Desert Bound

Cabot Yerxa’s Pueblo in Desert Hot Springs

This weekend I will drive out to the Coachella Valley to see my brother. It won’t be long before the temperature goes up to 100° F (37° Celsius) and over each day. Although Dan has air conditioning at his place, I don’t want to step outside only to be instantly dehydrated.

At this time of year, the desert can be beautiful. Alas, it has been a dry year, and thus not a great time for wildflowers. I remember times when I visited the desert in February and March to find it filled with uncounted millions of wildflowers, ranging from tiny blossoms to large cactus flowers.

Consequently, I will not post again until Monday, March 1. I hope to take a lot of pictures to use in next week’s posts.

Buckeye Days

Szent Erzsébet (Saint Elizabeth) Church, Where I Was Baptized

I have written before about my formative years living in Cleveland’s Buckeye Road Hungarian neighborhood. (See the links below.) For some reason, Cleveland was for many years—and still might be, for all I know—the most Hungarian city in America. Well before the Second World War, it became a magnet for Magyar immigrants. On Buckeye Road, there were Hungarian churches, butcher shops, bakeries, bars (Oroszláni’s tavern was at our corner of East 120th and Buckeye), and restaurants. The ,most famous was the Gypsy Cellar, which I never went to because it didn’t cater to children, followed by Settlers’, which I saw only years after I had left Cleveland for good.

The Gypsy Cellar Restaurant on Buckeye Road

In the late 1940s-early 1950s, Buckeye Road was a safe neighborhood and remained so until it was “blockbusted” by unscrupulous realtors in the 1960s trying to precipitate white flight by selling properties to black families. Today, it is a largely black neighborhood. When I visited with my father in the 1960s, a big Irish cop warned us to leave the area before the “niggers started waving their spears.”

We moved out in 1951, the year my brother was born. I had been having trouble in school, because it seems I didn’t understand English very well and caused a ruckus with my friend András by kicking our kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Idell in the ankles. By that time, my Dad felt more financially secure, so he bought a bungalow on East 176th Street in the Lee-Harvard area, just one block away from his twin brother.

I’ve always been afraid to go back to Buckeye Road because I never really finished first grade at Harvey Rice School. I was pulled out after one semester and immediately started Catholic school at Saint Henry’s in second grade. I paid a price for that, being considered something of a dunce and troublemaker until I made it to fourth grade.

This Is a Book I Need to Find

In the above photo, you can see the Regent Theater, where I was taken by my parents to see movies. Actually, I just ran up and down the aisles and messed around with the soda machine. At my age, there I was no way I could sit through an entire movie. That was a few years in the future.

The Dalai Lama and I

The 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso

The circumstances behind my seeing the Dalai Lama in April 1991 are indelibly etched in my memory. I arranged to first meet my friend George Hoole at his girlfriend’s apartment in Santa Maria, and then we would both go to the University of California at Santa Barbara to see the Dalai Lama give a speech.

I had only been driving for six years at the time, and I did something that killed the engine on my 1985 Mitsubishi Montero. Instead of staying on U.S. 101, I decided to take San Marcos Pass to Solvang, where I would have lunch before making my way back to the 101. Unfortunately, I drove up the pass in second gear. By the time I got to the top of the pass, my engine was a smoking ruin. I arranged to have the car towed back to Santa Monica Mitsubishi for repair, which was no easy thing as ’85 Monteros with automatic transmissions were a rarity.

George came to pick me up in Solvang and I was his passenger for the weekend. We heard the Dalai Lama give a great talk in his broken English … and this turned out to be the beginning of a difficult period for me. I teamed up with George to start a new company called Desktop Marketing Corporation, along with several of my co-workers from Urban Decision Systems, where I had been working since 1971.

It never took off, and I had to live on my savings for over a year, Ultimately, I left Desktop Marketing and managed to get a job in a Westwood accountancy firm called Lewis, Joffe & Company. Plus I had to shell out several thousand dollars for a new Montero engine.

Things don’t always tend to go your way. The early 1990s were a time of career change and retrenchment for me. But I never regret seeing the Dalai Lama in person. There is perhaps no religious figure I respected more, not even Pope John Paul II. There was something about the twinkle in his eyes which helped see me through a difficult period in my life.

I’d see him again if I could, but I would definitely avoid San Marcos Pass.

Music and Me

An Alto Saxophone: How It Consumed Ten Years of My Life

It is possible to love music and at the same time be a total incompetent when it came to performing it. It all started with voice after I joined the choir at Saint Henry School. I did not know, but soon found out that I sounded like a crow when singing the great Latin hymns of the Catholic liturgy. At least, it kept me from becoming an altar boy and having to wake up at 5:00 am to help officiate at the 6:00 am Mass, and memorize a ton of Latin in the process.

