And the Walls Come Down

garbins pose in their Easter finest.
The Garbin family poses in their Easter finest in front of the new house in 1965.

People have responded with overwhelming support since my last post, and I’m most grateful. Since going public, more information has come to the fore thanks to further inquiries by my sisters and cousin. To say that this comes as a shock probably understates my feelings. Consider my world rocked.

I continue to sort through still more revelations, and hope to get several bits of information verified, but suffice to say, I’ve learned that they paint a pretty miserable picture of my parents’ marriage — one even worse than my mother described.

She was trapped in an untenable situation. She came of age in an era where women got married and had babies. She married a cold, non-communicative husband in the Catholic church which took a dim view of divorce. She had an extremely moralistic, patriarchal brother who spent time in seminary. Her hometown could have adopted the song “Town Without Pity” as its unofficial anthem. She had kids in tow and never enough money. It must have been one of the most miserable periods of her life. My sisters and I could consider ourselves lucky she didn’t leave first!

None of this changes my regard for my mother. She fought for us, and struggled mightily to provide as best she could. However, she often said that if she was born twenty years later, she would have never married. Born twenty years later, I can see Mom in the front row at Woodstock.

The secrecy slices another facet of this story. No one said anything until my sisters and I finally started asking a few questions. It feels now like the floodgates have burst open. How much did people know? In a small town like Three Rivers, Massachusetts with its tight-knit French-Canadian community, everyone knew everyone’s business, and yet my sisters and I knew nothing for more than fifty years.

Right now, if you told me my mother spied for the KGB, I’d shrug my shoulders and ask, “What else ya got?”

From Here to Paternity

randy on the lap of Elaine Garbin
Me on my mom’s lap.

My mother was fond of saying that I was a “happy surprise.” Married in 1952, my parents would then have two daughters, one in 1954 and another in 1956. Five years later comes Randy. At no point did I feel like a mistake. My mother doted on me, and as the youngest and the only boy, my sisters will begrudgingly confirm the advantages I enjoyed as my mother’s favorite.

My parents did not have the best of marriages by any measure, and they divorced a few months after my sixth birthday. Mom would later cite my father’s poor money management as a major point of friction. He always had a job, but money always burned holes in his pocket. Mostly he would buy things like the latest tool or gadget, leaving nothing for the milk man. She resented that even in the June Cleaver era she couldn’t stay home with her babies. My mother always worked, and mostly at very low-paying sweatshop jobs just to make sure we had money for groceries.

Nevertheless, she never spoke ill of my father after the divorce. Despite her own struggles, she never wanted to keep us from him. He chose to stay away. After we reestablished contact with him in the mid-1970s, she encouraged me to reach out to him. I would visit, but my father almost never reciprocated. The welcome was hardly warm. Not once did he bother to pick up the phone and ask me over. Eventually, I gave up trying.

I tried not to let father issues weigh all that heavy on me through my adult life. Mostly I adopted an attitude of apathy about it, while vowing my daughter would not suffer the same treatment. I made good on that, at least, but I could not ignore the positive effects a stable family provided most of my friends.

After my mother died, I began to sort though the hundreds of photos Mom took of me growing up, considering them against the photos of all my other relatives. I came to one inescapable conclusion: I look like no one else in my family — on either side.

I grew up tying my identity to my genealogical narrative. My father’s parents immigrated from northern Italy, and my mother comes from a long line of French-Canadians that began with the founding of Montreal. While my mother’s side of the family bulged with extended relations we saw at weddings, funerals and other family events, I had only my grandmother on my father’s side. His father died before I was born. We had no cousins, at least on this side of the Atlantic.

Despite this, I embraced my Italian heritage, at times with more pride than my French side. After all, Italians just seemed more interesting. No one was making movies about French-Canadian gangsters and poutine barely registered in the American diet like pizza or lasagne.

Looking at myself as an infant and toddler, I could easily pass as an Italian baby, and though I didn’t look like my father at all, I believed that somewhere over in Italy lived my doppelgänger.

The cracks in this belief emerged while studying the photographs. The belief completely shattered when I discovered my blood type. My parents are both type O. I am B-negative. Ninth-grade biology will tell you that two Os can’t produce a B.

