Posts by Erika
1.) He swallowed a diamond, wrapped in chewing gum and saran wrap, to get it out of the Belgian Congo. Age 16.
2.) He swam out to an anchored cruise ship, touched it with his hand, smiled and waved to the passengers before swimming back to shore. Age 14.
3.) Using a machete, he chopped the head and the tail off of a Banana Snake. Age 15.
These were my favorite stories that, as a kid, I asked him to tell and re-tell in hopes that there was one more detail. How Little Silver, NJ, that Irish-and-Italian Catholic town, landed an Egyptian-born Armenian immigrant was luck of the draw, I guess.
In 1977, Atkin and Connie Simonian moved their family to Little Silver, NJ from Wheaton, IL because, in my New England-born mother’s retelling, “I told him I was going to leave him unless we moved back east.” In 1979 their divorce was made final, so I guess the midwest wasn’t the only problem.
Something about family life, or a marriage to my mother, or professional demands, or his strict, middle-eastern upbringing, or some combination of the above, shut my father down pretty whole-heartedly. Alcohol helped. One day in Wheaton, while mowing the front lawn, Atkin fell over and passed out right there in the grass. He’d had 6 beers. Our across-the-street neighbor, Arlene, came storming over, sat him up and gave him hell, lecturing straight into his glazed eyes about what a disgrace he was to God and his family, as my mom looked on, smiling.
When the custody agreement came down, I was 8 years old. Our mom told us we would live with her six months of the year and with him six months of the year. My brother, Alex, and I would stay full-time in the house while they moved in and out. We were stunned. The thought of living with our father WITHOUT our mother was akin to hearing you were getting set to live with the man who checks the electricity meter. That’s how well we felt we knew our dad.
The rotation of move in/move out went on for 6 years. As Atkin was fired from job 1, then 2, then 3 for drinking, his daily drinking routine became more of that – a routine. He drank in his office at the back of the house, and by the evening he was ready to pick a fight about something. Obviously we couldn’t be honest with him about how unhappy we were, so half of each year felt like a form of imprisonment. Our mother called daily, but the more his alcoholism progressed, the more paranoid Atkin became; he listened in on our phone conversations while she repeatedly demanded he hang up. She threatened court, etc., but nothing really helped, which is partially my fault.
But more on that a bit later.
Our father’s alcoholism was a despairing situation. There are countless stories that would make this chapter insufferably long, but some memories stick out. One of his best friends from Egypt, who now lived in north Jersey, used to bring his family to Little Silver to visit us and go to the beach. I loved this family of three boys because they were fun to hang out with and a break from our otherwise mostly solitary family life. There were always shenanigans afoot – wrestling, hiding, silly games, and though their father was strict with all the boys, he treated me like an innocent princess. Their mom was an easy-going, fun-loving lady who, pre-divorce, had loved to yuk it up with my mom over various absurdities.
One day, Atkin got so drunk he could barely walk and when they were pulling out of our driveway to leave, my dad, laughing and stumbling, slurred, “I wanna kiss your wife!” Mortified, I watched the movie of him holding onto the car door…. they went from trying to laugh it off to asking him, increasingly nervously, to please let go before they finally drove off, dragging him only a little bit before his hands came dislodged from her window and he fell to his knees in the driveway. He was still laughing, and to their credit, they were still his close friends.
Little Silver had about four main roads in its one square mile, and we’d swerved our way home through them on countless occasions. With no traffic lights, we were entrusted to stop signs, which, if you’re drunk at night, are easy to miss. The fact that we often-enough narrowly avoided crashing into trees had the odd effect of making me feel completely safe in a car with him, sort of the way you trust that a rollercoaster won’t roll off its track (though of course your odds are quite a bit better on a rollercoaster than in a car with a drunk driver).
Perhaps the most telling symptom of my father’s illness was that he’d stay up at night and ask me to talk with him. Alex, the extremely book-wormy and gentle animal-lover sort, would steer clear, staying in his room. He didn’t want to be a target, and often was if he was out in the open for not being the sports enthusiast, son-archetype that my father wanted. Protective of my brother, pitying of my father, I felt invincible, too young to feel vulnerable to or recognize that brand of danger. As a matter of fact, in those days I leaned into danger with an interest in knowing more of the world.
