The Play World: Helen Keller Writes About Vaudeville

[“The Play World” is Chapter 13 of Midstream: My Later Life, 1929, in which Keller describes her experience of vaudeville and the circumstances that led her to it. I lightly edited and hyperlinked it from a scan of the original.]

Helen Keller in her dressing room, 1920. Helen is seated before a table, facing left. Behind her is a row of many robes and gowns. On the table appears to be makeup, and her left hand, resting on the edge of the table holds a brush. Her right hand is holding a powder puff to her right cheek. Her head is tossed back slightly and she is smiling broadly as though enjoying playing to the camera.
Helen Keller in her dressing room, 1920

THE picture was not a financial success. My sense of pride mutinies against my confession; but we are the kind of people who come out of an enterprise poorer than we went into it, and I am sorry to say, this condition is not always confined to ourselves.

 

We returned to our home in Forest Hills and for two years lived quietly. But we were faced with the necessity of earning more money. The funds my friends had provided for my support would cease with my death, and if I died before my teacher, she would be left almost destitute. The income I had I could live on, but I could not save anything.

 

In the winter of 1920 we went into vaudeville and remained until the spring of 1924. That does not mean that we worked continually during all four years. We appeared for short periods in and around New York, in New England, and in Canada. In 1921 and 1922 we went from coast to coast on the Orpheum Circuit.

 

It had always been said that we went into public life only to attract attention, and I had letters from friends in Europe remonstrating with me about ”the deplorable theatrical exhibition” into which I had allowed myself to be dragged. Now the truth is, I went of my own free will and persuaded my teacher to go with me. Vaudeville offered us better pay than either literary work or lecturing. Besides, the work was easier in an essential respect-we usually stayed in one place a week, instead of having to travel constantly from town to town and speak so soon after our arrival that we had no time for rest or preparation. We were on the stage only twenty minutes in the afternoon and evening, and the rules of the theatre usually protected us against the friendly invasion of the crowds who used to swarm around to shake hands with us at the lectures.

In the nature of things a lecture tour exposes one to many unpleasant experiences. Our lecture contract required that we collect the money before we went on the platform, but that was seldom possible and we disliked to imply distrust by demanding payment. In Seattle we gave two lectures to appreciative Audiences, one in the afternoon and the other in the evening. The local manager told us he would not be able to pay us our share, which was a thousand dollars, until after the evening performance. He did not appear in the theatre after the evening lecture, and we had no way of getting our money from him. Our manager was not interested in a lawsuit so far away, and we were obliged to pay him a percentage whether we were paid or not; so he suffered no loss on our account.

This happened many times-in Dunkirk, New York; Meadville, Pennsylvania; Ashtabula, Ohio; and San Diego and Santa Rosa, California. In no case was the town responsible; it was the fault of the local manager. Once when we did demand payment and refused to appear when it was not made, the audience became indignant, and the next morning the newspapers came out with a great headline, ”Helen Keller refused to speak unless she held the money in her hand.” We decided never to put ourselves in that position again. Once when we spoke at Allerton, Iowa, a crowd came to hear us, and our share of the proceeds-we were to go fifty-fifty with the manager-was over seven hundred dollars. It was amusing to see how reluctant the men in charge were to pay it. In Vancouver we had so much larger audience than the local manager expected that he paid us twice as much as the contract called for.

My teacher was not happy in vaudeville. She could never get used to the rush, glare, and noise of the theatre; but I enjoyed it keenly. At first it seemed odd to find ourselves on the same ”bill” with acrobats, monkeys, horses, dogs, and parrots; but our little act was dignified and people seemed to like it.

I found the world of vaudeville much more amusing than the world I had always lived in, and I liked it. I liked to feel the warm tide of human life pulsing round and round me. I liked to weep at its sorrows, to be annoyed at its foibles, to laugh at its absurdities, to be set athrill by its flashes of unexpected goodness and courage. I enjoyed watching the actors in the workshop of faces and costumes. If I should relate ”the strength and riches of their state”-the powder, the patches and masks, the ribbons, jewels, and livery[]Abraham Cowley]; and if I should describe the charming bits of acts which were performed for me off stage I should be more voluminous than Who’s Who in America. I must be content to say I was often admitted to the dressing rooms of the other actors, and that many of them let me feel their costumes and even went through their acts for me. The thought often occurred to me that the parts the actors played, was their real life, and all the rest was make-believe. I still think so, and hope it is true, for the sake of many to whom fate is unkind in the real world.

I can conceive that in time the spectacle might have grown stale. I might have come to hear the personal confessions of my fellow actors without emotion, and to regard the details of wild parties and excursions with impatience. But I shall always be glad I went into vaudeville, not only for the excitement of it, but also for the opportunities it gave me to study life.

