but turn out to be another.

So there I was 8 yrs old navigating a new school and a new neighborhood. One thing I noticed right away way the family next door had two children, a boy and a girl, and from the looks of them, they were around my age. This could either be good or bad depending if they were safe or mean. I did what I always did, kept my distance and watched for clues, some kind of action or words that would let me know if they were mean and I would then know to stay clear. However since it was cold out I didn’t have a chance to see them that much. I would usually watch them as they came and went from their car to the house. But I never really got any solid indication. That all changed one snowy night.

I remember it had been snowing since the afternoon. Not a heavy snow, just a steady snow. By dark I was tired of being in the house and thought it might be fun to shovel the walk. Also I loved early dark. The dark that came though it wasn’t really night. The dark that was there when the news was still on. I had never shoveled before and it looked so easy. So I put on my coat and gloves went outside and started pushing the snow. As I got down by the end of our walk, near the sidewalk, the boy from next door came walking by and asked me what I was doing. I wanted to reply with something smart like “What does it look like I am doing?” but not knowing if he was mean or not I opted for “Shoveling.”
“Why are you doing that?” he asked.
Again, I was careful with my reply and answered, “So the snow won’t be on the sidewalk.”
“No,” he clarified, “Why are YOU doing that? It is men’s work.”
Mind you, he didn’t offer to take over, he just wanted me to know.

This was my first contact with a family that would off and on for years take me in as their own. I felt like I belonged to their family more than I felt like I belonged to my own. It was the one friendship that withstood all of the many moves my family made and the test of years passing. Even after years, see them was always like we had never been apart.

The boy was in my grade at school, his sister a grade below us. We all played together had the same friends and I slept and ate at their house as often as I could. If they had family outing or their parents took the kids to go somewhere, I was invited.

In the two years we lived next door to them I got to go so many places that I had never been and would never had had the opportunity to go. We went to the dairy where they got their milk; to the drive-in where their dad parked the station wagon backwards to we could lay in the back and watch the movies. There was an exciting trip to Eliches where my best-girlfriend-ever and I screamed and scream because we were quite sure we were going to die on the Sky Ride. You know, the one that was like a ski lift that went to the Round-Up and back slower than the people walking below? Yea, we were scared and enjoyed every minute of it. There were trips to Farmer’s Markets and to Metropolitan College were their dad went to school (and a vending machine was). There was also one memorable trip though that taught me about hatred, prejudice, compassion and love.

One hot summer day when my girlfriend, her brother and I were playing their dad came up and said, “Come on, we’re going.” Nothing unusual there, we got in the car to go. When we asked where we were going the answer was “You’ll see.” We knew that meant he would not tell us no matter what so we just waited. And waited. And waited. We drove through the city, to the country, past all these farms. We would approach towns, but go right past them. What seemed like an eternity later we were parking at some kind of amusement park with rides!! It was Cheyenne Frontier Days. I had never heard of it but it had games and food and rides and music and horses and cows and everything! It was incredible. We walked around and saw everything. There were all these cowboys walking around. I had never seen a real cowboy before that. It was so exciting. The rides, the games and as night fell, all the lights. It was beautiful.

There was this one game that was similar to the games you see in some restaurants now where you have a claw thing and try to get candy or a stuffed toy. This was like that but shorter and longer with games all lined together with the attendant standing behind them. Well my girlfriend took her money and put it in one of these machines but nothing happened. The attendant didn’t notice. My friend tried to shake the coin drop and pound it, but carefully since the attendant was there. Nothing helped, the game was not working. She walked over to her dad and told him what happened. He came over and tried it but it still wouldn’t work.
“Excuse me,” he called to the attendant, “this machine took my daughters money.”
The attendant looked at him and shrugged.
“I don’t think you understood me. This machine doesn’t work. She didn’t get to play, it just took her money.”
The attendant said, “Too bad.”
“Look this game took my daughters money, you either let her play another game or give her her money back.”
I don’t remember exactly what the attendant said next but I know it had the word nigger in it.

Before he had finished saying it my friend’s dad had his hands on the counter and was on his way over. The attendant was ready and pulled out something silver and quick as lightening hit my friend’s dad in the forehead. The blow knocked him back and blood started running freely from a cut above his eye. My friend started to cry and everything around us seemed to stop for an instant. My friend’s dad then had us go with him to find a cop. I remember rushing after him and trying to calm down my crying friend, lying to her that everything would be alright, but I wasn’t really sure. I was scared too but I was more concerned for my friend. I wished that I was older, more grown up so she would trust my words and I could make her not worry. Wishing I was big enough to hold her so I could wrap safety around her with my arms.

I don’t really remember much after that other than the cop we found wasn’t really nice to my friends injured dad. And I remember the long quite ride home, all the happiness in the day erased by a giant wrench swung by a redneck racist no better than his upbringing. It has been 40 years since that day, I have never gone to Frontier Days again, but every year when the advertisement comes on I think of that night.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010


There is a knock at the door, which is strange. But it is ok, I can answer it.