On occasion, Atkin would stare straight ahead and say through watery eyes. ‘Will you take care of me when I’m sick and dying in 10 years?”
“Yes,” I lied. Or so I thought.
I steered him toward his bedroom at the end of the hall for many nights until I figured out that the hallway was narrow enough that he could bump his way down, pinball-style, and make it through the bedroom door on his own.
One mom-weekend about 2 years in, we stayed with her at her newly-rented, run-down but oddly beautiful apartment one town over, in Red Bank. It was nearly empty, save for three beds, a chair, and an old wasp’s nest in a corner of the kitchen ceiling that had lived there longer than anyone else had. We asked her if she could please try again to get full custody of us. She said what she usually said, and was true – she didn’t have the money – but she listened intently as she always did, and based on the stories we were telling her, decided to go for it one last time.
We silently awaited the day with anticipation, and when it came, Alex and I were requested to show in court as well. I pictured a courtroom, a jury, a la To Kill A Mockingbird, which I’d recently seen on TV — high drama with a handsome, charismatic lawyer. However, in the hallway outside of the courtroom, there stood only the four of us: my mom, my brother, and me — and my father, five or so yards away from us, looking cleaned-up in a three piece suit and, I saw, very sad.
My parents’ respective (unhandsome and uncharismatic) lawyers joined us as we walked into an empty courtroom. When Judge Kennedy emerged from the back, he motioned for Alex and me to join him in his chambers. At ages 10 and 9, we dutifully followed and found our seats across from him. Kennedy looked directly at me.
“Nobody will know what we talked about in here, I assure you. Erika, we’ll start with you; who do you like living with better, your mother, or your father?”
I was horrified. How would my father not know what we said if Kennedy took only us into his chambers and came out with a verdict? Having been under the impression that others would be called on to relate our stories, my immediate sinking realization was that my father would die, and I mean literally – if he knew we, his children, had rejected him.
I paused. “We like living with them both the same.”
“Both the same. Ok, Alex?”
Alex barely looked at me or the judge. “Both the same too”, he said quietly. It was understood in those days that Alex did, said, and agreed with anything I said, due to his extreme shyness and general discomfort in the world.
“Ok, then, come with me.” He stood up, escorted us back to the courtroom where he pronounced that there would be no change to the custody agreement.
I don’t remember what happened after that; my mind goes white when I try to recall the details. What I do remember is that my father smiled, then we said goodbye to him and drove back to the house in Little Silver with my mother. Through her bedroom door, I heard her sobbing into the night. She didn’t talk to me for a few days, except to tell me how I’d ruined the whole thing. I begged her through my own tears to see if she could call them — there had to be a way to reverse it. There wasn’t.
About Atkin, he was sincerely interested in people, sociable, educated, and fluent in Armenian, French, English and Arabic; he was a great tennis player, a fabulous cook and a chemist who had invented and patented several metal plating alloys. He was also worldly, handsome and funny — when he wasn’t a mess. His friends in Little Silver all said the same thing; “He’s so wonderful when he’s sober!” A handful of neighborhood moms had crushes on him, which made my brother and me sick, but still. He attended most all of my plays and soccer games (which was somewhat stressful for me, being a good enough player but not ever the best player, etc., and he was mighty competitive). He took me out to lunch, he was the one to take me to visit colleges I was interested in, he was involved in all the ways a good-dad-on-paper is. But he was emotionally twisted into a knot on the inside. He was sent suddenly and alone to America at age 16 as his family fled the Belgian Congo in all directions to escape a governmental coup, and he settled with an aunt and cousins he’d never met. They were a loving bunch and became his family, but he rarely saw his birth family ever again.
All this to say that Atkin was lost from the start. And though he didn’t say as much, he was heartbroken too.
Many things transpired. My mother’s father, Oscar, bought out my father’s half of the house after 6 or 7 years of this. By then Atkin was not able to hold down a job and he needed money. Oscar’s purchase afforded Atkin a dignified exit from a sinking ship. He left Little Silver, bought a small condominium nearby and fell ill not long afterward. He died 9 years later in his own bed with Alex and me by his side.
As promised, I’d taken care of him on and off for his last two years during his bout of cancer, squamous cell carcinoma, found primarily in heavy drinkers and smokers.
