Part 67: Mae West, Riley and Jan's Early Years
Below, my mother, Jan as a teenager.
My parents first met in Reading, Pennsylvania at a get together with mutual friends when she was twenty-two and he was two decades older. Even when I was in grade school, Jan looked like a teenager, with a petite frame, adult acne, and long hair. She’d graduated from art school, and was unemployed when they met. Riley was married with two kids, but there was something about him that attracted her right away. Everyone wanted to know what Riley had to say, what he thought about—they wanted his advice, which he loved giving.
“Strangers would sit down near him and pour their hearts out,” Jan said of their first years together in the early 1960s. “This happened all the time, even when we were riding on a city bus. He was exciting, magnetic. I’d never met anyone like him.”
They moved around together dozens of times before ending up in Portland, Oregon in 1964. Dad put one of his many pseudonyms on my birth certificate when I was born, a year later. I’m guessing he skipped out on the hospital bill. We lived in an apartment on Burnside. One day, Riley said he was going to San Francisco to meet a writer friend there. He hated Portland and couldn’t wait to beat feet out.
And just like that, he left. He’d send for us, or he’d be back.
After a few weeks, something went wrong at the apartment. Rent hadn’t been paid for months. An eviction was brewing. Unaware of any of this, my mother took me out in the stroller to run an errand, and when she returned, the locks had been changed. All the stuff needed for a newborn was locked in, everything she owned (besides the stroller and her purse) was inside that apartment. She parked me outside the building, climbed up to our window, and broke in. She was scrappy like that. Luckily, we were in a lower floor. Jan opened the front door, and ran around back to get me. She was packing up all our stuff when she realized there wasn’t a place to go. Jan went upstairs and knocked on a neighbor’s door, a woman named Ardis. The two had become friendly, almost friends.
“Where will you go?” Ardis asked. Jan didn’t know anyone, and there was no money saved. Riley took care of that part, at least he seemed to.
Ardis invited us to stay at her place until Jan figured out what to do, where to go. After a few days together, Jan noticed how Ardis would often stare at herself in her full length mirror, twirling her curly black hair with one finger and checking out her backside, shifting from one leg to the other, swiveling her curvy hips. She talked about her problems with men incessantly, and it was getting on Jan’s nerves.
One night, Ardis began chatting nervously, like she was building up to something, and then began sobbing, saying she desperately needed to get something off her chest. She covered her face with her hands for a long, jagged cry, her shiny curls bouncing, her shoulders heaving. Choking out the words, she told my mother that the entire time we lived in the building, all during Jan’s pregnancy, she and Riley had been screwing. She hoped Jan would accept her apology. After that confession, Jan had to stay there.
A few more weeks went by, and finally Riley got in touch, telling Jan to get to the airport, where there’d be plane tickets waiting. Later, he bragged about purchasing them with a bad check, or so my mother said. It’s hard to believe it now, but you could do stuff like that back then.
I wondered why she stuck with him after all of that?
“We were a good fit,” Jan said. “We were the black sheep of our families, and made for each other.” Later, she told me other things. But when I was a kid, it was the old “black sheep of the family” story. Those two words, black sheep, don’t describe much. What does it even mean? Perhaps a placeholder term for a much deeper discussion. She probably used that cliche to simplify things, but I was an easy kid back then, blankly going along with anything my parents said, and took it to mean my parents were treated poorly by their kinfolk. It made me have protective feelings towards them, which later would overwhelm me.
When Jan and Riley first got together and hatched a plan to leave town, they were living in a small apartment in Reading, his wife (who thought they were temporarily separated and would soon get back together) and two kids lived in a house a mile away. One night over a dinner Riley made, he gave her an ultimatum. “If you leave with me, you can never contact anyone you’ve ever known before. Not friends, even your parents and siblings.” Jan pushed back her chair, got up from the table, and walked to the window, a light snow was falling outside. She paused to think about her choices. She had a large Catholic family, six brothers and a younger sister back in Minnesota. By the time dinner was over, the deal was done. She agreed to this condition, cutting everyone off.
Sometimes, strange thoughts cross my mind about my friendless mother back then. Morbid thoughts, really, because if they could magically happen, I wouldn’t be here. If I knew my mother back then, if we were friends, close friends I mean, I would have talked her out of it, or at least tried. Riley begged Jan to have me.
“Why would you have a baby with this man?” I imagine myself saying.
But here I am.
We bounced around California just like the rubber checks my father wrote. San Francisco, where we moved four times, until finally, with the help of Riley’s old show business friends, we landed in Hollywood at the Lido Hotel. Then Descanso Drive, then a second floor apartment near Western and Hollywood. After that a house Riley sublet from a doctor. I don’t remember those places, but later, wanting to know where I’d been, I asked my father to make a list for me. “Why do you want to know?” He pushed his glasses up, staring at me, seeming perplexed by the question. How to answer that? Why do I want to know? Other people knew where their childhood homes were, and I didn’t. It seemed normal to want to know where I’d been, and I’d been feeling disoriented. I thought the list of addresses might help that sensation. It didn’t.
With all the moves, my memories blend the different houses and apartments, the background floating and blurry. There was a place that had honeysuckle bushes, another had a courtyard with a tree that grew tiny bananas. One house had hydrangea bushes. Or are they trees? The natural world replaced with buildings and cement. After it rained in Los Angeles, the puddles shined with gasoline rainbows. The sunsets were a deep brown, or sometimes a lighter brown depending on the smog, which gave Jan horrible migraines. Even kids got headaches. Our eyes burned. Jan’s pain was the worst, though, on the bad days she’d sleep all day in a dark room with a pillow over her head.