Some of the theatres where we went were beautiful, and most of them comfortable. Mr. Albee, who is at the head of the organization,   is a man of singular   ability   and   kindness   of   heart,   and he concerns himself earnestly with everything that promotes the welfare of the actors and the efficiency of their work. Very few of them are permitted to come into his presence, but his good will radiates through his staff from one end of the system to the other. We found most of our managers courteous, and some of them were beloved. I shall always be grateful to my personal manager, Mr. Harry Weber, who never failed us in service and loyalty. Mr. Albee is interested not only in the functioning of his mammoth machine, but also in the human cogs and wheels that make it go. Not one of these small ceaselessly moving parts gets out of order but he knows it, and makes every effort to repair it, whatever the cause or the cost. He has kept individuals in shows who are blind or deaf or crippled, but whose handicap is cleverly concealed from the public. An important branch   of   his   humanitarian   work   is the National Vaudeville Association [National Vaudeville Artists], which has ten thousand members. Each membership carries with it a paid-up insurance policy of a thousand dollars, and in Cases of illness, idleness, or other misfortune, everyone is sure to receive financial aid, no matter in what Part of the world he may be. The Association, maintains a sanitarium for tubercular members, and there are health camps in California, Arizona, Colorado and other places.

The audiences always made us feel their interest and friendliness. Sometimes many of them were foreigners, and could not understand what we said, but their applause and sympathy were gratifying. After my teacher had explained how I was taught, I made my entrance and gave a brief talk, at the end of which the audience was allowed to ask questions. Some of them were very funny. Can you tell the time of day without a watch? Have you ever thought of getting married? Have you ever used a Ouija board? Do you think business is looking up? Am I going on a trip? Why has a cow two stomachs? How much is too many? Do you believe in ghosts? Do you think it is a blessing to be poor? Do you dream? There were hundreds of them.

I am always intensely conscious of my audience. Before I say a word I feel its breath as it comes in little pulsations to my face. I sense its appreciation or indifference. I found vaudeville audiences especially easy to speak before. They were much more demonstrative than most others, and showed instantly when they were pleased. One of the queerest experiences I ever had was the first time I spoke from a pulpit. The audience seemed so quiet and the reading desk was so high I felt as if I were speaking to them over a wall. A similar experience came when I spoke over the radio. I felt as if I were speaking to ghosts. There were no life vibrations-no shuffling feet, no sound of applause, no odour of tobacco or cosmetics, only a blankness into which my words floated. I never had that bewildered feeling before a vaudeville audience.

Disability Pride Parades Matter

Disability Pride Parades celebrate difference, explode stigma and combat shame!

 

If you did not know that Disability Pride Month came to a close yesterday, you would be forgiven as, in NYC at least, it is only a year old. Mayor de Blasio declared July to be Disability Pride Month last year in honor of the 25th anniversary of the passing of the ADA. In a 2015 article by the NY Daily News, de Blasio was quoted as saying, “The Americans with Disabilities Act is one of the most important civil rights laws in history.”

And yet, although many improvements have been made in education, job opportunities and accessibility, disability seems not to be part of a larger celebration of diversity.

Literary and disability critic Lennard J. Davis puts it like this in his entry “Diversity” in the 2015 book Keywords in Disability Studies:

 

“Disability would seem naturally to fall under the rubric of diversity. Yet much of the time, when one sees lists of those included under the diversity banner, disability is either left off or comes along as the caboose on the diversity train. One could explain this negligence by saying that disability is just not that well known as an identity category; and that, when it is, disability will then take its rightful place along with more familiar identity markers such as race, gender, nationality, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and citizenship. One could say it will just take time and more activism and eventually people will be educated. Or one could say the problem is structural.”

 

Davis’ article explicitly takes up the latter thread, arguing that activism might not be enough to allow for disability to be fully embraced in the celebration of diversity.

A major reason for this is the perception that disability is something that, if possible, ought to be cured immediately, and avoided in future generations. Obviously this latter calls to mind some very unsavory issues of eugenics, but the point is that, for most people, celebrating diversity means celebrating a healthy body and mind, whose functions fall within the “normal” range–most people would not wish disability on anyone they loved.

Here again is Davis:

“The idea presented by diversity is that any identity is one we all could imagine having, and all identities are worthy of choosing. But the one identity one cannot (and, given the ethos of diversity, should not) choose is to be disabled.”

If diversity is a kind of empowerment, then disability would seem to represent its opposite. The very word “disability” suggests the powerlessness of limited possibilities for manipulating one’s world. As Davis puts it, “disability seems to be the poster student for disempowerment.”

Before leaving Davis, I’d like to say a little something about him. I first encountered his writings as a grad student studying 18th-century English literature, as that was his original field of interest also. From his work on the early English novel, he came to think about representations of disability in literature and began theorizing a field of study that he helped to create. The first Disability Studies program was founded at Syracuse University in 1994, and since then, many more have blossomed in the US, Canada, and beyond.

In 1996 Davis edited the first edition of The Disability Studies Reader, now in its 4th edition. That book, along with his Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness and the Body were my first encounters with an academic discipline that connected to my own work in fundamental ways.

Since my late undergrad days, I’d had the idea of studying blindness as both a metaphorical construct and a social phenomenon. Back then there seemed to be few people in the humanities working on disability as anything more than a literary trope., so I was pretty excited when I discovered Davis.

