Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Thanksgiving in January

 My husband's talents have made us a nice life. My children benefit from his efforts daily with private school, extracurricular ballet, swimming. They have every toy known to man and they are engaging and confident. They are excellent restaurant diners, because we have been able to practice a lot, and generally polite and well behaved. When they are less than polite and well behaved, I worry if we have been too easy on them. Do they need to know that they are insanely lucky and that most children will never eat/watch/play with a tenth of what they do on a daily basis? I think of my own childhood, which was also charmed, despite an early divorce and the fact that we moved a lot. Then I remembered Chicken Skin Jim.


Now, before I elaborate, I should mention that, while we never went hungry or without the basics, we were usually the least wealthy family in most of the places we lived. We were solidly middle class but lived in some pretty fabulous places just before they became regular subjects of Robin Leach's on air worship of the almighty dollar, so the spectrum of wealth was astonishing. In Aspen, where I lived until I was ten, the disparity wasn't as evident. Jet owners mingled with housekeepers and a good time was had by all.

Post divorce landed us in a series of rentals. First there was the house in Woody Creek with loft bedrooms and Hunter Thompson supposedly lurking around nearby. Then there was the gigantic converted barn smack in the middle of Red Mountain, one of the primest pieces of real estate on earth. After that, an enormous blue Victorian in town, with a woman down the street who taught me how to play backgammon. The last place we lived, before we left the state was a housing development in Carbondale, the first of its kind I imagine, where each house was identical to the next and had just enough space between them to walk through without brushing against either building. And then somewhere in between was the trailer park.

Now, the trailer park was in Aspen proper, so it was sort of kitschy, maybe like Malibu trailer parks might seem now. But it was still a trailer park in the Colorado Mountains. We spend one entire summer in a three bedroom one bathroom trailer with a prefab kitchen and a tiny living room. It even had a teensy yard for our trampoline. My sister and I loved it because it was like every Barbie Dream Van we had ever lusted after.

My Mother was not so thrilled, for obvious reasons, not to mention that it was right around the time that Ted Bundy escaped from the local courthouse and fled. My mother spent that summer in terror. We were blissfully unaware of what he was all about, and spent the summer jumping on the trampoline and making blueberry smoothies.

We befriended a girl who lived a few trailers away. Her name was Tamara, and she looked exactly like the stereotypical trailer park red head: chubby and freckled with carrot colored hair. We could have been sisters. She was high strung and lived with her Grandparents, who were extremely religious. If she, a girl of eight, was caught putting tennis balls in her shirt to look like "boobies", she was punished. I don't think she was beaten, but she got grounded for the silliest things. This fascinated us since we rarely got punished for anything, and the tennis balls would have made my Mother laugh.

Tamara would hang out at our trailer all the time. Things seemed sort of normal until she would say something alarming, and my Mother would be sent into a tailspin. One afternoon she was making us blueberry smoothies and Tamara wandered in. She asked what we were up to, and we showed her the blender. She looked quizzical and said “What’s a blueberry?".

We all stared at her and then at one another. How to explain...um, it is a berry that is, well, blue....

How could she have gone through eight years of life and never encountered a blueberry? Jelly? Pancakes? Muffins? Ice cream? Yogurt? Pie? We were baffled. It's not like we were making lychee smoothies or kombuchka blends or something exotic and foreign. It was a blueberry.

In time, we grew tired of Tamara and her histrionics. She was very sensitive and difficult to play with since she was an only child who spent a lot of time alone. My sister and I had each other and had many other friends to play with that summer and mind you, we were eight and ten. She became a nuisance after awhile. Our solution, so as not to be cruel, was this: when she called, we would answer the telephone and say "Mike's Pizza? Can I help you?” Whoever wasn't talking would simulate pizza parlor sounds in the background, like a jukebox or other customers ordering food. I was particularly good and doing the "nyar nyar nyar nyar" of the guitar portion of whatever song was supposedly playing at the time. She knew it was us. She was unrelenting. So were we. This went on for days until she finally stopped calling or dropping by.

We moved to another house a few weeks later. And never saw her again. Not my finest moment aa a  human being, I know. Tamara, if you are reading this, I am truly sorry that I hurt your feelings and that I posed all twelve of the dolls in your room to have only their middle fingers up when you weren't looking.

She was not our only stray child that summer. There was a slight, pale dazed looking kid named Jim who lived at the other end of the trailer park. He had an older brother that was always in trouble with local police. Jim must have been left alone a lot because right around meal time he would appear at the screen door and silently press his face against the tiny squares. My Mother would be making dinner and asking us to help by throwing away the stuff she couldn't use. He would sit on the couch and watch her.

"Hey girls, who wants to throw out these carrot skins?” Before anyone could move Jim would shout out "I'LL EAT IT!!” This applied to everything that we threw away. Most of the time my Mother would humor him (and I am certain that she fed him an actual meal on many occasions) and hand whatever it was over.
One evening, my Mother was making something with chicken and had a handful of skins that needed to be thrown out. Jim was in his usual spot. When she said “who wants to give these chicken skins to the cat?"
Jim hollered “I’LL EAT IT!!". My Mother paused and said, kindly," Well, I don't know, Jim, these are chicken skins. I don't think you are going to want to eat these...” He looked carefully at the contents of the bowl she was carrying and reluctantly agreed.

From that day forth, he was known in our trailer as Chicken Skin Jim. Not to his face, of course, but we well fed, well educated, overly indulged children thought that it was hilarious that he would volunteer to eat chicken skin. I am pretty sure that it didn't occur to me until much later how hungry he must have been, which explains why my Mother so desperately hated living there, with everyone around us living so close to the edge. I imagine it must bring up mixed feelings when you expose your kids to a life that they would probably never choose to live. We knew that the trailer park was temporary, but Jim probably never left until he joined his older brother's exploits. I realized much later in gazing at my preschool photo that, aside from noticing that I am about to cry,there is half of another child lurking in the background. Upon close inspection, it is Chicken Skin Jim, silently peering into the camera over my right shoulder. An eternal  reminder, I suppose, that life is harder for most that it has been for me.

I am deeply grateful to my parents for allowing me a charmed life and to my husband for giving our girls that same opportunity. After all, there before the grace of whatever-runs-this-place go all of us.

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