Houses and Graves

Of the famous homes I’ve visited, I liked FDR’s best. Of course I did.  I go for writers’ homes mainly– Poe, Dickens, Hugo, Keats, Thoreau– but I went up to Hyde Park, New York, to see FDR’s as well.

I’ve also visited some famous graves.  Chopin’s was the biggest deal to me, although Queen Elizabeth’s was pretty mind-boggling.  She knew Shakespeare.  She beat that Armada!  And she’s right there!  That was a kick in the head.

I went to Chopin’s grave as a thank-you.  I love those piano preludes.  I brought flowers, yellow gerber daisies.  It was March in Paris, so cold it wasn’t romantic or cute, and it took me forever to find him.  My feet hurt, I had a huge zit on my forehead, and I was starving.  I was pinching euros and freezing and malnourished the whole time I was there.  They don’t have whole-wheat bread or Mexican food in France.  Other than that, I loved it.

There were fresher graves than Monsieur Chopin’s in that cemetery.  It wasn’t strange that I had flowers.  A child had recently left a crayoned note on one tomb.  When I finally found Chopin, other people had left little scrolls of sheet music sitting there.  I am not musician enough to have identified the melodies.

It might have even started to snow, but I think that is a handy detail I added when I used this story in some fiction I was working on.  So, let it snow or not snow in the Parisian cemetery, on the grave of the great Romantic composer who has a white marble lady plucking a harp carved over his final resting place– whatever makes you happy.

No one else on the FDR home tour was about to wet herself with excitement like I was.  He sat in this room!  That was his lamp!  He pulled himself up this dumbwaiter!  (He did– even long after electricity, both to keep himself in shape and to assure himself he could evacuate in case of fire.)  Inside the house is neat– but you have to stay with your tour guide to make sure no one spits on the floor.

Outside the house is better.  I sat on the side porch for a while, sheltered from the misty rain, eating red jelly beans and admiring the gentle, sweeping view of the Hudson valley hills.  Then I walked down the driveway.

Here’s the thing about the driveway: Roosevelt promised himself he would learn to walk again, and he chucked himself down that driveway every goddamn day because he was going to walk again, and that was that.  He did this for seven years.  He tried and tried to make it all the way down, to the gate, to the road.  For seven years.  You know the man couldn’t walk, right?  And then he died.

FDR’s driveway is one of my favorite stories of all time.  It’s the saddest story and the happiest story.  It’s deluded and optimistic and tough and crazy and wrenching.  The most powerful man in the world (except Stalin, right?) has a driveway he wants to walk down.  He has a driveway he tries to walk down.  And he just tries and tries.  While he’s slipping arms to Britain and then turning the U.S. from a backwater to a 500-pound gorilla.  And taking a little time to look over his stamp collection and enjoy a cocktail or two.  He’s trying to walk down this driveway, and all he does is fail.

I felt really sappy about it, so all I can tell you is (puts arm over your shoulder), Son, we’ve all got driveways to walk down, don’t we?  Everybody’s got a driveway.

You can also see the graves of Franklin and Eleanor on the grounds of their Hyde Park estate.  I didn’t leave them flowers, since I have the social welfare safety net to remember them by.

Visiting the grave is a thank-you.  You hope someone will visit your grave, someday, so you can exist for a while after you die, and it will mean that they appreciated you.

Visiting the house is taking on the person.  Breathing them in.  Grasping their bannisters and sitting on their porches to weave your story in with theirs.  Knowing a famous person as a physical presence, a person who lived in a physical world as you do, and had to live by its rules.  Who wasn’t a symbol or a character or an idol.  Just a guy trying to get down his driveway.

The 10 Best of Some Stuff, for No Particular Time

10 Best Places

1. feet up on your desk at work at the end of a day you kicked ass

2. Notre Dame, Paris

3. the park on the first day the grass is green and it’s warm enough to lie down outside

4. Grand Central Terminal, New York City

5. across from a half-empty bottle of wine as someone pours the second half

6. around a campfire with everyone’s faces dark so they feel safe saying stuff

7. home and a bowl of macaroni and cheese and a blanket at the end of a day from hell

8. the Globe Theater (reconstructed), London

9. out the window of MoMA

10. your family singing “Happy Birthday” to someone with candlelight on their faces

10 Best TV Shows

1. the one you haven’t seen again since you were a kid

2. the one you crave another bite of like it’s popcorn, give it to me, give it to me

3. the one that is so trashy you won’t tell anyone you watched it

4. the one that just happens to be on because I am so, so tired I can’t move

5. “30 Rock”

6. a lady making a thing that was so ugly to begin with, you don’t know why she’s making it, but you wonder how she will

7. the one with the scrolling bar that lists your school: snow day!

