Sunday, August 16, 2015


A few months ago the house two doors down caught on fire.  The flames spread quickly, and when I heard the gathering of sirens outside my door, I stopped writing and went upstairs to see what was going on.  By that time, flames were leaping thirty feet into the air and a pungent white smoke covered the neighborhood. One rubbernecker claims to have heard a fireman say that the smell was typical of burning meth labs? A meth lab? Right here?

The rumor has gained traction because months later, the ruined house is still standing. It is empty and desolate, a burned-out shell ill at ease in its genteel surroundings. The roof is scorched and the windows and doors have been covered with plywood. The yard is overgrown and a dumpster has been sitting in the driveway for weeks. More recently, teams of men arrive daily in pick-up trucks to strip the house of its few remaining assets. They have taken the moldings, the kitchen appliances, the washer and dryer,, the copper pipes and, I believe, the heating and cooling system. I’m not sure what the house’s future entails. More and more, people are complaining that the ruined structure is lowering property values, which I’m sure is true.

 I remember the house from the man who used to live there until he died about ten years ago.  Jim was a retired military, a filterless Camel chain smoker whose Nordic wife had left him. The house had a pool and Jim planned to have bachelor parties with booze and barely-clad babes.

 Those plans didn’t work out. The booze was there, the barely-clad babes must have gotten lost on the way.  Jim got lonely. He went to Russia and found a wife. Olga arrived some months later, a tall brunette with an attitude and an 18-year-old son she hadn’t told Jim about. I never learned the young man’s name but he actually looked closer to thirty than eighteen. He was somewhat brutish, but I suspect that’s because his head was shaved, a novelty at the time.

The son turned out to be Olga’s boyfriend.  

 I’m not sure how Jim managed it, but he got rid of Olga and friend. For a while he drank a lot and I was afraid he might fall into his swimming pool and drown. He got a basset hound that bayed at the moon.

 A year after Olga’s departure, Jim went overseas again and soon a second Russian lady appeared. Tatyana was blonde and friendly and told me in broken English that in Minsk she’d been an electrical engineer. This being said, I saw that AC/DC power mystified her; she shorted out the pool heater, which forced Jim to hire an electrician to replace and rewire the entire system.   

 Tatyana and Jim were happy together. I’d see the two of them holding hands to walk the hound. She balked at carrying the plastic bag to harvest the dog’s droppings, so Jim had to do that. He didn’t seem to mind.

 About a year after that Jim was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. Neither chemo nor radiation helped since he was still smoking a pack of Camels a day and had no intentions of stopping. He died five months later.

 Tatyana was now the owner of a house in suburban Virginia. She’d found a job working with dementia patients, and she took Jim’s death hard. She told me he’d had been a good and kind man who’d left her well-off, what with the house, the insurance, and retirement benefits.

 She kept the house for a time but got lonely too. One day she said she would be going back to Minsk. She missed the winters and her friends.

 The house sold quickly. The new owners had three small kids whom I could hear play in the pool during the summer months.  That family stayed there a couple of years and sold the house to investors, who rented it out to a young couple with a baby, who in turn lost the place to the fire.

 Every house has a story.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Man with a Gun

The man wore a gun, and really, it was far too early in the morning to deal with something like that. My breakfast coffee shop, 6:45 a.m., and the guy is not a cop. I am waiting to order my bagel and three shots of espresso. The man is directly in front of me. There is a handgun in a holster on his belt, and he is fingering the weapon as if it were a religious amulet. He is definitely neither an enforcer of the law, nor a dentist from Minnesota in search of a tame lion; he’s just a slightly overweight guy with a gun, really big feet, and a vacuous gaze.

The diminutive Ethiopian lady who generally mans (womans?) the cash register is purely nervous. It’s obvious that she does not want to wait on him, but she has no choice. Frankly, I am nervous too. But I’m curious as well.

I want to ask him, What exactly do you think you may have to defend yourself against this morning? A delinquent bagel attack? A coffee-maker running amok? Or maybe my friend Owen who’s here every day by eight a.m. and could be said to lack social graces.

It is legal to openly carry a weapon in Virginia. You do not need a license or training, though a nominal background check is necessary to purchase a handgun.  Technically, you can’t be a former convict and own a gun.

