Panorama of San Bernardino

Friday, January 28, 2011

Fat Girl

I am having fat girl surgery soon.  I am not ashamed of it.  Some people try and hide this kind of stuff.  I revel in it.

I haven't been fat my whole life, only the last ten years.  Sometimes when I look in the mirror I wince.  I feel as if I have a skinny person inside of me screaming to get out.  Hopefully, the lap band will help that skinny girl inside of me escape.

Annie Lamott calls her unflattering body parts by name.  In awe of all things Annie Lamott, I named the ring of fat around my stomach Edith.  I don't know why I chose that name, but somehow it felt right.

Sorry Edith, but I want to vanquish you.  I want you to be merely a memory that I can point at in pictures and say, "Look, I used to be that big." 

My husband says the problems started when I began eating half of a large pizza with him at Round Table.  I think the problems started long ago.  Growing up, my dad was obsessed with food and rewarded us with McDonalds. 

In high school, I swam fifty laps a day during my sophomore and junior year.  I could eat whatever I wanted.  It wasn't until after I quit the swim team that I started putting on weight.  I ate and slept my way through my senior year.  On the weekends, I drank to cure my blues which made them worse and added more pounds.

After high school, I went on Weight Watchers and dropped all the weight.  I was obsessed.  My sister Annie and I worked out at the Spa, an all female gym in Upland, for two hours every morning.  We ate toast for breakfast, white rice with salsa for lunch and boiled chicken breast with broccoli for dinner.   We went out dancing at least two nights a week and bypassed dinner for tight dresses.

At Mt SAC, I found solace in writing for the college newspaper and struggled to get enough credits to transfer to a university.  It took me five years and I took Algebra three times, but I finally transferred to UCR along with at least another ten pounds.

At UCR, I was a size twelve and felt fat.  I look at pictures of myself back then with my huge mane of hair and voluptuous body and want to scream, "You are beautiful damn it!"  I know I can get back to that girl although I might have to get some hair extensions.

During law school, I went up to a size sixteen and graduated at a size twelve/fourteen after I let Jenny Craig and her plastic foods into my life for three months.

I moved to Houston right after law school graduation and my weight spiralled out of control.  I slept only four or five hours a night and watched late night TV until two a.m. with my cat Leopold on my lap. 

I went to my job at a law firm tired and depressed.  I took Lexapro for three months and gained thirty pounds.  I didn't think it was possible to gain a pound of day, but I proved it could happen.  I was a size sixteen again (ahemmm, OK, a size eighteen).

I moved to San Francisco to join Adrian in his second year of dental school and worked out at Curves and ate low carb.  After three months, I was a size fourteen again and could squeeze into a size twelve if I held my breath. 

Six months later, my long hours at the firm made it impossible for me to get to Curves before they closed and I was back up to a sixteen again.

When my dad died I moved back home to the Inland Empire and lost all control food wise.  I remember one day, about a month after my father died, I stopped at a donut shop slash Chinese fast food restaurant and stuffed myself with orange chicken until I couldn't breathe.

When I became a public defender, I found passion in my work again.  I was making a difference and changing lives.  I had hated my job as a civil attorney for so long that it took me quite a while to recognize what fulfillment felt like.

About six months ago, I went to my doctor to talk about having a baby and he told me part of the reason I couldn't get pregnant was because of my weight.  I had to make a choice and I decided to try, to really try and conquer this demon.   I put the baby plans on hold and closed my eyes and visualized my thinner self.

The approval process has not been easy.  I had to see a dietitian and get a psychiatric evaluation and now they will cut me open, albeit laparoscopically.

I don't expect to ever get trimmed down to my twenties' Cybergenics induced weight.  I would be happy to be a size 9 or 10.  I want to keep my boobs.  I want to wear pencil skirts and get a tattoo.  I want to shop for my underwear at Victoria Secret.

I know this fat girl surgery is not a panacea.  It will not cure all my problems.  I know this.

And, as I told my husband recently, it will not make me nice because (unfortunately for him) there is no surgery to cure me of being a bitch.  But, I want to be a thinner bitch.

Thursday, January 27, 2011


The idea for a kegger party came to my twin sister Jackie and I during the last month of our junior year of high school.  It started out as only an idea and then the idea became reality and then, as it often did in my childhood, reality turned ugly.

We lived off of Fourth Street and Grove in a small three bedroom house that my parents rented.  My parents had lost their house three years before.  After they lost the house, we moved from rental to rental like a band of nomads.  Our first rental was a condo in south Upland.  The south designation was important because north Upland was on the right side of the tracks and south Upland was its ugly neglected stepsister.

My twin sister Jackie and I had recruited our formerly angelic little sister Annie to follow us on our ride to juvenile delinquency.  The Mantz sisters were the holy terrors of the neighborhood.  We made out with boys in the community jacuzzi with beer bottles in hand.  We stole my dad's car at night and came home to red and blue lights flashing in our driveway.  We toilet papered the entire downtown of Upland which turned into a criminal investigation after our friend wrote on a car with permanent marker.  I got caught drinking in the front yard with my skater boyfriend and his stoner friends by the cops and was almost arrested (they cited me for an appearance in juvenile court where they gave me alcohol classes that  told me to "just say no").  

Add in my parents' constant screaming and fighting and in essence, they evicted us for being the modern day Inland Empire Hillbillies.  

