My father's love affair with trash
He eats. 'Mmmmmm. Not that bad. A little salty. Woooo!'
He grimaces and works his tongue around the right angle, but his face gets more and more twisted, and he finally clears his mouth in every direction. 'Son of a gun!'
'Rotten?' I ask.
'No, no! Just salty!' He keeps laughing, purple all over his teeth, and drops the jar. 'It'd be okay if you washed it off a little!' He bends down and immediately finds another jar. 'Hey, mint jam!'
'We shit on life and wonder why it stinks.'
Dad wasn't always into trash. But by 1976 he had gone into an ugly holding pattern; nothing was adding up. He was counting weeks like he used to count days. To Dad, my mother was a pining walrus wrapped in polyester who couldn't take a single sentence at face value. If he said two words, she heard five or six, and they scalded her guts. He once gave her a soap-on-a-rope in the shape of an aspirin because she swallowed handfuls at night in order to sleep. But she considered this oversize pill a vicious hint that Dad wanted her to 'go to sleep for good.' One February, she cried over a handmade Valentine card because he had drawn the heart upside down. (He only wanted to juice up a tired ritual, but she was certain it alluded to her great big rear.) In a crowded mall, Dad let go of a door and it nailed her in the forehead. She stunned cheery Christmas shoppers with a high-decibel accusation: Her husband was trying to kill her with doors.
We kids--me, my older sister, and younger brother--made him happy, gorging on hot dogs and pancakes paid for by his hammer-and-nailing, but that didn't make a life, so he made a decision: He'd move us to Mammoth Mountain and teach us to ski. Screw all that empty labor and alienation. We would hike and have a serious blast. Catch rainbow trout and go sledding and have snowball fights. All he had to do was get fired--unemployment and food stamps would carry us through the winter.
So he began a campaign to lose his construction job. He ignored his pouch of nails. He lounged next to his best friend, Bob Kindred, and made idle chat: The supermarket across the street couldn't be said to 'actually exist,' he'd say, because it was a different Thing to every Being that experienced it.
Bob: Look. I see a market and you see a market.
Bob: Bullshit. What do you see then?
Dad: .?.?.?not quite sure.
Dad sent a rumor down the elevator shaft with the equipment boy: 'Someone's slacking on the 15th floor. Hasn't lifted a finger in two hours!' Then he perched himself on a ladder and waited for sweet doom, chewing an entire bag of sunflower seeds, spitting every shell on the floor and demanding that other men work harder. Most of them laughed, but some thought he'd surrendered to carpenter madness, and they whispered advice: 'Listen, man, take a day off or something. You're losing it.'
'Shut up! I'm in charge now. Get back to work, and somebody sweep up these god-awful seeds!'
Dad needed a Judas, but nobody could stand the idea. Eventually, Bob said he was willing, for ten bucks. The next day, the foreman broke the news.
'I've heard some things from the men, Burt. I hate to do it, but I'm cutting you loose.'
'What? Why? Those bastards! Can't they say it to my face? I've got a family to feed, Jerry!'
'Damn it, I know that?.?.'
'Christ. What'll I do now?'
'I can't imagine having a life and then doing things you don't want to do with it.'
After being 'laid off,' Dad went straight to the market (the one that 'didn't exist') for moving boxes, but instead found an old man grinning from inside the Dumpster like a euphoric half-wit, eating cold spaghetti from a can. His face was covered with grime and his teeth had rotted down to brown spikes, but, according to Dad, he was 'the happiest person I'd seen in years' and wanted to share his score--some nice chicken, broccoli, mangoes, a mystery novel, a bag of hard candy--most of which was going to his 60-year-old girlfriend waiting in a nearby trailer park. He offered Dad the chicken. Plenty to go around, and just thrown out that morning. All wrapped up tight in plastic. No worse than day-old bread, and Lord knows the price is right.
Dad got the hell out of there. But he spent the entire afternoon thinking about it, even took a half-assed shot at discussing it with Mom. The old guy had looked more relaxed and content, hip-deep in dregs, than Dad could remember ever feeling. Trashing made money obsolete. No reason to pay for food--it waits out back, same as on the shelf. Maybe it's not as clean or spiffy, but it looks plenty tasty, and it's free, so he's free. Making a living meant finding something decent, then the rest of the day was wide open.
