LIFE AMONG THE BIRNKRANTS
All Original Written and Photographic content is Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
The surreal world that I grew up in was located halfway between reality and a dream. Throughout my only childhood, Detroit was in its heyday. Nonetheless, a subtle haze of mediocrity appeared to cover everything, as far as my mind’s eye could see. Mediocrity is a force more powerful than gravity! It dogged me all my life. There were few times when I did not feel the weight of it, like an invisible ball and chain, shackled to my leg. Hard as I might strive to rise above my origins, I could never soar free of my own critical eye. I’m not complaining, the problem was always mine. My parents gave me every opportunity, and then some. Nonetheless, the very concept that I might one day be an artist secretly seemed like an absurdity to me. And looking in the mirror did nothing to reassure me.
God gave me a modicum of talent, perhaps, by way of compensation for also giving me what seemed, at the time, to be the world’s biggest body. I wished I could have switched around the quantities, and exchanged the curse of being the biggest kid in my class, for a medium sized body, and a talent as vast as my fat ass. My parents. on the other hand, didn’t seem to mind the fact that they gave birth to the prototype for Baby Huey. They even found it amusing that I was always the first in line at a buffet.
In case you don’t believe me, here is the evidence, a photo that, up till now, I have kept hidden. But, now, at my age, what's the difference? This charming moment was captured for posterity at the Copa Cabana in New York City, in 1951, when I was thirteen. My five foot six inch father, feeling proud and prosperous, is in the middle. My mother is on the right, with her “silver fox mink,” a phrase I heard a thousand times, throughout my childhood, flung over the armrest. And on the left, in case you’re having a hard time finding me, is their six foot, four inch, baby giant, behind several plates of well gnawed bones. I’m wearing the only jacket that we could find in Detroit to misfit me improperly, and a tie emblazoned with the constellations of the zodiac that I had just purchased, hours before, in a novelty shop on 42nd Street.
My parents were very good to me, always allowing me to “do my thing.” This was all the more remarkable, considering the fact that they had absolutely no idea what that thing might be. But they financed it, and enabled me to do it, anyway. I felt guilty taking these favors from them, as there was nothing, in terms of what was meaningful to me that I could give them in return. My achievements and interests were outside their range of understanding. They simply never had a clue about anything that I was up to. And they were more pleased when I finished everything on my dinner plate than when I completed a "project", won some sort of art award, or got good grades. They were overjoyed when I helped myself to seconds. That seemed to be the one thing I could do that never failed to please them, eat!
When it was dinner time at home, my parents and I would sit at the big oval dinner table that my father had electrified with a matching oval panel of sandblasted glass in its middle, illuminated from below. Hidden florescent tubes were one of Sam's art forms. My Mother sat at one extreme of the oval, and my father at the other. I sat between them. This was a very long table; at dinner parties it could sit sixteen. But with just the three of us there was a lot of space separating us, in more ways than one; too much to feel togetherness, or pass something, without getting up. There was usually no need, as Loucille, who played the dual role of my favorite human being and my parent’s maid, not only cooked, but served the dinner, and then, parked the remaining serving platters in front of me. The dinner time routine was always the same. It was difficult to make conversation, because we had nothing to say. What little that we did find to talk about was always the same thing. It was like being trapped in a recurring dream, gently bordering on nightmare.
Talking to my father was like talking to the barber. We had no common interests. One felt that he was possibly not quite all there, and at the same time, there were flashes of genius, like those lights in the dinner table. But most of the time, my father was child-like and naive. My mother treated him like an incompetent child. And he often acted like one. "For God sake Sam, your whole dinner is on your tie!" It was, and he did it every time. There was a place where one could buy neckties for one dollar. My father went nuts there, buying neckties by the dozens, always the same design, “white on white.” Why he wore one every night at dinner was a mystery, and then, he had to throw it away. Sometimes, he tucked a white cloth napkin in his collar. A bib would have been better.
He ate very quickly. In fact, he was always finished before my mother and I had begun. This was a phenomenon that Leila never failed to remark upon. “My God, Sam you have finished already, while Melvyn and I haven’t touched a bite!” Next, came the line about the tie. Then, he would sit there, twiddling his thumbs. This is not just an expression, he actually did it, until the meal was over. Or, on some occasions, he would “roll a pill,” as he called it. This was exceedingly bizarre. It consisted of taking a pinch of bread and rolling it between his thumb and index finger, until it was compressed into a pill sized ball of dough, ranging in color from gray to black. Somehow, this habit seemed perfectly natural at the time. Only now, does it occur to me how subtly surreal it was.
