By Michelle Railey
Updated 6 January 2019
Margaret Thatcher, former British prime minister, passed away yesterday. You might have heard. As an unabashed child of the eighties, I will say that nothing, nothing, has made so plain that childhood is dead and said childhood is basically thirty years gone, like the prime of the passing of Ms. Margaret Thatcher.
(This is not to say we, or anyone like us, is stuck in childhood: just that we, or I, perpetually drop a decade and the fact that our childhood is not twenty but thirty years passed is a constant surprise. Because we, or I, still feel somewhere in the neighborhood of 13 to 25. Anywhere at all between 13 and 25.)
Of course the eighties were already passed into the point of nostalgia when Thatcher went away. The world watched many of its pop icons pass away or disappear into reality shows and/or obscurity. The political figures have been trickling off the world stage for awhile now. The fashions and appearance of the eighties have gone and come back again. Kids now don’t think of Germany as two places and are surprised, I think, to hear about Iron Curtains and multiple countries. Or, say, Yugoslavia. I would like to think that kids do actually hear about these things at some point.
But maybe because Reagan was gone before he was gone, it’s Maggie who seals the deal. Margaret Thatcher has passed away, taking any inexplicably lingering illusions about the innocence of children of the eighties with her. We really can’t go back again. It was too long ago. We suspected that already but we know it for sure now.
The eighties to me were many things. And a surprisingly large chunk of them consists of the non-stop doodles of Chris P. If you’re in the year 1987, and you are me or someone like me, your days begin with social studies class with Mr. F. Mr. F. has a perpetual white crust around his mouth that you long to remind him of (seriously, Mr. F., check your face before you stand in front of 7th graders: We are very unforgiving and judgmental). Mr. F. will be one of the first and only teachers you encounter before high school to suggest in red-state, Bible Belt Indiana that alternative religions to Christianity have rich and storied histories and equal validity in the world to the stories of and beliefs about Jesus. Mr. F. served in the military but he was never able to be very specific about it, in class and all, and you (the seventh grader) remember that he served and are ashamed you noticed the inevitable white mouth crust and stale nicotine fumes.
But your days begin with Mr. F. He tells you about Korea (we had a war there, in the fifties), and Hinduism (more people in India believe in it than Christianity and that’s really okay). He mentions the Treaty of Verdun and he doesn’t make students spit out their gum. He speaks for 55 minutes exactly every morning, five days per week, and seldom gives quizzes. He just talks and waves unconcernedly at the chalkboard he would never dream of getting up from his seat and writing on.
And you, you are sitting there in 1987, and you are taking copious, precise notes in pink, purple, or turquoise ink. Occasionally you will check out the megaphone on your Coke watch or the coral reef on your Swatch. Occasionally you will draw a damn good version of Mr. F.’s head on your notes, which are more complete than could be expected from the Lisa Frank notebook (bubble gum machine, very perky, further festooned with Lisa Frank stickers of teddy bears, unicorns, dewy-bubble-eyed and 80s-fantastic.)
But sometimes, you will look over at Chris’ messy, paper-everywhere, helter-skelter desk. You will watch him doodling on loose-leaf paper (can’t even pull the Trapper Keeper out of his bag and put it on the desk, nope. Too much to ask). You will notice he never, ever takes notes. What he does, all 55 minutes of first period long, is draw.
He draws boxing gloves (Rocky IV!). But mostly he draws weaponry. And there’s my complete (your complete, if you’re like me) pre-1990s introduction to foreign policy, on a Mead loose-leaf, wide-rule sheet of ridiculously cheap paper: bomber airplanes, U.S.S.R. sickle-and-hammers, more bombers. The occasional mushroom cloud.
And in a weird way, retrospectively, you’ve got to hand it to Chris P: the news I saw scattered in the evening between Kate and Allie and My Two Dads was actually very much a story of bombers, the U.S.S.R., and…Margaret Thatcher.
Not that Chris P. ever once drew Maggie– he wasn’t prone to drawing humans. But still, she was there, like the threat of the mushroom cloud, the boxing glove, Red Dawn, and the Wall-pre-torn-down.There was anxiety, hidden well by Alf, Rainbow Brite, Coke jerseys, and Guess jeans.There were evenings of news reports that, weirdly and yet again in retrospect, probably really did come down to Chris P.’s drawings of boxing gloves and Gorbachev’s birthmarks; news reports in which Margaret Thatcher’s name was a chronic inclusion.
So, on Monday, it was announced she is gone. She has passed: she was sick and now, she has gone. Stealthily and quietly, in 2013.
And that’s when it occurs to you (to me) that time has passed faster than you know. I mean, in your head you’re fully aware that it’s 2013. You don’t generally think of the eighties that much, except in your nostalgia fits, nor the ’90s nor the aughts. You know it’s the day that it is. You go to work. You do the laundry. You read the paper. You worry about the future.
But a lot of the time, you feel uncertain. Like a 12-year old.
And it occasionally dawns on you that the uncertainty you’re feeling is the same uncertainty you’ve had since the beginning, and that you were really aware of, back in the day of Bonne Bell lipgloss and used clothes you hoped would be disguised by Palmetto jeans miraculously passing as your best and only Christmas Guess (by Georges Marciano) pants.
And then it will dawn on you: my god. That was thirty years ago.
Margaret Thatcher is dead.
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Brass, Tempera, and Violets (Three Fragments for Fall)
I. There were brass plates on the trees. Once.
I dream about those brass plates sometimes. They were small: the size of rectangular dog tags, maybe two postage stamps wide. They were engraved with the species of the tree and screwed into the trunk: tiny brass screws on little brass plates, biting into trees that were tall and strong and old. “Elm,” “oak,” “maple.” It was at Darrough Chapel Elementary School in Kokomo, Indiana, the early 1980s. I went back, after 2000, and walked around the yard, looking at the remaining trees, looking for their names. The plates were gone. It took me longer than it should have to realize that, as the trees grew, of course their brass plates would just pop right off.
Trees are stronger than engraved brass plates and time is stronger than trees. Still, the loss of the tags saddened me, even after I remembered that the brass would be tarnished and green and unreadable, even if they had stayed attached to their trunks. But still, there it is, a memory that moves me: it’s vivid, it’s tactile. The brass plates may as well be screwed into me. “Elm,” “oak,” “maple.”
There is not a fall that, when I smell wood smoke, I don’t see those tags, read those words, wonder if those trees were real. Darrough Chapel, I think, burned their trash and the smell of smoke is recess and brass tags and picking up acorns, small moments of quietude between coloring contests and pretending I didn’t already know how to read. The smell of smoke, the feel of tree trunks, the gleam of brass. This is fall, forever and always. And sometimes I wonder if I will ever know if the tags were real. And, always, I miss them. I loved the tags on the trees. I thought all forests must have them; all forests should have them. And perhaps, woodsmoke and acorns notwithstanding, perhaps I dreamt them and they were never really there. Being six on a fall afternoon feels nearly as foreign to me as pressing little child’s fingers against brass plates on rough trunks.
“Elm,” “oak,” “maple.”
II. Tempera Paint.
While we’re discussing elementary school, and let’s face it, fall and elementary school are practically synonymous, fall is forever the smell of tempera paint. Okay, so a close second would be that paste: the white kind that arrived to the desks in Popsicle molds; the kind that fills glue sticks, the kind that Chris (it is always a Chris) eats.
But, firstly, it is tempera paint: thick and distinctive and available only in red, yellow, orange, green, blue, brown, and black. If you want purple, mix your own. Your choices are red, yellow, orange, green, blue, brown and black.
In fall, pre-Halloween, you only need the red, yellow, orange, and black. In fact, I don’t even know that the teacher would even bring out the other colors. In fall, pre-Halloween, the only craft one would be attempting with the pungent, egg-yolk-y temperas would be the autumn leaf thing: Take a leaf. Goo the veiny side with tempera. Press against paper to make a leaf print. Repeat until math class or lunch, whichever comes first.
Autumn is, forever, not only wood smoke but the thick weird smell of tempera paint and ink blots. (No matter how careful you were, there were always blots on your damned leaf print. Don’t even pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about here.)
Now what with college-ing myself into an art history degree, I know that tempera is not what passes (or passed) for “tempera” in American elementary schools. Classic temperas are based on, usually, egg as a binder, mixed with high-quality dyes. American elementary school tempera is poster paint. But, in the way of shopping centers elevating themselves with “centre” and “olde,” well, American tempera in first grade is definitely low-grade dye and glue (Chris, don’t eat that!) masquerading as something egg-y and special. If it weren’t special, we’d have had it in the regular classroom. Like that paste. (Seriously, Chris.)
I like that when October arrives, year after year, there’s that one week before you start thinking in exclusively Halloween terms; I like that week. The only thing that week cares about is fall leaves. If the real ones haven’t turned yet, it doesn’t matter. You will still, if only in memory, if only mentally, be pressing a leaf (green, live, dead, fallen, doesn’t matter) into “tempera” paint (red, yellow, orange, green, blue, brown, or black— don’t choose green, blue, or black, honestly, what is wrong with you?) and pressing it against a paper plate or a poster board or a piece of paper.
Your parents will see it on the very first PTA/PTO night of the year; or Parent-Teacher meeting. Or whatevs.
As an adult, you don’t get those much; at least not for yourself.
But that doesn’t mean that early October does not equal tempera paint. Plus leaf. Plus paper.
And you know that it does.
C. Howard’s Violet Chewing Gum
Autumn in New York is a storied thing, a song-filled thing.
And, homesick Midwesterner, should you find yourself in 1994, on the streets of New York on a gray October day, bustling to an acting class, you might, just might, find yourself at a newsstand, buying “Choward’s Violet Chewing Gum.”
The reasons for this are numerous, obviously (eye roll). For starters, you’re young. You know, literally, nothing. And there you are, starry-eyed, in New York and the streets smell like asphalt and coffee and fall smoke (Darrough Chapel? Campfires? Oh, memory, you damned dog.). Occasionally, with a whiff of hot dog and falafel. Depends on what block you’re on.
So, there you are, at the newsstand, with a dollar in your pocket just begging to be spent. You had walked, perhaps, too quickly and arrived outside your dreaded acting class too early. Yeah, you should have dawdled in front of Fishs Eddy, the way you always do. You should have spent your dollar at Timothy’s Coffees of the World (it’s October and they have spiced cranberry juice!). Your classmates are smoking and talking about things and it’s easier for you, an introvert, to pretend to be busy with your dollar and your newsstand. Though, damn you, why can’t you walk more slowly?
And there it is, at the newsstand, gleaming in its old-fashioned-y package: “Choward’s Violet Chewing Gum.”
What could possibly go wrong, you think. I mean, it’s 1994 and Victoria magazine has taught you (for the past several years) that all things misty and/or velvet are picturesque and noble. Phantom of the Opera, in fact, is a large reason why you’re there for acting class in the first place and, well, “Choward’s” is just begging to be all purchased and consumed.
You might feel all refined and Eliza Doolittle (post-Henry Higgins) buying it.
And so you do.
It is…disgusting, quite honestly.
