Looking For Mr. & Mrs. Losnick
It's a sweltering day in Central Hollywood, the kind that always reminds me of melted gum sticking to my shoes.
I don't usually walk around my neighborhood, due in part to the preponderance of strung-out transvestites and crack dealers. Today, though, I'm antsy. I throw on some sneakers and walk until I find myself at the gates of Hollywood Forever, the legendary cemetery just a block away from my apartment. Though I've lived here a year, I've never visited the place, which is famous for housing the graves of Hollywood greats like Rudolph Valentino, Tyrone Power and John Huston.
For hours, I stroll the grounds. The sound of my own steps in the quiet is relaxing, like knitting is relaxing, which is odd, since I am surrounded by dead people. I know it sounds morbid, but I've always loved cemeteries. They're like the ocean in terms of giving you perspective.
I walk through the Jewish section, where gangster Bugsy Siegel is buried. I notice the grave of Mel Blanc, the voice of Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig. Below an etched Jewish star, his epitaph reads, "That's all folks."
I had no idea that amongst the greats and not so greats at Hollywood Forever are my grandparents, Mr. & Mrs. Losnick.
It's a week later and I'm at a family reunion.
I think of it more as a convention of secrets. Picture a thick fog of obscured facts with some potato salad thrown in and that's my family reunion. I barely know many of my relatives on this side of family, because my mother moved away to San Francisco when I was three, losing touch with most of them and rarely discussing her past. A few years ago, my mother's sister, with whom she had stopped speaking, killed herself. To say that's a touchy subject would be, well, an understatement. I don't know who to talk to or what to say so I stick close to mom.
Just making conversation, I mention my walk through the famous cemetery.
Off-handedly, she remarks, "Oh, Hollywood Forever? Your grandparents are there."
"In the mausoleum. You may have missed them, they're up top, in a drawer."
"You put your parents in a drawer?"
"In the mausoleum. They wanted to be in the mausoleum."
"Mom, I wouldn't put you in a drawer."
"That's very sweet of you," she says, looking off distractedly.
Her parents were the original King and Queen of secrets. My grandmother was part of the Polish resistance before immigrating to America. My grandfather fought in three armies, came to America and became involved with the Communist Party here. He was also a house painter and an actor in the Yiddish theatre. That's all I really know. My grandfather lied about his age, his name and we don't know what else when he arrived on Ellis Island. He had another wife before my grandmother, a little daughter who died in an accident and a grown son who died in a fire. Like many immigrants, their lives were full of tragedy and shrouded in mystery.
Apparently, they passed on their love of secrets to my mother, who failed to mention that her parents, in a totally random coincidence, are buried just a block from where I now live.
I find myself walking toward the cemetery again. It's Saturday, and the gardener tells me the Beth-Olam Mausoleum is closed for Shabbat.
I stop by the office anyway. It's under construction and only a secretary is working. I tell her I'm looking for two people. I can't say "my grandparents" for some reason. I guess because it's so embarrassing not to know exactly where they are. She tells me she needs the years of death. I give her a range but I can't remember for sure. That's when I notice there are no computers in the room.
The secretary gets out two huge, dusty black books and begins to peruse them. She doesn't know it, but she's looking for my grandma and grandpa in those books. I chuckle to myself for some reason, as I watch her. I can't stop thinking those are the "Big Black Books of Death."
I joke, "That's one book you don't want to find yourself in." She doesn't laugh. Her eye make-up is caked on and garish in the Saturday sunlight. I wonder who she's trying to impress.
"I need an exact year of death," she says, munching a pretzel. "I can't just look through all the Ls."
Now I know I'm in trouble. I have to go to the source. Discussing anything more emotional than a shoe sale with my mother is always problematic. I call her anyway. I've got to get the dates of death, and I want to know why she doesn't visit her own parents.
"What do they care? They're dead."
Mom's not real sentimental. I suggest her little motto would make a nice condolence card. I get a laugh and that's really the most I can get from her so I'm happy.
I become fixated on finding Chaim and Mildred, on locating the drawer that contains the remains of grandparents. They weren't really part of my life and I'll never know their secrets, but the search is something I have. It is mine.
I wonder if they have been watching over me all this time, living in my little hovel just down the street. When I chose an apartment in this less-than-desirable neighborhood, was I compelled by their presence? The thought is soothing, like a smooth stone I keep in my pocket to look at once in awhile. While I know their approximate whereabouts, I have to see their names, to pay my respects, to feel a connection to these people I hardly knew.
I call my mom again.
