Home Nonfiction

0

Little Traffic Light Men

by Joan Frank

 

 

You can’t wish away a lifetime’s conditioning—movies, print, Saturday morning cartoons—as if it were some dismal weather system. At least this time, after twenty-two years away from Germany, the language sounded more comic than not. Something-fährt was printed on a huge airfield building as we taxied in on a sunny May morning, and Something-else-fährt on another. That cheered me.

So this time (clenched into a wad of aching muscles on the nonstop from San Francisco, tramping the sprawling, halogen-lit maze of Frankfurt Airport) I meant to push aside reflexive dread. Time is ripe, I thought, to flip that trope. I already sensed that confronting the language, and everything it once evoked, might no longer knife me.

Surely it would feel easier this round. Enough years had passed. A new generation had grown up—now itself busy making babies. Things would have changed. Germany, I reasoned, would step forward to meet me more than halfway.

I also longed to be taken out of my own head, made to look outward. Read on.

The last time my husband and I walked on German soil was in 1994. The wall had tumbled only five years before. Five years, in the staggering-to-its-feet of a war-raked city, is not a lot. Sun filtered through pale and weak on our first day there: early spring, exceedingly cold, and Berlin looked and felt like a plane crash. Air held a dazed, floating-motes aftermath. People’s faces appeared locked as they hurried past, scrubbed of any readable inflection as they swayed from hand-held straps with the tram’s roll. Cold spaces. Hard surfaces. Conventional niceties nowhere visible. Bulletholes peppered many walls. Alexanderplatz yawped wide and barren then, an abandoned military concourse, windswept and freezing, the infamous radio tower stabbing from it like a spear, its concrete emptiness a space we could too easily fill, in imagination, with platoons of goose-stepping, helmeted troops—or worse.

We wandered that day, confused: no sense of a there there. Only hodgepodge. Bricks and rubble. Canvas half-draped a gaggle of life-sized statuary huddled at the rear of a vacant lot behind chain-link fencing, like a crowd of refugees trying to shelter itself.  West Berlin, on its surface, felt no more appealing or friendly, no easier to navigate or make sense of, than East. It was only more expensive.

* * *

Some disclosure’s in order. Because of my last name and vague sense of family background (my late folks had no more truck with Jewish orthodoxy than an occasional sip of sweet kosher wine), and because of the 50s and 60s I grew up in—that era’s haste to push off from the past, get on with things—I’d guarded all my life a secret terror that fascism, in the form of a resurrected Nazi machine, could spring back at any time, fast and stealthful as a cancer. Never mind I had no clear idea why an evil cabal wanted to kill people bearing my last name. It had done so once; it could again, wasting no time taking over my country and the world. A child could only build upon what she’d grasped in the first ten years of life, from a range of half-buried allusions and images. Thus, all people of Jewish background (however dimly I understood that) would, in my secret nightmare, be hunted down, rounded up and destroyed in ways I had read about or seen enacted in films—starting with The Diary of Anne Frank.

* * *

I remember, in those growing-up years, feeling dizzy with it, the blank non-comprehension: How could the kind, loving grownups of this world allow what I’d read about, and what I’d seen that film suggest, subtly but terrifyingly, to happen? How could it have been real—how even conceivable?

My little sister and I attended Unitarian Sunday school. We trick-or-treated for UNICEF on Halloween.

Yet before that selfsame world, findable in any library, was The Diary of a Young Girl—breathing quietly beneath its shroud of reverence and fear and yes, titillation. All references to the diary, to the history inseparable from it, made the book itself seem transgressive, hot with controversy, unspeakable implications. Even as a kid you couldn’t not be shot through with queasiness for the reverence, as much as for the implied unspeakable. Somewhere I’d seen photographs; been unable to look away. Living skeletons, hollowed-out animals dying behind cage bars. Tall piles of bony corpses, great mounds of bodies shoveled onto one another by steam-shovel. Arms and legs and feet and ravaged faces sticking out of these piles, mouths frozen open. Tattooed numbers. Piles of gold teeth, wedding rings. Six-pointed yellow stars. Crushed humans by the millions. Families. Children.

This really happened?

All of it juxtaposed by turns against black and white snapshots of the young diarist’s face: sweet, sunny, framed by dark curls above her Peter Pan collar.

My ten-year-old eyes stared at that photo again and again. She’d have loved, I guessed, all the stuff my sister and I loved. She’d have had favorite songs, favorite books, games, a bracelet or necklace, a sweater; maybe a cigar box for keepsakes, an acorn, a marble, a piece of ribbon. I remember trying as a child to imagine how she’d have looked after she and her sister were devoured by the camps: heads shaved, lice-ridden, starved and freezing, death by typhus.

That part, of course, doesn’t appear in the film. All you see at the film’s end are the characters looking quickly at each other after the fatal alert has reached them. Their hopeful, pitiful gambit, hiding silently in an office attic for two years, is up. Their glances at one another in final moments, like the squeeze of a hand, telegraph their nod to the incomprehensible: This is it. Someone in Amsterdam has tipped off the authorities; the SS knows the group’s whereabouts and is that moment bearing down upon them. Awareness is sharpened by the approaching sound, louder, louder, of the two-note German police siren: eee-aww eee-aww, a hellish, hysterical braying.

My child’s mind would always shut down at this point. (How my poor little sister’s mind ingested what we’d seen, I can’t imagine. We wouldn’t have known how to speak of it.)

My adult mind wants to shut down, too—but it’s packed with images, the kind that pop up to terrorize at 3 a.m. for the rest of your life, scored by the sound track of that siren.

To this day the crazed screaming of European police-car sirens—that two-note wail, that high-pitched, frantic eee-aww, unchanged it seems since the war—still has the power to stop the heart, shatter thought, atomize reason like a lightning bolt. It’s an aural marker and fanfare of death’s jaws gaping, a sound I can never completely dissociate from they are coming for me. Can never flush the closed throat, the adrenaline prickle, the bunched fists and stuttering heartbeat. Can never pretend I am co-existing calmly, indifferently, maturely, with that sound.

* * *

We flew into Frankfurt first to visit my stepson, a wonderful young man stationed nearby as part of his military duty. It seemed the right moment for revising the dread that surely now no longer fit. I had rolled up mental sleeves, determined to sweep out biases, see things new. We had all lived—Germany and the world—into new news. Twenty-seven years had passed since the end of the Wall. Other horrors now darkened our planet’s once-clean heavens: climate change, ISIS and Al Qaeda, belligerent viruses, internecine tribal atrocities, refugee crises, insane assassins armed to the teeth, maniacs and despots seizing power. Meantime, in Germany, a full generation had come of age: one that appeared well-educated, matter-of-fact about even the worst aspects of the realities they face, willing to invent something better.

Now comes the “what I supposed versus what I learned” recital. The German contingent of this new (my stepson’s millennial) generation, from what I thought I could discern without language, seems to respect the old nightmare—granting that the nightmare’s after-images still grip aging survivors in bloody talons. But the young adults also seem determined to consider it ancient history, the kind discussed in textbooks. They publicly consecrate the memory of the murdered (now the official word), pledging and repledging themselves, in monuments and speeches, to exemplify vigilance, to safeguard human rights. Markers and museums of every aesthetic, insisting we never forget, crop up everywhere. In Mannheim our son led us to a glass booth on a busy thoroughfare, whose walls bore a kind of foggy transluscence. At closer glance this fog turned out to be inscription, in tiniest letters, of thousands of lightly-printed names covering every inch of the glass. A brief scan confirmed that most of those names were, like mine, recognizably Jewish.

We stood there a moment, running our eyes over column after column.

Each name, someone’s beloved darling: now a cloudy mark on glass, in a bustling city.

We walked the tidy districts and neighborhoods, seeing the young (like their counterparts elsewhere) absorbed by the daily, the necessary pleasures and tasks: showing up to jobs, rearing kids, building communities, savoring arts, sports, landscapes, food, friendship. These people looked smart, humane, preoccupied with survival, hoping (like any species in progress) to make things better.

They were parents, harrassed and proud and tired, pushing strollers or calling toddlers to their sides in parks, cafes, fast food outlets, sidewalks. They were self-styled bohos, smoking and chattering amid the litter of beers and coffees. They were musicians, painters, boutique owners, bookstore and retail clothing clerks, grocery checkers, museum guides, landscape and building maintenance and construction workers, teachers, researchers, drivers, waiters and waitresses, nurses, cops and firefighters, nannies and caregivers, highway repair workers. (“There are two seasons,” our son told us: “Winter and Road Work.”) They were students, rumpled and sleepy, flirting in parks, playing horns or guitars or cellos, sketching in museums; they were old guys perched patiently on stoops or in cafe chairs or on benches. They were tourists exploring palace grounds, forests, scenic lookouts, truck stop restaurants, patiently escorting aging parents, explaining, cajoling. They coached and scolded and laughed at their own kids.

I felt no darkness from them. No perfidy. No scorn. Of course I stood outside the culture, outside the language, but say what you will: humans emit force-fields that can often be felt and heard and to some degree, read. I looked and listened. Young bohos in the Germany I glimpsed appeared identical with young bohos in comparable settings; kids and babies and parents as you’d expect to find them. I cannot claim to have felt great warmth from these individuals, but courtesy and mildness ruled. Sometimes strangers offered to explain a sign or menu, or clarify directions. Our son drove us through Mannheim, Karlsruhe, Nuremberg. I swallowed hard at the sound of that latter name, but the Nuremberg we saw presented as cheerful and handsome, oblivious to the day-of-reckoning thunder its name once evoked. The city has proudly rebuilt itself almost completely—even its cathedrals, which manage to look centuries old.

We found wellsprings of charm and beauty in Bamberg: its genial mix of locals and visitors, cafe culture, vine- and flower-covered, saggy-gingerbread homes along the river, fairy-tale style. An aged man with thick white hair and patrician features leaned out a high window to prune his roses; the blooms were fat, round and velvety, peach-red. Squinting up as we walked past, on impulse I called out to him that his flowers were beautiful. (This was something my sister would have done, along with stopping to pet and croon at every dog and baby.) The aging man nodded wearily as if enduring a stale gesture, as if he heard those words every day. At once my impulse felt smartly checked. Who might he have been, in a prior century? Who might I have been, as part of the population surrounding him? Might he have as wearily targeted me, or the family or compound that harbored me? Might I have been but one of a steady stream of undesirables, as steadily and casually singled out for exile—or extinguishment?

During the hours I strolled past the gingerbread homes and hand-built fences along the river, all of it covered with thick-twining roses—afterward sitting down to trocken, crisp white wine in an outdoor cafe packed with families, couples, students, shouting, exuberant—those questions pulsed below the more mundane concerns: where we might next walk, what were we presently seeing, which photos to snap. I pushed the dark questions down before they could unfurl in pretty daylight.

What, I wondered then and wonder now, has second-guessing ever truly served?

It can be argued two ways.

One: Assign no meaning more sinister until there’s evidence for it.

The other?

Assume the worst. No point second-guessing is what lots of people told each other in the years and months leading up to 1939, to Krystallnacht. Thoughtful people, good, smart people counseled family and friends, Calm down. Be reasonable. Wait and see. No need to panic; just wait a while. It will come right. It will sort itself out.

* * *

Despite those prickling reverberations—inflamed now by the election, in the year of this writing, of perhaps the most frightening proto-fascist ever to assume office in American history, with terrifying implications for the nation and the planet—despite those, I confess that in the halcyon days of touring with our son (and later by ourselves in Berlin) we took refuge in a mental condition we’ve nicknamed a spazz-out of happiness: meaning the arbitrary eruption of a heightened state; antic, glassy, willed jubilation. People are good at heart. History rights itself.  Life and objects may be trundling along having logical, discrete identities and trajectories unconnected with other matters. But the perceiver’s spazz-out corrals, connects, and infuses all it spies in that moment with the meaning necessary to serve the need. The Happy Story we tell ourselves can be a bully and a brute—something Americans do especially well. We do it best, in fact, while we are tourists. We’ve invested a lot in our story. Self-image. Money. Fear.

Fear of what, you ask?

Why, fear of the jolly story being otherwise.

Were it otherwise—they might be coming for me.

Was any of this grim internal tabulating fair to modern Germany? Did Germany know or care? Of course not. What is Germany or any nation-state but an aggregate of individuals, each toting her and his aggregate of needs, touched inadvertently by pieces of common history and current culture? Germany as a collective consciousness cares most at any given moment—like any other generalized group—about survival; as a close second, about a quality of survival. Each person in its fold, infant to elder, wants to feel well, do well, thrive and prosper.

All the rest? My imposition.

But isn’t this the way any traveler moves through the world?

* * *

As noted earlier, weather still calls the shots. Never doubt this. Whatever weather happens to be doing wherever we happen to be traveling, that place becomes that weather, in memory. If we’re stuck in Blackburn, England in January, and the dirty snow outside and bitter-freezing temperatures make my husband’s father take one look out the window and climb back upstairs to tunnel back into his bed, that will forever be Blackburn in my brain’s illustrated dictionary. If I am a twenty-year-old living in a Peace Corps trainee dorm in Dakar, Senegal when sudden rains hammer the corrugated roofs like poured nails—and when five minutes later the soaked earth roils steam into a sky white again with boiling sun, while the smell of pummeled leaves and dirt and feces and rotting mangoes and baked bricks and grease and gristly-meat-smoke fills my skull—that’s the permanent imprint, no matter how many years ago it happened. In my mind’s album of emblematic scenes that will be the diorama floating forward, replete with grit and humid stink.

But recent scenes can, and do, eclipse their predecessors.

So when in Berlin, twenty-two years after our freezing first visit, with its plane crash tableau, we step into a Georgia O’Keeffe painting—a bright blue sky filled with marching bands of cotton-puff clouds—suddenly that becomes the new template, the forever-picture of Berlin (maybe of all of Germany) in the brain’s archive.

Come with me into the present tense now. My husband and I have traveled here after visiting our son, to have a swath of time together in this city we scarcely remember.

Our venture seems blessed by weather. As if weather were the Pope in an extremely good mood, it has palmed the crowns of both our heads and declared, Guys, this is gonna be a bell-ringer. I guarantee it.

We know it the moment we step out of the train into the towering interior of the Berlin Hauptbanhof, a megalopolis of a station serving (from the looks of it) the whole universe. Google it: the Hauptbanhof is a symbol, a machine, kinetic art, a multi-level hive; its entire front wall—three sky-piercing facades—a flashing quilt of blue glass. Not least, the station serves as a multiplex shopping mall, whatever you may think of that—several levels of store upon store offering home decor, clothing, jewelry, pharmacy sundries, sports equipment, chocolate, crystal, groceries, booze. This is how we do it, the German sensibility seems to be declaring. Monolith of glass and steel: seen through half-shut eyes, the structure resembles some hokey science fiction conjuring. Hordes push through in all directions around the clock; people wend their bicycles through swarms of walkers.  Frenzied, roaring futuropolis—and once we manage to thread through the exit doors and step outside, the beauty of heavenly weather falls over us like silk.

Shining City! Hope of men!

Because we have allowed ourselves certain occasional luxuries at this stage of our traveling lives, we take a cab to the hotel. Through its windows we gawk at clustered skyscrapers, thronged streets, motorbikes, babies, cafes, businesses, tourists—and everywhere against that sky for three-hundred-sixty degrees, gargantuan building cranes, moving with slow determination like some giant, benevolent aliens tending the expansion of their earthbound nest. Everything’s bathed in sparkling sun. It is June. It is warm. People zoom around on bicycles.

Spazz-out goes into overdrive.

* * *

We loved everything we saw. I can itemize highlights or you can read about them in Rick Steves. Art: dazzling, brilliantly showcased. Architecture: handsome, stately. Streets and parks and buildings, historic and modern, almost always immaculate. Energy: crisp, strong, exhilarating. Ambience: a festive air of good will toward men, fortified by abundant, delicious beer and wine. (Excellent coffee, bakeries, fish.) Best of all, the rollicking momentum of this feckless bien-être felt punctuated and buttressed at every turn by the regular, larger-than-life appearances, inside the cylindrical cones of traffic lights―of a remarkable figure.

Actually, there are two of them: quite different.

The stocky, bright-red little man faces you, both arms stretched wide to indicate, unmistakably, no no, go no further! Whereas the walking little green man is silhouetted, mid-step, from the side, so you can appreciate his long, confident stride. Both men appear to wear a pork-pie hat. Except on Red Guy, who faces us, it looks more like a helmet. But if it were a helmet, it would not (I must insist) be a soldier’s. It would be the helmet of civic duty: that of a crosswalk guard or civil defense volunteer.

Allow me (assisted by Wikipedia) to introduce Ampelmänchen, Little Traffic Light Men, created in 1961 in then-East Germany “by traffic psychologist Karl Peglau (1927–2009), as part of a proposal for a new traffic lights layout...”

