Elsewhere by Richard Russo


  It wasn’t a long book, but I found I could read no more than a short chapter at a sitting. Even then I sometimes had to put the book aside for days or weeks before I returned to it. Description after description, case study after case study, and every single one pertinent. How many times, going as far back as Phoenix, had I asked her why she was obsessing over little things when important matters demanded our attention? Obsessing was the word I’d actually used, but I was still astonished to encounter it in a medical book about a condition my mother apparently suffered from. And of course it was beyond demoralizing to see that so many of her “idiosyncrasies” were in fact quite common in the literature of obsession, that they were linked in some fashion to a general, irrational fear of contamination, the same broad anxiety that led so many OCD sufferers to indulge in ritual, repetitive hand washing. When I’d confronted my mother about obsessing over minutiae, I was merely recommending that she act rationally. It never occurred to me that, as this book suggested, she couldn’t, that something was preventing her and actually holding her reason hostage. In those afflicted by OCD, the book explained, the part of the brain responsible for decision making is thought to be impaired, which is why they have trouble with rational sequencing or, as I referred to it earlier, triage—this now, that later.

  Also under constant attack is the obsessive’s sense of proportion. All her life my mother had a profound aversion to anything yellow, even to flowers that came in that color. Daffodils in particular provoked in her a visceral disgust. Of course healthy people have favorite and least favorite colors. M&M’S all taste the same, but many people irrationally prefer the red ones. Normal people, however, don’t fear the red ones. They wouldn’t cull the red ones or become ill if forced to eat some. Nor would a healthy person come totally unglued if one day her favorite brand of tissue was available only in yellow, as my mother once had in a supermarket. A normal person wouldn’t stand paralyzed in the middle of the aisle, quivering with rage and frustration. Yellow made my mother sick to her stomach. She knew it shouldn’t and that it didn’t do that to other people. But that’s what yellow did to her, and how do you argue with a sensation?

  Indeed, it’s at the level of sensation that an obsessive’s anxieties often rule. From the time she was a girl, my mother claimed, she’d had an extraordinarily acute sense of smell. She regarded this as an asset, like twenty-twenty vision, though its consequences were uniformly unpleasant. She considered olive oil a foul, corrupt substance, and no amount of evidence regarding its health benefits could shake that conviction. Back on Helwig Street, when we sat on the front porch on summer evenings, she’d be driven indoors by “vile” smells that only she could detect emanating from a house across the street, where an Italian American family lived. They cooked in oil, she explained, her face contorting in revulsion, not butter, like we did. Her obsession with food odors intensified after she left Helwig Street and started living in apartments, where her neighbors were closer to hand, their kitchens on the opposite side of a thin wall. “What’s with your mother and all the Air Wicks?” my wife wanted to know the first time we visited her in Phoenix. Even then there’d been air fresheners in every room, two in the bathroom, all opened to the max. Every apartment my mother ever lived in smelled like the inside of a can of Glade.

  She was still relatively young when I first began wondering if the smells that tormented her might not have any basis in objective reality. Often the same odor that made her gag seemed to me quite pleasant, if sometimes redolent of spices and herbs she herself never used, such as cumin, coriander, tarragon, and cilantro. More tellingly, the offending aromas always emanated from the apartments of people she didn’t like anyway, as was the case with the Helwig Street Italians. In my own house garlic and olive oil came together in the early stages of a great many meals, and for a long time I thought only politeness had prevented my mother from remarking on the same smells there that elsewhere made her ill. Each time she recounted some new tale of oil or garlic wafting across the hall into her apartment, I wondered if this was a hint that I should refrain from using these ingredients whenever she came to dinner. Except in truth it was the exact opposite. Many of her favorite meals, the ones she most often asked for, were heavy with the very ingredients she claimed to loathe.

