5: The Alchemist
We don't choose our memories. Our memories choose us. Why certain thoughts rise to levels of importance and why others vanish is not entirely obvious to me.
I will always remember the night in Boston when my father punched a bus. People could remember their fathers for lots of reasons. Dad taught me the alphabet. He would give me a different letter on a small chalkboard every day on his way to work. Then I would ask for something that became known as a "puffed cheek kiss." He would fill his mouth with air and puff out his cheeks, and then I would kiss his cheek while he let the air out with a sort of expellingair-but-not-quite-farting sound that made me laugh. And then I would demand that we do it again. And again. And again. Until he protested that he "had to go to work."
When I was ten, Dad took me to the Lions Club midget go-cart races and put me in charge of the concession stand. I was ten! In charge of a concession stand! Talk about having the fox watch the henhouse. It may have demonstrated questionable judgment on his part, but it was great. There I was, unsupervised, in charge of taking in money and dispensing candy bars, popcorn, corn dogs, unlimited cola, and soft-serve ice cream. I went through half a box of soft-serve cones within the first hour. I was my biggest customer. And I was free.
The head of the event came over, red-faced, and scolded me. I don't remember ever having been scolded by an adult other than my father or a teacher. It was a good preparation for television directors, but I didn't know that at the time. He told me he was going to "count cones on me." If I was short, I would have to pay him for each ice cream eaten.
Dad was embarrassed. I let him down. I was scared. I was ashamed — for about seven minutes. Then I figured out I could get around the prohibition on eating ice cream by just avoiding the cones altogether and dispensing the soft serve directly into my hand. No cone. No trail. No problem.
But if you were to ask me at a party what event I remembered most about my dad, it would be the snowy night in Boston. We were crossing the street. A bus waiting for the light inches forward into the crosswalk and Dad whirled around and punched it. He punched the bus. To the bus's credit, it stopped. Not from the force of the blow but from the shock of the bus driver that some man would give a right hook to his bus's grill.
Now why has that memory chosen me? Out of all the little, and the big, and the wonderful, and the sad moments I could remember — why this one?
Bertolt Brecht in his book Development of an Aesthetic wrote about creating the gestus for a character in a play. The gestus was the character-logical gesture. It was the single external act that represented the character's hidden inner life. Maybe the swing at the bus was my dad's gestus. Possible meanings of the gesture could be: he always felt he was fighting against something bigger than himself, his willingness to protect his family at any cost, his hatred of mass transit. Who knows?
The Talmud, the set of Jewish holy books second in importance to the Bible itself, suggests that you have to use great care in interpreting some dreams, that often the explanation of a dream is more powerful than the dream itself. The interpretation can become true, even if it is wrong. Using that as a caution, I will refrain from trying to divine why the memory of the bus and Dad is so important to me. It is enough to say that it is.
I have two strong memories of my mother. The first was on my twenty-seventh birthday. I was still depressed from the death of Bubbles, the pigmy hippopotamus. I was in Los Angeles where I was doing a children's theater production of California's Spanish heritage for the public school system. I took off the sombrero for a few days and flew to Dallas for the big celebration.
We had a sort of ritual for birthdays. The birthday boy or girl would pick his or her favorite restaurant. Like most families, we went to a narrow range of eateries. Our family was enamored of "all-you-can-eat" restaurants. Texas was big on all-you-can-eat. The idea is similar to the cattle trough. You come in, pay one price, and eat until you rupture your peritoneum. There was The Shed, which was all-you-can-eat steak. Pedro's was another favorite, which was all-you-can-eat Mexican. And Big Chinese Restaurant, which was all-you-can-eat Chinese.
The Shed was rumored to serve what the waiters called retreads. These were steaks that were on other people's plates but were not eaten. Rather than waste food, they put the slightly used steak on your plate, rewarmed it, and wha-la, retread. That was the risk you ran if you went to The Shed. I never thought the idea of getting re-treads was that bad. It was like eating at home. You would just wait until your sister got up from the table to get something to drink and you would take something off of her plate and eat it before she got back. No harm, no foul.
Pedro's was worse. They got busted for serving dog food in the enchiladas. We had to stop going there. With the temporary closure of Pedro's and the bad rep of The Shed, all of the all-you-can-eat diners headed for Big Chinese Restaurant. They were swamped. What good is a big Chinese buffet if your access to the egg rolls is blocked by several three-hundred-pound people in front of you? It was like playing against the Green Bay Packers without a helmet.
I decided to buck tradition. I decided I would not go to an all-you-can-eat for my birthday dinner. I chose Vincent's Seafood Restaurante. Vincent's was as swanky a place as I had ever eaten at in Dallas.
Excerpted from The Dangerous Animals Club by Stephen Tobolowsky. Copyright 2012 by Stephen Tobolowsky. Excerpted by permission of Simon & Schuster.