Ampelmann! My new best friend. Symbol, especially in his Green version, of a friendly friend who cares for my safety―and much more. Ampelmann signals not just when it is time to go forward but—pay attention please—how. Do as he does, he seems to be urging. Set forth with resolve, with full-hearted expectation.

All that’s often given to us to control, we’re often reminded, is our own response. Response to the unspeakable, the ineffable, the unknown. Ampelmann enacts a best-of-all-possible responses, one that recalls the late E. B. White’s analogy for commencing to write an essay: namely, going out for a walk. (One envisions White’s cheerful ur-essayist venturing forth in exactly the posture of Green Ampelmann, alert, friendly, spirited.) Call this state of mind, say, forwardism, a pre-emptive Yes: heading out to meet whatever may be coming with an already-extended arm―as if ready to shake hands with a promising, heartening, equally glad future.

Ampelmann’s history, easily found online, likewise moves and inspires. How on God’s earth these stout-hearted emblems made their debut in the starved, brutally guarded, beaten-down wasteland of a German Democratic Republic, is tough to imagine. Perhaps the little traffic light men served in some tiny way as encouragement. (Unthinkable hardship and cruelty were givens. Read Joel Agee’s immortal memoir, Twelve Years, a record of his childhood as his then-family struggled to survive in that Dante-esque netherworld.)

A shameless industry of tokens and goods has burst from these now-beloved images, from key-chains to earrings, T-shirts to beach totes.  It’s an exploitation I can’t begrudge. Even thinking about Green Ampelmann, his sprightly, roving manner—easy to imagine him to be whistling—never fails to lift me, a sturdy cocktail of relief and hope. I’ve pasted a circular bumper sticker bearing his greenly-stepping-out form on my car’s back fender. And every time I lay eyes upon that sane, chipper, striding-toward-excellent-adventure fellow—something in me recalibrates. On the spot I resolve, willy-nilly, to do better, be better.

* * *

Only once—in the area near the river called Museum Island, where the city’s most splendid museums align like a set of Parthenons—did a shadow fall over our spazz-out. A busker implored us in winsome sign language for contributions to an apparent charity for the deaf, putting his cheek to mine as a warrant of tender affection. I gave him a couple of Euros. The busker had counted on receiving more than that. In an instant his Peter Pan charm vanished; contempt deadened his face as he turned away. He stalked off to count the afternoon’s take with a female busker. I stared after them, embarrassed and angry with myself as much as with him—I’d been an idiot to fall, even a little, for his false bonhomie, and what was probably a total con anyway to fetch themselves cigarette and beer money. But what right had I to ordain some candy-shell of unilateral cheer as the personality profile for an entire population—a population doubtless as needy and diverse and complicatedly fucked up as any other?

* * *

In hindsight, I missed certain cues—a tightness on people’s faces and in their carriage; the ways they moved, spoke, stood. As noted earlier (against my own spazz-out’s sugarcoating), I seldom felt from German people what you’d call innate warmth. The vibe was trickier. You might call it a kind of girdedness: a controlled, systematic tension of readiness-against-whatever-might-drop; getting on with duties while taking generic care not to cause harm. The message I absorbed from individuals we watched or with whom we had any transaction, was I do what I must. In short, they were earning a living, taking care of life and business. Of course that’s how people everywhere talk to themselves about hauling themselves to a job every day and performing, hour by hour, what that work requires. Perhaps the tightness I read was my own projection.

But surfaces can mislead, or at least rarely tell the whole story. Some months after we returned home, two New Yorker articles appeared. One, by historian Thomas Meaney, focused upon the alarming ascent in Germany of a neo-rightwing movement which tended to scapegoat immigrants. This piece gave the lie—unnervingly—to my breezy supposition that the country had once-for-all morphed into a model of humanitarianism by dint of sheer group will. The other article, by New Yorker staff writer Burkhard Bilger, was called “Ghost Stories.” Bilger journeyed to Berlin to participate in a kind of progressive group therapy, designed to help middle-aged Germans (“unaccustomed to self-pity and allergic to national pride”) exorcize the abiding internal pain of connection with all the history I’d so blithely assumed them safely past. “Theirs was a country responsible for history’s bloodiest war and most efficient mass murder: sixty million killed, including two-thirds of all European Jews,” writes Bilger. “They were here [in the therapy session] to wrestle with that guilt.”

Grown children of German emigrés have not, it appears, escaped the same stigma. “Family history,” Bilger notes, “is an uneasy topic for a German-American…A sense of guilt by association hangs in the air, even for people of my generation.” Bilger was born in 1964. “To be German, it seems, is still to be one part Nazi.” As survivors with direct memories of the war are now dying off, “people began to realize how little they knew about their parents’ and grandparents’ lives. They needed to hear those terrible old stories after all…Kriegskinder, they called themselves: children of war.” You need to know the story, it seems, to excise the story: to free yourself. “Evidence that the effects of trauma can reverberate through generations has steadily mounted,” observes Bilger. He then recounts the anguish of each therapy group’s participants, as they tried to understand the behavior of a family member who’d been involved at any level with Nazi actions.

Things had never, apparently, been what they seemed.

* * *

In truth, one real trauma did occur in Berlin—the only one of our voyage. Some people might reject that it qualifies as trauma. We weren’t robbed or beaten; not blindsided by a car or motorbike. No one was injured—mortally. The ordeal was interior: a private bomb whose latent power I’d been striving to escape, or bury deeper, with the busyness of travel.

It had nothing to do with Germany. Yet Germany was its context; therefore, its midwife.

It, too, happened at Museum Island, when I suddenly discovered I’d lost my special museum pass, purchased and handed to me by my husband only moments before—a pass good in all the museums for three days. We had just two days left in the city. Each pass cost about forty dollars, not a fortune but not nothing, and we were trying, as always, to control expenses. In the swirl of people pushing through the receiving area of our first museum—as we were puzzling out how to stash our belongings in one of those little lockers requiring a Euro coin deposited in a sticky slot—my ticket disappeared. We later guessed I’d unwittingly dropped it, and that someone had scooped it. Next came a panicked fluster: furious checking of all pockets, dumping out of the handbag—followed by that frantic, sickened feeling when each object grasped and set aside is not the desired one nor is it sticking to, or hiding, the desired one. My husband—a good, sane, generous, consummately decent but mortal man—got angry with me, incredulous that within mere minutes of its purchase I could somehow have managed to let that pass evanesce into air.

In a stroke, I felt crushed.

Defeated. Emptied. Stupid—not fit to live; suddenly not much caring whether I lived.

Please now allow for a last, perhaps outrageously late disclosure, introducing the submerged monster in this odyssey—of personal grief.

My beloved younger sister, Andrea, had died, suddenly and horribly, of apparent pancreatic failure, about a year earlier. The event could not have been more abrupt: a bolt flung by a Greek god. And though my husband and I had eventually resumed life and travel, moving over the surface of the world in customary ways, I secretly felt as though I had to work twice as hard to convince myself (let alone others) that a world without her—lifelong co-pilot, witness, simultaneous mother and daughter, co-survivor of multiple early losses—was still making sense as a world. Not least, I struggled to convince myself that whatever it was that I called “I” was still making sense as a part of that world. Until the moment of the vanished ticket, the world we looked upon had been making a reasonable show of worldness—if never quite fitting together as it once had.

To be sure, ghost reminders had whispered behind people, settings, objects. The names etched into the glass booth in Mannheim. The aloof, aging man whose roses she’d have praised. The babies and dogs, chotchkes and weather.

During the months after losing her, I would hold my head with both hands to keep it from breaking open. My little girl, my baby wren, soft brown feathers for hair, sitting opposite me on the cool smooth concrete of our Arizona front porch, repeating my language lessons with eager, smiling, trusting brown eyes. Hamburger. Hang-aber. Spaghetti. Ba-sketti. Yellow. Lellow.

It is a deeply strange experience to travel after the death of someone as close to you as your own skin. You regress in ways to a blank slate, almost needing to re-learn the most basic assumptions and practices of a modern society. You look around in bafflement at the colossal, intricate, bearing-down life of a world that has neither paused nor changed a jot; you gaze in wonder at the busy, rushed, full-tilt nonstopness of things. Until our hapless halt near the museum’s banks of lockers, the world’s surface—if gossamer, if whisper-plagued—had sort of “held.” When the little ticket disappeared and my husband grew angry, that thin construct shivered, suddenly cross-hatched with a million infinitesimal cracks. In the next moment, like a hurled glass globe, it fell to bits. And so did I.

I didn’t care anymore where we were, what we did, or whether we had money. I wanted my baby sister back—my second heart, known to me in every pore since they first brought her home in a blanket, she who best knew my own heart and the hearts of her children and husbands and friends, who did everything in her power (sometimes beyond her power) to put her arms around the world, make it happy—the kindest, gentlest, most loving soul I’ll ever know, the only one left who could corroborate everything that had happened to us (early deaths of parents and husbands; gypsy-rover lives eventually made good). In the words of a friend, “a million others should have gone before her.”

But you see, they had. They did.

So how do we measure loss? I stared in shock at her motionless form in the hospital room—we’d arrived too late, too late—that adored face still frowning, as if in dismay and perplexion at the terrible pain which had been her last awareness, her last consciousness.

This really happened.

I have begged my little sister silently, every day since, to give me any sign that she still somehow, somewhere, is. No sign has come, except for dreams. They give the brief comfort of her presence, which may be all I or anyone can realistically hope for. Staring from my emptied handbag to my exasperated husband in the midst of that museum lobby’s noisy mobs, I wanted only to slip back into one of those dreams, away from the brittle, thousand-arrows-deluge of living, to hold my sister tight, smell her clean, apricot-shampoo scent. Nothing mattered then. Not travel, not art, not food or drink, not even my dear husband. Not Germany, not planet Earth.

My husband, recognizing what had been loosed, scrambled to stanch and smooth it over—but I’d lost my bearings. Zombified, tear-streaked, I stumbled back to the ticket cage and bought another pass. We entered the museum. It was the Pergamon, I think. Gallantly, my husband (now in triage mode) tried to distract me, pointing out extraordinariness and sublimity in all directions. I could not respond—could not muster a straw of coherent thought, only sickened freefall as I cast my eyes toward magnificent pillars and priceless tapestries, jewelry, glassware, mosaics, weaponry, tools: marvelous things that people (now dust) had bravely made. I can still feel the bottomless cold abyss of it, the outer-space shriek in my ears. What good to me, the riches of ages? She was gone. What good was anything? What could, in fact, any longer be called good?

To whom, wailed one ancient Egyptian inscription, can I speak today?

My husband and I zigzagged, at careful distance from one another, through immense rooms. The Germans, to their unending credit, had arranged sarcophogi, statuary, bas-reliefs and sculptured busts so that there was plenty of light-filled space around each piece—each piece lit so artfully and subtly, the works themselves seemed to glow. I tried to hang back, give my husband a long lead, make room between us to allow for my ballooning horror, which I could not seem to control.

Here’s a fact I can offer with authority: It is very hard to find places in a museum’s rooms where you can cry in privacy. Corners seem to work best, if you face into them. Crave as I did to disappear, the thing that is me lurched on in its same, mute, faithful body: carrying case for a wailing soul.

We kept walking. (He walked. I trailed him.) At last we entered a room in which a massive screen had been mounted on a base of console-height. A long bench was fixed at perfect viewing distance across from the screen.

People were seating themselves there, to watch.

A sign above the installation promised simply, Time Travel.

We sat.

Then all at once we were seeing a semi-animated, computer-graphics-aided film, panning over a landscape of primitive Earth: cave-dweller years, wintry and raw. Soon, swiftly, the camera homed in on a family going about its then-life: a hefty fire crackling, animal skins drying. Details were visible. Our eyes were guided over tools and implements, weapons and eating utensils, crude clothing. Yet the quality of animation softened the view, the panning camera almost smearing it so that the images came at us like a sequence of half-remembered dreams. Then, above the screen, a sort of chronometer (time-ometer?) fast-forwarded several thousand years. And before we knew it we were watching a small tribe building shelters, fishing, dancing, eating. Little kids scrambled; mothers called to them. Laughter. Hammering. Then the time-ometer pushed ahead again and we watched two villages, or townships, at war. We heard shouts and cries and horses screaming, clanks and clunks of metal and wood. A series of stills showed men struggling in combat; we heard them howl in anger and pain. Eerily, what separated this cinematic dream from other kinds were its sounds: no specific language was ever clear but voices carried, voices like ours—as did the warmly familiar sounds of wind and weather, of animals, human merriment, human anguish, human sorrow.

We watched an early wedding. A funeral.

No single word was intelligible: only universally-understood sounds.

This really happened.

Slowly my heart and body calmed and gentled.

Wordlessly, body and heart were absorbing some deep, cellular recognition: the continuum of human struggle, of atrocity, joy, agony and wonder, understood across incomprehensible spans of years.

Up floated a phrase I’ve never forgotten—the hand-lettered title of a folksy mineral display we’d browsed in the Arizona outback many years ago:

The vastness of geologic time.

And the whole of my tired, grieving body recalled slowly, as if by granules through an hourglass, that we had always been part of that. We were part of it—of all we were viewing. Nothing more nor less. We were them. We would fade as they had, this long line of forebears. The time-ometer showed generations blurring inexorably back into a ceaseless, mostly-forgotten past. Me, my sister, her children, their children. All of us sharing a fate stretched along an infinite continuum.

At last, in a trance, we rose and left the museum; emerged blinking into the dusk-lit city of Berlin, the country called Germany, continent known as Europe, planet named Earth, the year denoted, for reasons now nearly forgotten, by the number 2016. And in sepia light, overlooking wide streams of bellowing cars and buses, cop’s whistles, hordes from everywhere moving across squares and playing music and drinking beer and romping with kids in parks and along the river in tour boats, monstrous building cranes nosed slowly side to side in the background as if nodding along with the human roar, against early evening’s fading sun. People were moving, as they must. We moved with them, waking yet still entranced, striding out into it with intensifying resolve to do, to be. Among them, amidst it. Heading out—why not—like Ampelmänchen to meet whatever might next come, while we could. All that it is given to us to invent, to deploy, is response. Later I would think about the curious weightlessness of those moments, as we joined the surging cars and crowds—but also about how, at the same time, I felt the time-ometer pressing forward: infinitesimal, patient, relentless. And in truth it was not a bad feeling, not bad at all.

 

 

BIO

Joan Frank (www.joanfrank.org) is the author of six books of literary fiction and an essay collection about the writing life. Her last novel, ALL THE NEWS I NEED, won the Juniper Prize for Fiction. Joan’s work has received many honors and awards, including the Richard Sullivan Prize and two ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Awards. She lives in Northern California.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

My Green Card  

by Maria Lopez

 

 

Recently a friend gave me a greeting card. The front of it was a beautiful bright green, like the fresh grass and trees in the Bronx Botanical Gardens. My friend didn’t know the effect her little card had on me. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. For years my secret dream and hope has been to have a green card. And here I was holding one in my hand! All I could do was make fun of myself – How easy it is to make my dream come true! I’m so excited I’d better be careful not to have a heart attack before I get to enjoy this gift. I need to calm down.

A Chinese classmate once told me a proverb – “If you want something very badly, you won’t get it. You have to be calm and put yourself in a higher state of mind, and things will come to you.” That’s good advice to avoid a heart attack, but not to get a green card. I had a roommate who’s very religious, and she told me to be patient and leave my situation in God’s hands. With all respect, God has no special influence with immigration officers. Paying an immigration lawyer also doesn’t help. When I first came here and got a job as a maid in a big house, I went to a big office in Queens that had a big sign outside – “Immigration Lawyers. If you have legalization problems, we can help you get a green card.” The sign also said, “We handle divorces and bankruptcies, as well as foreclosures.” I ran there every week on my day off with twenty-five dollars in my hand and gave it to the lawyer who was supposed to be helping me. He was from my country, Colombia, so he spoke Spanish, was well dressed, and seemed very professional. He took all my information and wrote it down, asked me how much money I’d brought that day, and told me he was going to the court and I should come back next week. He said the same thing every week, and every week I expected him to hand me my green card.

One day, after I had given him a hard-earned two hundred dollars in total during the eight weeks I’d been going to him, I was sitting in the waiting room full of desperate people like me when the police came. Some of them went into the lawyers’ offices, and some talked to us. One policeman was Puerto Rican and spoke to us in Spanish. He asked if we had gotten receipts for the money we gave the lawyers.  Nobody had.

I started to cry and told the young policeman that I had already paid two hundred dollars! Two other women were crying harder than me. One of them, who was beautiful, young, and well dressed cried out, “Two hundred?  That’s nothing! I gave him two thousand dollars!” The other one, middle-aged and humble-looking, wailed, “Ay, I paid him three thousand and five hundred dollars!” The policeman was astonished. He asked the women, “Where did you get so much money?” The middle-aged lady said she had sold her house back in her country. The young beautiful one told the policeman she saved all the money she made from cleaning offices at night. After that, no one paid any attention to my poor, lost two hundred dollars, the most money I’d ever had in my life. It couldn’t compete with their thousands.