There’s a line forming behind me. I remember a few years ago going to a take-out deli with an Afro-American friend. We were waiting to place our orders when two young white guys came in, both with pistols on their hips. They were aggressively loud and boisterous, almost as if challenging the other clients to complain. My friend whispered to me, “I’m outta here. If they start shooting, you know who they’re gonna shoot first.”  He left quietly.

This morning I check my feelings. I’m not really scared, after all, but I’m somewhat embarrassed to witness this display of… what? What does a man with an openly carried firearm in a public place want to prove? I doubt he’s thinking of the Second Amendment. Does he feel threatened?  It’s really tempting to equate gun to manhood, and I struggle not to. The man is wearing a wedding ring. Does he keep his gun under his pillow and what does his spouse think of this? Okay, I’m going a little overboard here.

I’m reminded of bikers with open mufflers. The noise they make bothers everyone else. They basically impose themselves on their surroundings. It’s sort of the same thing as a child throwing a tantrum in a movie house; it ruins the film for everybody else. The gun guy is ruining my breakfast, and, simply by looking around, I can tell he’s causing consternation. I begin to suspect that this maybe what it’s all about—being noticed.

Here’s what’s interesting.  In no way does this man’s presence make me feel safer. He’s not a solution to the crime problem, he’s an accessory.  If someone, at that very moment, had chosen to rob the coffee shop at gunpoint, I would have felt more endangered with two guns in the room than with one. I don’t want to be in the middle of shoot-out between a criminal and a self-appointed enforcer of the law. And I’m pretty sure that even the coffee shop owner would prefer handing over the breakfast money than having a replay of the OK Corral in his space.

A man with a gun in a small town not ten miles away from the Nation’s Capital is unusual enough that the other clients are looking at each other. Some shrug. A young couple turns around and exits. A mother with two small kids keeps them close by.

The guy leaves. I’m sure he’s aware of the seism he caused and now I suspect this short appearance made his day.

The National Rifle Association axiom that Guns Don’t Kill People, People Kill People does not make me feel better at all.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

My Father--Part 2

There are three mysteries surrounding my late father’s life.

The first is what he was doing in the United States in 1943. He apparently came to America with a group of French pilots, possibly to translate as they trained at an airfield in South Carolina. I find this mundane possibility farfetched. I think he accompanied them for another purpose, possibly secret or clandestine, but I don’t know what that might have been.

The second is why he and his family had a falling out. It happened before I was born, and when, in my late teens, I sought an explanation, he merely said, “They didn’t act right towards me.” And that was that. Nor did my mother have a clue, which was surprising. She thrived on information and somehow not being privy to such an important event in her husband’s life must have gnawed at her.

The third mystery is the strangest of all.

One night I returned from a date to find my mother upstairs and my father on the landing below. They were yelling at each other, the only time I ever witnessed such a thing. I was staying out of the line of fire and crossing the living room when my father shouted up at her, “I should have stayed married to my first wife!”  Then he stormed out.

The next morning dawned as if nothing had happened. He went to work downtown, she busied herself at home. Later that evening, they avoided each other eyes. Dinner was an unusually quiet meal, no gossip or report on the events of the day. My mother did not bustle noisily as she generally did when they’d had an argument and she wanted it known that this wasn’t the end of it. After an uncomfortable silence, I asked, “So what was that about last night?” They both answered, “Rien du tout,” in unison. “Nothing at all.”

I forgot about it. There were more important things to attend to, including the suspicion that my very best friend was secretly sleeping with my girlfriend.

Decades later, though, when my father was slipping in and out of dementia, I asked him about it. He was fully lucid that particular morning and he denied ever having said—much less shouted—anything about a spouse before my mother. But I saw something in his face, a fleeting and subtle change that told me otherwise. It was tempting to belabor the issue. Did I have siblings other than my two half-sisters from my mother’s first union? In my head, I ran through the full complement of journalism school questions—who and when and why and where and how! But then it struck me that if he’d wanted to tell me about some details of his early life, he would have done so. In this case, he chose not to, and that certainly was his right. I once asked my sisters about it, and neither had anything to offer. And so my father took these three secrets, and possibly many more, to his grave.

I have no contacts with my father’s family.