I mean, you’ve had your fair share of Big Red, Juicy Fruit, and Big League Chew. In fact, you’ve even experimented with Hubba Bubba and Bubbalicious (you were young and everyone was doing it). You’ve had your long-running love affair with Extra, all the Extras: the dark pink, the light pink, the fluorescent green, and the dark blue.
And now, there is this exotic, Victorian purple Violet chewing gum.
Before acting class. (This somehow makes it better. We live for the arts, you know.)
And it smells and tastes like gagging on somebody’s grandma’s mauve lace curtains. Maybe your grandma, maybe all grandmas, but my god, they actually sell this to people?
So much for sophistication. So much for your whole Little Match Girl, Christine Daae, Victoriana fantasy.
It’s terrible. And, worse, that dollar could have gotten you a bagel with cream cheese – toasted — at H&H Bagels. It could have gotten you a pear and a bagel at Zabar’s. It could have bought two hot dogs at Gray’s Papaya.
And now, there you are, before acting class, which frankly you don’t at all care for, and your mouth tastes like dead grandmother flowers and you still have four sticks left.
All illusions are dashed.
And, then, an older you googles this “Choward’s Violet Chewing Gum.” And it’s not some old British Dickensian traditional rotting-tooth disguise. Nope. It dates to the 1930s in New York. And it’s “C. Howard,” not “Choward.”
Illusions repaired. I mean, how New York can you get? Some 1930 New Yorker’s very own brand of crazy floral chewing gum, purchased at a rickety, ubiquitous news stand, and you’re standing there on the streets of Manhattan, chomping on it while avoiding eye contact with any other human. Before acting class.
Long live “Choward’s.” It’s a very little bit preferable to Chris’s most favorite elementary school paste.
I threw the four remaining sticks of Violet gum away. You would have done the same.
Autumn in New York is forever that dollar you’ll just never get back.
Do It Yourself (DIY!): Waterbed for Barbie
You, too, can make a waterbed for your Barbie. You will need a gallon-size Ziploc bag*, a water source**, and a piece of fabric.
Step 1: Fill the Ziploc with water from your chosen water source. Seal the bag and dry it off.
Step 2: Lay the Ziploc in the bedroom of Barbie’s dream home or in a shoe box or just on the floor wherever it is you enjoy playing with your Barbie. Make sure those dumb sharp Barbie shoes are not underneath your Ziploc. This is important: do not lay the Ziploc down on the zipper side or the other factory-sealed side. Use one of the biggest and flattest sides (you will have two from which to choose) to be on the carpet/plastic/floor. The other biggest and flattest side will be facing up.
Step 3: Lay the fabric (two or more pieces, if you’re fancy) on top of the Ziploc so it’s just one big and watery pillow bed.
Step 4: Put your Barbie on the bed (again, watch those sharp little shoes and also the equally inexplicably sharp little hands and earrings).
Now, wasn’t that fun? Of course, now Barbie is sleeping. And the waterbed for Barbie is, well, kind of boring.
Life can be cruel and it isn’t always fun. Sometimes you go to all the trouble to make a waterbed for a Barbie and it feels like it was for absolutely nothing. Adults will say things like “it’s not the destination, it’s the journey” or “there’s more joy in work than in the product” and “brush your teeth.”
Yeah, well, sometimes, you knock yourself out making something nice for a friend and you just get bupkis. Sometimes: it really is for nothing. No, do not pretend you learned any kind of important lesson from filling a Ziploc bag with water; do not pretend it was fun; do not pretend you are not just a little bit hurt that Barbie didn’t even say “thanks for the waterbed.”***
So, sure. You, too, can make a waterbed for your Barbie. I just don’t recommend actually doing it.
* Don’t use a sandwich-sized bag. Barbie is freakishly tall, proportionally speaking. She will not fit on a sandwich bag, like, not even diagonally.
** Ask an adult for help! Not a stranger, though. Do NOT ask a stranger for help with this.
*** Barbie (Trademark Mattel, who did not give permission for the use and/or mention of Barbie TM in this post) is a thankless piece of plastic. You may as well make a tiny gratitude journal for her, you know what I’m saying? Sometimes beautiful people are nice. But sometimes they’re entitled, ungrateful wretches who should get a day job or something or at least do some of your chores or homework or help out a little, I mean, my god, Barbie TM, how freaking lazy does a piece of plastic have to be? And ungrateful, did I mention ungrateful? How many Barbies get their own damn waterbed? Damn it, Barbie TM, at least say “thank you.” You don’t even have to mean it. It takes absolutely nothing, FYI. Nothing.
A Funny Thing Happened in the Middle of the Nachos
So there you are, in Las Vegas, at the Flamingo, and you’ve screwed up dinner because J.B. at the Flamingo served you that Bloody Mary (or whatever it is that happened to you) and so you missed the bus to downtown for one-dollar shrimp cocktail and the buffet at your hotel has shut down (not like they’d have cotton candy anyway, dammit, Harrah’s, of all the things to run out of) and so there you are at Carlos and Charlie’s for the second damn time. It doesn’t matter that the first time you were there that one chick I think of as Roxette totally screwed you out of refills on your iced tea and also just wasn’t awesome at customer service in general. But, you know, maybe it was an off-day and waiting tables is hard. I get it.
Anyway… there you are at the Flamingo at the Carlos and Charlie’s –again– and you’ve got nachos (the Mayan temple, fifteen dollars, for about three pounds of chips and cheese and cheese sauce, which is different, you know what I’m saying here). And Roy and Mildred* just sat down to simper over burritos at the table in the corner and Eight is Enough just sat down in their T-ball costumes** to order dinner for family time.
All is right in the world. The environment is a cross between Every Mexican Restaurant in the World and Dark TGI Friday’s.
Then, out of the blue, the music changes. The bass pumps up and suddenly there’s a DJ.
(Crunch of nacho; Roy and Mildred say how lovely it is to get out of the home and not eat Early Bird Specials this evening.)
And now: there’s a strobe light in the corner. There’s a greeny-red light being flashed on a surprise disco ball (where did that even come from?).
There’s a twee hipster in straight-brimmed Yankees cap, fussing around, holding a clipboard, and…is that a TSA-style security line?
What. Is. Going. On. Here.
Roy and Mildred are oblivious. Eight is Enough is way less fussed than they should be that Carlos and Charlie’s does not offer free chips and salsa. They’re talking T-Ball and soccer and whatever; it’s like a sitcom over at that table, one step removed from Family Ties and Full House and, oh yeah, Eight is Enough.***
And now here come some patrons who are tweaking. And I’d like to finish the nachos but something wicked this way comes.
Does anyone notice what the hell is happening here?
Why are they taking names and selling glow bracelets?
Can I finish my nachos or should I order the meth platter?
Are we on Mystery Diners? Candid Camera? What is happening????
So you talk to the waiter. “Is this bothering you?” A girl in the background is opening windows and lugging piles of menus to a corner, where a tarp has been placed proclaiming “Ultra Lounge.”
“No, but what the….”
You can try to finish your dinner but lights are flashing red and blue and green and seizure and tight pants and Mr. Mohawk have just walked past, screaming “whooo” and fist-pumping.
And you still have a plate of nachos and no answers. The waiter just smiles and you’re like: am I on TV right now? But most importantly, Can I Finish My Nachos????
So the waiter, looking nervous, sends over a manager because your adorable dinner companion has decided to ask for information. Manager arrives at table and Adorable Dinner Companion states that “we” are “world-renowned food bloggers” **** and would like to chat about the restaurant. Mr. Manager passes us each a business card and explains that every night (except maybe Sunday– it’s difficult to hear everything over thumpa-thumpa) “around 10:30, they start switching the restaurant into a club: twenty dollars and all-you-can-drink well drinks all night. It has, he says, been very good for business.
Adorable Dinner Companion (a.k.a. world-renowned food blogger) asks if that change ever bothers anyone who is there to eat, it being a mite disconcerting and all, and it’s not like anyone announced it or there was a sign or anything. “Well,” says Mr. Manager “when you get the right clientele in, they love it.”
I think of Roy and Mildred, who are starting to seem confused. I wonder who “the wrong clientele” might be.
Mr. Manager smiles knowingly and Adorable Dinner Companion/World-Renowned says it’s just an interesting switch and not everyone would enjoy the mystery of it.
I think: you know, there’s a reason set changes usually happen behind a curtain.
Also: I can’t decide if $20 for free well drinks all night sounds fun (maybe it does; is J.B. making Bloody Marys?) or if it sounds like alcohol poisoning.
It’s certainly a strange transition to sit through without any explanation. And who knew that a tarp plus disco light plus cheap drinks, a clipboard and a strobe light equaled nightclub?
Hey, $20 for all-you-can-drink at our house next Thursday. Glow bracelets will be for sale. Come one, come all. There will be no free chips and salsa. It’s a club. (Thumpa-thumpa.)
*Roy and Mildred were charming; no offense meant with the “simper.”
**I actually think now that the family was just dressed American Normal, maybe like for a sport utility vehicle commercial. A pleasant-looking family.
***I literally cannot name a family sitcom that has aired more recently than these.
****Adorable Dinner Companion will now be known as “World Renowned Food Blogger.” Forever.
Gatsby and Me on Waikiki
Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.” ~ F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Rich Boy
I’m in Hawaii on borrowed grace. Red‘s here for work, my dad had extra miles he graciously gave (loaned, for somehow I’ll eventually pay him back) me. In short, it feels rather like I’ve shammed my way into paradise, gate-crashed my way into a vacation I didn’t actually earn. And you know, between never-ending gratitude and delight, there’s also a not inconsiderable sheepish, slightly shame-colored thing we’ll call guilt. I don’t know how or why I am lucky enough to be here and other people are not. Yet here I unfairly am, and I’m mostly exhilarated by it, but the strangest thing happened today and it seems oddly related to shams and shame and inadvertent admissions to extravagance, to questions of money and place and surreal experiences. So…
I swear this really happened.
I found myself in easily one of the most elegant and expensive places I have ever been; a place so beautiful I would have assumed people like me would not be permitted to do more than walk through; a place so exclusive, so tasteful, and so luxurious I can’t imagine the number of Condé Nast publications it’s been in, the number of photo shoots it’s formed the backdrop for. High-class, high-dollar; old, historic, Belle Époque grandeur. And, turns out, the Moana Surfrider will let literally anyone in to the casual beach bar to have a $12 cocktail in swank surroundings.
So I sat at a table with a friend while Red was working. We ordered a drink and basked in the banyan tree, the palms, the Pacific; I took unfortunately fuzzy photographs of architectural details and tropical flowers, shells, and sand artfully arranged in huge crystal vases on marbled mahogany tables among endless white Ionic columns and an equally endless parade of beautiful, society, moneyed sort of brides in equally white couture gowns having their photographs done by professionals lugging column-sized cameras.
And then Alberto (not his real name) walked in and sat at the table next to ours, dripping Gucci and Ferragamo bags, clothed in conspicuous consumption, Prada, aviator glasses and gold. He made a quick costume change at his table, from a military-style coat into a shirt he later informed us was a thousand-dollar Gucci purchase he had made minutes ago just so he could change shirts. He sat alone, was clearly already drunkish, and was having to be cared for by the server, who knew him well and handed him the pair of loafers, also Gucci, which she had been keeping for him in her locker. “You left your shoes here last time.”
