S.M. Park’s continuing column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In “In Spite of Ourselves,” Park talks about being married to a Scientologist.
I moved from Seattle to Los Angeles in the Fall of 1977. It was my new bride Patti’s idea: as an unpaid Scientology volunteer she was working forty hours a week at the Seattle “Org” and figured she could double that number in L.A.
That was fine with me … I figured the best town was the next town, even if it was Los Angeles. I’d known Patti since college and we’d married at her mother’s Fox Island home in August. The property abutted the Puget Sound, and the day before the wedding Rick Silverdale and I were lounging on the beach. As my longtime buddy—much less Patti’s ex-boyfriend—he felt obliged to offer me marital advice.
“Don’t do it, High,” he said, for maybe the tenth time.
He offered no explanation (as if it were obvious under the circumstances) and I didn’t ask. I was fixated instead on the giant spliff in his hand. As part of my Scientology initiation I’d sworn off drugs, yet in the back of my mind a little voice kept murmuring: One hit and you’ll come to your senses, High! One hit and you’ll call the wedding off! Do it!
It was probably true but I’d never know, as just then Patti appeared. Little Miss Perky, so buoyant she seemed to float in the air. Everything about her was antithetical to my own nature, so I’d convinced myself that opposites attract and her positivity was good for me.
Where in truth it wouldn’t have mattered if she were a serial killer: I had a passion for elfish-looking women (dark eyes, upturned nose, wide mouth, sharp chin, think Betsy DeVos), and if they returned that ardor it was a done deal. I let the rest take care of itself, which is one of many reasons I’m alone today.
Take Patti’s sense of humor, for instance. She rarely laughed at anything I said or did, yet a fat guy tripping on a step would send her into conniptions.
(Even as my idea of funny is the Houston 911 operator who was sentenced to jail last year for hanging up on callers. When asked in court for an explanation she replied: “I didn’t feel like talking.”)
But that afternoon on the beach my bride-to-be seemed radiant; she first hugged Roger, then bent over and kissed me.
“How about some lunch, guys?” she asked. “Sandwiches maybe, or a couple of those enchiladas from last night?”
“Yeah, Patti,” I said, “that’d be great.”
“Well, you know where the kitchen is.”
Then she skipped off again. What was I thinking, that she was actually going to prepare food for us? We’d lived together for six months, and during that time she’d only cooked once. (A slightly burnt pan of lasagna; if I’d known it was the last thing she’d ever make I might have lingered over it.)
I turned to Rick.
“Don’t do it, High,” he repeated, sucking hard on that spliff.
“You don’t understand, Silverdale,” I said. “It’s an experiment.”
I can’t speak to other reasons for getting married (never having had any), but “trying it out” is certainly among the worst. Unfortunately I was stuck with it, because Patti wanted to wed and losing her luscious body and company weren’t acceptable to me yet.
I can’t speak to other reasons for getting married (never having had any), but “trying it out” is certainly among the worst.
In the end I solved it the way I did most such dilemmas, i.e. what difference did it make? Married? Unmarried? L.A.? Seattle? Who cared? I was thirty years old, dead broke and rinsed pipes in a fireplace warehouse for four bucks an hour; the only difference between me and my old self was sobriety.
Which, ironically enough, was the biggest problem of all. It wasn’t simply that I was a victim of circumstance (the lack of a liver enzyme with alcohol, and the Scientology policy forbidding drugs), but the fact I was so wretched at it. The idea of life without a channel changer is why I’d turned to Scientology in the first place.
Well, that and pleasing Patti. (If you’re living with a zealot it helps to know the territory.) In the meanwhile my own engine was stuck on overdrive; without marijuana or booze I was lucky to get four hours of sleep a night, so I grew crankier and crankier over time. I’m sure my “dry drunk” act proved tiresome, but Patti had motives of her own. I thought a line from Bob Seger’s “Night Moves” described us best:
I used her
She used me
But neither one cared.
I was her ticket to L.A. She, after all, had less worldly goods than I did and knew I’d support her while she slaved for Scientology. Like the rest of her cohorts she wanted to “Clear the Planet,” but when she talked about it I mostly tuned out … saving my own ass was hard enough.
So in late September we headed south in a wheezy Volkswagen Bug. Once we reached Hollywood I rented us a motel room while Patti coordinated with the local Org. It turns out there was a large Scientology community within the city so you could get a job, have your car fixed, rent an apartment, go to a doctor, etc., all in the company of your cult.
As if L.A. wasn’t crazy enough. We ended up in a one bedroom flat overlooking Vermont Avenue. (It was owned by a reserve Colonel in the Israeli army, now a Hubbard devotee, who called his frizzy-haired wife “Sagebrush.”)
I hired on at a Scientology company, selling frozen meat door-to-door. Right away I had problems, because before boarding our trucks in the morning we had to endure cheers, calisthenics and team-building exercises. They were led by Scientology trainers and I blamed my Watts assignment (the poorest black section of the city) on my obvious lack of enthusiasm.