The next thing that happened was the three lawyers and their three young secretaries, all pretty girls in high heels, all crying, were led out of the offices by the other policemen, their hands behind their backs in handcuffs. We all stopped talking and stared, confused, wondering if we were the next to be arrested! But no, the police went out and loaded the lawyers and their beautiful secretaries, with their mascara running down their cheeks, into the police cars. One secretary got a high heel caught in something and it broke off as she was getting in. The broken heel was left in the street as the cars pulled away.

I was so nervous, thinking they might come back to arrest us that I sneaked out the door and walked as fast as I could to the subway. I could feel an invisible hand grabbing the back of my collar. I got on the first train that came in which was going the wrong way for me, but I didn’t care.

Next week on my day off I headed to Queens as usual, but this time it was different. Someone had told me that they wouldn’t arrest me: “You’re a victim,” he said. I was nervous anyway, but I was more curious. When I got there I stood across the street and looked at the closed storefront. It had a big sign taped to the window. The only word I recognized was “Police.” Finally I got the courage to cross over. A man was passing and I asked him if he spoke Spanish. He did, and he told me that the lawyers didn’t have a license to operate this business. They weren’t real lawyers! I told him I’d given them two hundred dollars to get a green card.  I was hoping for a little sympathy, but he hurried off, almost laughing, and said something that sounded like “Furgedaboutid!” I didn’t know what the words meant, so I quickly wrote down what I’d heard, and looked for a Spanish person who could speak English and was friendly. I stopped a woman passing by who seemed to have the complete package, and read aloud what I’d written. “Olvidalo,” she said, “Forget about it.” I thanked her. But I never did forget about it. I’d still like to have my two hundred dollars back.

Since that time, I’ve seen a few immigration officers and explained my situation. I asked if there was any way I could become legal and get my green card. They didn’t have me arrested, thank God, but the answer was always the same – no. They may have even felt a little compassion for me, but compassion wasn’t in the job description.

So I never got the legal green card, but I still have the green card my friend gave me. Who knows? Maybe some day in the future when there are no borders, a green card from a friend will be more important than one from the government.

 

 

 

BIO

Maria Lopez is from the Andes Mountains in Colombia. She grew up in a little shack with no running water or electricity; she only had the moonlight to lead her at night. She could not read or write in Spanish as she had no education, so she had her work cut out for her when she moved to New York and had to learn English. Through working for Americans and free writing classes at the public library and colleges, she has learned to read and write English, better than she speaks it; her pronunciation leaves many Americans scratching their heads. Writing has become her newfound passion and priority.

 

 

 

 

Break the Silence

by Damilola Olaniyi

 

Most days I do not know who I am anymore. Somewhere in the recent past I refuse to remember my identity, I became a conformist and blamed it on the culture – for the sake of peace – my identity is shaky at best. I try to convince myself that I  have grown, that I have become older, more mature; but it is just the brand of lie I tell myself to make my brain stop buzzing so that I can get some shut eye.

On most days, I wake up in cold sweat, doubtful if I really ever went to sleep. The exhaustion becomes worse than the previous night and I check to see why my fourth finger feels a little stiff as I try to flex it and when it finally touches my sweaty cheek while catching the morning light, I find that I am married. But how did it happen, in my sleep?

Weeks leading up to our first year anniversary, I do not understand how I got there and I am so confused. We dance in a funny way and the silence between us is strained. We go to great lengths to avoid each other and I know the magic is lost. I wonder why our dance never seems to satisfy the pregnant silence as I crack my knuckles and he moves one leg, I adjust my pillow and he pulls the covers, I sigh deeply and he presses his phone. We are not the people we are many months ago and I am convinced I traded my happiness to save my family name. You see, we are all girls, five of us and it is said that my father is not man enough. But it is said in whispers so that there would not be a blood bath. My mother has cried and begged and fasted but her X chromosome only merged with another X to produce five girls. She has given up on a male child which is just as well. But still I do not know how to describe myself.

My mother’s brother who helped to discipline me by spraining my ankle with a Levi’s belt buckle on a visit one dull afternoon would possibly describe me as extremely stubborn, in need of taming. Now I understand why his family is still in London aside from the passport detail, my nervous long fingers might just leave welts on their bodies.

My father who would tell me in a good mood that I looked just like his dear beloved mother in stature and physical appearance would proudly say that stubbornness runs in his side of the family. He would also call me a rebel leader and non-conformist, a child who knows what to say to get herself out of any situation not a limp noodle who gets lost in pleasing her mother’s heart for fear of losing her identity.

For my mother, I have put her enemies to shame. With the martyrical tone most African mothers adopt, she would thank God in my presence, say a prayer out loud even though we both really know that those spoken thoughts are meant for me. And on the days when I try to be a good daughter I cut her some slack absolving her of the guilt of my bad sleep and persistent headaches by pasting a smile on my face even though I secretly worry about laugh lines forming around my mouth and my cheeks ache.

And that link created at birth during the nine month bonding period, I’m afraid it never happened for us and what little there is has faded out upon instruction to stay away from my father’s house. I did not even have the luxury of absorbing the message first hand. So now, I tell myself never again to apologise for my writings, avoid family as much as I possibly can and mutter to myself that I would find Me, that things would change and people will see me for who I truly am when in truth I am scared deep down and even the tastiest desserts would not drive away this fear.

And so when at thirty I am married, I tell myself that I am one of the lucky ones all the while wondering how I got here. Even though in my husband’s words I broke the jinx, I wonder why I am deeply unhappy waking up next to him and I place one leg on the floor at three AM because I am unable to sleep for fear that I would wake up as a mother with mournful tales to tell my own daughter.

 

 

BIO

Damilola Olaniyi is an eclectic creative. She is the brain behind Onkowe Contest aimed at helping children discover their creative side. She is a script writer. She loves writing, reading and has a passion for moving images. Some of her reviews have appeared in local dailies like The Daily Sun and Nigerian Pilot.

 

 

 

Motorcycles, Hot Rods, and Fine Art:
The Life and Times of Renaissance Man, Don Nowell

 

 

by Paul Garson

 

With half the year already gone, one can start reflecting not only on the future but the past as well. It can get pretty interesting when you’re looking back 75 years and start clicking off the redlined high points. You also add in Father Time and Mother Gravity calling in their chips. Case in point, Don Nowell of Don Nowell Design.

We’ve known about Don for some 30-odd years…and there have been some really odd ones…but you could say anything he touches turns to gold in one form or another… especially when horsepower, performance and innovative design figure into the project at hand. When it comes down to it, Don is an “artist” in the real sense of the word, one gifted with an analytic mind and a work ethic that nudges fanatical in its attention to details.

Let’s start from the beginning. When we made the call to check on his current doings, we heard his reply to our opening query “Is this the famous Don Nowell?” to which he replied “I think you’ve got the wrong number.” But before he could hang up, we explained the reason for our visit and started gathering the facts.

Don was born in Inglewood, CA on May 22, 1941 at 4:30 in the morning. Since then he likes to get an early start. By ten he was earning money mowing lawns, hawking newspapers and selling flowers on the weekends. In Junior High during the ‘50s it gave him some coin to buy some nifty clothes. “It was all about impressing the girls,” chuckles Don. “They were all wearing their poodle skirts and tight sweaters, so we guys had to look cool.”

His first wheels was naturally a bicycle which he “hot-rodded” by placing playing cards in the spokes to produce some “vroom-vroom.” Then in 1956 Don was in high school taking shop classes where he earned his first award, winning Best in Class in a Rotary Club competition for his electric motor, the best of 320 entries. “It was at this point I learned to operate a lathe. I also couldn’t resist hopping up that little motor, trying to get the most rpm out of it and had it smokin’ and jumping all over the bench.” You could say the die was cast, as this was Don’s first motor, one of a long line of high performance engines that would power cars, bikes and boats.

Another milestone arrived at age 16, when after working his butt off after school at a model toy shop, he saved enough to buy his first car, a turnkey 1951 Chevy Bel Air coupe, paying a grand total of $325. “Most of my friends had ’49, ’50 Fords but I just liked the look of the ’50- ‘51Chevies better.” The car just had a stock 6-cylinder, but Don took it right to the Cohia muffler shop in San Fernando and had it slammed to the ground with a spindle kit, leaving ¾ inches of inch ground clearance.” Don was already letting off sparks. He laughs and adds, “At San Fernando High, they wouldn’t let you in class unless your car was lowered.” He also bought himself an airbrush set and tried his hand at scalloping his own custom paint job, cream over charcoal grey. “I just read some articles in Hot Rod magazine to see what Larry Watson was doing, his work just taking off.” But when he took his “low-rider” to Bob’s Big Boy in Van Nuys, he got turned away. Only hot rods allowed. This was 1957, the year of Sputnik and a rapidly changing world.

Graduating high school, he wrangled a job at the San Fernando based Tom Carroll Chevrolet as a lot boy handling deliveries. One day he spotted a spiffy ’59 Impala, white with a turquoise interior. It happened to be a repo and the price was tempting. Says Don, “It came with a 3-2-barrel carbed 4-speed with a hydraulic cam so it wouldn’t turn much rpm, but it was a pretty car, a neat car. I painted the wheels the color of the interior and street raced it all over the Valley.”

Then one night, Don’s ’59 got bested by a ghost white ’57 Chevy. Later he spotted the car, now parked and went to investigate. “The owner’s name was Kenny Safford and we became best of friends. He later became famous as a fuel dragster racer. He was also a member of the Road Kings and I started hanging out with those guys. It eventually brought me to a ’57 Chevy with a motor built by Ray Cash. I sold my Impala and got it. It was my first serious street racer and skirt chaser.”

Since the motor had seen plenty of racing and was a bit tired, Don decided to rebuild it, his first time tackling a pro hot rod motor. When asked where he got the skills to do the wrenching, Don laughs again and says, “I didn’t. I just took the heads off and started doing it. Rappa-rappa, I got it together.”

In late1960, Don took another quantum leap,  buying a ’37 Chevy Coupe bodied car was not in top form after being flogged at El Mirage and Don had to work his magic to get it up to snuff for the B Gas drags, choosing that class because it was the most competitive with more cars to race. He then took part in the early NHRA sanctioned events and at independent ¼-mile drag strips at San Fernando, Long Beach and Irwindale. “My pit crew was me and my buddy John with my tow car tied with a rope. It was run what you brung.

“The first time I raced the car at San Fernando, in September 1963, I ran 11.85 on an 11.84 record, beat everybody and took a trophy home. That was a good day.”

People started taking notice, Don and his dragster featured in the December 1965 issue of Hot Rod. It would also get him invited to join the Hot Rod crew for both the ’65 and ’66 events at the Bonneville Salt Flats.  He would campaign his Gasser for four years, lastly setting the speed record in ’66 at Irwindale with 121.80 mph in B Gas.

Don with some of the trophies won by his super Chevy and his heavy foot. The tall trophy on the far left was for a First Place at the L.A. Sport Arena, the trophy with the globe awarded at the Winter Nationals Car Show circa 1965 while the smaller trophies represent wins at the various drag races.

Don was also slinging a hammer to help pay for work on his car, and things were getting pretty slow financially, but then he got a call in April of ‘67 to work at engine shop, and not just any shop, Don finding himself building Cam Am race motors at the famous engine shop run by  Al Bartz. In fact Don was his first employee. “I first started just doing rebuilds because Al wanted to check my assembly knowledge in building a small block before I started both rebuilding engines and all the new engines. They were 350 Chevy’s stroked a little, making about 525 horses. I’d also modify other parts like the distributors, the water pump, the front timing cover, etc. to get parts ready for the engine builds. By ’68, he was shop foreman, but left to start his own business, working out of his Dad’s garage.

 

In the process he met a boat racer, Tom Paterson, who also owned a helicopter company and ended up building parts for choppers, including the very first Los Angeles TV station news helicopter, that for KTLA Channel 5. Asked if he got in some rides, he says, “No, I don’t like to fly so wouldn’t have enjoyed that a bit. Airplanes are bitchin’ but I don’t like being up in the air.” But Don was still building car motors and flying as fast as he could on terra firma, but he did step off onto the water.

Don’s stint in the Air Force reserve helped fuel his interest in aviation.

Seen here is one of his favorite, the F-4 Phantom Navy fighter, in this case a radio controlled scale model

“The Sparkler” skittering across the Colorado River.

Don found himself working on race boats, even piloting his buddy Paterson’s 385 horsepower, 1300 lb. 16-ft long “Crackerbox” class race boat aptly named “Sparkler” with its motor in the center, rider in the back. “It’d scare the wee out of you like an ocean going Sprint car. We set the record at 95.70 mph in the Flying Kilo at the Colorado River. Tom’s now 88 and still racing boats.”

Jerry Titus campaigned in Trans-Am, motors built by Don.

In 1969, Don got another of those milestone making phone calls, this time from the legendary racer and moto journalist Jerry Titus who wanted him to build his engines, 302 Chevy’s with cross ram manifolds, to race the last part of the season. Titus also raced for Carroll Shelby winning championships in ’67 and a class victory at the ’69 24 Hours of Daytona. Sadly, Titus aka “Mr. Trans Am,” would die in a 1970 crash during the Trans Am race at Road America.

When asked when he got into motorcycles, Don points to 1964 when he bought his first bike, a Yamaha 80 motocross, then wanting more power went for a 175 Montesa for blasting out into the desert and through the canyons. Says Don, “Back then people were running imported Greeves and the Dots fitted with Blooie pipes, basically straight pipes and you could them making bitchin’ music playing off the canyon walls, but then they went to those expansion chambers for more power but they sounded like bumble bees.”

In 1970 he met up with a young guy named Terry Dorsch who raced AMA Grand Nationals, mostly flat track events on Triumphs against the likes of John Hateley. Terry had ordered a Trackmaster frame and it was specially marked with#1 on its bottom. “I started riding with Terry on the fire roads and he taught me how to go fast and slide in the corners. We did that for ten years. It was a ball and very addictive. Terry used to say it was the most fun you could have with your pants on. I got to go with Terry when he raced flat rack at Ascot, then he started running Champion frames in Northridge. He asked me to make brake rotors for their Champion flat trackers and I made about 200 of them, some probably still being used in vintage racing. That’s also the time period when I did my first frame-up build, my Honda thumper. ”

Don’s first scratch built bike powered by rare Honda race motor was built for doing it in the dirt…and fast!

Don built the frame out of .049 chrome moly tubing, tipping the scale at a mere 15 lbs. plus a 4 lb. swingarm. Says Don, “That was a cool thing, building that frame from scratch, a real education.” Into that frame Don stuffed a rare Honda factory short rod, big bore 350cc motor made for the Baja 1000 race. “I just happened to get one of those trick engines with its sandcast barrel. I got some metric wrenches and took it apart. The cylinder had a quarter inch lining, so I bored that baby out to 385. The frame was nickel plated, the gas tank yellow, the seat upholstered in metallic blue Naugahyde. It was some bike, but then Yamaha came out the TT500 and I just had to have it, so like a dummy I sold my Honda, and I still wonder where it is today.”

During the 1970s while working on his race motor builds, Don figured necessity was the mother of invention. Since it was a mother trying to get the angles of a valve job to meet exactly which then determines the diameter of the valve and where it seats, he came up with a tool of his own design, calling it Qwik-Seat, and it made the job much easier. Gaining a patent, he sold them to machine shops all over the country.

1923 McFarlan, owned by silent film star Fatty Arbuckle, was restored by Don. The rear section featured a special trunk that house booze for Fatty who took his film breaks getting toasted.

Jumping to 1975, Don took another creative tangent when he was signed on by the late J.B. Nethercutt, wealthy owner of Merle Norman Cosmetics, to restore one of his 250 rare classic cars, now on public display at the San Sylmar Museum. In this case, the project was a 1923 McFarlan, the chauffeur driven Knickerbocker Cabriolet Twin-Valve Six originally owned by the silent screen star Fatty Arbuckle who went down in flames after a major scandal.

Says Don, “I worked on that car every day for four months at the museum’s workshop. It had come out of the paint shop with just the bare body, so I put everything else on it…all the metal pieces, the bright work, glass…fabricated the front grill guard, the tail lights, you name it. The car, painted a ketchup color, won a Best of Class at the 1975 Pebble Beach. I was standing there next to the car when I heard a familiar sounding voice say, can you open the door, I’d like to look at the interior. I turn around and there’s Clint Eastwood. And I said, sure, you bet. He looks inside, and he says, thank you. And I say, oh, you’re welcome.” It sure rounded out a cool day. Then later, Mr. Nethercutt came up and said, “Put your hand out. I want to give you a good handshake for turning my old truck into a show winner.”

It was the first recognition of his talents, nor far from the last.

In 1978, while hanging out with Terry Dorsch at a party, Don met up with veteran screen actor Bobby Carradine who told Terry he had a Triumph he wanted to put together. When Terry looked at the Trackmaster frame, he noticed it had #1 stamped into it…so it was his first frame from back in the day. Terry was pretty busy so asked Don if he wanted to handle the project. “I asked how they wanted the bike to look and they said, just do it like you were building it for yourself. Now in high school I had drawn sketches of my dream Triumph and Bobby said go for it. It took two years but I got it done, a real race bike, the real deal.