Our next stop on the sad rental train was an old, creepy white house in Upland that looked like the house from Amnetyville  horror.  The landlord sold the house after a year and my parents returned to Ontario in their search for a cheap rental.

When we moved to the new, not so new rental, I claimed my own room by biblical birthright.  Even though I was a twin, I was the oldest by nine minutes and refused to share with Jackie any longer.  As a result, Annie and Jackie were forced to share a room.  I loved the privacy.  I had a poster of Sid Vicious on one wall and a poster of Bono from U2 on the other.  My cat Whitey was a permanent fixture on my bed and she always left white hair on my all black wardrobe.  I had my nose pierced the month before and proudly wore my diamond stud to school.  It got me a lot of attention. 

"No parties," my dad said with a wag of his finger when they told us they were leaving for Laughlin that weekend and Annie was going to stay with her friend Bernadette.  "Party, no way!" I guffawed with a flourish of my hand.  Jackie and I caught eyes and the idea was born.

Keg parties were all the rage in the Inland Empire of the 1980's.  The recipe was a simple mix of beer and high school students.  Add in a band or at the very least a boom box and the recipe was complete.

We started our party planning at work.  My best friend Tracy worked with Jackie and I at the Round Table Pizza on Foothill and Campus in Upland.  My "other" best friend Melinda, who I had known since third grade, stopped by one night after her shift at the mall and we worked out all the details.  We decided to "borrow" a couple of kegs from the cooler at Round Table and have them filled by a co-worker's older brother. 

"We need fliers to pass out at school," I said.  I was the unofficial president of the planning committee.  "Johnny can draw, let's have him hand sketch one and we can make copies," Jackie said.  "Have him put in some skulls and beer bottles," Tracy said.  Melinda joined in, "Yeah, and let's charge three bucks a head."

We made a couple of hundred fliers and passed them out all week at lunch.  The day of the party, Tracy and I talked about it in our part of the quad where we hung out with all the other punks.  Melinda walked toward us with a grimace, "Guess who else is having a party tonight?  Reggie."  "Shit, we're screwed," I said.  "When the football king has a party everyone goes."

That night we waited at the house.  Jackie and I sat in the backyard drinking out of the keg with Tracy, Melinda and our friend Frank.  My stomach was queasy in anticipation.  The kegs were filled, we had hired two guys to work the door and we just waited and waited.  By nine p.m., we had given up.  No one was coming.

All of a sudden, we heard shouting and screaming coming from the front of the house.  As we walked into the front yard, we saw at least twenty cars parked on the street.  A guy in a football jersey walked up and said, "Reggie's party got broken up, everyone is coming here."

Within minutes, the back yard was full of high school students.  Jackie and I worked the kegged and tried not to put too much foam in the glasses.  The bouncers had already collected two hundred dollars and after the cost of the kegs and bouncers we were at least a hundred dollars ahead.  I took shots of tequila from a bottle someone was passing around.

By eleven, the backyard was overflowing.  The bouncers were drunk and had stopped taking money.  The party had moved inside.  I felt as if I was walking through a kaleidoscope of people.  What are all these people doing in the house? 

Tracy ran up to me and grabbed my arm.  "Jua Jua, it's the police," she slurred.  "They want to talk to someone in charge."   I looked through the front window and saw four cop cars in the driveway, their red and blue lights flashing like disco infused Northern Lights.

I shook myself to clear my head and walked outside with Tracy beside me.  An officer walked up to me and said, "Do you live here." 

"Yes," I said in my oldest child voice.  As I looked at him, he shined a flashlight into my eyes and I felt myself wobble in my monkey boots.  "Are you intoxicated, young lady?"  I could hear Tracy whimpering behind me.  Just don't let us get arrested.  "No,"  I'm fine." 

"We've had several complains from your neighbors and everyone needs to leave.  We could arrest you for underage drinking."

I turned my head and saw the shine of the flashlights as the police ushered a line of people out the back yard into the street.  "Get a move on," the police yelled through bullhorns.  Someone screamed, "Go Juanita!  Tell those pigs off!"

"Why are you shutting down the party?" I asked.  This is fucking ridiculous," I said as I got in the officer's face.  "Fuck off!" I shouted the tequila making me brave.

Tracy tried to calm me down and I pushed her arm away.  Tracy turned and walked into the house.  After the cops left I would find her hiding in the closet, her black eyeliner smeared all over her face.

The cops didn't arrest me.  They should have.  When my parents came home a couple of days later,  the neighbors had signed a petition to have us evicted.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Soda Pop Bottles

I drove my dogs to the groomer a couple of weeks ago and passed by the condos we used to live in on "D" and Euclid.  We only lived in those condos in Upland for a year. 

I was sixteen when they asked us to leave.  My parents rushed to find another rental.  It wasn't easy.  The manager of the condos in Upland disliked our family due to our proclivity for fighting and throwing things.  It didn't help that I got cited, along with other teenagers who lived in the condos, for drinking in public. 

I was glad to leave the condos.  I had relationship drama.  My short lived crush on my seventeen year old neighbor Hovie came to a bitter end after he took up with my neighbor Cathy who went to Claremont High.  Cathy was pretty in a quirky Ally Sheedy kind of way and loved the Grateful Dead.  I winced every time they drove by in Hovie's convertible MG.

