Posts Tagged ‘Mom’

My mom’s dad was a fellow named Robert Cords. This is what we know about him:

Robert Cords came from a family of German immigrants that settled in what is now the decidedly non-German immigrant region of Fruitvale, California.*

He filled out a census report near the turn of the century wherein he described himself as a “Capitalist,” full stop. At some point he worked for Union Pacific–whether as an employee or roving “Capitalist,” we don’t know–and as part of his commission bought the land that would become the Los Angeles Train Station. He managed a pair of businesses in San Francisco called the Western Tallow Company and the Imperial Glue Company. A story in the San Francisco Chronicle for June 27, 1918 refers to him as a “man of considerable wealth.”

That story was about his wife’s attempt to murder him. She shot him four times with a Colt .38, three in the chest and once in the arm, in their apartment at San Francisco’s famous (and still extant) Fairmont Hotel.** He survived.

She had wanted a divorce. She was angry at him because he’d installed his fling as his secretary at Western Tallow. He walked down to the front desk smoking a cigar and was quoted as telling the desk manager, “I am shot pretty badly. I think you better get me quick to a hospital.” The police found his wife on the floor of their room saying “I shot to kill!” over and over.

Later, the detectives brought his wife to his hospital room–don’t recall seeing that in the procedural shows–and he told her “don’t say a word, Jo. Don’t admit anything.” Snitches, etc. Her name was Alice. We don’t know why he called her Jo.

Robert and Alice/Jo stayed together.  At least for a few years. We assume they divorced at some point. But then, we really have no idea. Grandma said the two were still married when she met him.

Of course, when that happened, so was she–to Dick Nores, an out-of-work actor/newspaper columnist, which is so perfect I can’t even try and joke about it. Nores was a drunk; not terribly surprising, given his vocation(s). In 1932, Nores, Grandma, her Aunt Rose and Aunt Rose’s boyfriend Otto went to Tahiti on Otto’s yacht, The Katedna.

In Tahiti, Mr. Nores finally stopped arguing with his demons and “went Native,” according to family legend.*** Meanwhile, Robert Cords, also vacationing in Tahiti, with or maybe without Alice/Jo, met my grandma and liked what he saw.

If he was still married, her unavailability didn’t faze him (and given what we know of his predilections, why would it?), so on the trip back to mainland America–aboard a cruise ship this time; Nores was too out of hand to be allowed back on the Katedna–he approached her husband with something less than a business proposition.

Here’s the deal. Your wife is moving into my cabin in 1st Class. In return, I’ll foot your bar bill for the remainder of the trip. But she’s staying with me. Thanks!

Robert Cords and grandma were married two years later. They had two daughters, Jane (my mom) and Mary.

On New Year’s Eve 1940, Robert Cords shot himself in his room at the Barclay Hotel in downtown L.A., where he’d been living for several years.**** Mom was six. Grandma said that it was a car accident. Mom discovered the truth years later in a news clipping hidden in the pages of an old book. There are no photos of Robert Cords.

He was buried in a pauper’s grave in Valhalla cemetery in Los Angeles,***** his money–the Chronicle had him worth more than a million dollars in 1918, and I’m not great at math, but–evidently gone. No one knew what happened to it, or, really, to him. Not my mom, not my grandma, not his cousin who called my mom in the early ’60s demanding answers.

It was just gone. Mysteriously gone. A legend without substance, a shadow on the cave wall. Like Robert Cords himself. Don’t say a word, Jo. Don’t admit to anything.

*OK, so: I was convinced that this was actually Lake Merritt, but mom insists that I’m wrong, and, well, she’d know (she did literally all of the research for this, by the way, I’m just a compiler). I was loathe to lose the Lake Merritt angle because of the Digital Underground connection, but we’re not writing a novel, here. That said, one last time: Crazy guts, crazy guts.

**That story led the front page of the day’s Chronicle in two-inch type. The editors rightly thought it more newsworthy than the other major news of the day, a piece about a big American victory at some place called Belleau Wood.

