Welcome to Chucksville

The Last Hoorah
by Charles Reuben
Edited by Linda Schwebke

The photos shown below were created by Dave Niblack of imagebase.net. These photos are not related to the story. Dave's photos are here to add some much needed color to my gray text: Thanks for your support, Dave!

(This web page marks the beginning of a memoir that tells the story of a middle aged man who decides to spend most of his vacation time on cruise ships with his elderly mother.)

Part 1: Elation

May 1, 2001 9 a.m.

A package arrived at the engineering copy center this morning. I tore open the box and ran to the dean’s office.

“This is my ticket outta here!” I said as I showed off my new two-pound, 12 x 9-inch word processor to the interim dean and his cocky, black secretary. 

“Where’d you get that?” smirked  Dr. K, as he eyed the ergonomic keyboard with its four-line, black-and-white liquid crystal display and smooth, blue plastic body. “Toys-R-Us?”

“It’s not a toy!” I cried. “It’s an AlphaSmart 3000, and it can hold hundreds  of pages of my writing. It's got no moving parts, and it's powered by three double-A batteries that will keep it going for 700  hours straight. And best of all: it didn’t cost me a penny.”

 “How come you so special?” said Bertha.  “I’m two paychecks away from being homeless and paid $500 for a nine-pound laptop that won't hold a charge for more than five hours!”

“This is not  a laptop computer, Bertha," I said. “It’s a portable intelligent keyboard .  It doesn't do e-mail or surf the internet or do any of that stuff. It just holds the words that I type into it. And Alphasmart gave it to me  because I’m a serious writer who’s gonna write the great American novel and get the hell outta here.”

“The only serious writing you’ve been doin’ lately is fillin’ out your time card, and you been doing that with some poetic license,” Bertha said. “You ain't never gonna leave this place, honey; They gonna bury your bony white ass right under that copy machine.”

I looked to Dr. K for some reassurance.

“What can I say?” he said, smiling at Bertha. “Drunkards and temporary workers tell the truth.”

I picked up my little blue AlphaSmart and stomped back to the copy center. I could hear those two laughing behind my back.

“One of these days I’ll show you all,” I yelled.

Maybe Bertha was right: maybe I would  be making copies of grant proposals and dissertations until I croaked. Maybe, at 44-years-old, the only important decision I would ever be making from now on would be whether a photocopy ought to be single-sided, double-sided or stapled.

I begged the lady at AlphaSmart to give me that portable intelligent keyboard. I told her I was a young writer who needed a way to record his thoughts while riding on Amtrak’s bumpy Southwest Chief and cruising with Mom on  Carnival's cruise shipElation.

“Can you imagine,” I said, “Lots of wealthy people will see me typing away on your little computer, and they'll want to buy one. That's free advertising!”

I was told that AlphaSmart normally gives their demo units to people in third world countries but that they would make an exception in my case. They must have gotten tired of listening to me beg but hey! Begging comes with the territory when you’re making ten dollars an hour.

The school year is ending, and the School of Engineering is looking for a new dean. Yale snatched the old one away, and I’m glad he’s gone.Rumor has it that he wanted to shut down the engineering copy center forever. Dr. K hired me to run this copy center, and I don't think he'd ever close it down.  But budgets are tight, and I just might find myself out of work again. 

It wasn't always this way: I used to be a journeyman printer for a daily newspaper and made lots of money. There was a time when I could work for any newspaper I pleased!  The Internet (and Craigslist) put an end to all that.

After my unemployment insurance ran out and the money was all gone, I ended up being hired by the University of New Mexico to run the copy center at the school of engineering.

Don't get me wrong. I'm grateful to have this job. You can't be too picky in today's economy, but Lord have mercy:  Life is full of surprises.

May 5, 2001

Cinco de Mayo.  I ought to check out the festivities at the Old Town Plaza, but I don’t want to move my lazy ass.  My job at the university has sapped me of my energy and domestic chores are consuming what’s left of my free time.

Yesterday I got on top of the house to replace the filter inside my old swamp cooler — the type of evaporative air conditioner we use here in the southwest. While I was up there, I took a look around.

Most of the houses have a pitched roof covered with faded, T-lock shingles.  The 130 square-foot laundry room in the back has a flat roof, however.

I've always said that there are two indisputable facts of life: basements will flood and flat roofs will leak.

The ancient, black rolled roofing material that covered the laundry room had an alligator texture to it, and the seams were beginning to separate. It would only be a matter of time before that roof would begin to leak.

So I scrubbed the flat roof with a brush and cleaning solution and taped six-inch wide strips of fiberglass to the ragged seams where the old asphalt roofing material overlapped. Then, using a paintbrush, I applied several coats of thick black sealer over the fiberglass strips and let them dry.

