Friday, October 29, 2010

Family Vacation of Death

My husband called yesterday morning saying something about the discovery of "nine heads on a golf course" in Punta Mita, Mexico. He wasn't pitching me the sequel to the Joe Pesci flop from 1997, either. He must have been talking to Mr. G again, a new acquaintance, who seems uncharacteristically "in the know" about the gory unreported details of the raging drug war in Mexico. He works with a security company, and he has a rapt audience in my husband since we are traveling to Punta Mita for Christmas vacation in seven short weeks. Mr. G has kindly, if not eagerly, sent us the official reports via email. The information is also available on the Internet and, while it is disturbing, there is no mention of nine heads on a golf course. They do mention one attack on a golf course and one head, so maybe nine simply makes for a better story. There have also been a rash of drug related murders, beheadings and car-jackings in Tepic, the capital of Nayarit, which is 80 miles north of Punta Mita. Two days ago, fifteen men from a rehab center were gunned down while working at a car wash. The homicide rate has increased by four hundred fifty eight percent in Tepic in the last six months alone, so clearly the drug gangs are ramping up their activities. They have had almost as many murders since the year began as Los Angeles has, but they only have a population of three hundred thousand, not thirteen million. Gee, that sounds like the perfect climate for a family vacation, right? "That is NOT a soccer ball,girls, DO NOT KICK THE HEAD!"

I was warned by someone that Mr. G's well intentioned sharing of information can often result in just freaking people out. He enjoys the pupil dilation and the elevated heart rates a little too much. He does a lot of "nah, you'll be fine....but did you hear about the massacre at the laundromat?". Unfortunately for us, he actually knows what is going on, which is part of the problem- knowing the facts. On the rare occasion that I see the police blotter in our rinky dink neighborhood newspaper, I often feel a little less safe because most of the houses that get robbed in any given week are two or three blocks from mine. Had it gone unread, I would be blissfully unaware. I tell myself that dreadful things can happen anywhere. If the gang warfare in Tepic gets worse, it is still miles from where we will be and unlikely to affect us, except maybe the heads on the golf course. That might put a damper on his vacation if the trajectory of my father in law's golf ball is interrupted by a severed head. Since I won't be playing golf, for me the concern is the remote stretches of winding coastal roads between our accommodations and the town. The very thought of ever leaving the vacation house gives me the willies. I can't help but play out the scenario of the inevitable car jacking on the way to a nice dinner, or returning from the beach, where a black SUV cuts us off in our rental van and forces us to stop. Four men get out, all dressed alike, with mirrored aviator sunglasses and automatic weapons. They demand our money, belongings, the car. They even take the kid's toys. The kids are crying. We are crying, and all of us are scarred for life, if we survive at all. So far only one person has been shot during a car jacking, but many have been left by the side of the road, relieved of their possessions and stranded.

The rational part of me says, "Go on your vacation. Relax. Don't buy into it, it's hype, it's the media, they'll say anything to scare the shit out of people. Most of the casualties have been people with ties to the gangs, the drugs they sell, or locals in the wrong place at the wrong time". The reactive part of me says, "Who vacations in the middle of a drug war? What if they turn their attention to the areas rife with stupid fat tourists like us? What if they start kidnapping cute curly haired kids for ransom?". A small part of me thinks that they might give back the three and half year old after a few hours, but who knows, maybe kidnappers can get her to behave.

Mr.G can talk all he wants about severed heads, but he has no idea what comes next and neither does anyone else. We can always cancel the trip and take our chances at home which, statistically, we do every day. A friend of mine said after a long discussion this morning, "If something awful happens, it won't be what you thought it would be". That really makes me hope that my luggage gets lost, or that I get Montezuma's Revenge instead of decapitated. My biggest task will be simply controlling my paranoia sufficiently so I that am not constantly dragging my kids by the hair to hide under tables or behind doors because a car backfires or a group of rowdy men enters the restaurant where we are eating. I will be on alert the whole time. I will accidentally order a severed head for dinner because I can't stop thinking about it. I will probably not sleep well. I will dress down so much that other people will think that I am the impoverished nanny. If I return from Punta Mita with my children, my husband and my head, the trip will be a success.
Many thanks to La Familia, the Zetas and the Sinaloa cartel-led by Mexico's most-wanted man-Joaquin "Shorty" Guzman. This was supposed to be a relaxing vacation. It isn't exactly free either, so while we try and get the drugs you peddle legalized, maybe you should take a few days off as well? I can imagine that all that massacring has left you more than a little tuckered out. Why not hop on one of your many yachts and sail away somewhere? I hear the jet skiing at Falcon Lake is sublime.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Oh, Lord, won'tcha buy me......

