when I was seven or eight, my favorite cousin was Ed, an Army
private then about 24 years old who did a perfect imitation of
Donald Duck on warm California evenings while Aunt Florence cooked
dinner. As I grew older and my needs changed, though, the star
passed to Mary Treatman.
Mary was born and raised in Brooklyn, on an old avenue lined with
gas stations, fruit markets and pot-bellied Italian men sitting on
chairs dragged out from their storefronts. She had gray hairs and
two kids already by the time I met her, though she was still in her
early thirties, and had passed through an entire life I had only
heard about in Christmas letters and postcards from White Horse
Beach: the prettiest of three sisters, a nursing student, a single
mother, a black sheep in the older generation's eyes and a rebel in
mine. She had gifts that were all her own, but she also had in every
gesture and spoken syllable the gift of New York.
You can only say so much about a city by talking about its
skyscrapers and parades, political contests or role in World War
Two; they are just bits and pieces, all trivia, except as they're
transformed in the black box into the life of a human being. There
are times when I can't quite grasp what I think of this city, when
it is all too incoherent to adhere to a single name or adjective,
that I can suddenly hear it summed up in the sound of Mary
Treatman's voice. Charles DeGaulle was on to something deeply true
when he said that he himself was France; myself, I suppose I am
California, because I'm what California does to you. In the same
way, Mary is New York.
For a long time I knew her only peripherally, in frantic car
trips across Manhattan from train stations to airports to her
parents' place in Borough Park, invariably with one too many
children or pets or suitcases stuffed next to me in the back seat.
“So, Mitch: good to see you again” - like all my cousins, she calls
me Mitch – “how do you like New York now that you've had 20 minutes
to see it? Planning on doing this again? Hooooo.” The
hooooo was her primal sigh at the impossibility of life ever
fitting within its boundaries.
Later, when I got back from the Peace Corps, we would talk on the
phone every couple of months, friendly strangers trying to get
acquainted. I think we would mean just to say hello, but almost by
reflex our conversations stretched on into hours, which left Mary's
taciturn husband, the doctor, sitting by the telephone table in awe.
“David's been timing us, Mitch,” Mary told me once. “He says the
last time we talked for four hours. He wants me to ask you how
anyone can just sit and talk for four hours.” Myself, I couldn't
say. We simply both had the Justice family gift, evolved generations
ago there in Brooklyn, of being able to whip everyday stuff into a
kind of intelligent souffle, at once warm, nutritious and
At last, in the fall of 1986, my cousin's orbit and mine aligned
for three entire months. Mary and David had bought a house, an old
frame fixer-upper deep in Bay Ridge near the Fourth Avenue subway;
everything that had been crowded into boxes and closets and
wardrobes in their apartment spilled out and grew sloppy in the
freedom of all that space. The first time I visited, it was all
paint cans and varnish and papers and piles for goodwill, and then
as that was cleared away, it was children's books and gameboys and
dishes and stray clothing. I meanwhile had finished journalism
school. I spent my days hunting jobs with growing desperation, or
working odd weeks at various magazines, and my nights hinting around
to friends that I'd soon need a cheap place to stay. Mary said
casually, “why not come stay with us?”
Thus began one of the charmed epochs of my life. I would come
home around seven with soda and linguini from the Italian take-out
shop on Fourth Avenue, and sit with Mary in the kitchen watching
chaos evolve around us. “I hope you don't mind a mess, Mitch,” she
apologized almost daily. “Of course, if you do mind a mess,
I'm not sure there's anything we can do. Hooooo.”
David, who was juggling two-and-a-half general practices at the
time, came and went at erratic hours. The kids (now three of them)
were always busy, too, and all in different directions – Chad with
the violin, Cara with gymnastics, little Charlie with anything that
promised to be both interesting and destructive, in the way of
The most familiar sound from those months was the jangling of car
keys, as Mary dashed off to drop one or another of the kids to
practice; she had always felt deprived by her strict Catholic
upbringing, so she plunged headlong into making her own kids active
and independent-minded, with a vehemence her parents would have
recognized even if they didn't recognize the goal.
