Lisa Mednick Powell

My Orange Plastic Raincoat

A Plastic Orange Raincoat, a Little Drool of Blood, & Chaos on the Girl (a personal history based on the Beaufort Scale ) 0 calm win d speed <1 mph calm; smoke rises vertically I don’t know exactly when it started. Maybe it was the day I held the Washington Post up over my head and let it drop on the doorstep, scaring the birds and hoping to wake the inhabitants of the house. I was the paper girl. Before the sun cleared the trees, I rose and delivered. I wore my plastic orange raincoat and green Wellington boots. The headline that day was something about taped locks, about the Democratic National Committee headquarters in some fancy hotel. What happened after that we know, of course, when, maybe for the last time ever, layers of corruption peeled away and crooks were exposed. All through that spring and summer and into the next fall, we watched and waited while the White House crumbled. The self-proclaimed mighty few became prey and spectacle to the restless many. Of which I was one. 1 light air wind speed 1-3 mph direction of wind shows by smoke but not by wind vanes Or it could have been before that, when my parents announced they were going to split up. What it came down to was my father splitting. He told me a few years ago that he couldn’t stand my mother’s incessant complaining. I can understand this; she is intractable and I fear I have inherited this unpleasant trait. It served her well in her career, however, where intractability can be an admirable trait. My father moved across town, then to New York City, then to Europe—moving further and further away from my sister Amy and me. She cried and cried the day he got remarried. We found out when a neighbor called our mother after having seen the announcement in the local paper. He stayed out of the country for a long time, living in Copenhagen. We had to go to Canada to see him for some reason to do with taxes. All I know is my mother drove us to Windsor, Ontario from our home in Ann Arbor—more than once in the snow. I will not wait until they are both dead to say that I believe my parents did the best they could. Considering. 2 light breeze wind speed 4-7 mph wind felt on face; leaves rustle; wind vane moves We lived in Denmark before that. We were there when Kennedy was shot. My memory’s freeze frame: Amy and me sitting on the floor of someone’s living room and hearing the words in Danish "Kennedy er skud" barking out of some radio or TV. They loved him there. And they hated Nixon more than they loved JFK. I remember stealing black tulips from someone’s garden, but that had to have been in the summer—before the assassination. After that we went back to Michigan. My mother hated Denmark, but I loved it. I was five years old, and went to first grade at the International School, where they taught us Esperanto, along with Danish and English. When my mother took her sabbatical and went to Israel to study gender roles on the kibbutz, Amy and I went to Denmark again, where my father and his wife, Birgitte, were living. I smoked a tobacco pipe and rode the trains at all hours. At fourteen I could buy beer from the hot dog vendors but I was probably too young to babysit my tiny half-brother, Thor. I did it anyway and did the best I could. When Sara came along I often changed her diapers. She has a PhD from Harvard now. 3 gentle breeze wind speed 8-12 mph leaves and small twigs in constant motion; wind extends light flag Our house in Ann Arbor—blue-gray with a periwinkle bedroom I shared with my sister. In a way, it is the house I have somehow tried to get back to since January of 1968 when my mother got hired to teach at Howard University in Washington D.C. Before we moved from that house, Amy and I buried our doll furniture in the dark hiding space between the lilac hedge and the low juniper bushes. By the birch tree whose white bark I used to peel and write notes on. I have looked for that house and those trees ever since. The elms were cut down, one by one, over a few terrible summers. We never understood why; they looked perfectly healthy to us. And I remember staring up at telephone lines, wondering about voices humming through them and if the wires were real—in fact, I thought maybe I was dreaming all the time and I would wake up to discover I was really a caveman and none of the world I knew was real. Something real I do remember: books. I stayed up past my mother’s bedtime, reading under the covers with a flashlight...The Secret Garden, The Velvet Room, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, the entire Nancy Drew series. And something else real: the smell of worms when it rained and the smell of rotten apples near the woods we walked past on the way to school. But we moved. 4 moderate breeze wind speed 13-18 mph wind raises dust and loose paper; small branches move We moved to an apartment in Washington and my mother went off to teach at Howard and from our balcony over the tiny patch of green behind the building that was our new back yard, we watched smoke on the horizon. Finally, in April, the event happened that closed the school and blew up the city. Martin Luther King was gunned down in Memphis. 