As Don recalls the moment with his usual photographic memory when Carradine first through a leg over the bike, he says, “He’s wearing cowboy boots, pressed Levis, crisp white shirt, leather jacket with fur collar, shades, a scarf, no helmet, the bike wafting the distinctive aroma of Castor bean oil, it’s the pre-requisite Lee Marvin/Keenan Wynn classic attire for an actor blasting down Sunset Boulevard. One kick and the bike starts…rappa-rappa!…and he’s off blasting down Sunset Boulevard. Bobby’s riding his dream bikes, laying it over in the corners, wide open megaphone growling.  One of the better days in my life! And we got the photos. The Triumph was featured as a center fold in an issue of Motorcyclist. Bobby still has that bike, almost 40 years later.”

Then Don took yet another jog in the road, trying out a bit of “downsizing” when he was contracted by Fred Thompson, the new owner of the famous Los Angeles based Smith Miller Toy Company (circa 1948-55), known world-wide for their large scale model trucks, beautifully crafted and very expensive, even more so as collectibles when the company faded out. Getting things going again in 1979, Fred asked Don to turn a flatbed trailer into a low-boy to carry a Doepke D-6 Caterpillar Tractor, another top end classic toy. Using vintage photos to take measurements, Don made a balsa mock-up, then a metal version as the final prototype prior to production. In the process he also designed and built a pumper fire truck. Fashioned in 1/16th scale, the large models measured from 22-48 inches long. Don laughs and says, “It was up to me to figure how A fit into B, and I built 20 trucks, about one new design a year, both prototype and production, for the 20 years, producing about a 1000 trucks at my shop in the first three years. The rebirth of the Smith Miller company proved immensely successful, eventually producing 48 different hand assembled trucks, much sought after in limited editions.

It’s safe to characterize Don as a “Man for All Seasons and All Reasons.” For example, he even took a bite out of the dental industry. In 1980 he met the people at the Proma Company and designed several prototypes for fixtures and appliances used during dental procedures.

Now into the 1984, Don found time to build another fire-breathing motorcycle. In this case, it was commissioned by Michael Bowen, another Hollywood actor, and half-brother to Bobby Carradine. The BSA triple project featured a Marzocchi front end as well as a motor beefed up with an 840cc kit by hyper motor guru Jack Hateley. During the build, Don designed and fabricated a bunch a neat components as well as the 3-into-1 pipe. The badboy Beezer was also featured in a 1986 issue of Motorcyclist, the magazine recognizing the quality of Don’s work.

Then another quirk of fate occurred. While perusing model vehicle magazines, Don noticed the high-end car models gaining attention for French and Spanish artisans. “It got my wheels turning to try my hand at world class models. But I didn’t know what to build. Those guys already had a foot hold in car models.” But while talking with his buddy at the aforementioned dental company, he heard him say, Well, you big dummy, why don’t you build a Harley model. “Yeah, cool, okay, and I thought a ¼ scale, two-foot long man-sized model would be the real deal. So I got it going, that was in 1994.”

Meticulous attention to detail makes it difficult to distinguish the full-sized Softail from Don’s “Honey I Shrunk the Kids” version.

The prototyping alone took 13 months, the design based on the Harley-Davidson Softail with the Evo motor.  Previously, his only scratch-built bike building experience was with the Honda thumper and now he was going from full-scale to quarter-scale. So how to make it happen? It turned out that Nick Ienatsch, now well-known in the pages of Motorcyclist, was dropping by in the evenings to earn a few extra bucks by doing some spot-welding work on the model cars Don had been designing. Don says, “I go up to Nick and say, where’s your Harley. He says it was at his Dad’s house in Salt Lake City. I told him I needed a bike to get dimensions. He says hold on, and a few minutes later I get a call from Frank Kaisler the Editor at Motorcyclist. I told him my story. Later that day, he gave me a brand new Softail and I rode it around for a week. I started measuring the length of frame, the swing arm pivot, head stock angle, all the dimensions and then divided it by four, took my

blueprint paper and started drawing. I also got the dimensions from a set of brand new S&S cases. At Monday night bike gatherings at a burger stand in Van Nuys, I’d meet Frank who’d bring me a part, an oil pump, a hand lever, whatever I needed to get my measurements to make an exact scaled bike.”

Get out the magnifying class. For example, Don made the swingarm pivot bolts, the rear and front axle bolts and nuts, the front end bolts, the head stem bolts…all cut from stainless on his lathe and milled to attach the 1/16th inch Allen heads, then polished each tiny piece and we’re talking 152 miniature screws for each bike. Talk about labor intensity, just to make the rear axle sleeve nut, it took 55 separate moves. The frame parts alone took months of machining. In this case when they say big things come in small packages, they weren’t whistlin’ Dixie.

Don wanted the bike to “feel” right as well as look right. So the swing arm moves with 3/4 inch of travel as does the front fork. The left hand lever incorporates a spring for the operational feel of a clutch lever. The right lever is fitted with a rubber o-ring so that as you squeeze on it, you feel resistance, replicating the feel of a front brake lever, the same for the footbrake lever. For the shift lever, there’s a ball détente, so you click-up, click-down, echoing gear changing, again like a real bike.

He went so far as to upholster the seats in real leather, added .040  of an inch diameter individual polished stainless spokes laced to the wheels. He also contacted the Avon Tire Company in England to secure permission to cast from molds exact rubber miniatures of their tires including their logos, and the Avon people graciously agreed, eager to see the finished product themselves. To thank them, Don handmade a unique pen and pencil set incorporating the polished wire wheel and mounted tire. Don chuckles and says, “The Avon honcho wrote back saying “You really screwed me. Now I have to buy a brand new desk because your pen and pencil set is so nice.”

In 2000, with the dawn of new millennium, Don shipped a specially commissioned Knuckle version of his model to the Motor Company in Milwaukee, this before the new Harley-Davidson museum was completed, so it was kept in their archives department until moved to the new museum upon its opening in July 2008.

The paint for his bikes was various candy pearls, except for the Harley-Davidson Museum model. They wanted a Knuckle chopper that looked like something aa guy would have built at home in 1960. There was a custom red scalloped, yellow paint job, but no polish on the cases, the barrels black, aftermarket open primary, just like back in the day.

A motorcycle fan in Germany noticed Don’s creations in a local magazine and just had to have one…to the point that one day he arrived at Don’s house/work shop in Granada Hills, CA and “went shopping” and upon up close and personal inspection it turned out that he had to have not one, but three…including a black Fatboy based on his own bike and also a Knucklehead created in the likeness of the iconic Capt. America chopper seen in the classic 1969 film Easyrider.

Don’s workshop contains a wide spectrum of industrial grade  and vintage tools down to surgical instruments capable of fashioning almost microscopic components.

Don’s latest projects include building replicat of Bonneville speed record  bike, here seen in mock-up stage.

2017 and Don Nowell’s “Engineered Art Worth Its Weight in Gold”

Says Don during our most recent conversation with him, “For a long time I’ve been wanting to build some art for the real art world. I had tried some stuff with the bikes I built, pieces out of wood and aluminum but that didn’t fly, so put the pieces back in the drawer. But after I took some hard knocks including losing both my Mom and Dad and then my lady friend and most recently, in March of this 2016, seriously injuring my back which was keeping me mostly bedridden, I was feeling pretty low. I knew I needed to do something to get back on my feet mentally, something that turned a new leaf, to step in another direction besides the gearhead arena…so I put head together to create some world class art.”

“I wanted something both plain and elegant at the same time. Something that drew your eye and kept it, something that wowed your senses. So I gathered rare woods from South America, Africa and Australia, all with awesome colors and grains. I’m a wood nut and love the grain, and found that the use of clear coating really makes it pop, a mile deep… there’s nothing like it.

Don’s premiere piece was titled “GoldBlades” and in part was inspired by the vintage mirrors and golden pocket watches he had seen during his experiences at the Nethercutt Museum. Deciding to employ blade shapes and gold to create the reflections he sought, Don took out his French curve templates and starting drawing, counting on the smooth transitions the forms allowed. After making some full sized sketches, he started making parts, finally sending the parts to the platers, focusing on the ultimate richness of 24K gold matched to a black granite finish for contrast. Says Don, “When it all came together, it exceeded my expectations, the gold having this rich, rosy finish that is staggering when amplified by the reflections playing back and forth from any angle your view it from.”

Tasmanian veined Eucalyptus on Gold Base, the piece is titled “GoldenWood” and measures 22 inches long, six inches wide, 12.5 inches high.

A work titled “GoldenBlades” features a total of 100 pieces including 14 separate 24K gold plated blades set in a mathematical progression, creates unique visual impact from all directions and angles. It measures 36 inches high, 14 inches wide, 22 inches long.

As for his choice of materials, Don says, “You can’t ask for anything better than Mother Nature’s finest… gold…and the trickest woods available. There’s nothing like seeing the gold and woods together…it’s the best of the best.” Toward that goal he opted for 7075T6 billet aluminum, the hardest you can get but also the best for acquiring the 24K highly polished gold plating. The choice of woods offered include Maple, Walnut, Burbinga burl, Tasmanian Resin Vein Eucalyptus, Buckeye burl, American Redwood and others, all finished to perfection.

These GoldenWood and GoldenBlade models are currently available with more designs in the work. In addition to fine art collectors, it would seem they would also lend themselves well as exceptional corporate gifts or even as exceptional awards of achievement.

If you’re interested in investing in art that grows in value every day, check out www.donnowellart.com, email him at dn@donnowelldesign.com or call Don at (818) 363-8564. International delivery as well as local Los Angeles pick-up available.

Post-script:

As we put the final touches on this story, we’ve become aware of Don’s growing difficulties, time and gravity taking their toll. The sale of his awesome art will go toward easing the mounting financial stress of his long-term recovery now requiring round-the-clock healthcare. While it’s especially hard for a solid, self-sufficient guy like Don to reach out for assistance, at 75, he sums it up with his tell-tale sense of humor, “I’m happy, just fucked up! Don’t get old!”

 

BIO

Paul GarsonPaul Garson lives and writes in Los Angeles, his articles regularly appearing in a variety of national and international periodicals. A graduate of the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars and USC Media Program, he has taught university composition and writing courses and served as staff Editor at several motorsport consumer magazines as well as penned two produced screenplays. Many of his features include his own photography, while his current book publications relate to his “photo-archeological” efforts relating to the history of WWII in Europe, through rare original photos collected from more than 20 countries. Links to the books can be found on Amazon.com. More info at www.paulgarsonproductions.com or via paulgarson@aol.com

 

 

 

 

 

I Was the Dean of Futures Studies

by Barbara J. Campbell

April 20, 2008

Greenfield Community College
English Department
One College Drive
Greenfield, MA 01301

Dear Search Committee Members:

I am writing to apply for the Full-Time Lecturer English Composition position, reference code FAC 91540 start date August 28, 2008, advertised in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Given the qualifications and responsibilities of the position, I think that my six years of teaching experience in developmental reading and writing, advanced composition, and American literature at the University of Connecticut fit your job description well.

My success as a teacher is best demonstrated by my educational philosophy, the numerous teaching opportunities extended to me by the University of Connecticut’s English Department, and my student evaluations. I integrate the Socratic Method and traditional lecture in order to accommodate particular learning styles. As of May of 2008, I have designed and taught 17 sections of 6 different courses at UConn, most of them writing intensive.

I have worked with a variety of student writers throughout my career as an instructor: low-income and first-generation college students enrolled in the federally funded TRIO program, undergraduates preparing for nursing and business careers, English majors, non-native speakers of English, transfer students, international students, and continuing education students. All of my courses, whether Basic Writing, Freshman Composition, or American Literature, include readings from women, people of color, proletariat and working-class writers, LGBT authors, and writers with disabilities. The attached student evaluations corroborate my commitment to multicultural and diverse curricula that draws from students’ experiences to challenge them academically. My average “Student Evaluation of Teaching” is an 8.93 on a 10.0 scale, ranking my performance within the range of “Outstanding” (8.0-10.0). My highest scores (9.7 in American Literature, 8.8 in Basic Writing, 8.7 in Literature and Composition) have well exceeded department averages. Due to my success in our program, the department allowed me to teach advanced courses such as American Literature, an opportunity granted only to advanced Ph.D. students.

Although I have not taught at a community college previously, working with students from varied academic experiences has shown me that I can best put my skills to use in an open admissions institution.

Many of the economically disadvantaged students I have taught needed to balance the demands of full-time employment while attending school. In several cases, the student had family responsibilities, such as a single-parent raising children or an international student attending college with the goal of obtaining a good job so his family could join him to live in the United States. Instead of relegating the potential stressors of work and family experiences to the margins, though, and viewing them as obstacles to student accomplishment, I devised innovative writing assignments that invite students to reflect and incorporate their experiences from outside the classroom.

I am seeking a position at Greenfield Community College because the institution provides an exceptional education to a diverse student population, many of who may initially find state universities and private liberal-arts schools financially out of their reach. I began my teaching career as many in our profession do: tutoring students individually in all aspects of academic reading and writing. The experience I gained tutoring in writing centers serves as the basis for my teaching philosophy as an English instructor. My teaching style works to cultivate the student’s own voice through a rich, inner dialogue with a variety of textual forms.

I hope to share my enthusiasm and my dedication to my work with the students at Greenfield Community College. I have included a copy of my curriculum vitae and references. My teaching philosophy, excerpts from student evaluations, and course syllabi are enclosed. Should you require a teaching portfolio or any more information about my work, please don’t hesitate to contact me via e-mail at barbara.campbell@uconn.edu or, by phone, at 860-892-4537. Thank you for taking the time to read and consider my application.

Barbara J. Campbell

Barbara J. Campbell, Ph.D. Candidate in English, UConn
49 Second St.
Norwich, CT 06360

May 1, 2008

Mystic Seaport Museum,
The Museum of America and The Sea
P.O. Box 6000
Mystic, CT 06355

Dear Human Resources:

I am writing to apply for the historical reenactor position Miss L.E. Ackerman for Mystic Seaport’s nineteenth-century living history maritime museum advertised in the Norwich Bulletin. Given the sketch of Miss Ackerman’s character, I think that my six years of teaching experience, research in nineteenth-and-twentieth century American women writers, and affection for intramural baseball fit your job description well.

My success as a teacher is attributable to my educational philosophy which combines the Socratic Method with traditional lecture. These approaches are transferable and ideally suited to the reenactor’s art of first-person interpretation required at Mystic’s nineteenth-century replica of a New England Coastal Village. As of May of 2008, I have designed and taught 17 sections of 6 different courses at UConn, all of them highly interactive.

My work with a variety of American literary and cultural texts would create an authentic portrayal of Miss Ackerman. Imagine a composite character based on different protagonists found in nineteenth-century American women’s novels: Jo and Beth March from Little Women (1868), Ellen Montgomery and Alice Humphreys from The Wide, Wide World (1850), even the statue of the Korl Woman from Life in the Iron Mills (1861) could serve as an inspiration. Many of these women, whether angels, orphans, or invalids, tested the boundaries of the traditional domestic roles of marriage and motherhood when granted greater access to higher education, including even those consumptive British Brontë sisters, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne. In fact, my recent experience with whooping cough coupled with my own economic struggles would only enhance my portrait of Miss Ackerman: I can die from lack of oxygen and exhaustion on the job with verisimilitude. My average “Student Evaluation of Teaching” is an 8.93 on a 10.0 scale, ranking my performance within the range of “Outstanding” (8.0-10.0). Therefore, I would excel at playing Miss Ackerman in Mystic’s Performance Outreach Program for K-12 students.

Although some years have passed since I’ve played America’s favorite pastime, I welcome the chance to hone my athletic skills with Mystic Village’s all-female Blue Stockings baseball club.

According to Mystic’s website, The Blue Stockings were “inspired by a photograph of the 1876 Vassar Resolutes,” one of two teams Vassar College created in 1866 to play baseball on campus. It just so happens that I’ve completed extensive research about women and higher education at the Vassar College Libraries Archives and Special Collections as part of my dissertation. This makes me intimately familiar with the college culture in which the Resolutes played. While not adept at recreating 1860s baseball games, especially when uniformed in a dress and crinolette, I could enrich other reenactors characters by researching primary sources in the archives.

I am seeking a position as historical reenactor Miss L.E. Ackerman because Mystic Seaport’s Living History Museum provides an informative and entertaining experience to all members of the public. If hired as a reenactor I hope my performance would prove invaluable beyond the summer season. Due to financial constraints, I am pursuing an alternative career path instead of returning to my graduate program in the Fall. My teaching style would work to cultivate visitors’ knowledge of nineteenth-century American women and maritime history through a rich dialogue on a variety of subjects.