He approached our table and asked us, please, to join him on the catamaran he was going on. “Come on, come on the boat with me.” We politely declined. And he left, without shoes, leaving his array of high-end shopping bags, his drink, and his leather bag at his table.
The server explained to us that he had a good heart, had old money, and had two homes on the island. She said he just did that sort of thing, found people and put them on boats with himself, or invited them to drink for the day and well into the night. She said she tried to watch out for him and keep him from harmful, predatory people like the Australian couple who had just recently run up a $700 bar tab for Alberto to pay. She said he was the kind that had to go, go, go and liked to have company and, laying a hand over her heart, was “just so good inside.” She said we should have gone on the boat.
I tweeted I had come across the Waikiki Beach Gatsby and my friend and I finished our drinks. Time passed. Alberto returned from the catamaran just after we had paid our tab. He asked if he could sit at our table and repeated that we should have gone on the boat with him. He still had not remembered his shoes.
He ordered what would have had to have been an inordinately expensive bottle of champagne with three glasses. The server brought him some food— he needed it– and champagne was poured: and uncertain what the correct course of action in the situation was, I averted my eyes, expressed gratitude and took a sip. With a stranger who was, frankly, all lost and restless amiability, and probably prone to being taken advantage of, something it felt like I was doing, through no real fault of my own, just by having been handed a glass of absurdly luxurious champagne and being given a peculiarly imperative look from the server.
So we all three sat there, making awkward conversation as it began to rain, next to the banyan, next to the candles, and the brides, the palms, and the Pacific. With champagne. With Alberto/Gatsby, who said he was a nurse, companion, and secretary to a very wealthy elderly lady with Alzheimer’s. He said he had already money. He had a husband whom he loved and two homes and two fur coats (a sable and a mink) he could never wear because “it’s Hawaii.” He said he didn’t have to work. He said he had known the family forever; had cared for the woman’s husband until he passed and was caring for her until the end and he’d be inheriting her complete estate as well. “She has no family. I take care of everything.” A couple tears dropped down his cheek. He removed the aviators to wipe his eyes. He said all he wanted to do was sleep; he just wanted to sleep but he would settle for blowing off steam and he probably drank too much. He said he wished he could sing.
“You should have come with me on the boat. It’s so blue out there, deep blue. I like to dive off the boat,” he said, “straight down. There’s no bottom. It’s very freeing. It’s the best feeling.”
And so it went, sipping champagne with Alberto/Gatsby: sheepish comments on his part about shopping to make himself happy and how he didn’t care how much anything cost and how ridiculous it seemed; stabs at humor with self-conscious grins alternating with deeply sad statements and tears tracking down his cheeks.
My narrative doesn’t do justice to the afternoon, certainly not to Alberto. There was depth there, I think. There was a good heart there, of that I am also certain. But mostly there was a pained and misplaced soul; able to purchase anything but, to date, peace, wanting and seeking and clearly not finding. Alberto’s palpable, rather raw unhappiness was blinding, in a way: I found myself tongue-tied, wishing I could order him buttered toast and scrambled eggs, knowing these things would not help, not really, but that they were comforting sorts of things for sad and hungry souls who might be chilled from catamaran dives and sudden, misty, November Hawaiian rain. I kept pulling my eyes down because it felt indecent to look into a stranger’s face and see such tears, such things; an invasion of privacy accompanied, in a supremely surreal twist, by sips of celebratory champagne. I regretted thinking of fictional, literary Gatsby in connection with this very real human being with very real feelings, very real loneliness.
I hoped the company of my friend and I at least gave Alberto some temporary comfort but imagine it was no different than any other of these days for him: another day, another drink, another batch of strangers to temporarily, quixotically befriend. Simple distraction: transient, anonymous, and interchangeable. Not unlike his luxury shopping, which he described in detail. No judgment here, truly, but I’d place a glass of champagne on a bet that the ink hasn’t dried on the AmEx receipt of any given purchase before the happiness he derived from it has dissipated completely.
I stepped away from the table and when I returned, Alberto was on his way out. He was being gently guided by a concierge as well as the server. He still hadn’t put his shoes on, but he had at least remembered his many shopping bags. He shook my hand. He said he wanted more than anything to go and sleep and so he was leaving. I said that it was understandable and that sleep sounded like a good idea. I asked if I could give him any money towards the champagne (a gauche and probably insulting thing to do, I’m sure). He declined. He put an arm around my shoulders, briefly, and said “Aloha.” I said “Thank you. I hope you find happiness” (I’m socially awkward with a chronic case of pedestrian-mouth and was under the influence of half a glass of Faustian champagne). That’s what I meant but it’s not normally the type of thing one says out loud, you know? I was on my way to saying something else and somehow those are the words which horrifyingly, embarrassingly tumbled out of my mouth. But there it was and I did my best. He said thank you again and his train of discreet and professional hotel staff members assisted him through the lobby and out to whatever ride was taking him wherever it was he was going to, I dearly hope, sleep soundly, deeply, peacefully.
I’ve decided I don’t much care for expensive champagne.
The Goat Woman of Crawfordsville
About 19 years ago, I was told about a local legend of Crawfordsville, Indiana called the Goat Woman. Clad in London Fog coat (no matter the season) and instantly recognizable, she was a reputedly nightly or near-nightly guest at the now-gone Target snack bar. I confess: I was never clear— was she called the Goat Woman because of the subtle (or less than subtle) animal smell wafting off the shabby and careworn London Fog coat or was it the downy cheek (read for that “visible-at-a-distance-highly-prominent facial hair”)? At any rate, it was all part of the local lore regarding the Goat Woman.
I only ever heard of the Goat Woman. I never had the privilege of her acquaintance; never experienced a Goat Woman Sighting. But even on hearing of her, my initial thought was always “no, not the Goat Woman. I am sure she is Ruby, or Julia, or Ernestine. She has a name. She has a life.” I have always wished to write about the Goat Woman. In tight, controlled prose, of course. But this is never the result of pondering the Goat Woman. She was real. I have been assured. What bit of modern local color Crawfordsville, Indiana had circa 1997 was composed, more or less entirely, of the Goat Woman, the daily denizen of the snack bar; a patron of all things mostly-beef and formica. A misfit, a loner, a remnant— a label cleverly disguising a lifetime of regrets, or hopes, or happiness. An anecdote about what happens when men die younger than women and life is uncertain and pinged on fixed incomes.
I am, to my everlasting woe, a sentimental and imaginative type, and so I see her, this woman I never had the pleasure of encountering: she chews thoughtfully on a 99-cent frank on a cheap white bun. I do not know if she prefers condiments or if she disdains them. I think she must have pets for, in my imagined version, the inevitable London Fog is decorated with pet hairs. It would be the easy thing to think “oh, the hairs of many cats.” But I prefer to think the Goat Woman goes against the grain and in fact has or had a very pleasant and beguiling mutt of a dog. Or two. But one thing is nearly certain: after fifteen years, the Goat Woman is no more.
The Goat Woman was, even back then, most certainly very old already. In 2016, I doubt very much that she still, somehow, is. In my early twenties, when I first heard about the Goat Woman and was very, insipidly young but didn’t know it, the tale of the Goat Woman made me envision romantic tales for this strange, local being. I thought, well, the Goat Woman once kissed a man under an elm on the campus of Wabash College, but that was long ago. And the Goat Woman was a dream built on June evenings and darkness, kisses and the smell of newly-cut grass and sharp, chlorinated sprinkler water. I don’t think so now, although I don’t quite rule it out.The Goat Woman now, this many years later, is less romantic, inscrutable and, sadly, common. To me, she has usually become the face of the women who outlive the ones who personally matter, the women one sees in nursing homes or in front yards, clearly alone: bereft, stubborn, and abysmally healthy. Enough to get on with but not enough to live on, exactly. She’s the face of misfits everywhere, those who are labeled and sorted but never quite understood. The Goat Woman becomes an emblem, a symbol, a martyr, a mascot, a legend. She becomes the Goat Lady, queen of the Goat Women. She gets lost in the hot dogs and the department store, in memory and local legend, in nostalgia and years.
But the thing of it you really, all these years later, want to know is: was she going to Target to just get out of the house? What did she do before she was the Goat Woman? What happened? Was she, as seems likely, left behind? What was the story there? And so I go back: She must be Ernestine, Ruby, or Julia. Maybe she taught science at the high school. Maybe she could speak Greek. Maybe she was ordinary and raised kids and loved and lived a regular sort of American Midwestern life and then she simply grew old and went to the snack bar because it was there and because it was cheap and, after all, it doesn’t do to stay in the house all of the time.
I do not like that we grow old. I do not like that we lose those we love. I do not like that, for some of us, we go through as misfits, never quite finding our way, our place, our world. I do not like that, even if we have the most fulfilling of existences, filled with love, laughter, and purpose, there is a chance we eventually become Goat Women alone at a snack bar in a shabby, outdated coat, eating cheap hot dogs, dreaming of what was or what could have been. So I circle back yet again and instead I salute the Goat Woman, Goat Women and men everywhere. I envision a new version of the legend. The Goat Woman does not go to the Target snack bar of an evening because, after a long and ordinary life, she is lonely and without funds to afford better. She goes because it is what she wishes to do. The Goat Woman goes to the Target and has a hot dog because, damn it, she likes hot dogs. It’s not all she can afford. It’s what she chooses. And besides, her husband, her partner, her wife, prefers Lean Cuisine and frankly, the Goat Woman thinks it’s just dumb to have 300 calories for dinner on a plastic tray in the house. The Goat Woman prefers to dine out.
So here’s to the Goat Woman in reality and imagination. Here’s to the misfits, the elderly, the lonely, and the unintentional legends. Perhaps it is not the crystalline prose, the article, an icon deserves. Nevertheless, here’s to her, to you, to me because I’d bet we’re all Goat Women, some of us sooner than later, but still. I choose to celebrate the Goat Woman, not to mourn her. If nothing else, I remember her. And in remembering her, saluting her, perhaps I celebrate the rest of us, too. No harm in a cheap hot dog, come to that.
Henry Purcell and Voice Potato (New York, 1995)
Her head was shaped like a potato.
Back up, you say. Who is “her?” And what kind of person points out that a woman’s head is shaped like a potato? Are you a monster?
I sure try not to be a monster. I tried like hell not to see a potato or Lon Chaney in the shape of her head, but I could neither vanquish nor control my eyes.
She was my New York voice teacher. And it was suspicion at first sight. On my part, mostly. I still couldn’t tell you what she thought of me, although the word “release” would figure in there.
Her head was shaped like a potato. I met her. I had no say in which voice teacher I would have. I would not have chosen her. Not on sight. Not after two months of lessons.
She was not for me.
The first thing one noticed about New York Spud was the shape of her head: distinctively potato shaped. Thin hair. Small eyes. And, while her head created an involuntary initial reaction recalling Judy Blume’s Blubber — my god, it’s a potato! —the issue wasn’t her appearance, which could, given adequate human relationships, have grown on me or on you, on anyone. Unfortunately, Voice Potato, well…
No adequate human relationships. In fact, weirdly, for a voice teacher, not even very much music.
