About a year and a half ago I wrote the following personal essay and started sending it out to see if I could get it published somewhere. It has since been rejected ten times and I stopped sending it out a while ago, just letting it sit for a bit. I re-read the piece today and realized the first six pages had to go. It was a lot of backstory about my parents, my upbringing (or lack thereof), which might be vaguely interesting for someone to read who doesn’t know me, but the real story only took off on page six.
I could start sending the piece out again in its edited form, but I don’t really feel like it. The piece is probably still too personal for anyone to be particularly interested, despite the famous writer element. I mean, who the hell cares about some random chick named Rebeccah M. Dean? Well I do, obviously. And since this website is none other than rebeccahdean.com, what better place to publish the piece?
So, dear Phantom Reader, here goes. I hope you enjoy. 🙂
Telegraph, Moe’s and Him
In the midst of all my family chaos, the pet messes, the fists driven into walls and doors, we still always did do one thing together as a family: Every Sunday, we got in our van and drove to First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley on the corner of Dana and Channing, one block down from Telegraph Avenue.
Telegraph! Do you have any idea what this street meant to me? I was growing up in Castro Valley, a bedroom community best known for white flight and the three gigantic white crosses you can see from the 580 freeway. My hometown was The Wizard of Oz on a black and white television, but on Telegraph even Kansas was in technicolor.
Amoeba! Rasputin’s! Blondies! Fat Slice! Caffe Mediterraneum! Cody’s! Moe’s Books!
Forget church. Moe’s Books was my temple, Orwell and Huxley, Sartre and Vonnegut my disciples. On Sundays, I’d cut out early on youth group and head over to Moe’s, sauntering in in my hemp overalls and red velvet beret I bought at the Renaissance Faire. If I got lucky, he was there, standing behind the cash register, deftly wielding a box cutter to open a new box of books. Him, right smack in the middle of everything.
I didn’t know his name, but even if I had it wouldn’t have meant anything to me. He wasn’t famous. Not yet. To me, he was just the Cute Guy at Moe’s and I had the biggest crush on him, and no wonder because: a) He wasn’t in high school, b) he wore a black leather jacket and c) he worked at the mother of all bookstores. Honey, bust out that ring and take me to Vegas.
If the Cute Guy was working when I came for my Sunday hauntings, I’d snag a book from the poetry section and head for the basement floor to watch him stacking books or ringing up customers on the floor above.
(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens;only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands
One December, while I was browsing the stands at the Telegraph Avenue Holiday Street Fair, I saw the Cute Guy walk out of Moe’s with a broken-down box under his arm. I ducked behind a booth selling jewelry made from old forks and spoons to watch him. He walks! He leaves the bookstore! He carries cardboard! Oh, be still my beating heart.
Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t pining away for him or sleeping with his picture under my pillow. I basically had the same exact crush on the security guard at Rasputin’s Records. I was only 16.
If things had gone differently, none of this would have mattered. The whole story would have evolved into a guess-who-I-had-a-teenage-crush-on-from-a-far anecdote I might sometimes tell at parties once he became well-known. But then it happened.
After high school, I was still living at home and taking classes at Chabot Community College in Hayward. I graduated a solid underachiever with not enough math on my transcripts, so going away to college was out of the question. I got a job at Waldenbooks in Southland Mall, the farthest cry from Moe’s I could imagine. Most of our customers were overweight housewives buying stacks of romance novels, gum-snapping teens with neon, dragon lady nails who came for Linda Goodman’s Love Signs, creepy men with deep set eyes and pitted cheeks thumbing through true crime books on famous murders (you couldn’t help but wonder if they were looking for tips and inspiration). I cleared away left-behind cups of blue raspberry icee slushes from the food court several times a day.
Whenever I had time, I’d hop on BART and head to Berkeley to write and study at one of the cafes around the campus, pretending I had another life.
I didn’t want to just walk up to the fence, I wanted to jump over it and take off running. But I’d inherited my father’s anger and my mother’s fear. How could I carve out the life I wanted when everything I touched seemed to turn to ash? At night, I’d lie in bed and feel the walls closing in around me:
This is it. Things will never change. Welcome to the rest of your life.
