Archive for category: Fairly Odd Parents-Past

Observant on Day One

17 Jul 2015
July 17, 2015
My parents and me

Observant at a very young age, I was particularly interested in my toes.

I am nothing if not observant. I had to be, growing up in an irrational house, where, at any moment, the sublime could morph into the profane —and where a loved one could literally change overnight. (Sadly, I don’t mean figuratively.) It’s no mistake I became a photographer, always looking for the inconsistencies in human behavior, ready for any turn of events, no matter how unlikely they may be. Irony and synchronicity are not lost on me. And, when I think about it, my attraction to these details was preordained.

My mother had one ovary. And her gynecologist told her she would never have children. This was before fertility clinics, surrogates, and in vitro fertilization. This was also as ill-informed as the mid 20th century could get. My parents tried for three years before my mother became pregnant. And, after nine months, I was born this day many years ago.

But, as my mother got in the elevator to go up to deliver me who should be there but the very doctor who told her she would never have children. I was there, but I didn’t see his reaction. Yet, somehow, it stayed with me.

Midsummer and the Hitchhiking Ain’t Easy

21 Jun 2015
June 21, 2015
Hitchhiking with an American Flag

Not me (I never pretended to be a superhero when I hitchhiked). But close enough. In reality, I was alone and my flag was about a foot wide: big enough to see but small enough to avoid causing an international incident.

Today is Midsummer. Here in the States we think of it as just the longest day of the year and the beginning of summer. But people who live much nearer the Arctic Circle celebrate this day with gusto. After all, on the opposite side of the calendar they have to endure a dark day.

Forty-one years ago I was hitchhiking from West Berlin to Malmö, Sweden. There I would meet my friend and we would travel north to celebrate Midsummer with her friends. On June 17, 1974 I stood at the border of the city and the DDR (East Germany) with my sign. I had to get a ride all the way through East Germany; hitchhiking in the DDR was illegal. A Mercedes stopped to pick me up on Highway 5 at the border between West Berlin and the East German state of Brandenburg. The driver was a psychiatrist. But he spoke no English (I found that odd) so our conversation steered clear of Freud. Although, I could have held my own with Nietzsche since he was required reading in my college German class —in Deutsch!.

He was going to Hamburg and nicely let me off at a place where I would most likely get a ride north. I got to Lübeck but got stuck just outside the city. June 17th was a national holiday in West Germany, commemorating the 1953 workers’ uprising in the East. Holidays were bad days for hitchhiking: cars full of families.

This was the third time I’d ever stuck out my thumb for a ride. The first had come just weeks before when my Dutch friend dropped me off at the German border. I was a little nervous. By the early 1970s hitchhiking in the States seemed too dangerous and, well, I didn’t need to. But this was my odyssey and a budget one at that. My thumb was out and cars were passing me by. Then, one driver pointed his index finger down. I thought it was the European version of the bird and I was only too happy to return the favor. Only later, a more experienced and wiser freeloader, I discovered that was the handsignal that meant, “I’m not driving very far.” I’d just finished Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. And, indeed I was.

So, I was stranded on a forest road just outside Lübeck. Suddenly, I saw a VW bus coming my way and, yes, I could see it: U.S. military plates! I got out the small American flag I’d packed just for this reason. I was new at hitchhiking and didn’t want to overdo it so I stood there holding it just below my face. Waving it around seemed like overkill and who knew what terrorists lurked in those forests (yes, for those with short memories, America wasn’t very loved, even in the ’70s). The van stopped. Two American servicemen were on their way to the Arctic Circle to celebrate Midsummer.

I hitchhiked from West Berlin to Sweden in one day!

They were only going to Copenhagen that night. But they agreed to drop me off at the dock so I could catch a ferry to Malmö. (They’ve now built at bridge between Copenhagen and Malmö and the last ferry sailed in 2000.) We arrived just in time for me to catch the last crossing in a hydrofoil. I arrived in Sweden at 12:30 a.m., the sun just above the horizon.

A few days later I was hitchhiking north again, this time with my friend. It was 2 a.m. The sun was up and we had no problem catching a ride.

I’m Movin Out!

25 May 2015
May 25, 2015
Sony Sterecorder 230

My "portable" Sony Sterecorder 230

As my wife and I drove the nine miles from our house to my daughter’s dorm I said, “I hope that rug is gone. It’s not even ours.” I was in my organizing mode: how to pack up my daughter’s things as efficiently as possible and get them home in our car, including a small refrigerator. The rug belonged to my daughter’s roommate. She had moved out the night before and had offered the well-used industrial gray carpet to my daughter as a parting gift. Right. I know that ploy: pawn off the hard-to-move stuff on your roommate as a gift. I lived in a dorm. Some things never change.