  It also occurred to me that there might be a link between these odor aversions and her lifelong devotion to frozen dinners. Back in Gloversville they’d made sense. At the end of a long workday, why would she want to take the time and trouble to prepare a meal for just herself? Furthermore, as she was always quick to point out, cooking for one was expensive. American food manufacturers packaged their products for families, not single people. But at some point I began to suspect it was really all about the odors, which she maintained were magnified in the small kitchens that were part and parcel of apartment living. Residing as I did in a big house, she gave me to understand (as if I’d never lived in confined quarters), I’d have no way of knowing that. By the time she was middle-aged, though, even her frozen dinners had become problematic, and she often confessed to dreading meals, almost as if the necessity of eating were itself somehow shameful. In her apartment she ate quickly, then immediately rinsed the aluminum container the food came in before crushing it and putting it in the trash. Next she tied off the garbage bag, even if it was only a quarter full, and hurried it out to the Dumpster or the garbage room, because otherwise, she explained, by morning the stench would be unbearable. Where other obsessives feared contaminated fluids or dirt, my mother seemed particularly focused on airborne contagion. She lived in terror of common colds, and when she caught one she always claimed to know exactly who’d given it to her. Invariably, the culprit was someone she didn’t like.

  As dispiriting as it was to recognize my mother on virtually every page of the OCD book, it was even more painful to recognize myself as her principal enabler. Because, like alcoholics and other addicts, obsessives can’t do it on their own. As they gradually lose the control they so desperately seek, they have little choice but to ensnare loved ones. My mother had begun that process back in Gloversville, by threatening on one hand that she might suffer a nervous breakdown if I wasn’t a good boy and on the other crediting me with helping to pull her back from the brink each time she melted down. As a kid, though, my enabling duties had been shared with my grandparents, who lived right downstairs, as well as, to a lesser extent, her sister, my aunt Phyllis. Moving to Arizona, of course, got me promoted to Chief Emotional Guardian.

  One of the sadder truths of childhood is that children, lacking the necessary experience by which to gauge, are unlikely to know if something is abnormal or unnatural unless an adult tells them. Worse, once anything of the sort has been established as normal, it will likely be perceived as such well into adulthood, and this is particularly true for the only child, who has no one to compare notes with. As a boy—and later a young man—I’d often wished my mother wouldn’t enlist me in her personal, highly private struggles, but I never saw anything really wrong with her doing so. To me, this seemed a natural extension of our old Helwig Street accord, our mutually acknowledged special relationship—that I would always be able to depend on her and she on me. In one respect she and I were fortunate. Compared with others suffering from OCD, she exhibited relatively few time-consuming rituals (like hand washing). What she did require was lots of bolstering (“bucking up,” she called it), especially when she suffered an actual or imagined setback. She constantly needed to be assured that everything was okay, that she was okay or at least would be once this or that obstacle to her emotional equilibrium had been removed. It never occurred to me, even as an adult, that such assurances could be damaging, that in offering them over and over I was making her situation worse, not better. My failure, or so I concluded, was that I didn’t offer even more of them; imagining this lack of generosity, born of exasperation, was my biggest shortcoming.

  What I couldn’t see was, however, clear to others. My father-in-law had immediately recogniz
ed that something was wrong, which was why he’d warned Barbara not to let my mother move in with us that first time. Over the years, as she wove herself more deeply into the fabric of our married lives, my wife also came to understand that I was aiding and abetting her demons. In fact, she warned me of this repeatedly, for all the good it did her. She and her father came by their wisdom rightly. Barbara’s mother was an alcoholic, and it was her father who, through willful ignorance and disregard of mounting evidence, had enabled her to appear normal to both outsiders and Barbara’s younger siblings. Of course Barbara had no more idea than I did that my mother had OCD. Even now she’s less certain of it than I am. But she’d witnessed firsthand what came of trying to reason with someone whose reason was compromised. And it was clear to her that by covering up for my mother when she came unglued, by giving her to understand that no matter what she said or did I’d never abandon her, by not insisting that she seek help, I was giving her what she wanted but not what she needed. She also understood that if my mother was trapped in repetitive behaviors, so was I. Indeed, I must have reminded her of her father, whose inability to intervene when his wife’s drinking spiraled out of control had been rooted in love, yes, but also in fear, not just that something terrible could happen if he interfered, but that it would be his fault. He wasn’t going to confront his wife because he couldn’t, and I wasn’t going to challenge my mother for the same reason. Which meant that Barbara’s choice was simple and stark and diabolically unfair: she could stay or leave. What she couldn’t do was alter in the slightest our doomed trajectory.