I spread four layers of sky-blue primer over the entire 130 square-foot section using a paint roller — that’s how much elastomeric paint is inthe five-gallon container I bought on clearance at Lowe’s Home Improvement Center: I got $48 worth of primer for only $23 — such a deal.

Have you ever tried to carry a five-gallon, 50-pound container up a high ladder? I could have fallen and broken my neck! I swear  I will never, ever  buy a five-gallon container of anything again. From  now on, I'll pay a little extra and buy small one-gallon cans that can be easily transported up and down the roof.

Which is exactly  what I did for the final topcoat. Three gallons of expensive elastomeric top coat cost me $13 each, a hefty discount since I bought them at HomeBase, a home improvement store in the final death throes of bankruptcy.

My efforts paid off. What was once a hodgepodge array of rotten, rolled roofing is now a blinding field of pure white.  I would have taken a photo of it, but I figured that it would be a waste of film. It would be like trying to photograph the dunes at the White Sands National Monument. Such things are best left to the professionals.

Sunday, April 6, 2001

It’s a beautiful, sunny morning in Old Town. Not a cloud in the sky nor the whisper of wind.

Molly, the dingo mutt that Frida and I rescued from the pound, has gone on a hunger strike. She refuses to eat her dog food unless it is mixed with people food. Frida has taken a strong position against feeding her table scraps, and now Molly won’t eat anything at all!

This is ridiculous. I’ve always been one to spoil my dogs with whatever it takes to keep them happy, but everything's been different since Frida moved in.

If I were a dog, I wouldn’t want to eat that dry dog food either, but I’m not going to go against Frida on this one. I am preparing to take a vacation in a few days, and I don’t want to leave home on a sour note.

Poor dog.  She’s staring at me with the most forlorn eyes.

 Molly finally gave up on the prospects of finding chicken in her food, and very reluctantly ate her kibbles. She must have been very hungry. She left a few nuggets at the bottom of her bowl as if to say screw you , but Frida says that she'll forgive us after she gets her little Sunday pancakes.

That’s what I’m waiting for — Sunday pancakes. It’s pretty much of a tradition around here, except when I’ve been bad, which is, like always . Frida and I have been together now for over five years, and no woman has ever lived with me for so long. Frida says I am not easy to live with, and I say . . . oh never mind.

So there's Frida at the counter, slaving away at the pancake mix. In the background, the stereo is playing her medieval music, and the griddle is getting hot. This is going to be yummy.

After lunch, I’m going to have to see about convincing Frida to cut my hair and trim my beard. Mother will never forgive me if I don’t take care of these details before I leave town.

It’s been a long day, and I haven’t really done much of anything. We finally got zone three up and running in the backyard. Zone three is the third and final segment of my jimmy-rigged irrigation system that I call the “Very Large Array of Garden Hoses.”

My irrigation system has cheap electric valves, a timer and an elaborate delivery system made of garden and soaker hoses that are spliced together with hose clamps and tube connectors I found in the shed. It works well. Now Frida needs to fill in the old fire pit with compost and dirt and plant this year’s tomatoes while I'm away, gallivanting with my mom.

Frida just proudly announced that she has figured out a way to get Molly to eat all her dry dog food. She achieved this feat by mixing a dollop of fancy canned dog food dissolved in water with the kibbles. I forgot all about that can of dog food. It must be ancient. Must have been from way back when my blond Labrador was dying, and I used it to disguise her pills so she would eat them without kicking up a fuss. 

Tuesday, May 8, 2001

The semester draws to an end, and I had a helluva time running the commencement program. I picked 80-pound  “Royal Fiber” cover stock for the cover because it was oh so lovely, but the paper was also, unfortunately, very smooth — when one program was laid down in the finisher, the other program slid right under it without being properly offset.

The offset between one program and the next is important for the manual stapling process because it tells the bindery worker where one program starts and the next one begins. It’s going be a mess for him to sort out, and there’s nothing I can do about it now.

I had to work overtime on the commencement program, something I rarely do. My boss was upset because I did not get her permission to work the extra hours. Well, I’m just glad the job is finally done.

My muscles are aching, and I need to get over to Betty’s Bath and Day Spa for a soak as soon as possible. I get very stressed out before I travel. But this trip should be a whole lot less stressful than usual because of the presence of my AlphaSmart 3000 portable intelligent keyboard, a machine that lets me write anytime and anyplace. It weighs practically nothing, and I'll never have to worry about its battery going dead.

I’ve got a million little pills that are coming with me — mostly vitamins. I thought it would be prudent to photocopy the labels on the vitamins since I will be crossing into Mexico and will have to deal with border guards. Have you ever tried photocopying a cylindrical bottle before? It’s not easy.