Sagnier is a relatively unusual name. It means salt gatherer, so on the paternal side I can safely abandon any hope of finding a link to wealth or royalty. There are Sagnier’s in Spain, and there’s a pretty strong likelihood that I’m related to the French actress Ludivine Sagnier, whom I think may be a second cousin.  

There are thirty Google pages comprising 283 entries relating to the name Sagnier. Most of them are devoted to Ludivine who is particularly well-known for a nude scene in the movie Swimming Pool. There are also architects, scientists, photographers, a champion stunt motorcyclist, and the mayor of a medium-sized town in France.

In the United States, there’s me, my ex-wife Mai, who chose to keep her married name, and Christine M. Sagnier who lives in Plainsboro, New Jersey.

But who knows. There might be a whole bunch of other Sagniers somewhere from my father’s first marriage. I’ll never know, and I’m fine with that.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

My Father--Part I

I was sorting through a sheaf of old papers I found in the back of a desk drawer when an envelope full of old photographs fell to the floor.

There were shots of my parents in the South of France with friends I vaguely recognized, and four photos of my father and me. These were taken sometimes in the early 70s in front of the house my then-wife and I had bought for a pittance in what was considered a dangerous neighborhood in Washington, DC.

We are standing on the sidewalk. I am impossibly thin and longhaired. My father wears a sly grin, as if he’s just told a really bad and slightly off-color joke, or perhaps put one over on my mother when she wasn’t looking.  The picture made me smile.

My father was a good man. Born in London of French and British parents in the first decade of the 20th century, he had hoped to become an architect and studied in Versailles. When World War II broke out, he was in the West Coast of the US, employed as the traveling secretary to a British Lord. He could have avoided military service but chose instead to sail from the Panama Canal to Portugal, and then to walk from Portugal to Le Touquet, a town on the French side of the English Channel. He then ‘borrowed’ a small boat and sailed it to England.

His 1000-kilometer trek took him through occupied France. He hid from the Germans during the day and walked at night. Various underground resistance groups helped him along, supplying clothing, food, money, and fake identification papers.

In England he joined the Free French, the breakaway military force that answered Charles de Gaulle’s call for the French to keep fighting even though their government had capitulated to the Germans. He was infiltrated back into France to run a clandestine mobile radio station that re-broadcast news from the Voice of America and BBC to a populace that secretly listened in hushed tones.

At the end of the war, he met my mother, who was also with the Free French and serving in Algeria. They had a one-night stand and I was conceived in a US Army truck somewhere on the outskirts of Marseille.

My father did the right thing and married my mother. For a while, living in Paris, they had a radio show where he played a somewhat dumb American GI to her wily French demoiselle. It was a monster success and my parents became household names, albeit poorly paid ones.  When I was born, the station that aired the program was inundated with diapers, bibs, booties, tiny berets and an assortment of mostly hand-me-down baby clothes.

This was all well and fine except that my mother, still in the hospital recovering from my birth, demanded a ham and cheese omelet. This was post-war Paris; there was no ham, there was no cheese, there were no eggs. My father, in a rare show of intemperate behavior, found the hospital cook and forced him, at gunpoint, to raid his personal food supply. The cook fixed the omelet. My father took it to my mother’s hospital room. She ate it, though she complained it lacked salt.

They were both fired from the radio station the next day.

I know all this because, though my father never spoke of his war, he kept a series of journals that I still have. I also have the Legion of Honor awarded him by the French government, and his discharge papers, as well as a photograph of him and my mother, in uniform, standing amidst the bombed out ruins of a city that may have been Dresden.

Of the two, my mother was the creative one. She painted, wrote children’s books, acted in local theater, played the piano and the accordion. She was also a couturiere who wanted to rival Coco Chanel. My father catered to her needs. He repaired used sewing machines; he built frames for her paintings, and attended the endless play rehearsals. He edited her writings. He re-upholstered the tatty furniture she found in flea markets.

When the family came to the US many years after the war, only he spoke English, and so he found the house we would live in, and the car my mother learned to drive. He taught me my first words of English using a Bugs Bunny comic cook. He spent a lot of time soothing the ruffled feelings of my mother, who could not understand how a country could survive without decent cheese, baguettes and pâtés.

(End of Part I)