My driver was a one-eyed veteran with a “Save the World” cap and a beer gut.
“You packing, High?” he asked, spitting a stream of chew out the window.
“Packing?” I laughed nervously. “You mean a gun?”
“Yep.” He pulled up his pants leg, showed me his ankle holster.
“You gotta be kidding me,” I said.
“Where you think we’re headed, college boy? You’re gonna be walking around poor, hungry black people with a box of steaks. You’d better get a switchblade at least.”
He was right about assailants, wrong about the species: it seemed like half the houses I went to had German Shepherds on chains. I was the lunch wagon with those steaks in my arms, and I had to divert the rabid bastards with chunks of meat, then sprint to the porch.
Only to have the door slammed in my face; which left me to dodge the same killers on the way back. I was bit twice and had both pants legs shredded before I took a lunch break on day four and never returned: I’d been working on commission and hadn’t sold a single piece of meat.
Which would hardly keep my bride and I afloat. I scoured the Want Ads and finally interviewed for a position as a Western Union teletype operator. I had no experience with the machine, but keys were keys and I typed over a hundred twenty words a minute.
Instead I was hired on as a money order clerk. The downtown office was open twenty-four hours a day and handled thousands of Mexican money orders every month. Basically a Mexican would sneak across the border to live like an animal and work like a dog, then wire his savings to his family back home.
Which was all well and good, at least from Western Union’s perspective; the problem was the telegraph offices south of the border, over whom we had little influence or control. A handful of them seemed honest enough, but most had clerks who would cash the money transfers we sent and, because rates were so inflationary in Mexico at the time, deposit the loot in their own accounts.
Eventually they’d return the money to the addressees, as if it had suddenly arrived on horseback. In the meanwhile months or years could pass, and the vitriolic father in L.A. blamed us.
Or me, anyway, because I was the one who processed most of the orders. I was halfway through my first shift when I noticed that my fellow clerks—some of them young, others old-timers—did about a third as many transactions as I did. What’s more they were proud of it. Their attitude was summed up by Carla, the only Spanish speaker in the office. I asked her that first day to translate what one of her irate countrymen was screaming at me from the other side of the bulletproof glass. Instead she gave us both the finger.
“Let the bastards learn the English themselves!” she spat. “I had to.”
Initially I was miffed, but soon realized my ignorance of Spanish was a blessing. I only worked as fast as I did to keep from going crazy, and that mattered when I was promoted to Supervisor a week later. Suddenly I’d be giving orders to clerks who’d been on the job years, even decades longer than I had.
If any of them cared it wasn’t apparent. I could be at the window doing their work for them, or behind them telling them how to do it themselves, and they remained as indifferent as government workers. Maybe the chaos of those little brown people screaming threats and wishing you death all day (even as they continued to send money south, praying this was the wire that would finally get through) broke you down over time.
I know it wasn’t doing me any good. Not when I was lowest on the supervisory totem pole, so had to fill in on vacations, days off, illnesses, etc. Which meant I might work two days of swing shift, then three of graveyard, and finish up back on days. It was a regime that would have crippled a normal sleeper, much less an insomniac like me. I used to think that the insanity of that office, much like the chaos of my casino jobs, would have been way more interesting on drugs.
As it was I was so burnt out, exhausted and irritable that I was losing ground on the home front. I saw less and less of Patti (she was working twelve hours days at the local Org), and it never occurred to me to furnish the apartment. We slept on the carpet in the bedroom, and there was an old chair in the kitchen I’d found in a dumpster. Otherwise the place looked the same as it had the day we moved in, and to the extent I thought about it at all I guess I figured Patti was okay with it. I mean, she was in a cult for christ sakes, what did she care whether there was a couch in the living room or silverware in the drawer? I gave her a ten dollar a week allowance and filled the freezer with frozen eggplant (her favorite meal).
And sure, it all sounds crazy now. Essentially I wanted to live like I had before we were married, which made it even weirder when—in our increasingly rare interactions—Patti would badger me about starting a family.
She had to be kidding, right? She’d been crazy enough to marry me, of course, so thinking I was father material wasn’t that big a stretch, but I couldn’t take her seriously. Chalked it up to her odd sense of humor and concentrated on staying sane.
So it was no surprise when we split up that January. We’d made it six whole months (which impressed me more than it did friends and family), and we certainly parted amicably: forty years later I’m still close to Patti and her kids.
But when people ask me about marriage I always point to Silverdale and me on that beach. From where we sat you could see the wide expanse of the Narrows Bridge to the east, and though I didn’t know it at the time I’d marry another Scientologist after Patti.
Whose parents had jumped from that bridge when she was still a teenager.
They were on to something, but it wouldn’t have mattered if their ghosts had risen from the Sound to warn me: she was a killer elf.