Voice Potato and I met, twice weekly in a borrowed New York apartment with a piano. It was the Ansonia Building in New York. The lobbies were marble; Kelsey Grammer lived there (we were told). Single White Female filmed there (we were told). Kathie Lee Gifford had voice lessons there every week, too (we were told). None of these things were impressive. But the building was lovely. The walls were plaster. The lives lived behind the walls, innumerable. The mail drop: well, bronze, and like forty stories. From the edge of Central Park, you could see the Dakota, and past that, the Ansonia. It had a doorman. And a past. And, twice a week, it had Voice Potato. And me.
In a borrowed apartment. For voice lessons.
Voice Potato (I have wrangled and overcome my guilt about the head-like-a-potato thing because, as voice teachers go, I believe she was inadequate. She could have had a perfect head, a non-tuber head, and still her voice lessons would have lacked both voicing and lesson-ing. So, guilt be gone.)….
Voice Potato spent our hours per week requesting that I rub my feet every day (here’s a diagram of reflexology; pay attention to the base of your big toe…). She made me pick up pencils. For the entire lesson. (So many pencils on the floor. Pick them all up…don’t forget one. It’s excellent for the diaphragm.)
She taught me the Sarnoff squeeze to defeat anxiety: press your hands together in front of your stomach very hard. Yul Brynner did that before every performance of the King and I.
Your head is shaped like a potato.
Voice Potato then requested, round about October through December, that I relive the trauma of “whatever it was” that must have damaged my jaws.
(Interlude: I know I’m from the Midwest and I must be a terrible rube, but I thought in those voice lessons, we might on occasion sing. And learn music. I thought, perhaps, you might train my voice to reach from three and a half octaves to four. I thought, maybe, you might help me enhance my volume. I thought, perhaps, we could build my repertoire and work on my theory. I thought, in fact, we might work on my voice. But look, there’s a pencil. And, my psyche is actually pretty good, thanks, although I do have TMJ. And you, Voice Potato, have a head, god help me, shaped like a potato.)
I picked up pencils. I did my best to control the automatic grimace and gag reflex involved in foot rubbing. I, with my weird stomach fetish, gamely tried to perform a Sarnoff squeeze without placing any hands against any mid-body-parts. I did not try to invent a big trauma to damage my jaws. But I never pointed out that we might actually want to use the piano and sing sometimes.
I tried, but failed, to not be horrified that my student loan dollars and my youth were being spent on…what is this, exactly? I was homesick. And young. And I always felt stupid. Perhaps I misunderstood, in my inexperience, what “voice lesson” meant?
Ooh, there’s a pencil. And, well, it looks like the base of one of those toes is my kidney? Or spleen? Where’s my larynx?
I don’t really like touching my own feet…
And, hey, I’m super grateful, Voice Potato, that you let me rehearse stupid Henry Purcell “let the snakes drop, drop, drop” for an entire two rehearsals before I had to perform it in front of a panel.
Do you suppose that they could tell that I couldn’t muster the strength to massage my own feet for three months straight prior? Do you suppose the panel could tell I picked up pencils for an hour at a time with gritted teeth? Do you suppose they knew that I knew your head was shaped like a potato? Maybe, just maybe they hated me for that the way I hated me for that.
But I really would rather have spent my young tender months doing voice lessons that involved vocalizing; the Purcell is optional (as only Henry Purcell can be).
The borrowed apartment was not like Midwestern homes: apartments in the Ansonia had strange rugs on the floor and hung on the walls like art. There were bookshelves in the entry, the kitchen. There were ficus trees and banana trees and indoor plants that looked distinctively outdoors. While I was picking up pencils, second to singing, I wanted to be investigating these strange apartments.
People live like this? Exciting, exotic, non-Midwestern.
Alas, there was no time for singing, not in the singing lessons, anyway.
There was no time for anthropology of Manhattan Ansonians and their bookshelves; their inexplicable tropical plants; their “how do you live like this” teensy kitchens and plaster walls (drywall, where are you?) and living rooms…
There were never family photos…even picking up pencils and watching Voice Potato rub her feet, I could see: there are no photographs here. Just a banana plant and Potato’s nylon-clad feet.
New York, 1995 will always be, to me, a waste of time: a longing to sing (unfulfilled). A lack of practice rooms. Banana leaves and reflexology charts. And an inability to look at potatoes without thinking about my voice teacher.
Purcell takes at least three weeks of prep, Voice Potato. Everyone knows that.
I Get It
I get it.
My great-grandmother gave me, once, forever ago, a lifetime ago, a shirt. It was viciously golden yellow with blue and yellow paisleys. It came with a tie, elasticized, because accessories top a busy print like nobody’s business.
I wore it a couple times. I couldn’t decide if I liked it or not. It was scratchy. Sears finest cotton-esque. It had sleeves that were permanently elbow-length.Even in fifth grade, I had a sneaking suspicion that three-quarters were more flattering.
I wasn’t that fond of paisley. I always loved stripes.
Plaid’s okay. I mean, depending. You gotta pick the right tartan. (Feel free to choose that as a mantra. Or cross stitch it on a pillow. Truths are truths and some aphorisms exist for a damn reason.)
I didn’t know how to feel about that shirt.
A million years pass. I think that shirt would be hella cool with pinstriped or houndstooth trousers. I think that tie could really never work. I still think elasticized ties are stupid and that Sears cottonesque shirts are scratchy, overpriced, and silly. But they won’t be around much anymore because Sears is dying. Which you’d think wouldn’t bother me much. But it so strangely does.
I like, now, bold colors: mustard, red, blue. Pastels, vicious neons, jewel tones, spring, autumn, winter tones.
I wear so few colors. Colors are for the thin, I think. Big girls should be subdued (and invisible).
I disagree with myself frequently. But that’s not the point of this ridiculous bit of self-indulgent writing.
My grandmother gave my sister and me identical shirts— these shirts. Button-down, scratchy. Paisley.
My grandmother said they reminded her of a dress she had when she was a girl, when she was in school.
Now both me and my sister, we can look at a paisley red and blue print on a vast golden ground and say the same.
I get it now. “It reminded me of…”
I could never have imagined the power of the stupid clothes, the colors, the brands, the fabrics – the weight of memory, I’m pretty sure, is measured in fragrance and envisioned in silly consumer goods.
I find myself, sometimes, more often than I want to admit, remembering (coveting? Wishing I still had?) things I used to wear: Guess jeans and their poorer cousins, Palmettos. Eastland dockside moccasins with their shoelaces tightly coiled. The years pastels ruled the world and everything I owned was mint green and peach (with accents of lemon, lavender, aqua, and pink; coral, for attitude). Crayons, Esprit, Coca-Cola. Generra.
When my sweet great grandmother gave me that paisley, jewel-toned shirt, I was deep in the world of pastels and cheerleading. To be honest, I couldn’t believe I had received something that wasn’t labeled by brand, that wasn’t in the so-desired pastel rainbow.
I wore it anyway, which I like to think is one small thing in my favor. Pre-teens aren’t always charitable, loving, or, well, so much interested in others. Not always. Maybe sometimes, if they’re lucky.
It was at the time of Swatch watches and Coca-Cola rugbys: fantastically, perfectly colored. But none of them paisley. None of them mustard.
I did wear it, I really did. I even wore the elasticized tie (once; the shirt I wore more often).
I can see classrooms when I write about this. It’s been a lifetime ago: I can still see the floors, smell that powder they’d toss down when people ralphed; I can still reach out for the orange milk carton instead of the brown at lunch and see/taste the square-shaped pizza or dip my peanut butter sandwich in a bowl of chili encased in a melamine bowl. I can still see and hear the popular girls at the time: their bizarrely perfect legs and skin, big eyes, perfect clothes, their name-calling and cheating and somehow being different than the rest of us, those of us who didn’t look like them, sound like them, dress like them.
I would bet they have aged the same, though they had such a, um, prodigious (?) start. But I don’t know.
It was a million years ago. But I know this: those popular, beautiful girls did not have a mustard yellow and blue and red paisley shirt. (If they did, they didn’t wear it.)
But I did. With a jean skirt. With cheap jeans. With black stirrup pants.
Not the point. The weird thing about all of it is, I wish that I could sit with my great grandmother and thank her properly for that shirt.
In retrospect, I legitimately like it better, aesthetically. (No, not the tie.)
In retrospect, I get it.
I get it.
No, seriously: I. Get. It.
Pattern and color and fabric: they stick with you. You hit a point where you would give anything to have this shirt/pant/skirt/jacket/sweater/whatever back: maybe you’d still wear it, maybe you wouldn’t. And you know, reasonable human, you, that it doesn’t matter, not really. But still.
Bring it all back into fashion: the pastels, the Coke rugbys, the Swatches, the things that made you feel young, and fresh, and alive, or even, dare I say, happy.
Silly consumer goods can occasionally carry more than their weight. They can over achieve. They can occasionally reach mustard-gold with red and blue paisley status.
Humans age strangely, really: we peak when our heads and hearts are all still unsettled. Our bodies may reach their sad little attractiveness and healthiness heights while we’re still figuring out who we are and how to human. But what happens is, those damn clothes from childhood crop up in our middle-aged and older minds:
If I wore something similar, could I be that happy again? That carefree?
If I held that sweater, for an instant could my memory be even more potent?
If this trend comes back for a millisecond, can I recapture that nameless thing, smell it, taste it, love it, live it, breathe it? Could I?
And even if these things don’t happen, if I/we/you see something that reminds us of (whatever), can’t we, please, just have it for a moment, pass it on to our grandchildren or something: maybe it all was nothing (we’re sure it was nothing), but nevertheless, there was something so pleasant and wonderful and optimistic about the coke watches and rugbys
the swatch watches
the Guess and Palmetto jeans
the festival of peach, aqua, mint, lemon, and orchid
the Converse cheerleading shoes
the Nike saddle-style cheerleading shoes
the Esprit bags
the jelly bracelets and jelly shoes
the [thing you loved]
the plaid jumper
the corduroy pants
the favorite shoes
the… the… the…
the gold/mustard shirt with the red and blue paisleys.
Dear Evelyn, I get it. (I wish I still had that shirt. Not and never the stupid tie. But the shirt. Thank you, Evelyn, for the shirt.)
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There was that time you were sitting at a wooden bar, talking to a friend who has a thirteen year old daughter. It’s a strange planet you live on, that one where one minute you are thirteen and the next you are a grown-up talking to another grown-up and the next generation of kidlets is thirteen. And you, well, you are not. Not even in dog-years.
Well, the girl wants a round loveseat. And you knew a girl who, at thirteen, thought life would be perfect if (a) she were a cheerleader and (b) she had a day bed.
Thirteen is a very, very special time, I think we can agree.
So, one second you were thinking about daybeds and megaphones and perfectly long, tan, magazine-caliber legs and then you were thinking about slumber parties, and then, before you knew it, you were catching Wendy when she passed out in Industrial Arts.