Revealing this finding to my sister shocked her, of course. A paternity test could absolutely verify this, but my father died in 2009. My sister and I could take a sibship DNA test, but the results only provide probabilities that could range from 20 to 90%. The blood types close the case.

Except that the blood types tell me almost nothing about my actual father. With my mother gone, the process of discovery leads me to her few remaining contemporaries, my aunt, my godmother, and another childhood friend of hers.

How do you drop this bomb upon frail 85-year-old ladies?

After telling my cousin of my discovery, she did approach her mother who did indeed confirm that Mom was likely having an affair the year before I was born. Last week, I traveled up to Massachusetts and after pleasant conversation with my godmother, I braced myself and asked, “Do you remember anything unusual going on in my mother’s life the year before I was born?”

After a short pause to take a breath, she said, “Your mother had a boyfriend.”

Unfortunately, my godmother couldn’t remember his name, but she did remember him as dark with curly hair. When I said that he was probably my father and explained why, my godmother’s sparkling smile faded away. “Honey, it hardly matters now,” she said.

“I know,” I replied. “I’m just trying to connect the dots. I still love my mother more than anything. I know she had a bad marriage, and I can hardly blame her.”

In the grand scheme of things, I agree with my godmother. However, we build our identity upon the foundation of our family history. Right now, it feels like half my house just collapsed.

So many questions arise from this new knowledge. Who was this guy? Did my mother know? Did my father?

Mom knew how to suppress her feelings, and I think that while she may have considered the possibility, I think that she buried that suspicion deep enough to completely forget about it. I can only wonder how the conversation would have gone had I figured this out before she died, but I suspect she would have told me the truth without hesitation. I’m afraid, however, that only she would have known his identity, and therefore half of mine.

My father may have suspected, but if so, he also likely suppressed it. A basic tenet of evolution says that infants look like the father to prevent infanticide. I looked more Hispanic than Alpine Italian.

I know I face extremely long odds of finding my father after 55 years. Some might say that my “real” father is the guy that raised me, except that my mother’s husband abandoned his children in 1967 and barely looked back. He had almost no involvement in my life from that point on, and now I realize that I wasted decades fretting about “father issues”.

My issues now involve not just heritage, but health, and for the sake of my daughter, I feel a responsibility to pursue this. Stay tuned.

Mom’s Gay Friends

James Casadevall and Wayne Craigue
James Casadevall and Wayne Craigue on the Connecticut River outside of Springfield, Vermont in 1971.

Update 11/16/15: It looks like James Casadevall died in Old Orchard Beach, Maine in 2000 at the age of 54. 

Three-plus years after my mother’s death, I am still plowing through and scanning photographs to share with the family. As it turns out, my mom was quite the shutterbug, and as someone long-interested in preserving history, I have enjoyed my immersion into her archives. However, part of that archive didn’t really belong to her, but to a couple of friends who came into our lives in the 1970s, Wayne Craigue and James Casadevall.

I have a personal policy of trying to reunite people with their photographs or shots that depict them, and this particular part of the archive has become a major challenge. Wayne died in 2007 and I haven’t yet determined Jimmy’s status.

In 1973, my mother began working at Art Cement Inc., a now-defunct company in Wilbraham, Massachusetts that made prefabricated concrete panels, mainly for buildings. This stint as an office clerk represented a welcome departure from her previous decade or more working in small industrial shops that still dotted the Chicopee River valley in Western Massachusetts. While at Art Cement, she became friends with their bookkeeper, Wayne Craigue.

After a few weeks working together, Wayne invited my mother and me to come have dinner at his house in West Springfield, where we’d also meet his roommate Jimmy. My twelve-year-old brain saw nothing unusual about this living arrangement, since the whole country saw two grown men living together on “The Odd Couple.” That the two also dealt antiques on the side, and they owned a particularly unpleasant schnauzer meant nothing to me.

My post-divorce mother had a parade of interesting characters coming and going during those years. Nothing at all deviant, but she had married friends trysting at our house at one point — even babysitting. Mom had mob connections, too. Every once in a while, a bookie named “Bendo” would come around to check in on mom, which I liked because he always gave me money. This was life growing up in the Garbin household.

