A FLEA CIRCUS
by
Leslie

What happens to a flea when its cat dies? It depends. He could die with the cat, squished under a car tire. Clearly fortune is not smiling on him that day, but with just a little luck, he might be able to jump off the cat, taking a leap of faith. Having taken that leap, there are seemingly limitless potential outcomes. He might get lucky and land on a nice fat cat with thick fur who is not very good at scratching. Or, he might land on a mouse that is promptly eaten by the cat – not a happy outcome for the mouse or his fleas, all of whom end up in the same place – a cat's stomach. Or, he might land in a puddle of mud and that would be the end of his story.

That's how the world works. It's an amalgamation of random events through which one must navigate. We can try to reduce randomness, but we can't eliminate it. People talk about Darwinism and evolution as survival of the fittest, but they are wrong. It's actually survival of the luckiest. The flea above is an example. But, for some reason, we don't dwell on fleas. Instead we fixate on African lions and swift footed gazelles. As the lioness stalks the herd; the gazelles begin to run. A proper application of Darwinist theory would have the strongest survive and the sick and weak eaten by the lions. But, as a practical matter an old slow gazelle can be on the far side of the herd away from the attacking lions. If a fast gazelle happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, or a fast moving gazelle happens to find a wood chuck hole with its front foot while running at full speed, it just insured survival of all those slower gazelles as they ran past it. Rotten luck, but survival of the luckiest is the way things really work. That's how over an eighteen month period a lost boy became a housemaid to a wonderful lady and ended up on the path that would land him on the ground floor of the Silicon Valley gold rush.

It was spring of 1964 when I made my leap of faith. I ran away from my father's home in our small Midwestern town. I was a 16 year old high school graduate and I followed the words popularized by Horace Greeley, “Go west young man, go west”. I did just that, hitch hiking my way along the old Lincoln Highway.

When I was a small child before I started school, I used to follow mom around the house as she did housework. She trained me to help with the house work, which I enjoyed. Perhaps my true joy was in pleasing her but I associate house work with those happy times and I still enjoy it. She even taught me to properly set the table, which I did every evening for the whole family and at lunch when it was just the two of us and we would drink apple juice out of stemmed wine glasses pretending it was Champaign – not that I knew what that was, but I knew it was something special. Those lunches with her were special - the happiest times of my childhood.

I worshiped her and tried to emulate her, playing in her heels, dresses and even her lingerie which she encouraged. That's why I think she wanted a daughter. As I grew older my fascination with women's clothes continued. I would look at mail order catalogues and wish I could wear such exotic and varied clothes instead of the same boring white cotton underwear I was required to wear every single day of my life. I secretly tried on her bras and girdles and when I watched 'Gun Smoke' and other westerns on TV, I noticed that the guys were always dusty, sweaty and fighting, while the women were always clean and oh so perfect. I knew which ones I related to. Given a choice, I would prefer being clean and perfect to being dirty beat up and shot. It wasn't about sex, or gender. It was about pretty clothes and being clean – nothing more.

Mom died when I was twelve. After that there was nothing left for me in my home town or my dad's home. Dad tried to hold things together, but he thought he could beat my interests out of me. Happily I still had school as my escape for the next four years, but I was not treated well.

Even as a child, I was practical, hard working and frugal. So, I had planned my exit carefully. I had about $500 in traveler's checks and some cash a bed roll and a backpack. I was not destitute and unlike many runaways I was never desperate. I even had a state issued ID card.

While on the road I often slept under the stars and bathed in rivers. I spent one night in a hobo camp near the giant rail yard in North Platte but decided that was too dangerous and never did it again. I got to see the capitol building in Cheyenne and stayed at the YMCA. I crossed the continental divide on US 30 in an old 1940's vintage moving van with a driver named Roy who was trying to trying to avoid the state scales. Interstate 80 was under construction at the time and we would get on and off of completed segments. He told me the story of his life as we rode along and I listened. He was the first of many strangers with fascinating stories to tell. Someday I would have my own stories, but not at sixteen. Until then, I'd listen and learn.

Salt Lake City was friendly, clean and pretty, just like the 'nice girls' in the westerns, and I floated in the Great Salt Lake. I visited Reno, the 'Biggest Little City in the World', but being good at math, gambling had no appeal to me. From Reno I went to Lake Tahoe and then through the Sierra Nevada at Donner Pass. The person I had hitched a ride with told me all about the famous Donner Party that was snowbound there in the winter of 1846–47. Then I got to see another Capitol Building at Sacramento. All in all it was proving to be more educational than a year at college where I would have been ostracized because of my age and my 'baby face'.