The weather is warming up. Frida has the fan of the swamp cooler turned on. It circulates the cool night air through my adobe labyrinth making it much less stuffy and easier to fall sleep.

May 9, 10 a.m.

Going on a vacation is all about letting go. Handing the keys to the front desk and getting out of Dodge. But we also leave the office with some regret, and we may even harbor a secret longing that things will fall apart when we're gone. We like to think that anybody can do our job as well as we can and you know what, we’re right.

And so I give up one world and merge into another. I am a disruptive force, rattling the comfortable routines of family and friends. Mom once said that fish and visitors start to stink after three days so I always try to be on my best behavior.

I spent some time with that temp, Bertha, reacquainting her with login numbers and the intricacies of the machines.

She’s a fast, motivated learner. She’ll do just fine. She doesn’t particularly want to cover for me but because of an oft-quoted line in everybody’s job description that says, “Performs miscellaneous job-related duties as assigned,” she really has no choice.

Bertha hates being a temp, and I understand that because the University kept me as a temporary work for eight painful months before they made my job permanent.

It was a good thing I finished the commencement programs last night. When I came to work this morning, all I had to do was clean up a little and put some stuff away. Now I have almost a day and a half to finish packing for my trip. 

Noon.  I can’t believe I don’t have a decent pair of dark slacks lying around! The prospects of leaving home are starting to overwhelm me. I have a feeling that I need to pack lighter.              

Thursday, May 10, 2001

It’s noon and according to the Amtrak website, the Southwest Chief will arrive in Albuquerque an hour late. My clothes are scattered all over the living room as I make a final push to finish packing.

Frida is at her sacral/cranial therapy session. I’m on my third homebrew and starting to feel its potent effects. The living room is cluttered with my clothes, bags, shoes, etc. 

It's so hard to focus with the Beatle's Paperback Writer  blaring in the background. I just spilled beer foam all over the place. God, will I ever get out of here?

5:50 p.m.  I'm sitting by the window in coach on the Amtrak's Southwest Chief, wearing my blue and white-striped railroad engineer's hat. I was pretty buzzed after drinking five home-brews when Frida waltzed through the front door at 4 p.m. She was in a fairly blissful mood from her cranial-sacral session but when she opened the door, she was blasted with a rowdy piece of music from the “Buena Vista Social Club.”

She was also welcomed by my general disorganization which put her in a foul mood. I wanted to be at the depot at 4:45, but she insisted on eating first, delaying my departure for a half hour. I begged her for a piece of organic salad, but she wasn’t in a particularly giving mode.

We managed to get out of the house at 4:40 p.m. The whole downtown was undergoing a face-lift, and it was a real trial to negotiate the labyrinth of streets that lead to the ancient Albuquerque train station. It was like driving through a war zone, but we finally arrived at the depot.

Amtrak's legendary “Southwest Chief” is impressive. Emblazoned with the new, sleek logo and driven by five locomotives, it can reach speeds of over 100 miles an hour. But since Amtrak rents right of way from the freight trains that pulverize the tracks, they must hold their speed to under 90.

The train cars seem to be in much better shape than on previous trips. The upholstery is a cheery rose color, the carpet clean. The air conditioner is also working quite well, even while we are seated here in the station.

6 p.m.  and the train has not budged an inch even though it was supposed to have left a half hour ago. A call for those holding 6 p.m. dinner reservations has been made, but I can’t move until a conductor checks me in. I hope he comes through here soon because I’m starving!

Ten years ago, when I gave up flying and began traveling by train, I would have made a few sandwiches at home for dinner, but the dayswhen I lived in abject poverty and I refer to as my “refugee era,” are over. Now I travel in style.

So where is that conductor?

7 p.m.  The train finally lurched forward at 6:30.Shortly thereafter the conductor arrived and took my ticket. I then enjoyed a gracious dinner with a friendly elderly companion from Santa Fe, well-versed in travel by train. I ordered the barbecued ribs, a tradition on the Southwest Chief and my favorite entrée on the menu.

The ribs came with a small dinner salad, a roll, and a baked potato. Since it was definitely a special occasion, I ordered apple pie à la mode for dessert and coffee. Not many people were eating in the dining car. I ate a leisurely dinner, and the waiter did not pressure me to leave because there was no line forming at the vestibule. The dinner set me back $20 with tip.

The ride is bumpy but much smoother than years past when it felt like the train was holding on the tracks by a wish and a prayer.

This is becoming a classic Amtrak trip: clean, fully functioning cars, motivated staff, and gorgeous traveling weather.

We’re heading into the sunset now — the shadows becoming more defined as the sun sinks into the western horizon. The landscape is very green; the spring rains have been kind to us desert rats this year.

