Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Greatest Compliment of All

Welcome to my 100th post on “Have You Heard the One about the Gay Jew in the Trailer Park.”

In the beginning, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, I concentrated on my life in the trailer park. During the middle ages, I shared my observations on life. And lately, I have been talking a lot about how my writing and my life have converged, blurring the lines where Milton begins and his art ends or something like that.

A lot has happened between becoming a trailer park queen and a convergence of art and life.

Esmeralda, the amazing rescue beagle, ran away, came back, destroyed my house, refused to let me install window treatments, treated the carpet like a lawn, finally bonded with me and died one year to the day that she first ran away and found that beach in Jessup. She now shares a space on my dresser with Serena.

I sold a car, I bought a car, I sold a car, and I bought a truck.

I entered into a relationship, I ended the relationship before Valentine’s Day, I entered into another relationship, and I ended that relationship before Valentine’s Day. It saves on flowers and candy.

My sixth book was published, and I was asked to write a foreword for a book on Jewish women and Mah Jongg.

I turned fifty, and I can still kick and stretch and kick.

I bought a pound of weed – oh wait, that never happened. Nor did I sell it for more than I paid. Career change? However, they are right. A user is a loser. That is what those of us with street cred say. We do.

I finished massage therapy school and have my degree. Oh, you didn’t know about that one. You do now.

However, what happened this last weekend really brought my life full circle.

Saturday night at around 1:00 am, I was drunk texted by an ex, then I was drunk dialed by another ex, then I was drunk texted again the first ex, then I was drunk dialed by a third ex, all within an hour. As you have probably surmised, most of my exes are drunks, addicts or a combination of the two. Most are prone to black outs, so they usually never remember dialing me. But, all on the same night? I was wondering how they obtained libations in rehab and who let them use the payphone. Was there a conference in town for Milton’s discards? Is there a banquet hall big enough to hold such an affair? Pardon the pun. The trick would be getting everyone I ever slept with to attend as well. Pun intended there.

However, being drunk dialed and texted was not what made this weekend memorable or even interesting. The thing about dating the characters I have is that they only realize what they had after they had it, and by then, I no longer want them to have it.

Speaking of characters …

Let’s go back twenty-nine years. While sitting at the kitchen table in our house on Dresden Drive, Newport News, pecking away on my Brother Student Writer XL-1, my mother asked me what my screenplay was about. I told her it was about five Jewish women and one strange year. Her response: “It better not be about me and my friends.”

Quickly now, let’s sing together, “You’re so vain, you probably think this screenplay’s about you …”

I told her it wasn’t. My mother has been dead for a dozen years now, so guess what, Harryette? It was! And it still is about you and your friends! Oh God, I have been wanting to say that for almost three decades.

I never let anyone in my family read the screenplay, and when the book was published, I hoped no one who knew any of the women on whom the characters were based would read it either.

The reason I didn’t let my family read it was because I was always treated as if I were silly, and my parents only understood one form of communication – criticism. I will give you an example. When Harriet Lane, America’s First Lady was published, my father asked me what my next book would be. I told him I wasn’t sure, and he said, “Oh, you ran out of ideas, huh?”

He also didn’t like Harriet Lane, America’s First Lady because it was about a woman. Being the macho former sailor who only relayed stories of showering with other sailors during his time in the service, he couldn’t bring himself to read about a woman. Ironically, he raved about Peggy Lee’s biography – how closeted gay is that? I should be thankful. My mother had three tickets to see La Cage au Faux, and my father refused to go see a play about fags dressed as women, so I got to go with Mother and Aunt Anita, and I loved it!

Here is an Aunt Anita story that I have only told a few people. When she was dying of cancer and in a nursing facility, I went to visit her, and Montel Williams was on the TV in the social hall. She said very loudly, while pointing to the television, “Why is that shvatzah in my living room?” I was mortified.

By the time On Tuesdays, They Played Mah Jongg was published, only two of my mother’s friends were still alive. One had brain surgery, and I figured even if she read the book, she wouldn’t remember it. The other, however, was sharp as a tack.

Life is funny. I want you to take a look at your friends right now and figure out which one is going to outlive all of you. I can tell you from experience that you are completely wrong. Death is one of my favorite subjects. As you know, I love obituaries. Over the years, I have had two former classmates die of heart attacks while training for triathlons. One friend, who always said he wanted to become a doctor, have three kids and live in Florida, did just that then he died. He achieved all his goals and had nothing to live for.

Let’s look at my mother’s friends. Aunt Anita was the oldest, and she died from Leukemia at age seventy-two. Aunt Flossie loved to ballroom dance and died at age seventy-four while dancing during a competition. She went the way we all should go. My mother had scleroderma and died at age seventy-one (really seventy-three), but even after proofing her grave marker, it was still completed with her fake age. Even from the afterlife she perpetuated a lie. Aunt Renee died at seventy-nine. Aunt Devera, who is eighty-four, has had back surgery, heart bypass surgery and last year survived six weeks in the hospital with a tear in her intestines, is still alive and still drives, and I will bet it is a Cadillac! She also outlived two husbands. All of them, except for Flossie, smoked. If you asked me thirty years ago, who would be around, I would have said Renee or Flossie. I never would have predicted that only one would have made it into her eighties.