Mom was mortified. It was ludicrous to be envious of a homeless person. Freedom meant choices, and that old guy had none. But Dad had plenty and should be making something of his life instead of thinking low-class thoughts.
Dad went back first thing in the morning. He watched an aproned kid carry out a gallon jar of pickled eggs, and the passage from In to Out was crystal clear. Nothing about the eggs had changed. But in 30 seconds, the jar had been transformed from top-notch product into utter swill. Dad went over 'just for a look' and found a split-open 50-pound bag of dry dog food. Perfect initiation. He could test the water without sticking anything in his mouth. He could climb in for our loyal family dog and save the five dollars the food cost every week. A few minutes in the Dumpster would equal five smackers. That was . . . about a hundred dollars an hour!
He climbed in and spotted the jar, expiration date one day past, lid snug. He opened it, the Dumpster suddenly feeling like half foxhole, half gold mine, and hesitated only long enough to smell the top egg, then wolfed it down. Delicious! He sped home and fed the dog and tried to pass out the eggs, but Mom was glaring at the menacing felt-tip X on the jar lid. 'That better not be what I think it is,' she said. 'So help me God.'
Dad said, 'OK, fine,' deciding to try to be himself even if his wife didn't want him to. 'It's trash.'
Mom stomped into the bedroom, and Dad followed with a story of Bob Kindred scrambling from the Bob's Big Boy bathroom, pale as a ghost. He'd been doing his thing, straining away, surrounded by festive tile and a chemical stench, when suddenly he felt out-and-out terror. 'What if I die in here?!' Now Dad finally understood exactly what he meant and he wanted to punch his own head in. He'd been working for furniture and new shoes and magazine subscriptions, making petty habits a priority and handing authority to some persona--who he thought he should be, instead of who he was. But those eggs were undeniable. More trash meant less work. Less work meant more time and, finally, more life. Think of it. They could do whatever the hell they wanted. No work, just skiing, sledding, snowballs . . . food stamps.
Mom despised food stamps. People snickered in line, and the checkers were condescending. She wanted a normal, above-board life. Her father had raised ten children and never once resorted to crummy welfare or scavenging. Couldn't they move to Oregon instead and be near her eight Mormon sisters, who cherished her? Dad could hang drywall with her brothers and ski on the weekends.
But she was missing the point, so Dad spoke slowly. 'I don't want to waste any more days . . . at all.'
Mom smothered herself with a pillow and blurted, 'I won't do it.'
Dad found us kids on the porch, eggs stuffed in our cheeks. He sat down, had an egg, and told us about an African snake he'd seen on National Geographic, the two-step something. It bites you, you take two steps, and you're dead. That's how he wanted to live. The snake just nailed us, and we've got two steps. Make 'em good, huh?
In three weeks we would leave for Mammoth Mountain.
'I don't have to know anything but that next step.'
Dad had heard that Mammoth had the most square footage of terrifying slope in the country. Pine sap smelled like vanilla, and for $250 a month we rented a place four miles below some 30 ski lifts and a space-age gondola that raced to nosebleed altitudes and stopped half way down the run at a cafeteria where everyone collapsed and refueled on corned beef and cabbage and steins of beer. Our house was an A-frame crowded by wild Christmas trees, and on the very day we moved in, a fish hatchery truck backed down our driveway to stock the backyard creek with brook trout. 'Talk about a good omen!' exclaimed Dad. There was no time to locate fishing rods. We just blitzed in and started groping for fish, while Dad cheered from the bank. My first fish ever, nabbed with cold bare hands, was 12 inches long. I raised it over my head and we were all screaming.
'If you're worried about getting your hands dirty, it's hard to do this.'
At first Mom and Dad shopped together. Mom headed for the electric doors, clutching those dreaded food stamps, and Dad called out, 'The adventure's in back, babe!' (He says it was a wholehearted invitation, but even now there's a taunting edge to his voice that he doesn't acknowledge.)