You were thirteen. Wendy was your friend. She totally passed out in class. One minute she was standing there, sanding things (Industrial Arts class was nothing if not an hour spent sanding things), the next she was folding over like laundry released from a line.
And, in one of your moments of serendipity (we’ll not say heroism), you caught her before her head hit anything hard.
There might have been two times you have caught falling humans: one was a toddler whose fragile neck and highly-mobile body was not being well-guarded by the parent on whose lap the toddler sat…on a moving train. (I know, right? The grown-up in me doesn’t understand, to this day how that happened.) So you caught the little toddler as s/he fell off their parents lap, head-first, on the moving train (and you still remember the coldness of the parent: how dare a stranger touch their child, let alone a teenage girl who kept a tender skull from the floor, but whatevs). And you caught Wendy, when you were thirteen. Wang Chung was playing softly in the background, or maybe it was the lunchtime spiel, but Wendy passed out in Industrial Arts and you never really knew why.
And you got to thinking, because you were at a wooden bar and you were reminded of slumber parties and being thirteen, about Industrial Arts.
Why is it that for half a year you were asked to make two things: a ring toy that involved the shape of a man with a really long nose and a really, ridiculously crooked clock? What kind of premium did the teacher place on time that in five months all he asked us kids to do was to (a) make two things, (b) stand sanding every day for 45 minutes while pop radio played softly in the background and he told the boys to put the sharp things down, and (c) occasionally sit at our desks while he showed us slide projections of ball-peen hammers and hacksaws?
Thirteen year olds are stupid, but they’re not that stupid.
At least, when you were fifteen and required to take Industrial Arts, you spent your five months with a razor, balsa wood, and pictures of suspension bridges. Sure, you didn’t jigsaw anything but, hey, you built a suspension bridge out of balsa wood. Which is probably an improvement over boring wooden toy that is a big-nosed face with ring, but still, maybe not the most productive use of five months.
Still and all, Industrial Arts beat the pants off Home Economics: how many eggs can be protected for how many weeks? (No one really thinks egg-guardianship mimics parenthood. Do they still do that now? I bet not.) And if Industrial Arts required daily prayers to Our Lady of Sandpaper and C-Clamps, Home Ec required daily admonishments to Comet the sink and identify pictures of tripe.
You almost have to think that you and other children of the 1980s and 1990s wasted an awful lot of time.
But still, to this day, you can identify a ball-peen hammer in a line-up of mimeographed tools. To this day, you can say (not that you admit it to too many people) that the scent of wood dust and the warmth that hits the skin while sanding is vaguely comforting (so comforting it makes you want to write notes to all your friends, folding them up carefully, and passing them out in the hallway between classes).
Well, and you did catch Wendy’s head before it hit the floor. So, in your advanced years, Industrial Arts can also be that time you saved a girl’s life. Just add sandpaper and it might almost be true.
It’s a Small World (Walt Disney World, 1998)
The photo above is from the It’s a Small World attraction in Walt Disney World from 1998. I really don’t know why I still have it versus, say, any of my photos from Animal Kingdom or anywhere else at that time.
But here’s the thing:
The wonderful Maelstrom flume ride at the Norway pavilion in Epcot? It’s gone now. It’s been replaced by a Frozen-themed ride.
The also-wonderful Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride attraction in the Magic Kingdom at WDW has also been replaced.
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea? Gone. El Rio del Tiempo from the Mexico pavilion? Deep-sixed. Tower of Terror? Obliterated.
Walt Disney World is still, thankfully, hanging on to the It’s a Small World, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Haunted Mansion attractions. Though both have been prone to (victims of) changes.
So for whatever reason, here it is: my sentimental snapshot of a cardboard and glitter heart from 1998 that just happened to have been taken from a silly little raft floating through the remnants of a 1960s World’s Fair exhibition that still exists in the humid center portion of Florida.
It’s a Small World.
Walt Disney World can keep updating the Carousel of Progress; they can fill their shops with the latest movie merchandise; they can keep raising ticket prices to their parks— in fairness, they probably will.
Still, for some of us born at a certain time, WDW will always be a world where eventually you will ride a pirate ride that does not include Johnny Depp or a reasonable audio animatronic facsimile thereof; it will forever permit you to drive an old-timey Model-T just like Mr. Toad; it will let you travel via bad filmography and silly effects through Mexico’s history; it will always let you visit old and new Norway via log flume (no movie characters necessary.)
And, for when the day comes, and I can’t help but think it will, it’s worth noting that, once upon a time, It’s a Small World was a water ride based on ideas of global peace and humanity; that it celebrated every nationality so long as that nationality could be illustrated by any and all of the following — glitter, cardboard, puppets.
Some day, Walt Disney World will decide It’s a Small World has had its day. It will demolish it and replace it with the latest Disney/Pixar/ESPN/ABC/Star Wars hit.
And some of us will remember what it was to look at the simple power of puppets dressed in simplified nationalistic costumes; we’ll remember what it was to float in a little boat on heavily-chlorinated water in the dark and look at cardboard, Christmas lights, and glitter hearts. We’ll remember what it was to weather the Maelstrom in Norway, to sail the Rio del Tiempo, to drive with Mr. Toad.
We’ll be glad, maybe, that we have this one photo, even.
Time and Walt Disney World wait for no man. Or woman or child.
For a park that specializes in the past and the shorthand: in Main Streets, in movie fantasies, in glorified ideas of the past, the never-existent, and the partially-imagined, it’s strange that they let attractions go in order to replace them with attractions which also will date, and age, and Havisham-like, need to be replaced.
if you think about Walt Disney World and Orlando, it’s sort of crazy it exists at all. But then again, I’m (mostly) glad it does. (Though, seriously, ticket prices…are you kidding me????) But man, oh man, I hate when they toss my childhood away (Maelstrom and Mr. Toad, I’m looking at you). So, lest Small World gets replaced with the latest animated success…
Here. Look at a glitter heart dating to the 1960s. It’s been a long time now; there’s been a lot of visitors, a lot of water, a lot of crazy repeats of “It’s a Small World After All.” But if it ever goes away, here’s one stupid photograph of the weird happiness that was.
July 4, 2011: The Lake House
I sit here, my feet dangling in a fake lake (retention pond) and there are minnows approaching my toes and friends in the house playing cards.
Still, I sit here.
It seems everything has been neglected of late. Life has pulled some funny twists and though I’ve kept up with my extra-diligent note-taking and have so many things to write about (presidential race, Medicare/Medicaid, Afghanistan, Cleopatra’s nose, soul-sucking architecture and urban studies in Indianapolis, et cetera, et cetera)… well, there has been no time, no mental energy to write about them.
And so, as I sit with my feet in lord-knows-what, I will share this:
My grandparents had a lake house once upon a time. It was a quiet lake— more pontoons than speedboats, a quiet place. I don’t even know that speedboats were allowed, frankly. If one could combine Hemingway’s “clean, well-lighted place” and Woolf’s “room of one’s own” with a fresh-smelling lake, that is the place. There was a gigantic sun-porch, screened from the mosquitos; the yard behind was shady. The lake was over-grown with lily-pads and water vegetation and the air smelled of fish and lake and worms and summer. And grace.
There was a stone fireplace inside. I felt certain that fireplace in the cottage was built for me, waiting for me to be adult enough to light it for myself. There were small bedrooms, a tiny shower, a kitchen where I ate many a peanut butter sandwich. And now that I am old enough to long for such a place it is gone, gone, gone.
My grandfather passed away early, very young, at only 51 or 52. A not uncommon story; a far too-common story. The lake house was sold. And year, after year, after year, as surely as I have missed my beloved grandfather, I have missed that lake house, its quiet rules, its fishy smell, its possibilities.
I long for my grandfather, so many years after his passing. I smell him; his coats in the closet in an ancient (so I thought) house smelled of him: Aqua Velva (or was it Afta? Cool blue) and goodness, leather buttons, heavily-varnished and glossy dark wood doors with metal ovular door knobs. I smell his morning breakfasts, still mingled with his after-shave, and always it is 5:30 in the morning, sunlight streaming in, on him, his glass of Tang and his bowl of All-Bran. He was quiet, he was smart. He was funny and unfailingly kind. My grandmother still tells stories of him doing cartwheels on the yard at the lake house, not too long before that final diagnosis of cancer, not too long before he was gone. I miss him. My heart, in fact, frequently breaks at the thought that I never got to know him as the fully-grown me, the one not too self-absorbed in that whole business of growing up to ask him who he really was. I wish I had known. And in moments of trial, if intercessors there be (I know not), I pray to him as much as to anyone: Lead the way, my Papaw. I still miss you. I wish I had known you better. Please ask god to send help for x, y, z.
And too, I pray for that lake house. For fireworks on the Fourth of July followed by chocolate Sprites and cheeseburgers at the Streamliner, sweet sleep in the cottage, and sausages and bacon in the morning when the grass is still wet and the air smells of magic, sunscreen, fish, and possibilities.
It’s been a foul month, this June 2011: bad news for loved ones and a job that prevents me from living, prevents me from writing, from reading, from thinking, from feeling like myself or being good for or to those I love so much. And so I dream, I ache for that lake house. How I long to trundle that cat of mine, the laptop, a staggeringly heavy pile of books to that lake house. I’d light a fire in the stone fireplace at night, at day I would split time between that sunporch and the dock, dangling my feet in mossy, lily-pad waters. I’d think. I’d find perspective. I’d find my way.
I would write the kind of stuff I’ve longed to write all along. I’d read. I’d daydream. I’d be a better person, I’m just sure, at the lake house, with memories of Papaw, and my quiet little lake. Heck, I might even find a way to make sense of it all, the bad news, the past, the loss of my grandfather, the way I’ve squandered my soul on worry. The lake house was really that special. But it just can’t be. So, here: I share this with you as I soak my feet in the retention pond (oh, suburbia, you cunning wench!) where the neighborhood children both fish and pee (I’ve seen it). And there is something in it that approximates the dock, so long as my mental eye is kind and squints a bit. I have friends in the house, playing cards, and they are kind and I am grateful. And my family is only a phone call away, tied strongly by heartstrings, blood, and a sense of humor that is peculiarly our own. I live in the U.S., where it is a national holiday and I am, at heart, a patriot.
I long for the lake house. But it’s not bad to be here. Bless us. Bless those fighting for us. Bless the lake house, my family, and oh, oh, oh, my sweet Papaw. And bless the possibilites that come when one’s feet are in water and summer is here and evening falls. Perhaps there will someday be time to write the stuff I mean to write, to learn, to love, to study, to make a difference.
And, even if not, there is still water. And memory. And the smell of Aqua Velva, sunscreen, and lake.
Happy Fourth of July.
June 4, 2011.
I swear this really happened.
Yesterday afternoon in hot, sunny downtown Indianapolis, I sit outside on a break from work to enjoy the fresh air, however tempered it may be from the potent combination of soap and fabric softener wafting from the laundromat across the street. A young woman exits said laundromat and crosses the street, walking directly toward me. She is eating a fudgsicle and tugging a rather impish looking toddler with her.
