While I was attending New College during my freshman year, I took a political science course taught by President Carter’s former speechwriter. This was only a couple of years after the Carter Administration, and many Democrats were handwringing over What Went Wrong. The speechwriter told us what he thought went wrong with the Carter presidency: Micromanagement. President Carter insisted on being too hands on.
This management style was due, more than likely, to President Carter’s exposure to Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, the father of the nuclear Navy and an anal-retentive freak. People tend to forget that about Jimmy, that he was a Naval Academy graduate, and thus a Navy man. Carter, an engineer, helped design the first nuclear reactors for the Navy, and probably would have stayed in the Navy had his father not died suddenly, and he had to go home to run the family’s peanut farm.
By the way, if you’d ever worked for a “bubblehead,” you’d know exactly what President Carter’s former speechwriter was talking about. I’ve worked for nukes in the past. They demand details, constant details, and clipboarded lists. I imagine that if I was responsible for a radioactive pile encased in a metal tube a half-mile under the ocean, I’d be a little anal retentive, too.
I’ve written plenty of speeches in the decades since I left New College. When you write words that are supposed to come out of someone else’s mouth, you have to be cognizant that those words are coming out of that other person’s mouth—not yours. I can imagine the former speechwriter’s mouth dropping open the first time he saw the President’s edits all over the page. I’m certain that he thought: Micromanagement. But you can’t let yourself fall into the trap of ego when writing for others. You have to let go.
For that class, I had to write a 20-page paper about a local or statewide election, and try to guess why the winner had won. I chose the governor’s race in Florida in 1982. Bob Graham, a Democrat, whooped up on the Republican nominee and was reelected. Part of my little paper had to do with demographics. I’d found that Sarasota was demographically the oldest county in Florida. A little more study revealed that it was demographically the oldest county in the United States. It was solidly Republican, too. Sixty percent of the population of Sarasota County was 60 or older. I believed it. I grew up there.
During the Ford and Carter Administrations, my family lived in the Gulf Gate neighborhood in Sarasota. My neighborhood, by my retroactive reckoning, was demographically average for the county—at least age-wise.
About two-thirds of the residents of my neighborhood were Greatest Generation types. Tom Brokaw would have been so overwhelmed living in Gulf Gate that he may have blissfully stroked out. The men who won the war were in abundance, still on patrol 30 years after their war was won, staggering around the neighborhood in baggy shorts, black knee-high socks and sandals, straw hats, and tank tops, a can of beer in one hand, a cigarette in the other, sometimes walking a dog, always stopping to be sociable, or nosy. Or both.
Mr. Grimm was one of those guys. His dog was a Pomeranian named Pumpkin, who panted in the boiling heat, his tongue lolling from his mouth. My sister felt sorry for little guy, and would jog inside to get him a cup of water, even though we only lived two doors down from Mr. Grimm.
Mr. Grimm was on constant patrol with his sidekick. It didn’t matter what time of day we’d go outside, he would be strolling past, sipping on a Budweiser, puffing on a Marlboro red, always keen to share neighborhood gossip.
“The Stoltenbergs, over yonder (gesturing with his beer hand to the house on the corner), are from Minnesota. The boy picks his nose.”
And: “You know your next door neighbors are Jews, don’t you? Still, it shouldn’t effect our land values. Not too much.”
And: “Captain Knox’s widow, around the corner? I saw her having a naked pool party the other night. Unbelievable. In plain sight of God and everyone.”
“Oh, yeah? What time was that?” my sister asked.
“Two, three in the morning,” Mr. Grimm said.
“What were you doing peeping around at three in the morning?” Nancy asked him.
“Hey, I wasn’t peeping! If she didn’t want me to see, she shouldn’t of been parading around in her birthday suit!”
“At three in the morning,” Nancy said.
“At three in the morning,” Mr. Grimm conceded.
“Well, at least she isn’t a Jew,” Nancy said.
“There is that!” Mr. Grimm said, brightening.
“Or is she? Who knows what her maiden name might be?” Nancy speculated, rubbing her chin, glancing over at me from the corner of her narrowed eyes. Then came her horrible grin.
The little dog finished his water and Nancy took the dish inside. I stood staring off into space, my hands in my pockets. I whistled.
“I guess I’ll be going,” Mr. Grimm said.
“I guess,” I said.
Mr. Gray was our non-Jewish next door neighbor. He had a pool and would invite Nancy and me to come over and splash around in it. He also lent me books out of his personal library—stuff like, Raise the Titanic! and M*A*S*H Goes to Maine. Mr. Gray fought at the Battle of Guadalcanal as a Marine and couldn’t go in his pool without earplugs. He’d fought his way across the island without so much as a scratch, he told me, but ended up with a fungal infection in one of his ears from sleeping on the ground. The infection could only be managed and not eradicated.