She enrolled them at the best, most expensive, most secular
school in Brooklyn Heights, then got herself hired there as a
teacher's assistant, partly to pay the bills and partly because she
was hungry for a challenge. At times like these it was hard to tell
whether life was driving her so relentlessly, or whether she was in
the driver's seat much of the time herself.
Little things happened in those three months, too, that would
have become big if there'd been time enough to let them. While
cleaning out the attic, Mary started finding bizarre clues about the
house's former owners, including a diary in a tight little scrawl
with page upon page of entries like, “12:20 p.m.: Looked out the
window. 12:22: Looked out again; nothing changed.” Mary rolled it
around in her mind for a day or two at most. “Do you think I'm being
unfair, Mitch?” she asked me almost somberly, “because this doesn't
seem normal.” The Catholic schools had left her perpetually unsure
of herself, even with solid instincts like these.
The word that best describes the mood of Mary's house has to be
“impending,” as in “impending trip,” “impending errand,” “impending
doom” and “impending victory.” I know Mary felt trapped at times -
I felt trapped, just watching her trying to ride this
whirlwind of activity. But there were moments there in the kitchen,
evenings when she resigned herself to never being in control, that a
stolen minute stretched out majestically into one of those
four-hour-long talks, not because the time was really there but
because nothing chanced to interrupt, and at those moments she
seemed to me to shine with a rueful sort of grace, lifted above all
the sound and fury like a weightless angel on a cake. “Ah, Mitch,”
she would say, “I dunno, I dunno, I dunno.” And then, with a laugh,
her cosmic hooooo.
Well, I got my job, found an apartment, then a wife and finally
my way out of New York City. Mary and I were in very poor touch for
the next several years. When I looked her up last fall, I found
she'd moved out of Brooklyn altogether. She had found an excellent
gymnastics program for Cara in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and driven
her there-and-back until, she told me apologetically on the phone,
“the three hours on the road every day just got too hard for me to
do.” So she and David had bought a house.
I have to admit, one of my first thoughts was purely selfish:
that Mary Treatman had no right to leave New York, both because
that's where I was and because that's where she belonged. I wondered
if she would lose the aura that had always enveloped her, that
Brooklynite's way of thinking; if she would become laid back,
small-town, or whatever it is you become when you become what
Allentown does to you.
I teased her for moving so far out into the sticks, so far from
civilization, at which she said something that reassured me she
would always be Mary. “I think you've got the wrong idea about
Allentown, Mitch. Allentown is a city.” I thought of all the things
I associated with cities from studying Latin at a California high
school, while dreaming of New York, Paris, London and San Francisco:
busy streets, intellectualism, drama, skyscrapers and jazz music.
But Mary said only, “Allentown has crime.”
born with an unusually restless mind. It has kept me traveling for
most of my life, looking for the place and time to make my mark, and
just a few weeks ago it took me back home to Southern California for
the first time in three years.
I grew up in a suburb of Los Angeles that at the time was the
last outpost of housing tracts before the orange groves that reached
35 miles out to Riverside and San Bernardino; now the groves are all
housing tracts too.
There's a new freeway; the skyscape is taller. I can only pick
out traces of the city I grew up with – a doughnut shop at Farmer's
Market where I used to go on Saturdays with my Dad; the Griffith
Observatory, where James Dean and Sal Mineo wrestled through their
angst in Rebel Without a Cause and I used to watch
planetarium shows – all the rest has changed.
There is even a rapid transit system, Metrorail, something that
seemed beyond impossible when I was a kid. Los Angeles had ripped
out one of the most extensive street railways in the world in 1950
when it fell in love with the car (you could more easily imagine
living without shirts and shoes, where I grew up, than living
without a car); now the supermodern streetcars go pretty much where
the Pacific Electric Big Red Cars did half a century ago and look
very much the same too. It's appropriate, I suppose, that a restless
man like me was dropped early on into a restless town like this.
One place, however, hasn't changed in the 25 years since I last
saw it. On a clear day you've always been able to see Catalina
Island hanging just off the coast, almost close enough to touch but
– strangely – almost out of mind as you go about your daily life.