“Hey. You know anyone with a baby?” She stands over me, looking down, where I sit on the curb. Her demeanor is chipper and it’s impossible to miss the brightness of the toddler’s eyes, the sweetness of his smile.I answer an embarrassingly slow negative: the question has surprised me. Normally the questions from strangers are of the “You got a cigarette/quarter for the payphone?” or “What kind of work is in there/They hiring?” varieties. There are very seldom exceptions.
“Well, the thing is, my baby just died…”“Oh, my god, I’m so sorry.” Horror. Pity.
“Yeah. Had to go identify the body today.” She says this in the exact same tone of voice I would use to say “I could use a coke.” Now, a stoic or even matter-of-fact expressionless I could have understood; anything other than the vaguely pleasant, rather casual method of delivery of what appears to be, to her, a small detail of her communication.She doesn’t really pause after this shocking sentence, but continues: “Well, I had just bought all this formula and now I’m stuck with it, so I thought if you knew anyone with a baby…”
Here, she pauses, bites off a piece of the fudgsicle, hands it to the toddler, who pops it into his mouth, stretches his arms over his head, stands on his toes, falls back on his heels and then covers his eyes with the upstretched arms just enough to peep disarmingly out from under, at me. Throughout the whole moment, he smiles his gift of a smile with immaculate little baby teeth, sticky face, and impossible good-natured perfection.
“Anyway,” the mother says, “I’m only charging 10 dollars a can, ‘cause I have to make my money back, so I just thought…” Shrug. Fudgsicle. And she and her toddler amble off away while I’m still sotto voce-ing between “so sorry” and “good luck” and some version of “how can I help?” and “what?”
Prospect Street is not well-named.
In Charlevoix, Michigan, on the south pier, stands a decommissioned lighthouse. On a recent June Saturday, we stood there, near it, looking up with breeze in our faces amid the scent of lake and metal.
But then the guy on the bicycle (not pictured) whizzes past, pedaling furiously and screaming: “It used to light up but now it doesn’t! It doesn’t light up anymore! Don’t bother!”
He’s still screaming when he hits the beach and the parking lot.
Well, hell, damn it. Guess there’s no point looking at it anymore. Stupid red, giant, non-lighting behemoth of uselessness. That’s it. The world has gone to hell in a hand-basket and thank God the guy on the bicycle prevented people from looking at a lighthouse without a damned light.
Decommissioned? You can keep your decommissioned. The guy on the bicycle is pissed as all billy-hell and who can blame him? The lighthouse doesn’t light! The sky is falling!
The world has gone mad. Mad, I tell you.
The lighthouse was built in 1948 and was decommissioned in 2005. In 2008, ownership was transferred to the city of Charlevoix, Michigan. And, happily, it was repainted its original red in 2009. Call me a romantic, but I think it’s worth looking at even if the lights don’t work.
There’s always got to be the one guy on a bicycle.
If you had to pick the food signs you had seen in your life that sort of mattered, and you were me, you might list these: The Golden Bear, Hamburger Stand. Mr. Steak. Cone Palace. Mr. Weenie and The Dairy Lodge. The Clock. On the off-chance that nostalgia is not your middle name (and why should it be?), allow me to give you the explainer on these signs. The Golden Bear was right next to the Target, née Ayr-Way, at the Markland Mall in Kokomo, Indiana. Think 1980 +/-. It had a rotating, 10-ish foot tall fiberglass teddy bear on the top of the mall; it sat somewhere between the Goodyear tire store and Bresler’s and the Bee’s Wax (don’t touch anything in the Bee’s Wax: it’s all expensive. You can tell.).The Golden Bear, if you walk past it in the mall, is gloriously orange and marigold and harvest– all the colors of the late 1970’s rainbow. It smells of coffee and maple syrup. The cigarette smoke wafting out of the Golden Bear into the mall combines with the new-rubber smell cascading out of the Goodyear Store. When you reach Sears and the end of the mall, you will smell the rubber again. But not the smoke. Not the maple syrup. You will have to loop back, past the Lazarus, close to the Price-is-Right flowers of Ayr-Way, and then, breathe deeply. Coffee, tobacco, and maple syrup. (This is probably someone’s Holy Trinity.) Near as you can tell from glancing within, it has booths and only booths, lots and lots of booths. And there’s that bear that you know is spinning somewhere above your head, above the ceiling, touching the sky. It no longer exists. Like the dinosaurs and urban stability, some combination of cigarettes and Reaganomics (maybe the closing of Continental Steel) killed it, circa 1982.
Hamburger Stand was a thing in Colorado. Remember the old generic grocery items: the ones in plain white wrappers, labeled in even more plain black lettering “rice” and “sauce” and “soda?” I know, you’re used to the fancifying of generics and store brands. You’ve purchased (perhaps) the Happy Valleys of Aldi’s, the Nice! of Walgreen’s, the Market Pantry of Target. These are generics in denial (aka: Egyptian Generics). These are trumped-up pretenders. And, while fancier (much in the same way that ketchup can be “fancy”), these are still just more-intricately dressed relatives of the plain white box groceries of the early 1980s. Anyway. Hamburger Stand had cheap hamburgers, fries, sodas. And every one of these things was clad in plain white with stolid black lettering: “hamburger,” “fries,” “soda.” It was ironic before ironic was a meme. Today it would be a t-shirt (I would buy that shirt, FYI) but at the time, it was a McDonald’s that was cheaper, tastier, and wittier and, oh yeah, cheaper than McDonald’s (also: no clowns.). Its sign gleamed in the darkness: a plain white rectangle and black, no-nonsense all-caps: Hamburger Stand. No frills. No spinning bear. Practically no heat. Just 39-cent cheeseburgers, orange soda, and a knowing nod: this ain’t your momma’s generic. This is Hamburger Stand, a bad-ass, if ever.
Mr. Steak, also gone to the past, was not that memorable or very often visited. It was simply a dark and more expensive Ponderosa. But it was across the street from the County Market where my sister would open packages of gross things (pig’s feet, livers, farm-animal-organs in general) to make me squeal and where I got hair ribbons and Mom got glazed donuts and where we returned the Tab and Diet Coke bottles every week to get our deposit back. (Yeah, if you’re under 35, you have no idea what this means. Unless you’re from Michigan.) But Mr. Steak was where we went for a great-grandparent’s birthday. It seemed exclusive (the “Mr,” a sure sign of discretion) and special and, well, neither Laughner’s Cafeteria with its hospital smells nor Ponderosa, with its bizarrely frozen-food pseudo-steaks, mildewed carpet, but really fun salad bar (read for that: two — yes, two— kinds of pudding).
Cone Palace still exists, thank God. It’s an ice-cream stand on Center Road just south of Kokomo, Indiana. It’s been there forever. They have soft-serve. Their sign, happily still extant, is two smiling kewpie doll ice-cream cones surrounding wispy letters. Cone Palace. Not a palace, but indeed, a place to get a cone. And cheap tenderloins on Tuesdays (see, it’s alliterative) and sloppy joes on Wednesdays and coneys on Fridays. By the bag-full. Cone Palace also is notable for (a) serving marshmallow Cokes, which other places refuse to do because they can explode (ask my sister) and (b) being, back in the day, a cement bunker which your parents will take you through the drive-thru on a rainy March or February day and they will talk about going to Cone Palace as teenagers on their lunch breaks. It will be one of the first times you realize that your parents were not always adults. And (c) your high school boyfriend will work there somewhere between graduation and the abyss of college and when he gets off from work he will smell like Obsession and ice cream. As it turns out, this is really not a bad combination of scents. So, Cone Palace, with its coy kewpie doll twin ice cream cones: that’s a sign.
Mr. Weenie requires a drive north, to Peru, Indiana. Sure, Peru is renowned as the birthplace of Cole Porter (you didn’t know that?) and as “Circus City, USA,” but if the gods were just, it would be super-famous as the home of Mr. Weenie, a drive-up restaurant with a ’50s-era sign: a hot dog in a bow-tie. Mr. Weenie! One short step away from the iconic “Let’s all go to the snack bar” trailer at the movies (and drive-ins) of the 1950s and 1960s, there’s Mr. Weenie, screaming “Refreshment.” Root beer and coneys and fried mushrooms and fried everything at rock-bottom Hoosier prices. But mostly it’s Mr. Weenie: a hot dog (snicker, insert your own off-color joke here) in a bow tie and a straw boater, surrounded by Bewitched-type stars. It’s perfect mid-century kitsch. I really, really hope it’s still there.
The Dairy Lodge is Traverse City, Michigan’s answer to Kokomo’s Cone Palace: it’s a soft-serve walk-up with an old-fashioned sign. Instead of Kewpie-doll-bookend-ice cream cones, the Dairy Lodge kicks it pin-up style: a Santa-clad Andrews sister, riding an oversized ice cream cone. There is nothing subtle about the Dairy Lodge sign. It’s a paeon to Bettie Page and blonde-ness and “subtle” sexuality; a celebration of Martini Madness and leopard print. It manages to be simultaneously innocent and dirty, this sign: a blond Bettie Page, in very short Santa costume, straddling an ice cream cone. It’s like Donna Reed After Dark. Or like Ann-Margret. ) Overall, an excellent sign for the person who should’ve been born earlier but wasn’t and it heralds the kind of timeless, normal, but exactly-right soft-serve cone that makes the world a better place. And it’s only two blocks from the very edge of Lake Michigan. In summer, this is delightful.
Which leaves us, the writer and the reader(s), with The Clock. I will tell you now, writing from the relative comfort of 2015, that the Clock no longer exists. If you want a breakfast buffet for cheap in Traverse City, Michigan, seek elsewhere. If you want an enormous ham-and-cheese omelette on special, with hash browns and free coffee, with a beach-front view, seek elsewhere. The Clock is dead. It took its dust-encrusted fake flowers with it; no longer the weird trellis and naugahyde decor; or the sour-smelling, crooked floors of the lake-water bathroom, the faded polo shirts of the staff, the mildewed carpets of the dining room, the fireplace that was never lit, and the Casino staff lingering at 2 and 3 and 4 in the morning after their shifts, chain-smoking Parliaments and eating pancakes.
For a time, these were the better part of *somebody’s* twenties, mis-spending a decade in midnight stints at Denny’s and Steak ‘n Shakes and the Clocks, chain-smoking, reading newspapers and obscure books, writing incessantly, hoping for wisdom, drowning in coffee, longing for something that never quite arrived.
The Clock was breakfast with the ex-husband on weekend vacations, and it became refuge and solace and repudiation after the man-who-should-not-be-named dumped a perfectly wonderful girl in order to play opera and/or army. Which is stuff that benefits no one to relive or replay or explain. And it all worked out, in spades, and in happiness with a redhead too kind and wonderful to be deserved by said girl, who’s really not that wonderful, when all the accounting is done.
But there was The Clock. The breakfast was good (not Shoney’s All-You-Can-Eat Breakfast Bar good, but still plenty solid). The prices low, the servers perpetually disheveled. There were plastic fake flowers strewn around the trellises (garden theme?) and the buffet: both were coated in thick, grimy, gloppy dust; the color of nicotine, the viscosity of pure crude.
