I came home from school, my dad wasn’t there which was uncommon, but not unusual. He worked graveyard at the restaurant – making the sauces and deserts for the following day. He’d get home after I’d left for school, sleep, and would generally be up, sometimes out doing errands or whatnot, before I was home again. I dumped my bag on the foot of my bed, drank some water, and ran back out the door. My friend was waiting for me downstairs and we were going to go to her house, which was in the neighborhood adjacent to ours. I didn’t notice the candy wrapper she’d dropped on the stoop – her favorite, one I didn’t like. I stayed there for a few hours and then came home. When I came in, dad greeted me from the kitchen and asked how playing at Crystal’s was. He hadn’t asked any questions, and I hadn’t told him where I was going. It drove me nuts when he’d do that.
This was a game he played with me. He could nearly always tell me what time I’d gotten home, what I’d done while I was there, how long I’d been there, and where I’d gone if I left. All without asking any questions. When I pressed him about how he did it, halfway convinced he was psychic, he’d just shake his head and say I could do it too, I just needed to pay attention. Granted I was only ten, so it’s not like it was difficult to figure out what I was doing. But the mechanics of it was what eluded me and I desperately wanted to know.
Slowly, I started to take tentative stabs at doing the same thing to him. You went to the barber? Yes. How did you know? Uhhh, you always go to the barber’s? I don’t always go to the barber’s, but you’re starting with the right idea.
Some time later when he went to the barber’s I was home sick. He was working days at this point and I watched him rush in from work, draw a bath —
I want to pause a second to explain the bath: a) we didn’t have a shower and b) working in restaurant kitchens is sweaty dirty work, he wanted the oil, sweat, and grime off his body immediately. Not having a shower suited me just fine. I was afraid of them until I was 12, but that’s another story.
Anyway, while the bath was filling, he went into the kitchen and got things ready to make a cup of coffee —
Another pause; about the coffee – it was 1981 long before Peet’s or Starbucks had made a dent in N. California coffee consciousness and we had always made what is now called “pour over coffee”, which is still my preferred way of making it. I had to stop myself from laughing when a well-meaning young woman at Peet’s recently explained to me, because I am obviously ancient and clueless, that xyz blend was intended to be made by pour over and what pour over meant. To be fair, I still have to stop myself from asking for beans to be ground for Melita grind, which was the prominent brand for pour over filters and how the slightly courser than espresso grind but not as course as for percolators was referred to in most coffee stores, so I might have squinted at her when she said “pour over” trying to connect the words to her meaning.
Back to dad and his barber appointment. He ground the coffee, put it in the filter, put that and his coffee cup on the counter, and filled the kettle. He took his bath and then while getting dressed boiled the water. He made the coffee, gulped it down, put the cup on the counter – actually a custom made wooden chopping block – and rushed out the door.
My dad was a very tidy and neat person. Things were put away, dishes were cleaned, counters were wiped immediately – he was a chef, counters were pretty much continuously being wiped down, beds were made every morning, garbage was taken out every night, all furniture was dusted once a week, etc. I recognized in what I’d just witnessed several things. One of which was that because he had an appointment, he didn’t have time to clean up the coffee makings, the paper filter had been deposited in the garbage with the used coffee grinds, but the plastic filter was just placed in the sink. His coffee cup was on the counter, not washed and put away. The kettle was placed on the front burner instead of emptied and on the back burner – where it lived most of the time.
Suddenly I got it and I could play the game now too. He was delighted when one day he came in from running errands and I was able to tell him that he’d been gone about an hour. I tic’d off my reasoning: the house didn’t have the humidity and soapy smells from the bath I knew he’d taken because his towel was still damp, but there were beans cooking on the stove and the first thing he did when he walked in the door was to add a little more water. He hadn’t planned on being out that long. Which I gathered, because he made one of his faces as he added the water and muttered under his breath. – Dad was always making various faces at his food while he cooked, eyebrows flying up or coming together, lips smirking, grimacing, or pursing, depending on how well it was complying with his commands.
It was sometime around this that I discovered Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot detective novels, which started a lifelong love for mystery writing (though I’ve never been able to get through a Miss Marple book). But in this fastidious little man I felt like I was being given a key to my dad and his powers of observation. I devoured every one of the books. Over the next couple of years I mastered the game and dad and I gradually stopped playing. Though there would be moments when both of us would notice some trifling detail in other contexts and exchange a conspiratorial look.
He acknowledged that he was intentionally teaching me to be observant, to hone some deductive reasoning. He wanted to arm me against a world hell bent on manipulating and deceiving us – politically, commercially, personally. He wasn’t prone to conspiracy theories, he was just an old hippy who’d been part of a movement to raise consciousness and escape the saccharine-sweet and compliant post-WWII world in which he had come of age.
As a young adult I discovered this skill I had unnerved people. At work I routinely anticipated people’s needs or had what to them was an uncanny ability to produce exactly what they were looking for before they could ask. I didn’t have the heart to tell them we worked in cubicles and they talked loudly on the phone, so it wasn’t hard to figure out that their calendar said they were meeting about xyz and therefore they’d either need this report or this was the answer to the question they said they’d get answered. I kind of enjoyed the Radar-like reputation I had (he was one of my favorite M*A*S*H characters anyway.)
Sometimes I found it overwhelming and it took me a long time to figure out how to selectively tune in and decide when I wanted to pay attention and what was important to be attentive about. If I had to point to any gift my dad gave me in his parenting, though, this would be one of the most valuable. It’s served me as a writer, as a performer, as a director, and in my business professional life in so many ways.
I recently re-read the Poirot mystery The ABC Murders. I thought I’d revisit it before watching the Malkovich vehicle on Netflix. It had been so long ago that I’d read any of the books that I had no real memory of the plot or who had done what. I remembered only that it had something to do with the specific typewriter used. But I was so happy to spend some time with that fastidious little detective and see clearly what ten year old me had so eagerly latched onto, working her own mystery: how does he do it?
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