I hope to share my enthusiasm and my dedication to my work with Mystic Seaport’s visitors. I have included a copy of my resume and references. In addition, my teaching portfolio includes exercises for the reenactment course at Mystic that I hope to teach: “I Would Go Back In Time: An Introduction to Roleplaying.” Should you require any more information about my work, please don’t hesitate to contact me via e-mail at campbell332002@yahoo.com or, by phone, at 860-892-4537. Thank you for taking the time to read and consider my application.

Barbara J. Campbell

Barbara J. Campbell, Master of Arts, English
UConn
49 Second St.
Norwich, CT 06360


 

 

June 20, 2008

Press Services
International Headquarters
8400 2nd Avenue
Montreal, Qc H1Z 4M6
Canada

 

Dear Mr. Laliberté and Mr. Gauthier,

I am writing to apply for the position of Giovanni the Clown (CAS03136) in your touring show Dralion advertised on Cirque Du Soleil’s website. Given the description of the show and the role of Giovanni, I think that my many years of busking, study of Eastern philosophy, and dislocation skills fit the preferred qualifications of the job.

Although I have over fifteen years of formal training in voice, my success as a singing street performer is best demonstrated by the nickels and dimes left in my guitar case and the rave reviews elicited from passing strangers. By September of 1995, my folk trio and I sung over 50 songs in 10 venues across the East Coast ranging from Portland’s Monument Square to Boston’s Faneuil Hall. I have performed in front of a variety of audiences in my career as a busker: skateboard punks, snot-nosed children who lacked adult supervision, the downtown lunch crowd of CPAs and insurance agents, soccer moms, yuppie summer tourists, drunken sailors on shore leave, the homeless, the elderly, and finally, the toughest crowd of all—Mormons. My set-list of songs reflects my sensitivity to and understanding of a diverse audience; all of my songs include selections from women, people of color, proletariat and working-class musicians, LBGT lyricists, and even musically challenged Canadian singers such as Céline Dion. The attached summary of scores corroborates my commitment to a multicultural and diverse playlist that draws on and challenges the audience’s experiences using innovative arrangements and instruments including the kazoo, slide whistle, and the wholly underrated thumb-piano. My average “Audience Evaluation of Performance” is $8.00 out of $10.00 per hour, ranking my performance within the range of “Outstanding” ($8-$10 per hour). My highest scores ($9.00 and one transfer ticket for the city bus from Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young covers, $8.00 from a capella barbershop and blues-jazz classics, $8.75 from Christmas carols and madrigals) have well exceeded city averages. Due to the trio’s consistent success, we landed the opportunity to perform at the much coveted lawn in front of Green Mountain Coffee Roasters in Portland, Maine, a favorite pitch claimed only by advanced buskers.

While I have not worked as a clown in the entertainment world of circus arts previously, my history performing in front of demanding audiences makes me an exceptional choice for any of Cirque’s touring shows. Since all of my previous work has entailed speaking and singing parts, including Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz and Joanne in Stephen Schwartz’s Godspell, I would welcome the opportunity to broaden my kinesthetic skills with the role of Giovanni the Clown, who, according to Cirque’s description, is a “small timid man who does not like to be left alone on stage.” Having developed an acute form of monophobia from routinely being left alone as a child, I think I am well-suited to this role. Moreover, my undergraduate study of Eastern thought and religions dovetails nicely with Dralion’s theme of Eastern philosophy, quoted on Cirque’s website as the “never-ending quest for harmony between nature and humans.” A substantial period of my college years were spent reading the Chinese classic the Tao Te Ching, listening to the East Indian inspired Mahavishnu Orchestra, and smoking copious amounts of marijuana in my parent’s basement.

Lastly, Cirque’s application guidelines ask job seekers to comment on whether or not one is an autodidact with any special talents to bring to the troupe. I am double-jointed in my thumbs. Given Cirque’s call for performers with dislocation skills I hope to contribute to Dralion or any other Cirque show with this unique talent. Currently I am honing my dislocation abilities by engaging in a rigorous practice schedule of my own design. I should emphasize that I have never received any formal training in thumb dislocation—I am entirely self-taught. The experience I gained busking serves as the basis for my performance philosophy. My performance style combines my childhood love and affinity for mime icon Marcel Marceau with the avant-garde style and intelligence of the Blue Man Group.

I am seeking a position as Giovanni in the show Dralion because Cirque provides exceptional performances to diverse audiences, many of who have determined that it would be beneath their social station to attend circuses by Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey or the Shriners. I have included a copy of my curriculum vitae, references, and two photos (one headshot, one of dislocated thumb). I hope to prove myself an invaluable addition to your troupe for Dralion and possibly a full-time member for other shows. I will be available to work in the Fall since I am unable to return to my graduate program due to financial constraints. However, I am ready for this career change. Should you require any more information about my work, please don’t hesitate to contact me via e-mail at campbell332002@yahoo.com or, by phone, at 860-892-4537. Thank you for taking the time to read and consider my application.

 

Barbara J. Campbell

 

Barbara J. Campbell,
49 Second St.
Norwich, CT 06360

 

 

July 3, 2008

An Den Dekan der Philosopphischen
Fakultät der RWTH Aachen
Professor Paul Hügel
Templergraben 55
D-52062
Aachen, Germany

 

Herr Prof. Paul Hügel:

Guten Tag! Erlauben Sie mir bitte, sich vorzustellen. Mein Name ist Barbara Campbell. Obgleich mein Deutsch ausreichend ist, hoffe ich Sie don’ t-Verstand, dass ich den Rest dieses Buchstaben auf englisch geschrieben habe, um meine Qualifikationen zu übermitteln.

I am writing to apply for the position of Dean of Futures Studies at Rwthaachen University, start date August 13, 2009, advertised in The Chronicle of Higher Education. According to the job description, you seek a colleague with “didactic competence” and a “scholar with profound experience in the methodology and in the practical application of futures research.” Given the qualifications and responsibilities of the position, I think that my years of teaching experience in developmental reading and writing, advanced composition, and literature at the University of Connecticut fit your job description well.

My success in didactic competence is best demonstrated by the numerous teaching opportunities extended to me by the University of Connecticut’s English Department and my student evaluations. By May of 2008, I will have designed and taught 17 sections of 6 different courses at UConn. Moreover, I have worked with students from several disciplines throughout my career as an instructor, including engineering, chemistry, and business. Given this experience, I am well-prepared to undertake the responsibility of “conceptualizing and teaching…relevant modules for students of all faculties.”

The only problem, Herr Professor Hügel, is that I am not entirely sure what “conceptualizing and teaching…relevant modules for students of all faculties” really means. Perhaps “module” is synonymous with “course?”   Are you describing the German version of curriculum development?

Your advertisement emphasizes that the Dean of Futures Studies must possess considerable knowledge of the natural sciences. While my formal academic training is in American Literature and composition, medicine and biology are additional research areas of interest. I’m an avid reader of The Journal of Infectious Diseases, American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, and The Journal of the American Medical Association. Furthermore, Rwthaachen University’s successful candidate will also “conduct basic research at the interface between technical and political social developments.” One such interface at which I would conduct research is in the revolutionary technological field of nanomedicine. I am particularly interested in nanobots’ potential for drug delivery and nerve cell regeneration. In fact, if such a research study was in progress at Rwthaachen University, I would happily volunteer as a subject-participant.

You see, I’ve been ill, Herr Professor, most recently with whooping cough, or Keuchhusten. As I write this letter, the violent coughing, the spasms, and burning in my throat have receded, but the pain from my chronic illnesses, my preexisting conditions, has increased with a vengeance. Maybe I’m just experiencing side effects from the antibiotics and Tylenol with codeine but I’m worried. Whooping cough kept me flat in bed for three weeks and I remain too sick to work as my professor’s research assistant, at the journal, or teach in the summer program as I normally do. A professor took pity on me and gave me some typing to complete for money at home in between coughing fits, but the paltry income I expected to claim this summer has been cut by over half. So, I’ve been a dedicated job-seeker, Herr Professor. I don’t know how it works in Germany, but here in America we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, overcome our obstacles, and beat the odds. When I consulted The Chronicle of Higher Education there were pages devoted to administrative, dean, and executive positions but not many full-time, tenure-track positions in English. I applied for some jobs that I know are outside of the realm of my expertise, but I’ve been engaged in significant professional development which I think increases my employability. For instance, as a graduate student worker, I’ve learned how to mix and match one shirt and a scarf with four pairs of Goodwill pants to create several presentable job-interview outfits. Thus, I applied for Chair of Fibers at Savannah College of Art and Design. As Chair of Fibers, I could caress folds of cashmere, soft as lamb’s ear, wrap myself in 1000 thread count cotton samples, listlessly stroke silks with my fingertips while informing my assistants, “This is beautiful, but entirely the wrong shade of blue—it should be a keener, midnight quality…” Or, when the swatches seem cheap and coarse, I would stamp my foot and yell, “they call this tweed?”

Although I do not currently have my Ph.D., my anticipated dissertation defense date is December 10, 2008; therefore, I will have my Ph.D. in hand by the start date of the appointment for Dean of Futures Studies by next August.

In truth, Professor Hügel, I definitely won’t have my dissertation completed by December of this year. I won’t be finished because I’ve been teaching two (sometimes three) sections of writing intensive courses every semester, helping professors with their research projects, and assisting at a journal. I’d probably be finished writing my second book by now if you were my advisor Herr Professor! You do speak English, don’t you Professor Hügel? (I’m sure you’ve already deduced that I don’t speak or write German. I sing quite a bit in German, though; at least, enough to notice that BableFish may not have translated my opening remarks accurately). I confess that I have been preoccupied recently. The graduate school will not renew my teaching assistantship funding for the Fall saying my time to degree is up. No contract, no health insurance, no paycheck, mounds of student debt and maybe I won’t even get my degree. What will I do without health insurance? I want to complete, but the only thing I’ve made progress on this summer is my codeine addiction. We have a saying here in America, Professor Hügel: ABD stands for “all but dissertation,” but really means “all but dead.”

My friend Katie got a job. I ran into her one morning on campus in May, a couple of weeks after she got the news. After giving a final exam I had stopped at Student Health Services for what they thought must be bronchitis or pneumonia. I trudged up the path that ran between the university’s botanical garden and the decaying hand-built stone wall that bordered the old cemetery on my way to the hilltop parking lot. Abundant with bright, blue larkspur, lush wild grasses, and fiery poppies, the garden was a quiet place to stroll or rest, rich with the earthy comfort-smell of fertile loam. Katie sat alone on the bench underneath the garden’s spring centerpiece; a stunning pink-and-ivory magnolia tree, its curved branches her canopy from the sun. She had defended her dissertation and landed a position. After months of grueling job applications, she was finally at peace. She had time to linger underneath the magnolia, its petals cupped by a soft wind as they slipped to ground clustering in a medallion underneath her feet. She had time to let her mind wander while the magnolia’s warm and honey-drenched scent doused the worries of tomorrow, next week, and the years to come. She seemed so contemplative that I didn’t want to disturb her, but she saw me. We chatted briefly, but I couldn’t stay with so many exams to grade. I wish I could have stayed. Herr Professor. Breathless and tired, though, I said goodbye and marched up the hill, my shoulders aching from my flimsy overflowing knapsack, the tablueau vivant of Katie underneath the magnolia affixed in my mind.

I am glad that Katie got a job, not just because she is my friend, but because she deserves it. She’s intelligent, performs interesting research, works hard, and is a great teacher. Katie and her partner Amy had a goodbye cookout and yard sale before they left. After the celebratory toasts and goodbye tears from friends, everyone breathed a sigh of relief. Amy had been adjuncting for less than ten-thousand dollars per year and no health insurance.

Have you read the recent statistics from the American Association of University Professors Herr Professor Hügel? Seventy-four percent of faculty in higher education work in non-tenure track appointments and, overall, more than half are employed only part-time. Chastise me if you must for choosing this profession Herr Hügel, but how was I supposed to predict this? How was I supposed to know that there were no full-time jobs? Don’t tell me I should have known better. For seven years I was schooled like the way you’d train a Greyhound for racing. “Don’t worry,” my advisors said, “You’ll get a job.” I am thirty-nine years old Herr Professor and not as pliable as I used to be. Please don’t advise me to return to school yet again for a degree in higher education administration, human resources, or criminal justice. Don’t tell me to embark on yet another reinvention of myself.

I saw the future once. I would finish my dissertation. I would land a full-time, tenure-track job teaching composition and literature. I would write a book. I would garner a mediocre salary and decent health insurance. I would work no more than sixty hours a week. I would pay off my enormous student loan. I would marry my boyfriend, own a good used car, an old house, and take care of a few pets. I would be beautifully average.

But now I’m running out of time and all the years of hard work are wasted. Oh, mein freund, I feel the heel of the boots pressing on my head, shoving me back down into Jack London’s social pit for the poor, the concrete habitat from which I originally emerged. I applied for waitressing at the Norwichtown Rehabilitation Facility yesterday. My sixteen-year-old body performed service industry work with ease, but this older, broken one will not fare very well. Although some time has passed since I have worked in food service, the employment experience I gained during high school as a chef’s assistant, waitress, and dishwasher, fit the job description well.

In this version of the future, Herr Professor, I work my body down to the ground waiting tables, peeling potatoes, and mopping the floor. It won’t matter how many hours I work; I will never make enough money. The rent will go unpaid and the oil tank will be empty. My boyfriend and I will huddle in the kitchen keeping the oven open for heat. I will haunt the streets, Professor Paul, rummaging through trash cans for returnables as I did in my youth while all my teeth rot out of my mouth.

I will come full circle.

So much for our American meritocracy, eh Professor Paul? You see, I went to college and graduate school because I was good at reading, writing, research, and communication. I loved teaching, especially those first-year students who struggled, often because they came from poverty, worked manual labor jobs, and only had their wits and the occasional whims of others’ kindness on which to rely.

I liked teaching those students because I used to be one of them.

So what does it mean for one to have worked so long and hard, studied for so many years, committed one’s time, skills, and compassion to serving others only to end up worse off than when one began? Does it mean I am a sucker?

I tutored Roberto extra hours every week to help him improve his English. I spent my time off last summer designing a research project for a short story class filled with students who hated reading. I commented on thirty-six freshman composition papers per week last semester. I located an audiobook for one of my dyslexic students so she could understand the material better. I imagined a better future for those students.

I know now we have all been duped, Professor Paul, so I propose a radical vision for the future, one in which waitressing at the Norwichtown Rehabilitation Facility, assembling Styrofoam at the Softlite factory, and teaching students to read and think critically all deserve a living wage, health insurance, a voice on the job, and respect.

It’s a long-shot, but it’s worth imagining.

I think it is obvious, Herr Professor Hügel, that I do not have the necessary credentials for the position of Dean of Futures Studies.

I am so sorry to have wasted your time.

 

Sincerely,

Barbara J. Campbell

 

Barbara J. Campbell
49 Second St.
Norwich, CT 06360

 

 

Elysian Fields University
English Department
One Heavenly Drive
Cloudville, Big Sky

3.14                                                                                                                                                                                               ????

Note to Self:

I’m reading the newspaper again today and I don’t see any positions I can apply for.

I could do the crossword or jumble instead.

 

 

HOROSCOPE

                                                            by Holiday Mathis

                                                (for entertainment purposes only)

Aquarius: Most humans at some point in their lives have a spiritual experience. You’ve always felt you were a spirit having a human experience, and you’re right. Today’s events reinforce this belief.

FORECLOSURE                            FORECLOSURE                               FORECLOSURE

I may never sit peacefully underneath the magnolia tree,

LOST CAT

but mein leiber freund, I was the Dean of Futures Studies.

 

 

 

BIO

Barbara J. Campbell completed her Ph.D. in English from the University of Connecticut where she taught Freshman Composition and nineteenth- and twentieth-century American Literature. She is currently a full-time lecturer at Butler University where she is pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing. Her essay “The First Girl to Land on the Moon” is published in Illness in the Academy: A Collection of Pathographies by Academics (Purdue UP, 2007). She is working on an illness memoir called “The Survival Guide” and a group of short stories tentatively titled “The Dream Stenographer.”

 

Photography by Christian Willey

 

We’ve Got Sweaters

by Anthony J. Mohr

 

 

One night in May 1963, Chuck, Joe, Bobby, Larry and I left a banquet at Maison Gerard, an elegant French restaurant, and walked south on Beverly Drive. We wore identical sweaters, blue with an ornamental white S sewn in at chest level. The sweaters were thick enough, and my slacks from Carroll & Company were tailored well enough, that I didn’t look heavier than the others, although I was. It was bracing to be among them — model students who laughed a lot and had studied together since kindergarten. Despite the chill of the marine layer that covers the Los Angeles basin in the spring, I felt warm.

I saw them first, catty corner from us at the intersection of Beverly Drive and Charleville. Five boys in black jackets standing under the red and white awning of Wil Wright’s Ice Cream Parlor. We took our dates there after school dances. I enjoyed the vanilla ice cream they served in stainless steel cups with long stems as well as the macaroon they put on the saucer.