One day I walked down Bancroft Avenue with a heavy backpack, holding the weight on only one shoulder in true 90s style—to this day, I still tilt my head slightly to one side. My plan was to ruin my eyes at Café Milano, reading and writing under the dim lighting until the café closed and they kicked me out. I ordered an espresso and almond Italian soda, balancing my drinks as I walked past the exposed bricks up the stairs. I turned onto the upstairs terrace and there he was.
The Cute Guy from Moe’s. I hadn’t seen him in a long time. Maybe he didn’t work at Moe’s anymore or maybe I’d just long outgrown the crush and stopped paying attention. But I recognized him, and what I saw made me curious.
He was sitting alone at a table, facing the railing at the end of the terrace. On the table in front of him was what looked like a manuscript, a stack of white paper held together with brass fasteners, the edges slightly worn. He was holding a piece of paper and reading it and looked happy while he did. Not pleased or how nice happy, more like I-just-won-the-lottery happy. Though he sat quietly, I felt like inside he was on top of the table, jumping up and down with his hands in the air, shouting, Yes! Yes! Yes! I had to know what was he was reading.
So I spied on him.
I slipped my drinks down on the table behind him and moved my chair in so close I’m surprised he couldn’t feel me breathing on his neck. The paper was letter from his editor. Your novel is great, brilliant even…I couldn’t read much more. To do so, I would have had to put my chin on his shoulder.
Can I even describe to you what this meant to me? This wasn’t someone I was reading about in a magazine, not some brilliant, privileged friend of a friend of a friend. This was a normal person, the Cute Guy from Moe’s, a man I’d had a crush on in high school, so close now I was almost grabbing him. And he wasn’t someone who said wouldn’t it be nice or gee, I wish I could. He said fuck it, I’m doing it, and did.
And then it happened: the moment, the bolt of lightning, the epiphany. Call it what you will. But what it felt like is this: I was stumbling alone in the dark for so long and now someone had switched on a flood light and there on the wall in bold and glittering letters were the words: Another Life is Possible.
For the first time ever, I actually believed it.
In 1997, several years later, I was sitting in another Berkeley café on College Avenue, thumbing through a copy of the East Bay Express. When I turned the next page, I almost spilled my latte across the marble topped bistro table. There he was in the newspaper, the Cute Guy from Moe’s, talking about his third book, recently published.
At the time, I was about a year away from finishing a degree in music at Mills College and two years away from moving to Berlin where I still live today, though I didn’t know that yet. But what I did finally know, what I learned from the letters on those thin gray pages, was a name to go with the face: The Cute Guy from Moe’s was the writer Jonathan Lethem.
A couple of years ago I was sitting in a café, in Berlin this time, not Berkeley, reading a newspaper in German, not English, when I saw a small picture of Jonathan. He was reading from The Fortress of Solitude at HAU theatre which, if memory serves, had recently been translated into German. Oh my god, I thought. I have to go. I bought two tickets and invited a friend along who knew the story.
The funny thing is at this point the only book of his I’d ever read was Motherless Brooklyn, which I picked up at Green Apple Books on a trip back home in 2003. It’s not that I didn’t think his books sounded interesting—I did—or doubted I would like them. But that moment I shared with him all those years ago in Café Milano, which still meant something to me, didn’t happen between me and Jonathan Lethem, famous writer. The experience had been anonymous, a curious case of a stranger unwittingly helping another stranger. Part of me felt its power was tied up in its anonymity, that reading Jonathan’s books or finding out more about the person he is might get in the way. Come on, stop being so silly, I told myself. I planned to buy a copy of Fortress and promised myself I’d read it.
On the night of the reading, I cycled past the Amerika Gedenkbibliothek, over the bridge at Hallesches Tor, past Will-Brandt-Haus on Stresemannstraße, the streets glazed with recent rain.
Berlin. My city.
My friend was waiting for me outside, her black curly hair free over her shoulders, her cheeks surprisingly round on such a slender face. She’s part of my expat family, one of the ones who stayed. Meek and self-effacing on the surface, but underneath she has a fire. Like my mother did.
HAU theatre was about three quarters full. There was a poetry slam in German before Jonathan went on, and comic books were the topic. Or maybe I’m making that up. I only remember bits and pieces. Jonathan read from Fortress and used his hands a lot when he talked.
At the end, the crowd asked the usual questions:
What advice do you have for young writers? Can writing be taught?
