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There is a photo of my great-grandfather, outside of the big wooden hotel that he owned on Staten Island, standing with his wife Willamena Byzer, holding their first of eight children. A sign proudly reads: Leo T. Reynolds, proprietor. The story goes that he was run out of Ireland for stealing horses. He was a member of the Westies, the notorious Irish gang from the west side of Manhattan. He was a sad violent man. He lived a life of crime, was a sexual deviant, lost the hotel to drink and got wet brain. A brain tumor ended his life.
I love you. You bastard. A fortune-teller used these two sentences to describe the arc of all my past romantic relationships. She was the young modern type, not a storefront Gypsy trying to count my teeth. "Real love feels weird because you have nothing to compare it to. It's ultimately better. He'll never stop surprising you. Enjoy it." Easy for her to say, she wasn't the scared, nauseous one. I cursed my history of lack of comparisons, which left me learning about love from strangers, but took the information as a gift and felt the sparkle of my new adventure.
Direnda was a close friend. Her landlady, who was pushing 80, drank a full bottle of vodka that Derinda had left in the apartment's garden after a party so well-stocked that it was possible to lose track of such things. The woman was in great spirits that morning and died two days later. An extremely handsome nephew showed up to help with the arrangements. Derinda, realizing it was her responsibility to attend, put on her tightest black dress with black hose and heels and worked that funeral like a bitch. Mmmmhuh. She didn't remember the episode until she read this.
Ramona was my tough, plump, Latin grandmother who fixed her long hair into elaborately braided buns. She wore red lipstick everyday and liked to play cards. She illegally ran numbers out of a candy store on 98th street and always had a cigarette dangling out of her painted mouth. In her seventies she still put on her fitted green glitter dress for holidays, and still cooked for at least 10 people on Sundays. She laughed loud and hugged strong. The smell of garlic permeated her hair, her skin and her clothes as well as every other thing in the apartment.
Jesus Maria Ramos hated his name. Born in 1898, he had a dislike for religion and was a self-proclaimed atheist. Also an atheist was his youngest son, my father Raul. I suspect their lack of faith was more of a reaction to a dark and sad secret rather than a calm and scientific philosophy, and hope I am wrong. At poor Jesus's unwanted Catholic funeral mass I sat outside of the church with my father in protest and solidarity. Jesus especially hated his middle name. "Why?" he again asked his daughter-in-law, frustrated. "Why did she give me a woman's name?"
A close friend fell in love with me. I smiled while experiencing fear and horror. My response had nothing to do with him and everything to do with me. My therapist suggested that I could move past my fears towards possible happiness. "You love this guy and he knows you better than anyone. Give him a year to get past his divorce and see." I tried. Sadly, the ordeal ended our friendship. I am, however, indebted to him. All of my clumsy attempts to open myself to a different kind of love have paid off, just with a different person.
At 14, I dated my second cousin. He was straight out of Saturday Night Fever and had a primed black Chevelle. He was conceived during an affair so he wasn't a blood relation. Everyone knew but him. He gave me a rose on our second date. It felt like a ball and chain. I was feeling so cool in Washington Square Park till the rose ruined it. That night him and his friends started a fight. I remember blood that wasn't his on the concrete. I didn't approve, but the adrenaline felt good. I was neutral during the ride home.
In 1944, at age17, my aunt got pregnant and eloped with her forbidden love, Jimmy Sweeney, a good-looking 15-year-old kid who looked like a man. She loved him like nobody's business. He disappeared shortly after their daughter was born. "Sweeney never came back?" the local girls asked with hidden relief. Heartbroken but never showing it she wheeled the carriage by, "Yeah, he sailed the 7 seas." But he hadn't, they just couldn't identify the body. Sweeney'd been on his way home to his wife and kid when he fell in front of a subway train, drunk and with no ID.
Aunt Velma Day, a 70-year-old, cigarette-smoking platinum blonde, with red lips and nails, confessed to me that she was a sex-addict. She laughed and bragged about everything sex-related, including a sailor noting that her initials, "V.D.", sported on her pocketbook, were on the wall of every men's bathroom, with a warning. In her last great, stormy and passionate affair she lived with a married man and bore two children. When he was dying, he left her for his wife. Devastated and proud, Velma stood by her choice, "We danced naked on the beach together. How many people can say that?"
"LORD HAVE MERCY! MAKE HIM CALL" I screamed at god from the blackest place imaginable while rolling back and forth on my pretty leopard carpet, crying. A cat nose poked at my arm, to remind me I was not alone, whether or not boyfriend called, which wasn't likely. It's funny, because boyfriend wasn't that nice or that good- looking; he just happened to be cellular-ly familiar and triggered every ancient impulse in me. I called my mother to confront why I was chasing love. And typically, years later it is boyfriend who suffers, still confused over how his importance dissolved overnight.