Of course Wayne and Jimmy were gay, but my desire for a semblance of a normal, inconspicuous life and my simple ignorance overlooked that. I instead focused on how much fun we had together. Mom and I both enjoyed this new friendship. She got to have two young handsome men help her around the house, and I had father figures — or at least older brother figures — that managed to engage and entertain a bored-with-everything thirteen-year-old kid despite their lack of interest in sports or girls.

Even better, Wayne owned a motorboat and a four-person camper, and soon we went on weekend excursions at state park campgrounds around New England. Together, we traveled to Rocky Neck, Connecticut, Otis Lake, Massachusetts, and Lake Winnisquam in New Hampshire. I remember these trips as some of the best moments of my teen years.

As it happened, Wayne’s family owned a three-cabin compound of sorts along the Connecticut River in Springfield, Vermont. Some weekends, my mother and I might join the whole Craigue family, which included Wayne’s parents, his brother Denny, his brother’s friend Norman, his sister, and a few extended family members. Except for the parents, no one was married.

I had an idyllic time during my visits there. Jimmy took me out on the boat to fish. My mom waterskied. We built roaring campfires. One of the cabins had a 1930s-vintage radio with short wave band. The food was great, and the company was, well, lively!

I was well aware of homosexuality at the time, but I never really grew up with any hateful prejudices toward them or any other groups. My mother may have had her faults, but she did not raise her kids in a bigoted household. Maybe she harbored some ire towards Puerto Ricans and the Irish, but otherwise she had a fairly open mind about these things. I did deny for years that Elton John was gay, and during a discussion about Wayne and Jimmy with a relative who suggested maybe they were gay, I interjected, “No way!”

Nevertheless, on one morning during a stay at the Craigue camp, my mom announced that she and I would go out for breakfast on our own at the nearby Howard Johnson’s. I thought the move a little odd at the time, but soon after our food came, she revealed her agenda. My mother was bothered by something, and she wanted to see how I felt about it.

She realized that it wasn’t only Wayne and Jimmy that were gay, so was just about everyone else, except maybe the parents. I’m sure by the time that all these people introduced themselves to my mother and me, a few alarms sounded in her head. Gay people. River. Boats. All that’s missing were banjos.

Me, I thought they were all just a fun bunch. Bear in mind that this was Vermont, not the Castro district. This wasn’t La Cage Aux Folles. They may have lived an alternative lifestyle, but they seemed to me just like more stalwart, flannel donning Vermonters.

In the middle of breakfast, my mother just got to the point. “Don’t you think that family’s a little odd? I think they’re all gay.” Seeing that I was still in full denial mode, my mother backed off. My memory isn’t clear, but I don’t think we returned after that weekend. The trip didn’t affect the friendship with Wayne and Jimmy, but my mother may have had a good reason to stay away. About that time, Jimmy revealed to my mother that cousin Bruce wanted to make sexual advances toward me. Jimmy warned him that if he laid one finger on me, he’d kill him. I only found out about that years later. I remain forever grateful to Jimmy for that.

Jimmy Casadevall posing for a modeling portfolio.
Jimmy Casadevall posing for what looks like a modeling portfolio, likely somewhere in Florida where he spent most of his youth.

As a couple, the two of them seemed to bicker constantly, if not amusingly, and again, not unlike the fictional Odd Couple. Jimmy’s Felix also kept himself and his surroundings as neat as a pin, and though Wayne didn’t share the slobbishness of Oscar, he had a similar taciturn and sometimes grumpy disposition. Jimmy had an addiction to Dristan nasal spray, and they both smoked like chimneys, which didn’t bother my two-pack-a-day mother at the time.

Their antiques business took my mother and I to the Brimfield Flea Market for the first time, when it still occupied only a single field. They had their own booth there, and while fascinated with what seemed a massive assortment of stuff, I hated having to sleep on a lawn chair in the chilly night. From them, I did start to learn and appreciate all-things-vintage, which would later factor in my interest in roadside Americana and diners.

Eventually, the two began to drift out of my mother’s social orbit. A few years later, about 1980, the guys would split. Wayne eventually came out to my mother, which in no way surprised either of us. We didn’t really care, but like any divorcing couple, keeping friendships in the turmoil became problematic. She would often say how much she missed them. I did too.