  NOT LONG AFTER Kate and Tom returned to London I got a letter from John Freeman, the editor of Granta, asking if I had any interest in writing about Gloversville—the real place, not one of my many fictional avatars. The magazine was planning a special “going home” issue, and a couple days earlier, on the New York State Thruway, he’d passed the Gloversville exit and thought of me. If I were to take on the assignment, Freeman reminded me, the article itself would be a kind of homecoming, as Granta had published an excerpt from one of my early novels back in the mid-Eighties. I hadn’t been in the magazine since, so the idea was appealing. I hesitated, though. Would I actually have to go to Gloversville? If so, what would I do there, exactly? Write about how things seemed there now compared with when I was a kid? See if Pedrick’s still existed and who was drinking there these days? Knock on the door at 36 Helwig Street and introduce myself to whoever lived there now? Because I emphatically wanted no part of any of this. For the family memorial service we’d held that summer, Barbara and I had gotten a motel room out on the arterial highway and reserved a private room at an old-line Johnstown inn, a favorite of my mother’s, for the dinner in her honor. I didn’t go into Gloversville at all. Had I read the OCD book at the time, I might have recognized that my sneaking in and out like a burglar fell quite comfortably within the spectrum of unnatural and unhealthy behaviors, but that would come later. The way I saw it then, I was like Bartleby. I could go to Gloversville; I just “preferred not to.”

  Now, a year later, I was even more adamant, so when I called John I told him that yes, I’d like to write for the special issue, perhaps using some of my cousin’s beam-house stories as a jumping-off point, my only stipulation being that my “going home” was strictly metaphorical. He quickly agreed, since, if I had everything I needed to write the piece, why make the physical journey? Perhaps, sensing just how strong my aversion was, he’d intuited that I had become the literal embodiment of Thomas Wolfe’s famous maxim and that maybe this was where the real story was. With a little luck, my inability to actually go home again might bring to the theme something interesting, off-kilter, and possibly insane.

  Not long after our conversation, as I worked at putting some of my cousin’s experiences onto the page, my wandering eye happened to fall on Toward Civic Integrity: Re-establishing the Micropolis, that Gloversville book. It sat right where I’d tossed it so contemptuously months earlier, half buried now by a dozen other unwanted volumes on my personal literary slag heap. Recalling the vague boosterism of the accompanying letter and guessing the book probably had a shaky foundation of sentimentality and unguarded optimism, I doubted yet again whether there could be anything in it for me, though of course that was hardly fair. After all, I hadn’t read a word of it. Was it possible that beneath my mean-spirited, semieducated assumptions there lurked a revealing prejudice? How good could the book be? had been my unconscious logic. The author’s from Gloversville! And so, in a spirit of grudging fair play, I picked up the book and began to read.

  To my surprise I discovered that Vincent DeSantis and I shared quite a few political and cultural convictions. It was clear to both of us, for instance, that the old manufacturing jobs that provided the economic lifeblood of towns like Gloversville were gone for good, no matter how much we might wish otherwise. We also agreed that an America that makes less is less. He was as profoundly interested in the new urban movement as I, and just as convinced that the time has come to start planning communities for people instead of their cars because the days of cheap energy are dwindling down to a precious few. A micropolis, as DeSantis defined it, had, like Gloversville, a population of ten to fifty thousand, and he argued persuasively that such communities might be well positioned to prosper in a less autocentric future. They had the kind of infrastructure—a downtown—that would be essential, assuming it hadn’t been razed back in the Sixties. Ironically, the abandoned mills, rather than being a blight on the landscape, could become part of the solution once they’d been retrofitted to new purposes. What’s more, Mr. DeSantis argued, while their next incarnation was unlikely to have much in common with the original one, that didn’t mean it wouldn’t be just as valid. What he and I saw eye to eye on, strangely enough, was the future, or at least a possible future.