In later years, we would sometimes eat out in the rumpus room, sitting at a huge modern table made of solid glass. The top was a single slab about eight feet long by four feet wide and an inch and a half thick, with slightly rounded edges. It rested on two transparent uprights, consisting of two smaller matching panels of glass each, held apart by eight inch chrome plated rods. The top slab alone weighed several hundred pounds. Because the glass was so thick, the whole thing had a greenish tinge, like a giant Coca Cola bottle. This stood before my father’s Magic Mirror, which was also illuminated from behind by fluorescent lights, and sandblasted to look like horses and bubbles flying through a mythological sky.
In the distant corner of the room, stood my massive Hi Fi speaker, a miniature cathedral, laminated in blonde mahogany, and known as a Klipsch Corner Horn. Eating there was more pleasant, at least, for me, as the lack of conversation could be replaced by music. Although the Klipsch Corner Horn was capable of roaring like a thunderstorm, I never played it loud at dinner, although, my parents would not have said anything if I did. It was as if they couldn’t hear it. I devised an experiment to test the theory that they were either not listening, or by some curious acoustical anomaly, it was inaudible to them.
Their little angel had acquired several LP recordings of were titled, “Bawdy Ballads.” These consisted of lusty British drinking songs of the Elizabethan Era. The lyrics, although, thinly cloaked in allegory were absolutely filthy. Little was left to the imagination, with titles, such as “Blow the candle out,” and rousing choruses of “Jingle Bang Jingle,” that literally amounted to sound effects of fornication. I played these records, throughout several dinners, all the while, grinning like a Cheshire cat. My parents didn’t notice. Soon, I tired of the game and went back to the classics. Life among the Birnkrants was exquisitely surreal.
Stranger, still, were the evenings we spent, in the “den,” in front of the TV set. My father had decorated this tiny room in panels of stuffed leatherette to replicate a padded cell. I sat along one tufted wall, on a small couch that my parents called “the love seat,” watching the awful garbage that, today, is revered, as the Golden Age of Television. My mother reclined on one of the two red leather recliners, with a lit cigarette dangling from her lower lip, held it there by some mysterious trick that I believe involved dry spit, and talked on the telephone for hours. Meanwhile, my father snored loudly from the other red recliner. I don't believe he ever saw more than ten minutes of any TV show, or movie, or a bus trip in his life. Looking back at those times, now, I realize that I was the only one actually watching the TV.
On evenings, when she was home, and not out playing canasta, Leila would talk on the phone, non-stop, backbiting and bitching, with all the day's players, one after another. They talked about how badly one, or more, of the other girls, but never the one on the phone, had played that day. Then, my mother would call the others, one by one, or they would call her, and do the same. They all remembered and relived every "hand" of the previous game. When she wasn't speaking, she would indicate that she was listening by repeatedly saying either "Yeah" or "Uh-Huh," with pregnant pauses in between.
I would play a little game, trying to guess, during the long pauses when my mother was not doing the talking, whether, she was going to say next, "Yeah" or "Uh-Huh." She would interject one or the other, every five seconds. And she would constantly change the order, saying "Yeah" twice, or even three times, in a row, then suddenly, an "Uh-Huh." I got really good at tuning in, and almost telepathically guessing and saying the same as her, a split second before, or in perfect unison, quietly, under my breath. Sometimes, when I was on a roll, I would join her out-loud. She never noticed. Pop never awoke. It was like a primitive video game. And, like most video games, one never wins, but only wards off inevitable death as long as possible. I would eventually miss a beat, and the game would be over.
"The game of Snores and Uh-Huhs," that was life among the Birnkrants. I played it as often as three nights a week, unless I had a project or homework to do, until we got a second TV, in the Rumpus Room.
I was fascinated by the artful way my mother could stir up trouble, gossiping on the phone, and nonetheless, "always come up, smelling like a Rose." Everybody loved Leila! My mother used to say things to me, like, "Don't you want to have any friends?" I would answer back, "Do you think your two-faced friends are really friends? They talk the same way about you, as you do them. You are merely members of a Mutual Obligation Society!"
Whenever I accomplished something, a piece of art, a good report card, etc., out of some perversity, I would show it to my mother. Even in later years, when we had good news [we never shared the bad], her response was always the same: "Uh-Huh", quickly followed by an abrupt change of subject. As in this fantasy scenario, which I often imagined taking place, whenever I contemplated the absurdity of believing I could ever be an artist. "Hey Mom, Guess what? The Museum of Modern Art is mounting an exhibit of my work!"
"Uh-Huh"! So what else is new?"