Christian was next.  He was a skateboarder with curly brown hair and freckles who smoked pot all day instead of going to school.  Christian gave me a diamond stud earring that I returned when he dumped me for a girl who was more willing and open with her affections.  

My mom stressed out about finding another rental, but she finally found a two story house in Upland.  The old house looked like a large white castle with peeling paint.  It had four bedrooms, two baths and about twenty windows.  It sat on a huge lot surrounded by old trees, just east of Euclid and north of Arrow.  

The house scared me a bit, it was always so cold.  The TV room had a sloping roof that met up in a V and the ceiling was so low that you had to bend to enter.  My friend Tracy and I used the Ouija Board in the room and the disc moved on its own.  From then on, we were convinced the TV room was haunted. 

My sisters and I were still paying my parents back for all the chaos we had endured as kids.  I ditched school whenever possible and spent my weekends drinking and carousing with my two best friends Tracy and Melinda. 

One school day, Melinda and I drove to Hollywood to visit a punk rock store.  I bought some red creepers with zebra fur detailing.  The radio in Melinda's 1964 White Covair didn't work so we drove home from Hollywood blasting the Violent Femmes in a boom box on my lap. 

Melinda dropped me off and I walked inside, creepers in hand, and shouted out, "Jackie, look what I bought in Hollywood today."  My mom came out from the kitchen and slapped me and screamed, "God dammit Jenny, you need to stop ditching."  I ran to my room, shut the door and caressed my shoes as I hummed the Violent Femmes song, "Kiss Off". 

We used to steal my dad's truck after my parents fell asleep.  We drove through the tree lined streets of south Upland, hooting and hollering at the other cars.  Sometimes, when we stopped at a red light, we waved our hands in the air and changed seats.

One night in particular, Pam and Annie walked into my bedroom at past midnight dressed like cat burglars in dark sweats with black ski hats on their heads.  Pam put her finger against her lips and whispered, "Are you ready?"  I nodded and we tip-toed into the front living room where my dad snored on the couch in his pajama pants and white t-shirt. 

I looked in on my mom.  There were peanut butter cracker crumbs all over her bedspread and her book was on the floor.  We waited for fifteen minutes to make sure she was out and then I crept into her room on all fours and pulled the keys out of my dad's Wranglers.

Pam wanted to drive.  Even though she was only fourteen, she was the best driver of all of us.  Her dad had taught her how to drive his car.  Pam jumped into the driver's seat on top of a phone book so she could reach the steering wheel.  Annie sat in the middle of the bench seat and I sat against the window.  The car smelled like stale cigarettes.  We started the truck and Pam backed it out of the driveway with the lights off.

We drove up and down Euclid Avenue for about fifteen minutes.  We blasted the radio on Power 106 and Pam and Annie got on my dad's CB intercom and cussed out cars in Spanish. 

As we turned down Ninth Street, the truck started to sputter.  Pam pulled over.  I leaned over and looked at the gas gauge.  We were out of gas.   I looked at Annie, Annie looked at Pam and Pam looked at me and said, "Come on, let's go get some gas before your parents wake up and freak out."   

We ran home as fast as we could taking the side streets and got back to the house out of breath.  My dad was still asleep.  Annie ran upstairs to her room to get money of her piggy bank.  Annie shared a room with Jackie who walked into the living room rubbing her eyes.  "What are you guys doing?" she said.

I pointed at my dad and motioned her into the kitchen.  "We took dad's truck and we ran out of gas," I told her in a low matter of fact voice.  She made a face and said, "Why didn't you wake me up?"

Pam rifled through the kitchen and held up four empty plastic 2 Liters of Diet Rite and said, "These will do."  We each grabbed one and set off to the gas station, including Jackie who had her winter coat on over her pajamas.

We ran down Arrow Highway bottles in hand and hid behind trees whenever we saw headlights.  The Upland Police Station was on Arrow and 1st Street so we turned down Campus to 9th Street and raced each other back to the gas station.

Pam handed the gas station cashier a couple of dollars.  "Put it all on number four," Pam said with a wink.  The cashier glanced at us with a skeptical look and shook her head, but punched it into the register. 

Pam stood in front of us as we placed the nozzle inside the bottles and filled them each about three quarters full.  We ran down the street just as the clerk stormed out of the gas station door and screamed, "You stupid kids, you're supposed to get a gas can. I'm calling the police."

We flipped her off and ran up Ninth Street as if the devil himself was chasing us.  We knew if the cops came we would be busted.  When we got back to the truck, we tilted the soda bottles into the tank one by one.   We jumped in the truck and Pam pumped the gas.  We all cheered as the engine roared back to life and  drove home.

My parents didn't catch us that night and we made sure the gas tank was full from then on.  After a year, the owners of the Upland house told us they were selling.  My sisters and I groaned with displeasure when we found out we had to move again. 

We were back in Ontario for my senior year of high school and it was a doozie.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Memory Box

Today is the fifth anniversary of my dad's death.  My dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer right before Christmas.  My dad, John William Mantz, Jr., died only three weeks later on January 14, 2006.

My dad was born in 1936 in Anaconda, Montana.  His family was dirt poor.  My grandfather was a German miner and my Scottish and English grandmother a cook.  My grandfather physically abused my dad and repeatedly told him that he wasn't his son.  When my dad was five, he and his little brother and sister were put in an orphanage.  Their parents couldn't afford to feed them.