Ending up in Oakland I eventually found my way to San Francisco. I managed to avoid life on the streets and the drug scene that destroyed the lives of so many runaways. Those were the deadly inescapable puddles of mud that this flea managed to avoid.

Who would have thought that my fascination with mom's clothes would prove useful some day? Exploring the big city on an early afternoon, I walked past a bar that had drag shows. They had pictures of the 'girls' posted by the door and it was the first time I had ever seen such a thing. Back then it was easy to keep kids naive, especially in a small town that received only one TV station, not very clearly. I ventured in to the bar out of curiosity. The place was devoid of customers but one of the performers was there cleaning up and she told me all about the place. I helped her clean as we talked,

She could see my fascination and I told her about dressing in mom's clothes. I guess I reminded her of her past, or she had nothing better to do, or she was just glad for the company, but she showed me around and asked if I would like to do drag. I said other than a school play and a short speech at graduation I had never performed or spoken in public and I can't dance, but I like the clothes. She invited me to come back and see her performance that evening, which I did. I thought it was terrific and I had made a new friend.

I could not legally drink or serve alcohol but I got a job cleaning up at the bar. The girls dressed me up just for fun and fixed my longish hair to look more feminine. They said I wouldn't have to lip sync like most of the girls and I'd pass as a girl if dressed and made up. I had a good voice if sounding like a girl is what you want, but that plus long hair tends to get a boy beaten up in high school on a regular basis. That's especially true if he's the teacher's pet and the one who blows the grading curve on every test.

I quickly learned from the 'girls' how to apply makeup and all sorts of other things that I had never thought of. It was in the long run, useless knowledge, but I was having fun. The manager liked my looks and voice as a potential performer and offered to let me stay at his place on his sofa until I found a place to live, as long as I didn't take more than a week or so.

I found that my taste in women's clothing tended toward the conservative, while the girls at the bar preferred a more risqué look. So once again I was a square peg in a round hole, not quite fitting in. At a local consignment store I found a beautiful business suit with a straight skirt and several classic dresses that fit and I got appropriate underwear, hose and pumps to go with them. Dressed in my new to me suit, make up and my new hair style, I would venture out into the city amazed at the ease with which I just blended into the young women office workers.

Walking down one street, I happened upon the kind of girdle shop that used to be on the main street of every town in the 50's and 60's. I always loved to look at the display windows of those shops. There were full and partial mannequins with firm open bottom and panty girdles and bras and displays of panties, slips, stockings and hose. This was the first time, however, that I didn't have to act like I wasn't looking or be self conscious. I could stand there and look at the bras and girdles and nobody would be the wiser.

The next day I was back and looking again when suddenly a voice from behind asked me what I was looking at. It scared me and I must have jumped. I'd been caught looking! I must have been blushing as I turned around, because a young woman said, "I'm sorry to have startled you. I saw you at the window yesterday and again today, and I just wondered if I could sell you something." With that tiny bit of initiative by a salesgirl my life was forever changed.

I explained to her apologetically that I was only window shopping and I could not afford such luxuries. I told her I had been in town only a week and didn't even have a permanent place to live yet. She invited me into the store saying it didn't cost anything to look. I think she just wanted someone to talk to. It was a slow day and we ended up talking for two hours. Peggy was twenty one years old and wore tight girdles, even thought she didn't need one. It turns out, if you worked in a girdle shop, you had better be wearing a girdle. I guess it's true for any salespeople. A car salesman had better have a driver's license and if you're a dentist, you had better have good teeth. It's amazing the things you learn if you just listen and let people talk.

She was surprised to find that I was a 16 year old runaway and working in a bar, but she promised not to tell anyone. She expressed concern for the fate of a runaway small town girl in the big city and I told her that I had a job and a savings account already so I was OK. But, I thanked her for caring. She was also surprised by how much I knew about the things she sold. Little did she know it was forbidden knowledge. A boy knowing about women's bras and girdles was taboo! When she asked which one I would buy if I had the money and I told her, she offered to let me try it on. In a moment of restraint, I told her I'd wait and try it on when I had the money to pay for it. I think at that moment she made a judgment about my character.