The amount of food being cast out in Mammoth was astounding. The economy was tourist-driven, and fancy skiers preferred high-class eats, so the instant a piece of fruit showed age, it was ditched. Dad scored racks of papayas so ripe they were oozing and split. If the corner of a cereal box got crunched, managers considered the cereal inside irrelevant. A manager who needed shelf space for granola bars and trail mix would abandon a slow seller, and Dad lugged home crates of onion-flavored potato chips, unfresh bagels, a dozen cartons of cottage cheese. Finding enough to feed a family of five was a breeze, but afterward, when he wanted to compare hauls, Mom looked at him with disdain and kept her bags away from his, afraid of contamination, setting her prediction of his death-by-poisoning at two weeks.Years later, after he and Mom had long been divorced, Dad explained his rationale. 'My wife was part of that cleanliness-is-next-to-godliness culture in this country. She would say, `I don't want to raise the kids with these low values.' I had to ignore her, I guess. I didn't know how to deal with it.'
The image of them veering apart at the mouth of the store sticks with me as a kind of defining moment, but that's not exactly how Mom remembers it. 'No, no, I offered to go to the back of the store,' she recalls. 'I wanted to, because I didn't understand what he was doing. But he said no, you don't wanna do that. So when I came out, he had this plastic bag with produce in it. I said, `Where'd you get that?' He said, `In the back,' and it dawned on me. I realized what he was doing. Very repulsive to me, as you can imagine. Someone who's supposed to be your companion for life. It was very hard. I lost a lot of respect for him. A tremendous amount of respect.'
'Nobody cares if I trash. I can't see them caring very much at all.'
Mom warned us about the trash bins. Dad was immune to the filth, she said, because selfishness and spiritual corruption had made him thick-skinned, but we might suffocate on the stink or, worse, slip and bash our heads, then literally drown in two inches of immoral muck. She said trash was a horrible thing, but that was difficult to believe. Dad was obviously having big fun, and one thing children understand: Fun is not horrible.
Mom declared the refrigerator off-limits.
Dad found an old fridge and stashed his booty in the garage.
Mom banned trashing at her favorite stores.
Dad sneaked out at night and hid convenience desserts under our pillows.
Mom found licked-clean pudding cartons and forbade us to eat 'that.'
Dad picked us up from school, and we hit the trash bins at candy stores and pastry shops on the sly.
Jackpot! became the code word when my sister found a jumbo-pack of Twinkies designed to be carried like a backpack. She ran at top speed with a tube of decorative crepe paper, flailing her arms and sprinting a huge circle back to the Twinkies. The red paper unraveled behind her like a parade streamer.
We made ourselves sick gorging on Twinkies on the drive home, then laid around the house and groaned.
Mom put two and two together, then staged a protest--she wouldn't speak again until her children were garbage-free. She wouldn't do a single chore.
For a week, we saw her only twice a day--going straight to her room after work to read romance novels and stomping out to the car in the morning.
Dad prepared all-trash meals. A sourdough culture thrived in a Mason jar above the stove. Dad mixed it into secondhand flour and made humongous stacks of pancakes, referred to as gooners, smothered with coconut syrup from behind the health-food store.
'Who wants gooners?'
'Me, me, me!'
Mom packed her bags. She gathered us at the door to explain that Dad was a heartless son of a bitch whom she couldn't stand for another second. But she would come visit us on the weekends, and we could stay with her whenever we wanted.
We begged her to stay. We got on our knees and gradually convinced her that life would be pointless without her. (I've created endless psychobabble about why their entire marriage played out on the cliff of divorce, and why it felt good to turn their children into desperate little negotiators but at the time I simply understood that when one of them was happy, the other was miserable.) As Mom unpacked, I sobbed with relief. But when she packed her bags again four days later, we barely glanced up from the television. From then on, she had to convince herself to stick around.
'You can't wait for a situation to happen. You've gotta make your freedom.'