My ears start to pop so we must be losing altitude. The landscape is rocky and barren. Cows graze on the side of towering hills, like mountain goats. Summer is approaching, and the days are getting longer.

My fellow travelers don't seem very interested in my AlphaSmart 3000. Most people live in a "what-you-see-is-what-you-get" graphic world and turn up their noses at a device that can only display four lines of ASCII type at a time.

But I actually love this keyboard. Not only is it giving me something worthwhile to do in my dull hours, but it is also giving me somebody to talk to.

Problems that I thought were unsolvable, like trying to get Molly to eat, become  less onerous and even funny when I write about them on this device. I used to keep a journal when I was a kid. I wrote in narrow lined, spiral-bound 6 x 9-inch notebooks with heavy, multi-colored covers. My handwriting was very labored, and I took inordinate measures to be certain that it was legible.          

I have never been able to write in a moving vehicle. I always wrote at my little wooden desk in the solitude of my lonely bedroom. I labored over every word when I set pen to paper. Now, with this lightweight computer and its awesome, ergonomic keyboard, I am able to record every thought with ease and clarity and spontaneity.                

8 p.m.  I just set my clock back an hour and discovered, much to my horror, that I left my sleeping pills in the checked bags. I don’t know how I’m going to get some shut-eye tonight. I’m feeling exhausted now, but it is so hard  for me to get to sleep on any kind of a moving vehicle.

This truly sucks. 

Friday, May 11, 2001

4:30 a.m.  I somehow managed to survive the night in one piece, though every muscle in my body hurts after trying to sleep in those worn-out Amtrak seats. My new inflatable travel pillow helped me get comfortable and I managed to get a few hours of sleep, so I feel a little refreshed.

Breakfast in the dining car begins at five a.m. and I’m hungry. I drank a couple of canned smoothies that I brought along on the trip and suffered for it: they contained way too much sugar and gave me an upset stomach.

Despite forgetting the sleeping pills, I managed to remember my prostate medication, so I’m staying on track with those pills, and my urine is flowing in an unrestricted manner, thank God. I wish I had access to my allergy pills because my ears are all clogged up from our descent from 6,000 feet, which is Albuquerque's altitude.

I just yawned and tried to pop my ears open, which eventually occurred without incident. One of the reasons I like to ride trains is because my eardrums never perforate, which used to happen when I flew on airplanes — an unfortunate event that would land me in the emergency room.

My new pants are not OK, however. The button fell off sometime last night, but I did manage to retrieve it. I’d fix it, but unfortunately, my sewing kit is in the baggage car, along with my sleeping pills.

We are really hauling ass. The engineer is making up for lost time. We were sitting on the tracks for a half hour last night, 25 miles outside of Flagstaff waiting for a freight train to pass.  Flagstaff is the pickup and drop-off point for people going to the Grand Canyon. About 18 people got on the train when we arrived in town, but there is still room for those of us who are traveling alone to sprawl out on at least two seats for our long journey into night.

So, all in all, I’d say it was a pretty bearable trip so far, and it's time to wash up and get ready for breakfast.

6:30 a.m.  We just pulled out of Barstow, and the train is running about an hour late. I woke up with diarrhea, which I remedied by sitting on the can for 15 minutes. The bathrooms are tiny in these cars, but I’m used to that because my bathroom at home is small, as well. Fortunately, the Amtrak bathroom was very clean, probably due to the fact that the train was half full and the staff can keep abreast of the work. After relieving myself, Ihad two tablespoons of Donnagel, which has always done the trick in soothingmy troubled stomach.

I showed up in the dining car at five a.m. and was informed by the conductor that breakfast was going to be served at 5:30. There was a bunch of other people who also showed at 5 a.m., so we sat around the lunch car for a half hour until they let us in. "The train attendants do whatever they want," said a fellow traveler.

I would not say that apathy runs rampant on Amtrak, but there is probably room for some improvement. The Albuquerque station didn't even have enough seats on the platform to accommodate the waiting passengers. Perhaps 12 people got to sit down, and the rest of us leaned against an old gray stucco wall, the lone survivor of the wrecking ball that demolished the historic Alvarado Hotel on Feb. 13, 1970.

Downtown Albuquerque is going through a renaissance, and the city fathers are constructing a new structure by the tracks that will sort of look like the old historic Alvarado Hotel. Unfortunately, this is to be the hub of the new and improved bus service, and it is doubtful whether Amtrak will be able to share the space.

How can Amtrak expect to increase ridership when it doesn't take care of essentials, like rebuilding its old stations?

There are a lot of retirees on this train. But there are also a fair numbers of young people and families. I don’t hear much complaining eventhough the train is running late.

In the distance, I see snow-capped mountains. We are approaching California.