After the reading, my friend and I walked down from the mezzanine and there was Jonathan, standing alone behind the counter at the coat check, his books in English and German stacked up in front of him.
“You’ve got to go talk to him,” my friend said.
“Yeah, right.” What was I supposed to say? Hi you don’t know me but I used to stalk you in high school and then I spied on you one day when I was twenty years old and it kind of changed my life.
Psy-cho, he’d think while he backed away, wondering if maybe he should call security.
My friend rolled her eyes. “Don’t be such a wuss.”
I walked over to him, bought a copy of The Fortress of Solitude and might have still chickened out, not saying anything more than “Thanks, have a good one.” But my friend grabbed me by the shoulder and said, “She used to know you way back when.”
I told him I used to hang out on Telegraph Avenue when I was in my teens. “I remember when you worked at Moe’s Books.”
Jonathan grinned. “Hey, yeah. That used to be my old stomping ground.”
We talked maybe thirty more seconds and he signed my book and we were on our way. When I got outside, before I hopped on my bike and headed home, I opened the book to where he’d signed it. It read: “To Rebeccah— All best wishes to a Berkeley girl —Jonathan Lethem”
If I were to sign this piece, here’s what I would write:
Once, without knowing it, you gave
me something I needed.
I don’t know why or how or even
what it means.
But I do know this:
So, for what it’s worth, thanks.
—With love from a Berkeley Girl
Dear Phantom Reader,
I decided to add the first six pages of this sprawling monster of an essay to this post after all. What the hell, why not?
Here they are:
My father’s mother was a manipulative monster, an alcoholic, nouveau riche, Phoenix-country-club-loving John Bircher. Though he hated her, my father mostly kept his mother’s politics. In his own words, he was a fiscal conservative with libertarian leanings and evangelical sympathies. I used to love how easy it was to get a rise out of him. All I had to do was say something like: “Sweden, wow. That country really has it all figured out.” Or:
“Two words for you dad: Ralph. Nader.” Then sit back and laugh while he jumped through the roof.
Along with her politics, my father also inherited his mother’s alcoholism—though he was more of a binge drinker, not a committed, everyday drinker like she was. He’d be dry for months, even years, then suddenly be secretly chugging gallons of charcoal filtered vodka in his bedroom. (Alcoholic’s logic 101: 1. Vodka’s the only liquor no one can smell on your breath. 2. If no one smells it and no one sees it, it’s not actually happening. At least not until you start bumping into the furniture.)
The chaos, anger and unhappiness couldn’t possibly be coming from inside of him. The Bay Area was to blame. The liberals! The endless traffic! The constantly rising prices! He had to get us out of there. In junior high, my friends always wrote in my yearbook Rebeccah, We’ll miss you so much next year when you move to(fill in the blank). Poughkeepsie, New Haven, Ashland, Stockholm(!). My father had so many plans, so many new jobs lined up in new places, both in reality and in his head. But he never followed through with any of them.
By high school, my friends no longer wrote those kinds of things in my yearbook. My father hadn’t changed. I’d just learned to stop taking him seriously.
But my father wasn’t just a rabid Republican drinker. He was also one of the most brilliant and curious people I’ve ever met. He read everything (except Bertrand Russell, who he hated), listened to music ranging from Handel to Hendrix, watched Total Recalland Babette’s Feastback to back and liked them both the same. He was always thinking, kicking around ideas and problems in his head, but not talking about them until—days, weeks, months later—he could finally shout out Eureka! Eureka!
My father, who thought homosexuality was a sin but was best friends with a butch lesbian, who’d go off on tirades about welfare mothers only to befriend Laurie, a homeless pregnant woman, personally delivering a crib and plastic bag filled with baby clothes to the flop house where she lived a few weeks after the baby came.
My father: the walking, talking paradox.
My mother, on the other hand, grew up in a community of German Russian immigrants who practiced a particularly bleak version of Calvinism. For them, fun was a four-letter word.
In the late eighteenth century, when her ancestors arrived at the lands along the Volga River Catherine the Great had granted them, they found nothing but empty pasture. Where were the houses she had promised? Where was lumber to build them? They spent their first winter (a Russianwinter) living in holes they had dug in the ground.