In the years since, I have left a traditional academic path and merely let that training inform and complicate my artistic/writerly work, and have only thought tangentially of my work as being related to the discipline of Disability Studies. Likewise, in the past ten or twenty years, the scope and, dare I say, diversity, of Disability Studies has blossomed. It is this blossoming as well as its difficulties that has in large degree reformed my work, though not my core artistic impulses.

I did not identify with a disabled community until recently–I barely even thought of myself as part of a blind community. A simple explanation for this is that I grew up as a visually impaired person who lived in a sighted world and, for many years, shame was a determining aspect of my sense of self. I launched out of being a visually impaired person (with no visual markers) into looking like a blind person when I was paired up with my first guide dog, Millennium. Even though I was visually impaired and probably could have done fine with a blind person cane, I refused that stigma, thinking people would treat me too differently. As it turned out, the world still treated me like a disabled person for the first time in my life and it made me very angry.

The “somewhat slutty, almost always drunken, angry blind chick shtick” was mine when I first started performing and of the three aspects of that crazy time, I would say the anger and its debilitating effects was most true. My poem, A Pain Named Dog is really about those long years when shame and anger ruled my life. It took many years and a lot of discipline to wrangle the pain into something worthwhile and not destructive.

The first time I embraced the blind cane was in my Yes we have no bananas dance sequence in The Star of Happiness, my one-woman show about Helen Keller’s time performing on vaudeville. Since then I’ve come to love my blind cane (Moses!) precisely because it is so unsexy and symbolic of helplessness, as I wrote about in Exploding Stigma.

I would certainly not wish my long and strange path into blindness on anyone, but I can’t say it’s not been a good learning experience! Likewise, I can’t say I prefer the pain of a long-degenerating eye disease to an imagined life without it, but I will say with Nietzsche, “I doubt that such pain makes us ‘better’ – but I know that it makes us deeper.”

This is all to say that although I am among those people who hope there will someday be a point when there will be no such thing as blindness, disability, degeneration of mind or body, for now, why not celebrate the chimerical nature of human bodies and minds?

That’s why I wanted to write about the Disability Pride Parade movement.

According to A Brief History of Disability Pride parades, the first Disability Pride Parade took place in Boston back in 1990, but they did not continue their pioneering work. Chicago jumped on the Disability Pride Parade bandwagon in 2004 and it is still going strong. Its 13th just took place on July 23rd, 2016. Other cities and towns which hosted (or will host) a Disability Pride Parade in 2016 include Philadelphia, PA (June 11), Trenton, NJ (October 7), and Nacogdoches, TX (April 16).

NYC celebrated its first Disability Pride Parade in 2015, and its 2nd took place this year on July 10. It was started by jazz musician Mike LeDonne, whose daughter was born in 2004 with multiple disabilities. On the DisabilityPrideNYC.org website LeDonne describes his inspiration thus:

“Even though she faces different challenges because of her disabilities she is the most beautiful creature on God’s green earth. It’s through my love for her that I started to want the rest of the world to see what I see and know what I know. One day a few years back, right after NYC celebrated Gay Pride Day, I asked myself why there isn’t a Disability Pride Day? Little did I know at the time that Disability Pride was already a national movement and an international one as well. I found that Chicago and other places already had a parade but not New York City? That just seemed wrong so I started making calls and taking it one step at a time learning as I went…. I’m hoping for a big party that not only celebrates people with disabilities but includes all people. A day to reject able-ism and worn-out stereotypes and replace them with a feeling of pride in who and what people with disabilities really are – just another diverse and beautiful aspect of humanity.”

This year it held the event in tandem with Sicily’s Disability Pride Parade, which perhaps suggests a future where the event will be celebrated internationally, lending it a universal solidity.

There can be no doubt that the Disability Pride parade movement is gathering momentum, but it seems to be in fits and starts. According to the Wikipedia page only 13 cities in the US have ever had a Disability Pride Parade, and sadly, many of these took place only one or two years (especially on the 20th anniversary of ADA in 2010) and then fizzled.

Perhaps the reason for this gets back to the structural difficulties of having Diversity embrace Disability. It sure would be nice if at least each state had a Disability Pride parade and even better if every town and city celebrated with a Disability Pride parade on the same day each year, like the 4th of July!

As the author of What’s Next? What’s the Point? Writes, the popularity of Disability Pride Parades is not a goal in itself, but a necessary step in a larger quest for acceptance on the one hand and self-worth on the other:

“Yes, popularity is important. We are happy to have the abled attend; we want them to attend and even participate. But the reason we want that is for them to hear the messages in those parades about acceptance and inclusion, because these attitudes and actions give birth to civil rights. Popularity serves our political purpose, thus we parade.

Beyond the parade that serves our political purposes with the abled audience lays a disabled audience that serves our social devotions. Ultimately, we parade for other disabled people, for they are our true audience. If disabled people who feel bad about themselves because society has taught them to feel that way see disabled people proudly parading down main street, then maybe they can learn to be proud of themselves as disabled people, and maybe even parade themselves someday.”

Cheers to that!

I knew no disability pride when I was growing into being a disabled person. These days, accessibility and disability seem to be almost hot topics, but not quite. Although There is a growing interest in people with disabilities–from memoires of people with disabilities writing their own life perspective to people with disabilities representing themselves in the media–there is still a long way to go. Marching in a parade with cool outfits, floats and different bodies and minds, is just one more way to enable one’s human power and joy.