***I like to think he spent his days painting nudes on the beach like Gaugain, but I have a feeling the truth is somewhat more prosaic.

****I can only assume the guy preferred living in hotels.

*****A few years back, my mom and Mary bought him a headstone.


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A few months ago, my Stepdad Rich asked me and The Wife if we’d be willing to travel to Germany on his behalf, to escort his grandchildren back to the states for their American summer vacation. We thought, hey, not like we’ve got anything else planned.

So, this is what happened:

Flight on Lufthansa to Frankfurt, direct from Denver. Flight attendants speak German. WHAT THE HELL, MAN. Listen to White Light/White Heat on the way, until the Xanax dropped me partway through “Sister Ray.” Try that and see if you don’t dream that Lou Reed and Goldie Hawn are trying to fit you for a Beatle wig.

Connect in Frankfurt to Munich, encounter bespectacled young German next to U-Bahn ticket terminal who wants us to pay him to ride along on his group ticket. We stare, suspicious. He explains the process–no, really, it’s a legitimate ticket, they’ll charge you each 10 Euro, you only pay me 5, it’s a win-win!–and we still stare, suspicious. Puzzled, he shows us his German passport, proving without a doubt that he is actually German and thus empowered with legitimate knowledge of German rail prices. We continue to stare, suspicious. “But no, it’s a win-win!” Stare, suspicious. “Oh, you’re Americans, I understand.” Alright, now we can do business.

Train takes a while and on the trip German guy tells us about the best cities in the world. All without us even asking. Turns out that our eventual destination Erlangen isn’t among them; in fact, to hear him tell it, place doesn’t even have any cows to tip, much less a good Saturday barn dance. But New Delhi! Now, that’s a city. Also Buenos Aires. And somewhere else, maybe Pittsburgh. We check the railmap for a connector to New Delhi or Argentina or Pennslyvania but come up with bupkis.

Hotel in Munich is fancy. The girl at the front desk speaks better English than I do. It is also right across the street from a strip club called “Madam Bar” that features a helpful window display stocked with 8 x 10 cheesecake photos and a single high-heeled shoe, all nestled in that decorative fluff they sell by the ton (tonne?) at Michael’s. I try to promote cross-cultural understanding but am rebuffed by my closed-minded American counterpart. HMPH.

Munich itself: stunningly walkable and clean. Wide Italianate avenues (thanks to Mad King Ludwig’s deficit spending!) a million people walking a million little dogs and not a spare turd to be found. So many gelato shops that businesses have little “no ice cream” logos on their front doors. We kinda look like everyone. Wonder why that is. They sell schniztel sandwiches. Guess what I love? Yes, Ryne Sandberg. And mom. And the free exchange of ideas. Also, schnitzel sandwiches.*

What I don’t love:

That…thing is the Butcher’s Platter, courtesy of a local establishment that didn’t seem especially offal on the surface. Bloodwurst, pig’s trotter in aspic, pig’s trotter in aspic with blood, some sort of extra smushy liverwurst item. And ham. We buy it because the menu says “ham.” But then, it was the English version of the menu, and they probably leave stuff off just to fuck with us. I think I hear Tuetonic giggles from the kitchen.

Best fountain ever.

In Nuremberg, we climb cobbled streets and drink authentic red ale in the shadow of Albrecht Durer’s house. I also break the brain of the kid tending bar at our hotel by ordering a Maker’s Mark on the rocks. He finally figures it out–I have to say “it’s just ice” like three times, even though he spoke English–but while so doing cruelly neglects his drunken teenage girlfriend, the only other person in the room, who is reduced to yelling TEQUILA TEQUILA TEQUILA! between gigglesnorts. Woo Girls are Woo Girls the world over.

