By Christopher Green
Toss in an alcoholic, highly emotional father whose family would have made Tennessee Williams, if he only knew of them, proclaim, “I could not make this shit up.”
Next, add in the obligatory cold, disengaged and sometimes spiteful, alcohol swilling stepfather.
Then blend that all in with a mother trying to keep it all together while earning a Masters Degree, working full time and dealing with two different bouts of cancer and I could be a featured stanza in the Officer Krupke song from West Side Story.
Stephen Sondheim nailed my childhood, ironically.
I mention all this because how I came to be is an important part of how I deal with all that is happening to me right now. This is, after all, where my greatest defense mechanism, my sense of humor, comes from.
All this moving and turmoil is how that extreme sense of loneliness that always haunted me as I, no matter what I did, always felt the outsider. I guess it goes to explaining who and what I am today.
It’s also a big part of why I first took to drinking and smoking and the pot, which, of course, exacerbated my underlying health problems.
As Harvey Fierstein always says, “I just want to be loved!” I guess that’s all I ever really wanted, unconditional love.
And I would do almost anything to get the attention that I thought would bring me love, or at least acceptance.
Oh, before we continue, I have to be honest. It was eight schools and three colleges…
The idea of writing about my education saga came to me mainly because the hospital where I go for my pulmonary rehab is right across the street from the house that I will always remember as my first home. 1295 Marlow Ave. I pass it every time I pull in the parking lot.
Today I drove the route I walked to Kindergarten when I was four years old. I had to walk up Marlow to get to Franklin Blvd, which was one of only four east west streets that ran from one end of Lakewood to the other.
It was a pretty busy street. Try to imagine a four year old walking alone to school in a good-sized city down a main street today. Can’t? Neither can I.
Anyway, there was a slight rise to the land between Marlow and Belle. They had to cut through that rise to make Franklin level. The yards for the houses on both sides of Franklin were about three feet higher than the sidewalk.
The house I had to walk passed had two Dalmatians. They tormented me, scared the living crap out of me. All I saw was these two mouths full of sharp teeth trying to get through the fence.
Remember they were right there, right at a four year old’s eye level.
Now to Lakewood’s credit, they did have school crossing guards at every street with a stop light and they knew where we all lived. I remember telling one the guards along the way that I was eating lunch at my aunt’s house from now on.
“My aunt,” I told her, “lives on the other side of Franklin.”
The birth of a Bullshiter.
She let me cross and I got away with it for a while until they found out I was fibbing. I told my folks about the dogs and all they really did about it was to tell me, “You would just have to get use to them.”
My parents never cared much for Doctor Spock.
I figured out how to get around the dogs by cutting down St. Charles to Detroit Ave., the main business street for Lakewood, and walk over to Marlow and cut up to our house. That was a great way to walk home because that path led me right passed Titch’s Bakery.
You could almost taste the bread and pasty that was being made as that wonderfully thick aroma was pumped out onto to Detroit by kitchen fans working overtime. I can close my eyes and still see, hear and smell all that went on in that little storefront shop.
Another distinct memory from Kindergarten revolved around trying to please the ladies. I remember this vividly. I knew how to tie my shoe, sort of. I got the cross over part, but had yet to master the bow part. But there was this girl, her name has been erased by my years of drinking, who had shiny blond hair.
I loved her with all that I was.
And yet she rejected me out of hand because when I got down to the business of fulfilling my grand offer to tie her shoe, I just kept making the cross over over and over until there was a huge knot on her saddle shoes. The teacher was not happy and neither was my first love.
So began a good chunk of my lifetime that was devoted to the art of slinging bullshit to get what I wanted while disappointing women by making promises I could not keep. In this, I favored my dad’s side of the family.
One other moment from this part of my life was on October 22, 1962. President Kennedy announced to the nation that the United States was putting up a naval blockade of Cuba. The Cuban Missile Crisis ruined my fifth birthday.
I remember how silent the house had become. My dad and mom and aunt and grandmother all literally turned ashen.
President Kennedy had a map on the wall behind him with concentric circles showing how much of the United States would be in missile range from Cuba. My dad made it a point to pile us all in the car and take us to see the Nike Site over by Bratenahl along the Lakefront.
These Nike sites were located in almost every big American city. They were commissioned in right after the Russians got the bomb in the early 50’s. These sites were in place in order to shoot down incoming airplanes launched at us by the Godless Russians. They were named after Nike, the Greek goddess of victory.
This could or could not have had an effect on my future love of politics. All I really know is that I was aware of what was happening outside of the world of the regular five year old. Seeing my parents that upset really jolted me.
All this happened while I was at Grant School in Lakewood. School number one down, seven more to go.
Next up, St. Clements. I was raised Catholic.
The Catholics in Lakewood did not believe in kindergarten and would not enroll a four year old into first grade, which is why I started my education in a public school.
I was only there for two years, but several monumental things happened while matriculating at St. Clements Church’s Elementary School.
First of all President Kennedy was assassinated when I was in the First Grade. We got the news just as school was being let out and they called us back in to pray for “our” fallen Catholic President. Around this time, all my memories, whether connected to the assassination or not, seemed to be in black and white, dominated by endlessly somber martial drumming.
I also told my first joke at the dinner table. It was just a little something I picked up on the playground. This was about the time a spate of Polish jokes were sweeping the nation. For whatever reason, the poles were suddenly the butt of most of the ethnic humor.
My dad was Polish to the core.
So of course the joke I heard on the very Irish Playground at St. Clements just had to be a polish joke. Suddenly, all hell broke loose. My aunt Millie, my dad’s sister, and their mother must have been over for dinner because I remember how quickly the mood turned at the table sour.