Breakfast was delicious, consisting of a “sunrise omelet,” potatoes, whole wheat toast, a bottomless cup of coffee, and delightful company. I sat with a retired schoolteacher, his wife, and a printer. This 70-year-old printer made the transition from the old school to the new by running a graphic design shop from home and has clients all over the world. It was fun to hear him talk about the old days.

“Talk about sweatshops,” he said as I nursed my Bloody Mary. “In the old days, we had to sit just feet away from a molten pot of lead and breathe in all those fumes. They didn’t have air conditioning in those days. Of course, we couldn't miss what we did not have.”

They did have evaporative cooling units for cars, however, and you could rent them. You stick those monsters on the side of your vehicle, saturate the padding with water, and drive. The warm air gets chilled as it passes through the wet pads and creates a fresh breeze. I wish they still made those units. I would buy one for my Volvo. Summer is here, and I just can’t see spending $600 to get my air conditioner fixed.

7:30 a.m.  Climbing, climbing, climbing. Next stop San Bernardino as we slowly surmount the hills. This Amtrak train is long, carrying quite a few freight cars on its very back, and it is all being pulled by four massive diesel-electric engines.

The hills are green, so I guess California has been getting a bit of rain lately. I overheard the public address system announce that the yuccas are in bloom, but I missed seeing them because I was in the bathroom, relieving my nervous stomach. I took a couple more spoonfuls of Donnagel, which should be kicking in soon, I hope.

My stomach doesn’t hurt that much anymore, but I still have diarrhea. I don’t think it was the food that did it. The food on Amtrak is always excellent. It was probably the smoothie with all that sugar that gave me trouble. Next time I must bring along a fibrous drink. I do believe they make it. FiberCel, I think it’s called. It’s made for older people. Well, I guess I am getting old.


We are approaching San Bernardino and the Riverside corridor. I could get off in San Bernardino and take a series of buses to within a block of Mom’s house outside of Temecula, but she wants me to go to Los Angeles first and meet up my sister Sophia.

There is quite a bit of stuff she wants me to take back to Albuquerque. Things from the past: pots and pans, pictures and remembrances of days long gone. I suppose I can sell some of it, give some of it away, and keep the rest. Or maybe I’ll just store it all away in the attic for a few decades.

Sophia lives on a hillside in a city called Mount Washington, outside of Pasadena. The house is about 10 years old and pretty well-built when you consider how poorly houses are constructed these days. Unfortunately, the house lately has had termite problems, water damage and a portion of the ceiling has caved in.

All this has somewhat overwhelmed my sister, and she casually mentioned to me that she may want to sell her house. Perhaps there are more problems than I am aware of, but they will come out in the course of the day.

I was surprised to learn that Mother is thinking about moving to Los Angeles and leaving the Riverside Corridor. She’s not happy at Sun City Gardens, and since she does not have a long-term lease, she is very seriously considering some options.

That’s great! Whatever makes her happy. So we may very well be looking at some apartments in Los Angeles tomorrow. If we can find something as good as what she’s got or better, there may be a move in her future. We’ll have to sort through the issues one by one, but I can tell by the conviction in Mom’s voice that something is up.

Entering San Bernardino proper. Lots of track houses and green postage stamp lawns. Then comes a poorer area with run down old houses and yards full of old, rusting equipment.

We pass alongside a field of yucca in bloom. Lovely off-white flowers reach to the sky, thanking the heavens for the recent, gentle rains.

The train is eight minutes away from San Bernardino and running about an hour late. Passengers with connections have been advised to get off at the San Bernardino station. Amtrak buses are waiting to take the passengers to the connecting trains that have already left Union Station. They must have people working overtime trying to figure out how to make these late connections.

8:45 a.m.  We are entering the city of Riverside. It’s getting very industrial now outside my window. I see lots of warehouses on the side of the tracks. The weather is so foggy I can’t see more than a few blocks. That’s what happens when you approach the ocean. It will probably clear up by noon.

It’s time to gather all my belongings and prepare to get off the train. Between eating, looking out the window and going to the bathroom, I have been keeping myself entertained by reading “Boy’s Life” by Robert R. McCammon, a mystery about a boy growing up in a small southern town. The book has an engaging plot and a lovely style of writing. Just the thing I need to keep  from getting bored. Emily sent me the book two years ago for my birthday. In addition to that, she sent me “Rocket Boys” and a very old version of The Boy Scout Handbook.

We’re leaving Riverside and starting to climb again. I see rugged mountains with sparse vegetation and roads running through canyons with big homes built on their crests. 

9 a.m.  We are passing through Yorba Linda, birthplace of Richard Nixon. Getting ready to enter Fullerton. The engineer paid homage to the ex-president for creating Amtrak in 1970. This bold move saved the passenger railroad from bankruptcy. The railroad was decimated by new passenger airlines that could get people from A to B in a fraction of the time.  