As I was leaving she said her roommate had moved out and she had an extra bedroom in her apartment. She needed someone who could share expenses. She asked if I was interested. She described the apartment and it was something I could afford. I already knew I liked her so I asked if I could see it after she got off work. She said it was already closing time so she locked up and we went to her apartment. Wishing I could make it work, I told her that I would love to rent it, but there was more about me that she must know before she could make an informed decision if she really wanted me as her roommate. I had a two for one coupon for a local restaurant and asked if she would join me for dinner while I tell her more about myself.

She was surprised by what I told her, but took it well, even suggesting at first that I was joking. She asked if I was gay and I said no. She might have been more comfortable with a gay male roommate, but didn't say. Then she asked if I always dressed like a girl and I told her that this had only gone on for a few days, but I liked it and I didn't know where it would lead. Ultimately, she said we should give it a try but with the understanding that she could terminate it unilaterally and I agreed. I think she was just as concerned about what could happen to a 16 year old boy runaway as a 16 year old girl runaway and she was going to do her best to save either.

It worked out well for both of us and we became lifelong friends. She was the big sister I never had and I was the little sister and later the brother she never had. I continued living as a girl letting my hair grow out even more and I would stop by the shop on my way to the bar, sometimes helping out behind the counter if things were busy. I got to know several of the regular customers who were prominent ladies and Mrs. M, the owner, was impressed with my knowledge, work ethic and my rapport with the customers. She offered me a part time job. I now had more money and an employee discount so my wardrobe was upgraded over time and Peggy and I could share some of our clothes as well. Things were going well for almost three months until one day when I was working in the shop, Mrs. M called me into her office.

She had never asked me for an ID card and eventually she noticed that I wore a lot of turtle necks and scarves. Over time she began asking unrelated questions that, when combined, proved to be my undoing. One day she asked my dress size and on another day she wanted to know when my birthday was. She would comment on my Midwestern accent and wanted to know what state it was from. She had heard from Peggy that I had been class valedictorian and rightly surmised that a 16 year old high school valedictorian would make big city newspapers in the state. A phone call to the public library reference department uncovered a clipping from their out of town newspapers and she simply picked up the phone and called my old school. The school secretary, Mrs. Zimmer, was only too happy to tell her all about me, and my goose was cooked!

Needless to say, she was very angry. "Do you remember Mrs. Zimmer from high school? She sends her regards." I was caught! What started out as an innocent little adventure for me was to the rest of the world a big fat lie. I told her that I never intended to lie to her and would never do anything that would bring discredit on her. "Are you delusional? Your entire life here is a lie. You lied to me and you have lied to my customers. This whole situation brings discredit on me. And, like it or not, your other job brings discredit on me too. It's also illegal and they could lose their liquor license with one phone call. There are a lot of things you just don't understand young lady." She caught herself too late, but chose not to correct it. "What really annoys me is that we all like you so much and you are so good at your job. Some customers ask for you specifically." She called Peggy in and asked how long she had known I was a boy.

Peggy told her the truth and she then lit into both of us, "What were you thinking Peggy? You had an obligation to tell me anything that affects this business." She then turned to me, "You have two choices; either I fire both of you, or I own you for the next fifteen months." I pleaded with her not to punish Peggy or cause trouble for the bar, but to no avail. So, I agreed to her terms. I would give up my job at the bar and do whatever she demanded of me. She said Peggy would have to find a new roommate because I would be moving east of the bay to live at her house as her full time housemaid. She had already bought a maid's uniform in my size and had me remove my nice dress and change into an ugly black uniform right there in front of Peggy. It was my unconditional surrender.

Mrs. M was right. My life was a lie. One can lie by speech, written word, or deed. I had lied by presenting myself as something I was not. The girls at the bar didn't lie, because they reveal the truth at the end of each performance. There was no doubt in my mind that that black dress was the punishment that I had to accept if I wanted to continue to have a relationship with Mrs. M, Peggy and all associated with them. Being fired meant being banished. I could have simply run away from my obligation to Peggy, as I had from my home town, but I choose to stay and accept the consequences of my actions rather than hurt her. Perhaps, I was growing up.

Following that, I had to walk to the bar in my maids' uniform and cap, thank them for all they had done for me, apologize for putting their liquor license at risk and quit my job. I told them that my new job would be too far away to allow me to continue working there but I'd be back to visit all my friends. The maid outfit looked ridiculous in a drag bar and they thought I was crazy taking a job as a house maid. They didn't need to know the details,

As it turned out, Mrs. M was trying to help me. When she began to suspect that I was a boy, she had considered something I had not, thus her fifteen month requirement. I would be 18 years old then. On my eighteenth birthday the United States Government would take a sudden interest in me regardless of my chosen attire. She had already come up with contingency plans to insure that she would not lose her housemaid and part time salesgirl to 'LBJ's stinking war'. That is the only time I ever heard her make a political comment and it was close as she ever came to cursing, but her contingency plan opened up a whole new world for me.