 

Helen Keller on Vaudeville Provides Fodder for a Lifetime of Art!

Yes! Helen Keller really did perform on vaudeville stages for four years (1920-1924). I stumbled across this odd fact while finishing up my PhD (in 18th Century English literature) and tucked it away for further investigation. That investigation–into Helen’s motivations and the reaction of others to her short-lived but startling career move–became The Star of Happiness: Helen Keller on Vaudeville?!

Much of the script of the Star of Happiness quotes Helen’s eloquent words about her uniquely glamorous life as a performer, her unenviable frustrations at not being taken seriously as a politically engaged and often radical thinker, and her poignant thoughts about living life as “an unmated.” Furthermore, as I’m wont to do, I complicated Helen’s words with my own perspective. As a blind writer, performer and doctor of philosophy I melded irreverent humor with reverential admiration in a patchwork of biography, jokes, philosophy, and the sound and vision scapes that call attention to the joys and superficialities of sensory experience.

Five years later and I’m still wrestling with Keller’s words, ideas and identity…

I’m happy to report that I’ll be presenting a portion of my strangely fictionalized adaptation of The Star of Happiness in the fall at Queens Council on the Arts with Boundless Tales‘ own five year anniversary celebration.

So here’s to more Star of Happiness weirdness, where Historical fact and schoolyard humor collide in my autobiographical treatment of Helen Keller’s time on vaudeville. It may no longer be a one-woman, two-voice, three-act theatrical production, but it will still grope towards an understanding of the blind spectacle.

Likenesses, A Family History Through Photos, Real and Imagined

My story Likenesses, about love after death, was first published in the Spring 2016 issue of FLAPPERHOUSE.

You can hear a fun interview with me discussing the writing of it with the smart and charming Ilana Masad on The Other Stories Podcast, episode 63!

 

And, if you like to listen to your literature…

 

[1981]

 

When they found Leona’s body it was curled about an old grey cat, also curled and stiff. The funeral director’s assistant (who did all the dirty work with the fluids and convex plastics to keep skin from sagging, while the funeral director–the artist, he called himself–fussed with lipstick and wigs and hands folded just right) said he’d never had such a hard time prying two bodies apart, said he’d almost given up and buried them together, “but of course one can’t find a casket shaped like that.” He was telling his cronies at the bar after work and they all laughed to hear how the cat’s stiff paws would not let go of the human hand. “The thing that gets me is how they must have died at the same damn time,” he said and drank his whiskey dry. “That’s some crazy bond.”

 

[Mama and Papa, 1910]

 

Mama was born Katherina Wiget, of the original Canton Schwyz Wigets who boasted a family crest of gold wheat on a field of blue. If she had been a joyous child, nobody in America knew, for her unhappiness blossomed with her youth when she was unceremoniously shipped off to distant relatives after her father married a younger woman to replace her dead mother (the young wife having no use for her predecessor’s children). At age twenty, Mama found herself working as a seamstress in St Louis, where she met Albert Beynon , another Swiss, but from the other side. He spoke no German and she no French. Their common language was their adopted tongue of English.

A young and charming rake, whom the Americans called Frenchie, Papa worked as a mechanic on the ford Model T for much of Leona’s childhood, first in St. Louis and then in San Francisco. Not the factory type, Papa managed always to steer clear of the assembly line, working independently as a mechanic who fixed cars for the youngsters who’d grown up wanting them, not making them. Having apprenticed in Geneva in the early days of the internal combustion engine, he was a tinkerer at heart. If he had not the temperament nor genius nor entrepreneurial spirit of a Ford or a Benz, he shared with them a great facility for putting things together and taking them apart, as well as a soft spot for the new and ingenious which found expression in his trade of mechanics and his hobby of photography.

In Leona’s photograph of them, Mama dwarfs Papa, whose head is nearly level with (and not quite as big as) her enormous breasts. Dressed in calico, she seems painfully aware of how ludicrous they must appear in the eyes of posterity and hence refuses to meet our gaze. She stares off camera and away from her husband. For his own part, Papa adored posing for pictures almost as much as he loved taking them. Hence he looks directly into the camera, seeming almost to delight in his new wife’s embarrassment. The result is a portrait of a couple whose eyes’ trajectories form an acute angle, symbolic of their married life.

 

[Papa, 1923]

 

Papa left on his first solo sojourn when Leona was thirteen. She cherished the photograph he sent back in which a swashbuckling Papa wearing tilted hat and lace-up boots is surrounded by otherworldly trees with knotted flowered arms that stretch to the sky, on the back of which he wrote, “6 November, 1923, Mojave Desert Love Papa.” Leona felt not the least resentment towards him for leaving (Mama felt enough for the two of them) and rather admired the rugged jauntiness of his likeness, as well as the cleverness of the timer-camera and the hand-built automobile, which, though they did not make it into the frame, add greatly to the charming picture of independence.