Both of my parents wished that their parents had let them play musical instruments. So they asked me what I would like to play. I quickly answered that I wanted a trombone. Mom and Dad took me to a music store at Prospect and Ontario in downtown Cleveland. The salesman agreed with my them that I did not have the right teeth for either a trombone or a trumpet, but that an alto saxophone was “very nice.”

Well, “very nice” translated into a whole new set of responsibilities, such as joining the band in high school and practicing for 30-60 minutes every day. All four years in high school, I played the sax in concerts and marched in formation during halftime at Chanel High’s games football games. It’s kind of hard to march in formations when there are only twenty or so members of the band, but we were game.

The only problem was that I didn’t much like playing the sax. There is something mucky about what happens to your saliva as it accumulates on the underside of a reed. Plus, I was pre-asthmatic, which probably should have disqualified me from any wind instruments. My parents, however, were determined to recover their $100+ dollar investment in the instrument by forcing me to play against my will.

Although I took my sax to college and even joined the Dartmouth College band, I saw that I was in with a group that was so much advanced over me in musical ability that I was only too happy to retire the sax and forego any further practice after only a couple of sessions. (Yay!)

Santa’s On His Way

On Dasher, On Lancer, On Thrasher Or Whatever Your Names Are

On this Christmas Eve, I wish all of you as Happy a Holiday as is consonant with both your safety and desires. As you may know, I am no great believer in Christmas or New Years or Arbor Day or Columbus Day. Nonetheless, I hope for the best for all of you and the people in your lives.

I will take tomorrow off from posting here. In all likelihood, I will be watching movies and reading books. You can be fairly certain that I will not be watching any parades (are there still any?) or Xmas specials on TV.

So, as we Hungarians say: Boldog karácsonyt! (Don’t even try to pronounce it!)

Reinventing Thanksgiving

This Is Not What My Thanksgiving Will Look Like

In a way, the coronavirus seems to wreak the most damage on people who are intent on going on with their lives the way they were before. The big danger points come around the major holidays, when people risk everything for the appearance of normalcy.

But what if, like me, you don’t really give a hang about the holidays? No, I’m not a Jehovah’s Witness: I just don’t like the idea of holiday-induced stress. Whenever I think of Christmas and Thanksgiving, in particular, I think of a custom among certain Indian tribes of the Pacific Northwest of “an opulent ceremonial feast at which possessions are given away or destroyed to display wealth or enhance prestige.”

Plus I don’t really like turkey. For the most part it is a dry bird that has to be well-greased before imbibing. For my Thanksgiving, Martine and I will have a more simple feast (though, in her heart of hearts, I know Martine would prefer the turkey): A good beef stew accompanied by a bottle of Egri Bikavér, or Bull’s Blood of Eger, a pleasant Hungarian red wine.

Knowing how much I prefer to avoid poultry, Martine can understand that it wouldn’t help to have me cook something I don’t like—and I do all the cooking in the household.

We will probably do something similar for Christmas. Why not? We are not afraid of offending the Yuletide Police.

A Fragmented Life

Our Lives Are Not Quite an Uninterrupted Triumphal March

I have just finished reading Virginia Woolf’s Orlando: A Biography, which she wrote in 1928. Actually, it is not the biography of a real character, but of a highly fictional one. Not only does Orlando live for upwards of 400 years, but the character physically changes gender at some point in the early 18th century. And he/she manages the change swimmingly.

As Woolf wrote about her Orlando:

For she had a great variety of selves to call upon, far more than we have been able to find room for, since a biography is considered complete if it merely accounts for six or seven selves, whereas a person may well have as many thousand.

Tilda Swinton as the Male Orlando in the 1992 Sally Potter Film

There was an excellent film version of Orlando released in 1992, with Tilda Swinton playing both the male and female lead.

Both the book and the film set me to thinking of my own fragmented life, which included the following scenes:

  • The 5-year-old sent home from kindergarten for not being able to speak in English (my native language is Hungarian).
  • The teenager who has turned sickly with punishing frontal headaches.
  • The high school valedictorian who has won a four-year scholarship to an Ivy League college.
  • The college graduate, within days of leaving for graduate study at UCLA, goes into a coma and subsequent brain surgery. My pituitary gland was destroyed by a tumor that was causing the headaches and making me, at 21, look like an 11-year old.
  • The young man in his 20s who feels as if he were from Mars, looks absurdly young, and can’t get girls interested in him.
  • The same young man in a few years learning that alienation is part of the human condition.
  • In his 40s, he finds love with a cute woman born in France, who doesn’t mind that he can’t father a child.