The call came at 8:37 last Friday morning. It went something like this:

"Ma'am? This is Lieutenant Lord. I am calling from the Air National Guard center in Florida? We received a notification of a distress beacon being activated by your husband, and you are listed as his emergency contact".

I am still in my bathrobe. My husband left an hour ago to take the kids to school, and, to my knowledge, his fancy car is not equipped with an emergency beacon. I have no idea what this Lord character is talking about. Then it hits me- the emergency beacon. My parents.The Grand Canyon. They pushed the button. They pushed the button?!. I explain that I am his daughter, not his wife, and give Lord my father's cell number. Inexplicably, I can't find my step mother's number. I tell him I will have to call him back. I call her office, and her assistant reminds me that she is in the Grand Canyon. Yes, I know this, and so does the National Guard. When I call back with her cell number, I accidentally say "Uh, Lord? I mean, sorry....Lieutenant Lord...what happens now?". God, how I suck in an emergency. It's just that his name reminds me of this time when I was a kid. I saw a man wearing a t-shirt that said "Lordy Lordy, Doug is forty". I turned to my father, who wasn't yet forty, and said "heh, heh, too bad your name isn't Doug". He paused and said, kindly,"oh, I don't know, Lordy Lordy John is forty works pretty well". Yeah, I think it took me awhile to find my funny, and luckily my hysterically funny Dad was patient.

Anyway, Lord tells me that they will sending a rescue helicopter if they can't make telephone contact. He also tells me that people often set off the beacon accidentally. I thank him and hang up. I text my sister, who is at a medical conference in Toronto. It feels strange writing "the beacon was activated, helicopter is going in". It makes me feel as if we are in some sort of spy movie, but I have no secret weapons or cool gadgets. I have a distress signal and a guy named Lord. I have no idea what to do. My plan to workout and go to the grocery store seems ludicrous compared to what my parents must be experiencing. It is now ten o'clock. I 'm hunched over the computer researching emergency beacon statistics and running over the various scenarios in my head: did they get injured? are they lost? did they run out of water?

My parents are not weenies. They are not yuppie hikers who decided to conquer the Grand Canyon because their Medicare kicked in. They have been hiking there for thirty years. They moved to Arizona for two years to be close enough to hike the Canyon regularly. They developed a line of dehydrated camping food for God's sake. If there was a pageant, they would win Mr. and Mrs. Grand Canyon, or at the very least be first runners up. I know they didn't accidentally set off the beacon.

I am strangely calm, since I have no information, and I am in the comfort of my home- not sitting at the bottom of one of the seven natural wonders of the world and wondering when help will arrive. I can't seem to leave the house, feeling like I might miss the call if I go to the gym. I don't want to become hysterical at the Trader Joe's check out line if they call asking where to send remains-morbid yes, but entirely possible. I text my sister that we should be glad that they aren't in the middle of some political fray in addition to being injured or sick. We should feel lucky that we aren't having to line up to kiss Bill Clinton's extremely well connected and slim vegetarian behind to get our parents back for us.

By eleven o'clock, I was starting to worry. I have seen enough television movies from the eighties about people trapped on rock faces, or caught in avalanches, and the race with the clock to save them. Someone always dies or loses a limb. What begins as an excursion into nature becomes terrifying and deadly, making the viewer question why anyone would ever leave the safety of their living room.

I end up passing out on my bed at noon with my cell phone cradled in my lap. I wake up at two, bleary and uncertain and take a shower. No news, still. I have the added pressure of concert tickets to see Tom Petty at the Hollywood Bowl and am feeling funny about leaving this unfinished missing parents business to go drink wine and sing "Learning to Fly" with a bunch of strangers. I leave the house and try to buy picnic stuff but nothing seems appetizing- hey, the Worry Diet! It really works! I end up buying the ingredients to make a picnic at home. I need the therapy and the distraction of cooking. I pick up the kids at school and cook for two hours- roasted veggie salad; quinoa with basil, pine nuts and cranberries; mushroom ravioli with a mushroom duxelle; spicy peanut noodles; and a roasted beet and orange salad with creamy blue cheese and walnuts. I know it's delicious, but it all tastes like chalk to me.