And now as we approach Fullerton, we pass by green oil derricks, unabashedly sitting beside apartment houses, pumping away like some kind of robotic chickens scratching for food.

11 a.m.  Sophia was waiting for me near the entrance of Union Station even though my train arrived two hours late and it took them 45 minutes to get my luggage out of the baggage car. My sister seems to be psychic when it comes to arrivals and departures, and her SUV pulled up moments after I collapsed with my bags in the sweltering humid afternoon sun in the middle of downtown Los Angeles.                    

It was graduation day at USC, and after dropping my bags off at her home in Mt. Washington, we made our way to her office at the Fisher Gallery so that she could attend a meeting.

While we waited for Sophia to return, Ace showed me some nearby condominiums that they were thinking of buying. Although we could not make it past the security gate, it quickly became clear that this would not be the place for their dog. Ace pointed out that Inu could easily jump the perimeter fence, and I pointed out that the people who maintained the beautiful soccer field across the way would probably not allow a 100-pound dog to crap on it.

The rest of the day went by quickly, and I was too exhausted to propose anything special, even go to a museum. The highlight of my day was visiting Jenny Holzer’s monument to the victims of McCarthyism nestled among the olive trees in front of the Fisher Gallery. This work of public art consists of stone benches and stone markers inscribed with quotes by “the Hollywood 10,” a group of screenwriters who refused to testify to a Congress in search of Communist influence, back in the 50s.

This powerful $250,000 monument, entitled “Blacklist” sent shivers up and down my spine as I read the words of great writers and performers who lost their jobs in defense of the Bill of Rights. Here are some of the quotes:

· ONLY AN ACT CAN BE A CRIME, NEVER AN IDEA (Ring Lardner, Jr. 1947)





Afterward, we returned home and Sophia realized that she had lost her wallet containing money, credit cards, etc. and she immediately freaked out. I assured her that she probably left it on her desk in her office, and, sure enough, that’s where it was , much to her relief.

We headed out to Pasadena where Sophia got a haircut, and Ace picked up a new pair of reading glasses. En Route I slipped Tom Waits’classic recording, “The Heart of Saturday Night,” circa 1975 into the CD player, and we all sang along. I used to play the CD for Sophia when she visited me at St. John’s College during my college years. She loves it every bit as much now as she did back then.

We spent time at a lovely bookstore named Roman’s where I picked up an amazing book of Herbal Remedies with Spanish/English names and lots of pictures for only $4.99. When it was time to go home, I left reluctantly, barely having a chance to check out the photography section and pictures of naked people.

I’m starting to dry out a bit, one invariable side effect of visiting my family. I only drank two beers yesterday. These were the stout homebrews that I brought Ace as a present two years ago still sitting in the refrigerator. They still tasted good.

Sophia has a big hole in her ceiling caused by termites and water damage. A knowledgeable structural engineer will need to be hired to shore up the devastated cantilevering timbers. The insurance company sent her a check for $7,000 to cover the damage, no questions asked. However, she may have been too hasty in cashing the check because estimates for repair are coming in quite a bit higher. She appealed and the Insurance Company sent in an estimator who told her that the damage wasn’t entirely their responsibility, so she is just going to have to make do with what they gave her.

Saturday, May 12, 2001

I finally got a good night’s sleep at my sister’s house for the very first time. Thank God she got rid of that old tortuous, backbreaking foldaway and replaced it with a simple foam-rubber sofa bed. I piled plenty of blankets on top of the bed and fell fast asleep with the window of her ground floor office wide open, the crisp delicately scented California air luring me to sleep.

I slept undisturbed, except for the sound of some barking dogs late last night. I was so tired I thought I was back in Albuquerque and wondered why Frida did not put the sound absorbing foam pads in the window.

I spent the morning at Sophia’s house waiting for Mom to arrive. She drove up at about noon, and we went out to celebrate Mother’s Day (one day early) at a fancy though reasonably priced restaurant.

Mom told me to order what she ordered, and we settled on a shrimp omelet for under $10. It was delicious, and the atmosphere was very pleasant.

Afterward, we all hung out at Sophia’s place. Mom had put together a few boxes of stuff to give me from way, way back. Most of it was very practical, kitchen utensils and pots and pans, things I might actually use.

I was sad that some of the paintings that hung on our walls on Jackson Ave in Glencoe were gone. I had the opportunity to grab them during my last visit, but chose to pass on them. I suppose they’re sitting in some Salvation Army thrift store. They were landscapes, painted by a competent hand, but sentiment makes it impossible for me to judge their artistic value. I don’t have the room to store them in Albuquerque, and I’m pretty sure Frida would not have liked them all that much anyway.