A couple of centuries later, when Stalin wanted back their lands, he laid it out for them:Either it’s a cattle car to Siberia, a bullet in the head somewhere in the woods, or get the hell out.They chose the last option, heading for America where they settled in Western Nebraska.
On their farm in Nebraska, my mother’s family was always at a least a decade behind their non-German Russian neighbors. They got indoor plumbing for the first time in the mid-50s. Before that, they bathed once a week, one after another, in a copper tub set up in the kitchen: my aunt, my mother, my grandmother, my uncle, my grandfather last, the fine, pig farm dust on his skin floating across the milky, tepid water.
My mother’s grandmother, her father’s mother, pulled the curtains closed in every room. She refused to open any of the windows, even on the hottest day of summer. In her kitchen, with its gleaming counter tops and needle point bible verse on the walls, she sat my mother down and scolded her in her old-fashioned dialect, sounding like a living German version of the King James bible.
Nicht stolz sein. Nicht stolz sein. Nicht stolz sein.
Never be proud of anything. Ever.
But, secretly, my mother had a fighting spirit.
When she went away to Christian college in Los Angeles, she didn’t marry the upright evangelical who disapproved of dancing and card games and later became Assistant Dean at Biola University. My mother married her other suitor: Robert Dean, my father, newly born again and the opposite of everything she had ever known. After they got married, she dropped out of college and moved with my father to an urban Jesus Freak commune in Sacramento where my sister was born, then me, then one of my two brothers.
My mother listened to a sermon on the virtues of women’s meekness, agreeing with points the pastor made when she later drank coffee from a Styrofoam cup at the kaffeeklatsch in the foyer. But when she got home, she pulled out books on Buddhism and Jungian archetypes from under the bed where she was hiding them, biding her time until she was brave enough to leave them out in the open. Someday she wanted to go back to school, finish her degree and become a therapist.
My mother gets a life
When I was thirteen, after my youngest brother entered kindergarten, my mother decided it was finally time. She enrolled at Cal State Hayward with enough transfer credits from Biola to start as a sophomore in the undergraduate psychology department. But with my mother gone more often, my father’s chaos took over. The structure of our home life started to fray and unravel until, one day, it completely fell apart.
Here’s how I imagine it happening: My mother comes home from school, exhausted. She walks into the house and there’s my dad, watching television in his oil-stained tighty whities, the volume blaring. My brothers are sitting beside him, eating oranges and tossing the peels behind the couch or onto the ground in front of them. Our dog is on top of the roof, barking at the mailman (later, after many warnings, he’ll finally manage to have our family banned from home mail delivery); the cats are eating leftovers off the stacks of dirty plates in the sink; I’m playing with matches in the living room; my sister is god knows where, but wherever it is, it can’t be good. My mother flops down on the couch, throws up her hands and says: “That’s it. I quit.”
There’s an episode of the Brady Bunchwhere Carol, realizing no one appreciates her, decides it’s time to teach her family a lesson. She goes on strike, refusing to do anything more in the home. Mike and the kids notice right away.
“We’re so sorry,” they tell her. “We’ll never take you for granted again!”
Yeah right, Carol. As if that would ever happen.
When my mother went on strike it meant laundry piled to the ceiling. it meant all kinds of junk tossed into my room because it was at the end of hall and whoever tossed the thing there couldn’t figure out what else to do with it. We got robbed once and the burglars ripped into the place, really tore it apart. But until my mother finally got home and saw they had dumped out all the drawers of her dresser, no one even noticed the place had been ransacked. It looked pretty much the same as it always did.
The freer my mother became, the more our family life disintegrated.
But I also benefited from this lack of boundaries. I could bring home any pet I wanted and my father would build a cage for it (at its height this included five cats, two dogs, one iguana, one garter snake, five rabbits, six rats and a tank full of fish). If a friend of ours was having a hard time at home, they could move right in. We have couches! We have floor space! I stole the car twice before I even had a license but didn’t get in trouble either time. All I had to do was tell my mother I was feeling depressed, which was easy enough to do because I was.
Mother: Do you have a plan? Tell me if you have a plan!
Me: (sigh) No, mom. I’m not planning to kill myself.
Mother: Oh, thank god. Just don’t steal the car again.
At its best, my family was a wild ride at the carnival, a party at the orphanage where no one is in charge, a candle burnt at both ends 24/7. At its worst? We don’t really need to go there.