It was a perfect day to move. The day before had been wet and rainy. The next day would be hot and humid. But today was perfect. My mood lightened as we drove the Beltway. We listened to the ’60s on 6 station on the radio. Friend & Lover’s Reach Out Of the Darkness was playing and suddenly I was standing on the roadside waiting for the Greyhound bus to take me to Detroit. It was June of 1968. I had just finished my last final exam and was on my way back to L.A. for the summer. Thoughts of the beach had replaced the angst of studying. And I couldn’t wait to get out of the Midwest. As my wife and I drove to the college, once again I felt that anticipation —moving from one world to another.

Moving out of the dorm was a one man job back then. My parents were in California. It was all up to me to pack. I was pretty efficient even at 18. I had two piles. Things I was bringing with me on the plane and things I would be storing at our family friend’s house in Detroit. Two trunks for storage. Two suitcases for my clothes and my Sony Sterecorder 230.

The Sony Sterecorder 230 was also a marvel of efficiency. By 1968 standards, its footprint was small and the speakers became the cover when you were ready to take it wherever you were going. It was a reel=to=reel dual track tape recorder. I could record hours of music on each tape. Philips had invented the cassette tape in 1962. But the quality was mediocre at best in the 1960s. My Sony allowed me to record much better quality and it was easy to lug around. Sorta.

So, I stood at the bus stop with my two trunks, my two suitcases, and my portable tape player. After dumping my storage, our friends delivered me to the airport. My Sony was much too valuable to check in as luggage so I took it as carry-on on the plane. I laugh now. Can you imagine? It was 1960s portable but it wasn’t small. However, it did fit under the seat in front of me. Barely. I’m sure it wouldn’t be allowed on today, let alone fit under a seat.

The rug was laying there when we arrived at my daughter’s dorm room. I took a deep breath. It was not coming home with us so we dumped it with everyone else’s rugs in the trash. But the refrigerator fit. Barely. My daughter, apparently inheriting my efficiency by osmosis, had done most of her packing and with the help of her boyfriend, we got out of there in record time. No trips to storage. No trips to the airport. She had her laptop and iPhone neatly tucked in her backpack.

I still have my Sony Sterecorder 230. It’s in the attic with my portable Selectric typewriter and those college trunks, now full of decades old term papers and “stuff.” There’s nothing like being efficient.

It Came From the National Enquirer

28 Dec 2014
December 28, 2014
John Carpenter and Adrienne Barbeau

John Carpenter and Adrienne Barbeau at the Playboy Mansion, early 1980s. © Jeff Gates

I don’t know what happened to Antonio Bay tonight. Something came out of the fog and tried to destroy us. In one moment, it vanished. But if this has been anything but a nightmare, and if we don’t wake up to find ourselves safe in our beds, it could come again. To the ships at sea who can hear my voice, look across the water, into the darkness. Look for the fog.

—John Carpenter’s The Fog

I’ve had two careers in my life: teacher and federal web wonk. But, I’ve had many, many jobs. McDonald’s garbage man and french fry maker, mailman, wedding photographer — you know, the jobs that often filled in the space and my pockets while I was trying to make a go of it. One of the more interesting fillers was photographing for the National Enquirer. Yes, that National Enquirer.

It was the 1980s. My friend, Donna, a writer who, like myself, was trying to forge her own career (she went on to become a well-respected writer) wrote for the Enquirer. It paid well and kept her on her toes. She often enlisted our group of friends to help out on her inquiring adventures. Oh, there was the rumor that President Reagan’s son, Ron, was a ballet dancer (and, with it, the 1980s innuendo that he must be gay). Perfect fodder for the Enquirer (the first part was true; the second not).

One day, she needed someone to photograph the actress Cindy Williams (of Laverne & Shirley fame) in Cleveland Amory‘s room at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Amory, a writer as well as a critic for TV Guide, was also an animal rights advocate. And my friend wanted me to photograph Williams and Amory for a publicity shot for Amory’s Fund for Animals. I was nervous and excited. As an art photographer I wasn’t used to the pressure of getting a good shot for publication. In fact, my artistic sensibility had recently gotten me fired as a photo printer for Joe Weider‘s Muscle magazine in the late 1970s. The images, I was told, were too good and not fit to print.