Mom and my sister CAS have just left to go to Safeway. That left me there in charge. I am so excited. Ten is plenty old enough to be left alone. I loved being alone, it so seldom happens in the small houses we lived in with so many people. And now someone was at the door and I get to answer it all by myself.

I don’t recognize the man at the door. He doesn’t say hello or ask for anyone in my family, instead he quickly scans the room behind me and asks if my parents are home.
“No..” I begin, “That’s Ok, you can help me.” he interrupts as he pushes his way in, and closes the door behind himself.

We live in the projects. Church projects, but projects none the less. They are two-story townhome like units. Four to a row. Living/dining room and the kitchen on the first floor, 3 bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs. Our place is second from the end and closest to the parking lot off the alley. It faces north and is tucked back between the units on either side.

The stranger strides into the house without hesitation. He goes directly through the living room area to the linoleum dinning room table and spreads out a map. He takes out a highlighter and makes two x’s, one on the left and one on the right of the map. He pulls a chair out and instructs me to kneel on the chair and place my hands on each of the x’s. I am in an awkward pose, leaning forward over the table, arms out wide like I am about to do a push up. “Wait,” he says, “let me move the chair.” He rotates the chair so the back of it is on my left and has me put my hands on the x’s again.

The floor plan is an open rectangle. The living room at the front end has the front door and a window. The dining room had a patio slider. The patio faced out to a common area with a building that houses the laundry room. There is a sidewalk that is directly behind our patio door that people used to get to the parking lot or the laundry. Mom keeps the curtains closed most of the time so people wouldn’t be nosy and look into our place.

I am facing those closed curtains now. Everything has happened so fast since this man came in, I am so confused. I don’t know what to make of any of it. He is still talking, fast now. He is telling me I am doing a good job and that I am doing it right but he is only talking about my hand on the x’s. Why are my hands on the x’s? What am I suppose to be looking at? He is standing behind me now and places his hands next to mine on either side. Then he leans against me from behind. I feel something press against my buttocks. I don’t know what it is, I think it is the highlighter he used but it is still on the table in front of me.

Safeway is a five block walk away. There is a small store that is only two blocks away but it really doesn’t carry much and it costs way more so mom tries not to buy stuff there. Us kids go there a lot however for candy or soda. We can also turn in old soda bottles for cash. My sister TJS’s favorite thing there is the burritos. They cook them on a stove they have there and sell them wrapped in foil. My sister is right, they are yummy.
It is a quick walk to the little store but Safeway is a long five block walk, ten blocks round trip not counting shopping time. Mom and CAS will be gone for a while.

His voice changes now, deeper and slower, telling me I am doing a good job and he is moving back and forth behind me pressing harder now. I have no idea what is going on but something is wrong. It all feels wrong. My mouth has gone dry, I am scared and I don’t know what to do. Without thinking I duck under his right arm and am off the chair. “You have to go,” I say. “My mom and sister just went to the corner store and will be back soon and I will get in trouble for letting anyone in.” I lie the thing I hear a thousand times in the projects. No one is allowed in the house if a parent isn’t there. We don’t have that rule at home but it is a convincing lie. And thankfully it works. He quickly gathers up his map and highlighter off the table, is mumbling something about coming back another time when my mom is home and is out the door as fast as he came in it. I lock the door behind him and then I start to shake. I still don’t know what has happened but I know I feel sick to my stomach and I am suddenly cold. I want to go outside and stand in the sun but am scared. I sit down on the couch and stare blindly at the TV.

Mom and CAS come home about a half hour later with the groceries. I help put them away. I don’t tell them or anyone else what has happened. I didn’t want to get in trouble. When I am asked if I am ok, I say I have a headache. No one knows the truth.

A few years later this day makes sense. I understand what had happened. And a few years after that, I understand what could have happened and I realized how incredibly lucky I was.

I see this man once more in my life. I am still ten and some months have passed since I first saw him. I am on the swing set in the courtyard in front of our row of townhouses swinging away. I love the sensation of swinging. The back and forth rhythm and the weightless sensation at the top before falling back again. The feeling of the wind blowing in my hair. I love using the weight if my body and stretch of my legs to keep the constant pace. I always feel so peaceful swinging. There is no one else on the swing set, lucky me; I have it all to myself. Then I get the feeling that someone is looking at me.

I look to my left and there in our next door neighbor’s window, he is. There is a faint smile on his face as he stares straight at me. I am so suddenly and completely scared I almost pee myself. I quickly look away. A thousand thoughts flitter through my mind at once. RUN being the first and most consistent. I am confused again. He must be in the neighbor’s house without their knowing, they are moving today and he must have snuck in. Then the realization comes. They know him.