There is a part of me that regrets getting rid of the things of my childhood. As it is, my home is already becoming a shrine to my family. I have managed to retain just about everything that Mother has given me: lots of books, photographic equipment, Dad’s violin, etc. etc. I did not give anything away to date, but I did sell my brother’s old guitar to a friend when I was at student at the technical vocational institute. I never could master the guitar, and it just did not seem right to keep it lying around, gathering dust. Afterward, I felt a pang of guilt and betrayal to my family for having sold the instrument, so now I just keep everything in storage or on display.

A few years later I somewhat evened the score by selling the Selmer clarinet my father had given me to a needy high school student. I loved the clarinet but my deviated septum only allowed me a half hour of practice before air began escaping through my nose. It was uncomfortable and frustrating to play, so I reluctantly sold it to the daughter of a co-worker at the University, and, of course, I am now plagued with even more guilt.

Well, now I have 70 more pounds of family memorabilia to deal with, and I hope I come to terms with it in ways that do not make me feel guilty.

So, I loaded up all that junk in Mom’s car, and also a few boxes that Emily laid claim to. God knows what is inside those boxes, and I don’t really want to know. 

Mom looks great, even better than my last visit because she has been addressing some physical problems that have been ailing her since we celebrated her 85th birthday. 

I try not to let anything get to me. Ace says I can get along with anybody and that is certainly one of the nicer things he has said to me lately. I agree, but it is definitely something that takes a bit of energy to achieve.

Mom showed me a shortcut to her home. A pastoral route that cuts through the rolling hills of the arid Riverside corridor dotted with luscious avocado trees that cling to the terrain. The rock formations are huge out there, and they protrude from very green, grassy landscapes.

On our way to Sun City, we stopped at a Kentucky Fried Chicken and enjoyed the All-You-Can-Eat deal. Mom’s been having all sorts of chicken at her retirement home: baked, broiled but never fried. She found the chicken a refreshing change of pace, and the Colonel’s cole slaw, mashed potatoes and brown gravy further enhanced the meal.  

The family had been buzzing for days about Mom’s sudden desire to leave her new retirement home at Sun City Gardens and move closer to Sophia, but that idea was evidently squashed by Ace when he pointed out that moving closer to LA would not cut her expenses. Also, Sophia seems quite determined to sell her house (when the roof is finally fixed), so what is the point?

Mom’s health maintenance organization gives her the kind of care she might not find in a big city. She has a great primary physician who will sign-off on any specialist she desires. Now, that’s service.

Mom likes her apartment at Sun City, so all is well with the world. And Sun City Gardens itself seems to be in good order. There was, however, a recent scandal that involved a manager who sold the furniture of a resident who had died and the pocketed the money. That didn’t go over too well with the Methodists who ran the place, and some people got fired.

A shakeup like this can be hard for the residents, but Mom says things are starting to get better. The hot tub sure seems to be warmer and cleaner than the last time I was there. The pump that drives the waterfall needs to be replaced, and they say that part is hard to find. This is really a pity. The sound of the water had a nice way of drowning out the noise of the nearby freeway. 

I recognize many old faces in the dining hall and am starting to feel very comfortable, not depressed when I first walked into the place. I confess the place used to bum me out.

One thing my three sisters and I can agree on is that whatever makes Mom happy is the way it's going to be. The more we resist her ideas, the more determined she becomes. But everything is cool when we let her have her way and do exactly what she tells us to do.

Sunday, May 13, 2001

10 p.m. Aboard the Carnival cruise ship “Elation.”

Mom and I drove to the Port of Los Angeles in San Pedro and parked at their exorbitantly priced parking lot ($10/day). She was shocked by the cost but I had told her earlier that parking was going to be expensive. She did not believe me because I had paid for the parking during our last three-day cruise.

The ship was to set sail at 4 p.m. and we arrived around noon. Despite our early arrival, the line through customs must have been a mile long. We checked our bags with an eager porter and tipped him $1.

I caught the attention of a uniformed guard at the entrance of the cruise ship building and explained that my Mother, because of her age, needed to go to the front of the line. That was possible, he explained, but only if she sat in a wheelchair. Mom proudly refused, so he told her to sit on a bench while I waited in line and that  she could join me later when I had made some progress.

I patiently waited in line for just a few minutes, and then, much to my relief, Mom approached me in a wheelchair that was being pushed by a guard.

“There are times,” Mom said, “when one must abandon one’s pride.”

I took over for the guard and wheeled her to the front of the line. Maybe it was my imagination, but I could almost sense that the people we cut in front of were somewhat taken aback. I did not let that get to me.

