The Golden Gate

by Jason Tougaw

Great Grandpa Neves is directing traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge, naked. By 1930, he’s been in California long enough to perform the signals from instinct: palm out front for “stop,” a backward wave for “move along.”  He mumbles the Portuguese to himself, “Ferme. Siga Em Frente.” He hasn’t been here so long to forget how the world sounds in words with soft edges. “Ferme. Siga em frente.”

“What’s the matter with you, Mister? Get out of the way. Jesus Christ, he’s cracked.” From a distance the Golden Gate Bridge shines red like giant candy, but now that he’s here the shove of the wind makes it hard to see that. The wind whoops so hard he has to fight just to stay in one place. With each foot braced on a plank, envisions a moving snapshot of his naked body floating, buoyed by the wind, threatening with every dip to zoom straight down and gulp the bay until it floods his lungs and strangles him for a gasping seven minutes before he finally deflates.

He came to get the cars off, and he’s going to do it. They’re an eyesore. They make the bridge look like it’s crawling with black ants. When he looks at the bridge, which he does hundreds of times every day, he feels the ants under his skin. These red steel beams, so majestic from afar, turn out to be the limbs of a giant scorpion surveying its ant prey.

“Run the sonofabitch over.” The wind carries the driver’s shouts. Stop, he commands. Move along. If he can just let the wind take him, if he can just let himself float, the world will fade white and disappear. Stop. Move along. Ferme. Siga em frente.

The Golden Gate Bridge is a centerpiece in my family’s lore. Our blood flows from Ralph’s schizophrenic dad right through each and every one of us. We’re obsessed with this blood, and by blood, we mean genes. It could be any one of us up there on that bridge, don’t forget it.

Port-a-ghee blood. We nod in unison when the subject comes up. There’s a problem with our blood, and it affects our brains. This is our family mantra. My mom and her brothers are only half Portuguese, but the Port-a-ghee blood cancels out other strains.  We nod.

This blood is the reason Ralph ended up in an orphanage, with nuns. Hell, it’s probably why he ended up riding. And winning. Even the press got the point: the Portuguese was the blood, and the Pepper was the problem. It made for a good jockey, if you like your jockeys reckless and ruthless. It made for good press. But not necessarily for a good father. Ralph’s little body is the Pepper Pot. The rest of us are the Petri dishes into which the spicy stew was served, in variable portions.

We told his story so many times it’s hard to choose an example. But you have to make choices when you tell a story, what to tell, what to leave out. I’ll choose Thanksgiving, 1991.

Here we are, descendents of schizophrenia and recklessness. We cousins are in our twenties. My mom and her brothers are in their forties. Nanny is sixty-nine; Ralph, who’s been back with us seven years now, is seventy-three. We’re all here, significant others in tow.

Nanny is pouring Grand Marnier into the cream as it whipped when someone brings up Mrs. Bowman. “She tried to drown me,” my mom says.

“Oh Cathy, she did not,” her brother Gary says. His son Trever laughs. Nichole, my closest cousin, gives me a look to say here we go. Nichole’s my uncle Craig’s daughter, but she doesn’t see him all that much. I see her much more than he does.

“She was going to watch me drown, if Uncle Angus didn’t happen to walk around the back of the house and see me.”

“Cathy, you and I both know it didn’t happen that way,” Nanny says.

“Who the hell knows,” Ralph interjects. “It probably did. That crazy German bitch. Who knows?”

“See?” my mom says. “He even admits it. You guys were always gone and you left us with crazy, mean Mrs. Bowman.”

“Cathy, she wasn’t crazy,” Gary says. Which is when my mom digs her hand into the cream and smears a handful over his head. The cream is beading in his kinks and dripping over his left eye. He’s got a handful now too and is backing my mom slowly into the corner by the sink. He smears it all over her cheek, and it drips onto her black rayon blouse.

“That’s it,” she says, squeezing past him for the stainless steel bowl.

“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” Nanny says. “You’re wasting all my goddamn whipped cream.”

“Whip some goddamn more,” Ralph says.

“Is the moon full?” my mom asks. “It’s the Port-a-ghee blood.” She says this every Thanksgiving, between bites of cranberry relish and gravy-soaked mashed potatoes. “It’s especially bad when the moon is full.”

“The moon is not full,” I say, as though logic might matter.

I think it might be the red wine,” my mom’s husband Ryan says, smiling.

“That’ll do it,” Ralph says.

“This is what my family’s like,” Nichole explains to her boyfriend, Josh. “It’s always like this.” Nichole and I exchange a glance, sharing our resignation.

“It’s the Port-a-ghee blood,” my mom repeats.

“Yeah, right,” Ryan says. “It’s the wine.”

“The wine is for the Port-a-ghee blood,” she says. “It keeps it healthy.”

“See,” Trever says to the onlookers, “it all started with our great grandpa directing traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge.”

“In the nude,” my mom interrupts.

“Right,” Trever says. “In the nude. And this is why my adorable Auntie Cathy acts the way she does,” he continues, grinning. Gary and Trever both like to tease my mom about her penchant for hysteria, even though they know they risk pushing her into a bout of it.