Erlangen, despite what our smirky scofflaw of a train companion thinks, is purely wonderful. Bikes everywhere, beer gardens, the kids from the university studying in the park. Our hosts Julia and Dieter could not be more kind, and Julia’s daughters–our ostensible reason for being in Germany to begin with–are a couple of bright, entertaining young ladies. We drink late with a family friend in a local bar run by an old Spaniard, where I am mercilessly quizzed about Dirk Nowitzy by a couple of young German scientists. We defy multiple last call orders. We see a really excellent Jerry Lee Lewis cover band (!) play a neighborhood beer festival where thousands of happily buzzed locals walk around drinking from glass mugs–imagine a similar scene stateside ending any way other than with mass arrests. We eat doner kebab.

(I’m flummoxed by the absence of doner kebab in Denver. It’s kinda like an gyro, but not, and cheap. This is my future, my scheme, my ticket to the good livin’ over on Easy Street. Look for Alex’s House of Doner Kebab sometime in early 2037.)

And everywhere, always, beer. People having it for breakfast, for afters, to celebrate weddings, waiting for the bus, to dull the inevitable agony of simple consciousness, because it is all so tasty.


The return trip to America is best not mentioned here, or anywhere else, ever again, save to say that our teen travel companions maintain their good humor and composure far, far better than the two adults supposedly shepherding them to America. Oh, and if you’re ever offered a free night’s stay and meals in a Frankfurt hotel courtesy of Lufthansa, sleep in the terminal and scrounge crackers from the garbage instead.

*Here’s the thing. We do touristy stuff on vacation. This is because we are tourists, touring. We’re gonna visit museums, see sights. We’re gonna climb to the top of St. Peter’s and take pictures. We’re gonna buy dirndls and go to the Hofbrauhaus (admittedly almost too much, even for me). We’re gonna purchase magnets, we’re gonna ask for the English menu. The scarf-wrapped poseurs pining for a Lost Generation of their own–without accompanying Somme, of course–may say things like oh, I’m not a tourist, I’m a traveler or I choose to experience a place the way that locals do or Dad, your Mastercard didn’t go through tonight but you can wire me the cash, but here’s the deal: the locals don’t really like you. They like that you give them your cigarettes and buy them drinks. In some cases they are hoping to sleep with you, or maybe steal a kidney. And while Anthony Bourdain might sneer at our style, I say fuck him, because for every tree-grub he scarfs down, every pithy take of the destruction of “authenticity” by the polluting cross-current of 1st and 3d World, he drinks three infused foam caviar martinis off the backs off three high-priced Latvian escorts. I’ll keep my schnitzel sandwich.

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As this is ostensibly a blog about eating and drinking and gallivanting and the like, figure I best get back to brass tacks. So, with only a tiny little bit of further ado, some photos of the culinary badassery that my mom, stepdad Rich and I experienced at Bittersweet last Friday…

I ordered the duck. It was, I say with not a trace of hyperbole, the single best thing anyone anywhere has ever eaten, ever, with the exception of foods made by The Wife. Gorgeous, buttery, the kind of thing that Diamond Jim Brady probably had shipped in by the ounce from Turkey in the days before refrigeration and suffrage.

The scallops, my mom’s order. Her own mother–a tiny, daffy woman whose outsize appetites and gigantic personal history nevertheless loom over my family’s recent past like a colossus–made a point of ordering scallops in every single restaurant she ever visited, menus be damned. I like to think of ma’s choice as a sort of homage.

My stepdad Rich chose the wild boar. If my own hadn’t been so stellar, the clutchings of food envy might have been too much for me to bear. I’m a sucker for those perfect little potato croquettes. (I should mention, as well, that our server was beyond awesome.)

So. That was Friday. The Wife returned from her business trip Saturday evening, and Sunday I welcomed her back to the bosom of home by smoking a rack of baby backs treated with my buddy Jason’s signature rub and some other techniques I cobbled together with the help of my friends over at The Internet. (Hey guys!)