… and so on.

Tilda Swinton as the Female Orlando from the Film

I guess I managed all those years without once having to change my gender. Of course, there is little chance that I will reach the ripe old age of 400.

Breakfast

My Favorite Meal of the Day? Breakfast!

I have written in the past about my love of Indian black tea, hot and iced. Even in the heat of summer, I love to start the day with a pot of Darjeeling, Assam, or Ceylon—or my personal blend of same. In the picture above, you can see my cheap Japanese metal teapot, which has an insert for the loose tea leaves so they don’t end of floating in my cup.

Of late, I have drunk my breakfast tea with either mesquite or desert wildflower honey, and a squeeze of fresh lime.

Accompanying it is usually one of the following:

  • Quesadillas with pickled rajas de jalapeño chiles
  • Huevos à la Mexicana: Scrambled eggs with chopped onions, garlic, serrano chiles, and (when available) tomatillos
  • Toasted English muffin with melted cheddar cheese and Indian red chile powder
  • Slices of cheese with crackers, the type of cheese varying with the season
  • Jimmy Dean’s frozen biscuits with sausage
  • Steel-cut oatmeal with dried cranberries or cherries and a dash of maple syrup
  • Hominy grits cooked with a chicken bouillon cube with butter, sausage, and fresh ground pepper
  • Sourdough toast with butter and garlic (for when I have a sore throat)

I would love to have grapefruit, but, like many men of my age, I am on Lipitor (generic Atorvastatin) to reduce cholesterol. It doesn’t work when you eat grapefruit.

Accompanying breakfast is my home-delivered copy of the Los Angeles Times. I scan the national, international, and local news, but spend most of my time with the puzzles and comics page.

When I have a good breakfast—and I usually do—the rest of the day starts of on a good footing.

Sinking Your Teeth Into Florence

No, Not Florence, Italy: Florence, South Carolina

I was just having a conversation with a friend of mine about dentistry. Depending on where you are, dentistry can take your household finances and turn them into mulch.

For their dental care, my Mother and Father actually ripped off the Peoples’ Republic of Hungary (that’s Magyar Népköztársaság for you fellow Hunkies) by having the Communists pay for their false teeth. I doubt they flashed their American passports, but they got thousands of dollars worth of dental care for bupkis.

One could cross the border into Mexico for inexpensive dental work, but there is no good way of holding the dentist accountable if something happens.

My Aunt Margit moved to Florence SC in the 1970s. When she died in 1977, my parents were in Budapest and couldn’t get back in time for the funeral; so my brother and I went instead. One of the things I discovered while there is that Florence was a major dental center, with some clinics doing dental procedures 24/7.

I don’t know if that’s still the case, but there are scads of dental clinics still in operation—many of which have no problem with giving you a price list in advance of need. I suspect that since dentistry is so competitive in Florence, there must be some good dentists to be found there. Even if they voted for Trump and Lindsey Graham.

Family Plot

The Hungarian Parliament in Budapest

In my family, there was a plot to marry me off to a nice Hungarian girl who would think nothing of giving up her life with me to take care of my aging parents. They had even settled on a distant cousin of mine, one Ilona Vörös (Helen Red in English), a resident of Újpest who worked for MAV, the Hungarian State Railways.

This all happened in the mid-1970s, when my parents brought Ilona to the U.S. to introduce her to me. Mind you, I had nothing against marriage per se; but something about this whole arrangement set all my warning lights blinking and alarms sounding off.

Me in Hungary 1977 on the Shores of Lake Balatón

Why would any self-respecting young woman want to enter into a kind of weird marriage in which would become a slavey to my Mom and Dad, whom I thought were being incredibly naive about the whole thing? When I backed out of the arrangement, my father was furious with me. Why? I had not made any promises to marry Ilona, and then send her to Cleveland to serve as a housekeeper for my parents. I was just going to meet her and see what came of things. (Which was naive on my part, I now see.)

I suspect that what my parents really wanted was for all four of us to live in one household. I had been in Los Angeles for ten years. This was a plot to bring us all together. But I didn’t want to live with my Mom and Dad, as much as I loved them. I rather liked living in California on my own. As for marriage, I preferred to find someone who was not hedged about with all kinds of weird expectations.

Then it came about that Ilona and one of her MAV co-workers had been carrying on a long relationship in Budapest. Then my Mom had words with Ilona’s mother, and within a year or two, Ilona and her family were persona non grata.

Probably just as well.