You Can’t Go Home Again

My Old High School Gets Razed

As I sit here sweltering in Los Angeles, I am conscious of the scenes of my past being erased from view, almost as if they had never existed.

But they did. Chanel High School in Bedford, Ohio was the scene of my triumphs. I was not only the valedictorian of my class, but also the recipient of the Mr. Chanel award for my contributions to the school. Because of budgetary constraints felt by the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland, Chanel was shut down in 2013. Today, I discovered in an email from my brother Dan that the school is now being wrecked by the City of Bedford.

Chanel High, which ended its life as St. Peter Chanel High, was opened in 1957. I was in the second graduating class of the school (1962), having started out as a freshman when there was only a sophomore class ahead of me.

old St. Henry Elementary School on Harvard Road, which I attended between 1951 and 1958. has been closed down for some time. No longer are the devoted Dominican Sisters who taught me walking the halls rustling the large wooden rosaries they wore, and Father John Hreha has no one to yell at. I believe it now exists as the Harvard Community Services Center.

My very first school, Harvey Rice Elementary at 2730 East 116th Street in Cleveland, still exists. I went there for Kindergarten and half of First Grade. I didn’t do well because I didn’t speak English at that time, only Hungarian. When we moved to the Harvard-Lee area in the summer of 1951, I was signed up for Second Grade at the new St. Henry School, never having completed First Grade. (Sometimes, I still fear that knock at the door in the middle of the night reminding me that I have to go back to Cleveland to finish First Grade.)

Dites-moi où, dans quel pays,
Est Flora la belle Romaine,
Archipiades, et Thaïs,
Qui fut sa cousine germaine,
Echo, parlant quant bruit on mène
Dessus rivière ou sur étang,
Qui beauté eut surhumaine ?
Mais où sont les neiges d’antan ?

Sometimes, I feel as if my life were one of the novels of the Argentinian César Aira, whose stories progress like one of those Roomba vacuums—always going forward, and never back.

Even though much of my past has been erased, Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire is still around. But since most of the stately elm trees died of Dutch Elm Disease, and the school decided to fill every open space with new buildings, I don’t recognize the place any more.

An Unhappy Time

I Was at Low Ebb in My Twenties

If I had to pick the worst decade of my life, I would have to pick my twenties, between 1966 and 1975. I had miraculously survived brain surgery in September 1966. For my entire adolescence, I did not have a functioning pituitary gland: Instead, I had a benign tumor that not only destroyed my pituitary, but was staging an incursion on my optic nerve. Oh, and by the way, due to the malfunction of my pituitary, I had, for all intents and purposes, no adrenaline, thyroid, sex hormones, or human growth hormone. At the age of twenty-one, I looked like a high school freshman. When I bought alcoholic beverages, I was always being carded by store employees who did not believe my true age.

As I have described my condition before, I felt like a Martian mixed among human beings. I had fallen in love with a young woman, but it was not reciprocated. Several times, I awoke in the middle of the night, walked several blocks to Zucky’s Deli and had breakfast, then walked a few more blocks to the beach at Santa Monica. In the pre-dawn hours, I stared at the waves wondering if I had the courage to take a walk to Japan.

In time, I weathered my depression. I signed up for group therapy, where I discovered that my problems were all part of the human condition, namely, that we were all Martians.

In his book of interviews with Osvaldo Ferrari, Jorge Luis Borges found an interesting way of describing my condition:

Yes, I am sure I am happier now than when I was young. When I was young, I sought to be unhappy for aesthetic and dramatic reasons. I wanted to be Prince Hamlet or Raskolnikov or Byron or Poe or Beaudelaire, but not now. Today, I am resigned to being who I am. And to summarize: I do not know if I have attained happiness—no one does—but I have sometimes attained a kind of serenity and that’s a lot. Also, seeking serenity seems to me to be a more reasonable ambition than seeking happiness. Perhaps serenity is a kind of happiness.