Here’s what I came up with:

After letting the rack sit in its spice rub for 24 hours, I proceeded to whip it gently with a camel’s hair shaving brush, douse it in Hellman’s Mayonnaise and recite, in my best Paul Lynde impression, every single section of Ezra Pound’s Cantos. When it began the inevitable back-sassin’–you all know what I mean, I’m sure–I ate 14 packets of red hot pepper flakes and made sure to carefully monitor its socio-economic worldview through the end of the cooking period. I also drank about 14 cans of Rolling Rock.*

Following that:

*Try it yourself at home!

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My mom e-mailed me this morning with a memory: January, 1985 and the Worst Super Bowl Sunday ever.

At the time it was just me and ma. Dad was still in Chicago with the Sun-Times , my sisters had left for college not long before and we’d moved across town to a tract home in a tract neighborhood that was bigger than our previous townhouse, always stuffed to the roofbeams with kids and parents, but a lot more empty. And lonely. I didn’t know anyone and I was a weird kid anyway, so my social circle was pretty much just ma, a couple of cats and two fatass fire newts. Fig and Isaac, in case you’re wondering.

So, anyway. Morning of the Super Bowl (Miami and San Francisco, Dan Marino’s only shot at the title, but we didn’t know that at the time), ma comes into my bedroom and tells me the cats had eaten the newts.

I took it pretty hard, but in retrospect, of fucking course they did. They were cats. They’d been eyeing those little amphibian amuse bouches for several years, even previously succeeding in getting the screen off the top of the tank a few times. We’d always caught them in the act, but in this new, larger house, they knew they’d have their moment. They were right. The newts knew as well. Poor little guys must have felt like outed snitches being released into general population.

So, anyway, dead newts–cats being cats, they kinda threw ’em all over the place–weeping, newtless boy with curly mullet, lone mother likely wondering why she hadn’t just adopted a nice capable Asian kid for her final maternal act–clearly, the only way my grief would be assuaged would be via a trip to the movies. So, naturally, we went to go see A Passage to India.

Now, most 11 year-old boys have little to no interest in sprawling period dramas intertwined with subtextual themes of racism and imperialism, no matter how gorgeously shot and acted they might be.

Well, guess who has two thumbs and was no exception? That movie had to last about 5 hours and was just full of people talking. Always talking. Talking and riding trains and talking and then old Mrs. Moore died and they dropped her coffin in the ocean. I didn’t understand what was happening but I knew that I didn’t belong in the audience. Now, a year before my mom had–accidentally, it should be said–taken me and my friend Steve (RIP, brother) to see Bachelor Party, and that was radical. There were a lot of exposed boobs, and there was Tom Hanks and a donkey that died from eating too many drugs. That was an audience I belonged in. Frankly, that’s an audience I still belong in. A Passage to India? Not so much. Although I might have paid closer attention if someone had told me that Obi-Wan Kenobi was in it.

When we left the theatre it was dark and freezy. We ate at Perkins on the way home, I think. I recall getting sick that night with the flu, or maybe just ennui. I never even watched any of the game; somehow the big performances from Joe Montana and Roger Craig just slipped past unnoticed, obscured by a wintry haze of extravagant, cat-administered newt-murder and talky British movie people.

I wouldn’t find out for years afterward, but it wasn’t a great day for my dad, either. He’d fallen down on the sidewalk on his way in to work and hurt himself. He didn’t realize it at the time but that was the opening salvo from the ALS that would later kill him. He’d fall more and more frequently in the coming months. Mom and I had been planning to move to Chicago and join him later that year; instead, he moved back to Colorado. For good, as it turned out.

But where my dad was concerned, there was always an opportunity for a laugh, no matter how dark: in a column for the Sun-Times, later re-printed by his buddy Gene Amole in the Rocky Mountain News, he mentioned that day and how, after his accident, he’d called home for a little sympathy from his loving family–only to hear my mom say “oh honey, I can’t talk now, the cats killed the newts.”

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