The very last time I saw Jimmy was in 1981 where he worked the door at the infamous Frontier Club in downtown Springfield, Massachusetts. (I was there with my girlfriend at the time. The area had no better place to dance.) I’m sure he was as surprised to see me there as I him. My last time seeing Wayne came the year before when I worked at Art Cement for a summer.

Sometime in the early 1990s, my mother took some initiative and tracked Wayne down by calling his mother in Vermont. She shared that he had settled in Keene, New Hampshire, and though no longer a couple, Jimmy lived with him and Wayne’s new companion.

Mom described the conversation with some incredulity. “When I told him it was me, he just said ‘Oh, hi Elaine. How are you?’ like we had seen each other last week!”

I pocketed that bit of information, thinking that at some point in my travels into that part of New Hampshire, I’d look them up. I often passed through Keene in those days, but unfortunately, I never did seek them out.

I regret this now, because while cleaning out my mother’s house, I came into possession of four full slide carousels that belonged to Jimmy. Both my mother and I knew she still had them after several years. Jimmy asked my mother to store these and some other items for him. The years wore on, and it seemed less and less likely that Jimmy would come back on his own to reclaim them. After Mom died in 2012, the slides became my responsibility.

I took the cache with me back to Pennsylvania and put them aside, knowing that one day I’d at least look through them to maybe find some photographic gems and hopefully reunite them with Jimmy. Remembering that Wayne, being the “responsible” one of the pair, probably owned the house in Keene, I looked him up on the internet last month and found an address. When I sent him a letter, it returned a week or so later marked “undeliverable.” I did another search on the internet, and this time I found Wayne’s obituary. He died in 2006 at the age of 58.

Another Google search for Jimmy turned up the same Keene address, but the letter I sent also returned. The various white pages website list Jimmy in his 70s, and given his hypochondria and smoking habit, the chances of finding him alive seem dim.

I post this with the hope that either Jimmy or members of Wayne’s family or friends see this and help me fill in some blanks. If I don’t hear from anyone, I will need to dispose of the slides. Jimmy was a great guy, but he was no Edward Weston. They mostly consist of attempts at art photography — photos of swans and flowers — and tourist shots while traveling in Florida and Washington, D.C. The carousels also contain many blurry images of christmas lights and Vermont landscapes, as well as more of the Craigue family.

All in all, they represent a fairly substantial part of his life, and I know I would be grateful to have them back. No one is ever going to mount these slides in a projector, but it kills me to toss them out.


I, Trump

In the fine tradition of Benito Mussolini and Robert Moses, Donald Trump positions himself snugly into the pantheon of statism. He’s on record saying SCOTUS got it right on Kelo — one of the more egregious attacks on the Bill of Rights in decades.

Trump has a long record of seeking to personally profit from eminent domain abuse. One such incident occurred in 1994 when Trump joined forces with government officials in New Jersey in a legally unsuccessful attempt to kick an elderly widow out of her Atlantic City home in order to make room for a limousine parking for the nearby Trump Plaza hotel and casino.

Source: Donald Trump Trashes the Constitution, Endorses Eminent Domain Abuse – Hit & Run :

The idiocracy is upon us.

Is the S.S. United States headed toward the scrap yard?

The conservancy that owns the S.S. United States, a former queen of the sea that now rusts at a South Philadelphia dock, intends to retain a broker to explore selling the ship to a metals recycler.

Source: Is the S.S. United States headed toward the scrap yard?

It’s sad news, but this ship was a government-subsidized boondoggle from the very beginning. Built at the dawn of the jet age, the builders asked for and got about a third of the funds needed for construction on the pretense that it could be used as a troop transport. The ship never made any money, and it likely never will.

A hidden, tragic cost of highways

Think about how much money in property and sales taxes were generated by the homes and businesses that formerly stood on these parcels before they fell victim to the wrecking ball so that high-speed roadways could be shoved through the urban fabric. Equally important, think of all the lives that were uprooted in the name of “progress.”

Source: Ghost Parcels Show How Urban Highways Squandered Valuable Land | Streetsblog Chicago

Remember that the lost revenue from these highway projects is not otherwise covered by gasoline taxes. Remember this whenever anyone says that highways are not subsidized through other taxes.

Give the cows earplugs

CARE claims that increased train traffic along the route will slow emergency responders, interfere with coastal boat traffic, and make grade crossings more dangerous. Similar opposition has been a continuing thorn in the side of modern rail development. In Texas, ranchers have opposed a high-speed line between Dallas and Houston because, among other things, it might upset their cows.