As the ’20’s roared along, Papa spent less and less time in San Francisco, so that when the Crash of ’29 hit, his absence was more fixed than his presence. The sporadic letters wrapped around small bundles of cash had also grown scarce then vanished altogether, but by then Leona was a woman. She took jobs cleaning Nob Hill houses to help support the family, which also included her little brother Arthur who, being eight years her junior, was almost more son than brother.

Mama had a tyrannical disposition which, if it were not for Leona’s being her equal as a workhorse on the one hand and impervious to black moods on the other, would have made the double-mother household unbearable. As it was, the two balanced each other out, and raised Arthur with much discipline and coddling respectively. Arthur rewarded their ministrations by being the first in their family and their acquaintances to go to university. Good at math and eager to travel the world like Papa, Arthur studied mining, a subject which had, since the Gold Rush days, become a marvel of science and engineering, while it maintained its adventuring mystique.

 

[Alcidos and Leona, 1939]

 

Working and helping Mama to Raise Arthur had left Leona no time for socializing or finding a husband until Arthur went to work in the Nevada City mines and began sending money home. By then she was no longer young–nearly thirty–so of course she thought herself very lucky when she found Alcidos at the William Tell, where they offered Swiss fare and nightly dancing.

Alcidos Goodin, of French Canadian ancestry, was born with surname Godin, but followed in the footsteps of several of his twelve elder siblings by adding the additional ‘o’ in order to avoid the unfortunate American pronunciation. A construction worker who followed WPA jobs from Minnesota to San Francisco, Alcidos proved a perfect gentleman and a brave worker too. He’d helped build the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge as well as its younger and more splendid sister span, which had opened just before Leona and he met. Alcidos would have good, if dangerous, work for years to come. Best of all, he also loved to dance and wanted lots of children.

Unlike the portrait of Mama and Papa, the photograph Alcidos and Leona had taken at the Golden Gate International Exposition shows two bright-eyed smiling faces, serene and confident in their future happiness together.

Thus, as you might imagine, the first time Alcidos returned, Leona did not recognize him. She was so big, the baby due any day, that she mistook him for an angel. She had been resting for a moment on the little back porch of their new home in Visitacion Valley, when the hummingbird flew to her and hovered, drenched in sunlight. Her heart sang with joy. The baby would be swaddled in love and happiness as voluminous as any babe could want.

It was not long after that, friends of Alcidos who had been working on the job with him, and his foreman knocked on her door. The darkness that encompassed them chilled her. It was an unthinking certainty of doom. Probably the foreman spoke first, clutching his hat, “How sorry we are to have to bring you this sad, very, very, sad, dreadful news…And, especially as you are in your condition, Mrs. Goodin…We are not sure how it happened…” He did not want to say it right out. He wanted to prepare her.

Strangely, she was suddenly the calm one. She asked, “My husband has been hurt?” Their hesitation and furtive glances told her what they could not say. “Alcidos is dead,” she whispered, to herself or them it didn’t matter. They were relieved. They continued as if it had been one of them that had braved the evil words. Leona let them prattle on, condolences and regrets piling one atop the other, a rubble heap as tall as at one of their construction sites.

Others, tongue-tied or talkative, came and went. The parlor filled with the sounds and scents of birth and death. Gifts of baby booties and tiny crocheted hats sat alongside impossibly dense clusters of flowers and baked goods. Cards of happy congratulations mingled with those pronouncing sorrow. Mama took care of her in the four days between death and birth, and remained with her thereafter. Alcidos Goodin Junior (Alci) was born while his father rumbled away on an eastbound train; his family wanted to bury him in their Minnesota plot. Leona was too shocked by the first loss to protest the second, but it developed that his body was inconsequential.

 

[Alci, 1942]

 

Alci’s first years passed while the Second World War raged in Europe, and many in Visitacion Valley (which resembled more closely the ranch it had once been, than it did the rest of San Francisco) went back to their roots to survive. One day Mama came home with a crate of chickens and soon thereafter bartered eggs for goat’s milk from the neighbors across the fence.

In this way, Alci grew up chasing chickens and looking, with his hand-me-down brass-buttoned coat and handmade knit cap, “just like Papa as a boy,” said Arthur chuckling, and snapped a picture of the funny little Old World child. When she saw the photograph Leona thought how her son had been born in mourning and was being raised in calamity, but that somehow his cheeks remained flushed with a happy rosy glow.

It was around then that Leona recognized her husband in the figure of a chicken. He had not been one of those Mama had brought home but rather sauntered into their yard from nowhere it seemed, and made himself right at home, laying more eggs than the other three together. Leona couldn’t say for certain when she recognized the chicken as her beloved husband exactly, but when it came to her, she’d known it as a fact. She’d felt that her dear Alcidos hovered near, watching over them, almost from the moment her son had been born, but now it appeared to her as a comforting and certain truth, as if an unseen hand gathered in all that was good and kept everything else out. From her moment of revelation, Leona lived with the father and the son in a trinitarian paradise, while Mama hung in the background like a reliable, if disagreeable, clock.

