Can of Worms

The payphone was calling to me from just beyond the Courthouse steps, as if placed there specifically at my disposal by a meddling prop-man. At the same moment, my head felt like it contained a pinball (polished, silver) in perpetual motion. What should I do? Who first to call? Where is she right now? I had to tell somebody. It couldn´t wait another second. I wanted to meet her. That day. That afternoon. Virginia Peters. Virginia M. Peters, of Boston. My mother – the one who gave birth to me, and then gave me away.

Nothing would stop me from finding her. It´s not that I wanted to change my life or exchange it for whatever I had before. I didn´t. I was pretty happy and aware enough to realize I had things I would never have had were I not adopted. I may not have known where I came from, at least the specifics, but I knew where I was – or at least I thought I did. I felt strong enough to take a look, even convinced myself I just wanted to know what happened. Where did I live those first two years? Did she keep me? When did she let me go? Why was I in that house in Dorchester with that other woman? Why did my mother give me away? The fact that people were making it difficult to find out made me more determined.

But first I wanted to tell someone what I had just done. I had cleared a hurdle – not just a hurdle; I had climbed a wall. I had a name. Obviously, I could not have had my adoptive name prior to my adoptive parents taking me home. Since I was almost 2 when they did so, I must have been called by something for those first two years. The fact that it had never once occurred to me in the intervening 22 years was, if nothing else, a testament to how deeply buried those feelings were. But now, I was going to find her. She was, after all, from Boston. How hard could it be?  I just came from Boston an hour before, from Scollay Square (www.bambinomusical.com/Scollay/History.html). The Combat Zone was barely a lap dance removed from the Old Howard Theater (www.bambinomusical.com/Scollay/Howard.html). (www.universalhub.com/glossary/combat_zone_the.html) . The address my birthmother gave when she signed the Consent for Adoption was on Washington Street, smack in the middle of the Combat Zone (www.wbur.org.com/2010/02/19/combat-zone; She was probably not still there, but how far could she have gone?

The Combat Zone (some say its colorful name is derived from when the military police patrolled the area) was Boston´s adult entertainment answer to the urban renewal of Scollay Square. The City collectively worried that the closing of the Old Howard burlesque house, along with the demolition of Scollay Square, would lead to the proliferation of that sort of entertainment into other, more upscale Boston neighborhoods. The Puritans liked everything in its proper place. And so the politicians progressively begat the Combat Zone – a two block area along Washington Street, next to Chinatown (sweet and sour sex!) – bars where nobody knew your name and everyone wanted to keep it that way.(www.wbur.org/2010/02/19/combat-zone) We teenagers who missed out on the Old Howard (for want of a few years’ growth), on seeing the likes of Ann Corio (www.anncorio.com) or Irma the Body (www.thecrimson.com/article/1953/10/30/police-may-close-old-howard-after/) applauded the City elders in their infinite legislative wisdom. I wonder, by the way, if the legislators consulted Wilbur Mills, the infamous power broker and Chairman of the  U.S. House of Representative´s Ways and Means Committee? He was still a few years away from that splendid night at the Tidal Basin, culminating in his own Waterloo at the Pilgrim Burlesque Theatre in the Combat Zone. In November, 1974 Mills walked onstage during the performance of Fanne Foxe, aka The Argentine Firecracker (his Tidal Basin playmate), (www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,911535,00.html). Later that night, he became the only member of the House of Representatives to give a press conference in the dressing room of a stripper (Fanne´s), perhaps not what the City elders had in mind when they created the Combat Zone. Alas, not even the legislative wisdom of Puritanical Boston could save Wilbur. He resigned his Ways and Means Committee chairmanship, only to go on to become Of Counsel to one of the most powerful law firms in the country. I am sure Wilbur, in a sober moment, would have preferred that news of his burlesque cameo not see the light of day. If something like that can become so public, why is it that my own past is sealed from me and the world?

The Combat Zone was around for 15 years or so, petering out in the mid 1980’s. Now it´s called the Ladder District, because the street grid there looks like the rungs of a ladder. When my mother used that Washington Street address in 1948, it was a different area, though by no means upscale. For me, in 1972, at least it was a start, a place to begin looking. It was way more information than I had an hour before. Without knowing why, it also all seemed to fit, like one of O.J.’s gloves. 