For Borges, that’s saying a lot, as he had lost the sight of his eyes some thirty years before the interview. After my surgery, I was sterile—which is, as I see it now, a highly survivable condition.

Szomorú

I Would Always Add the Word Szamár, Donkey in Hungarian

Time for you to learn a little Hungarian. This post is about what I was like as a little boy. I was never considered to be a smiling, happy-go-lucky kid. I would describe myself with the Hungarian word szomorú, which, according to my Órszagh Magyar dictionary meant “sad, woeful, sorrowful, doleful, melancholy, gloomy …”—you get the picture. Then, to cap it off, I would follow it with the word szamár, meaning donkey or ass. Szomorú szamár. (In Hungarian, the “sz” diphthong is pronounced like an English sibilant “s.”) I could summarize it better with the character Eeyore in the Winnie the Pu stories by A.A. Milne. But then, I didn’t know about Eeyore until decades later.

Before you start thinking this sounds unrelievedly grim, there was another size to me as well, one in which I was considerably happier—but only in private. When I was enjoying a book, or drawing imaginary maps, or playing with my friends, I was a different person. It was only among adults and people who were not close to me that I was a melancholy ass.

You see, I was always the shortest and youngest-looking kid in class, and the most unathletic. That hurts when you are the son and nephew of the terrible Paris twins, semi-professional soccer players in Europe and America. Even when I was a senior at Dartmouth College, I was picked on by the local high school kids who thought I was one of them. By then I had my pituitary tumor that accounted for my slow or even non-, growth.

At St. Henry Elementary School in Cleveland, we had to attend daily Mass. You’ll never believe what I prayed for: In place of happiness, I requested wisdom. Well, I never got either, really, so it was a bit of a wasted effort.

I am no longer a melancholy ass, though my friends will probably admit I can be an ass at times. But that doesn’t bother me unduly.

Watch Your Toes

I Say This Because I Can’t Dance … At All!

When I was born, for some reason I was lacking the gene for moving in time with the music. I discovered this failing when I took Hungarian folk dance lessons—in costume—when I was six years old. My partner was my cousin Peggy, who must have thought me an awful drip. I think I left my boot prints all over her pretty dancing shoes.

I never even went to our high school’s senior prom. (I have no idea who I would have invited.) Strangely, I got an invitation to another school’s prom, the one that our family friend’s daughter, Norma Gosner, was attending. Actually, I did all right, because everyone was dancing the twist back then. As you know, the twist is pretty much a no-contact dance in which the two participants merely gyrate in place. Or so it seemed to me.

Once, when I was in my thirties, I even went to a square dancing class in Santa Monica. It was a disaster, never to be repeated.

Except once, when I attended a wedding party held in my brother’s barn in Hackensack, Minnesota. My brother tells me I danced well, but I’ll never know because of all the Jack Daniels and Moonshine I had swilled preparatory to the event. I have no memory of that night.

So I suggest that if you want me to dance with you, you had better get me liquored up first.

My First Girlfriend: Joycey

Now Imagine She’s Only Five Years Old

The year was around 1950. I was a five-year-old boy living at 2814 East 120th Street in Cleveland, right in the middle of the Hungarian neighborhood. All the houses on the street were two-family homes in which the upper story was rented. It was around then that I met the love of my life, Joycey, who was my age.

We did all the usual things: played doctor and looked at each other with moonstruck eyes. What I loved most about Joycey was, to be precise, the back of her knees. The picture above is of a grown-up woman, because I could not find the same picture for a little girl. I would probably have been arrested if I tried.

Although her name sounds vaguely Anglo, Joycey spoke Hungarian just like me. I don’t remember exactly how our “relationship” ended, though it was probably in 1951 when two major events happened:

  • My brother Dan was born and
  • We moved out of the Hungarian neighborhood because the teachers were complaining that I couldn’t speak English

I don’t think I ever knew Joycey’s last name. It was like we were two ships passing in the night. But it was nice while it lasted.

Boy Jeezus, That’s a Pissah!