I was no slave. She paid me a fair wage and with room, board and uniforms provided, she insisted that almost all of my pay go into savings. She taught me about investing and advised me to buy stocks, something my family never did. Just as Peggy was the big sister I never had, Mrs. M was the wise grandmother I never had. I also learned that maids get just as dirty and sweaty as TV cowboys, especially if they must work in the garden with their boss, because the boss never does any of the dirty work. Actually the maid gets sweatier, because cowboys don't wear girdles. With that, I came to the realization that I had been laboring under a misconception that had been planted deep in my subconscious.

I would go to work with her at the shop a few times a week. Although I always enjoyed housework, it was a treat for me to be able to see Peggy and talk with the women in the shop. But there were no more form fitting business suits or pretty dresses for me. I was in my ugly cotton uniform. Although I had several, they all looked exactly alike and like the cotton underwear I hated as a child, I was required to wear the same thing every single day of my life. There were no more pretty dresses. When she said 'I own you for the next fifteen months' she meant it, and she set the rules, but I knew she had my best interest at heart.

If a customer asked why I was in the maid uniform I had to tell them I was being punished for telling a lie. And if asked, I had to tell them what the lie was. Some ladies found this quite amusing. I think it actually brought in more customers to the shop as they sent their friends in to seek out the boy in the maid uniform. I guess this was her form of petticoat discipline and it certainly taught humility. In the 60's when women wore girdles, hose and white gloves on shopping trips, they were sending a message to men; 'I am not like you. I hold a different station in society. I am special. And, you damn well better remember that!' Mrs. M was driving that point home to me. Now, 55 years later that norm is no longer widely accepted. The pill allowed women to be as lustful and raucous as men, and except for special occasions, many women dress pretty much like men without the attention to details that once made women special.

There is no longer a place in towns, or even most big cities, for a shop like Mrs. M's. I don't presume to know if that's for good or ill, but I do know if we no longer have a place in our culture for grand old ladies like Mrs. M who know how to discipline an errant boy, tell him it's time to grow up, and set him on a path that is useful for both himself and society, then the cost has been too high.

Mrs. M had connections with UC Berkeley and it turned out that having her as a reference carried immediate name recognition and considerable weight. I was also, by then, an instate resident. Being high school class valedictorian at age 16 also impressed the admissions office and my SAT scores were very high. There is no way someone in my small town high school could have made this happen, but Mrs. M did. She also landed a scholarship for me and best of all it was a stone's throw from her house so she wouldn't lose her housemaid to 'LBJ's stinking war' after all. On my eighteenth birthday my job as housemaid and part time sales girl ended. I was hired as her houseboy, got a haircut and registered for the draft with my college deferment in hand. The maid's uniforms and girdles went to the thrift shop and better fantasies beckoned.

I would willingly fight for my country and for our way of life if it were threatened, but it was not. I have read H.R. McMaster's 'Dereliction of Duty' based on declassified minutes of high level meetings from the early 60's, and like so many others, I am sickened by the arrogant elites who ignored the generals and so willing spilled the blood of other peoples' sons to curry favor in foreign capitals. I'm glad my draft deferment allowed me to get an education and contribute to society. I only regret that so many others were denied the same opportunities.

It turned out that Berkeley in the late 60's was one of the places to be if you were good at math and interested in Computer Science, specifically what came to be called Artificial Intelligence. It's amazing how much can be accomplished by three little words; if, then, else.

As an undergraduate and then as a graduate student I became consumed by the idea of applying artificial intelligence directly to traffic light controls. As Silicon Valley became more established, I started a small AI company which I eventually sold for more money than I ever conceived of or could ever spend. Many of the applications we developed ended up in everything from fighter jets to cell phones. But, my dream of AI controlled traffic signals has not yet come to pass. It will.

I may not live to see it, but when my AI traffic signals are finally here, they will eliminate the needless stopping and starting at traffic signals that we have today. It will save a large percentage of the world's fuel reserves, the equivalent of discovering several new giant oil fields. My work still goes on at my old company and when it happens it will be in no small part due to Peggy, Mrs. M and the many others whose kindness gave this flea a happy landing from his leap of faith.
Return to Index