These boys didn’t fit in Beverly Hills. Their ducktail haircuts looked greasy; their jeans, worn. They belonged outside a bar on the ground floor of a dirty New York City apartment house like the building across the street from where my divorced mother and I had lived five years earlier. One of those places with no doorman, a fire escape above the front entrance, and a hallway that smelled.

Looking at those brutes made me so giddy that I called out, “We’ve got sweaters; you don’t.”

They crossed the street against the light and surrounded us. I was too scared to say anything. They had the build and the mean mouths of pugilists, with acne on their pale faces, and the most understandable part of their speech consisted of four letter words.

I stayed quiet through the exchange that followed, Chuck’s refined voice against their threats and bad syntax, his tenor against their bass, his complete sentences against their fragments. Chuck said that we belonged to “the Squires, an honor service club of freshmen and sophomores at Beverly Hills High School” that required high grades and the vote of the members to join. They answered with words like “asshole” and “beat the shit out of you.” I held my breath as Chuck explained again who we were, and this time he added apologies for my words.

Something made them leave without hurting us. Maybe Chuck convinced them to go. Maybe they feared the Beverly Hills Police, an organization that did not treat outsiders gently. Or, just perhaps, they had simply wanted us to know that my remark had been hurtful.

The first thing I said, after exhaling, was thank you to Chuck, but I said nothing more when he and the rest of my friends demanded to know why, for God’s sake why, I had taunted those boys. I didn’t, couldn’t, answer their question other than to promise not to do anything like that again.

We walked on in silence through the quiet neighborhood, and our group shrank as Joe, Chuck, Bobby, and finally Larry turned down their respective streets, toward their houses. Mine was farthest from the incident, and I passed the last two blocks alone, too shaken to think clearly.

***

The event became legend among us, which it remains today, decades on, and of course everyone laughs when the story is retold. I smile too, even though I now know the answer to the question my friends put to me.

During 1958, alone in New York with my mother, I wondered whether she would ever remarry or whether her Bells Palsy would come back. I was afraid that the little money she had would run out, a possibility she voiced more than once, through her tears. It would not have taken much to remove us from our tidy apartment and shove us across Lexington Avenue into that place where loudmouths loitered and where, one night from my fourth floor bedroom, I watched two of them beat each other senseless in the middle of the street.

My mother stayed healthy and met a good man from California. He moved us there, and by May 1963, I felt safe among the well-behaved boys of the Squires, a joyful type of safe, the giddy relief of being over the border and away.

 

BIO

Anthony J. Mohr’s work has appeared in, among other places, Common Ground Review, Compose Journal, DIAGRAM, Eclectica, Front Porch Journal, The MacGuffin, Prick of the Spindle, Word Riot, and ZYZZYVA. He has been anthologized in California Prose Directory (2013) and is upcoming in Golden State 2017. His work has received four Pushcart Prize nominations. He is a reader for Hippocampus Magazine and an associate editor of Fifth Wednesday Journal. Once upon a time, he was a member of the LA Connection, an improv theater group.

 

 

 

I’m Not Afraid Anymore

by Mira Martin-Parker

 

 

Occasionally I receive painful emails from my family about my writing. Usually they come in the form of a rant, and the rant is essentially the same: My stories are hurtful, inaccurate, and the feelings I express in them are just plain wrong. I have no right to publish such things, and I am a bad, bad very mean person.

I first shared these stories about my family when I was in a fiction workshop at San Francisco State University. I wasn’t sure what sort of reception they would receive—I suppose naively I thought people would find them funny. However, instead of laughing, most of my classmates found the material disturbing. “Who are these people?” one woman asked. “Why are they so narcissistic? What’s wrong with them? Why doesn’t this girl say or do anything? Why is she so passive?”

The seriousness of some of their comments made me wonder. While my father’s irresponsible nature and flagrantly bad parenting had always been openly discussed in my mother’s family, my mother’s highly unusual behavior as a parent was never mentioned. I remember being repeatedly warned by one of my aunts not to smoke pot with my hippie father, but apparently drinking, smoking, and going to punk gigs with my mother was okay; not one of my five aunts ever said a word to me when I started doing these things with her at the age of fourteen.

I received the first flaming email from my mother not long after my stories began appearing in online literary journals. In her email she accused me of lying about and distorting the past, of enjoying being a victim, and of (ironically) abusing her. She then threatened to get an attorney if I got to “defamatory.” “Why don’t you wait until everyone’s dead to publish your work, like other writers do,” she concluded.

I also received a series of similar emails from my brother. And the most recent angry outburst came in the form of an attempted comment on my blog by one of my aunts.

I understand why my family finds my writing upsetting. But what I don’t understand is why they direct their anger at me. I have never made any attempt to share my stories with them; they found them because they sought them out online. I am also careful to classify my work as fiction, even though it is heavily based on personal experience. My stories are the product of a creative process, and I have never claimed them to be journalistically accurate depictions of my childhood. In many I have freely played with time and place, and imagined feelings I might have had at the time.

However, in no way did I deliberately distort the characters of those involved, merely to demonize their real-life counterparts. Nor did I make anything up—all of the events I wrote about actually did occur.

No one should be expected to remain silent about their childhood, simply because certain revelations will embarrass or upset others. Requiring an adult to adhere to a code of silence with regard to their underage experiences is to sentence that person to a form of emotional imprisonment. And yet this is exactly what my family expects of me; I am to remain silent about my past, specifically as it involves my mother, no matter how detrimentally this affects me. A family like this is no family at all. I was too afraid to speak up as a child, but I’m not afraid anymore.

 

 

BIO

mira martin parkerMira Martin-Parker earned an MFA in creative writing at San Francisco State University. Her work has appeared in various publications, including the Istanbul Literary Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Mythium, and Zyzzyva. Her collection of short stories, The Carpet Merchant’s Daughter, won the 2013 Five [Quarterly] e-chapbook competition.

 

 

 

Learning From My Past

by Lynne Blumberg

 

 

A few years ago, I was standing beside one of the four aisles of cashiers at Reading Terminal Market in Center City Philadelphia. My cashier, like her co-workers, wore a tiger orange t-shirt with “Iovine Brothers” written in white across her chest. With a young forefinger hovering over the button that would total my items, she turned to me and said, “Do you qualify for the senior discount?”

She’s trying to be nice, I told myself, forced a smile and said “No.”

I paid full price, trudged away from the market stall clutching two supermarket bags of vegetables and fruits, and recalled the hairdresser I stopped going to a couple of years earlier. She pleaded with me to let her color the band of gray framing my face. She said it would take off ten years. People would think I was in my 40s again.

Whenever I considered her advice, I recalled events that began in the seventh grade when Scott S. called me Big-nosed Blumberg. Piecing the events together chronologically, I remember in the seventh grade I tried to distract attention from my nose by begging my mom to let me wear makeup, hipper clothes and longer hair.

Mom, and Dad, wanted me to turn off my stereo and study more in school. I couldn’t fathom how this would improve my situation. I remember sitting in my assigned seat in seventh grade English class, and surveying my classmates tucked into their own desks in different rows. They were all paying attention to Mister Binkley, even the students sitting in the back. I thought: Don’t they get it? They’re where the action is. In other words, whether or not they considered me cool was much more important to me than Mister Binkley’s explanation of number three in a grammar exercise.

In the eighth grade, Mom finally let me get a tube of frosted rose-pink lipstick from the Woolworth’s in the Abington suburban shopping strip across the street from Sears. I had fantasized about wearing a “Slicker” frosted pearl-white lipstick by Yardley of London, but a Woolworth’s lipstick was better than no lipstick at all.

I snuck on eye makeup in the girl’s bathroom in-between classes until Mom, whose only makeup was a shade of love-that-red 1950s lipstick, let me wear eye makeup the following year. I remember getting up extra early before going to school to work on my large brown eyes that classmates said reminded them of Paul McCartney.

I sat in front of the face mirror I had propped up on my desk, and pried open my tortoiseshell compact with three shades of brown shadow. As the saleslady at Wanamaker’s instructed, I applied medium brown shadow on my lids, a darker taupe on my creases, and buff shadow beneath my brows. Next I dipped a mini brush into a Dixie cup of water, and swept it across a cake of mahogany-colored mascara. I wiped a hand dry on a leg of my bellbottom jeans, and this hand kept an eye open while the other hand brushed on the mascara. After blotting out accidental globs, I placed the pads of a metal eye curler around my upper lashes, and gently clamped the pads together. I had heard a story of a girl who pressed too hard, and all her lashes fell out. Then I rested the curler on my desk and sat back to view my whole face. I expected to see Twiggy’s doe-eyes, but my coated lashes seemed to make my lids droop down over my eyes.

Because of my bad grades, Scott S. was no longer in my classes. Guys in my eighth, ninth and tenth grade classes simply ignored me. A saleslady showed me how to deflect attention from my nose by covering my face with skin-colored foundation, and then blending a darker shade around the sides of my nose. I also wrote to Dear Abby for advice on how to wear my hair, with a drawing of how my nose uniquely hooked at the end to ensure an accurate reply. Abby’s typewritten letter said I should part my hair on the side, not the currently fashionable middle. This would draw attention away from the center of my face.

Makeup, hairstyle, mod clothes, a subscription to Rolling Stone magazine—nothing seemed to get the boys’ attention. After one particularly frustrating day at school, I took the scotch tape dispenser from a kitchen drawer and brought it into the upstairs bathroom. Using the medicine cabinet mirror to guide my hands, I taped the end of my nose to curl up like a ski slope; like how Mom used hair tape to create pincurls beside her cheeks.

I kept on the tape for ten minutes, returned to the bathroom and peeled off the strips. I looked past the red marks left by the adhesive, and swore I saw the end of my nose starting to curl up. I applied new strips to set my nose for an hour, and came back downstairs. Mom saw me passing through from the living room to the kitchen and asked what in the world I was doing. I explained, and she squirmed with distaste and told me to take the tape off before I hurt myself. I had my father’s nose and there was nothing I could do about it.

“I could get a nose job,” I said.

Who actually gave me this nose wasn’t clear cut. My pretty mom had her father’s Roman nose, but her mother had an eagle’s beak bigger than mine. Nana told Mom she would have done anything to get her nose fixed at my age. Nana convinced Mom to let me get a nose job, and they both convinced Dad. A morning during the summer before my senior year of high school, I awoke on the operating table, looked up at my masked doctor, heard him scraping away at my nose, and fell back into an aestheticized sleep. I re-awoke in my semi-private hospital room with my nose covered in white tape.

About eight months later, while shopping with Mom at Woolworth’s, we bumped into Mrs. Corcoran, my English teacher senior year. Mrs. Corcoran told Mom what a good student I was, and Mom told her this wasn’t always the case. Just a few years ago, I brought home report cards with five D’s…I drifted away to another aisle while Mom went on with her usual spiel.

In English class a few weeks later, we finished the Wife of Bath’s Tale in the Canterbury Tales. Mrs. Corcoran’s weekend assignment was for us to write what we would do if forced to make the Knight’s choice. Would we choose an old and ugly spouse who was kind and faithful, or a gorgeous spouse who was cruel and promiscuous?

That weekend I recalled my friend, Joanne. She was gawky, taller than most boys, and her overbite had reminded me of a horse. As I got to know her sweet personality, her mouth seemed to resemble Sophia Loren’s. So using metaphors I thought would make F. Scott Fitzgerald proud, I wrote that I would choose the ugly spouse because my perception of him would change as I got to know his personality.

On Monday I handed in the paper, and later in the week Mrs. Corcoran returned it with a big red “A” at the top, and the word “Beautiful” beside my favorite metaphor. When she finished returning the rest of the papers, she came back to my desk and said, “Did you show this paper to your parents?”

I shook my head.

“Show it to them.”

After the school bus dropped me off, I found Mom working by the kitchen sink. I read aloud my composition while she leaned against a kitchen counter wearing a short teased hairdo, A-line dress, and sensible black pumps. At the end she shrugged and said, “I don’t see what the big deal is about.”

I squinted with disbelief: “This is how you respond to your daughter’s composition, that her teacher recommended she read to her parents?”

“I’m not going to lie.”

“You bitch…”

I couldn’t wait for Dad to come home and get her in trouble. His sports car roared up the driveway a couple of hours later. I reported what happened as he stepped through the back door. He stopped in the kitchen and I read my composition as he stood beside Mom, eight inches taller and dark and dashing in his pinstriped suit. At the end he shrugged and said, “I don’t see what’s the big deal.”

My mouth fell. After all the times he sided with me against Mom’s ridiculous ideas, and a few years later would divorce, I couldn’t believe he was siding with her on this one.

Mrs. Corcoran, who dressed like Mom but without a trace of makeup, came up to my desk the next day. “Did you show your parents?”

I nodded.

“What did they say?”

I couldn’t tell her the truth. “They really liked it.”

About ten years later, I was sitting in the dark office of my therapist, Betsy. She was helping me get past my own brief marriage and my parents’ bitter divorce. Betsy claimed Mom was a better parent than Dad, so I brought up this incident. “Are you sure your mother was putting down your intelligence?” Betsy said.

I threw out my hands. “What else could it be?”

A few days after our session, I thought about how I began studying during my junior year of high school. I had attributed my behavioral change to the heart-to-heart I had with myself while walking home from a girlfriend’s house one afternoon the summer before. Like my father, an attorney, grilled me, I asked myself what I was good at. I thought of how I wasn’t good at drawing or doing other things with my hands; and two years of piano lessons confirmed that a dormant musical talent wasn’t veering me away from my schoolwork. I decided if I wanted to get anywhere in this world, I needed to go to college.

I earned B’s and C’s my junior year, and when I became a senior, I got report cards with A’s in everything except Math. Mom boasted to everybody that I achieved those A’s because my nose job had boosted my confidence. I was positive Mom shared this theory with Mrs. Corcoran that day in Woolworth’s, and this explained why Mrs. Corcoran wanted me to show Mom my composition. Mrs. Corcoran was a nun before she married a priest.

I recounted this memory about my nose job to Betsy during our next session. I also confessed that I used to look in the mirror and think I was beautiful before Scott S. called me Big-nosed Blumberg.

Betsy, an attractive woman in her mid-thirties with thick black layered hair and jingling jewelry, took the door mirror resting against one of her wood-paneled office walls. She held it in front of me and said, “What do you see?”

Sitting on a black cushioned chair sat a 26-year-old woman in jeans and a black tank top that revealed thin yet muscular arms; thick brown hair streaming past her shoulders; a band of natural gold highlights framing her pale unblemished face; and naturally long lashes fringing cinnamon-colored eyes.

“That’s real,” Betsy said. “You’re really that pretty.”

I crossed my arms over my ample chest, not knowing how to integrate this.

After the session, inside my studio apartment, I considered how knowing I was pretty could change me. In my family, Mom was typed the pretty one, and Dad the smart one. How could I be both? I didn’t want to become one of those people who are always conscious about how they appear. I didn’t want my looks to go to seed either.

I decided to forget about how good I looked and just live my life. I focused on getting A’s in college, eventually teaching, and maintaining my health. It wasn’t until 25 years later, when people asked me about the senior discount that I panicked about my looks again. I had procrastinated in my search for another mate, and without some major renovations to my appearance, I feared I was now too late.

 

After the comment at Iovine Brothers, I examined my face in the bathroom mirror of my current apartment. Since my late 30s, the dark marks under my eyes stopped disappearing after I got more sleep, but the corners of my eyes weren’t crinkled with crows’ feet. Worry and the sun had lined my forehead, but young people had worry lines too. What they didn’t have, was the band of gray replacing the gold highlights around my face. The hairdresser was right.

Yet I remained hesitant about coloring my hair. In addition to my nose issues, I thought about the men who were perceived as more distinguished-looking when they grayed. Look at Richard Gere and George Clooney. Someone who thought I should color my hair bet that Gere’s salt and pepper shade came out of a bottle too.

I also debated with myself about what is natural. Simply washing my hair or brushing my teeth could be considered unnatural too. Personal maintenance was always a balancing act between what you’re born with and what you can change.

I realized if I could do it again, I wouldn’t have fixed my Semitic nose. As society grew more accepting and I grew into my features, I would’ve been considered attractive with the schnoz. The surgery also dulled my sense of smell. So this time around when my looks weren’t conforming to the cultural ideal, I could be a pioneer. My embrace of aging could help expand future definitions of beauty. But I wanted people to think I was pretty now!

I remember the surprise of Michael, the colorist a friend highly recommended, when I announced that this would be the first time coloring my hair. “Let’s make you into a red head,” he said.

“Whaaat?!” My eyes were popping out in the mirrored wall before the salon chair.

Michael clasped my smocked shoulders and laughed. “Relax. I do suggest you go a shade or two lighter. Skin pales as we age.” I bet the pale-blonde hair color blending with his pale lined complexion covered a full head of gray.