We stopped going over there when Nancy started getting this creepy vibe off Mr. Gray. I noticed it, too. He would sit looking at her while we were in the pool. He never acted on whatever he was feeling, but something there wasn’t right.
My brother Tom ended up with a job at the Steak N Shake on the South Trail in Sarasota. He was a carhop, which ended up disappointing all the old gentlemen who wanted to see women in mini-skirts rollerskating to their cars, and not my stern, affectless brother trudging out to take their order. Mr. Grimm came out once, expressed his dissatisfaction, and left Tom a dime tip on the little tray hooked to the window. Tom picked up the dime, said, “Oh, what’s this?” and chucked it into the woods nearby before clearing away the tray, all without an expression on his face.
With the money he earned there, Tom bought a metallic blue Gran Torino that had formerly been used as a cab. You could read the cab company’s name and phone number raised under the bad paint job on the car. Underneath the driver’s seat were a couple of pieces of two-by-four instead of springs—the springs presumably having worn out. The car was a goner before Tom bought it. He kept it alive somehow through high school, though just barely.
Mr. Grimm would catch Tom coming home from work sometimes and comment on how he should really park such a magnificent vehicle inside the garage. “Uh, huh,” Tom went, giving him the patient, intense stare that he reserved for those he considered unworthwhile to converse with. The stare says to its recipient: “Oh, dear. You’re still talking. I shall wait for you to cease your inane blather out of courtesy before I walk away.”
My ex-wife was the unhappy recipient of the stare one time when we came to visit Tom after a score of hurricanes came rumbling through Florida in the mid-aughts. We sat on his couch in his living room while he sat in a swivel chair eating pretzel sticks and drinking Caffeine Free Diet Coke. My then-wife kept on speaking to him—I have no recollection of what she was saying, probably because I had tuned it out as well. Tom finished his snack, said, “If you’ll excuse me,” and left the room.
He was gone about ten minutes when my then-wife asked me what the hell was going on.
“You bored him,” I said. “He probably had to go take a nap.”
We peered into his room and, sure enough, he was snoozing on his bed.
“He didn’t even offer us any pretzels,” she said.
“No, he didn’t,” I said, and punctuated the sentence with a mean little cackle. It was such a perfect little moment, I wanted to pop it into a frame and make Tom autograph it.
At the Jonestown party at Dee’s house, Dee said to her brother Wayne, “Leave him alone! We’re dating!” And that’s how I knew I had a girlfriend.
Later on at the party, Dee’s other brother, Will, snatched up the family cat and made him inhale a whippet of nitrous, which permanently brain-damaged the cat.
“Check him out,” Will said, admiring his handiwork. “He’s trying to walk through the sliding glass door.” And the cat was bumping his scrambled noggin against the glass. Every time I came over after that, I had to witness that poor cat staggering around the house, a look of stunned, cross-eyed amazement on his face. Will thought this was hilarious. It was not hilarious.
Later on, Will ended up having his own brush with brain scrambling at a Baptist drying-out center in Clearwater. He sent home cassette tapes of himself singing church hymns, which Dee played for me. These tapes similarly were not hilarious.
Dee lived several doors down from my family in the Gulf Gate neighborhood—past Mr. Gray’s house, past Mr. Grimm’s house. It was easy enough for me to slip out the window and walk down there, avoiding the man and his fuzzy little dog by ducking into shrubbery, and have my first taste of cherry Kool Aide mixed with grain alcohol.
As was the custom for this particular party, which was very popular after the real life Jonestown mass suicide, everyone had to line up and take a drink. Dee’s brother Wayne played Jim Jones for us, wearing a pair of aviator shades and a clerical collar, toking on a joint and smiling at us all in what he probably thought was a beatific way, but was not, which probably made it closer to the Reverend Jones than was comfortable.
I’m sure now, thinking back on this, that Mr. Grimm and his little dog were outside that house somewhere, peering in on all the frivolity. I can see him in my mind tsking and taking mental notes so that he could regurgitate all the goings on to as many as would listen during his daily debriefs with the neighbors.
Back when I was in junior high, Dee and I rode the bus together in the mornings, and hung out at lunch sometimes, though I mostly ate alone. By Jonestown, I’d transferred to Cardinal Mooney High School, which was a four-year high school. At the time, high school in the public schools in Florida was only three years. Ninth grade was still junior high for public school students.
At 12, I’d had a sudden moment of intense clarity that kept me up most of the night, and I emerged from that sleepless night a different person, one who treasured his solitude and did not believe in a god or an afterlife. I felt, possibly wrongly, that I had come into possession of an intense and clear vision of real life. Shortly after that, I went to junior high, which ended up being very painful for those two years. People… You know: People. They don’t leave you alone at that age. It’s endless.
Fun fact: Paul Reubens, a.k.a. Pee Wee Herman, went to my junior high.