Mom is no longer getting old; she is  old and discounts, excellent parking places, and other privileges are the reward for having made it to 90. I wheeled her to customs where they checked our passports, then to some people who inspected our tickets and issued us an identification card with a magnetic strip, then through metal detectors and on to a gangway that led into the ship.

The Elation is a so-called mega ship. It’s huge in every way imaginable and it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before. But like most spectacular things, one grows accustomed to it in time. Our cabin is big and luxurious. The bathroom is much larger than my bathroom in Albuquerque.

The ship is a sprawling labyrinth of dining rooms, bars, game rooms, casinos and performance spaces. Just about everything is gleaming and well maintained. They should be because the ship is only two years old. Carnival has learned from  experience, and I was impressed by very useful items I had never seen on my previous two cruises.

The room has a safe that is activated by the card that doubles as the key to the cabin, credit card, and identity card. It is a spacious safe that can hold all sorts of things, including my AlphaSmart 3000 keyboard.

The bathroom has clever little faucets that work quite well, the TV is huge, and the beds are firm and comfortable. The air conditioning system works like a charm, and the vacuum toilet could suck my dick right off, given the chance.

The promenade deck features a huge pool complete with waterslide and adjoining jacuzzi. Waiters are walking about everywhere, trying to get people to buy drinks. They are not the least bit pushy though. They even had to train me to simply say no, because I really have a way of beating around the bush.

Dinner was delicious, though from what I have seen, the food is not as good as what I have experienced on Royal Caribbean. But food alone does not an excellent cruise make. Royal Caribbean, I noticed, from an article in the LA Times, has a less than stellar environmental record, so notwithstanding gourmet food there are definitely other considerations in picking a cruise ship. For example, I have read that Carnival’s gray water system is so finely filtered and treated that it is almost good enough to drink.

The cruise lines have gotten a lot of bad press lately, and although I’m sure that we would all like to see them clean up their act a bit, the reality is that society is holding these ships up to a much higher standard than most of the ports they visit. Some of these charming ports of call, like Acapulco, release their untreated sewage directly into the sea when nobody’s watching.

There are documented reports of swimmers and surfers in Mexico and California who have developed horrible intestinal and skin problems because they came in contact with water contaminated with fecal matter and dangerous bacteria.          

Carnival is said to have a good track record when it comes to wastewater discharge, as well as water conservation. They post signs in the bathroom encouraging customers to reuse their towels a couple times. Frida would have liked that. She probably would have used one day's allocation of towels for the entire trip. I, on the other hand, like the idea of having a fresh towel every day. The custom is to throw the dirty towel onto the floor and the steward will replace it when he comes to clean the cabin.

Lunch was held in the buffet room. We had turkey, stuffing, yams, gravy and some of the best coffee I ever tasted.

The dinner was delicious. We were seated at a long table in the middle of the vast dining hall and although our company was very gracious and kind, Mom wanted a private table for two next to the window. I approached the Maître d'hôtel  and explained that Mom was claustrophobic and needed to be by the window. He told us to eat dinner in our assigned seat and that he would get back to us before the night was over. Sure enough, he accepted our request for a new table by the window.

I started the evening meal with a delicious wild mushroom soup, followed by salad,  an entrée of lamb ribs, and another entrée of fried shrimp. Everything tasted fine, but as I said, it was a few notches from being perfect. But did I say that the service was excellent? Those guys really work their buns off for us without a word of complaint. For example, no sooner would I finish my glass of water (for some reason I had drunk, like five glasses tonight) then our waiter would arrive with his pitcher of ice-cold water to replenish my cup. Service like that is almost unheard of in Albuquerque.

Mom ate well, too. Basically, the same thing I got, but no lamb. After dinner Mom told me she was exhausted and went to sleep, telling me to go out and have a good time.

And I did have a good time. The cruise director warmed us all up with a bit of public humiliation. I mean comedy at the expense of a very sweet lady, making fun of her absentee boyfriend.

“I want you to forget all about your boyfriend Jeff,” he began. “Knock, knock,” he continued. “Who’s there?” she responded. “Jeff.” He replied. “Jeff who?” she said. “Very good!” he returned, and that broke us all up. She got a bottle of wine for being such a good sport.

The evening’s entertainment featured a black comedian who did a very funny routine about husbands and wives. I may not be married but I could relate to it very well. “Marriage was definitely not made for men; it was made for women,” this married man with two children began. And then he launched into some very funny memories of strained moments in his relationship with his wife. Both husbands and wives (andI) could easily relate and he had us all laughing hysterically.

Following the comedy was the midnight buffet. Crepes, barbecued ribs — nothing really special compared to the Royal Caribbean Cruise, but very tasty nonetheless.

This marks the end of the first installment of "The Last Hoorah." Please click this sentence to go to the next installment of my story.

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