Reconsidering the fundamentals.
Eddie moved to town when I was 12 years old. He lived three doors down from me. His family came from Texas, which I found enormously impressive. He was a year older than me, but also in seventh grade. (“I’m kind of dumb,” he say when asked about it.) Eddie was shy, but when approached he quickly became friendly. He was eager to be liked, generous, and sweet.
Once, in music class, the teacher had all of the students declare what our favorite songs were. Most kids would have named Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby,” M.C. Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This,” Madonna’s “Vogue,” or Milli Vanilli’s “Blame it on the Rain,” with a little Janet Jackson, Aerosmith and Soul II Soul tossed in. (In retrospect, either B-52′s “Love Shack” or Digital Underground’s “The Humpty Dance” should have been my favorite, rather than my shameful pick…Paula Abdul’s “Opposites Attract.”) Eddie’s pick? “All My Exes Live in Texas,” George Strait’s 1987 country hit. The teacher was as dumbstruck as the students, and had Eddie recite some of the lyrics so we could figure out what he was talking about. I later asked him about this. He pled ignorance of any of the other bands named, citing two other songs as favorites, both from 1969: Gershon Kingsley’s synthpop instrumental “Popcorn,” and Zager and Evans’ “In the Year 2525 (Exordium and Terminus).” He played each for me. I was baffled.
There were other strange things about Eddie. His father was a pale white white, his mother a brown-skinned Mexican immigrant, yet Eddie appeared to be entirely Latino. His half-brother — a concept that had to be explained to me — was entirely white. The brother, whose name escapes me, was a year older. He’d visit from Texas for weeks at a time in the middle of the school year.
Though Eddie lived in a large, well-furnished house, he wore old clothes and had second-rate school supplies. His half-brother was always well-dressed.
Eddie told me that his family moved often, and he’d never lived anywhere for more than a year. They’d move with only a few days’ notice. This was explained by his father working for a chain of toy stores, a chain that did not exist in the area. His family stayed packed — Eddie stored many of his possessions in his room not on shelves or in a dresser, but in cardboard boxes.
His relationship with his mother seemed close. There was a lot unspoken between them. But his relationship with his father was unlike anything I’d seen. He called his father “sir,” and never failed to obey him. His mother treated his father with the same deference. She maintained a formal living room for guests. It was immaculate, with a couch, two chairs, and artfully-arranged pillows. No child was permitted in there, and there was clearly no danger of them entering. So long as I knew Eddie, they had no guests, and the living room remained unused.
Eddie had a spiral scar that spread the width of his palm. He had, he explained to me, put his hand on a hot stove burner. He chalked this up to “being kind of dumb.”
The two of us once discovered an odd device stuck to the bottom of a piece of furniture in their family room. It was a round, black magnet, maybe an inch and a half wide, with a copper-colored core. One half was capped with a metal device. We bashed it open on the sidewalk to find electronics within. We decided that it was a bug — that his family was being watched by the FBI. (Which I had just learned a few years previously was a different entity than BFI, whose trucks I’d seen around the neighborhood weekly.) Neither of us could figure out why the FBI would be watching the family, but it sure seemed to make a lot of sense to Eddie. We never did figure out what to do with this information, but we found it very exciting.
Eddie moved away as abruptly as he’d arrived. In eighth grade, shortly after he announced that he’d never gone so long without moving before, he was gone with just a week’s notice. Pennsylvania, I think. Some Korean kids moved into his old house. They were nice, but their English wasn’t particularly good, and we didn’t share a lot of interests.
It was years before I had the forehead-slapping realization that Eddie’s father was probably doing something illegal. The chain of toy stores that he worked for never existed. For all I know, he really was being bugged. And it was just a few years ago that I realized that Eddie wasn’t dumb. He was actually a pretty smart kid. He didn’t burn his hand on a stove accidentally — his father was abusing him and his mother.
I was just a kid. I didn’t know. I feel like I failed Eddie. But I’d like to think that I was a good friend, and that might be the best thing I could do for him.
About the time Eddie moved, my friend Ian’s parents split up.
“They’re getting divorced,” he told me, “and my brother and my mom and I are moving into an apartment. But she’s getting me a Super Nintendo, though, so that’s cool.”
Since we’d seen “The Wizard” together the year before, I had to admit that getting a Super Nintendo was cool, but I was shocked by the news of the divorce. And the apartment. I didn’t know anybody who lived in an apartment.
I’d never particularly liked Ian’s mom. She was prickly and primped, a breed of mother I’d never encountered. His father, on the other hand, was awesome. He was warm, friendly, and engaging. He played with his son’s friends, but was able to sit down and talk about things as equals. He worked for NASA, which was undeniably cool. Like me, he tinkered with computers. For a time, after the divorce, he kept a computer on the kitchen table with Unix installed on it. He had a Commodore 64 in his room. He helped me debug my BASIC and Pascal, and gave me ideas for new programs to write.
Within a couple of months after his family moved out, Dave — he had me call him by his first name — took on a roommate. A quiet, bespectacled, mustachioed man named Ken or Lance or something. I only ran into him a couple of times. He shared a bedroom with Dave, leaving Ian’s old room for him to spend the night and Ian’s brothers room for storage.
It didn’t take me long to figure that Ian’s mom’s “friend” that was “helping them get settled” was, in fact, her boyfriend. She seemed like the cheating type, to my 13-year-old self, so I was unsurprised that she’d break up the marriage. But it took me fifteen years to realize that Dave’s “roommate” was probably more than a roommate, and that was the more likely cause of the divorce.
Sen. George Allen says that he’s shocked by the revelation that he is, strictly speaking, a Jew. He never knew that his mother, Henrietta Lombroso, was raised Jewish. It never occurred to him that his grandfather’s detainment by the Nazis might be an indicator his religion. He never realized that the Lombrosos are to Italy as the Rothchilds are to France. When a reporter wrote in 2003 that his mother was raised Jewish, even that was insufficient to tip him off. He says that it was only when he asked his mother about coverage of his Jewish roots in The Jewish Daily Forward that he put the puzzle pieces together.
Reconsidering the fundamentals of one’s life and looking at one’s biographical narratives in a new light can be alarming. Some manage to look at these things with a fresh pair of eyes somewhat sooner in life than Sen. Allen. Some show perhaps a bit more interest in their own family and heritage. But many have been down this road. Sen. Allen finds himself in good company.