David Raether went from TV writer to homeless in a few short years. But he always had his kids’ respect.
The following is an excerpt from David Raether’s new memoir, “Tell Me Something, She Said.” Raether was a successful television comedy writer in the 1990s whose credits included a long stint in “Roseanne.” In 2002, he stepped away from TV writing to focus on spending more time with his large family (wife and eight children). After a two-year break, Raether decided to return, but sitcom employment had plummeted and he was unable to find work. Over the next several years, the family’s financial situation grew perilous and by 2008 he had lost his house and all his savings and the family split up. Raether became homeless…
By early August, 2008, it was clear that the firm I had anticipated hiring me from a meager consulting position to full-time was not in the position to do so. That’s a mild version of saying I was screwed. I would not be able to afford to feed and house a wife and four children.
Marina and I talked and we agreed to have her stay in San Francisco with the two younger girls and that my son Constantin (Coco) and daughter Saskia would return to LA and I would find someone in San Marino to take them in so they could continue at San Marino High School. It would be temporary. The firm probably would bring me on full-time by mid-October.
Saskia was easy enough to find a place for. A woman who had helped us in the past offered to take her in “for as long as needed.” Shelly was an internist and a single mother herself, and lived in a small house with her daughter, Alana, their three vaguely feral rescue dogs who spent their time mainly in the ripped up backyard, a collection of cats that varied in number because Shelly was a purebred cat breeder as a hobby, and what appeared to be four or five birds, possibly parakeets. I never could tell because it was a large cage right by the dining room table and I don’t like birds of any kind and didn’t really want to know much about this particular flock.
Shelly took a very motherly approach to Saskia, which she needed. And Saskia ended up spending most of her remaining high school years living nearly full-time with Shelly and Alana and the dogs and the cats and the birds.
Coco was far more problematic. I would find him a place, and the family would agree to take him in, and then after a few weeks they’d want me to find him another place. Not that he was trouble. Far from it. He was an intensely quiet kid who read voluminously. It’s just that it was asking a lot of people. Even friends. Over the course of his remaining two years of high school, Coco lived with 14 different families in San Marino.
The San Marino public schools are among the best in California and it was a top priority for me that Coco and Saskia finish high school there so they would have a good start to a college education. That’s what I wanted for them. One day in the summer of 2010, I stopped by the high school offices to pick up their registration packets for the year.
The principal was there in the office with the school secretary.
“We tried mailing this to you at your address but it came back,” she said. “Do you have a new address?”
“Uh…,” I said.
The principal looked at me and then at the secretary.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said.
“But I need a San Marino address for them to attend here,” she said.
He looked at her with a serious look.
“I said don’t worry about it,” he said to the secretary. Then he looked at me and smiled. “Get your kids registered.”
I never intended it to be that way. My thinking was: well, they’ve been in the San Marino schools since kindergarten. All their friends are here. It’s a great high school (and you can look that up) and will provide both of them with the preparation they need for college. Why uproot them and move back to Minneapolis with my 82 year-old widowed father when I may suddenly find work and make things right?
I would meet with both of them most days after school. Because it was San Marino, and because I didn’t want to embarrass them, I would meet them at the school or after practices for the various sports teams they were on, dressed in disguise. I would put on office clothes – dress shirt and slacks, polished leather shoes and a tie. I looked like any other San Marino father, home early from the law practice.
It became part of the ruse of my life. I was still an upper middle class father and the kids were still living upper middle class lives. Except we weren’t. I was homeless and often hungry, and the kids were living with virtual strangers, sleeping in guest bedrooms, with different mothers making dinner for them. While classmates were driving to school in $50,000 SUVs their parents bought for them when they got their drivers’ licenses, Coco and Saskia rode their bikes to school and their father would meet them at the school gate, hungry-looking and sad.
I loved to attend parent parties. It was good to be among adults, but more importantly it was the free food. They were all lovely people and I had no beef with any of them. The mess we were in was my doing. These events did require significant shading of the truth, however. Especially since my main residence was underneath a stairwell on the third floor down of the Caltech parking garage.
“So, Dave, where are you living now?” someone would ask.
“I’m staying over by Caltech,” I would say.
“Nice neighborhood,” they’d say.
“It’s great!” I’d say with a hearty laugh and we’d all laugh heartily in agreement what a great neighborhood it was over by Caltech.
Now, there was your little white lie. I wasn’t staying “over by Caltech.” I was actually living on campus. Not with the approval of the institution, however, but I appreciated the unintended hospitality, regardless.
And the food at these events: sushi, of course, lots of pasta salads, usually burgers or sausages, and cookies. And cocktails. I would come with my messenger bag that I used to carry toiletries, a change of socks and underwear, and an unread Bible, claiming I had just gotten back from the office and hadn’t had time to drop off my bag. I would casually load up my plate, go to a darkened corner of the backyard, stuff the food into the messenger bag, and go back for seconds, thirds or more. And, believe me, nothing tastes better on an empty stomach than three glasses of a $20 bottle of Stag’s Leap merlot paired with rotini and salami pasta salad, fourteen chocolate cookies and five plates of sushi. I never saved the sushi. That I ate on the spot.
Coco called me one day to stop by the house he was staying at. He needed some papers signed for school. It was late October and the weather in Southern California had been its usual scorching dry. I hadn’t bathed in four days, but I had on a dress shirt and slacks as I walked up to the house. No one was home but Coco.
“What papers do you need signed?” I asked as I entered.
“I don’t really have any for you to sign,” he said.
“Oh. So what do you need?”
He paused and looked at me for a long time.
“I want you to take a shower,” he said.
I didn’t say anything for a long moment.
“Really?” I said.
“Yeah, really,” he said.
I started to cry.
“I’m sorry, Coco,” I said.
He put his hand on my shoulder.
“It’s okay,” he said. “I understand.”
“Really?” I said. “Well, you got that on me.”
I went to the bathroom and while I was in the shower, he grabbed my shirt and underpants and washed them. We watched SportsCenter while the load finished, and he made me a sandwich.
“Well, Viqui will be home soon,” he said, referring to the woman of the house.
“I should probably get going,” I said.
“You look good, Padre,” he said.
“Well, I am a handsome man,” I said. And we both laughed as I left.
My children grew up calling me David. It was always amusing to me because I was so clearly the fatherly type (in my mind) that I enjoyed little kids calling me by my first name. But as the agony of these years passed, they began to stop calling me by my first name. The older girls started calling me Daddy, and the boys called me Padre. On some unconscious level they felt a desire to let me know that despite what could be most politely called my reduced circumstances, I had become even more clearly their father. I consider that my finest accomplishment of those years. When we all lived together in a $2 million house on a broad leafy avenue in San Marino with three cars in the driveway and a grand piano and the accouterment of a successful life, I was David.
But now, homeless and hungry, I was Daddy.
One day a year ago, out of the blue, in the early afternoon in the middle of the week, my daughter Claire called me.
“Daddy, I just want you to know that I was thinking about this and I really appreciate all the sacrifices you and Mama made so we could go to school in San Marino,” she said.
“Really?” I said.
“Yes,” she said. “I know it was very hard for you, and we all really appreciate it. I love you very much, Daddy.”
So that’s what this was all about. I wasn’t just David anymore. I was Daddy.
I was Padre.