Onward With Umberto Tosi’s “Our Own Kind,” Chapters 5 and 6

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November 1, 2014 · Posted in Our Own Kind - Umberto Tosi 

Our Own Kind cover Kindle edition

By Umberto Tosi

(Copyright c 2014 by Umberto Tosi)

 

5. WAR AS A WAY OF LIFE

 

Six weeks later, just as things seemed to settle down, Sid phones and tells Ben that Lori is back in L.A., like nothing happened.

“News to me.” Ben tries to sound nonchalant. He hadn’t heard anything from Lori, nor had she phoned the girls. “It’s like we severed diplomatic relations, seeing as we’re at war.”

Ben hears Sid’s secretary say something in the background. Then Sid cups the phone and all Ben hears are muffled sounds.

“Sorry about that.” Sid is back. “Listen. Now her counsel claims that your ex is fit as a fiddle. He’s accusing you of stealing the kids.”

“… But you told me…”

“Hey. Don’t worry about it kid. We’re on legal ground here.”

“Yeah. And there are no earthquakes in California”

“Her attorney is just trying to make a case so they can bargain.”

“What about her mental illness. She’s been in a psych ward for weeks. Can’t we show that?”

They’re claiming that she was just recovering from exhaustion.”

“I wish. You know that’s not true. What about the hospital records?”

“That’s just it. We would need a court order to get them. Patient privacy and all that.”

“So? Get one.”

“Not that easy. But we can threaten to get one as a bargaining chip.”

“Franz Kafka could have done something terrific with this. Me? I’m not so sure.”

“They’re demanding that you bring the kids back to her forthwith.”

“Just like that? Ping-pong with children? I don’t even know where she’s living now, or what condition things are in. Her old apartment was a sty. Pure chaos. Beer cans and cigarette butts: early saloon décor.”

“The attorney says Lori is back at her mother’s house now.”

“Bedlam with a kidney shaped swimming pool and a valley view.”

“We’ll ask the court to appoint a social worker to investigate.”

No explanation of how she ended up in a Reno rehab center?” Benny draws a breath to keep himself from choking up. Keep calm. This had to happen sooner or later. “So…” He sighed. “Can we work something out? I’m tired of fighting. This does no one any good – especially not the children.”

“Sit tight, Benny boy. It will be up to the court now. You have a good case.”

“So did the Rosenbergs.”

“We can establish her as an unfit mother and win you permanent custody. Think of this as a good thing. Everything will be settled and the kids will be protected.”

“I’m okay with going back to joint custody like before this happened, Sid.”

“You could just take them back to Lori’s mother’s house and we’ll make a settlement, if you want, but I don’t advise it.

Benny thought a while. He heard Sid barking at his secretary again, then come back to the phone.

“Sid. You still there?”

“Yah.”

“I’m not cool with trying to make Lori out to be ‘unfit.’ It makes me feel dirty.”

“It’s the way it works legally, Ben. Think of your kids.”

“Anyway, I wouldn’t allow them back with her unless you can get me some reliable assurance that she’s stable – like a doctor’s statement, or something. Not if I can help it.”

“Too late for horse-trading now, Benny. Motions have been filed. It’s not like some slip-and-fall tort case when kids are involved.”

“I didn’t mean it like, bargaining over my kids, Sid.”

“By the way, Benny, did you get the copy of Lori’s response to our custody motion? I mailed one to you last week.”

“No. What…?”

It alleges that you are a drunk, abusive and never home. Talk about an unfit parent!”

“Shit.”

“It’s war, kid. Lori’s lawyers say the only reason you want custody is to avoid paying child support.”

“Yeah. Like no red-blooded American male would ever really want to take care of his children. Like my old man used to say, that’s woman’s work.”

“I got to be honest, Benny. That’s the common wisdom. Judges lean heavily towards mothers in these cases.”

“Why does everything have to be a goddamn war? Escalate, escalate, like fucking Vietnam. Kids end up as collateral damage.”

“Not exactly a war. Like you guessed, the court assigns a social worker. She interviews everyone and makes a recommendation.”

“Can you make sure the social worker gets to see Lori’s psychiatric hospital records? She’s been in and out of psych wards for three years now, starting when she tried to kill herself because she hallucinated a voice on TV telling her aliens had landed, or a nuclear war had started. Lucky thing she didn’t poison the kids with her.” Why do I feel like such an asshole for having to bring this up – like I’m playing a card — over and over?