I got the shot and an Enquirer stringer picked up the undeveloped rolls of film. That was it, except for getting a fat check for an hour’s work. I was hooked. After the shoot, my friend and I went to lunch at a Hollywood eatery. There sitting next to us was actor David Soul. You might remember Soul for his 1976 number one hit “Don’t Give Up on Us.” What!? You weren’t even born yet? Well, maybe you might have seen him on TV Land, starring in that 1970s series Starsky & Hutch.

The Enquirer had just written a story about Soul’s arrest for beating his seven month pregnant wife and my friend leaned over to me and said, “If I can get a statement from him, I won’t have to work for a year!” She walked up to him and asked. Let the record show he declined, albeit with a salty profanity thrown in for good measure. She quietly backed away as she came to terms with having to work the rest of the year.

A few months later, Donna called and said she was going to a party at the Playboy Mansion and did I want to come along. It was work for her and I brought my camera. This is where we came to meet slasher king John Carpenter and his first wife Adrienne Barbeau, star of his horror film (and now cult classic) The Fog. I don’t know why the Enquirer never needed my photos (more than likely, there was no story there). And, going over some of my old negatives yesterday I spied this one of Carpenter and Barbeau. I had never printed it before.

Soon thereafter, my time with the National Enquirer started to fade. They asked me to photograph Sally Struthers (from All in the Family) in front of her personalized license plate that said “Tacky” (because she thought personalized plates were, well, tacky). But, they told me I would have to say I was from some other publication because Struthers hated the Enquirer. I refused. Even as a young turk, I had my ethics. So instead, they told me to go to a pre-school and take photos of children making funny faces. Well, that seemed within my ethical boundaries. I found a Montesori school in upper class Santa Monica but when I realized I was going to have to get permission from every parent, I wondered just how successful I would be. After all, it was the National Enquirer. What parent was going to allow their child to be photographed by that rag? Every parent signed. And, after that job, I called it quits.

I was born in Hollywood and this is my true Hollywood story: not quite film noire nor sensationalist like The Black Dahlia murder mystery. But the fog engulfing my own Hollywood years has lifted.

A Family Photograph

08 Jun 2014
June 8, 2014
Jeff Gates' family

My great uncles and aunts in Russia.

Like many Eastern European Jews, my paternal grandparents emigrated from the Russia in the early 20th century. But not all of my family left for the States. And, I suppose you could say they were saved from the atrocities of the Nazis because they lived under the atrocities of Stalin.

But, interestingly, my great Uncle Louie (“Unkie”) went back for a visit around 1931, when this photo of him and some of his brothers and his sister was taken (my grandmother Bessie, Louie’s sister, and another sister, Margaret stayed here).

This is an incredible photograph. What possessed the Bieber siblings (could I be related to Justin??) to pose in this way? It’s wonderfully theatrical, though no one was in the theater. From left to right in the back: my Great Uncles Yuri, Grisha, and Louie. In front are Zena, wife of Grisha (who, my grandmother’s daughter —my Aunt Selma— noted on the back of the photo, were later divorced) and my Great Aunt Fira.

In the 1950s my family was told not to contact the family in the USSR. It was too dangerous for them. I only know what happened to Uncle Louie. He saved his sister, my grandmother Bessie, from a destructive marriage by buying her a small piece of property in Los Angeles: something she could use to make some money to live. The lot, on the corner of Century and Airport Boulevards, ended up right next to LAX (and I see it every time I return home). My grandmother rented it to Union Oil where a gas station sat for decades making it possible to live a decent life after years of difficulties. It was an act of love by Unkie that saved her.

I remember him but I was just three years old when he committed suicide. He left no note and no one knows why he killed himself, although we have our 21st century suspicions. Just before my father’s funeral in 2000, I started to go into a private room to view his open casket, but suddenly stopped. I had decided I’d rather remember my father as he was when he was living. His sister, my Aunt Selma, pulled me aside as we stood outside of that room and told me the story of Uncle Louie’s funeral. Another open casket but they had conveniently covered the gunshot hole in his head with a yarmulke. Selma laughed. “Unkie would have been furious if he knew he was buried wearing a yarmulke.”

A Homecoming Back to Me

19 Jan 2014
January 19, 2014
2014 Rose Bowl Game

The 2014 Rose Bowl Game

I’m not a sports junky. In fact, I’m worse. I’m a fair-weather sports fan filed under the subcategory “College Sports/Only Schools I Went To.” And that means just football and basketball. So, I follow two schools, both my alma maters: Michigan State, where I got my undergraduate degree and UCLA where I got my MFA. Oh, and as a fallback, I will sometimes follow the University of Maryland just because I live in Maryland (I may follow it more in the coming years because it’s just about to enter the Big Ten, home to my MSU Spartans.)