5 fresh breeze wind speed19-24 mph small-leaved trees begin to sway; crested wavelets form on inland waters The slow funeral march of 1968. We were nascent hippies, Amy and I, wearing beads and sandals, going to marches with our mother and her dashiki-clad students. We marched against the Vietnam War and we marched for civil rights. The funeral that was1968 buried Bobby Kennedy next, his funeral train crossing the country. Am I weak? I can not think of that film footage without a tear. People of every kind lined the tracks as that sad slow train rolled by with Bobby on board. And I can not stand at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial without a lump in my throat. Because I know about what happened there. Words that meant something were spoken there. We don’t hear words like that anymore. Every year, when they replay Martin’s "I Have a Dream" speech on the radio, it makes me cry. But the "I Have a Dream" speech was cotton candy compared to some of the other MLK speeches. I believe we could stand to hear some speeches like that, now. 6 strong breeze wind speed 25-31 mph large branches move; overhead wires whistle; umbrellas difficult to control We moved from D.C. to Bethesda, Maryland. My first suburb. We had a split-level house and, for the first time, Amy and I had separate bedrooms. We learned Morse code and knocked secret messages on the wall between our beds, late into the night. Around that time I was beginning to buy 45 rpm records. "Chicago" by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young was one of my favorites. So your brother’s bound and gagged, And they’ve chained him to a chair... Inexorably, music began to consume my waking hours. The piano lessons continued and I practiced daily—and enjoyed it. But what was taking over was rock and roll. I bought "Proud Mary" and "Me & Bobby McGee" by Janis. I listened to "Rubber Soul" over and over again until I knew every line and every word...and I bought "High Time we Went," by Joe Cocker. And "Maggie Mae" by Rod Stewart. (And why, every time I enter a drug store, do I have to hear Cheryl Crow singing "The First Cut is the Deepest?" Didn’t Rod Stewart own that song with his voice that cuts and cuts and cuts?) I took the Beatles’ break-up personally. I followed the solo paths of George and John—one the seeker, the other the keeper of slow-burning chaos. 7 moderate gale or near gale wind speed 32-38 mph whole trees sway; walking against wind is difficult At age fourteen, I bought my first LP. "Hot Rats" by Frank Zappa. All the Beatles albums we had were courtesy of my mother, who also introduced us to Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Stan Getz, and Harry Belafonte. But it was when she brought home the Beatles that we were entranced. Wait a minute. My first album, the first one that was really mine? That was "Meet the Beatles," a gift from my Grandfather Harry for my sixth birthday. Harry never sat at the table. I have no memories of dinner with my mother, father and sister. But I do have memories of Grandpa Harry standing at the table, skinny, wired, telling jokes with a cigar dangling from his mouth. The way my uncle tells it, Harry’s father "bugged out" when Harry was just a kid. Harry ran around and got in trouble—just a street kid on the Lower East Side, and later he joined the Communist Party. He was a hat-cutter, then a writer for the WPA. But he never held a steady job. When the Depression hit, he drifted down to Alabama and became a Chiropodist. According to the story, he helped some people, made their pain stop. Finally, at age 60 or so, he became a TV repairman. He died of cancer at age 78. I think I am like him in some ways. 8 fresh gale or gale wind speed 39-46 mph twigs break off trees; moving cars veer My maternal grandfather, Sam, was a more serious type. He once told me "Never stop fighting for what you know is right." He had been a union organizer for the I.L.G.W.U. He and his father slept where they worked—in the sweatshops of the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He and my Grandmother Ida met as they sewed facing each other at their sewing machines. The foreman separated them because they spent too much time talking. Eventually, my grandfather retired from Christian Dior, probably with the pension he fought for as shop steward. He always ate Corn Flakes because that’s the first breakfast he had at Ellis Island. He and his father sent money home to his mother and sister in Poland—the money never got to them. At my Grandfather’s funeral, an old man approached me and said, "I was from his shtetl. I saw his mother killed by a Cossack. He hit her in the chest with his rifle and killed her." It was a miracle to meet this old man. I can not understand why my mother never goes to her parents’ graves. 