I continued to debate silently who to call to share my discovery. This was, however, 1972. Pre cell phone. I could not whip out a Smartphone and simultaneously send a text message to all my contacts. The New England Telephone pay phone was standing by itself  in the open air, under a green maple – I hoped it wasn´t the same tree they used for Jason Fairbanks.  He wasn´t making any phone calls in 1801, but he knew enough, after his murder conviction, to convince his brother to help him escape from the Dedham Jail. Unfortunately for Jason, he was soon captured, followed by a life shortening ceremony on the Dedham Town Common. In the 1920’s, Sacco and Vanzetti probably weren´t making many phone calls either, but they did have half the country up in arms about their trial and, later, execution. As opposed to those Dedham visitors, I was a free man, and the State of Massachusetts had given me what it promised – not a lot, but what it had promised, maybe even with a little empathy thrown in by the ¨don´t be hurt by what you read¨ lady, the matronly looking clerk of the Dedham Probate Court.

I didn´t call my wife, though she was the obvious choice. I am not sure why; maybe it was the payphone/long distance thing. I might not have known her work number. She only had a summer job. She may not have even had a telephone. For some reason, I am not sure why, I was going to wait until I got home to tell her – I think because I never told her I was going in the first place. Secrecy in adoption comes in all shapes and sizes.

There was no way I was telling my mother or father. Not then. Maybe not ever. It was important to me to avoid causing them any needless hurt. I had a right to know what happened to me – something I suddenly felt more strongly about now that I had a little information. But I did not have a right, let alone a desire, to unnecessarily disrupt the lives of other people. Just let me do my thing, find out the scoop, and I´ll be on the road again, thank you very much.

In 1972 I was 8 years removed from Needham High School, just down the road. Those friends (who remain friends now) were scattered. Some of them did not even know I was adopted. Like a lot of early childhood friendships, as strong as they are, months, sometimes years could go by with little or no contact. That left one person  to tell – my sister, Carol. Six years older, adopted herself (separately), we weren´t what you would call close. Still aren´t – a person of enormous talent, matched by what seemed an equal amount of stress, even anger. I was a pleaser, many times to my detriment. Carol seemed mostly pissed off. But, hey…. who would relate more than her? I convinced myself she needed to know because she might want to do the same thing herself. What if they closed the records (which is exactly what happened), and I had not told her about her right to see her own file? But the real reason I was calling had only to do with me. I wanted to tell somebody what I had done, what I had accomplished. I wanted to shout it to the world – but I also felt constrained, a little bit guilty – maybe – to be so excited about wanting to know something that so many people seemed to wish I would just sweep under a carpet.

I picked up the black phone, deposited 10 cents, and dialed my sister´s number in Needham Heights. She answered. I told her I wanted to tell her something but I first wanted her to promise me that she would not tell our parents – a co-conspiracy of my making. She agreed, and I spilled the beans. As I was telling her what I had done and what I had discovered, she did not seem all that excited. Nothing more than one word answers. Distant, common for Carol. I mentioned she might want to go look herself. No, she didn´t. It was not a long conversation, nor a pleasant one, but I was on such a high, I was not going to let her spoil the party. As I hung up the phone, perplexed but undeterred, it occurred to me that Carol was not only an adoptee, but an adoptive mother as well – something I conveniently neglected to consider before calling her. She did not want to look herself, and if she was happy for me she did a good job of hiding her enthusiasm.

Now what? Not wanting to endure the disapproval of someone else, I decided to defer my self-congratulatory calls. What could I do to find my birthmother quickly, without alerting my adoptive parents? It was tricky, and it seemed I would have to coordinate the search myself, in secrecy. My father had a local lawyer for many years, Hector Skull (how Dickensian!). Hector (never Mr. Skull) lived and maintained his law practice in Needham. I thought maybe he knew something of my adoption. I don´t know that I had spoken two words to him in my life, but a moment later I was calling directory assistance for his office number. I was soon speaking directly with him, and, like the conversation with Carol, asked if I could discuss something him that he would not mention to my parents. A short, balding man, Hector spoke in gruff, staccato sound bites. I hesitated, aware I was taking a chance (the first of many), but pushed forward. Did he know anything of the circumstances of my adoption? I told him what I had done, the information I had received. Cordial, though not impressed, Hector said he knew nothing (whether or not he did, I have no idea). He then offered some advice:  ¨Donny (they all called me Donny), my advice is to leave it alone. You are just going to open a can of worms. Inside my head, the whirling pinball tilted. No smooth sailing. This was going to be a choppy ride. Choppy or not, nothing was going to stop me, not even a few days later when I learned my sister had told our parents everything.

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