The snow finally hit Mammoth with a vengeance, but there wasn't enough money for ski-lift tickets. Dad was saving up for a season pass. So he drove us to an isolated stretch of mountain in his old Dodge panel truck. He jacked up one side of the truck and swapped the back tire for a bare wheel, then took another wheel up the hill and hooked it to a tree. He ran a rope around both wheels, cut the rope, and spliced the ends together. We'd hang on to the rope, and it would pull us up the hill. It was our own personal rope tow.
He cut some old skis in half for us and screwed on garage-sale bindings. We used thick gloves so the rope wouldn't burn our hands. My brother was small and afraid of the hill, so Dad stood him on the front of his skis, and they glided down together. A guy came by in a car and yelled out of the window, `My God, I thought I was crazy about fishing!' '
'It was a difficult situation, because I was asking other people to make this change . . . and they weren't always able to.'
Dad was handing out mini-jugs of orange juice from a Dumpster when my sister spotted a boy from grade school, staring at us from his bicycle at the far end of the lot. Her expression made Dad think she'd cut her finger or smashed a toe. She ducked behind the Dumpster and hissed, 'I know him!' Later she confessed to Mom that she had a crush on the boy. When the boy ridiculed her at recess, she sucker-punched him in the throat and was suspended from fifth grade for three days. She refused to leave her room, so Mom delivered her favorite meals on a big platter.
Dad wanted to talk her through it but took the wrong approach, suggesting that she see shame as a concept and not just a feeling. It was a replacement emotion, like anger. We used it when we couldn't distinguish exactly how we felt. It didn't work this time. He ended up simply attaching a stigma to her reaction by implying that her feelings weren't real. So he finally shut up and tried to empathize instead. He squatted in Dumpsters and pictured the person he'd least like to see him there--an old girlfriend, the president, John Wayne. He tried to humiliate himself, but couldn't.
She said, 'I don't want any more trash, Dad.'I found a whole turkey before. On Thanksgiving. I cooked the whole thing. Isn't that funny?'
Whenever things got ugly between my parents, Dad would split for a while. Mom always said 'separated' on the telephone with her friends. Dad said 'vacation.' Once, he drove his orange Honda 350 to Baja to spearfish and lounge in his hammock. He sent a postcard claiming that trash in Mexico really was trash. Another time, he flew alone to Hawaii (knowing Mom had always been dreamy for it), bleached his hair white, and got a permanent, which he wore like a haystack with a red bandana around it. He was touring reefs on small rented catamarans while Mom was crawling under the house with that damn propane torch to thaw the pipes.
One winter, Dad's vacation destination was Los Angeles, but Mom had a plan to ruin it, by putting my brother and me on a bus with two turkey sandwiches and a dollar each and shipping us down there. The bus took 30 hours. When it stopped at a restaurant, we sat on the curb and ate our sandwiches, which turned out to be just meat and bread. The bus was idling; we breathed diesel fumes and somehow didn't think to move.
Dad, his head shaved, was thrilled to see us when we arrived and drove us straight to the ocean for an hour of bodysurfing. Then he drove to the alley behind a grocery store. There was something different about him, a new kind of abandon, and I realized that up until then he'd been reining himself in for the sake of the family. Now, digging up our lunch--a cantaloupe and a box of candy bars covered with what looked like powdered detergent--he was the person I'd heard him wishing to be. Not Dad, but a happy, crazy guy with no context and nothing to worry about besides being true to himself. The only restriction left was his marriage.
We drove to Mom's sister's house, but she wouldn't even let us stay the night, wouldn't even let us park outside her house and sleep in the van. Mom had called ahead and asked her to turn us away, presumably to teach Dad responsibility. So we found a park and played Frisbee. When a nearby party broke up, Dad went over and found a big tray of half-eaten lasagna in the trash bin. It was still warm, and we used plastic spoons.
I was about 12 at the time. As it got dark, Dad said he needed to tell me something, but wanted to give me a little background first. He waited until my brother wandered over to the swings. He described the way he and Mom had met. It was a few days after he had jumped off a 35-foot pier at Redondo Beach to save a boy who was drowning. Mom had seen his picture in the newspaper, then recognized him in the street. Pretty soon they were going out. When Mom got pregnant, she wanted to be married, but Dad was freshly divorced, so he made a deal. He would marry her if they could get a divorce the very same day. Mom was reluctant, but what she wanted more than anything was a baby, a legitimate one, and this way she could honestly say to her family, 'We got married.'