9 strong gale wind speed 47-54 mph slight structural damage occurs; shingles may blow away Watergate wound all through my high school sophomore and junior years. Mrs. Hendry let us watch the hearings in History class. And I devoured Watergate. I read Hunter S. Thompson, Timothy Crouse, and Woodward and Bernstein’s All the President’s Men. I was going to become a journalist, like the ones in Crouse’s Boys on the Bus. At the same time, I was also learning to play the sax, and dying to play in a rock and roll band. But at that time, girls didn’t join bands. My mother was busy inventing a new field of study within her field of psychology. Psychology of Women was beginning to catch on as a discipline. She was a pioneering feminist scholar. She wrote a groundbreaking essay called “Stop the World; I Want to Get On.” When I started junior high, girls had to wear dresses. Sometime during my freshman year, they began allowing girls to wear pants. I had these jeans with plastic rhinestone studs down the sides. I had patched them to look exactly like Neil Young’s jeans on the cover of "Harvest." I loved Neil Young. I loved his lyrics and wanted to write songs like his. Ragged but right. (Years later, I saw him backstage at Farm Aid, where I was performing with one of the many smaller acts.) My mother forbade me from wearing those jeans to school. So I carried them to school in my book bag and changed in the girls’ room after I got there in the morning. And I want to emphasize the following truth: we students never stood for the pledge of allegiance. We stayed in our seats. It was one of the low voltage ways in which ALL OF US protested the war in Viet Nam. Of course there were other, higher voltage ways as well—ways in which we created chaos and upper atmosphere disturbances of a loud and frenetic nature—ways in which we got, as they say, our ya-yas out—ways that are gone from this modern world, deemed too dangerous, even for the daring. We were thinkers, you see. We lived in a world of imagination, and anyone who couldn’t ride with us, well, they were off the bus. 10 whole gale or storm wind speed 55-63 trees uprooted; considerable structural damage occurs That year, 1975, Ford pardoned Nixon. That was not, as he put it, the end of the "long national nightmare." It was the beginning of a new nightmare. It was only the end of accountability, checks and balances, and, perhaps, the end of high noon, the end of the true cowboy way. I got two gifts when I graduated high school. A manual Olivetti typewriter and a Conn alto saxophone. In my dreams they still rise from behind the sofa and grapple with each other. I went to a big university in the Midwest to learn about Freedom of Expression. I studied Journalism and History. In the back of one of my classrooms, was some faded graffiti: "Free Bobby!" That would have been Bobby Seale, the man who’d been bound and gagged in that Chicago courtroom. I studied Great Books and American Film. I loved Jack Palance in "Shane." And Jimmy Cliff in "The Harder They Come." But more than anything, I loved the records and eight-track tapes in my dorm room. The Band. Little Feat. Bob Marley. John Coltrane. Willie Nelson. Lightnin’ Hopkins... 11 storm or violent storm wind speed 64-72 mph widespread damage occurs I quit college to join a rock band. The punk scene in D.C. was not cool enough. I followed others who felt the same way and moved to New York City to become a black-clad denizen of CBGB’s basement, throwing empty beer bottles against the wall. I spent whole nights out on the fire escapes of my horrible tiny apartments, giant shadows of ailanthus altissima —the botanical name for the invasive tree-of-heaven, with its heart-shaped leaf scars—cast against the greasy bricks of the neighbors’ walls...I am not sure I can make the reader understand the chaos I brought on myself...Those fire escape hours, banging on my Olivetti, after hours of squawking punk jazz on my saxophone and bloodying the keys on my tiny electric piano...hours of breaking open black beauties and snorting the asphalt innards of those rough and nasty capsules...the chaos was upon me. It expanded time, and time expanded me. I became uprooted and tumbled through empty streets, making long shadows on rain-greased bricks. The chaos was upon me. It blew at my back, and I drifted south and then west. 12 hurricane wind speed >72 mph widespread damage occurs I explain this, all of this, so you will know why I couldn’t stop myself from taking the red Sharpie marker out of the drawer of the front desk, where I was Administrative Associate and Assistant to the Dean of the Executive Education Office of the University of Texas School of Business—and, with that red inkpen, drawing a little drool of blood, extending from the corner of President Bush’s mouth and traveling down his chin, on the cover of the Financial Times. The Financial Times, that baby-aspirin-colored British biz rag that came to our desk for free every day. My supervisor’s supervisor called me in— her version of a military tribunal—and threw the newspaper down in front of me. "DO YOU KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT THIS??" "Yes. Yes I do, in fact. Looks appropriate wouldn’t you say?" I had been about to be permanently vested in the Texas State Retirement System. But I didn’t care. Bush’s cruel governorship had bled the state dry and little remained of our once generous benefits. Once again, I was blown ahead of my own chaos...Time to move on.