My dad and his siblings were returned to their parents after four years, but due to his time in the orphanage my dad never felt that he had enough.  My dad was obsessed with food.  He bought so much food that it spoiled.  My dad gagged at the sight of rice.  He said it made him think of his time at the orphanage,  A chronic insomniac, he sometimes sliced ham in the middle of the night for breakfast the next morning.  The sound of the slicer was in my dreams.

My mom and dad met at a bar in Portland, Oregon called Elsie's Bar in 1969.  My mom loved cowboys and my dad always wore a cowboy shirt and jeans with his custom belt buckle.  My dad loved fiery Mexican women and my mom certainly met his criteria. 

They had both been married before.  They moved in together two months after they met.  My mom brought her son David who was deaf.  My mom had come to Oregon to enroll David in a special school.

From the very beginning, my parents had crazy, passionate fights.  My mom told me a story about a party they went to in Portland.  They both had too much to drink.  They started arguing and my dad knocked my mom's wig off her head.

One morning about six months after they moved in together, my mom went looking for my dad with her son David in tow.  My dad hadn't come home that night from the bar.  David ran into the street and got hit by a car.  He died instantly.

In March of 1970, my mom and dad moved to Great Falls, Montana to be closer to his daughters Barbara and Roberta.  My dad's ex-wife Tiny moved to Great Falls after divorcing her second husband and my dad desperately wanted to see his girls. 

My twin sister Jackie and I were born more than a year later in October of 1971.  I have a photo album filled with pictures of Jackie and I dressed in identical snow outfits nestled in my father's arms.

My mom pulled out a memory box this evening as I was writing.  I opened up the black cracked leather box and out fell a letter in my dad's neat cursive.  The letter was addressed to his father and dated 1969.  It talked about how much he wanted to move to Great Falls and how much he missed Barbara and Roberta.

I read the letter written to a grandfather I never knew and I could almost hear my dad's voice. 

As if he was whispering in my ear while I read.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Aunt Tilly's House

Tomorrow morning, I am driving my mom to Orange County in the morning to visit my Aunt Tilly in the hospital.  She has a collapsed lung and the doctors aren't sure if she is going to make it. 

Growing up, we visited Aunt Tilly on a regular monthly basis.  My mom took us out of school so we could go with her.  She hated driving to Orange County by herself.  On the way there, my sisters and I made faces at people through the dusty windows of my mom’s brown Pinto station wagon. 

When we fought she screamed, “Fucking cut it out girls!”  We knew to stop immediately or else we risked getting slapped.  Driving with my mom was always dangerous, she drove erratically and told people off as she went.  “Asshole!” she yelled when someone cut her off and honked her horn at them at least twice. 

Once she even shouted, “Fuck a duck!”  We had to pinch each other to keep from laughing out loud. 

My mom hated semi trucks, she closed her eyes if they got too close.  I couldn't stop myself and always warned her, “Mom, be careful, the truck is . . . .”  She usually turned around and glared me into silence before I could finish my sentence.  At least she opened her eyes.

“Ayyyyy,” my aunt Tilly said as she opened the door to her three bedroom house in Buena Park.  As I plopped down on the plastic covered sofa to read my book, she crooned, “Hola flaca (me), hola gordita (Jackie) y hola bonita (Annie)." 

You know tias, they have to differentiate.  It would be too easy to say, there goes Judy’s little girls.  No, instead she had to us fit into little boxes.  The skinny bookworm (“Jenny, mija, get your head out of the book and eat something, I made some rice”), the chubby black sheep (“tttt tttt ttttt-jackie, slow down, save some for the rest of us, Judy, you gotta watch this one, she’s got John’s genes”) and the perfect one (“ohhhh, anna, come here sweetie, esta bonita”) 

The thing is, these labels tended to stick.  Throughout our lives, we three sisters believed these labels, then rejected these labels. perpetuated these labels, then disproved these labels.  But, within our family, our roles tended to stay the same.  It’s easier to regress than progress I suppose.

Tilly smoked a cigarette every five minutes.  When she lit up, I watched the smoke as it rose like fog from the butt she had just snuffed out a minute before.  

Oh and don't forget her five Siamese cats.  The cats sat throughout the house perched on tall towers.  She loved those stupid cats, especially the meanest of them all, Tabitha, who hissed at anyone who tried to pet her. 

The story goes that Tabitha bit the tip of Tilly’s finger off and Tilly put the little piece of finger in a Dixie cup, covered it with ice and took it with her to the hospital where the doctors sewed it back on.  She kept the cat. 

Tilly wore these crazy mumus with pink backgrounds and purple flowers, she called them her housedresses.  With her blond hair piled on top of her head, she looked like Mrs. Roper from Three's Company.  She had a wild laugh, like a cross between a horse's neigh and a hyena's cackle. 

Whenever they started to laugh, I could tell that she and my mom were reliving their days growing up around the corner from Knott’s Berry Farm,  Back then, Knott's was a real farm.  My mom was fourteen when she met Tilly at the bus stop.  My mom had just lost her mother and she was lonely and sad.  She and Tilly became best friends.  At sixteen, Tilly married my mom’s brother Frank (otherwise known as Pancho).  