There must have been much drinking, given all the wailing and gnashing of teeth that ensued. And of course, I was being raised in a household where drinking and celebration went hand in hand. And so the emotions ran dark and deep, far too dark for a five or six year old kid to handle.
It was about this time that my parents’ marriage started to crumble. They argued often times violently with my dad hitting my mom several times that I recall. Once my older brother tried to stop my dad from hitting my mom and he got smacked. That didn’t stop my brother. He went right back at my dad. I was in awe of him.
At school, a girl died while jumping rope in the parking lot/playground behind the school. She just died. This other kid named Peter McCartney, we all were sure he was related to Paul, broke his leg in first grade and had to be rolled in on a wheel chair because he had pins in his leg.
Next year, he fell while we were walking home from Titch’s with a glass bottle of milk. He cut his wrist down to the bone and I saw more blood and gore and upset adults, more than a kid should ever see. He had to get a whole mess of stitches and had to wear cast to protect his arm. I always wondered if he made it out of elementary school.
I also remember that the Mother Superior ruled over the school with an iron cross. She actually wore one on the rosary she had strapped around her waist, the cross banging against her leg as she stridently marched through the building. I guess this was her little shout out to self -flagellation which, of course, was all the rage back in the plague years. She was a small, tightly wound woman. She wore the most severe Habit possible that pinched her face.
There were no smiling Jesus’ on display in that Parish.
Sister Madonna was a disciplinarian first, a wife of Jesus second and an educator third. That was her version of the trinity. She would paddle kids in her office with the public address system switched on so we all could hear what became of those who ran afoul of her good nature.
It started to become apparent even to me, a kid of six or seven, that my dad’s drinking didn’t seem normal.
There is this one time in particular that burned into my mind. When I was a kid, I loved to save money. I had coins and dollar bills stashed all over our bedroom.
My dad came to me on a late Saturday afternoon and asked me if he could borrow five bucks from me. My dad communicated mainly using his command of slang and a dictionary worth of swear words. He was often described as colorful. My mother tried in vain to tone down his particular brand of language.
How he knew I had that much cash on hand only strikes me as odd now that I think back on it, but it could have been part of my first communion money.
We were in the backyard and I looked up at him. It must have been in the fall since I distinctly remember vivid, crisp shadows like those cast during autumn. He was backlit by the setting sun. I looked down at the ground and then told him he was, “just going to spend it all on whiskey.”
Well, my dad went through the roof.
He started in on me, staring me right in the eye and snarled at me, “How dare you question me. I’m your father, for Christ sakes.” He went on to question my loyalty to the family, going on and on about familial trust and how much he loved me and that he would never, ever lie to me.
And then he looked down at me, real tears streaming from his dark eyes (he was not a master of his emotions, or was he?) his head wreathed in fading sunlight. He told me in a quivering voice that the money was for the Sunday offering the next day, that it was really Jesus who was borrowing the money and he swore on his father’s grave that he would pay me back in spades.
He didn’t make it to church with us the next day. He was sleeping one off. I don’t remember if he ever paid me back the money.
The next week, my mom took my brother and me to the bank to put our money in a savings account.
My bank statement said clearly that I was a rich kid. I had three dollars in the bank. For some reason I got it in my head that the ladies liked money. I took the little bank book with me to school and made a point of showing all the girls that I was loaded with cash.
The teacher took my passbook from me. I was disrupting her class. The image of her wide face with her broad eastern European nose full of blackheads and large pores leaning down into my face was stamped on my brain forever.
I knew I must be on to something.
Since I had all that was left of my assets safely in money in the bank, I needed an easy source of cash. I figured since my dad had taken my five dollars, I could swipe some money out of my parents’ coin jar they had on the chest of drawers in their bedroom.
I needed the money to buy Margaret Rickter a ring. The little sweet shop across from the school had these little 10 cents rings and I just knew Margaret would go for me if only I could get a ring on her finger.
The money from the jar was just sitting there.
Margaret got her ring and yet she still rejected me. I don’t know if she was the first woman to say she just wanted to be friends, but I bet she must have said something to that effect.
So, these years were dominated by turmoil in and around the Green Household. I learned that adults often lied with no consequence, that you can say stuff to persuade people to do your bidding and, perhaps most important of all, not to run with a large glass bottle of milk swinging from your arm.
After second grade, my folks decided to move to an apartment building on the seedier side of Lakewood. Their marriage was breaking up and my dad had, for some reason, quit working out at the Chevy plant in Brook Park. Much later, I came to understand it was probably due to heavy drinking and his inability to take orders from a long line of asshole bosses who were all, of course, “God damn idiots.”
Unfortunately, I share these two self-destructive traits with my dad. I very thankful I was able, somehow, to escape from inheriting
the wife beating stuff.
He had gotten this idea in his head that he needed a change of place. He was going to take all the machinery my grandfather had left when he passed on down to Mexico, of all places. The plan was to buy the apartment building for my mom and us to live in while he was down there setting up the place. We would live there and then hire someone to watch it when we all moved down to join my dad.
I have never been to Mexico.
We also started to drift away from the church. Later I found out that the monsignor at St. Clements had sided with my dad when my folks went in to talk to him about their marriage. My mother’s faith stayed strong but she was never again blindly loyal to the church or any other institution for that matter.
I inherited that from her.
During the Marlow years, my sister came on the scene. We now had three kids in the family. Dark, hard times were ahead. Little did I know just how hard and dark these times would be for me.