Sunday, May 17, 2015
Waltzing With Birdie
Uncle Doug was a bachelor. He wore thick, black-rimmed glasses that greatly magnified his watery blue eyes. At 35, he was short, bald and chubby. After World War II was over and his typing stint at Fort Benning, Ga., ended, Uncle Doug came back home to San Francisco. A year later, he and my grandmother used the GI bill to buy a bungalow way up on the hill in Noe Valley. The three-bedroom house, with a tunnel entrance seemed like it was built on stilts, a promontory to the only world I knew – the Mission district down below, the neon Dutch Boy paint sign waving mechanically in the Potrero Districts, and ships, like tiny logs, anchored in the bay beyond.
My mother and father moved the four of us kids into the house’s cavernous basement when my father’s drinking led to the bank’s foreclosure on our tract house in Pacifica. Upstairs, Uncle Doug, Great Aunt Eva and my grandmother slept in the three small bedrooms, huddled together at the end of the long hall. Sunshine flooded in through three big skylights, which eased the despair.
Uncle Doug collected girlie pictures and pasted them into loose-leaf binders like recipes in a homemade cookbook. He kept them on his bureau with all the stats – bust measurements, age, height, weight, other magazines they’d appeared in. Before going to work in the afternoon, Uncle Doug would pace the floor of his bedroom listening to baseball games, calling the plays out loud before they were made. He had a record player and sometimes sang along with Frank Sinatra when the Giants weren’t at bat.
My grandmother said Uncle Doug had “shell shock” from his experience in the war. That was what made him so odd, she said. That was what made him talk to himself and pace like a big cat. My mother rolled her eyes and held her tongue whenever the shell-shock theory was presented. She leaned toward the brain-damaged-at-birth notion.
Sometimes Uncle Doug would go to the basement. There was an old, black upright piano in the back corner, shoved against the cement foundation wall. Our beds were arranged there too. He’d beat the keys, pound out hymns and sing in his thin tenor voice about the love of Christ. My mother would usually take us kids down the street to the park until the music died.
Uncle Doug loved to dance. He went folk dancing on his days off. He’d wear a plaid shirt and tie with a frayed tweed sport jacket. He had high blood pressure and anemia, which he tried to cure by eating raw liver. He picked the ear wax from his ears with a bobby pin and ate it. He smelled like the inside of an old shipping trunk. He never missed a day sorting mail. He turned over his paycheck to my grandmother without discussion.
Everyday payday, my grandmother would add things up and tell him how short we were. She’d go through the bills, figuring how much we could get away with not paying each month. Because we did have a car, we carried paper shopping bags with rags wrapped around the handles when we walked to the grocery store. The rags kept the weight of the food from cutting into our hands when we walked back up the hill. Sometimes Uncle Doug would take my bag and carry it for a while, adding the weight to his own load.
I never heard my uncle complain. He hugged us kids and tickled us, grabbing our legs just under the knee cap and wiggling them back and forth giving us what we called “shinnie, shinnies.” Once he took the four of us children to the Fun House at Playland-at-the-beach. Another time he took us to a roller-skating rink. One time we went with him to watch the Fourth of July fireworks through the fog at Marina Green. He spaded the garden when asked and carried my great aunt to the living room so my grandmother could change her bedding. Then he’d gently carry her back to bed again.
Sometime in 1958, when I was 10, my grandmother began to get phone calls from a bill collector. She’d argue and cry and hang up the phone. She and my mother would go in the kitchen and close the door. We could hear their agitated tones over the sound of the radio. Once I heard my mother say, “That’s the most ridiculous thing I ever heard! Is Doug out of his mind?”
Then I overheard my mother talking to a friend. She said Uncle Doug had signed a contract for Arthur Murray dancing lessons. They wanted the $1,500 right away, and Grandma had finally borrowed the money on the house to make the bill collector go away. My mother said they took advantage of Doug, that he wasn’t bright enough to understand what he had done.
Uncle Doug wasn’t home much after that. Once in a while he’d spend an hour with us kids. He showed us how to rumba and cha cha. I tripped over his brown wing tips trying to waltz. He had rubber footsteps he’d lay out for us to follow on the living room floor. He’d play Frank Sinatra records so we could dance. He bought a black tuxedo with a blue cummerbund. He started to smell like Old Spice and White Shoulders.
One day I found his collection of girlie pictures in the garbage can in the basement. Ants were crawling all over the women’s bare breasts. They got on my fingers and marched around my wrists. I shook them off. I closed the lid.
Not long after that Uncle Doug brought Birdie home to meet us. They were ballroom dancing partners, he said. Birdie showed up with false teeth, a lot of rouge and a powder-blue chiffon dress with a fake fur stole. Uncle Doug’s cummerbund matched the blue in her dress exactly. He put his arm around Birdie when they sat on Grandmother’s burgundy chesterfield. My grandmother flinched when Uncle Doug called Birdie “Mama.”
My mother said Birdie was as Okie as the day was long. Killed her first husband with greasy Southern cooking. My mother said the poor man died of a heart attack while they were in the act. To no one in particular, my mother pointed out that Birdie had six grown kids. My grandmother said Birdie didn’t have the brains God gave a parakeet. Birdie ran a mangle and folded sheets in a commercial laundry. Uncle Doug said he loved her.
They were married at Glide Memorial Methodist Church in 1960. The reception was held at my grandmother’s house. We served a buffet of boiled ham and potato salad in the dining room. Then they sprinkled cornmeal on the basement floor and we kids sat on the wooden steps and watched as Birdie and Doug waltzed and tangoed on the open space near the washing machine. My mother said the marriage would never last. My grandmother said Birdie was old enough to be his mother, that she’d die first and Doug would come back home.
Uncle Doug and Birdie bought a singlewide house trailer in a park in Santa Rosa. For years Uncle Doug took the Greyhound bus to San Francisco to sort mail at the post office at night. He bought Birdie a new washer and dryer. They made payments on a refrigerator-freezer combination from Montgomery Ward.
A few years ago I drove up to tell him my mother had died. He’s retired now. He has a deep scar on his cheek where they took out a cyst. His magnified eyes are dim and he has dandruff and gout. He asked me if he was mentioned in my mother’s will. I said no. He asked if I wanted to hear some Frank Sinatra. I asked if he and Birdie still danced. He said yes.
San Francisco Chronicle, Sunday Punch Dec. 11 1994