Tilly and my mom switched between Spanish and English.  When they spoke Spanish, they thought we didn’t understand, but I usually figured it out.  I can imagine my mom back then hunched over Tilly's dining table drinking her coffee, alternating sips with laughter.  She laughed so hard that I saw the back of her throat.  Mom never laughed like that at home. 

They had dirt floors back then, or so they said, and Tilly and my mom talked about all the crazy stuff they used to do.  Like how they used to go on double dates and how Tilly used to sneak into Pancho’s room late at night.  They talked about how my mom was the only brown girl in her class and how my mom didn't know English. 

They sometimes even talked about my mom’s son David who died after being hit by a car.  David was my mom's son from her first marriage and he died before we were born.  Tilly used to watch him for my mom.  He was deaf and always acted up.  

Tilly reminisced, “Judy, remember when he locked you out of the house and tore up all the money in your purse?  That boy was crazy.”  My mom got a look in her eyes like she was remembering his face, “I know, he was wasn’t he?” she replied.

My mom was a completely different person at Aunt Tilly’s house, calmer, younger.  It was almost as if my mom and Tilly became their little selves when they were together. 

And, I wish that I could be transported back to those days at Aunt Tilly's house, to see them together again, just like that.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Breakfast at Benji's

My mom is quitting her waitress job this week and moving in with us.   We now have a matching set of moms because my mother-in-law already lives with us. 

My mom has worked at the same Chinese restaurant in Ontario since I was little.  It's called Yanghzee's and serves Cantonese food.  Growing up, we always waited up for my mom to come home with a bag of broken almond cookies. 

It's the end of an era for my mom who is seventy years old.  She should have quit waitressing years ago.   The last time I stopped by to have lunch, I watched her run around from table to table.  "That's my daughter Jenny," she said to her customers as she refilled their water.  "She's one of the twins, the lawyer one."

I know what it's like to waitress because I did it for more than ten years, up until my first year of law school.  Name a restaurant and I probably worked there.  I worked at Mexican restaurants, sports bars, barbecue pits, and a coffee shop or two.  I even worked at a hotel and delivered room service.  It freaked me out.  I hated waiting in a room while a man in his robe searched for his wallet.  I have seen way too many movies to do that for long.  I quit after a month.   

I still have waitress nightmares where I am working all by myself with thirty tables.  When I wake up, I have to shake myself  and remind myself that it's not real.   

I especially remember Benji's, a coffee shop I worked at in Upland in my early twenties.  The uniform was a peach polyester wrap around skirt, a dark green apron and a peach polo shirt.   When I think back to my waitressing days at Benji's it sometimes seems like it was yesterday, rather than almost twenty years ago. 

It was 1992 when I started working there.  I lived in an apartment complex in Upland on Benson and Arrow in a two bedroom with my nineteen year old sister Annie.  My friend and ex-roommate Melinda lived a couple doors down.  We had parted as roommates on good terms after Melinda moved her boyfriend Josh in which didn't match my single girl lifestyle.

Annie decorated our apartment in Southwestern pastels.  Our rent was only $567 a month because it was subsidized under some type of low income program.  Annie had the master bedroom with the attached bathroom and I had the smaller room.  Annie always kept the apartment and her bedroom neat and clean.  My bedroom was a mess, but Annie tolerated it as long as the common areas were orderly.

Annie worked at Zendejas in south Ontario.  Annie made about seventy five dollars in tips a night while I averaged about forty a shift.  I was forced to work at Benji's because I didn't have a reliable car and it was only about half a mile away on Central Avenue above Arrow.  I walked to work in my peach uniform and Annie usually picked me up if she wasn't working. 

I started out on the graveyard shift from nine p.m. until five in the morning.  On the graveyard shift, you served all the obnoxious kids and drunks on their way home from the clubs.  It was penance that you completed to get on the coveted breakfast or lunch shift.  I drank a lot of coffee to stay awake and got moved up early for good behavior.

My favorite person at Benji's was a girl I will call Dana.  Dana was a curvy Puerto Rican blond with green eyes and a sassy sense of humor.  She taught me all the ropes and we joked and laughed while we buttered our toast. 

One day I was working what's called a split shift.  On a split shift, you worked from twelve until three for the lunch rush and then came back from five to eight for a dinner shift.  Three to five was dead time where you clocked out and went home.  It should have been called the we're fucking you over shift. 

On that day, I didn't go home probably because I didn't want to walk and sat at a table and finished a book.  The other waitresses and regulars teased me and called me a bookworm.  At five, I went back on the floor and the time flew by.  My dinner shift ended at eight, but I stayed late and finished my side work.  After I cleaned and refilled the salad bar, I called my dad from the pay phone to pick me up.  Annie was working late that night.  My mom and dad lived about fifteen minutes away.

My dad answered the phone.  "Jenny, I can't pick you up right now," he said.  "I'm taping a movie."  My dad was obsessed with his VHS collection of tapes which he kept in a swiveling wood cabinet. 

"Fine, I'll walk," I told him and hung up.  I grabbed my sweater and made sure my tips were in my check holder in my apron.  It was a short walk and I got home in ten minutes because I had to go to the bathroom.  I unlocked my front door, ran to the bathroom and walked out to the living room in my bra and skirt.  I froze when I saw a man in our living room.  I had left the front door unlocked.