Source: Why All Aboard Florida’s private passenger rail faces heavy opposition

If the steam-belching behemoths of the 19th century didn’t drive the cows nuts, I think they’ll be fine with the smoother, quieter locomotives we have today.

“Shareholder value is the dumbest idea in the world”

Maximizing shareholder return has given us our corporate malaise of today when profits are high (but are they real?) stocks are high, but few investors, managers, or workers are really happy or secure. Maximizing shareholder return is bad policy both for public companies and for our society in general. That’s what Jack Welch told the Financial Times in 2009, once Welch was safely out of the day-to-day earnings grind at General Electric: “On the face of it,” said Welch, “shareholder value is the dumbest idea in the world. Shareholder value is a result, not a strategy… your main constituencies are your employees, your customers, and your products. Managers and investors should not set share-price increases as their overarching goal. … Short-term profits should be allied with an increase in the long-term value of a company.”

Source: I, Cringely The U.S. computer industry is dying and I’ll tell you exactly who is killing it and why – I, Cringely

Just more ratchet clicking

I listened to some guy today talk about calls to increase the gas tax nationwide. At one point, I might have been sympathetic to this notion, but I’ve lived long enough now to realize that it won’t do any good. It’ll just be another click in the ratchet. Yes, at first, there will be a lot of catch-up finally done with crumbling infrastructure, but then with all that money rushing in, people will begin to think of new ways to spend the windfall. New ways that will cost more in maintenance, and before long, we’ll be just as broke as before they raised it.

Now THIS is the part of the Tea Party logic I am completely on board with. The frustration being vented there (at least regarding fiscal matters) is a recognition that no matter how much you raise taxes/fees, the politics it will create will NEVER abate and the demand to spend money we don’t have will only continue.

Republicans are being accused of reigning in Government by starving it, but I can clearly see why. I don’t particularly agree with it, but I get it. I’d rather both sides just say, “Uh, well, we can’t do that because we simply can’t afford it.” Raise the gas tax? Maybe we have too many highways. Did you think of that? That whole stretch of I-88 between Schenectady and Binghamton could be abandoned tomorrow and no one outside of a 30 mile radius of that road will even notice. I’d bet that there’s another 20% of the system that we could similarly abandon or turn into parkways and give them back to the states. Period.

I’ve been saying cut EVERYTHING by 5%. No one is going to die with 5% less. Our family have been getting along with far less, and we’re not starving, at least. When we figure out that the world isn’t going to end without all that hand-holding, then the following year, cut another 5%. Before long, you’ve cut 25% and we wonder how we let things get so out of control in the first place. I suspect life will end up getting much better for everyone.

Throw government off the train (planes and automobiles)

The current state of our passenger rail system in particular and our transportation policy in general points out the hypocrisies of both Left and Right. The Left, like Bernie Sanders, wants more Amtrak, except that his brand of politics killed off passenger rail in back in the 1920s and through the rest of the century. The Right wants to end subsidies for passenger rail but not for the other modes of transportation that their constituencies typically use, and it so happens most of those voters come from places that were built up after we killed off passenger rail. 

Me, I’m tired of seeing Amtrak and passenger rail as a political football. Government must get out of the transportation business, and these constant, never-ending battles is exactly why. Level the playing field, return it all to private enterprise, and we’ll all be fighting each other for a seat on the train.

There is a popular notion at large, part of a sort of phantom “bi-partisan” centrist conviction, that the degradation of American infrastructure, exemplified by the backwardness of our trains and airports, too, is a failure of the American political system. We all should know that it is bad to have our trains crowded and wildly inefficient—as Michael Tomasky points out, fifty years ago, the train from New York to Washington was much faster than it is now—but we lack the political means or will to cure the problem. In fact, this is a triumph of our political system, for what is politics but a way of enforcing ideological values over merely rational ones? If we all agreed on common economic welfare and pursued it logically, we would not need politics at all: we could outsource our problems to a sort of Saint-Simonian managerial class, which would do the job for us.

Source: The Plot Against Trains – The New Yorker

Gopnick fails to mention that fifty years ago, that faster train was run by a private company on privately owned land.