When he died, I was 22. I was ready to leave Little Silver and start my life.
One version of my childhood is that I was half-raised by a British WWII nurse. Aunt Jill lived with us for only 3 years before she retired at age 72, and she is one of the only consistent players in the enterprise of bringing up the two children at 301 Rumson Road in Little Silver, NJ.
Once a single mother, Connie got a job in NYC. Yes, she longed to get back to her pre-children working life, but the city was where she could earn enough to cover the bills. Knowing she’d be gone most of each weekday due to the long commute, she placed an ad in The Asbury Park Press for a live-in caretaker. In walked Jill Tompkins with one suitcase in hand.
Jill became a fixture in the dry, mile-square town of Irish and Italian catholic families who had lived in Little Silver for generations. First of all, nobody had live-in babysitters. Secondly, her British accent made it such that anything she said sounded authoritative and slightly haughty, so people tended not to argue with her. And third, she got to work right away. With a skill level on par with Henry Higgins, she transformed my 7 year old brother Alex and 8 year old me from savages into people who could eat with a knife and fork. She taught me to make my bed with hospital corners, a skill I was pretty proud of and sure nobody else I knew possessed (nor did they likely care about, but I did). She got things running smoothly in our lives, and we were not the only ones to notice. Kids who weren’t allowed to come to our house to play when the news hit that my parents were divorcing were suddenly allowed once Jill was on the scene. For those few years, she provided a real stability as our two parents took turns moving in and out of the house every six months.
Even though Aunt Jill was as serious a hard-ass as we had yet known, she seemed to sincerely enjoy our company. She rewarded any good behavior with Certs (British-esque, patrician-type mint) or Mentos, and on special occasions, took us to McDonald’s. She loyally drank tea out of the pharmacy-bought, flowered teacup I gave her one year for her birthday, and when it broke, she glued it back together and still used it despite its slow leak. She even crocheted Alex and me elaborately sectioned blankets for our beds; mine in two oddly matched colors that weren’t exactly pleasing to the eye – a saturated royal blue and potent mustard yellow. I LOVED this blanket and my mother kept it for me through the years and various re-locations, and it now stands as a pretty singular relic of my otherwise pretty relic-less childhood.
The best thing about Jill was that she had a story for just about any animal we brought up, and I suspected her, after some time of regaling us with tales of personal run-ins with the most obscure jungle animals we could find in our encyclopedia, to be a chronic liar. But like many kids, I preferred a good story to the truth any day, and hers were engaging, colorful and action-packed. She had worked in Africa as part of the North African Campaign during the war and, for example, while walking from the commissary to the hospital, she once spotted an ocelot or a puma in a tree above, ready to pounce. In none of her stories did the animals ever get shot or otherwise perish, and she narrowly escaped possible attack through several clever displays of agility. Though once in a while, a (probably handsome) hospital doctor came to her rescue.
(I should add that in support of the liar theory, Aunt Jill’s real name, as we found out through letters that came to her at our address, was Lorna Tompkins. We soon discovered that we got in big trouble if we even jokingly referred to her as Lorna. So we didn’t.)
Jill was a widow, and we had come to know Eddie, her husband, as nothing more than a personality-less ghost, mostly through her notable LACK of stories about him, even when probed for info. On the weekends when my mother or father were home from work, Aunt Jill would drive 30 miles south to stay with her friend, Mrs. Rowlands, an elderly American widow. Occasionally she took us to Mrs. Rowlands’ cluttered but pleasant apartment for a weeknight dinner, where we learned that they shared the bedroom and seemed to have a gentle and knowing companionship.
If Aunt Jill was guilty of any crime, it was of being old-fashioned in the wrong way for my forward-thinking and extremely liberal mother, who had volunteered at Planned Parenthood in the early 70s and worked there again after she had retired from her NYC job later in life. One day Jill’s achilles heel got the better of her when I was splayed out on the couch reading a book and she practically spat, ”Sit like a lady!” It wasn’t the first time we’d had this “conversation”, and for whatever reason on this day I retorted (with attitude, I’m sure), “But I don’t WANT to be a lady!” and she smacked me. I don’t think it was on my face; I don’t really remember, and it didn’t hurt, but it did surprise me.