In real life, there was little that we could tell my mother that we considered to be important news that was not met with palpable impatience, followed, in the same breath, by that familiar question: "So what else is new?" She always prefaced this remark with a strange sound, as if she was trying to suck out a particle of food that was stuck between her tooth. It kinda reminded me of Bugs Bunny who couldn’t just ask “What's up Doc?” He always had to preface it with “Ehh.”
On the plus side, I guess, was the fact that whenever there was a disagreement between my Pop and me, my mother always took my side, without listening to the facts. She wasn't interested or the least bit inclined to hear the evidence, she just took my side automatically. My mother stuck up for me, and that was important to me. When an argument got out of hand, she would eventually step in and say, "Oh for God's Sake Sam!" And he’d simmer down, looking like a scolded puppy.
I realize that this is a terrible thing to say, I will attribute it to my young age at the time, but the truth was, I didn't think either of my parents were extraordinarily bright. Or to put it another way, I was not impressed with their intelligence. I didn't think I was all that smart either. I just thought that I was “normal,” and they were “not quite.” I thought my mother was more normal than my father.
My father and I, simply, didn't get along, most of the time. Everything had the overtones of a squabble. I assumed, and sometimes thought, out loud, this is was Oedipus is all about, as we both vied for my mother's attention, and she was essentially disinterested in both of us, and everything else, except Canasta.
My father had certain stupid things he would say, repeatedly. He also had no detectable reasoning power, whatsoever. I always wondered how he could be a Lawyer. His seeming inability to exercise logic drove me nuts! Here is a typical interchange, and if I heard this routine once, I heard it 500 times: I pick up an object…a watch, a clock, a knick-knack, etc. any small object to look at it or move it; it didn't matter what. My father would say, always the same thing, "What do you want to break that for?”
It was exasperating and demeaning! I was Mr. Inanimate Object. I could handle LP records, turn them over, take them in and out of their sleeves etc., and NEVER, ever, let my finger touch the grooves. I really do have incredible dexterity when it comes to handling objects, and I have NEVER broken anything in my life, not even when I was a baby.
So I’d say: "Why do you say that, every time I touch anything? What have I EVER broken? Name something! Anything! One thing!" No answer! Then comes my father's standard Illogical answer, which always began with the same irritating words: "All I Know Is"...."All I know is, if you drop that it will break!" It could continue for hours, "Have I ever dropped anything? If so WHAT?" etc..
That was my relationship with my POP. Most of the time I just tried to keep my mouth shut, or stay out of his way to avoid conflict. On the other hand, when I was out of earshot, I understand, he had nothing but pride and praise for me. This would have been more appreciated, if either of my parents were interested enough to get the details right. It was always some garbled piece of misinformation that was enough to boast about, without knowing the facts. Whatever I really did or accomplished was cause for parental bragging, but the facts and details, due, I assumed, to lack of genuine interest were always wildly out of whack!
Sam had a way of turning a phrase, through habit, without realizing it was a put down. Whatever project I was working on, usually on the table in the rumpus room, he would come out there and say: "What's That Supposed to be?" Detroit was the land of “Supposed To Be” and “Supposed To Do.” I always replied,"It’s not SUPPOSED to be anything. It IS……….” insert name of whatever I was working on at the moment, i.e. “a scale model of Boulder Dam!”
That was the surreal world I lived in, marooned in a strange land, “The Land of Supposed to Do,” where everything and every body (but my own) fit comfortably into the dictates of conformity. And everyone I knew tried to do exactly what they were supposed to do, and be what they were supposed to be. Unfortunately there was no instruction sheet to explain what was required, one just had to grope their way, through trial and error. And thus, I always felt, on some level, beyond my understanding, that I was failing dismally. There was something in the air that made me feel guilty whenever I tried to soar above the confines of mediocrity. But I kept trying, anyway. Over time, I realized that Motor City mediocrity was an inbred part of me, something I would simply have to learn to live with, assuming, that is, I would ever learn to “live.”
When I began writing this, I had no idea where it was going. It was intended to be about the bizarre life we led in the house at Seven Mile Road. A few minutes ago, in the process of looking through old photos to see if there were any that applied, I came across the one, below, and suddenly realized that it was taken at Thanksgiving dinner, the night before my father died. Sam had finally gotten his weight under control, and was looking better than he ever did before. He was even growing a mustache He was sixty-one years old. That was fifty-eight years ago. As I write this, I have outlived him, in age, by sixteen years.