Since most of my hair, except for the front, was still brown, instead of covering the full head, I opted to frost my hair with dark-blond and pale-brown highlights and left a few gray strands untouched. After Michael unwrapped the foil sheets and blow-dried my hair, he swirled my chair so I faced the mirror. I thought I looked the same…Maybe a little more rested.

I paid the 100 dollar fee, Michael’s tip, and paraded my new look along Chestnut Street’s brick sidewalks. It was lunchtime in Center City, and I peered at the business-suited men for their expressions. No one that day or in the days that followed paid attention to me in the ways they paid attention to me when I was ten years younger. Did the highlights make me feel more confident about my appearance nonetheless?

While brushing my hair in front of the large mirror above my bathroom vanity, I discovered orange-tinged gold streaks in my hair. Ewwww! I wondered how this blatant artificiality could be considered more attractive. Michael changed the blonde highlights to caramel during my next appointment, but even these seemed too synthetic. Plus I was getting some kind of itchiness on my neck, and one of the first questions a dermatologist asked was if I was coloring my hair.

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?

A month ago, I walked past the decorative mirrors in my apartment building’s lobby. I glanced at a sweet elderly-looking woman with dark hair except for the gray framing her smiling face. I did a double-take and walked back. This elderly-looking woman was me, and I was still ineligible for the senior discount.

I pressed the up button and waited for an elevator while I considered going back to Michael for a full head color. Inside the elevator and riding up to my floor, I considered never stepping outside of my apartment again, like how Greta Garbo handled aging. Walking down the carpeted hallway and inside my apartment, I decided to forget about how old I looked and focus on staying healthy and sharp. I’d still strive to be attractive, but also embrace that attractive at 59 was not the same as at 26. Maybe I’d even find an eligible geezer whose love for my inner qualities would transform me into his beauty queen.

Of course I wavered on this decision later that day and during the days that followed, especially after Comcast posted photos of blonde, 61-year-old Christie Brinkley, in a bikini. Then a few days ago, when I thought about visiting my mother in Florida, I finally pieced together another memory. I realized that the summer I got my nose job was the same summer I read about ten hours a day, every day. My 16 year-old-self calculated that by reading this much, I could make up for the years I goofed off in school. Unlike taping my nose, maybe this idea of mine actually worked: the disciplined reading enhanced my study skills, and the enhanced skills, not my enhanced nose, brought about all those A’s.…

After piecing together this memory, my mental fog lifted. The decision was final: I’m not coloring my gray hair. It’s like what Doctor Freud said about recovered memories … And after election of Mr. Beauty Pageant, I won’t even be tempted by model pictures for a long time. Standing up for more inclusive body images is imperative.

 

 

BIO

Lynne Blumberg has written for various national and local publications about topics in health, religion, education, and urban living. She lives in Philadelphia, and when not writing, teaches English as a Second Language at the Community College of Philadelphia.

 

 

 

Lost Time

by Edd Jennings

 

 

July 22nd, Wednesday, Sun at 75 degrees in the northeastern quadrant—I lost my watch, or maybe—I hope—I misplaced it somewhere in my gear as I packed up to leave camp. The little Timex was already on its last legs. The plastic band had broken, and I had it attached to my wrist with parachute cord. The watch’s calendar showed a day behind because it always shows a thirty-one day month, and I couldn’t reset it correctly for the beginning of July because the adjustment knob had broken off. Without the watch, I feel naked because I cannot at a glance reduce my world to a number.

It is early morning and calm. Beyond that what can I say about my place in time and the world? My latitude lies just above sixty degrees forty-five minutes. The sun stands at seventy-five degrees by my compass reading, and I haven’t figured out how to use the crude clinometer on the compass to get the angle of elevation of the sun above the horizon. To measure the sun’s elevation with any accuracy would mean looking directly at the sun.

I use the watch for pacing. If I hurt after four or five hours of paddling, I have the tendency to take a breather and continue. If I feel good after twelve hours, my tendency is to quit. Many athletes recommend that you listen to your body, a cute enough expression, but only the simple-minded fail to realize that the body lies.

 

Sun 87 degrees—If the sun is at 87 degrees, and my shadow falls directly in line with the canoe’s bow, I must paddle on a line, which amounts to approximately due west. I hadn’t attempted to use the sun or its shadows for much of anything in the past. The sun and its shadows are one of the few navigational tools an ancient wanderer would have known. By rarely using the sun, when I do use it, I do it with uncertainty and clumsiness. I always wonder if I miss the useful and the obvious or whether my dissatisfaction with generalities causes me to look for specifics impossible to determine with the means at hand. I don’t want “about west.” I want the 273-degree reading of a graduated dial.

My compass readings lack refinement. The 87-degree reading I use for the position of the sun comes off a spruce that seems to stand directly below the sun, but no matter how big the rose on this Suunto Compass or how accurate, I don’t use the compass with a level. To further introduce inaccuracies, I read the compass from the unstable platform of a canoe shifting in the breeze.

 

Sun 103 degrees—I have my system. The sun makes one, or rather the earth—I almost went back to Ptolemy—does one revolution in about twenty-four hours, or moves about 1/24th or fifteen degrees of the full 360 degree circle each hour. I can easily get enough readings for sunrise and sunset, which will change only slightly each day, to calculate the remaining daylight by comparing those readings against the sun’s apparent fifteen degree per hour movement across the sky. Time elapsed doesn’t seem like an hour since my last entry. Whether it is or isn’t, I will soon be accustomed to the difference and begin to take more accurate readings more quickly.

 

Sun 112 degrees—It occurred to me that perhaps a back reading using the compass lanyard to make a shadow across the rose might have more accuracy on much the principle of the backstaff replacing the quarterstaff. I have entered a world of altered values. At home, this red nylon lanyard attached to my compass could sit in a drawer for years, an unremarked item of clutter, as superfluous as the ivory billiard ball or the sewing kit that might not have been examined or moved since the Second World War. If someone in the next generation living in the old house after my time fished the compass out of the clutter of the drawer, he might speculate that the compass would fit into the pocket more neatly without the lanyard. The person looking into that cluttered drawer sometime in the future would never guess the importance this simple piece of red nylon string had in my life and fortunes, as I fail to appreciate the small items left over from the generations before. Life is lost, and holding the small item in my hand and wondering what it could have meant will never quite bring it back.

I can’t make the islands I see in front of me match the map, but where else but this outlet bay could I have traveled for so many hours toward the north? Wishful dangerously wrong reasoning.

 

Sun 118 degrees—I have made the map fit my position. Even a back reading, which is easier, subjects itself to wide variation. The compass requires a dead level surface and the string held exactly perpendicular. Suunto rates their compass as accurate to within two degrees. If I had a solid surface, and a pair of levels, I see no reason why it wouldn’t hold to such a standard.

 

Sun 128 degrees—A haze in front of the sun made a back reading impossible. Doubt checks my speed. It must have been the same for the early hunters moving into this country. To learn this country must have been the work of generations, as a man in his prime hunted a bit farther afield than his father.

 

Moments later—Perhaps I should give stage directions rather than continual readings. I will try. The decrepit man’s legs hurt. He is perhaps lost, but only moderately concerned. He proceeds through his country with an eye for anything he might use. Were he to use his compass mirror for self-examination, he would discover that he had let himself go. His attention to grooming has dropped far below the level of the civilized man, who is aware that he may be seen at any time. Our man, if he itches, scratches.

I like this. After all how different am I from a character in a novel? I have the power to create myself as I wish, don’t I?

 

Fewer minutes later—To a degree I create myself. I can be physically strong or not based upon the amount of work I do. I won’t, though, run the four-minute mile. I can be intelligent or not, as I choose to read, but I am past being hailed as the new prodigy. The genetics of my makeup limit. Chance also is an element. Lesser men have done more, better men less.

The vast majority of humanity is a combination of no more than the effects of genetics and crass chance. There are those few, however, who fight, and every skirmish is not lost. It is a man’s job to fight the unequal fight.

 

Sun 166 degrees—I pulled up on the bank to make bannock and tea. I am lost. When I hit this big open stretch, I knew I couldn’t be where I thought I was. Blue goes into blue in the southwestern quadrant, where sky touches lake. Nothing in the area of the outlet matches that scenario.

I spent some time, when I first stopped here, with the map and compass. I only made things worse until I decided to build a fire and have tea.

My first order of business demanded that I deal with my anxiety. I had to ask myself if I expected to do this trip without mistakes, and now that I had made a mistake, how serious was it? My answer had to include the two basics: I had not hurt myself, and I had not lost any gear, which meant I had the means to deal with the problem.

 

Sun 240 degrees—I finally made a place on the map fit. It lies on the north shore of Wholdaia on the main shore north of a chain of islands just west of the 104th meridian, and on the eastern edge of map 75A. I thought I had moved much farther east. I don’t have and may never have a reasonable explanation of how I arrived here. I may have lost a full day of paddling. I don’t care. I just wanted the anxiety to be over. Before I matched this place with the map, I had to fight the impulse to just follow my instinct and move. Had I allowed my instinct reign, I would have moved in exactly the wrong direction.

 

Loaded and paddling east—I could have stayed where I stopped to make tea and bannock, according to the sun, I have been out ten to eleven hours since I left camp this morning, but to stay at that campsite would have made for a very bad night. The place had natural beauty and an easy place to load and unload a canoe, but it was as if the place had been trashed, although that’s not exactly it. At the sight of somebody’s liter, I could have felt righteous indignation, not a completely unpleasant emotion. In that place, I fought the worst of myself and came near to losing. All afternoon, I had the impulse to load up and go, and figure within hours I would be in the Dubawnt River’s current. I wouldn’t have been. I would have paddled in the wrong direction. The memory of the rising panic tainted everything about this otherwise beautiful and untouched place.

 

Sun 268 degrees, Camp XLVI—I will accept the setbacks of the day with the best grace I can manage. If the season depended upon the success or failure of a single day, I wouldn’t have a chance.

Thinking about today’s solar observations makes me realize just how little I know of the actual mathematics of the universe. Though I know some of the history of science from the Greeks to Copernicus, Kepler, and Newton, and up to the moderns, I couldn’t personally produce the mathematics to refute Ptolemy. As far as having knowledge of the visible motions of the heavens, and how these motions relate to the day, the month, and the seasons, I know less than the ancients. I don’t usually concern myself with the movements of the sun. I use a watch. I don’t usually track the phases of the moon. I use a calendar. I don’t watch for the rise of the Pleiades in the east, or the setting of Orion in the west. These things the ancient mariners knew, and lived by, feel strange and clumsy to me. I have gained from my instruments, but in so gaining sometimes I feel as if I have become less man.

 

 

BIO

edd jenningsEdd B. Jennings runs beef cattle on the banks of the New River in the mountains of Virginia. Since spring of 2016, he has placed work with Trigger Warnings, The Scarlet Leaf Review, Flash Fiction Magazine, Jotters United, Bedford 87, Thread Magazine, Quail Bell, Roane Publishing, Sicklit, Ginosko Literary Journal, Tell us a Story, Sleet, The Blotter, REAL magazine, Literary Orphans, and Quarterday. His nonfiction Arctic canoeing books and his novel, Under Poplar Camp Mountain, are with the Leslie E. Owen Agency.

0

BOOK REVIEW: Apocalypse All the Time by David Atkinson

The End Is Never Really That

by Ryan Werner

 

 

The morality of an apocalypse dictates that it can happen only once. Our main characters in David Atkinson’s newest book, Apocalypse All the Time, argue this semantic point to a level of necessity and then live in its tumult. There’s an apocalypse for all the natural disasters one could think of, as well as plenty of anomalies in apocalypse form: locusts show up to be overwhelmingly locust-like, the moon parks itself in front of the moon and fucks up the weather, stairs to a golden city show up and all the Jews start walking up them.

The Apocalypse Amelioration Agency sorts out the different apocalypses and, thus, the world itself. Between them and Marshall, our eyes and ears for end after end after end, we get the power and compliance that propel the book. The narrative structure doesn’t necessarily pit them against one another, but with every apocalypse, the AAA and Marshall rub up together more and more abrasively.

Popping the door open didn’t change much. It was still dark. The hallway had no windows. Marshall didn’t know if it was day or night. Still, the hallway was empty so it was easy to crawl along on the carpet, easy to find the exit to the familiar emergency exit stairs, and easy to follow the guide rail down to get outside.

Easy. This was a normal day with minor inconveniences.

In many ways, the presentation perfectly reflects the chaos. Everything is broken up, if not broken: short chapters, multiple parts, interludes, and, within all those, a ramble that jumps from one piece of situational absurdity to another. At its best, Apocalypse All the Time puts onto the page all the never-ending tangents that a continual series of earth-ending events would cause.

But, at its worst, Apocalypse All the Time has a real roundabout way of getting to the goddamn point sometimes. I see Pynchon’s fondness for unrelated avenues and Vonnegut’s tendency to spend most of a book ruminating, and while those are respectable literary touchstones, I just want the whole thing to be a bit tighter when mixed in with Atkinson’s own style, his bizarro inclinations filtered through the lens of straight up observational fiction.

The sum of the book’s brief 180 pages has the feel of a novel more than a novella. Its length is at the uppermost part of that gray area where it might be worth discussing what to call it, but I really wanted to see it go down instead of up in terms of page-count. When reading, I saw tiny cuts to be done in almost every paragraph: action to be streamlined, more points and less viewing in the POV.

With the exception of the interludes—narrated by one of the mouthpieces for the AAA—that I thought stroked the gimmick of the book a bit too hard, there was great and necessary material in every section. I also fear that too much cutting would, unfortunately, leave us without many of the wonderfully meta aspects of the form. However, if Marshall is walking around looking at stuff and I’m done looking at it before he is, it’s either time to make the style more stylized or trim up at a sentence level.

Atkinson’s writing is at its best when he breaks it down into scene. Marshall and Bonnie, Marshall’s more alpha-minded companion who he meets while going through the doldrums of yet another apocalypse, are on point when they banter and scheme and, occasionally, find each other the perfect place for a dump of plot-related information. They’re united mostly by their desires outside of one another, and good on Atkinson for not coasting off what could be easy thrust from a relationship thread. Their chemistry is one of the most appealing aspects of the book. Aside from the friction of the AAA and Marshall, it’s also one of the better propelling devices for the narrative as a whole.

“Yeah, the oceans and rivers are currently solid,” Marshall continued. “The fish are all probably dead. The agency rationed water until the situation gets fixed and sealed the water treatment systems away from external sources. Travel to anywhere near the frozen stuff is prohibited.”

“So?” Bonnie yawned. “What’s bugging you? Were you planning a trip or something?”

“No.” Marshall threw up his hands. “It’s Ice Nine.”

Despite some clashes between the straightforwardness of the narrative and the absurdity of the overall conceit, Atkinson dances between the two quite gracefully. At the moments when he makes the explosion meet the philosophy, it becomes a clearly wrought story about perception and determination. Even through the dissonance I see the parallels with the form: not one thing, not the other.

Within Apocalypse All the Time is a solid, enjoyable story. There’s perhaps too much of it, but Atkinson’s creative form and cinematic dialogue make this a fun journey for anyone willing to take the ride through all of its twists and digressions. When it’s over, perhaps you’ll wonder if anything is ever truly over.

 

 

BIO

Ryan Werner is a cook at a preschool in the Midwest. He plays an old Ampeg VT-22 in a loud, instrumental rock band called Young Indian. He’s online at RyanWernerWritesStuff.com and @YeahWerner on Instagram.

Lucida and Me

by K.B. Dixon

 

 

Any photographer whose interest in the subject extends to reading more than just his camera manuals will eventually come upon the names Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes. Their books—On Photography and Camera Lucida—are canonical texts. It is difficult to read anything thoughtful on the subject that does not mention one or the other.

I read the Sontag book many years ago with pleasure, but came reluctantly and late to Camera Lucida—reluctantly because it was a translation, late because it was Roland Barthes. As a writer I was—and still am—wary of translation (a subject for another time). As a reader I was wary of Barthes. I had a residual bias against him, a keepsake from college where I and a thousand hapless others were compelled by sadistic professors to read such things as Writing Degree Zero and Elements of Semiology—a bias against him for the role he played (with Lacan, Foucault, Derrida, et al.) as a founding father of “Theory,” the torturous gobbledygooking of literary study that did for literary criticism what smallpox did for the Plains Indians.

But in the end I was lured to the book by quotations that I found everywhere and by a promise—a promise that the Barthes of Lucida was different from the Barthes of Image-Music-Text, Mythologies, and S/Z; different from the Barthes that Barthes-likers liked, the one euphemistically referred to as “rigorous” (read gratuitously obscure). Lucida was shorter, more intimate, more personal than the impenetrable tomes on which his statue stood.

What I found was a book that was technically “as-advertised”—that is, a book that was un-Barthes-like to some degree (but, alas, not to degree zero). It was by most objective standards quite likely the least Barthes-like of Barthes books, but it was not by my troglodytic standards quite un-Barthes-like enough. I found plenty of the old writer here—lapses into the calorieless paragraphs of semiological word-salad that reminded me of why I had avoided him. He talks about being torn between two languages—expressive and critical—about abandoning the latter as “reductive,” but he cannot resist the Siren call of an influential constituency clamoring for a bowlful of scholarly jargon. Clarity, it seems, is to be treated as a form of groveling.