“No dice. Doctor-patient confidentiality. Anyway, they’re claiming that her overdoses were accidental, not a suicide attempts. Just a prescription mistake.”

“Bullshit. They wouldn’t have kept her locked up in the psych ward that long if that were true.”

“But we can’t establish that in court. Like I said, patient privacy. Her doctors couldn’t help us if they wanted. Not unless it was a crime investigation. You know that.”

“So, trying to do the right thing, I end up putting my kids at the mercy of some second-rate social worker and a biased judge?”

“You might want to think about a witness who can testify to her erratic behavior, drinking and so forth, maybe a mutual friend.”

“God! It’s so damn ugly.”

“He’d make a great character witness, but I can’t subpoena God, I’m afraid.”

“Yeah. Right. He’s dead. Can you get Nietzsche?”

 

———————–

Walter_Cronkite_In_Vietnam2

Walter Cronkite in Vietnam (US Navy photo from Feb. 1968

Headline_LAT_1968-lbj-bombshell-25

 

 LBJ won’t run headline in LATimes, from Feb. 1968.

 

 

6. HEADLINES AND CIGARETTE BUTTS

 

Benny carries around a yellowed clipping of his first byline story, tattered, folded and tucked behind the L.A. Times press card in his overstuffed wallet. And he feels silly when he thinks of it.

The article ran only six inches. It told about a high school football mom who got so caught up in her son’s game that she stepped off the sideline to intercept a pass and ran seventy-eight yards to the opposite end zone. It was quite a broken field run, said witnesses. She faked out referees, coaches, and players and straight-armed a security guard on her way. Unfortunately no film at 11. But there was one black-and-white pic, taken by a high school newspaper showing her as a blurry image crossing the goal line.

WRONG-WAY MOM’S

TOUCHDOWN ILLEGAL

That was the headline.

“Mildly ridiculous and emblematic of my career.” Benny described the story whenever he mentioned it, which was rarely.

He never confided his rookie excitement when the news item ran. He had climbed high up an inky catwalk at two in the morning, starry eyed, to watch the Sunday edition that carried his story run on the Times’ giant rotary presses. Wow, a million people get this paper with my byline, he kept thinking. His face reddens now when he remembers that bit of self-inflation, so uncool, he viewed this now. Still, he carried the clipping.

Benny and his daughters had settled into a homey routine during the weeks that followed his picking them up from Lori’s mom’s. He felt liberated – constant worry about them lifted at least for the time being. No drama.

He was glad now that he insisted on a two-bedroom cottage instead of a single. No more dating, no parties. He hired Zoya for after school until he got home from work. It got expensive, but helped when he was able to make an arrangement with Makeda to split the Zoya’s pay. Every morning, Makeda – who had a job at the Times as well – would drop off her girl, Keesha, on the way to work. He likes it even better because it’s Makeda and they have become much better friends seeing each other each day, relaxed, getting to talk.

His eldest daughter Linda isn’t too happy with Zoya. She has been phoning him at the office nearly every afternoon chatting after school – often with minor complaints, but really to be sure he’s coming home soon – and please bring this or that treat, daddy.

Benny marks his life with headlines, all of them, not just the sappy entertainment lines he writes for the Sunday features desk:

Viet Monk Self-Immolates

——–

Cong Scores Tet Offensive

———

Cronkite Says War Lost

———

LBJ Won’t Run!

———

RFK in Race

 

Imagined, personal headline too:

 

Ben Appoints New Sitter

———-

Linda, Nicole and Dad

Seen Often on Kiddie Train

———–

Albino Dad Court Case Looms

———–

Editorial Flunky to Get No Raise

———–

Kubrick Film to Star Unknown Albino

 

The world spins on, out of control mostly while Benny tends to his kids, absent-mindedly courts Makeda and awaits the verdict in a court fight he didn’t want. Eugene McCarthy’s antiwar campaign for President builds, Bobby Kennedy starts to run. LBJ not. Martin Luther King, fresh from civil rights victories, crosses a Rubicon: allies with labor and the antiwar movements. It looks like things might finally begin to get better – but that’s just a feeling, and not in the headlines.

Headlines and tidy, straight columns of news-type give an illusory order to the world’s daily chaos. Though Benny always hated the copy desk – where most headlines were written, like fellow rim rat (as copy editors were called) he had mastered the minor art or tacking droll, ironic headlines onto stories, wherever he could get away with it.