"Who are you?  What do you want?"  I said as I crossed my arms in front of myself.  I looked at my apron lying on the coffee table with my tips from the night.  I didn't know whether I should try and grab them.  The man was a young, skinny Mexican guy.  He looked at me with a strange, vacant look in his red, glassy eyes and said, "I want you." 

"Fuck", I thought to myself and gave up on my tips and turned and ran into my sister's bedroom and locked her door.  I grabbed her phone and locked myself in the bathroom.  The man pounded on the master bedroom door while I called 911.  "There's a strange man in my house," I said.   "Hurry." 

The dispatcher calmed me down and stayed on the line with me and within five minutes, an officer was outside the bathroom door.  The officer said to come out and that everything was all right.  My hands shook as I opened the door to him. 

The officer interviewed me once I put a shirt on.  My apron with my tips was missing along with my house keys. 

My dad showed up at the apartment a few minutes later.  He had stopped by Benji's to pick me up, but I had already left.  He said he was sorry and hugged me.   I pulled away and told him I could have been killed.  Even back then, I knew the definition of leverage.

The next day at Benji's, I regaled all the regulars who sat at the counter with my story and lucky escape.  I made light of the situation and acted tough.  "I could have taken that guy down," I told them. 

Later that week, Annie and I changed the locks.  We made sure we always locked the front door when we came home.

But the feeling I got while I waited in the bathroom, the feeling that I was all alone, didn't go away for a long time.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

A Girl's Hunger

Food is love, it is comfort, it is joy, it is sadness. Food is childhood. In short, food is who you are (another way of saying the oft repeated phrase, you are what you eat).

My favorite food memoir is a book called "Toast: A Boy's Hunger" by Nigel Slater which uses the food of 1960s London to tell the story of his childhood and adolescence. Slater's boyhood food consisted of such unfamiliar things to this Inland Empire girl as crisps, lemon meringue, jam tarts and something called Cadbury's MiniRoll (the name alone sounds delicious). 

My childhood weekday breakfast consisted of either Lucky Charms or Fruity Pebbles and a side of Wonder Bread toast with margarine. Dad always bought his bread at the Hostess bakery outlet store on Holt and San Antonio in Ontario.

Bet you didn't know that there was such a thing as an outlet for baked goods. 

On the weekends, Dad made his famous (hmmm maybe infamous) pancakes with a smear of jam or peanut butter inside or fried bologna and eggs. I still have not figured out how he got the bologna crispy without burning it. 

My dad loved donuts and sometimes for a special treat, he would go to Yum Yum Donuts on Fourth and Grove and get the day old donuts for half off. My favorite was the glazed with strawberry jelly inside, but Dad always got the lemon filled ones by mistake. I would settle for an old fashioned and Jackie would eat a maple bar. Annie always picked the one with sprinkles.

The cafeteria at Mariposa Elementary served the typical 1970s California cafeteria fare of pizza, hamburgers, tator tots and Sloppy Joe's. The coveted role at Mariposa was to work in the cafeteria line.  They school only allowed sixth graders in the cafeteria. My twin sister Jackie and I waited in anticipation.  The summer before sixth grade we got the news that my mom was sending us to St. George's, a Catholic school on "D" Street and Euclid in Ontario. We never got to work the cafeteria line. My parents struggled to pay our tuition and we were back to public school after two years.

Once we hit junior high, we started bringing our lunch and Dad usually made it the night before because Mom worked nights. Dad loved the shock of our faces as we watched him make us a sandwich of hot dogs and pickles on white bread with mustard, or his dreaded potted meat with lettuce and mayonnaise or worst of all, spam sandwiches. I wanted peanut butter and jelly. But damn, I miss those hot dog sandwiches as an adult.

Dinner depended on who cooked. Mom's specialty was taco night. She sauteed ground beef with tomato sauce and served it with shredded lettuce, cheese and tomatoes in small glass blows with tortillas on the side. She made a mean Mexican rice with lots of garlic and salt (the trick is to fry the rice with oil and leave it alone to simmer with the red sauce).

Being German, Dad's top meals were meatloaf with a ketchup glaze on top, pork chops and applesauce and his legendary overcooked roast. His roast was always well, well done and he boiled the vegetables until they were grey.  

I preferred a dinner of Kraft Mac and Cheese and mashed potatoes out of the box.

Our favorite fast food restaurant growing up was Pup N Taco. Pup N Taco was a precursor to Taco Bell. My best friend Melinda and I would ride our bikes over to Pup N Taco which was on the corner of Fourth Street and Vineyard. Melinda would order a couple of 39 cent tacos and I would have a flat crispy tostada. We only had enough change for our entree so we would drink water or share a soda (no refills in those days).

You can't forget McDonald's if you are going to talk about a 1970s and 1980s childhood. If we stayed home sick, the gift was a cheeseburger and fries. I groaned if Dad decided to get me Weinerschnitzel instead which was his favorite and always more of a gift for him.

My favorite afternoon snack was Melinda's tomato and lemon soup which made me pucker with delight. The best after dinner snack was my dad's salty popcorn. Dad popped it in a big pot with Canola oil.  Dad dumped the popcorn into a brown bag and melted down a stick of margarine and poured it inside.  It wasn't complete until he shook Morton's salt all over it. My sisters and I raced to see who could get the first grab of the hot buttery mess.  I can almost taste it. That popcorn is what memories are made of.