  But what a nest of thorns the past can be. “The glove industry sustained Gloversville in fine style,” he enthused. “Factories were full of glove cutters and glove makers, and the sound of sewing machines and the smell of finished leather … were a part of everyday life in Gloversville.” I, too, happen to love the smell of finished leather, but I’m able to appreciate it only because I never worked in a beam house (and my guess was that DeSantis hadn’t either). But weren’t there women in his family, as there were in mine, who’d sewn gloves for fifty years and, after they finally retired, earned pensions of less than fifty dollars a month? While his view of the Gloversville of our youth—it turned out he was just a year older than I—wasn’t false, it rested on a foundation of carefully selected facts and memories. For him, the old days when the skin mills were in full swing were good because of the wealth and prosperity they generated. He recalled his aunts and uncles lamenting the loss of jobs overseas, then generously concluded that “in fairness to the glove companies … failure to take advantage … of cheap labor would have been tantamount to corporate suicide.” Well, okay, but if a dramatic phrase like “corporate suicide” fairly describes the tanneries’ untenable options in 1950, by the same token didn’t their disregard for the health and welfare of the workers who created their fortunes qualify as “corporate murder”? Or, coupled with a bottom line mentality that led so many to flee the scene of the crime, “corporate rape”? Chrome tanning had never been anything but lethal, its byproducts including lime, chlorine, formaldehyde, sulfuric acid, chromium (III), glycol ether EB, toluene, xylol, magnesium sulfate, lead, copper, and zinc, to name just a few. Anyone who thinks the tanneries didn’t know they were releasing carcinogens into Gloversville’s air, water, and landfills probably also believes that tobacco companies had no idea their cigarettes might be hazardous to the health of smokers. In addition to chasing cheap labor overseas, the big glove shops had tried to escape—successfully, for the most part—their own day of reckoning. New environmental restrictions imposed by the Department of Labor, and later by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, had made the industry unprofitable, whereas on the other side of the world the
re were no such restrictions (and wouldn’t be for decades). When it became clear that Fulton County tanneries wouldn’t be allowed to keep dumping into the Cayadutta Creek, they up and left rather than pay the sewer taxes levied to support a new facility specifically designed and built to safely dispose of their waste. Off they blithely went to pollute rivers in India and the Philippines, leaving behind a veritable Love Canal of carcinogens, the cleanup bill to be paid by the poisoned.

  Of course in its heyday, as DeSantis rightly pointed out, Gloversville was more than glove shops and tanneries. A community, even one dominated by a single industry that hated and feared competition, still needed grocery stores, bakeries, restaurants, insurance agencies, clothing stores, and car dealerships, schools and teachers and libraries and a movie theater, but when that industry vanishes these other enterprises inevitably become endangered. It wasn’t just the mills that were abandoned when the good times—if that’s what they were—stopped rolling. What’s also lost, as he noted, is part of your identity, your reason for being, a shared sense of purpose that’s hard to quantify. People who make things are often proud of what they produce, especially if it endures. One summer my father and I worked on exit 23 on the New York State Thruway, and thereafter we were never able to get on that cloverleaf without sharing a knowing look. But sometimes people are so proud of what they make that they willingly overlook its true cost. That Gloversville once had an identity based on a common sense of purpose is a potent argument. It’s been used, for instance, to explain the construction of the great cathedrals of Europe, and what were they if not symbols of communal wealth and belief? Given the technology of the day, the Pyramids are even more awe inspiring, at least until one remembers they were built with slave labor. Closer to home, the Confederacy was a case study in shared values and cultural identity, whose foundation, of course, was slavery; decades after the war that freed its victims, Margaret Mitchell did precisely what Vincent DeSantis was now doing by inviting her readers to lament the passing of those halcyon days that in her beloved South were now Gone With the Wind.

 
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