"Do you mind if I look for grandma and grandpa? And do you mind if I write about it?"
"Sure, why not?" You would think the Princess of secrets would hate to have me as a daughter, someone who divulges personal information almost compulsively. On the contrary, she has always encouraged me to do so.
My mother has nothing but secrets. I have none. And that, I realize, is her gift to me.
I find myself back at Hollywood Forever, where I wander into a chapel containing shelves of urns in glass cases. It's dark and cold. I notice a janitor sweeping up and I ask, "Is it weird working here, I mean, with all these - ashes?"
"I worry about live people, not dead," he answers. "Are you here to see Valentino?"
I nod yes, not wanting to explain.
The Beth-Olam mausoleum is open, so I decide to take a peek inside. It's huge and three stories high. I walk around looking up, looking for Losnick. I keep thinking about the phrase, "top drawer," which I've looked up in a dictionary of cliches. The phrase comes from the custom of putting jewelry and valuables in the top drawer.
My neck aches and my eyes blur as I scan above me. After a few minutes, I realize I'll never find them without knowing what section they're in. I resign to go to the front desk with the dates of death I've gotten from mom - 1972 and 1980, she thinks.
Just then, I look up. There they are.
"Chaim Losnick. Loving husband, father and grandfather, 1891-1972." "Mildred Losnick. Loving wife, mother and grandmother, 1909-1981." Mom was close.
Unlike the other plaques, there are no Jewish stars or bronze vases for flowers.
I sit, leaning against a marble wall, which feels cool and solid against my back. I check the section number - T9. Now I know.
Staring at their names, I can't remember anything as comforting as the quiet calm and clean marble of the place, of my little perch below my grandparents' drawer in section T9.
Down the hall, a man is placing a red carnation in a bronze vase. I have the sudden urge to bond with him, to say, "My grandparents are here, too!" He seems to be having a moment and I don't want to bother him. Clutching my knees to my chest, I just sit alone for awhile, noticing how unusual it is for me to willingly prolong solitude. I'm alone, but I don't feel lonely.
I have found the Losnicks, but I still have questions. I ask the secretary if I can interview someone. She intercoms the cemetery's president, Tyler Cassity. I'm expecting an undertaker with a grim expression and a navy suit. Instead, Tyler walks out of his office like a GAP ad coming to life. He's blond and handsome in a white oxford shirt and chinos.
The first thing I learn is that the drawers are called "crypts," and there are 5,000 of them in Beth Olam. Even he is amazed that I found my grandparents so fast. Top drawer, I keep thinking.
I ask about his background. Tyler tells me his family took over the cemetery after it went into bankrupt due to neglect and mismanagement. I ask if it effects his dating life, being in such an unusual line of work.
"You have to make a decision who you want to tell," he explains. "It's not usually a problem, though. Working here, you get very accustomed to death."
Am I flirting with the cemetery man, I wonder? I get on to my next question. The vase. I want a place to leave flowers and I inquire as to the cost of having a vase installed. He tells me that will run me $227. With tax.
As I'm leaving, I remember my last question and ask, "Why aren't you computerized? Why the Big Black Books of Death?"
"We will be," he says. "We're working on that now."
Tyler, I say to myself. Only a guy named Tyler could look like that.
I call mom again. She has taken one of her "back pills" and is a little giddy when she picks up the phone.
"Mom, where and how do you want to be buried?"
"I want to be not dead."
"But, mom, you're gonna be dead."
"I don't care, just don't make a fuss. You know I don't like attention being called to me."
She explains that her parents didn't want Jewish stars on their graves because they were atheists, and they didn't want flower vases because they didn't want a fuss.
"They bought the drawers themselves," she adds. "I guess they wanted the econobox." Ironically, this is how my dad refers to my car, a 1986 Honda Civic. I ask her again why she doesn't want to visit my grandparents at Hollywood Forever.
"Why would I want to visit a box of bones?" She takes a long pause. "It's not that I don't think about them or remember them. We're just not flower kind of people. We don't do that."
I scrap my plan to save up $227 for a vase. But I know I'll be back.
"Do you want to meet my grandparents?" I say to a friend, who is game enough to walk down Santa Monica Boulevard with me.
I'm like a House of Death tour guide, telling him about the cemetery, about the Losnicks in the top drawer, about how lucky I was to find them.
"Do you want to be in a drawer?" he asks.
I realize a drawer is the last place I want to spend eternity, especially a top drawer. I want to be buried where people can find me, with a big stone bench next to my grave. I want people to have a nice place to sit and visit on a Saturday afternoon, a place to come and tell me their secrets.