This whole story is making me hungry.  I think I am going to make me some popcorn in the microwave with my mother in law's unsalted butter and no salt, well maybe just a pinch.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Skeletons In My Closet

Recently, someone challenged me to write about something humiliating.  Maybe I am wrong, but I think I make fun of myself more than anyone and the barb is always pointed inward.  That said, I think this story needs to be told. 

There are some skeletons in my closet.  So many that if you looked inside it would look like a Halloween store.  I have learned to love my many skeletons.  To celebrate them even.  This post is about one of my skeletons.

I am a high school dropout.  I hate the stigma associated with it, but my accomplishments prove that transcendence is possible. 

I went from a depressed dropout who took her GED to the editor-in chief of a community college newspaper to graduating magna cum laude from UCR to a top twenty law school on a scholarship.  I graduated in the top twenty percent of my law school class and ended up at the largest and most prestigious law firm in Texas.

Add in the fact that I put myself through undergrad and law school working as a waitress and my story becomes almost unbelievable.  I am a fucking walking miracle.

Humility has never been one of my strengths. 

Truth be told, I didn't do it alone.  I had a lot of help along the way.  I had people who cared and saw something in me that I couldn't even see in myself sometimes. 

A journalist who saw an editor rather than a waitress.  A community college professor who saw a writer.  A law school professor who read my law school application essay and convinced USC to let me in with a scholarship.  A lawyer and his wonderful wife who gave me a job and even a place to stay for a summer.  A boyfriend (and future spouse) who motivated me.  My family and friends who simply loved me, despite all my flaws.

Of course, there was also God.  I am not a holy roller, but I have faith. I didn't always believe and until my twenties I called myself agnostic.  All that changed one semester while I was in undergrad at UCR.  I was so broke that I didn't have money for food.  Now, I hadn't prayed since my elementary Catholic school days and was unsure of what to do.  It wasn't pretty, but I got down on my knees and asked God for help.  Less than a week later, I got a letter in the mail stating that I had received a $5,000 scholarship.  It was as if Moses had put down his cane and turned it into a snake right before my eyes.  I believed.

God also has a sense of humor and made me a public defender.  So my so called skeleton now has a purpose. 

That's the thing, all of my skeletons have a purpose.  Every person on this Earth is made up of their blunders and mistakes.  I learned the most from the trial I lost where I believed my client was innocent not the ones I won.  It's the heartbreaking stuff that makes us who we are.

In the end, I am who I am, skeletons and all.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Silver Spoons

I was born with a plastic spoon in my mouth, the pink kind you get at Dairy Queen.  There were no silver spoons in my house.  My mom waitressed and my dad was a truck driver who loved his beer.

For most of my childhood, our family owned a four bedroom tract home in Ontario, California.  In a twist of fate, my dad mortgaged it to buy a bar.  A drinker owning a bar is never a good idea and the bar soon went belly up and like something out of a Dickens' novel, so did my parents finances.  In a sign of defeat, my parents filed bankruptcy and let the house go. 

Life changed for my parents when they lost the house.  My mom was furious with my dad.  She ranted and raved.  “It's all your fucking father's fault," she muttered in a bitter voice.  "I should have never signed those damn papers." 

They were forced to rent and found a deal on a three bedroom condominium in Upland, a city just north of Ontario.   If Ontario was a Budweiser like town, Upland was a Champagne type city although anything below Foothill was considered less desirable.  The condo was on "D" Street and Euclid right below Foothill and within walking distance of Chaffey High School. 

My parents fought hard and loud in the Ontario house.  The police were common visitors and their red and blue lights signaled our family's dysfunction to our neighbors.  Annie worried about moving to the condo because we shared a wall with our next door neighbors. 

My parents pledged that it would be different, but as quick as my mom could scream "fucking asshole", we were again the talk of the neighborhood.  I didn't care because it was my sophomore year and I spent most of my time hanging out with my friend Tracy. 

Tracy and I met in Chaffey's "YOU" class in 1986.  The "YOU" class was a cross between a psychology and sociology course.  Tracy sat a couple of seats behind me and I admired Tracy's style from the first day.  Tracy had light blond hair with spiked up bangs and she wore red lipstick and thick black eyeliner around her eyes like Siouxsie.  I felt like I wasn't cool enough to talk to her because she hung out with Mariella, a popular cheerleader who looked like Nia Peeples.

One day after class, Tracy came up to me and started talking as if she knew me.  She thought I was my twin Jackie that she had PE with.  We started talking about music and it turned out that we were both obsessed with the Smiths.  We had an instant connection, the kind that usually only happens in the movies.  I wanted to be just like her.

I remember the first time we hung out together.  Her mom picked me up in front of my condo in a blue Chevy Blazer.  When they drove up, Tracy's mom asked if my mom wanted to meet her and I waved off the question.  The day at Corona Del Mar was a dream.  Tracy's mom didn't yell at any drivers on the road.  We soaked up the sun all day and grabbed lunch afterward.  I didn't want to go home that night. 

A couple of weekends later, Tracy's mom took us to Hollywood and we went to Nana's on Melrose and I bought red monkey boots, a short version of a combat boot.  The next weekend, we went to Claremont and hung out at the Crystal Cave.  Tracy bought a pentacle on a long velvet string and I bought a necklace with an Egyptian cross symbol.  We spent hours reading books about astrological signs and tarot cards. 

