The living room faced south. Except for one window, it was a box with vacuous white walls. The window, proudly identified by my parents as a “picture window”, occupied an entire wall. Standing outside, picturesquely assymetric in its placement, stood a large maple tree. The leaves of the tree used to turn, like ruby affectations on a crisp white diamond necklace, blood red in the cool Ohio fall air. Later in the snow, the tree stood like an old man; a peeping tom with wrinkled dark skin participating as we all ate Kentucky fried chicken, mashed potatoes & gravy, and biscuits while watching the TV. Everything happened in that Living Room. It became more lively during holidays when, through my mom’s hesitant, Catholic decorations, took on an atmosphere of a cautious celebration.
As best I can remember it was the winter of some year in the late 1960’s and it was all that I could think about. It seemed really wonderful– taller than I was high and constructed of thousands of tiny pieces just like the real Sears Tower. A perfect Christmas gift. I couldn’t articulate it then, but I was always pulled toward the tactility of things. My kinesthetically inquisitive fingers needed to touch things, test them out, put something indie of something else. Books and words didn’t speak to me.
I lay in front of our TV watching the commercial for the erector set – “it must be as tall as my Living Room ceiling,” I thought to myself. I always watch the TV while lying on the floor. This was because my two older brothers always got the couch, and my Mom and Dad each had their own upholstered chair. There wasn’t anything else for me to sit on, so I would commit to the floor. I always thought of the floor as my island. I would grab a pillow from my bedroom (which I also shared with my two brothers) and land directly in the center of the room. The carpet on the floor was this nubbly, tightly woven, modeled, monochromatic 1960’s wall to wall. Looking back now I see that the carpet was a domestic “fuck you”, so to speak, to the way my parent’s parents surrounded themselves with ornate, decorated, and patterned things. No oriental rugs or cherubs for my folks. Their house was a sparkling new democratically designed, suburban ranch.
The primarily brick house had a front facade with a careful, sparse smattering of horizontally cut, Frank Lloyd Wright-style stone which was rough in a very cautious, measured, and not too expensive way (this was Gahanna, Ohio after all). The interior front door was usually left open because my mom and dad bought a security glass storm door so that they could have the door open and let the sunlight in without worrying about bugs or thieves. Because of this, I could sit behind the storm door and watch our front yard, the old man tree and the bright blue sky. What security I felt – inside our safe prairie style house in suburban Columbus Ohio all while I watched my neighborhood. I think this is where I started my voyeuristic and control fetishes. Much like Captain Nemo from 20,000 Leagues under the sea standing apart from the world, judging it, but never really engaging it.
The glass storm door also meant that when I did unwrap my Christmas gift and build my 6 foot tall erector set of the SEARS Tower, other people, outside, could see how great it was, not to mention how special and unique I was for wanting it as my Christmas gift.
I still feel like I am sitting at my Mom and Dad’s glass storm door – watching the world – wanting them to see me and my Sears Tower erector set – but safely distanced from them to actually have to say anything. Even then I felt outside of the stream of life. I’d sit by the door wondering, thinking, and sleeping. I also felt secure that somehow the erector set of the Sears tower was a symbol of what a real boy would like. I mean, I really wanted the erector set, but I also wanted an easy bake oven and a Ken Doll. I wanted Ken to live in the Sears Tower while I baked brownies in the easy bake oven for all of my dinner guests.
Another one of my friends from the island of miss-fit toys was a Mickey Mouse record player. I remember how cool it was to pick up his hand (which held the record needle) and gently place it on the record. Ping, scratch, listen, and repeat. I played my Mom and Dad’s records from when they were in high school. The reason I know that is because when my Dad was feeling fun he would put on the same records on their enormous living room console record player and dance around in the Living Room. Usually by himself. Once he showed me his prized high school yearbooks. In them, there was a picture of him dancing at the St. Thomas Aquinas Homecoming Dance surrounded by what seemed like all of Columbus Ohio. My Dad used to be cool. He knew how to dance. People liked him. At least that what I thought. He also made sure to show me that he was captain of the football team. For my Dad, his records and it seemed – his yearbook – mattered.
My Mom was in the kitchen cooking. She seemed happy enough– I think. She never was drawn to pretty things that way I am. She had one pair of black high heel shoes she wore for most of my life. They were very beautiful with a matt finish, a pointed toe and a respectable heel height. Nothing too flashy or old-laddish. They seemed to me to be just the right amount of pizzazz without looking trashy. On really nice occasions she had this velvet, bright red flower chocker she would put on around her neck. To it was pinned a big red silk flower. As a child I felt like she was trying to hide her double chin behind the big flower – she never really liked the way she looked and maybe the flower made her feel pretty. So, in that way she did have a relationship with pretty things – but very few pretty things. The things she liked seemed to shield her, keep her isolated and disconnected – simple, black high heel shoes, the velvet & silk red flower choker, and that is about all I can remember. I felt sad that she didn’t have more pretty things.
The ranch house in Gahanna really didn’t seem full of stuff. It actually seemed empty. We of course had the huge console record player that my dad played his records on, and the couch that my brothers monopolized. The couch was pushed next to a built in planter-wall divider. The planter was made out the same horizontal stone that matched the outside decoration. My parents filled the planter with what seemed to me to be yellowish-green, sparsely leafed leggy plants. Our Living Room always smelled like dirt.
The reason that I remember my Living room so well is because my two older brothers were already in school and I spent the day with my Mom. My brothers farted, smelled and played football. They called me “Frankie” and I think looked after me because I was their little brother and I needed looked after. We all slept in one room, all on our own twin beds. The bed covers were solid red, white and blue cotton blankets. They had raised textile weave that made them almost like sandpaper when you touched them. It was not uncommon for us to wake up from a nights sleep with deep red lines on our faces from the imbedded shapes of the contorted bed coverings. Even today I don’t think of them as comfortable or things that I was attracted to. The bedcoverings were almost alien fixtures in my life – they hurt when you touched them and made fun of you when you woke up by imbedding red marks on your face.
I assume my intimate relationship with the bedspread may not have been so adversarial had I not insisted on wrapping the cover entirely around my neck so that Vampires wouldn’t be able to “get me” while I slept. I was convinced that the vampires I saw at the drive-in movie could not, in any way, navigate through that bed cover to get to my neck to bite me. My brothers did not have the same issues with vampires that I had. They didn’t seem to care about vampires, the red marks on their faces or the colors of the bed covers themselves. I don’t remember anything else in our bedroom. There wasn’t much to feel close to – nothing of mine.
All this was to change. Once I was gifted the Sears Tower erector set for Christmas –I would begin my life as a collector of fine things – of interesting things, aspirational things, and even though I couldn’t express it at the time – Pretty things.
I woke up on Christmas morning with the red cotton blanket kissing my neck. It had left behind its imprint on my face, slightly wet from the drool often a sign of a good night’s sleep. What was waiting for me downstairs wasn’t a SEARS Tower erector set. I don’t know why, but my Mom and Dad bought me an organ. I never asked for it. I couldn’t read music. I never played it. It sat in my empty room for years unused. My memories of a life with (or without) things officially began.
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