8. the one that actually makes you laugh at loud, even when you are alone

9. the one with the mad sexy actor you just like to look at but have no interest in knowing personally because he’s probably unbearably shallow

10. the one that you would never rent, but what the hell, it’s on

10 Best Books

1. I love everything this person writes, and I would read his/her pages of practice, lower-case D’Nealeon z’s if I could get my hands on it

2. I don’t understand how the hell this all hangs together, but it does

3. I plan to become an expert in this subject, at least until I get bored with it

4. These sentences sound like God wrote them, seriously, I’m so jealous

5. I love all these people and I’ll be so sad when I can’t spend any more time with them because they’re not real

6. I don’t want to be here, and I’m not here, I’m there, all there

7. I don’t think I can finish this, but it’s super famous, and there’s probably a reason for that, so I’m going to plow on

8. Oh, I see, so this connects to that, and that connects to this, and now I understand the whole thing, sort of

9. Damn, I never thought of it that way at all

10. I so do not get this, but I’m going to get it, eventually

Rome I

On the Atlantic flight, my seatmate is actually Italian, Pisan.  He works for a chain of fitness centers that are just expanding in Italy, and I rudely suggest that I thought European women didn’t exercise.  The chain is like 24 Hour Fitness, or Curves, he explains.  Yes, I’ve heard of them.  Do I belong?  I laugh: no, no, I am not fit!

In a freak occurrence, the sandals I wore all over Disney World without trouble give me blisters just walking around the airports, en route.  So my first Roman purchase is acid green flip-flops, at Termini train station.  

Sleep deprivation and jet lag always hit me hard.  When a taxi driver at the train station explains my ride will cost 20 euros, I demand my bags back, muttering that I will take the Metro.  After fifteen minutes of dizzily studying the bus situation, I humbly return to the street and accept a 20 euro ride gratefully.  I can handle a subway on no sleep, but buses are too much for me.

For dinner, just around the corner from my hotel, I eat spaghetti with pepper, on a bed of fried cheese. Weird, but not bad.  I sit in a perfect gooseneck cobblestone alleyway, around the corner from my movie-set hotel.  When you live in a place that almost never appears in the media, it’s surprising how Europe looks like movies of Europe, or New York City looks just like “Law & Order.”  It’s easy to forget they build sets to look like Rome or New York, and not the other way around.  

An old man at another table reads in Italian.  A quartet of retired Americans and Brits chat.  Another couple gets on a motorcycle and rides away.  Tomorrow morning, this cafe will have disappeared like a speakeasy, the outdoor tables and plants and signs sucked back inside until the evening.  I surreptitiously look up how to say, “The check” in Italian.

Borrowing the Car

When I was eighteen, I could already drive a stick shift. Definitely.  I had to learn to drive on a stick because that was the car my mom had.  It was drive a stick or don’t drive.  But I had never driven a European car– we had a Corolla.

So at eighteen, I sat alone in a yellow Volkswagen and tried to figure out how the hell to make it go backward.  There was an “R” on the lever there, but it wouldn’t go “R,” and although I suspected I could throw it in neutral, roll back into the street and peel out, it seemed unwise to rely on solely the forward gears for a journey of any distance.

That day I was planning to go to the beach, about an hour or two of driving from my uncle’s apartment complex.  Instead, after a good half hour of frustration, I returned inside and watched another one of the videotapes he happened to own.  “St. Elmo’s Fire,” perhaps, or “Days of Wine and Roses” or “Born on the Fourth of July.”  There were a lot of downers.

It was hard for me to believe that my uncle was letting me drive his car, especially since this was New Jersey.  I was not from New Jersey.  I didn’t know where I was going.  Clearly he didn’t understand how clueless I was.

I was about to begin college, in two weeks.  My uncle and aunt were putting me up on the east coast between my mom’s departure and the beginning of school.  (School started earlier for my sisters back home.)  I hadn’t absorbed the reality of leaving high school.  After waiting desperately for it to end, it was over so suddenly.

When he got home from work, my uncle showed me how to shove the stick down and over to get it into neutral.  Then again he unfolded a Garden State map on his shiny dining room table, and showed me the route.  He refolded it neatly, like the engineer he was.  Why did he think that I could handle this?  I could never have refolded that map.

The next morning I made the trip from New Brunswick to Ocean Grove.  Right before Ocean Grove, on the New Jersey coast, you have Asbury Park.  I had been warned that parts of Asbury Park were unsavory, and I managed to get a little turned around in a neighborhood where men were standing along the sidewalks looking like they didn’t have much to do except watch you get lost and frown.  But I calmly kept going, and just around the corner, Ocean Grove seemed about as safe as Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.

In fact, Ocean Grove is similar to a PBS show. It was founded by Methodists.  They have a lot of  huge old Victorian houses with porches and awnings, and three blocks of a main street.  They have lunch spots, an ice cream parlor, and a few gift shops with handmade signs.  I ate my peanut butter and jelly on the beach.  Read.  Walked down the main street for a mint chocolate chip ice cream cone.  Went back to the sand and napped.

From a pay phone, I called my uncle and aunt to tell them I would be late, which gave me a strange feeling.  I was just calling to be polite, not to ask permission or anything.  I could have the car.  I could go.  They didn’t care when I returned.  Maybe I had graduated from high school, maybe I had gotten into college and put together the tuition, but why did my uncle think I could be trusted with a European car and the east coast?  It scared me, a little.  Because he seemed like a pretty smart guy.

Aside: I just looked up the town to check my memories of it.  Ocean Grove was founded as a dry town, and continues to be, oddly situated as it is on the party-time Jersey shore.  It also was the site of some big fight about whether or not a gay couple could hold a civil union ceremony on city/church property, which is totally lame– I love gay people getting married, or not getting married, or whatever they want to do.  Anyway, don’t ever go there, because I don’t want to see you while I’m trying to take a nap.