Connie did not have many rules, but there was definitely one: nobody was allowed to hit us. And that night after we’d gone to bed, when relating the tale of the day to my mom, Jill continued with, “And I think you should have Erika see a psychologist because she’s patterning herself after you.” Years later Connie told me this story, and how insulted she’d been. But after reading Jill some more refined version of the Riot Act, she didn’t fire her, because to start with, my mom is not a hot head, and also I think because she recognized that she needed Jill. We were in so many ways well-cared for. Jill could hang with my parents’ unorthodox custody arrangement, and previous babysitters couldn’t or didn’t because they were elderly immigrant ladies who led old-world lives; they didn’t want to live in the house during my dad’s tenure, not because he was threatening, but because he was a man who wasn’t their husband and their husbands didn’t want them living in another man’s house. Whatever the case, Jill was old, tough, indebted to no one, and she didn’t bat an eyelash at any of it.
After she retired, Jill left a vacancy. My mom was still working and we had a panoply of sitters that followed her, but there was never another who loved us, with whom we felt as comfortable, and whom we loved back. And strangely or not, I don’t remember what followed, but I think we saw Aunt Jill only a handful of times after her retirement. Jill had been in touch to ask if we would back-pay into the social security system on her behalf, which my mother did. After Mrs. Rowlands died, her family wrote Jill out of everything and she moved into an assisted living home on the Jersey shore. One Saturday about 10 years after her tenure in our house, Connie and I drove out to see her. Obviously older, she was tiny and vulnerable in a way I’d not known her to be, telling us in a small voice that she was living on a shoestring budget and could we help her out? She’d recently asked my father for money and he’d obliged, but that day my mother said no, that she didn’t have it. We stayed a bit longer and on our drive home I looked out the window while my mother assured me that Aunt Jill was being well taken care of.
That was the last time I saw her.
Recently, Connie told me a story. Two years after that visit, she’d received a message from Jill on the machine, asking for a call back. It was my mom’s last night in New Jersey, as she and her new husband had sold their house and were leaving for the retirement life in South Carolina. Connie deleted the message, and the phone was disconnected for good the very next day.
Three days later, my father died of cancer. And while everything bleeds into everything else, that is a story for another day.
As quiet and beautiful as it was, Little Silver invited me into its folds with an introductory tale of tragedy. It was like starting a friendship with a punch in the gut; if you get through it, you’re best friends for life.
I was 5 when I first stepped into our empty house with my brother and parents and the realtor. Holding my mom’s hand and looking down at the orange shag wall-to-wall carpet in the family room, I asked her in a whisper who had lived here before us.
She told me about the family of three. One night earlier that summer, the son, 17 years old, had been doing 360s in his car on a joyride on one of the high school ball fields up the road. The gas cap popped off with a thunk, and to investigate the situation, he knelt down to check around the car, lighting a match to get a closer look. The explosion followed, and he and his girlfriend were helicoptered to the Brooklyn Burn Center where they both died the next morning.
“But where did his parents go?” She told me that they moved down the road. A deliberate move, just to get out of this house.
We resumed our walk-through behind the realtor as my small brain ran that scene over and over. I tried to picture his parents. My thoughts returned to them often throughout the years as a totem of tragedy. What was their life like now? Did they talk to each other or did they live in silence? I wondered which house down the street contained their sorrow. A couple of years later when I sold girl scout cookies door-to-door, there were two houses that never answered in all the years I knocked. The brush got thicker and wilder as I neared those houses by the woodsy bird sanctuary and I crossed through lots of thicket to get to those doors with seemingly no-one behind them. But a car in the driveway, always.
Maybe they don’t answer the door to little kids. Maybe they can’t, I thought.
Our house that had been marked by tragedy continued on its protracted-tragic schedule, though never again as dramatically as in the manner to which I’d been introduced to it. My brother and I loved our ranch-style home, same as all the others on our street, and had lots of happy times there. But all lives have sorrow and secrets, and many of ours incubated in that house. My mother immediately named it ‘The Turning Point’; months before she would separate from my father, she announced a little too excitedly, “So much changes here!” It fell into some disrepair soon after we moved in, since we lived there for only a year before Connie left Atkin, and due to the lawyer fees and costs of separation and divorce, maintaining the house and renting an apartment, neither of them had the funds to fix much.