Dee was a head taller than I was, and was a competitive swimmer. Her blonde hair was perpetually chlorine green. She asked me to the cotillion. I had no idea what a cotillion was, but quickly agreed to go with her. It was held at the Shriners Hall on Beneva Road, near where I went to high school. I had to borrow a sport coat from her, it had been her brother’s. This coat was navy blue with white piping outlining it. If I’d been allowed to wear a mock turtleneck and khaki trousers, I could have passed for a tiny Patrick McGoohan. I imagined that I pretty much had the same expression on my face as he did on The Prisoner.
At the cotillion, we danced the slow dance, my check against her muscular chest, her cheek atop my head, swallowed in her powerful arms. I thought my heart would burst.
I met her friend Betty at the Jonestown party. We talked for a few minutes while taking tentative sips of the suicide Kool Aide, which had been served out of a trash can in plastic cups. Black Sabbath boomed out of the hi-fi, as the cat attempted to exit the house through the glass door over and over.
Betty rode her bicycle down to our house a few days later, as my sister and I played catch in the front lawn. Nancy was trying to teach me how to catch a grounder, and I was failing, as always.
I’d given up competitive sports at that point. I ran track, but it was mostly against myself. I paid little attention to others out there on the track, or to people in the stands, or to my coaches. I only heard my own breath and the sound of my heartbeat slamming in my ears.
Betty halted her bicycle in our driveway and gave me a good stare, which elicited a similar stare from Nancy.
“You better not break her heart,” Betty finally said.
My sister stood there in stony silence for a moment. I only saw the back of her head, but I knew what expression would be on her face. She dropped the glove and hitched up her pants and walked over to Betty.
Betty was the same size and dimensions of Dee, and was also a swimmer. Yet, if it came down to it, Nancy probably could have taken her. Nancy walked up to her and suddenly turned toward me. “Look at him,” she said, gesturing. “Does he look like he’s about to break her heart, or anyone’s heart?”
Betty’s face softened. “No,” she concluded. She looked relieved, and rode off a moment later.
“Jesus,” Nancy asked after she left, “Is every girl you know some sort of amazon?”
I was going to Cardinal Mooney. I knew the next cotillion was coming up. I hadn’t seen Dee anywhere. So I cut school at Cardinal Mooney, hopped my bike, and headed down to my old junior high. I scoured the school during lunch hour looking for her. I longed to slow dance with her again, for that feeling.
I suppose I could have gone and knocked on her door, but Wayne kind of scared me. I’d seen him in a wetsuit, snorkel and mask in our neighborhood pond with a speargun in hand, trying to hunt our resident alligator, Old Charley. Old Charley was about 12 feet long, and had been known to eat ducks and the occasional beagle.
My elbows, palms and knees were crusty with scabs from my attempts to skateboard.
I wore a uniform I’d picked for myself after my atheist conversion—pegged jeans, a black pocket t-shirt, a flannel shirt tied around my waist, and black All Star high tops—all worn down, gray with sweat and shot full of holes. It was not a popular look in the late 1970’s.
I found Dee eating lunch with her friends. She saw me and a look came over her face that was hard for me to take. We didn’t really need to talk, but we did. She was going with her friend James. That was it. I rode off, back home.
Shortly after that, my father decided that he and I would build a home together. It wasn’t meant to be a bonding experience. I was meant to be free labor. He’d pick me up at Cardinal Mooney in the afternoons, and we would go over to this swampy bit of land next to a cow pasture and bang nails into boards. On weekends, people my father knew from print shops would help out with construction. One of them asked me once how much my father was paying me to work on the house. “I get to live here,” I told him.
We would arrive home from our adventures in homebuilding in the evenings. I rarely saw Dee after that, and lost track of her completely after we moved into the shabby home that my father and I built together.
I remember standing out in front of that place with him at the end of that year of building. He wanted me to be proud of it. He asked me what I thought of it. It was new, and it looked like it was about to collapse in on itself. I said, “It looks like a cracker box.”
Mr. Grimm came toddling by with his panting little dog in tow. My brother, now home from his first semester at Emory University, was helping me load up a U-Haul. Or maybe I was helping him. Our Gulf Gate house was sold, according to the real estate sign swinging in the sodden breeze. Mr. Grimm asked about the homebuyers.
“You’ll like them,” my brother said, absolutely deadpan. “They are a rare couple— perhaps the only Jewish Haitians I’ve ever met. I understand they’ve incorporated voodoo rituals into their celebration of Shabbat…”
Tom kept talking, as the old man’s eyes bulged and his sunburnt face slowly turned from pink to gray.
My Dad is a “Mr. Grimm”; you did an awesome job fully expressing that character. This was a great piece.
Can’t tell you how many times I wanted to do this. JG
My family had a couch that looks remarkably similar to that.