Bacteria in a Urinary Tract Infection

When I was a student at Dartmouth, we all made fun of the local New Hampshire employees, whom we called emmets. The most typical speech mannerism was the same as the title of this posting. At the time, I never realized the irony of that phrase.

After I graduated from college, and days before I was to head out for graduate school in Los Angeles, I got the mother of all headaches and lapsed into a coma. It turns out that I had a pituitary tumor, called a chromophobe adenoma. Making the right diagnosis in 1966 was a flipping miracle: Remember that MRIs and CAT Scans weren’t around then. All they had to go on were fuzzy X-Rays, and sheer deduction based on miscellaneous hard-to-interpret factors.

With luck, I not only survived, but I made medical history. The only problem is that I paid for it with a scarred urethra caused by some ICU staffer who forced a catheter up my urethra at a time when, groggy with drugs, I thought I was being attacked and resisted what I perceived was violence.

Well, boy Jeezus it was a pissah! For several years, my scarred urethra tended to shut down, forcing a procedure variously called a dilation or a cystogram tray. I have undergone that procedure about eight times over the last fifty-five years, and I’m going to have to undergo it again on Tuesday because I currently am recovering from a urinary tract infection.

This weekend, I leaked so bad I went around in Depends adult diapers. I either peed into the diaper, or had to carefully aim my instrument at the toilet while the stream tried to go in every which direction. The dilation will be a sort of quick fix, but it will result in copious if painful urination for about two weeks until the urethral scars tend to close up again.

There is no pain I have endured in this life compared to a dilation. It’s like fifteen or twenty minutes of being whipped with a cat-o-nine tails.

With luck, the pain will eventually go away, and the urethra will open up slightly … until the next time.

Now, wasn’t that fun?

Baby Steps

Los Angeles Central Library at 5th and Flower Streets

Today I took the train in to Downtown Los Angeles (or DTLA, as it is also known) to return some library books and pick up the next batch. For the first time in almost a year and a quarter, I was able to enter the library, hand my returns to a human being, and pick up the next batch. The last time, I had to call on my cell phone and have a librarian come out with the bagged books I had put on hold.

Now the ground floor of the library is open. This includes the book check-in and check-out and the international languages department—oh, and the restrooms. For any other books, I still have to put them on hold using the library’s website.

With my books in hand, I took the Dash Bus B to Chinatown and looked for a promising Chinese restaurant that was open to indoor dining. My old standby, the Hong Kong Barbecue, was still take-out only; but I found a good option in the Hop Woo Chinese Seafood Restaurant, just a few doors down, where I had rock cod in black bean sauce.

On the way back to Union Station, I bought my usual small bag of limes from an elderly woman (only $1 for about eight limes). As the weather grows warmer, I am addicted to fresh-squeezed lime juice with a slight splash of tequila.

I still had to wear a face mask on the train and the bus, resulting in fogged-up glasses, but I am encouraged that sometime soon we will be able to dispense with them. My second Pfizer Covid-19 vaccination was two months ago, so I am hopeful that the worst is past.

The Cleveland Limited

New York Central Passenger Train

I have been set musing by watching Satyajit Ray’s film Aparajito, with its hero Apu who goes off to school in Calcutta, leaving his widowed mother alone with a relative in rural Bengal. When I left home to go away to college, it was because my parents’ marriage appeared to be heading for the rocks; and I didn’t want to have to be in the middle of it. Plus, of course, I was proud to have a full scholarship to an Ivy League school.

When school started in the fall, my parents drove me to Dartmouth College and would stay for several days at the Chieftain Motel which was situated north of Hanover on the banks of the Connecticut River. But for the most part, I took public transportation to and from Hanover, New Hampshire, where my college was located.

There were three legs to the journey:

  • Between Cleveland and Albany, New York, I took a New York Central train called the Cleveland Limited Train #57 (Westbound) and #58 (Eastbound), which was all coach.
  • Between Albany and Rutland, Vermont, I took a Vermont Transit bus that originated in New York or Burlington, Vermont.
  • Between Rutland and Hanover, I took two White River Coaches, one to White River Junction, Vermont, and the other to Hanover, a scant five miles farther on.