Meanwhile, though, he talked the Sunday entertainment editor into letting him write minor film reviews – one of his passions, and a blessed relief from the desk. He gets the “art films” because to stiff-backed suits at the paper still lived in the 1950s and, no movie make outside Hollywood mattered much to the first-string film critic and the industry promotional machine that kept said critic on it’s a-list.

Yojimbo. Yoshwimbo! It’s all raw fish to Morgan Crimple, the Times’ entertain editor who decides who covers what in Tinsletown. Crimple is glad to toss anything with subtitles to a grateful Benny.

Benny is expendable, as are foreign movie reviews. But the Times has swelled so fat with ads that it needs more and more editorial content – if only to fill space between them. It’s a business to the suits, not a paper.

It’s always the goddamn money. Spinning my wheels. Waiting for a raise, waiting for the social worker, waiting for the custody hearing.

“You little bum. All you do is play all day.” Father used to arch an eyebrow at Little Benny – the sallow son he wished could make him proud on a playing field instead of burying his straw-haired head in books he read through Coke-bottle glasses.

Taking his father’s cue, Benny took to playing hobo – carrying a bindle fashioned from an old scarf and broomstick, chomping a Tootsie Roll like a cigar butt, looking to catch an imaginary box car out of his reality, away from parents, school, dodging its ever-present bullies:

“Hey, Milky! Gimme your lunch money. Hey, Milky: What’s whiter, you or dried dog shit?”

“What do you want to be when you grow up, young man?” Relatives and family friends would ask Benny, smirking to themselves.

“I want to be a bum, and sit on my bum all the time, and bum around the world, bumming cigars and singing bum-da-um-bum, bum bum!” Benny would delight in the shocked looks of disapproval he got.

Later, in high school, he read Jack Kerouac. Still later, he and Lori, shacking up, read guides to cut-rate passenger berths on freighters around the world. “We’ll sail to Rio, and Singapore, and Istanbul.” Then Lori told him she was pregnant. No Brazil. Just baby Linda, and quit school – just for now, he told himself – and get a job.

Story of my life. Continued on Page 19.

“The facts, ma’am, just the facts.” Here he was, anyway, at the real newspaper – the owned by the Chandler family that practically invented L.A., and for a while was its reigning royalty. He got to work in “the Velvet Coffin (that’s what they called the Times Building) catty corner from L.A.’s gleaming which, art deco City Hall – right out of Jack Webb’s you-can’t-be-serious-Sergeant-Joe Friday Dragnet. The L.A. city hall appeared in the establishing shot of every Dragnet episode and

in a thousand other movies and cop shows, its shape pictured on every LAPD shield as well. Squinting up at the city hall’s white tower, he remembers Superman flying from the Daily Planet window, because that was the building where Clark Kent worked in the Saturday matinee serials that Benny used to watch as a kid.

“Benny, I get you,” his friend Roy would say, swirling the ice in his Scotch and water. “You worry about everything, but you basically expect things will work out in the end, just like in too many movies.”

“Yeah, I know. But not really.”

“No, really, Benny. You know, of course, that shit happens.”

“Sounds nihilistic.”

“Or Buddhist.”

“I don’t know.”

“Neither does anyone. Be ready for anything and expect nothing. Stay on your toes.” His friend Roy told him, only half kidding.

That’s the life at work, but driving home to his two daughters, Benny enters an entirely different existence with requirements of its own that have little to do with headlines or the office. It is filled with his daughter’s demands and delights. It’s fixing lunches, driving back-seat-bouncing squabbly kids to school, shopping, cooking, cleaning, on weekends providing endless diversions.

It is the artificial-nature sanctuary of half-wild-half-carnival Griffith Park, cordoned off and surrounded by smogville and its freeways buzzing in all directions. It’s the quiet world of meadow picnics, tree-shaded rides, the loopy Los Feliz mini-train and the Griffith Observatory where the kids can see a light show and Benny feels like he’s in a hundred movies set there – far from the paper, the politics of race, war and economic struggle. It’s bedtime stories every night, not inside stories that may or may not get in print. Not headlines.

Griffith_Observatory

Griffith_Park_and_Southern_Trains_in_Los_Feliz_Station

Griffith Park mini train station

 

 

Umberto Tosi is a former staff writer and section editor for the Los Angeles Times. His books include the new novel, “Ophelia Rising,” re-imagining the life of Hamlet’s fair maid, out in Kindle November 1 and due out in print this coming May.)

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