We loved it so much, we didn’t even notice. We were kids, we had circuitous hallways, we had a wild, overgrown yard to run around in, and we had the stories in our heads.
As we get toward this album’s release into the wild, I’ve been reflecting on our inspiration for the band’s name, the mile-square town of Little Silver, NJ, where I grew up in the 70s and 80s. Like everywhere else, it has changed. Little Silver is now crowded with New Yorkers who found a Jersey Shore haven for their families. The town has since widened its main streets and gained some traffic lights to keep up with its increased fancy car-count, but back in the day it was a sleepy, mostly working-class town that housed one gas station, one luncheonette, and was only 4 miles from the Atlantic Ocean.
My parents picked the town in 1977, based on its proximity to the beach and because, as my mother told it, she loved the name. The story goes that in 1667, white settlers bought the town from the Native Americans for ‘a little bit of silver’. So pleased with their deal, the settlers decided to name the town after this victorious exploitation.
Still, we loved the name.
In the next weeks, I’ll be posting anecdotes about the characters in and around my family who lived there. Stay tuned if you want a break from the news and any other, perhaps more worthy passages of time.
I believe we, Little Silver, began recording this album in February of 2014, moments before our second daughter was born. Needless to say her arrival set us back some, and it’s just now that we’re putting the finishing touches on this full-band, full-length record.
Recording over 2.5 years means that some songs have come and gone and some new ones have taken their place; the result is a swirly, lush, driving, evocative odyssey. On this gray, cold and oddly beautiful October day, I couldn’t be more excited about the moment when we bring this collection your way, so stay tuned!
We sing a host of songs, traditional and non, with a songbook for all to follow and it’s a big ol’ sing-and-play-along. Bring an instrument and your voice, or just come listen as you pore (pour? ha!) over Threes Brewing’s comprehensive beer list.
We last hosted one of these back in November and everyone left with a happy feeling and that sometimes needed reminder that music is for everyone. If you’re thinking about it, you need not any longer – come!
The Three Ring Bender Presents: The Hootenanny!
April 13, 2016 @ 8:30
Threes Brewing – 333 Douglass Street in Brooklyn
I’ve lived in apartments Brooklyn for the last 20 years. For 16 of those, I was childless. Since then, I’ve had two children and my love affair with where I live waxes and wanes, as does everybody’s with whom I’ve ever had a conversation here.
In the spaces between working, caring for my kids, and playing music, I am often, somewhere on the sidelines of my brain, wondering about a place we might move to that won’t be as “difficult”. It will be naturally lush and wild, yet I won’t feel isolated. The winters won’t be unbearably long and gray, and I will not have to drive my car everywhere. This wonderland will be endowed with excellent public schools and rich in diverse, thoughtful, artistic, non-pretentious and funny people. It sure would be refreshing if it wasn’t full of only the privileged, too. Oh, and please let’s make it within two hours of the very city from which I wish to flee.
Though I ruminate on friends’ recommendations and pore over real estate sections and websites, I can’t seem to come up with any real life places that I have been convinced by or compelled to move to. As a matter of fact, the only places that meet my criteria – where I feel THAT FEELING – are in my children’s books.
I want to live in the places depicted in, yes, storybooks. And that said, the following are my top choices:
All the World (Liz Garton Scanlon and Marla Frazee)
I owe this to Marla Frazee’s fantastic illustrations of nature and community. I belong in this landscape (is it Hawaii?) and in this community of (make believe) families, complete with bounteous gardens, raw and undeveloped oceanside, a beautiful farmer’s market. I can smell the soup and fresh baked rolls in the town’s restaurant and I long to look out at the sea from their pier at night. I hear myself playing my guitar in their music-making gatherings. I admit I have a crush on one of the dads in the book, and I even like his wife okay. She seems nice, though I’m not sure we’d connect. But I’m married anyway, plus I’m no home-wrecker.
The Napping House (Audrey and Don Wood)
I cannot stop staring at the first page, the house in the rain. It reminds me of somewhere I’ve been, though I can’t seem to place it in any hard memory of my own. A quiet and almost – but not quite – melancholic feeling of wonder washes over me whenever I look at this picture, the spell that’s cast by arresting rain.
