Way of the Turtle

Of all the shirts, socks, knickknacks, books, hand-lettered poems and office doohickeys I’ve presented to my father over the years of Father‘s Days, none of them counts for nearly as much as the little gray pebble turtle with green felt feet that I made for him in kindergarten or thereabouts. My father kept that turtle on his desk downtown at the county Hall of Records for the nearly 30 years he worked there; on the rare occasions I visited him on the job as a teenager and young adult, I feigned horror that he still had that thing, that it represented me to co-workers who might remark on it and innocently assume, when my father told them his daughter made it, that I was still 5. In my heels and crepe-cotton blouse I complained mildly, but in truth, inside, I was moved, as well as somewhat jealous of my younger self that would have made such a thing for my father without any thought or understanding about his tastes, his decor preferences, his views on amphibious wildlife, where this mysterious thing -- paperweight? piece of art? -- might go in what room. I made a turtle for him; that was all. It was enough.

My father responded to my confidence in kind, putting the turtle out and keeping it out for 30 years. Shirts and doohickeys came and went, and the turtle might have been the last time things between us felt like enough. It’s not that we ever had a bad or even a strained relationship, but from about the age of 12 I always felt a certain incompleteness in his presence -- words and questions hanging in the air that are never unwelcome, just unanswered. Each year Father‘s Day gives me another official chance to pluck it all out of the air and put it on the table, but I never do. Yet I never give up on the idea, on the endless possibilities offered by resolution; that’d be like giving up on the idea of writing a book, which feels at once like the closest and most remote thing in the world, the thing I‘ll do in an hour and the thing I’ll never do at all. Such ambivalence saddens and sustains me. It has for years. I‘m reinspired each time I see my father, as I did last Sunday, and anguished each time I leave because I know I have to come back, and back, to try again. Maybe that’s why I like journalism, which demands the full picture but consistently offers second acts: If you don‘t like the 2,000-word treatise you wrote last week about corn farming, if it didn’t say things to your liking, you can always write another one -- the anniversary piece, the recap, the update. In journalism there‘s really no end to the story.

My father’s early life wasn‘t exactly like mine, but it’s long been my template, my fallback position at those moments when L.A., my hometown, feels unbearably ahistorical and acultural. My father was born in New Orleans and moved here when he was 8, part of a seminal South-to-West migration of blacks who were tired of segregation and all things Southern. My father was the youngest of a large brood of brothers; his own father died when he was 2. He grew up quickly. He was serious and didn‘t smile much in photos. He worked as a kid, selling newspapers in the street and taking whatever other jobs he could find. He lived on the segregated Eastside (so much for the Golden West), which is present-day deep South-Central. Against his wishes, he went to Fremont High School in the late 1940s, which had barely started to integrate, and where blacks were being burned in effigy. My father says he ran home from school every day; he bristles when he hears anybody recalling the ’50s as the great age of American innocence or the cultural ascent of the teenager. He graduated from high school and went into the military immediately. He played jazz trumpet and served in the Air Force as a musician, playing “Taps,” among other things. He married my mother at 23. He finished college on the GI bill. He worked as a probation officer and then, after the Watts Riots and the convening of several blue-ribbon panels that pondered the problems of L.A.‘s growing inner city, he became a consultant for the newly formed county Human Relations Commission.

Because my father worked in the public sector, and because he had no real interest in climbing the administrative ladder, he never had a large office downtown, just a sort of extended cubicle with a door. With its clutter of papers (the turtle notwithstanding) and unlived-in look, it became recognizable to me later in my college years as a professor’s office, an intellectual‘s pit stop that reflected a certain disdain for offices and 9-to-5 routines in general. I also realized in college that my father made his own job and his own time, and that it could never have been otherwise. I started to admire him in earnest. He was a postmodern race man who was an advocate and a constructive critic in equal measure; he claimed to have no real friends. He didn’t seem to need them. He smoked a lot. He took his job seriously, to the point where he once took his briefcase with him to the bleachers at Dodger Stadium during a summer family outing. In his least guarded moments he called himself a “street-level bureaucrat,” and though he railed at the system, I never doubted that he essentially liked what he did, even if I didn‘t quite understand exactly what he did when I was younger and only regarded him as the father for whom I made turtles, and ceramic handprints, and tissue-paper flowers that smelled of glue.

I was somewhat afraid of my father, of his isolation and righteous anger, but was drawn to it more. I, too, began wanting some vocation with creative and political freedom and no obvious oversight -- maybe acting, maybe writing. I wasn’t tough like my father, but like him I wanted to be left alone, and I wanted to be heard. It was a paradox that may have driven my father to distraction during his career but that made perfect sense to me. I abandoned the idea of acting -- it required that toughness I didn‘t have -- and started writing publicly, for the post-riot Los Angeles Times covering the travails and modest triumphs of the black community: I wrote in a kind of delirium about everything from church rallies to dance troupes to construction-site pickets, all with my father in mind. Here was the vocation I’d sought, my own street-level appointment for life.

Since I‘ve been a writer, my father has talked to me as never before, describing the world that matters to him, leaking out his disappointments. I have vowed not to be one of them. He has retired from the county yet keeps working without breaking pace. I call him often to sound him out about stories or sources, and he always delivers. Each time I publish something, I wonder, often uneasily, what he’ll say. Sometimes he says nothing, other times goes into almost scholarly detail. He is never indifferent. I try not to be, either. Quite unintentionally he has taught me that apathy is the greatest offense. The only explicit piece of advice I remember him giving was about the importance of having options; he hated the notion of a person resigning himself to the circumstances in front of him. He hated acceptance, acquiescence, complacency. “Without options,” he would say, looking a little irritated at the mere thought, “you‘re boxed in. You’re through.”

I believe in options. I believe that though I never pursued acting I could still make it in the movies. I believe in time and opportunity that isn‘t there, or doesn’t appear to be. I also believe that if I were a waitress, and not a writer with reliably important things to say in a fairly large newspaper, my father would hold me to the same strict standards of observation and analysis. This year again I didn‘t know what to get him on such a frankly sentimental occasion as Father’s Day. I once gave him a turtle, a small thing that was plain and rough but fully imagined. As first stories go, it was a very good start.


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