 

[Alci, 1958]

 

After the chicken Alcidos returned as a dog. Actually two dogs. Alci found the first on the street on his way home from school. The pup grew monstrous in size and in his devotion to Alci. For a few years he was bigger than the boy, and the two were inseparable. The second, a spotted brown runt, Leona herself found sniffing around her front stoop petunias. Leona realized that although Alcidos wanted to watch over his son, he understood that the boy had become a young man whose every care was not about pups. It was Leona who mostly took care of the second dog and she was grateful that it was small, almost no trouble at all. Her husband seemed to be conforming to their ever-changing situation.

During high school Alci (or as he preferred, Al) was hardly home. When he did come home, he merely patted the dog as he went to his room and on his way out again. He was very popular in school, a yell leader surrounded by other fine young men and a bevy of pretty cheerleaders. He told her, “yell leaders are as popular as football players but without the bruises.”

In his graduation picture he wears a sweet smile and glasses that enlarge his hazel eyes, twinkling with a touch of the devil, just like Papa.

Alci graduated from SF State with a degree in sociology and, after bouncing around the city with a few odd jobs, decided to join the military. Leona could not be surprised; the wanderlust was in his blood, but her future loneliness and uselessness blanketed her in a black fog. She forced herself to play a part, acting happy although her heart was breaking. A handsome young officer off to see the world, She did not want to dampen his excitement. On the day of his departure, his taxi arrived and she kissed him goodbye. When he was truly gone, she crawled back into bed and indulged in self-pity for the first and only time in her life.

All were gone and it was February. The previous February had seen the death of Mama. In February, twenty-three years earlier, her husband had died and her son had been born. How many anniversaries can a person cram into one dark month? She lay in her tiny creaky bed and cried until she could not cry anymore. She watched the ceiling turn gold to black. Looking back on that day with no little shame she thought perhaps she had feared her husband would leave too.

That night, Alcidos visited her as a man. He walked into their room just like he had done in the short precious year they’d had together so long ago and lay down next to her. She nestled into him and he folded her into his warmth. They did not talk for a long time and when they did it was in whispered breathless phrases punctuated by sweet kisses. He told her how he’d been walking the roof of the Rincon Annex, whistling a silly medley of popular “baby” tunes: “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby,” “Yes Sir That’s My Baby,” “When My Baby Smiles at Me,” “I’ve Found A New Baby,” and thinking of his wife glowing with their baby inside her.

“I was in bliss over the idea of having two babies to love when my foot stepped onto a loose board in the scaffolding. Heaven knows how many times I’d stepped on just such rickety things before and not gone tumbling over the side like a klutz! I worked on the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge and it was a post office on Market Street that did me in!” He chuckled and Leona let out a little laugh that turned right into a sob. He continued, “That time I went flying because my mind was not on my work but on my love. Do not cry darling Leona,” he hugged her tighter, “for it was meant to be. You see, I have been able to stay with you and our boy all these years. I have always been here whether or not you have recognized me.”

“Will you go overseas with Alci?”

“I will be with you forever.”

When Leona woke the next morning, her eyes were burning and she felt bereft of her husband all over again, but then she washed her face and bustled about the house, cleaning and humming those happy songs from between the wars.

That evening, when she opened her kitchen door onto the back porch, a tabby cat came running in meowing. She laughed and picked him up and kissed him on the head. Then she opened a can of tuna for him. That began the age of the cats.

 

[Alci and Demi, 1968]

 

Alci returned home to San Francisco, which he had done periodically through the years, but this time it was for a purpose. He planned “to get hitched.” He had received a promotion and, after five wild years in the Far East, would be living on a base in Virginia surrounded by families. He told his mother, “A wife is vital in a place like that. Everyone will be married. A nice girl will keep me out of trouble.”

He took the old high school sweetheart, whose name was Demi, out a few times, then got drunk one afternoon and called her at The Emporium where she sold cosmetics. Leona almost dropped the dish she was drying when she heard him say, “Do you have a dowry? A dowry, yes. How much will your father give me for you?” The wry smile could be heard in his voice and the woman seemed to understand he was joking, for Leona could hear her laughter through the phone line before she hung up.

She called him back though, and they went for dinner that night. Alci returned home with her and announced to his mother that they would drive to Reno on the weekend to tie the knot.

“You’re eloping? Can’t we at least have a party?”

“There’s no time Ma. I ship out next week. When we get settled, we’ll fly you out.”

In their wedding portrait Demi wears a white lace mini-dress with a hem appropriately short for the times and startlingly prophetic regarding their marriage. The bride appears shy, perhaps embarrassed by the brevity of the dress and the recent courtship, while Alci looks like a rooster preparing to crow.

 

[Michelle, 1976]

 

After five years of military sojourning and the creation of a girl child, they separated. Alci called to say that the marriage was kaput. It was a distant event since they were stationed in Holland, but still Leona felt it to be dreadful: the slow dissolution of her parents’ union by inherent unsuitability, the abrupt termination of her own by tragedy, and now the divorce of her son–Were the marriages in her family under some kind of curse? No, she decided, Alcidos and she were different, for their love tethered them despite universal laws.