“Very funny, Trever,” she says. “Very funny. If anything, it’s because of Mrs. Bowman. And Gary and Craig. And the fact that you two,” she says, pointing to Nanny and Ralph, “were never home. You were always traveling around, or out partying.”

“Okay, Cat,” Ryan says, “Let’s clean up.”

Great Grandpa Neves might offer a partial explanation for Bryan’s schizophrenia. But the rest? We’ve got diagnoses: bi-polar disorder, depression, alcoholism, brain tumors. We’ve got behaviors: suicide attempts, drug overdoses, near-fatal accidents. We’ve got consequences: the metal plate in Ralph’s head, Charlie in prison, the scars on my mom’s wrist. There’s a problem with our blood, and it affects our brains.

The math doesn’t stretch far enough to explain our family disorders. Sequences of DNA, delivered from one generation to another, tell you only so much. Bryan’s schizophrenia may be the only traceable legacy of our Port-a-ghee blood. You might be able to argue that recklessness is a genetic trait that led to Ralph’s many accidents or the metal plate in his head. You might even make a case that the blood in Cathy’s veins metabolizes into a craving to fall in love with assholes and dropouts. But nobody can tell you how blood from Portugal caused Charlie’s heroin addiction, or Nichole’s ex-husband, Geoff, to crash his motorcycle and damage his brain, or the tumor that grew in Nanny’s brain for years before anybody knew it was there. Intimate contact with the Port-a-ghee blood we’re so proud of seems to place people at risk for brain disorders and injuries. We tell the stories, because they stretch further than the math.

When I was a kid, I thought I was from a different gene pool. But the evidence suggested otherwise. I had my disorders too. Dyslexia and hypochondria, when combined in the same brain, have an unexpected side effect. They produce a fixation with making illegible signs legible. Black marks on the page float until a word becomes another; sensations under the skin irritate until they are identified as symptoms of leprosy or AIDS. The need to crawl inside an obviously mythologized story and fuck with it until it makes sense may be a variation of the genetic sequence that enables schizophrenia.

I have a plan. If I can master genetics and quantum physics—and then map the quantum leap of genes from Ralph’s bloodstream to Nanny’s—I will crack our family history wide open. Gene A, bequeathed from Grandpa Neves to Ralph, swims through the viscera of his body, colliding at every turn with Gene B, one he got from Fat Gramma. Every time these two particles collide, a wave is created. Waves, the physicists tell us, don’t follow the ordinary laws of physical reality. Nanny comes along and spends decades in close contact with Ralph, arguing with him, birthing his offspring, laughing at his jokes. With every intimate moment, the wave created by the collision between gene A and gene B swirls through his aura and plunks into hers, until his Port-a-Ghee blood swims in her. Now multiply this by the billions of DNA strands in the billions of cells in both their bodies and multiply that by all the billions in the bodies of their children, and their children’s children. If I can do this, I will be close to finding an explanation.

 

Any science textbook will tell you my plan is ridiculous. I don’t really understand quantum physics, and DNA research has failed to detect the fanciful qualities genes would need for my plan to work.

The way it really works, the book will tell you, is the nucleus of every cell in my body contains chromosomes, tight packages of DNA I inherited from my mother and father. These packages unwind so the sequence of proteins that compose them can copy itself and transmit tiny messages within my internal milieu. This is how genes govern the development of an embryo, or any other organism.

Turns out chromosomes are not quite the skeleton key to the meaning of life they were imagined to be. The elusive evidence of experience is fundamental to the expression of genes.

But governing is not the same as determining. The race to “map” the human genome was reported as though it would tell us everything about the meaning of life for humans. Big surprise: it didn’t. It turned out that human DNA is composed of fewer genes than anybody thought—between 20,000 – 25,000, hardly more than primates and less than double the number of a fly. That means genes don’t determine traits in a straightforward or direct way. You can’t just find a given gene for genius or cancer. Biology, as usual, turns out to be messier than this. The meaning of a gene depends on the its place in the sequence and the environment in which its tiny messages are expressed.

99.9% of a human being’s DNA sequence is exactly the same as every other human being’s—and we share 98% of it with our closest primate relatives. Small differences in sequencing account for vast differences from one individual to the next. Within a family, there is significantly less variation. A child splits the .1% of the DNA that makes him unique with his mother and father.

That means we share about 99.95% of our DNA with each of our parents, and they share the same with their parents. There’s always a story in that remaining .05%. These stories have many beginnings. One of ours was the moment Ralph pulled his slick car into the Sacramento drive-in where Nanny was working as a car hop. The youngest of thirteen children, she had always worked. Ralph, already a famous jockey, was training for the cavalry. After a few visits, he asked Nanny to marry him. She refused. Next time, he arrived married. Right in front of his new wife, a cute redhead, he asked Nanny if she’d change her mind. She refused. Three weeks later, he was divorced. A few weeks after that, he was thrown from a horse and broke his back. Nanny found herself at his bedside. When he recovered several weeks later, they married. “Biggest mistake of my life,” she liked to say, but they stayed married for twenty-three years, replicating a lot of DNA in the process.

 

An excerpt from my memoir, The One You Get: Portrait of a Family Organism (represented by Carrie Howland at Donadio & Olson). 

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