My grandfather got his father's name, Leo Thomas (no Aloysius) Reynolds. He took punches all his life. He boxed, and fought in barrooms, fracturing his skull twice on the concrete sidewalks of Manhattan's west side. I have a photo of him on the roof in his boxing trunks and gloves, a skinny blond-haired, blue-eyed Irish kid who broke girl's hearts, especially his wife's and daughters'. He brutalized his family like no honest man would believe. He lived a drunk, violent, sexually deviant, sad and lonely life and died the same way, ravished to 60 lbs from lymphoma and hotchkins disease.
The Dead Kennedys were playing at the World on Ave C. and I was fighting with my boyfriend. I just wanted to get away from our bickering. I opened the van door to leave while it was still moving, maybe 25mph, and the force of the ground coming up to meet me fractured my skull. Right before I fell asleep, I remember vomiting and noticing that it didn't smell. We didn't know that the vomit indicated a concussion, and sleeping risked a coma. I used another of my 9 lives. My sense of smell took a few years to return.
My gay aunt Mary Faye was fun and cool. Her father, my great-grandfather Leo, named her after Larry Faye, the b-grade criminal that he chauffeured for. She wore her hair like a guy and we kids likened her to Roy Orbison because she always wore shades, even indoors. Loud and rambunctious, she insisted on a good time that hit like a tornado. Mary and her girlfriend Pat drank and sometimes rolled drunks for money. She once told me about having to steal a Christmas tree when she was too poor to buy one, and she wished me a better life.
When I shocked my parents with the news that I was ready to marry, my mother asked "Are you happy?" That's an interesting question to honestly consider. "Yeah, but I cringe a lot." "That's not good," she answered. My fear agreed and I felt confused. Later, my father told me, "You know, I still make your mother cringe sometimes. You have to look at the bigger picture. I am happy for you." Actually, my father isn't alive. This incident happened to a friend, not to me. But I was meant to hear it and I own it. Everything is everything.
At thirteen I saw Johnny Thunders at the Peppermint Lounge. NYC was reckless and I was punk rock. A guy I had a crush on was there. Sid worked at Crazy Eddie's and had white skin and black spiked hair and he unknowingly promised salvation. We had our first kiss and he put his hand up my skirt. He went to get us beer when his cute friend said "Let's go back stage." That sounded amazing! We went and saw really high people back there, one of whom was Thunders, and we kissed. Sid was mad when I came back.
Hanging out on the city steps drinking beer, I didn't like the taste or the feel, but I took an occasional sip. I was seven and that afternoon I had made my First Holy Communion. I'd worn a white veil and a dress that was short and puffed out like a tutu. I was glad to take it off and go out with my cousin and all her teenager friends. "Hey, Johnny", Colleen called out "she made her First Communion today." He was high, tall and lean with long dark wavy hair. "Fuck that." he smiled. I envied his coolness.
"I feel like dynamite. This hit us pretty hard. When you see your kids crying, telling you what a good dad you are, it rips your heart out. You know, we all have to die sometimes. Now, I'm not the type who's, like, afraid. We have a lot of courage in this family and now's my time to prove it. Your father was very courageous. I don't feel it slipping away but I see it coming down the track. I'm 78, what, I'm gonna live to 108? I had a great life. Who knows, maybe they can shrink this thing."
My father was a beautiful furniture-maker and many other things, good and bad: kind, loving, macho, stubborn, intelligent, ignorant, wise, gentle, angry, depressed and fucked-up. He had a way about him, was likable, and had many friends. He was charming in his El Dorado, cowboy boots, and star-safire pinkie ring. He also caused me more pain than a father should. When he died, from his 4th or 5th heart attack, it was my idea, since he was an atheist, to print the lyrics to Frank Sinatra's "My Way" on the memorial card, in the place where a prayer would go.
My grandmother Nanny was fiercely tough. At 3, her mother died and she was left in Ireland with "Black Nanny", a grandmother who kept her from school in order to work like Cinderella. She passed through haunting Ellis Island at 14. She divorced my grandfather Leo, claiming to hate him, in the early 1950's, when Catholic women just didn't do that. She remarried to Bill and they drank alcohol everyday. Large scars crossed her neck and heart, evidence of surviving throat cancer and opened-heart surgery. When she passed away at 81, we found Leo's picture tucked in her personal drawer.
Nanny, actually named Kathleen Lombard, had a maternal grandmother named Mary Keaton, who brewed moonshine in the bathtub and sold it during prohibition. Nanny helped. Mary was an attractive woman who wore all black and tipped my great-aunts well when they ran liquor for her to the NYC cops and firemen she supplied. A car hit Mary once, as she crossed the street drunk with her bucket of beer. She was my great-great grandmother. There is rumor that she could be cruel, which would make sense, but I honestly don't know that much about this woman I have never met.