And so, I find myself moving forward in time to the night my father died. Over the few years preceding that night, I had made great strides, traveling far in both body and mind from The Land of Supposed to Do. I was still inclined to “do the right thing” as I have been all my life, but the choice of what was “right” had by then, become mine to make. Now it was the night after Thanksgiving, in 1957. I had returned home for the holiday from my second year at Pratt. Earlier that evening, we went out to eat at our favorite restaurant, “Paridiso.” That is where we used to dine every Thursday, which in the Detroit of that era was known as,“maids night off."
It was always the same routine, and the highlight of my week. The place was not pretentious in any way, a small inconspicuous building, along Woodward Avenue, just north of Six Mile Road, with a sign outside that read, “Paridiso Cafe.” But they did have a valet service, which my father avoided, like the plague. Sometimes, he would circle the neighborhood, for half an hour, looking for an empty parking place. Sooner or later, he’d find one, usually several blocks away, and we would walk the rest of the way. Each of us would always order the same thing. I’d have a shrimp cocktail, a spectacular luxury, presented on a stainless steel pedestal with a small glass bowl suspended in the middle and cradled in crushed ice. The bowl contained lettuce, one large leaf with the rest chopped. Half a dozen perfect JUMBO shrimp were hanging all around the rim, along with a single lemon wedge. And on the saucer beside this monumental presentation was a cup containing just the right amount of cocktail sauce, and a pristine tiny three pronged fork. The price for this extravaganza never changed in all the years we had been dining there. It was always fifty cents. Little did I realize, at that moment, that I would only have this treat one more time in my entire life, and that would be two years later, on my wedding night.
For dinner I always ordered a filet mignon; and my mother would have “Chicken Cacciatore.” Sam would also order the same thing every time, but never without first going through a curious routine. While he carefully studied the menu, one could see his index finger traveling down the line of prices on the right side of the page. It would stop when he discovered the lowest price. Then his finger would move to the left to detect what entree was associated with it, and he would order that. It was always the same thing, Spaghetti with Marinara sauce. And that is what he had that night.
When we got home my father promptly fell asleep on one of the red reclining chairs in front of the TV. My mother was in bed talking to one of the girls, Mildred Stoller. By now, there was a second telephone located next to Leila's side of the twin beds, pushed together So-called Hollywood beds were not invented yet. I was in my room reluctantly reading a horrible book that had been assigned as homework for a farcical course in social studies that Pratt had tacked onto the curriculum, so they could offer a degree.
I heard my father coming up the stairs, gasping for air, and telling my mother that he couldn’t breathe. We rushed to help him. But not before my mother told Mildred what was happening, and her husband Lou was on the way. We eased my father onto the love seat, beside the bed, and I rushed to the phone downstairs, and called the police. The police station was only a block away. They all arrived at the same time, the police, an ambulance, and Lou. More of my parents friends were on the way. Mildred Stoller had spread the news.
I sat on a chair across the room, watching my father’s last moments on earth, in utter helplessness. Time, as I had known it up till then, ceased to exist. The nightmarish scenerio before me appeared to be unfolding in slow motion, as the paramedics, the police, and Lou Stoller, too, frantically worked on my dad with respirators and every tool in their arsenal of emergency equipment. And then, my father said his final words, barely audibly: “I feel so tired,” and passed away.
I’ve played this scene over a hundred-thousand times in my mind’s eye. What if he hadn’t climbed the stairs, would he have survived? What if we had been downstairs? A thousand variations of what ifs, a thousand times. They lay my father on his bed. And the house began to fill with well-intentioned friends. It was turning into a kind of grotesque party, disturbingly like any other, except that Sam was dead.
I quietly went to my room, turned out the light and cried. Suddenly, there in the doorway, was Lou Stoller, the one person of all my parent's friends that I despised. And with good reason, but that is another story, one that I cannot tell while my friend, his son, is still alive. Lou was stern, cold hearted man, self-righteous, humorless, pedantic, and pretentious. He was a high school principal, the kind that kept his students terrified. I knew he also hated me. Now, he stood there in my bedroom doorway, and audaciously flicked on the light.
He said: “Come downstairs, now, Mel. It’s all right to let everybody see you cry! You are Supposed to cry!”
His words pierced my heart, like a knife. My tears immediately dried, and I never shed another, not that night, nor the following day, not at the funeral, not at the burial, not for a long, long time. I vowed, there and then, that I was never going to let the fact that I was "supposed to do" something be the reason that I did it, ever again. And after all those years of living in The Land of Supposed to Do, trying to comprehend what that mysterious thing might be that I was failing to do right, I finally learned the answer that night: I was Supposed to cry!