With the ex-husband, there were breakfasts before vacation days that were spent walking on pristine grass in Charlevoix, checking out 40-dollar bottles of cedar scented bubble bath at Maison & Jardin. We would buy magazines and cappucinos at Horizon Books, smelling the lake air, pulling on sweaters, debating the merits of starting a restaurant called “Sprezzatura” in the old bones of a very bad, woe-be-gone, lake front disaster of a club-cracker failed restaurant. (We could do this. We’ll tile it in black and white, double-cloth the tables in crisp white linen, the walls will be painted the color of raspberries and we will look at the pseudo-sea, here in Traverse; the man will make biscotti and something else he knows how to cook and we- the others- will paint, and festoon, and host, and greet. It was a dumb fantasy.)
The Clock. After the divorce, somebody will escape the wreckage and travel north to live with two friends who are in what could only generously be described as a star-crossed relationship. Get an apartment. Get a job at the casino (employee of the month + B-level celebrities + excellent insurance). And when you get off your shifts, damn the vacation memories, you go to The Clock.
The pattern is always the same. You stop at the gas station, purchase (1) a Detroit Free Press (2) either a USA Today or a Chicago Tribune, depending on the hour, depending on the gas station, (3) a roll of Creme Savers: strawberry or peach, whichever you hadn’t bought last and (4) one pack of Marlboro Ultra Light 100s, at the high, high Michigan price (you should have bought extra when you visited your parents in Indiana, you idiot, but you didn’t, did you?) Then, you finally un-button the top button of your ridiculous Casino-issued rayon shirt, you take your papers and you go to the Clock. And you stay and stay and stay.
Read the paper. Read the second paper. Read the book or magazines you brought with you. (Dawn.)
Write. Write. Write.
Smoke. Drink coffee. Drink more coffee. Write some more. Go home. Feed the cat. Sleep.
It’s morning. Normal people are just now hitting the beach, well-behaved children in tow. You probably served Courvoisier to a couple bitter, frustrated husbands the night before: easily-discernibly-unhappy men, throwing token-coins on a tray and playing blackjack.
A casino town is an unhappy town, if one is at the casino in the very wee hours.
It’s usually men, in the high-stakes room. They’re at the blackjack table but they play poker. At three-ish, when you’re leaving, only women and the elderly are playing slots. They play slots with glazed eyes. They play slots with both hope and desperation, and when the sound of the machines makes your ears bleed, and you think you will never fill enough plastic cups with bad coffee and worse powdered cream, you will walk among the aisles of machines and collect nickels (why is it always nickels?) and your ears will be buzzing and ringing and pinging: when you get your Detroit Free Press, when you ask the Polo Shirt for coffee and a ham and cheese omelette, when you fend off the young guy who asks just what you think you’re reading, and into the morning, where you’re still drinking coffee, very bad coffee, and looking at the lake and smelling the sweat of the polo shirts.
The Clock has a huge sign: black and white, nearly generic (Hamburger Stand!). It’s inarguable: the Clock. Time moves for no man. And this sign has been there forever, against the beach, against the motels and the hotels, the winters and the tourists: The Clock.
If you were like me, and a sop for nostalgia, you’d be sold on the sign, the sand across the street, the smell and the sound of the waves, the children with their plastic buckets. It could be 1950, it could be 1980, it could be 2000. It could be 2001.
Mostly, I let the clock tick away hours there. Coffee after casino shifts, softened by cigarettes, the occasional plate of chocolate chip pancakes, but mostly ham and cheese omelettes. And buckets of coffee.
The same drunks I served earlier at the casino wind up there, seeing my rayon, easily-identifiable casinshirt, and ask what I’m reading (Fitzgerald or a history of the Vietnam War or a biography of T.S. Eliot, what could it possibly be to you?) and give me shit until they get bored and turn their gaze to greasy eggs and I feel both annoyed and bereft: “What is this night?”
The Clock: give me one more hour to read the Detroit Free Press. I will cry with Mariane Pearl. I will read the bad book review of the “happiness is shattered like glass” fiction writer. I will, occasionally, substitute Creme Savers and coffee and cigarettes for food, because thin is in, I can do this, and even though the Black Jack dealer said I should not wear that dark of lipstick (she was right), I adore L’oreal Hot Fudge. I hear it’s slimming. And goth. And very Gwyneth. If you know what I mean. (2001 was forever ago.)
The Clock is tied to one year so firmly I cannot dislodge it. It was the same year that Horizon Books hired people by giving them a book quiz. It was the same year Lake Michigan was a foot below its normal average height. It was the same year that the Bavarian-something motel had umbrellas the color of watered-down dandelions, not the year the umbrellas were the color of marigolds or summer squash.
It was the same year the ex and I did not open Sprezzatura, with its black and white Holland tiles, its raspberry walls. It was the year Elle Decor had the Manhattan loft with its tiny minimalist sofa, New York loft, and tropical leaf in a glass vase featured on the September cover. It was, on vacation, the year JFK Jr and his ridiculously perfect, sea-glass wife perished in a plane crash and the 24 hour news went nuts and nuts and nuts.
It was the year of The Clock. And after that, it was the year of The Clock. And I would give anything now to have those hours back. To have returned to me every hour spent chain smoking, with the Detroit Free Press, with USA Today, with chocolate chip pancakes and narrow-ruled notepaper.
I would give anything now for control of the time I spent at The Clock, all the midnights, all the 2 AMs, all the glancing at neon and beaches, all the fending off of drunken fools who did not know who Fitzgerald was. I would like the hours back that I spent writing.
I want to hand this girl at The Clock a map, a New York Times, a pile of world histories, a stack of family photos. I want to punch this girl in the face and tell her to “SNAP OUT OF IT. I want to tell her that these hours she is spending will be regretted later. That the seemingly-permanent white glare of “The Clock” sign will eventually go out. And she will know that she misspent, as it were, her youth. That she wasted the waves, the impressive, nearly oceanic waves, of the Great Lakes. That the dissipated men from the casino were not bitter; the wives not brittle, the elderly not glass-eyed, the environment not depressing. Things are what they are: some good in casinos, in drinks, in marital dynamics, even in casino coffee.
The Clock held the hours, and she had hours, which she spent poorly. But the sign was great. Bold white neon, black block letters: The Clock. Open 24 hours. In the pantheon of really great nostalgic signs: let’s hear it for The Clock. The sign was better than the place, no less than Golden Bear and Dairy Lodge and Mr. Weenie.
Sometimes the sign is worth the drive. Sometimes the sign is a shorthand for memory and place and culture and could-have-beens.
I’ll take a coffee, please. And an ashtray. And a side of chocolate chip pancakes with a twin cone.
It’s a cruel world that will not return hours. Not even if asked. Which it hadn’t been (see: Frost, Robert. “Come In.”)
I want that time back.
Or at least could I see the signs again? The Clock, The Dairy Lodge. Mr. Weenie and Hamburger Stand. The Golden Bear twirling above a short, stout cinder-block shopping mall.
Time and signs wait for no man. Or woman. With or without L’oreal hot fudge lipstick or peeling paint and latent sexuality combined with dairy products. There’s no stopping the clock. Even when The Clock is gone.
That Time I Went to a Psychic
Let’s discuss That Time I Went to a Psychic.
Marie Laveau was allegedly a witch in New Orleans. Back in the day. People still stop by her crypt to draw an “X” on the stone; a chalk-mark “X” will deter any witch, no matter how old or how powerful. Crayola and the living cannot be denied.
But, in honor of Marie Laveau and all things vodou in New Orleans, there in the French Quarter is contained Marie Laveau’s House of Blues. No, it’s actually Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo. It has the absolute coolest (not sure that’s a kosher* word to use here) altar in the world. You’re not allowed to take pictures of it, it being a working altar and all, but it’s fab. Cards and votives and a mish-mash of Catholicism and the eighteenth century and chicken feathers and wax. And, well, you should visit it sometime. You feel something, even if you’re agnostic, you swear you feel the floor move or the wind stir or maybe you just want to.
Well, the air of New Orleans is different than the air in other places. There’s nothing quite like it. There’s no culture on the planet quite like the gumbo-ajiaco mix of the Creole French Quarter. And maybe the hucksters have had their way and it’s all a sham. But I don’t think so. The French Quarter is the closest thing this country has to Old World and to mystique. I have been in the French Quarter looking at ferns and I have seen (or wanted to) lace curtains move in a breeze that was never there, in humid and stagnant air. I have heard drums that were not playing. Not in this century.
But I’m a sentimental old soul, especially when confronted with very old bricks.
So New Orleans, in its shimmering heat and its painted verandas and its shabbiness and its grandeur: it speaks to me anyway and even my agnostic person finds a kinship in the red twine and feathers and playing cards, lit by endless votives at Marie Laveau’s.
A shiksa in the south: I vacationed in New Orleans and, seeking experiences, said “why not” to a psychic reading at Marie Laveau’s.
If you’re thinking this would have been like Cher’s “Dark Lady” or like Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost, this was not that. There was nothing Cher about it. There was nothing cinematic about it.
There was a card table in an ill-lit room. Maybe one candle, not enough for atmosphere. It was, and I mean no disrespect here, very High Trailer Park: bug lights, indoor-outdoor carpeting, the faintest whiff of mildew and a shaky, mostly-standing wreck of a naugahyde-covered card table.
I looked at it, regretted the loss of the altar, and thought this surely would be a sham. But still, New Orleans and Marie Laveau and something I have never done. And so I sat.
A scarecrow of a human greeted me. He wore a Mr. Rodgers-style and moth-eaten cardigan. He was dangerously thin. He coughed frequently. I thought he might be ill. I longed to give him sandwiches and flowers and warmer rooms. But I was a visitor. And he shuffled the cards (Bicycle. Not exotic. Not marked.)
In lieu of hello, he asked me when I had lost all the weight. (I bet you say that to all the girls.)
“I haven’t lost any.”
“Well, it’s coming, then.”
Shuffle. Table shakes. He’s shaking, too. He’s so thin and so obviously cold. Where is his coat, his blanket, his center? Marie doesn’t have it. God knows I don’t. But I’m here for a reading and I’m told to pick a card.
He pulls cards, which I touch first, lays them out in a cross shape. He shivers. And I feel like an ass who has given thirty dollars to the First Charity/Scam of New Orleans, House of Voodoo, Dammit Marie Laveau. After all, thirty dollars would have bought me three drinks and a great tip at the Carousel Bar at the Monteleone. It would have purchased one piece of mediocre “art” from an “artist” hanging around Jackson Park. Thirty dollars would have gotten me a great many frozen beverages from the endless string of Fat Tuesdays on the street (which equals one really good day, if you know what I’m saying here). Or I could have bought twenty cakes of African black soap at the French Market or enough beignets to save my soul at Cafe du Monde. Thirty dollars in most of the U.S. is only thirty dollars.
Thirty dollars in New Orleans is eternity, if you spend it right.
I spent it on the eighty-pound psychic at Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo.
He told my friend, who also spent a sound thirty, that he was a carpenter. He is and was and has never been such a thing.
And I’m still waiting on the weight loss that is coming. Perhaps it was the thrift store sweater I wore, which added both a knitted cat* and thirty pounds?
No. He says that to all the girls without wedding rings. He is skinny but canny.