Although it made me nervous, I introduced Tracy to my mom.  My friend Melinda always handled my mom's variations of moods with ease.  Melinda never held it against me if my mom told her to "get the fuck out".  I wondered if Tracy would be understanding about what it was like in my house.

There was no need to worry because Tracy handled it like a trooper and my mom's affection for Tracy surprised me.  Tracy always smiled at my mom when she came tired home from work and made conversation.  When my mom got angry, Tracy would just say with laughter in her voice, "Your mom's fucking crazy."   Then we went to my room, cranked up some Smiths or Pixies and made fun of my mom's expressions.

Later that year, my family received an invitation to my cousin Queytay's wedding in Orange County.  Queytay was the daughter of Uncle Poncho and Aunt Tilly.  Poncho was one of my mom's four brothers and Tilly and my mom had been friends since elementary school.  My dad hated Tilly and didn't want to go.  My mom said he had to go even though he complained that my mom's brothers talked about him in Spanish.

My mom said we could bring Tracy and we picked her up in my dad's beat up old pickup.  My sisters and I opened up the back to the shell and waved Tracy inside.  My parents fought the whole way to Orange County.  Tracy and I giggled in the back of the truck while my parents cussed each other out.

Tracy and I dyed her hair pink for the wedding with Cherry Kool Aid.  My hair was short and curly and we had colored it blue black the weekend before.  I borrowed Tracy's red lipstick which matched my monkey boots and Tracy applied my eyeliner so it looked like hers.  We wore similar outfits of concert T-shirts and black skirts with black tights.  Jackie wore a tight dress and looked at us askance and said, "Are you guys really wearing that?"  

When we got to the reception, we grabbed a table and my parents took Annie and went to talk to the relatives.  We noticed the bartender was a preppy twenty something guy with blond sandy hair.  Jackie sauntered over to him and struck up a conversation.  She motioned us over and he handed us a small plastic glass with a yellow liquid inside.  Tracy and I went to the alley behind the recreation room to do our shots.  We drank the kamikazes quickly and grimaced with the tang of vodka and lemon.  There were a number of guys hanging out back there, some in their teens and some older.

Jackie hung out at the bar talking to the bartender and his friend who was the deejay.  Tracy and I smoked cigarettes outside and we did a round of purple shots that tasted like grape punch. 

Soon, my head was spinning and we were out of cigarettes.  I walked into the recreation room and saw my mom's purse sitting on a chair.  I grabbed the keys out of it and walked up to the bar where Tracy and Jackie were joking with the bartender.  "Let's go," I said to Tracy.  "We need cigs." 

"You stay in case Mom and Dad are looking for us," I ordered Jackie who nodded her head in agreement.

Tracy had her learner's permit and I nominated her to drive.  Tracy was always a worrier, but I convinced her that everything would be fine.  She had a hard time maneuvering the bulky pickup through the complex.  We drove down the street and looked for a gas station and I told her to "flip a bitch" when I saw a 7-11. 

As Tracy made the u-turn, a car headed straight for us and I screamed.  Tracy swerved the car barely avoiding an accident.  We pulled into the parking lot of the 7-11 and looked at each other and Tracy said in a shaky voice, "That was close Jua Jua." 

We convinced a guy to buy us cigarettes and drove back.  We must have turned the wrong way because we made our way through a maze of streets before we found the apartment complex.

My parents met us at the front door of the recreation room and my mom grabbed the keys out of my hand.  We were caught.  "We were just listening to music mom," I said.  She shook her head and said, "Where the fuck is Jackie?" 

My uncle Poncho and Aunt Tilly walked over and asked if anything was wrong.  "Judy, calm down," my dad said with a slur in his voice.  I stammered, "I'll go get her."  Tracy's eyes begged me to hurry. 

I  found Jackie and told her, "C'mon, mom and dad are pissed."  We followed my mom and dad to the pickup truck.  My dad could barely walk.  We all piled in as he started the truck.  The truck refused to budge. 

"John, you're just fucking drunk, that's the problem," my mom screamed.  My dad threw his hands up in the air and said with resignation, "Judy, I can't get the car to go."   My mom's brother Roland drove us home that night in his van (we found out later that my dad had left the emergency brake on).  The drive home seemed interminable.  My mom yelled at us the whole way home.  I placed my face against the window and watched the cities roll by on the 57.

When we got home, my mom said, "You girls need to go to bed.  You are going to school tomorrow, don't even think about trying to stay home."

Tracy and I sat cross legged on my bed and talked for an hour before we turned out the lights and went to sleep.

In the morning my mom woke us up with a yell, "Get up you're late!" she screamed. 

To get her off our backs we got dressed and walked down Euclid toward school like a trio of misfits.   

We knew my mom had to leave soon for her breakfast shift.  We walked for about half an hour and when we were about five or six blocks away from school, Tracy looked at me and said, "You think she's gone yet?"  Jackie and I nodded in unison and we turned around and walked back to the condo.

Thankfully, my mom had already left.  Jackie went to bed and Tracy and I parked ourselves on the couch and watched "Alice Sweet Alice", a creepy slasher movie starring Brooke Shields.

We took turns dipping into my dad's container of Thrifty's ice cream with our plastic spoons.