One wonderful repercussion resulted from the breakup; the wife returned to San Francisco bringing with her the granddaughter. For that Leona was grateful. Michelle, that was her granddaughter’s name, was as clever and eager to please as Alci at her age and it was a joy to have her around. Whenever she visited, she would ask, “Where’s Kitty?” and would poke around until she found him. (Leona had named all the kitties Kitty so as not to slip up and call them by her dead husband’s name and cause people concern for her.)

Michelle loved to run around the house trailing string for the cat to chase. Leona chuckled at the way Alcidos teased his granddaughter. He clutched at the string and jumped and pounced. Then just as the little girl ran down the hallway, he pretended to lose interest so that she was forced to peer around the corner to see where he was.

Leona had a camera of her own now, a Polaroid Instant that her son had given her, and managed once to catch that sweetly expectant expression. After the image emerged, Michelle asked if she could put it up on the mantle with the other photographs, which stood like sentinels in little gilded frames.

 

[1981

 

Her last cat grew all white about the whiskers while he waited patiently, watching as Leona taught Michelle how to make Christmas ornaments, pancakes and apple head dolls. The little girl grew, but had not yet reached an age to leave her grandmother when her grandmother left her. One evening Leona lay on the couch curled around the cat, the cat curled around her hand, when she whispered into one furry ear, “Please Alcidos, do not leave me again. Take me with you this time.”

Above on the mantle, the family photographs would remain, innocent of death, the likenesses nearly as slender as the life lying coiled before them.

Snake Oil Essentials: The History and Science of the Much-Maligned Medicinal

Chinese Snake oil, from the erabu sea snake, has been a traditional remedy for arthritis and bursitis for hundreds of years, and seems to have been introduced to the U.S. in the 19th century when thousands of Chinese laborers were contracted to help build the Transcontinental Railroads–an estimated 180,000 emigrated to the U.S. between 1849 and 1882, according to Richard White’s book Railroaded.

The laborers “may have offered snake oil to fellow workers as relief for suffering long days of physical toil,” writes Cynthia Graber in a 2007 Scientific American article. She continues, “Richard Kunin, a California psychiatrist with a background in neurophysiology research, became intrigued with the idea of snake oil in the 1980s. He had been following early research on the importance of omega-3 fatty acids for health and it dawned on him that the much-maligned snake oil might be a particularly rich source.

Kunin thus went to San Francisco’s Chinatown, bought some snake oil, and had it analyzed alongside the subcutaneous fat of two species of rattlesnakes. He published his findings in a 1989 letter to the Western Journal of Medicine, but before we look at his findings, let’s see about these rattlesnakes.

Common in the American Southwest, the rattlesnake has been widely adopted into religion and ritual. In her classic book of anthropology, Patterns of Culture, Ruth Benedict describes the Hopi Snake Dance: “In the first set the Antelope priest dances, squatting, the circuit of the altar, and retires. The Snake priest repeats. In the second set Antelope receives a vine in his mouth and dances before the initiates, trailing it over their knees. He retires. Snake follows, receiving a live rattlesnake in his mouth in the same fashion and trailing it over the initiates’ knees.”

In another account at The Free Dictionary, the Hopi Snake Dance ends thusly: ” A priest draws a circle on the ground, the catchers throw the snakes in the circle, the Snake priests grab handfuls of them and run with them to turn them loose in the desert.” Neither account suggests the killing of snakes for medicinal purposes, rather, they are explicitly released.

That did not, however, deter enterprising nineteenth-century medicine showmen who seem to have fused the efficacy of the Chinese Snake Oil (supplies of which were probably easily exhausted) with the sacredness of the native rattler, added a giant dose of entertainment, exploited the great yawning need for cheap cure-alls in frontier America, and presto, you get Stanley’s Snake Oil, and Arizona Bill’s snake oil, and Wormer’s Snake Oil and Miller’s Snake Oil… There were a lot of them and although, as Wayne Bethard describes in his Lotions, Potions and Deadly Elixirs, “most of the old medicine show formulas contained no real snake oil at all,” they were nonetheless ubiquitous.

If we are inclined to scoff at the great popularity of the medicine show, we ought to first consider our own television shows that squeeze more than one pharmaceutical ad in nightly! Ann Anderson makes the connection clear in her detailed analysis of the rise and (supposed) fall of the phenomenon in Snake Oil, hustlers and Hambones. It’s a great read and loaded with colorfully dusty characters, but here’s one example to the point: “Arizona bill was an Indian medicine showman whose Welsh origins and British accent did nothing to damage his credibility. Billing himself as “The Benefactor of Mankind,” he wore fringed buckskins and long hair in the manner of an Indian scout. He told a story about being stolen by Indians as an infant and raised in their midst, all the while learning their miraculous herbal cures. His specialty was Rattlesnake Oil, a liniment that when rubbed on sore muscles would enable the most decrepit Indian warrior to keep on fighting.”