Before You Came (Written by Patricia MacLachlan and Emily MacLachlan Charest, Illustrated by David Diaz)
When I’m in the mood for a little psychedelia, I choose this one. The people are oddly a tad creepy, like those in a wax museum, but they’re colorful and the environment can’t be beat. Flowers, rivers and canoes, a sort of bitchy cat but a fantastic dog, and a guitar-playing father. They even have a hammock complete with sparkling lights where one can “read all day and sometimes into the night.” I must admit my mind immediately went to the mosquitos, but I figure when I start my new life I’ll get over that; after all, I’m currently still a city-slicker.
Spring is Here (Taro Gomi)
It’s the grass. It looks so lush. It’s the same landscape depicted throughout the seasons, and I definitely am most taken by “The quiet harvest arrives.” Heck, the girl is playing a recorder in that wheat field – we don’t do that in the city! (Nor would I ever in the country but that’s beside the point.) Gomi has another book, My Friends, in which a girl learns all kinds of emotional and physical life skills from a handful of wild and dangerous animals. Unlikely, yes – and definitely cool.
Pancakes For Breakfast (Tomie DePaola)
From this woman’s hairstyle to her lifestyle, I want it all. We wake up with her on a sunshiny winter day in what I think of as Vermont. No dialogue, but captivating illustrations of this happy widow’s simple desire to make a delicious breakfast. Her companions include her dog and cat, and in an effort to avoid being a spoiler, I’ll say the “action” of this wordless story takes her on all kinds of resourceful adventures just yards from her adorable, snow laden home. In this moment, I’ll say I could get used to her butter-churning, cow-milking way of life.
I am a Bunny (Ole Risom and Richard Scarry)
It begins, “I am a bunny. My name is Nicholas. I live in a hollow tree.” This book, I’ve decided, most evokes my current existence; the hollow tree is not unlike the one bedroom apartment I share with my husband, two children and cat. Nicholas has more space actually, due to his solitary lifestyle, and of course a way better landscape with larger-than-life butterflies, dandelion seeds, gently floating leaves and fluffed-out snowflakes. Needless to say, I spend inordinate amounts of time with each page of this book, and I do believe I would make the lateral move to that tree for the view alone.
Of course, I want the Goodnight Moon room. Who doesn’t? It has occurred to me that this COULD POSSIBLY BE an apartment, since you never see anything but sky out that window. But let’s face it – it’s probably not, right?
Just received this fan-video of “Salvador Sanchez” (a Sun Kil Moon cover) from a house concert we played in San Francisco two years ago! Thanks Chris – it was fun to hear one of those ‘Dress Up’ tunes in action.
Aaaaaaannnnnd, a 3 year old photo I came across from our friends’ wedding in the Adirondacks. Just ’cause.
We had so much fun at Rock Shop the other night. Here it’s making Steve get all bendy. Thanks to all who came, and special thanks to The Go-Kartel (get a website!!) and Steve Shiffman and the Land of No for joining us. Both of ’em rocked it.
You know how sometimes no news is good news? That’s tonight.
Steve and I had a two week flirtation with moving to our namesake town, Little Silver. (Actually, we’re the namesake, aren’t we?) We got wind of a house that we fell in love with, with a greenhouse attached. And we thought, shit, we’re going, we’re leaving Brooklyn. We may even have to change the name of our band, or – a close second – forever lie about where we live. But kick back with a beer and breathe a sigh of relief. We are still Little Silver, and we are still in Brooklyn.
It was not an obvious decision to stay, but we feel sure of it. We live in a pricey place (NY) with a child, in a one-bedroom apt. (This is not a plea to buy our records, though, heck – if you’re inspired, who am I to stand in your way?) We love the land over the water there, the house, the small monthly payment we’d pay to live in a four bedroom house with a music room. In the words of The Streets, “It was supposed to be so eeeeeeeaaaasy…” BUT, Hazel is asleep, Steve is out and I am currently on our fire escape watching a purple and orange sun that sets over NJ. (Sunsets are the one and only reason that New Yorkers look at NJ – or just above it – once a day, and that’s only if they’re not too busy.)
Truth be told, I am very happy to be right here.
We are playing two shows next week, opening for Hem in Philly and DC, and we are SO excited. You might think that because Steve is a member of Hem, this is a shoe-in, but it is not, so please join us for these super special shows… info here. We’d love to see you.