RUN RUN RUN my brain keeps saying. I slowly stop the swing. I don’t want him to know that I am aware who he is or that I am scared. I want to run but I am afraid that if I do he will chase me. You know, like dogs will do, if you run, they chase you. Instead I walk mechanically to my front door using all my strength to not look at the window again. I am scared he will still be there and I am scared he won’t.

I am back on the couch, staring at the TV, when they ask, I'll say I have a headache.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010


Candy Cigarette
Wax Lips
Charm Pops
Sugar Daddy
Candy Necklace
Blow Pops
Tootsi pops
Bazooka Bubble Gum
Gold Mine Gum
Jolly Rancher Sticks
Wax Cola Bottles
Sugar Babies

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Emergency Room

I am 16 years old standing in the Emergency Room on the phone with my mom. The phone is in my left hand and I am purposely keeping my right hand out of my line of vision. As long as I don't look at it I am ok.

“Mom, I was in a car accident. I am at a Hospital in Aurora.” My voice is calm and even, no crying. I am in shock. The reply I am expecting to hear is she will be right over. That she is coming to take care of me and everything will be alright. Instead she said, “Have them transfer you over to University Hospital. I am here already with your brother.”

I hang up and make the necessary arrangements to have an ambulance transfer me to Colorado University Hospital. Shock or no shock; accident or no accident, it is up to me. Again. I am “the baby” in name only. The youngest of five, but mom is done raising kids. I have become "my adult”, responsible for anything that requires responsibility. I have been that for years now.

My Mom. Born illegitimate in New York City in 1928 grew up to be the smartest person I have ever known. And funny. She stood strong and mighty behind what she believed in. I just wish that she would have picked raising her children as something she believed in.

So here I am, child number five, standing in an Emergency Room, and mom is done doing a job she never really wanted, nor was ever really good at. They put me in an ambulance and sent me on my way. Thirty minutes later I am in a private area of University Hospital Emergency Room waiting for my mom to come down from my brother’s room. Another Emergency Room without my mother. My brother had an abscess in his lung and it kept filling with fluid despite the draining tube he had. When mom comes in I can see her concern. She is unclear about the extent of my injuries. I am happy she is here but am feeling worried that she will be leaving me alone to go check on my brother.

Mom got married at 20 years old in 1948. She had her first child in December 1949; second in June 1951; third December 1952; fourth January 1956 and me in December 1960. My mom, who I believe in my heart never wanted children had five all with a man she didn't love when she married him...or maybe ever.

I am still calm and without tears, but I still keep my right hand out of sight. What I don’t see, can’t be real. I am explaining the ambulance transfer to my mother while the nurse gets me situated. While I am talking to my mom a Doctor comes in and asks if I am ok. He is in a hospital gown and has an IV in his arm the IV bag on a wheeled pole so he can get around. He looks very worried about me. This all confuses me. I am scared now that my Doctor is sick. It is my brother but in my shock I don’t realize it.

I once asked my Mom why she married a man that she had only known 8 weeks and only had seen on the weekends. Her matter of fact answer was, “I was 20 and didn't want to be an old maid.” What I should have asked her was why she had five children but I knew that in the decades her children were born, birth control was almost unheard of.

As I try to understand why my brother is my doctor my sister Colleen comes in. She looks so very worried. I look up at her, hold out my right hand and say “I lost my finger.” and I look at it for the first time. Then I
start crying. Hard. I no longer need to worry, Colleen is there I know that she won’t leave me and that she will take care of me and handle anything that needs to be handled. I no longer need to be brave or strong, Colleen will take care of me as she always has. Colleen, my mother by unofficial proxy. I can now be “the baby” who has a major concussion, lost the tip of her finger and was lucky to be alive after being in a car that rolled over on the highway 60 miles outside of Denver.

In 1964 my dad went out to get a pack of cigarettes and never came back. Literally. Overnight mom was responsible for supporting herself and five children. A task that was barely being accomplished with dad’s help. She later told me that she had a breakdown in the weeks after he left. She went to a psychiatrist who wanted to hospitalize her. That meant that we five would become wards of the court. She would not have us during that time. Maybe never again. Mom told me the only reason she wouldn't agree was she didn't want to be like dad. She didn't want to quit like he did. I waited for more, but she was done. No talk of loving us or not wanting to be apart from us. Mom’s explanation was complete.

I am in the hospital late into the night getting patched up but get to go home when the doctor is done. Over time my finger heals, only a bit of it gone, I never miss it. My brain takes a little longer, but it heals too and most of my memories come back.  Eventually even my fear of cars goes away.

Years later my heart heals too. I come to understand my mom. I always knew that she loved us and I realize that her neglect was never anything personal. While she may not have always been there for us emotionally, she did her best. She always kept us fed, clothed and housed. She taught us the joy of reading and of humor. We learned to stand up for what we believe in. We learned about the equality of all people and to respect the opinions of others. We learned manners and how to behave in public. And somehow, we also learned to love.