They drove to Tijuana and found someone willing to perform both ceremonies. It took 20 minutes and cost $75, which Mom paid. My sister was born. Two years later, me. Another four years, my brother came out blue, refusing to breathe until the doctor shook him violently. Then one summer, Bob Kindred was headed to Mexico to marry his new sweetheart, and he invited Dad. Let's make it a double wedding, he said. Sure, what the hell, Dad replied. They had three kids anyway.
I interrupted him: Why're you telling me all this?
Dad picked at something on his shirt, then watched my brother on the swing.
You're getting divorced again?
'Yeah, but everything's gonna be fine. It'll be better.'
Is that why Mom sent us here? We're living with you now?
'No. She doesn't know yet. I just signed the papers last week. I didn't want to send them up there and wait around, so I signed for her. That way we can avoid a big fight over it.'
You forged Mom's name?
'No. I signed for her.'
'If you have time, then maybe you can do something you want.'
One of the obvious benefits of forging divorce papers, if your wife feels too defeated to challenge you, is that you get around $20,000 cash from the savings account and your wife gets the house that's been on the market, without a nibble, for two years. But if you're Dad, and all your life you wanted to live on a sailboat, you don't simply use the cash to buy one. You buy wood instead.
He's building a 45-foot catamaran with an A-frame mast and a 'geriatric rig'--roller-furled sails that allow a plodding 67-year-old to cruise the coast of Baja in complete control. There's one problem, though. It has taken him ten years to build.
He started piecing it together next to Bob Kindred's house, with no actual plans, only a sketch from a boating magazine. When it started taking up too much room, Bob helped him move the hulls into a field next door, and he's been squatting there ever since. The landlord eventually came up to him and said, 'Um, what are you doing?'
'Oh, just building a boat. I thought I could do a little construction work in exchange for rent.'
Dad replaced one window pane in an apartment and patched a section of roof, but that's all. When the landlord decided he wanted money instead, Dad told him a deal's a deal. So for ten years, the landlord has been asking for $100 every so often, then threatening to have him evicted. Dad usually says, 'Well, you gotta do what you gotta do.'
He's done well with the boat. The hulls look straight; it has endless shelf space, rotating drawers, little round windows, a nice kitchen area, four bunk beds in each hull. But he's too meticulous with detail. Rather than buy a special fastener for three dollars, he spends all day pounding and bending one from the hundreds of pounds of scrap metal he's accumulated from Dumpsters. I keep telling him to finish, then work on the clever things. Paint that gangplank on his way to Hawaii. By the time he's done, he might be too old for ocean life.
(Mom says sailing is only a dream and he'll never do it. She refers to the boat as an elaborate coffin.)
Dad rants about time being so categorically vital, but has no sense of it being wasted. 'It's the journey that counts, right? Time is life, and the faster you move, the less you have.'
But enough is enough: He's made his point, and I can't help but accuse him of postponing his moment of truth, now that he's spent a decade in the smoggiest shit-trap neighborhood I've ever seen, preparing for some beatific life on that elusive Baha shoreline.
I understand that he 'wasted' much of his life building homes and restaurants for money, and this albatross of a boat, like trash, is obviously for his heart--one last big project. I desperately want that to be OK. I want to be proud of the integrity in such an effort, but when I see those giant hulls rising up out of nowhere, docked in this weedy lot (he calls it a 'compound') 60 miles from open ocean, I can barely keep from screaming, 'Sail, you dingy bastard! Do something you really want!'
But, hey . . . maybe I'm missing the point.
Besides, the end--or beginning--is apparently in sight. Dad claims he is 'almost done.'
The name of his ship?
Aark, the Heathen Scavenger.
Dirk Jamison is coauthor of Doing Good, a book concerning philosophy and religion.
From L.A. Weekly (June 14, 1996).
Subscriptions: $52/yr. (52 issues) from Box 5720, Glendale, CA 91221.