At 14, nightclubs smelled promising. Something I was searching for awaited me there. Music sounded larger than life and pretty boys with dyed hair looked like candy. I wanted everything in the candy store. At 15, I listened to angry hardcore. I was just a child, but I fought that truth. At a Black Flag show, me and Irene peered into the backstage when suddenly one of them grabbed my skinny wrist and dragged me into the room. "You looking for something?" he taunted as I struggled. I pulled free and ran away feeling like I had done something wrong.
My mother left the baby outside the five-and-ten. You could do that in the 1940's. Just a kid herself, and without much, she was so excited to have some money. Since she got paid upfront, when the mother had dropped off the baby, she parked the carriage outside the five-and-ten to buy paper dolls and then rushed home to play with them. When the mother came back a few hours later to pick up the baby, my mother remembered that she'd been so excited about the dolls, that she'd forgotten the baby. There the baby was, still outside the five- and-ten.
Beautiful like a movie star, every guy on 100th street had a crush on you. By the 1970's you still looked good with three marriages and a failed mail-away-bride story under your belt. You joked that that made you a prostitute. You were the best-looking great-grandmother I ever knew, a real Mae West. By then, three of you six kids shot dope and one had drowned drunk in the Bronx reservoir. At 70, sucking on your cigarette you told us in your raspy voice, "It was the licorice." Exhale. "I ate a bag of licorice and got a heart attack."
All of my friends were criminals. I loved being around the thrill of crime. We were in the 4th grade when Arilda and I stopped to gaze in the Bakery window. She needed to have a cake or to make me happy, I'm not sure which, but she stole money out of her father's wallet and we bought a chocolate cream pie. We excitedly ran to my apartment and dug in. It didn't taste as good as it promised and that big pie mysteriously sat in my refrigerator for days. Arilda got beat when her father noticed the missing money.
On a bad day, I wish I had been a cheerleader, the type who goes to the prom with a good guy and graduates with a good job. Viola! I went from being a blue-eyed, blonde-haired baby to being a 5-year-old who figured "why bother", a teenage anarchist, militant-feminist, and a gorgeous crime-loving, promiscuous young adult doing nothing but exactly what I wanted with my own secrets no honest man would believe. Today things are real, making a great living from my dreams is closer than I think and my path is divine. On a good day, I am perfect.
"My Baby got out last Sunday and me I'm on the radio show." David Bowie sang to me from vinyl and crackling speakers. John Kornbluth was homeless, or couch surfing if you will, when I decided that he'd do. He moved in on the second date. A month later he was extradited to Florida on a breaking and entering charge- some kiddie crime he did as a teenager in Boca Raton. I loved having a boyfriend in prison. I could date with confidence while he was faithful. When he got out, he excitedly came home but I was already gone.
My cousin Tommy started using heroin at 14. He hung a day-glo, skeleton-on-a-motor-cycle poster on his black wall. It had taken my aunt several coats to properly cover the yellow. Once he babysat me and my sister and we threw pebbles at people from the window of our 2nd floor apartment. We hit some guy and his friend "Dillinger" who got really angry and tried to find who hit them. Terrified for my life, I remember laughing till it hurt, especially after they left. Years later Tommy OD'd and died one afternoon on a NYC subway. That breaks my heart.
My father gave up carpentry and became a construction worker because my mother was pregnant with my sister and they had no health insurance. As a union member, his family was covered by a great health plan. It was an incredible sacrifice that he made. His talent to make beautiful furniture was lost on the hard labor of construction, which he hated. He enjoyed being laid-off when a job was finishing up, so he could sleep and collect unemployment. I don't think that he saw options. His dream for me was that I become a secretary and get good benefits.
My mother was the blonde-haired, blue-eyed second child of Leo and Kathleen. They named her "Dolores", which means "sadness". My parents met in the neighborhood where they grew up, around west 100th street and Amsterdam. It was just like the movie West Side Story; Dolores was with her long legs and ivory Irish skin and Raul with his thick, dark hair slicked back and his Puerto Rican olive skin. When they married she became Dolores Ramos, an odd name when you looked at her. They gave their second child that same sad, beautiful name "Dolores," as her less-important middle name.
Kids, I have so much to prove, and I'm just like that bird singing just for you. My heart is pure like summer. I am innocence, anarchy, ghetto, and divinity. I've worn my best suit to your Bronx funeral. I have laughed with little kids dressed in pink at Coney Island. I have decided to do more than merely survive. I have gotten out and I am proud of you all. I will tell the truth, I will be a big fat human, mess and all. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. Amen.
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