Near the corner of Fairfax and 3rd in Los Angeles there’s a K Mart that l may never go to again. It’s not that I don’t like affordable merchandise; it’s just that I’ll have a hard time explaining why the pretzels made me so sad. This past Sunday I was walking past the K-Mart on my way home from Whole Foods. I had no intention of going inside but this K-Mart put a spell over me because it smells like hot pretzels. You know the pretzels I’m talking about, the soft ones that spin under heat lamps at fine establishments everywhere. When I smell hot pretzels I have to find them. It’s been like this for years.
Growing up on Long Island there was a department store called TSS in West Babylon that had a pizza place in front that also sold those soft hot pretzels – 3 for $1 (it also had a record shop that resulted in this story). I used to beg my father to take me there so I could get a pretzel. There were plenty of stores that sold them but when I was certain that the ones at TSS were the best. For a brief time in the mid 80’s my cousin worked there and when my brother, sister and I could convince our dad to stop at TSS my cousin would make sure we got a few extra pretzels for that buck. When I went into K-Mart on Sunday to track down the pretzels I thought of my cousin.
Let me try to describe my cousin to those of you that have never met him. He was born six years before me and he introduced me to Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden and more. I appreciated him making time for me back then because in retrospect it was clear that my cousin was a troubled kid. I mean no disrespect to him by this he just was troubled; it seemed back then that there was a fight going on between him and the world and only he knew how it started. When I was 11 and he was 17 I was slightly in awe of his leather jacket, chain smoking, and heavy metal loving intensity. I didn’t care that it came with large doses of anger and occasional violent outbursts. I cared even less that he got in trouble and I didn’t care that he joined the Marine Corps for reasons other than patriotism. I just cared that I wouldn’t be seeing him for a while.
While I stood in front of the pretzel machine on Sunday I thought of all the words I could use to describe my cousin but the only one that seemed to fit was the word: Gone.
Here’s an understatement – The Marine Corps is not the best place for a troubled kid who has serious problems with authority. It’s been said that the Marine boot camp will break a man down and rebuild him but I suspect the Corp could not crack the kid I knew because he came home, after serving in the first Iraq War, much like he left. When he first got home I’d see him regularly. We’d talk music and he was always good to me but it was always clear he was still fighting the same battles with himself. His experience overseas hardened his resolve to fix the problem through force of will. There would be no therapy or medication. I’m not in a place to say that these things were needed, I’m just saying they were never an option For the next several years he walked the fine line between holding it all together and throwing everything away. During this time I didn’t see him much beyond the occasional holiday and the night he let me into the bar he worked at to have a few beers. I knew all wasn’t well but I was trying to navigate finishing high school starting college and wouldn’t have know what to do anyway.
Standing in front of the spinning pretzels I was trying to think of the last time I saw my cousin before I moved to New York. I remember his wedding but the rest of the details were sketchy. Was it at a family party with his wife or at a concert or a bar after he separated from his wife? I’m sure we passed each other somewhere in that time before I packed my things and left but I can’t remember when it was.
While I acclimated to the good life in Los Angeles my cousin was at home struggling with various issues that he was ill-equipped to handle. I heard reports of fights, drinks and arrests but I assumed that he’d figure things out. I figured that whatever demons he was battling would be dealt with and he might have if he had the time but sadly he didn’t. One summer night he was involved in a minor accident. While riding his motorcycle he lost control and was thrown from the bike. The light had turned green and he started to accelerate, when he lost control he couldn’t have been traveling more than 20 MPH. It seemed like a minor accident but he didn’t make it, he quietly and peacefully passed away. Finally and unexpectedly, the battle was over and his troubles could no longer reach him.
More than three years after my cousin passed away I’m thinking of him as I watch the pretzels slowly turn on the counter. I’ve thought of him often in the years since he passed but this is the first time I’ve felt a tangible connection to him. It’s strange how 30 years of history can be compressed into something as simple as the smell of a pretzel warming under a heat lamp but in that moment I remembered everything. In the distance between the sidewalk and the counter our lives flashed before me. I suddenly felt like I had let a family member down by not recognizing the signs of trouble until it was too late to help. I wondered if I would have done something had I known that his time was so limited but these are just sad hypothetical questions. At that moment someone had a question for me:
“Can I help you?”
“Would you like a pretzel?”
“No thanks, I’m just looking for someone”
I headed for the door and took the long way home.