By five, I am getting panicky. I go upstairs to change my clothes a half a dozen times, and, when I come back down, I see I have a missed phone call. I see the number and yell the F-word. Big chimes in "why'd you say fuck, Mom?". Little whispers "fuck fuck fuck" quietly to her dolls. I don't care. I don't even respond. I frantically call back. Dana, the representative from the beacon company, who I'd spoken with earlier in the day, informs me that they have been located. They are alive and seem well enough, but the helicopter is unable to land. She has been told by the pilot that the "woman kept pointing to the man" and that a ground crew is en route. So no one was dead, but they were still down there, stuck. I told her, awkwardly, that I had to go out in a few minutes and to please leave any future messages on my phone. I hang up, wondering if we should just cancel the concert. Thirty minutes later, the phone rings again-this time it is the Arizona dispatch number. I dive for the phone, pick it up and tentatively say "hello?" It is my step mother. They have been airlifted out and are at the hospital. She is okay, he is severely dehydrated. I breath a sigh of relief, welcome her back to the land of the living and pack up the one hitter to go blow off some steam with ZZ Top and Tom Petty. We eat delicious food (even if I do say so myself) and belt out "Don't Come Around Here No More", "Refugee", "American Girl" as if it's finale week on American Idol. I wake up feeling hungover but hopeful.

However, the situation remains unresolved. They just went home today, after nine days in the Flagstaff hospital. Dehydration is a bitch, to say the very least, and sufficient water is truly as important as all the experts claim. No one can say when it will get better, so we can only wish for a speedy, complete recovery. We are lucky, as another man died the same day my parents were airlifted out. He was taking photographs on the edge of the rim when he fell in. He was wearing sandals. My thoughts go out to his girlfriend and to the two bystanders that were struck by not one,but two bolts of lightning that came down from the sky just after he fell. I couldn't help but wonder what the hell that guy did to piss off God that much, even though I don't actually believe in God per se. However, if it was you, oh Lord, God, Ishvar,Yahweh,El Cantare, Allah, Maleldil, Adonai, Buddha, Ganesha- whatever you prefer to be called-that pushed that guy in,threw down those deadly bolts, but let my Dad live, then thanks, really, thanks so very much.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Thanks, Sister

In 1994, I lived with my sister in a two bedroom apartment on South Granville Avenue in West Los Angeles. I was twenty five and having a major career slump. We called the area "no man's land", because it was profoundly nondescript and vibeless, with no real neighborhood to speak of. It was also affordable,unlike the hipper eastside neighborhoods we'd lived in before. Our apartment was in one of those peach and brown colored motel style buildings where all of the units faced a grim kidney shaped pool. The year we lived there played like a low-rent version of Melrose Place and had all the requisite drama.
The renters on the first floor consisted of a couple from New Jersey that thought my sister and I were lesbians, despite the obvious family resemblance. He had long Axl Rose hair, a whopping caterpillar mustache, and an accent so thick that it could feed a small African village. She was raspy and skinny and seemed to live in her miniscule two piece bathing suit. They had large pool parties with lots of beer and the likes of Whitesnake and Metallica blasting on the stereo. They also had a black cat that was my cat's Doppelganger. Every time I walked by their open front door, I would see my cat sitting there staring at me balefully and have a mini heart attack, wondering how the hell he got in to their place. Their neighbor was a large single man with curly brown hair, thick glasses and a fairly pronounced case of Tourette's syndrome. We could hear him approaching the building because he was quite loud, following each outburst with multiple apologies-"F*ck! F*ck! F*ck! Sorry..sorry..sorry". He seemed like a nice person, but his affliction definitely kept us from inviting him to the Nuart for the Ingmar Bergman retrospective or out to a quiet dinner.To his left lived an African American couple that pretty much kept to themselves. The only interaction I had with the wife was just after I had put one of my cats to sleep. I came home with the empty carrier, and she was standing in the courtyard. She saw the carrier and said "Awww... who we got in there?" to which I replied "No one" and went upstairs to weep uncontrollably for an hour and a half. Call me antisocial, but if I had tried to explain, I would have lost it in the courtyard, and I really did not want to do that. The last apartment downstairs belonged to a young married couple. He was small and diffident with shoulder length hair,a trimmed mustache and glasses. She was very outdoorsy and wore oversized t-shirts,shorts and Tevas all of the time. I rarely spoke with them or saw them, but the husband sent me an extraordinarily inappropriate note about nine months after we moved in declaring his lust and desire for me and asking me to give him an indication of reciprocation by putting a red ribbon on my door handle. Seeing as he was married, and I did not reciprocate in the slightest, I just tried to avoid all contact for the next few months, which turned doing laundry and taking out the garbage into stealth operations.