In looking at my own life, I don’t expect to outlive everyone. My biological father died of a heart attack at fifty-four, both his parents died of heart attacks in their forties, and my maternal grandfather died of a heart attack at fifty-eight. Having said that, I will probably outlive everyone and end up in a rat-infested nursing home, while my only surviving relative, my nephew, who is not into antique cars, takes all three of my cars to the junkyard for $75 each and visits me once a month wondering how he got stuck taking care of this drooling mess who keeps blurting out useless facts about Bewitched.

Aunt Devera is one of my favorite people in the world. She is five-feet tall if she is an inch, and for as long as I can remember, I have always called her Mrs. Wonderful, and she has always called me Mr. Perfect. When I created a character based on her, I let them call each other these pet names. But, for me, that was as far as the resemblance went.

Doreen Weiner, while a short woman with big boobs, a hairdo actually designed by a young Vidal Sassoon before anyone knew who he was, married to a real estate mogul and the driver of a Cadillac, was nothing like Aunt Devera, who was everything I just described.

Sidenote: Someone asked me how many aunts I have. The answer is none. My mother was an only child, and these were her friends. Back to the story.

Doreen was a very wealthy, man-crazy tramp who had to pay off her god-daughter, who was having an affair with her husband, so she would rekindle a romance that never was really there because the man with whom she was having an affair decided to marry someone else. Confused? Read the book. Doreen was also the mafia don (or is it donness) of the group. In a chapter in the sequel, Michael’s Secrets, that was eventually cut from the final print, Doreen arranges to have Arthur Stein … ummm … eliminated, and no one spoke of it again. Doreen was also the most sensible one of the group. She taught Michael how to drive and gave him her one-year-old Cadillac as a present when he got his license.

In the original screenplay, I pictured Joan Rivers playing Doreen and the following:

Female leads:

Florence: Liza Minnelli
Rona: Carole Cook
Arlene: Shelley Winters
Hannah: Lucie Arnaz

The male leads:

Sammy: Danny Thomas
Morton: Norman Fell
William: Tom Bosley
Arthur: Sid Caesar

Now that would have been a great movie!

A couple of weeks ago, I was talking to Aunt Devera on the phone, and she asked me what of my books she had not read. I stammered. “Well,” I said, “Have you read Harriet Lane, America’s First Lady?” She wasn’t sure. I drew in a breath, and I told her I would send her that one and two others.

My hand actually shook as I put Harriet Lane, America’s First Lady, On Tuesdays, They Played Mah Jongg and Michael’s Secrets in a padded USPS Priority Mail envelope. I printed out a shipping label, and I put the envelope on my dinette with every intention of mailing it on Monday.

This was going to be a test, one I hoped I would never have to take. It is one thing to be compared to a character in your own writing, but what happens if you read a book, and you recognize yourself in someone else’s writing? I did state in the beginning of the book that “none of this ever happened, but it could have,” but how much does that protect you? Then there was another thing worrying me. What if she hated the book and the character based on her. Would I have ruined one of the greatest relationships of my life? And believe me, I have ruined a lot of relationships.

I purposely took the envelope to the Ben Franklin Post Office on Pennsylvania Avenue. This is the most notoriously awful post office in the United States. Seriously, postal workers in Guam know how bad this branch is. Here is an example, I mailed two boxes from there and followed their instructions to the letter. The boxes were returned to me in Jessup undeliverable for reasons my local postal worker could not figure out. She said not to worry and took care of getting them delivered. When I told her which branch, she knowingly shook her head. A co-worker went to mail a certified letter. They pointed to the envelopes and told him which one to get. He presented them with the envelope to which they referred, and they said that it was the wrong envelope. I mailed flat rate packages with postage I printed online, and they told me I paid the wrong amount. Flat rate!

Anyway, I used them because I couldn’t lie to Mrs. Wonderful and tell her I mailed the books when I didn’t, but I figured they would never deliver it. I may be a terrible liar, but I am crafty.

For once, the bastards did their job.

Three days later I got a call while I was out. It was Aunt Devera, and her voice mail went like this, “Mr. Perfect, this is Mrs. Wonderful. I read On Tuesdays, They Played Mah Jongg, and I loved it. Call me. I want to talk to you.”

Well, the first part was great, but “I want to talk to you?” Nothing good ever came from “I want to talk to you” or worse “we need to talk.”

I called, and it turned out she actually did love it. Then she said something interesting, “I knew those women … Now, did I read it in order? Do I read Michael’s Secrets next?” 

What did she mean by “she knew those women”?

Sometimes, you just don’t press an issue. You see, Aunt Devera never played Mah Jongg and neither did Aunt Flossie even though the characters they influenced did. If Aunt Devera saw herself in Doreen, she didn’t tell me. Or, she felt the greatest compliment of all was having a beloved character based on her. I will never know. Better yet, I don’t need to know.

However, the greatest compliment of all was having the last surviving member of my mother’s circle of friends and truly one of my favorite people in the whole world and someone who influenced me more than just about anyone in my entire life love a book I wrote with a character based on her.

For twenty-nine years, I worried about nothing. Then again, she hasn’t finished reading Michael’s Secrets. Doreen and Rona are a trip in that one … or not.

Oh God, what have I wrought?

If you want your life immortalized by a Gay Jew in a Trailer Park, join me, get on my email list, follow me, or buy my books at www.miltonstern.com

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