In both directions, the Cleveland Limited was an overnighter. It was fiercely uncomfortable, especially in the winter when the same coach could be blisteringly hot and freezingly cold on the same trip. It was impossible to get a good night’s rest, because of the lights and noise whenever the train stopped at Utica, Rochester, Syracuse, Buffalo, and wherever else it stopped.

In Albany, I had to wait (in both directions) for several hours at the once grandiose Union Station. I remember writing a poem in which I called it “oldgold in decrepitude.” There was no place to get a meal at the station, so I had to munch on candy bars and drink sodas.

The Vermont Transit bus was a nice ride, except for its passage through Troy, New York, which I then thought was the ugliest city I had ever seen. And that from a resident of Cleveland!

There was a much better connection at Rutland to the White River Coach, which went along the banks of the Ottauqueechee River to White River Junction and with a quick transfer to Hanover.

I would travel both ways during my Christmas vacation (which lasted 2½-3 weeks) and the spring break (about 1½ weeks). If I was lucky, we would see the sun in Cleveland for upwards of twenty minutes during the whole vacation.

British Colonials

“Richmond, Virginia, USA – June 18th, 2012: Cancelled Stamp From Jamaica Featuring Elizabeth II And The West Indies.”

1958 Jamaican Stamp Honoring the West Indies Federation

As a young lad, I was a devoted collector of stamps. All those countries, colonies, and protectorates fascinated me. And it was around then that the rush to independence began with the Gold Coast becoming Ghana in 1957. But all the newly independent states lacked one thing: The portrait of the young and beautiful monarch of Britain, Queen Elizabeth II.

Oh, I know that the Queen is approaching her 96th birthday, and she looks it, waddled in her neon-colored cloth coats and matching outfits. But at one time, Elizabeth was a real looker, such that I would look for televised broadcasts in which she appeared.

Bechauanaland Protectorate

The Bechuanaland Protectorate morphed into the independent nation of Botswana. When it became independent, it lost not only the queen, but its unpronounceable name.

I regarded Britain as cooler because it had such a cute queen. In contrast, when Germany had several colonies in Africa prior to the First World War, all they could display on their postage stamps was Kaiser Wilhelm’s yacht, the SMY Hohenzollern. B-o-r-i-n-g. I guess that’s why they lost their colonies in the war.

Just to give you an idea of just how cute the young Queen Elizabeth II really was, here is an old Pathé news video from YouTube:

A World Class Art Museum

The Cleveland Museum of Art

One would think that I would praise the Los Angeles Museum of Art to the skies. I don’t. (Too much non-representational modern garbage.) Instead, I think back to the Cleveland Museum of Art as reflected in the lovely lagoon which leads to the main entrance. It was surrounded by two universities which have since joined into one: Case Western Reserve University used to be the Case Institute of Technology and Western Reserve University.

As a high school student, I used to take the bus down to University Circle and take an art appreciation class taught by the museum staff. After each class, I would stroll around the galleries, especially the one dedicated to the French Impressionists. There was a particularly beautiful Van Gogh there. And, as a kid, I loved the medieval armor gallery, the like of which I have never seen in any other art museum.

The Armor Court at the Cleveland Museum of Art

There wasn’t a whole lot of abstract expressionism around, though I suspect there is more now. The closest I came to liking modern art was a moody painting by the American Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847-1917). It was called “Death on a Pale Horse.” I am happy to hear the painting is still there.

“Death on a Pale Horse” by Albert Pinkham Ryder

Each time I went to the museum, I would have lunch at a soda fountain by East 105th Street, always ordering a lime rickey, which was pretty much like a lemonade except it was made with lime. Back then, I thought of lime as an exotic fruit instead of an accompaniment to my tequila.

Places like the Museum meant a great deal to me. It was a way I could get away from home on a Saturday and enjoy myself and learn something at the same time.