When I was five or so, I overheard one of Jan’s hippie friends saying that pollution was caused by the tail pipes that stuck out of the cars. This connection, cars to pollution, made me angry. I used to gather up rocks and shove them down the metal shoot of the parked cars for revenge. I thought I could block the spewing of exhaust like a superhero, sparing my mother.
It seemed everyone in Los Angeles had a car except us. We couldn’t afford a car. Friends and neighbors gave us rides when we had to get somewhere too far to walk, and someone gave my mother an old bicycle. She found a baby seat in a dumpster, and duct taped the seat on the back side of the bike. My earliest memories were flopping around in that seat while she peddled through traffic, cars whizzing past us. Whenever Riley managed to get a chunk of money, he’d splurge on cab rides.
Riley hustled to get an apartment right on the corner of Selma and Cassil, which my mother pronounced Casseel, but it actually sounds like castle. We moved in before my memories began, (I was two) but Riley loved telling the story of how I met Mae West in that building. “She threw her fur coat on the floor and let my baby crawl all over it,” he said, overflowing with the same amount of joy each telling. Apparently, I met Mae West on the floor above ours, where the landlords lived. Four units and each with a rotating cast of Hollywood characters, we lived on the bottom floor, a big window faced my school yard, and Jan set up her easel near it.
I attended the elementary school right across from our apartment, Vine Street was one block away, Hollywood Boulevard nearby, and a big Rexall Drug Store was two blocks away. This was no ordinary drug store, it had a stage with free talent shows every single weekend, the talent mostly drag queens draped with boa feathers, gowns and wigs. They always won first prize as we cheered them on. I thought I would grow up to be like them, and when I learned to draw, they were my first full length models, long dresses with slits up the side, big hair, huge boobs, super high heels. The front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater was my free playground.
Our landlords: Halo Meadows and “The Amazing Criswell,” but we just called him Criswell. Their real names were Myrtle and Jerome, they’d been performers in New York, she’d written some plays, but in Hollywood recreated themselves as psychics. Criswell became a moderately famous predictor of the future, writing books, appearing on the Tonight Show, and writing a newspaper column. These two dwelled on the fringes of the entertainment business. They threw regular brunches, were friends with the filmmaker Ed Wood. Halo wanted to be a songwriter, but it wasn’t going so well. That’s where my father came in.
Halo’s parents were bankers, and with a huge wad of cash from an inheritance, she bought two apartment buildings, the one we lived in, and another nearby. She wandered around the property either in a muumuu or a bikini, drinking gin. During the hottest part of summer days, she fried herself in the hot sun for hours. After the brunches she’d get on the outdoor tables and dance, half-dressed, (her skin dark from all the sunbathing) in front of all the B movie actors, writers, and directors. She’d been in burlesque shows in New York, but now she was in her fifties. Her big, heavy lidded eyes and moon face haunt my dreams, not because of how she looked, but because she hated children. “Children were born to suck the life out of adults,” she said. She claimed humans wouldn’t age and die if no more children were born. We were a curse. She wouldn’t allow grass to grow in front of the building, saying “plants suck the oxygen out of the air.” Halo looked swollen, like she’d been filled with too much air and was about to explode. Jan said that her yo-yo dieting made her puff out like a blowfish.
“Your daughter isn’t really a child. She’s an old lady, reborn,” Halo told my parents. I thought that vision she had of me might soften her attitude towards me, but it wasn’t a raise, simply a lateral move, still sucking the life out of her. According to Halo, her pet poodle, Buttercup, wasn’t really a dog, but rather her reincarnated cousin, Thomas.
People witnessed Halo get down on her hands and knees and eat grass like an animal. She did this by an empty field near the Catholic school. Mom said people knew she’d had a breakdown, right on Hollywood Boulevard, long before my father secured our apartment. One day, she withdrew a shitload of cash from the bank, and started handing it out to random stranger on the street. Criswell had her committed to a mental institution for a short time, according to these stories, and managed finances after that.
When Halo first met Riley in 1967, she was instantly smitten with him and wouldn’t charge him rent. Instead, Riley became her coach and mentor, helping her write songs. “Ghostly fingers direct my piano playing so I can come up the tunes,” she told him. It was a barter of sorts, between Riley and Halo, but she might have paid him for the coaching on top of the free rent.
The four apartments had various people moving in and out, a woman named Pat who’d been a radio personality and her family, an astrologist named Maria Graciette, who said she was a countess and a former Miss Portugal, who moved out after a year. A British couple we knew, Ann and Lester, took Maria’s old place. Ann gave us rides when we needed a lift. She wrote horror movies, casting herself in the leading roles. One, “The Sins of Rachel” was about a woman who seduced her own son, another was about people being made into cat food. Ann had a daughter named Jenny, who was an artist like my mother, and they became best friends.
In this building, our luck changed. When I was around four or five, Riley’s encyclopedia found a publisher. The next year when the advance payment arrived, he hosted a series of dinner parties for friends and supporters, and did all the cooking and baking, making stews and soups, corn bread slathered with butter, pies, cinnamon rolls, and cakes. Riley was a wonderful cook, and he loved entertaining. The refrigerator overflowed with food, the pantry stocked.