That’s as sports-minded as I get.

Ever since I entered State I had hoped they’d go to the Rose Bowl. They had the year before I came in as a freshman and the thought of coming home to Los Angeles for Christmas vacation only to top it off with a trip to Pasadena was my most fervent college wish. Alas, they didn’t. Nor did UCLA go during my three years there.

Now, that’s not to say I had never gone to a Rose Bowl game. In fact, I did. January 1, 1970 I attended the 56th Rose Bowl match between the Michigan Wolverines (NOT to be confused with the Michigan State Spartans please) and USC. But there was a heavy cloud hanging over me that day.

I had flown home from school a couple weeks before, picked up at the airport by my father who suddenly suggested we go for a walk on the beach. There he told my sister and I that my mother was dying, she had six months to live, and that we were not allowed to tell her. It was a heavy burden for me to carry. And the thought of going back to school after the holidays, thinking I’d never see my mother again, was that cloud that seemed to follow me. I have written about this before so I won’t belabor you with details. My father was trying to do the best he could and thought that a trip to the Rose Bowl with friends of the family would help.

To this day that Christmas vacation has been hanging around me in one form or another. And I have devoted a large portion of my life working to put it in its rightful place: a sad memory and one that no longer held me under that cloud.

So, when MSU beat Ohio State for the Big 10 Championship this year (by the way, I turned the game off when it looked like Ohio State was surging —yes, I am that fair-weathered sports junky— only to be totally surprised the next morning to learn that the Spartans had won), I walked into the kitchen and boldly announced that I wanted to go to the 100th Rose Bowl. My oldest daughter, a gymnast, cheerleader, and dating a football player, immediately chimed in: “Me too!” So it was set. My daughter and I were going to go to the Rose Bowl. My wife and younger daughter were not even remotely sports-minded. Yeah, you know those spur-of-the-moment declarations. No thinking required.

The trip was on, then off numerous times during the next two weeks. The school ran out of tickets, those who had them wanted $1500 a piece, United Airlines had frequent flyer tickets available; then they didn’t. There were numerous parts to this puzzle that had to come together. But they never seemed to come together at the same time. I watched the game ticket prices fall on Stubhub (the aftermarket website that has become to “go to” for ticket deals to games and concerts). But not far enough. Finally, twelve days after my initial pronouncement, suddenly game tickets were going for a “reasonably” unreasonable amount. And just as suddenly, United frequent flyer seats during the busiest week of the year suddenly appeared. It was meant to be. I locked everything in. And we were set.

I was excited about the game. But suddenly, I remembered my last trip to the Rose Bowl 44 years before. This trip immediately took an extraordinary turn when it occurred to me that I could right a memory with a new one. Not exorcise it, but simply include a ying to that horrible yang.

When we arrived at LAX, we got the rental car and drove immediately to the beach. It wasn’t necessary to find that rock my sister and I sat on so many years ago, but I wanted to look out at the Pacific with my daughter. This present would stand in front of that past. I now had my own family and my own children. I’ve always tried to be there for them but this time my daughter was there for me. It became the new normal for me.

I couldn’t help reflect on this dichotomy throughout our trip. My daughter and I never discussed it; it just was there, sort of like that cloud many decades ago, only this time it was just a reminder. And, during the game I thought about sitting in that stadium years ago. I knew exactly where I had sat and I remembered how overcast it was that day. But this time it was sunny and warm and I seemed to be amongst lots of friends (even the Stanford fans sitting in front of us). And, it didn’t even matter if we won (although, I can tell you that if I’d been watching the game on TV I would have turned it off after the first quarter when Stanford led 10-0 —yes I’m still fair-weathered).

The facts were clear: I had survived that horrible time and made my way to something better. As children, we must rely on our parents to protect and comfort us. We have no ability to rationalize the real world: a world that often is as cruel as it is triumphant. We simply don’t understand. We only feel.

We won!

We all won!

Our trip to the Rose Bowl was more than just a trip to a great game. It was spending some quality time with my daughter. It was realizing just how far I’d come. It was a homecoming I’d made for myself, not back to L.A. —it was a homecoming back to me.

© 2001-2015 Jeff Gates ISSN 1544-4074