He flips the cards but seems kerfuffled by them. He reads my hands instead. And me, having been curious in the past, already know at which lines he is looking. Google is funny and so is the girl in the cat sweater. And this shivering psychic is funnier still.
It’s Marie Laveau’s and the altar is convincing. And maybe “magic” is real. It’s New Orleans. Anything is possible.
“You have had two loves. You are not done with the last one and you will not be yet.” (Yeah, well, those are just two lines. And it’s a convenient coincidence: the ex-husband and the love who shall not be named…your sweater is fraying. Please eat something. And a shred of relief as I’m very fond of the last one. Though: many women have appeared at psychics. A good proportion of them have also loved only two. What of it?)
“Three children. You have no children yet. You will have three.” He got that wrong, my skinny psychic. But, for what it’s worth, Marie and him, the three phantom children I see on every swing set are called “Henry,” “Lily,” and “Ian.”
There are always three. Never one. Never two. I blame the skinny psychic for that. I wish he (and Marie) had been right. I would very much have enjoyed purchasing Christmas presents for three lovely children.
Sometimes psychics are wrong.
But I have two cats, perhaps he meant them?
The last thing he said to me was that I am a writer.
I am not.
If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride.
And the reading was over. The ex-husband was mentioned. That was as it should be. It was years ago. My focus was split.
The second love is still my love and the psychic was, in that respect, correct: we are not done. And god willing, we’ll never be. I don’t thank or blame or credit Marie Laveau or the shivering boy in the strange cardigan. Somehow things turned out okay. I don’t know what to think of the fates. I like my boy and I think he likes me. That’s luck, if ever there was.
No three children. I am not a writer. I blog now but I didn’t then. How can I help that he said the career I would choose above all others?
That was a strange coincidence.
But then, I was the one with ink-stained hands in a hand-loomed cat sweater. Looking at me, I could be a pretty good psychic too (“and when was it that you lost all that weight?”)
I did not expect much from the New Orleans psychic. It’s for “entertainment purposes only.” Still, New Orleans makes one think magic is possible and maybe belief is not misplaced.
Mr. Shivering Marie told my friend, in his reading, that he was a carpenter. My friend is not a carpenter. And I have no children. I am not a writer. I still carry pounds which seem, to me, extra.
I hope the shivering boy in the cardigan has found a sandwich by now and good health.
I hope Marie Laveau’s altar burns forever in its strange waxy, feathery, cheap and extravagant strangeness.
I had my fortune told. Was he right? No. Was there magic or fortune or future present? No, of course not, not really.
Do I still think of my friend as a carpenter? Of course I do.
Do I still look at every swing set in every park and every slide and every ice cream cone and voicelessly celebrate the non-existent if predicted Lily, Henry and Ian? Of course I do.
And I am glad the shaky cardigan at Marie Laveau’s was right, in his way, about the boy with whom I am not done.
I wanted more from my psychic experience. But…well, even in New Orleans, the vibes can’t always be right.
There’s always next time, my friends. There’s always next time.
*ha-ha. “kosher.” I know, right?
*cat sweater: (a) of course (b) what was I thinking? It added, like, thirty years. I no longer have that sweater. In fact, I only wore it there. I sure wish I’d kept it to turn into a pillow, though. It would have been a fantastic pillow (another sign that it was Bad Wardrobe).
Writer’s Block: Hemingway’s Cats and Cleopatra’s Nose
You remember what it was to write. You can’t do it anymore, God knows, but still. You remember the feeling your fingers made, the clicks of the keyboard, before that the flow of the pen and the rapid turnover of loose-leaf. Writer’s cramp. You remember getting it all out, there, in the space in front of you. Because you had to. There was no other choice.
And, still, you know what it is to spend every day in lists, ideas, and memories. The way Dickinson’s “certain slant of light” can meet Hemingway’s “clean, well-lighted place” and how they both can bounce off Abbot Suger’s perfect ethereal blue. Memory, atmosphere: all so evocative. And you have a million slants of light in your head, begging to be recounted, to be spun into statements on the world, or life, or what it is to be a human living now.Your fingers stutter on the keyboard.
What’s a pen?
I’m out of milk, coffee, and toilet paper. I should get some.
And the bills that need paid are…
Work, work, work.
More things come to mind: a précis of the politics of the week. A book review. The fact that X restaurant charges too much, has nice lighting, big tables, and mediocre drinks. President Trump’s tweets. The proper way to line one’s eyes after 40.
Should my tires be rotated?
Is there a God?
What the actual fuck, Syria and Myanmar?
The fingers type, there are words. Is it writing? No, of course not.
You, again, try: you blink hard. You dump the past into your hand like Yahtzee dice. You exhume the most painful moments you can endure to relive, asking yourself “what was the point?”
You imagine being Jeanne d’Evreux reading her famed Book of Hours: was it really all a ploy to make her more fertile?
(Write something. Do it.)
The time your brakes broke on a major highway and it was raining. The time you drank too much and looked at twinkle lights wound on a fake ficus tree and thought it was the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen. The stories of Andromeda, Cassiopeia, Persephone. Hell, rewrite The Theogony.
Annotate Trump’s tweets.
(Write something. Do it.)
I kept journals, endless streams of interior, vain, small, and pitiful but voluminous journals. For years. I dumped all of them (ten year’s worth) in a dumpster in a bad apartment complex where used condoms and fast food containers vied for space near my clean car’s tires. Gone now, the worries of a 12-year-old, a 16-year-old, an 18-year-old, a 22, 25, 29-year-old.
All for the best, but…writer’s block speaks…was there anything there? (Ask the landfill.)
The lists, the thoughts, the way you love a fire in the night, the news today, the loves you had, the bar at which Hemingway wrote and at which you sat (Petoskey), the ornate Victorian wood…
“Writing is architecture. And the Baroque is over, ” Hemingway once wrote his mom.
(Write something. Do it. )
Hemingway’s cats have five toes. In Key West. That’s a thing.
“If Cleopatra’s nose had been shorter, the whole face of the world would have changed.” (Pascal). But Pascal had only the coins to go on and the coin-engraved representations of Cleopatra would have been engineered to capitalize on anything Ptolemaic, including the nose.
(Write something. Do it.)
You think of the Zelda biography and Alexander McKaig’s description of the conversation between the Fitzgeralds and he: what is more truthful, a photograph of a woman with a large nose or a portrait that minimizes it but captures her personality?
Cleopatra’s nose. What is truth? What is beauty? And why do we care?
(Write something. Do it.)
The sound of rain on the roof of a pop-up camper, canvas, you were seven. What it is to be “saved” by your grandma in the kitchen when you’re 14 but doubt it before you’ve left the house. Why people suffer, what love is, the smell of kitten paws.
(Write something. Do it.)
“We seek in vain to convey to others the treasures of our heart but we have not the power to express them, and so we go lonely.” (Maugham)
Hemingway’s cats in Florida have five toes.
One of these days, the words will come.
Write something. Do it.
There’s a note, that when played, hurts my soul in the most beautiful way.
We only live once. How do we make it matter?
It’s a lot of pressure for words.
Because language is what we have.
We seek in vain…
Type fast. The keys click. Write something. Do it. I can’t. Write Something. It’s what we have.
It’s what we have.
Write Something. Do It.
Another lifetime ago, back in New York, my neighbor was an elderly lady called Virginia. Her apartment was crowded with tchotchkes and stereotypes and was strongly steeped in rosewater and deep nostalgia. Virginia had coal black hair. She wore glittery things and old-fashioned hats. Her dentures slipped when she spoke, nearly impossible to look away from, like a lazy eye or the proverbial car wreck. You know you shouldn’t be looking at it, but where do you look, and ohmygod what did she even just say? And then you’d retrain your focus on her words and look at the brooch or the curtains or for the pet you could smell but never see and you’d hate yourself for noticing any of it. Virginia was kind. And gnawingly, achingly in need of company. So you with your backwards, equally lonely Midwestern-in-a-big-city self, accompanied by your far more dashing and self-assured roommate, would find yourself occasionally sitting in Virginia’s rosy-musty living room, eating Archway cookies and Milanos from dainty china plates, listening to Virginia.
Virginia, again like god-awful stereotype, reeked of the past, some other time. She was alone and she had, it seemed, limited her world to her apartment and the shops (it seems silly to refer to them as “stores,” even. Impossible to talk about Virginia’s world without reverting, in part, to the language of it). If she had children, there were no photographs among the shelves (stuffed animals and dolls in crocheted dresses, yes, but few photographs), no mentions. There was a husband, once, but she had lost him long ago in her past. She was a mix of the decades from the 30s to the early 60s and everything about her was strongly reminiscent of everything from black and white film stars to Jackie Kennedy to early TV. It would shift while she was talking, as disorienting as her highly mobile dentures, pinning her down to times you had only heard about and, I suspect, hiding the real thoughts and concerns of Virginia. Virginia never talked about the present; she didn’t much ask about the lives or backgrounds of these girls in her living room who were eating her cookies. She didn’t talk about life in the past, strangely, since she was so evidently still, well, living in it. What she talked about, and exclusively talked about, was her plan for a TV Christmas special.
I’ll give all the following due respect to Virginia: her imagination and childish glee were second to none, her belief in the imminent success of said Christmas special was unshakeable, and her descriptive powers were strong enough that, holding my cookie, I could see absolutely her TV show in my mind as real as if it had already aired. Mind you, it had the same coloring and video qualities as an Andy Williams Christmas repeat (that strange, Kodak-y both dull-and-over-bright chromatic quality that will date any video as several decades old) but nevertheless, in the mind it stood like the memory of an actual show you really had seen before. Virginia’s Christmas special was “A Trip to the North Pole.” It had dancing penguins who ice-skated in front of Santa’s workshop, described down to the personalities of each little penguin and the fact that said penguins were wearing red bow ties. She had personalities and casting ideas for the elves. She could — and did —describe endlessly and lovingly the set requirements, the costume changes, the scenes, the props. There wasn’t a lot of plot (Virginia was a detail-oriented sort of gal) but, it too, was outlined and tight: to say she had given this a lot of thought would be the understatement of a lifetime. I truly believe Virginia had given it her every thought.
Virginia’s Christmas Spectacular was her opus, her masterpiece, her passion, her life. And the critical piece of her beloved TV show was Santa. Her Santa would be played by Frank Sinatra. She had, so she said, written letters to Mr. Sinatra and his agent with the script proposal, the details of her Christmas special. I think she said she had contacted NBC, CBS, and ABC. But it gets harder to remember that now; like I said, this was a lifetime ago. And truthfully, after a couple of hours of listening to Virginia wax effusively about Frank, and the elves, and the reindeer, the attention would start to wander when she’d get into the infinitely less thorough and thought-through parts of realizing her dream. But then, my best guess is, it wasn’t the realization that mattered to her, not really. It was the dream. Just the dream.
I am glad I knew Virginia. I am glad I ventured across the hall to hear about her Christmas special. I am glad she, like H&H Bagels and Gray’s Papaya and the free baklava with purchase of coffee at Nick’s, is a part of my New York in that lifetime. And I am heartily sorry that I couldn’t always manage to look away from her dentures. I hope she never noticed that.