Arguably, the most famous and notorious snake oil was that of Clark Stanley “The Rattlesnake King.” Stanley had been a cowboy before he turned to peddling snake oil and paints a convincing picture of “life in the far west” before he gets to recounting the origins of his formula in his little book The Life and Adventures of the American Cow-boy. I would like to quote the whole damn thing, for one cannot help but be charmed by, for example, his defense of the “cow-boy’s outfit” against the people of the East who have the impression that it is worn merely for “show and bluster,” or the many lonely cowboy verse and lively cowboy dance tunes such as this one: “Gents chase and put on style, Rehash and a little more style. Little more style, gents, a little more style. First lady out to the right; Swing the man that stole the sheep, Now the one that hauled it home, Now the one that eat the meat, And now the one that gnawed the bone,” but I must move along to the relevant:

“After the round-up in the Spring of 1879 I started with some of my father’s best friends to the Moki [Hopi], Pueblos at Wolpi, Arizona, to witness the snake dance which takes place once in two years; there I became acquainted with the medicine man of the Moki tribe, and as he liked the looks of my Colt’s revolver and asked me to show him how it would shoot, I gave him an exhibition of my fancy shooting, which pleased him very much; he then asked me how I would like to stay there and live with him, I told him I would stay until after the snake dance. …I was so much pleased with the dance I decided to remain with them and see the dance again. I lived with the Moki tribe two years and five months, and during that time I learned their language and dances and the secret of making their medicines. The medicine that interested me most, was their Snake Oil Medicine as they call it. It is used for rheumatism, contracted cords and all aches and pains. As I was thought a great deal of by the medicine man he gave me the secret of making the Snake Oil Medicine, which is now named Clark Stanley’s Snake Oil Liniment.”

However much of Stanley’s story is true, I can’t say, but it bears a striking resemblance to those of other medicine showmen of the time. And, whether or not his original formula contained snake oil, by the time he came to making it in a factory in the East, there was not a trace of snake left, notwithstanding the rattlesnake holocausts: “I traveled through the Western and Southwestern States and met with unbounded success, and during the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893, as an advertisement I made my Snake Oil Liniment in full view of the audience, killing hundreds of snakes which were shipped to me by my two brothers from my home in Texas.”

In 1917 his oil was analyzed by the government and shown to contain mineral oil, some fatty oil (presumed to be beef fat), turpentine, red pepper, and camphor. Stanley’s “secret formula” was actually very similar to others of its kind. “Miller’s snake oil formula, a popular remedy during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, rode the tail winds of snake oil’s reputation. Millions of bottles were sold, which contained camphor, turpentine, coal oil, paprika, carbolic acid, oil of cassia, eucalyptus, cloves, origanium, sassafras, and methylsalicylate, and they honestly said so right on the label,” writes Bethard, but of course not everyone labeled their ingredients because, before the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, they didn’t have to.

“The irony is, some of the old topical formulas actually worked on superficial aches and pains,” continues Bethard, who is a bona fide modern-day pharmacist. The typical snake oil formula resembles today’s over-the-counter liniments, which derive their analgesic properties from the same chemical compound that makes red peppers hot. In addition, camphor and turpentine, used since ancient times as decongestants and cough suppressants, are active ingredients in present-day cold products such as Vicks VapoRub, which, though I protested loud and long against my mother slathering it on me, did, I have to admit, work pretty well.

In other words, Stanley’s fakery was about false-advertisement, not necessarily efficacy. Blame for snake oil’s decidedly downward spiral may have been more diffuse if Stanley’s Snake Oil hadn’t enjoyed the unfortunate distinction of being singled out for analysis. In any case, the public turned quickly from buyers of snake oil to ridiculers of the same.

Stanley did not contest the findings and paid his fine of $20, but from that well-publicized moment forward, snake oil became synonymous with false cure and quackery, and the image was thence cemented in the public imagination with snake oil salesmen peddling their wares in the periphery of countless Westerns.

It may have been this universality that prompted Kunin, in 1989, to have the subcutaneous fat of two species of rattlesnakes (Crotalus viridis and Crotalus tigris) analyzed alongside the Chinese snake oil bought over the counter. The rattlers were trounced. As Graber puts it, “Chinese water-snake oil contains 20 percent eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), one of the two types of omega-3 fatty acids most readily used by our bodies. In comparison, the rattlesnakes had only 8.5 percent EPA. And salmon, one of the most popular food sources of omega-3’s, contains a maximum of 18 percent EPA, lower than that of snake oil.”

This begs the question: in an age where omega-3’s are coveted and everywhere praised and gobbled up in fish oil capsules and flax seeds, how is it that snake oil’s reputation has not risen with this tide?

Graber suggests the answer may have something to do with the fact that, when Kunin’s article first came out in the 1980’s we were just learning the wide-ranging health benefits of omega-3’s, and despite the fact that several Japanese studies have supported Kunin’s original findings, the Japanese research is not widely known in America. However, one might argue that it is not easy to overturn an ideology, even with the help of science. Despite several stories inspired by Kunin’s findings–NPR’s Code Switch for example–the quackery of snake oil is far too engrained.

Perhaps the biggest problem Chinese snake oil faces is that, in the western mind at least, there is as yet no romance surrounding the Erabu sea snake and plenty around the American rattler. The old medicine shows did too good a job making snake oil synonymous with rattlesnake oil, and then with fakery by not even filling their bottles with the real thing. Still, I’m sure those red-pepper liniments packed quite a bite!