Sunday, October 27, 2013

Night of the Thirty Dollar Martinis

For Delphyne Joan Hanke-Woods (November 11, 1945 – September 2013)


We were in Anaheim. It was 2006. I was staying at the Marriott, near the convention center. The bar had a little patio alongside the pool. I’d been out there several times already in that past week. I was in town for the worldcon (the World Science Fiction Convention, L.A. Con IV, if you’re not familiar with the lingo), and had a chance to catch up with random gossip with Janis Ian, and later got to meet David Latham, with whom I had been corresponding for a number of years (he was encouraging me to write a screenplay of “Bronte’s Egg,” and he wanted to help me in that task any way possible).

The patio was a good spot. The weather had been warm and humid, but not oppressively so (not that I remember). You could catch a good view of the moon, but not too many stars and planets – hey, it’s Anaheim. The last time I was there it took four days before I caught a glimpse of the Santa Anas.

The con was pretty much over. Delphyne – Joan, I keep calling her Joan because that was her name when I first met her – and I had been to dinner with Chris Barkley, who was celebrating his birthday.

A good night, but the con was winding down. Joan had been a day short on her hotel booking at the Hilton next door. She needed a room for a night before she caught her flight back to Chicago. Of course I told her it was okay to share my room for the night.

We were friends – not lovers. When we shared rooms at cons we shared rooms. End of that story – except for me to mention that she snored aggressively and couldn’t sleep unless the TV was on (forgive me, Joan, but an honest writer has to get these little details out sometimes).

After the birthday dinner, Joan and I had moved onto the patio. She had picked up a taste for vodka martinis from me (I am an evil man, as she was fond of reminding me), and so we ordered a couple – good ones. Straight up. We picked out the brand. The first round came to about thirty bucks apiece. It was insane – thirty dollar martinis? I mean, we were both still “working” then, but, but – thirty dollar martinis?

The waiter brought them. And they tasted like they were worth every penny.

We took advantage of the booze as the booze took advantage of us. We talked and talked and talked. We both got in about two lifetimes worth of stories. All we needed was for a psychotherapist to be sitting at the next table taking notes.

I can’t remember the details of what we said to each other. One of the benefits to drinking and baring your soul is that afterward you don’t remember which parts of your soul you bared, or which parts of your friends’ souls were bared to you. You experience all the benefits of catharsis with none of the burdens of memory.

I think we did make some discoveries. One thing I discovered was that Joan was the person who designed the Screaming Yellow Zonkers package.

Screaming Yellow Zonkers – look it up. It was a candy-coated popcorn snack. It made design history by being one of the very first food packages to have a black background. I know about this because my dad had designed an orange juice container with a black background and the clients rejected it on the grounds that consumers wouldn’t buy food in black containers (they later relented). Joan’s foreground was filled with little surreal Peter-Max-type characters. It was distinctive and direct. And even if the product didn’t catch on, the name was referenced in the local monster-movie-extravaganza Saturday night show, Screaming Yellow Theater, hosted by a guy (the late Jerry G. Bishop) who called himself Svengoolie.

“No way! You worked on the Screaming Yellow Zonkers design?”

“I didn’t work on it. It was me. I designed it.”

“Jesus! You should be in the Hall of Fame!”

Another discovery we made was that childhood, for many, was a train wreck you spend the rest of your life extricating yourself from.

The other discoveries, more or less, orbited around that one overbearing fact. Folks who tell me, “You’ve got to get over that,” or “I live for the moment,” misunderstand how time – and “getting over,” and “living for the moment” – really works. There are no moments in isolation, not in reality. We can isolate moments in art, but that’s another thing. And even when we isolate them, the strings that connect this moment to another moment still show. If they don’t, the artwork is usually empty and meaningless – or it calls attention to other moments by the sheer act of denying them.

My dad lived to 2005, changed continents, changed a lot of things, but he never escaped Poland in 1939. My mother is still living like a refugee even though she hasn’t changed addresses since 1954. Time is a sequence, but not a simple one. And anyone who tells you they’re living in the moment is telling you a lie, though they’re not lying to you. 

And then we ordered two more martinis.

It put a brighter spin on things.

Even when you started out life in a train wreck, it’s a funny train wreck – we laughed.

We laughed and laughed.

The sky above us was dark (the moon had set by then, or disappeared, or had moved on to another party) but we were bright. Not illuminated (except by the vodka), but illuminating. We were like a couple of sea-dwelling denizens who brought our own light with us wherever we went. We had expunged and expiated and come out the other side, laughing. We had allowed our raw emotions to dictate what we said, and we discovered that much of what we were saying was about pain. And anger – at least in my case (Joan was always lecturing me about my anger, especially when I was driving). Most human beings spend so much energy holding themselves together, there’s little of themselves left afterward to do anything with.

“Captain, we’ve used all our power to maintain the shields. There’s nothing left for the proton torpedoes!”

So we stopped holding ourselves together. And it wasn’t like the pain went away, but it felt much lighter, much more bearable. And rather than live for the present it was conceivable to live for tomorrow – a tomorrow that wasn’t just another version of today, but a real tomorrow. A future.

Not to underplay the peril ahead. It was 2006 but we could see what was coming. Not just the lousy economy. Not just the wars. Not just the lousy politics (though both of us were Chicagoans, and had great hopes for that local guy, the new senator, Obama – wouldn’t it be just crazy-beautiful if he could win a presidential election?). We weren’t as fast as we once were. Health would be harder to maintain. Time must have a stop. But that was still some time away. We were good for a few more decades – and they would be our best decades.

By then the martinis ran out. The hour was late. Joan had to catch a plane the next morning. I had to go to Disneyland or Los Feliz … I can’t remember the order of my progress.

I do remember the great sense of elation – and illumination, and relief. And confirmation – a confirmation of our own reality. We weren’t people playing the parts of an artist and writer. We were those people.

I do believe we were happy. Late night wanderers down the hallways and through the concourse might have mistaken us for the rising sun.

Happier moments we may have had together, out of many happy moments (like this one I just recalled: she told me that when we were on our way to Madison once, to Wiscon, on Route 14, me driving, the windows open on the warm day, just rolling past miles and miles of farmland, was one of the happiest moments she’d had in years), but that one, that night, that bar and those martinis …

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