02 November 2007

Very Not in England

I keep putting off writing about my recent trip to Far Eastern Queens to take care of my parents. I'm not sure why this is: I think mostly it's because I have so many thoughts about it that I think it could really be a novel. Of course, it's a lot easier to think about how something could really be a novel than to sit down and really write that novel, or even to sit down and rant about some of the major points.

Which I am going to try to do here.

I have always had trouble just writing down major points because to me every point is major. I start feeling sorry for the slightly non-major points, and then sorry for the sort of wanna-be-major points, and so all the points get written about equally. It sometimes takes literally a year for me to look at something I've written and ask myself "what on earth made me think that was important enough to write about?" Maybe that's why I've been blogging at the rate of about once a year.

About the trip, yes. I recently returned from New York where I was trying to help out my parents, who have been married for 63 years are both pushing 88. They still live in the apartment I grew up in, in Bell Park, which is a post-war (that would be World War Two) housing development of approximately one square mile, encompassing about 1000 "garden apartments." The apartments are what I think are now referred to as "town homes," and many of them (like my parents') have front and back doors and a little postage stamp of grass in front and back. Most of them have red brick on the bottom and white clapboard on the top, or just red brick all over, with traditional grey tar-shingled roofs and lots of fenced-in "drying areas," playgrounds, benches and laundry rooms scattered about. And trees, lots and lots of trees. This one used to be a tree nursery before it was built around 1950, so it's full of perfect lollypop maples and less refined, scraggly old oaks and aloof birches and weeping willows and fat, jolly old chestnut trees.

The first time I went to Liverpool and saw Paul McCartney's house I was astounded to see how much Abbey Road was like Union Turnpike, and Paul's house in Allerton is a garden apartment — just like the house I grew up in! We thought the Beatles were so exotic; no one in Bell Park wore Beatle boots until the Beatles actually wore them. I often wonder if this is why I've always identified more with working-class British movies and novels than the [Fun with] Dick and Jane and Baby Sally of traditional America. My grandmother didn't live on a farm with cute baby chicks; she lived in an apartment building in Brooklyn that reeked of a thousand pots of chicken soup.

Anyway, my mother came down with shingles, not the tar kind, and she really sounded horrible. Now, she's not exactly the type to suffer in silence, but really, everyone says shingles is unbearably painful, and the more I heard from my sister and my dad the more concerned I got.

For those of you not hanging with the Swinging Shingles crowd, shingles is a kind of Second Coming of chicken pox, speaking of chickens, and it's caused by a crappy immune system. The kind you might have, say, if you were almost 88 and kind of depressed, and all your friends and contemporaries were dying or dead, and you were obsessed with your bowels and your aches and your pains, and grieving because your husband who used to run a restaurant and build furniture and totally took care of you your whole life is no longer smart enough to make dinner or even figure out the remote control.

Being Little Sister, they usually try to protect me from such unpleasantries, and treat me like I'm about six years old and will only get in the way. That's why I was surprised when my mother actually welcomed the idea of my coming out to help. She welcomed it almost as a little girl would, too: "Really?' she said. "You'd come? That would be so nice." I was honored she was going to let me take care of her. Well, I thought, I have a fourteen-year-old, maybe she finally trusts me.

She's obviously not in her right mind, thought I, because usually she gets all stressed out about how she's going to have enough in the Meat Tray, and where I'm going to sleep and whether she'll be able to make it to the beauty parlor in time. But this time she seemed like she wanted me to come. In a way, I was moved.

I waited a few days to make sure she was serious, and my sister, who is eight years older than me, agreed that it would be helpful, especially because we'd been trying to get my mother to take an anti-depressant for about ten years and it seemed like finally she was ready. Besides, nortryptaline, the one I thought she should take, happened to be listed as one of the things people take for something icky called Pain After Shingles. So we could actually tell her it was for pain, as opposed to just her being unbelievably annoying, which she probably knows is why we wanted her to take antidepressants all along.

I actually used to wish my mother was an alcoholic like my ex-boyfriend Jim's bitter, sarcastic-but-adorable mother Dotty, because Dotty was Catholic and Suffered in Silence while she smoked cigarettes and knocked back Manhattans. But then Dotty only lived 'til she was about 74.

So off I went. To treat myself, I made a reservation on Virgin America. I thought I could pretend I was going to England. Anglophile that I am, I actually checked to see if I could extend my trip to England for a few days; what the hell, I'll be halfway to England anyway, and I have friends there. But apparently Virgin America only identifies itself with Virgin Atlantic to get you interested in flying on it. As soon as you book the reservation the mystique disappears. I got a little suspicious, actually, when I watched the fancy Flash movie, and a fridge full of glossy bottles of spring water was the only image accompanying the word "snacks."

"I was wondering," I inquired, by telephone, "If there was some way of extending this trip to include a little side trip to England? Maybe make New York a kind of stopover?"
"I'm sorry, ma'am" said the customer service representative. "Wha-ir not really associated with Virgin Atlantic in any way."
"You mean, I can't tack this mileage onto my Virgin Atlantic miles?" I asked, horrified.
"No ahm afraid you cain't" she said, in a very distinctly non-English accent. I was a little crushed.
"I'm surprised. I mean, it's Virgin and everything."
"Yes, ma'am, many people make that mistake, but ah don't know wha-ir they get that ah-dea," said the CSR.

Maybe because of the advertising, I thought. Maybe using the same logo? Maybe that it's owned by the same company?

It reminded me of when in the old days we used to get our photos on paper from the drugstore, and they had finally put a "24 Hour Photo" sign in Walgreens' window, and when I brought my pictures in, the guy said, "That'll be ready Wednesday" and it was Monday.
"I thought it was 24 Hours? " I said, with obvious disappointment.
"That's just a logo," said the clerk, the one with the bushy eyebrows who always looks at me like he remembers the nude pictures of me from when I was pregnant. Probably because they decorate his bedroom mirror.

It was just a logo.

Well, I knew I wasn't going to get fed, and I knew I wasn't going to England, but Virgin Atlantic gave out cool yellow cotton eyeshades with provocative little words printed on them, and made playful references to the Mile High Club in their onboard magazine. As soon as you were on the plane you knew you were in swingin' England. As soon as I was booked on this plane I knew I was, uh, not in England. Very not.

Incidentally, I had actually thought I might be going to England this fall, when for about an instant I thought I had a little extra cashflow, the instant right before I found out that the high-pitched screech coming from my front left wheel meant I needed a new hub. A hub! Not a hubcap, a hub. I had no idea you could actually mess up your hub. I thought the most expensive thing your car could need was a new clutch. Turns out, a hub costs just as much. So much for the extra cashflow; a bientot, Angleterre.

So one of my wacky but lovable clients gave me a ride to the airport, and I boarded the plane, knowing that probably the most fun part of my trip was going to actually be the plane itself, which is a pretty depressing thought, but sleeping on my parents' couch wearing my old Virgin Atlantic eyeshades and earplugs and having to face the fact that my mother really was miserably sick and that they were so damned old and would never be the way I think of them in my head didn't sound like all that much fun. I closed my eyes and tried to think about sex.

[to be continued]

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