My Dad and I took the boat there only once, when I was 10 or 11;
the single town, Avalon, was all neat little white houses and
bobbing boats tucked into a nook in the hills, dominated first by
the Casino, a huge art-deco ballroom, and much more dramatically by
the wild mountains and rocks and kelp beds and sea. My wife and I
walked off the jetty this time, and it was almost as if I had just
closed my eyes and opened them, to find the world unchanged but
myself older and grayer and deeply in love with Jennifer instead of
deeply in love with my Dad. Happy, either way.
The island owes its timelessness almost entirely to one person,
William Wrigley Jr., a restless man like myself who made a fortune
in chewing gum, acquired the Chicago Cubs to indulge his love of
baseball, left his mark in a dozen other places and times, and then
in 1919 bought Catalina outright from the family that had been
trying for two decades to turn it into a resort. He did it on the
advice of a real-estate broker who had never set foot here – it
looked like a good money move. But when Wrigley saw the island
himself, an unexpected transformation came over him.
Although he made Avalon into the chic destination the Banning
family had never quite been able to, he became passionate about
preserving the rest of the island exactly as it was, as the last
vestige of an old and vanishing California: the starry sky the
Gabrieleno Indians had slept under two thousand years ago, the sea
where the Chumash caught their fish, the yucca chaparral over which,
elsewhere in the state, Spanish hacendados had tested out
their horses long before the Americanos sent their first
ships around the Horn.
He spent an enormous amount of money bringing tourists to the
island and then locking their cars and buses out of the interior; at
the Casino, where Glenn Miller and the Dorseys played swing in white
tuxedos, he dressed the usherettes as Mexican-era senioritas; he
made sure the mountains stayed free of railroads and housing tracts
and even chewing gum and baseball. And when he died, he was buried
in Avalon's botanical garden, under a huge tile-and-concrete arch
made almost entirely of island materials, with a view down a long
green canyon to the blue waters of the Pacific channel.
It's odd what makes for happiness, what wins you over in the end.
I was fortunate enough in my twenties to spend two years in a small
African town, Nkambe, where most everybody lived in mud-brick huts,
carried buckets of water on their heads from the springs down the
mountain, had to scrape up the 40 cents for an extra beer at the
off-licence bar. A number of acquaintances had leprosy or goiters
and received shots from used needles at a local hospital.
It was as if you had drained 100 years of progress from
civilization as we know it: running water, refrigeration, paved
roads, seat belts, medicine, democracy – all the grand improvements
we had strived for, all the marks we had made. And yet there were
sad people and happy people, people with rich hearts and people with
poor ones, in about the same proportions I had seen everywhere else.
When I tried to name what in my own life had now and again made
me feel rich, not a single book or painting, building or convenience
came to my mind, only doughnuts with my Dad, the respect of friends,
travel, stories and dreams, and nights under the stars.
For a while thoughts like this made me lose my faith in writing.
I thought, you may faintly brush the souls of millions of people
with beautiful words, but it will always be the coldness of a parent
that will make us suffer, the love of a friend that will make us
warm: the few people we can touch with our own hands and hearts and
eyes. I will never write an essay that will mean as much as a first
Then of course I woke out of it. I realized that if I didn't
write I'd have nothing to do all day; as William Faulkner once said,
we may want to eat and drink, sleep and make love, but really the
only thing we can do for eight hours straight is work.
On our second morning on Catalina, Jennifer and I took a tour bus
into the interior – now, 64 years after Wrigley's death, there is
still only one bus a day – to a hilltop on the Pacific side
overlooking the rugged cove called Little Harbor. The spot was
little more than a turnaround point on a meandering dirt road, miles
from the nearest building or beach, but someone had decided to place
a gravesite there: a rock with a plaque on it dedicated "in memory
of Elyse Gonzalez, 1955-1992, 'cosmic traveler.'"
I don't know who Elyse Gonzalez was, or where her cosmic journey
began, but one way or another it ended here much like William
Wrigley's had, on a slope overlooking the sea with the wind and a
can of wildflowers.
I tried to make sense of it, to find some message in it, the kind
of thing that writers and restless people do: Is this the nature of
life? Is this where all cosmic journeys end?
Finally I looked to Jennifer for help: "A penny for your
She just held my hand, took a drag off her cigarette and tipped
her head back to catch the breeze. "No thoughts," she said.