Upstairs was even stranger. In the first unit, we had John, an angry heavyset thirtiesh receding redhead who lived in a studio and had subscriptions to Soldier of Fortune and Guns n' Ammo. He was polite,if not solicitous, unless he was randomly shouting "Fucking N&*%ers" in the general direction of the Afrian American couple's apartment when they left their laundry in the machines too long. The first time I heard it, I thought the Tourette's man had changed his repertoire. When I realized that it was coming from the lair of what could easily have been the next Unibomber, we started thinking about moving. Next to John, there was James, a celebrity photographer. He had a sensational portfolio and was kind enough to photograph me as a favor. He went on to publish a beautiful and haunting book of photographs about being American before dying a few years ago from kidney disease. He might have been the only other normal person in the whole building. The studio next to his was a revolving door of random Russians and college students that partied all night and never paid their rent. My sister's room shared their wall, so she spent a lot of time at her boyfriend's apartment to escape the noise. On the other side, there was Michelle, the manager, who lived alone. She was delicate and pale, with short red hair. She kept to herself,or so she thought. She would come home every day after work and grace us with the muffled sounds of self pleasuring. It was a little awkward because if we had a tenant issue, if was difficult to look her in the eye when she answered the door since we knew she wasn't exactly playing Pinochle in there. Next to Michelle lived a pretty Asian woman who we rarely saw, but whose attire suggested that she might be employed in the adult entertainment industry. I once went to deliver a piece of mail to her apartment and saw a magazine on her doorstep. I picked it up to slide it under the door and glanced at the cover. The image on the front was beyond X-rated, the kind that scars a person for life. It made the Cragslist casual encounters page look like a church newsletter. I threw it down like it was covered with ants and went home and washed my hands thoroughly. One Sunday morning, an angry man in a black Corvette showed up, still wearing Saturday night's clothes, and began yelling threats up to her from the driveway. We all watched from the slatted vertical blind covered windows as he revved his engine and hollered. Eventually a shoeless shirtless man bolted out of her apartment and ran away as fast as he could. The Corvette man didn't chase him. He nodded slowly to himself,put onhis sunglasses,got back in his car and drove away, never to be seen again. The final apartment was inhabited by an over zealous cat lover named Arlene who had five giant cats in her one bedroom that were allowed to roam freely outside. During the summer,their presence caused such a flea explosion in the back parking lot that the blacktop was literally pulsating with ten million shiny black jumping fleas, like some low budget sci-fi movie. For two weeks, we listened to the tenant's frantic footsteps, running from their cars at night, vainly trying to escape the inevitable forty fleas catching a ride into their apartments and biting the shit out of their entire body. My sister and I had taken to parking on the street to avoid the flea issue entirely, but they slowly migrated down the driveway. When the Terminix man arrived, thinking it was a straightforward case of fleas, he retreated in a panic, claiming never to have seen such an infestation. He sprayed the parking lot several times and eventually the fleas subsided and the footsteps returned to normal.

One afternoon, just before our lease was up, a nun, dressed in a traditional habit, strolled down the driveway and asked about the room for rent. I assumed she was referring to the crash pad next to our place, where no one stayed more than a few months. She asked if it was a quiet building. I looked at her sweet beaming face, and I pondered this question: with the sporadic racial epithets, the ridiculous pool parties, the constant masturbating, the 3 a.m. parties, the menacing boyfriends, the lust letters, the menagerie of cats, and the guy with Tourette's syndrome-was it quiet? I shook my head. It most certainly wasn't quiet at all, and it really wasn't the place for her. She thanked me-called me an angel- and left. As she walked away, it struck me that the only positive thing about living in that apartment was that it didn't collapse during the big earthquake. I wasn't there when it happened, but my cats survived and most of my stuff did too, so for that I am grateful.
I looked up at the peeling peach colored paint and banal exterior of the building and realized that, for the past year, life had been more bizarre at the place I called home than anything I was exposed to in outside world.It was definitely time to go. Definitely. I owe a thank you to the kind Sister, who I hope found herself a cozy place to hang her habit. She may not have saved my soul, but she sure helped me see the light.