 

*

 

Camera Lucida is divided into two parts. Each is itself subdivided into a plethora of short, related sections. Part One examines the subject of photography in general. Part Two circles around a single image. Although Part One was for me the most problematic—the most inclined to empty amplitude—it was not without its points of interest; for instance, Barthes’s thoughts about being photographed himself and the famous coinage of “punctum.”

Like most people Barthes had a troubled relationship with his photographic image. “Once I feel myself observed by the lens,” he wrote, “everything changes…I transform myself in advance into an image.” The image he transformed himself into was never satisfactory. “If only I could ‘come out’ on paper,” he writes, “as on a classical canvas, endowed with a noble expression—thoughtful, intelligent, etc! In short…be painted (by Titian) or drawn (by Clouet)!” Barthes being Barthes, he could not admit to the pedestrian vanities that plague we mere mortals. The problem was not that he looked sallow or overweight—it was that his portraitist had not captured “a delicate moral texture.” One would have to love him, he quite rightly observed, to see what he would like them to see in a photograph—the “precious essence of [his] individuality.” The fault, dear viewer, was not in ourselves that we were underlings, but in the medium that it was not sympathetic. He returns to this subject again and again. That he should address it so early in the book and at such relative length and with such obvious passion says something about its importance to him, and its importance to him is something that should be taken into account when trying to assess the various ambiguities of his wandering analysis.

If Helen’s face launched a thousand ships, Barthes’s coinage “punctum” launched a thousand tortured essays. It was catnip to the explicating classes, a favorite of fledgling poseurs everywhere. I have always had a problem with it—first as a word, but more importantly as a concept. As a word it has always struck me as unnecessarily ugly. (But then, of course, it may sound sweeter to the classically-educated Francophone’s ear than to the State University-educated Anglophone’s.) As a concept it has always seemed trite. Early in Part One Barthes takes an analytical axe to his subject (the essence of photography) and divides it into competing parts—Studium, the ostensible subject of the photograph, the source of the viewers “polite” interest; and Punctum, a tangential detail that provokes a personal reaction, that breaks through the complacent response, “an accident which pricks.” To me this seems an almost meaningless tautology—a needlessly obscure way of saying that certain photographs have a certain something about them that makes them special to certain someones—a commonplace that when draped in Latin becomes a shiny original thing, a breathtakingly sophisticated utterance.

Find the Punctum became a popular game for a while—a Where’s Waldo for academics. A futile game, I’m afraid. What is punctum? A special something that may not be found in every photograph. What is this special something? It differs from one person to the next. It is a detail that attracts, that moves, that holds. One cannot say why. It is not a general special-somethingness, but a special-somethingess that is specifically “special to me.” It is, Barthes says, “What I add to a photograph.” It is wholly subjective. A punctum is a punctum only to the punctee. Your punctum is not my punctum—it is not X’s punctum or Y’s or Z’s—but hasn’t it been a lot of fun going on interminably about it.

The introduction to my copy of Lucida was written by the current go-to guy on the subject of photography: the inventive and agile Geoff Dyer. “To formalize…Barthes’ argument,” he writes at one point, “is not simply to diminish it, but to rob it of so many subtleties as to misrepresent it entirely.” This is an artful dodge, a gracious effort by Dyer (a man hired to do a gracious job) to cover for Barthes, to warn us off our bourgeois ways. Barthes is uncomfortable with the exposure lucidity allows. The clearer one’s expression, the fewer places there are to hide. One of the important things about this sort of writing—why it is obscure—is that it offers a way out. One can always claim to have been misunderstood.

 

*

 

For all the notoriety and thesis-fodder of Part One, it is Part Two of Lucida that interests me, that means something to me, that engages me. It is here that Barthes changes rhetorical gears, becomes more personal. Having failed to discover the essential nature of Photography in the previous sixty pages, he proposes to dig deeper into himself to find what he is looking for. It is here that my internal conversation with him changes a little, becomes a little less antagonistic. Here, mixed in with the brilliant claptrap and convolution, is poetry and pathos.

A month after his mother’s death Barthes was sitting alone in his apartment (the apartment where she died) sorting through photographs of her. He was struck by the fact that they brought him so little. None of them seemed “right”—that is, none of them seemed to have captured what was essential about her. He continued looking through these photographs one by one “looking for the truth of the face [he] had loved.” Finally he found it. He was staggered. It was an old photograph—dog-eared, faded. It showed two children—his mother (age 5) and her brother (age 7) standing at the end of a wooden bridge in a glassed-in conservatory—a “winter garden.” The sensation was for him overwhelming. “I studied the little girl and at last rediscovered my mother.” In this image he found “the kindness which had formed her being immediately and forever.” It is here in this moment when he makes this discovery that I made a discovery of my own, that I suddenly and quite unexpectedly felt a connection to the man—and not just any sort of connection, but a close one. I recognized the sensation he was describing. I had experienced an almost supernaturally similar shock coming across a photograph of my very-much-living wife. That photograph was, likewise, an old one. It sits at this moment about three feet from me in a small, egg-shaped pewter frame. My wife (also age 5) is not standing in a winter garden, but sitting in a winter coat on the knee of a department-store Santa, and I can see in her face the excitement and innocent joy that formed her being immediately and forever. I found in Barthes’s lushly described response to this treasured photograph of his an eerie, almost perfect, articulation of my own unarticulated feelings about this treasured photograph of mine—a photograph that has remained for me an emblem of the medium’s mystery.

The Winter Garden photograph became a guide for Barthes, the foundation of his thinking on the subject of Photography. “Something like an essence of the Photograph floated in this particular picture,” he says of the image. This particular “something-like-an-essence” was the sort of thing one could build a metaphysics of Photography around if they were so inclined. Barthes, of course, was so inclined.

A photograph, Barthes says, is “a mutant…neither image nor reality, a new being, really: a reality one can no longer touch.” The photograph “ratifies what it represents.” It “can lie as to the meaning of a thing…never as to its existence.” In photography one “can never deny that the thing has been there.” The essence of photography is, he says, “that-has-been.” As a realist this is a view I endorse—digital-age quibbles aside. Of course, this “that-has-been” idea leads Barthes quickly to a darker place, to the logical and familiar conclusion: “but-is-no-more.” In every photograph, he writes, is the “imperious sign” of death—not just any death, but his own. (If Barthes cannot link a thing to “death” or “madness,” he does not think he is doing his job.) The theory that evolves circles around the photograph as memento mori. “In front of the photograph of my mother as a child, I tell myself: she is going to die: I shudder…over a catastrophe which has already occurred.” In photographs “there is always a defeat of Time…that is dead and that is going to die.” He observes with “horror” this “anterior future.” The experience of time defeated is dizzying. He is mesmerized (as I am) by the medium’s unique ability to mix the past, the present, and the future—what has been, what is now, what will be. I share his fascination with time in a photograph (if not his inclination to morbidity). For me a good photograph is made of time, light, and feeling. There is no question that it is a melancholic medium—to experience it as a tragic one requires a certain exertion and a certain predisposition.

Barthes returns in his exposition to the Winter Garden image. It fascinates him. He lingers over it just as I linger over my Santa picture. “The photograph,” he writes, “is literally an emanation of the referent.” These emanations are “a sort of umbilical cord,” he says, that “links the body of the photographed thing to [his] gaze.” “Hence the Winter Garden Photograph, however pale, is for me the treasury of rays which emanated from my mother as a child, from her hair, her skin, her dress, her gaze, on that day.” A photograph is not just the preservation of a split-second, but of a life, of a “unique being.” I have a strong sympathy for this view. But in lingering with it, he is frustrated—he cannot enter the photograph as he would like. “I can only sweep it with my glance,” he says. It “arrests” further interpretation—he has exhausted himself with his “this-has-been” realization.

Barthes confronts the question again: what is it that makes this special photograph a special photograph? It is something beyond resemblance, something more than physical reality. This mysterious essence-like something is what Barthes calls (with shocking simplicity) the “air” of the photograph. It is another undefinable essential—an unanalyzable thing that is evident but cannot be proven, a secret door through which he can escape troublesome parts of any previous analysis. The “air,” he says, “is the luminous shadow which accompanies the body.” He returns yet again to photographs of himself. Without this shadow, the subject does not come to life. This is what is wrong with the photographs he has seen of himself: “if these thousand photographs have each ‘missed’ my air, my effigy will perpetuate my identity, not my value.” In other words, we do not have his true image.

 

*

 

The photograph, Barthes says, is “a bizarre medium; a new form of hallucination.” This is a nice way to think of it. Likewise, Lucida is a bizarre book, a new form of critique. There is a great deal to admire about it—the only problem it seems to me is that most of the admiring being done is being done without reservation. There is a part of me that wishes there was a part of me that cared more about being charitable on the subject of theory-speak. (Who does not want to seem fair-minded?) For me it was (and still is) a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. It is not about the pursuit of truth or knowledge, but reputation—a status game, its defining high-syllable-count gibberish a sort of tribal patois. Its famous obscurity has nothing to do with subtleties or with the difficulty of the subject and everything to do with ego, fashion, and professional advancement. There is less of this sort of thing in Lucida than elsewhere—passages that have been “freed from the tyranny of meaning”—but for me, not less enough. One cannot ignore the grief that is everywhere in this book, and a more conventionally empathetic person than me would, I suspect, be inclined to make greater allowances. I might have made greater allowances myself if I had not been misled into thinking the subject here was to be photography. Lucida is, in fact, only partly about photography—it is in equal parts about how smart Mr. Barthes is and how deeply injured.

From its beginning Lucida has provided inspiration and annoyance. A pedigreed consideration of photography’s endlessly replicating complexity, it took its subject seriously at a time when it needed taking seriously, and in so doing it offered aid and comfort to those championing the medium.

The photograph is not “a ‘copy’ of reality,” Barthes wrote, “but an emanation of past reality: a magic, not an art.” This is one of the quotes that brought me to Lucida, that indicated to me a shared sense of the subject. This ends up so many times being, for me, the last word on photography. It is, I think, the best analysis yet of the essence of photography, a response to the wonder of what may be found in a single image—its ability to transcend time and space, to put one in direct contact with more than just near and distant pasts.

 

 

 

BIO

kbdixon2K. B. Dixon’s work has appeared in numerous magazines, newspapers, and journals. The recipient of an OAC Individual Artist Fellowship Award, he is the winner of both the Next Generation Indie Book Award and the Eric Hoffer Book Award. He is the author of seven novels: The Sum of His Syndromes, Andrew (A to Z), A Painter’s Life, The Ingram Interview, The Photo Album, Novel Ideas, and Notes as well as the short story collection, My Desk and I.

 

 

 

 

 

DISCLAIMER: This essay does not intend to imply that all bulimics are female, nor that all females are bulimic, but rather attempts to account for the starkly gendered statistics of eating disorders in which those who identify as female outnumber males 10:1.

 

Making Space

by Kym Cunningham

 

It’s presented as a perpetual occurrence, like every time we eat a salad, drink a smoothie, we run for the bathroom door, first two fingers down our throats. Maybe they do exist: people who shove others out of the way, “’scuse me, I gotta go throw up,” before launching themselves into a bathroom stall, knees hugging the pee-stained porcelain base, the smell of disinfectant as sharp as the bile in their mouths.

I’ve never met anyone like this, but then again, I’ve never known a woman willing to talk about bulimia other than the vague “same here” or “me too” that accompanies self-reflective nodding. Bulimia is not something women speak about the way we speak about eating celery to burn calories or drinking products like SkinnyMint to give that extra laxative push in the morning. It is not among the weight-loss strategies approved by fitness experts like Jillian Michaels or up-and-coming fashion icons like Kylie Jenner. There is no American Society of Bulimics to commune with, handing out tips on prevention of enamel decay. Those who participate in this distinctive method of body management know that unlike weight loss, unlike fitness, bulimia is not a social event.

It is personal. It is done in secret, behind locked doors: the shower running to cover the plunk of undigested food. A roll of toilet paper stationed at-the-ready, sheets and sheets to melt against acid-entrenched hands and speckled surfaces. All articles of clothing, apart from underwear, off and to the side, out of the splash zone, same with jewelry and hair ties, except the one currently pulling the follicles up and away, cinching them tightly against the scalp. A glance at the Hawaiian Aloha Febreze to be used after-the-fact, its sweetness designed to mask the air’s telltale souring.

Ready.

Kneel out of respect, leaning like Narcissus over the toilet bowl. Examine flaws as they emerge; the water reflects more clearly than a mirror. A mirror smudges, bows in or out, brightens with artificial bulbs that distort reflection while maintaining the illusion of reality. Water does not pretend. Look too closely at a reflection and it dissolves, revealing the self’s abyss.

Test vulnerability, sticking one, then two fingers down, spasmodic gagging at first—then choking pressure—then release.

Now is the time to be completely open, to revel in the personal, a kind of meditation—imagine it as the most intense form of yogic breath.

Breathe in—and release.

We listen to our body, continuing at our own pace until the bile from the bottom of our stomach tells us that we are finished.

We rinse our hands, turning on the faucet gently with our uncorrupted elbow, massaging slime from between our fingerprints, pushing any errant food particles down the drain. We splash water on our chin, wiping our mouth, investigating the sting of skin split from being forced open. We stare at ourselves in the mirror for a few seconds, cheekbones already more prominent, lips appearing fuller and redder courtesy of laborious flush, before turning our attention back to beauty’s workspace.

We flush once for the larger lumps, watching what seems like pounds of varicolored half-solid baby food disappear into the bottom of the bowl. We wipe the edges of the seat, above and underneath, around the base, checking for splatter on the walls and cabinet sides. We throw the paper mash into the toilet. We grab a new handful and dampen it in the sink, wipe again, erasing every trace of what we have done. We flush again.

As we watch the discolored water swirl down, down, down, and new water come up clean, we survey the tableau, congratulating ourselves on spotless work. We feel satisfied, right down to the core of our beings, in the way that food never seems to satisfy, a way that is only just for us.

Then we remember the shower is running, wasting water, and we strip the rest of our clothes off in graceful feline swoops and embrace the cleansing scald.

With the water seeps guilt—the unnecessary flushing, the rampant toilet paper abuse, of course the shower—self-incrimination growing a drop at a time, until we are forced to acknowledge that the food we just flushed down the toilet could have fed another human being. We become disgusted at our wastefulness, at our privilege, ashamed that we lack self-control and common decency. To salvage some shred of humanity, we tell ourselves this is the last time.

But like so many other lasts—cigarettes, potato chips—this bargaining is part of the ritual.

“How did it start?” psychiatrists ask with tilted heads. The walls are the same—something beige and nonthreatening, or for the new-age shrink, something tranquil, calming—sea-breeze blue. Psychiatrists are master space-manipulators, adept at reconfiguring prototypical office buildings into terrariums blooming with subconscious healing. Their walls bear the correct amount of posters, degrees, etc, not to overwhelm, but to communicate authority, to provide patients the security necessary to abdicate adulthood and responsibility.

Shrinks never do manage to get the furniture right, though. Their chairs are unsightly lumps of puce suede or uncomfortable plasticized geometric angles, Pottery Barn in a funhouse mirror. Perhaps this is for added effect as well, the physical embodiment of the mom-worn cliché: nobody’s perfect.

Because that’s how it started, isn’t it, with the first time we questioned our mothers: why can’t I be perfect? Or, at the very least, how do I convince others that I am, how do I keep myself a secret, safe from everyone but me?

We don’t tell this to those searching eyes, bespectacled or not. Instead, we come up with a date, as though we had circled it on our calendars. “Second semester, sophomore year of high school. I was 16.”

The psychiatrists smile and write something illegible down on their legal pad, confident that they are really getting somewhere. All it takes is time.

They don’t know that the first time was not important, just as the food consumed was not important, or the fact that we were watching shitty tv, or that it was late at night. At some point, it came to us in a thought, sans action: I could throw this up.

And we continued to sit on the couch, each another brownie or two, maybe some Sour Cream ‘n Onion potato chips, before we thought: I should throw this up.

And maybe that first time was in tenth grade, or maybe it was even in middle school, and maybe we did it once and stopped for a few years and then started up again. Or maybe we did it consistently for the better part of a decade or maybe one day we stopped cold turkey or maybe we’re still doing it.

But how can we tell them that the idea just kind of popped into our heads without them looking at us like we were fucking crazy? Because that look is even worse than the look we get when we first tell non-bulimics, that transparent mixture of pity, derision, and curiosity.

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” they say, as though we weren’t doing it to ourselves.

“That’s terrible,” they say, hunkering down for more details.

But we will never tell them all of our secrets. They will never know that the first time we remembered feeling fat was looking at pictures in the first grade, being able to distinguish that our cheeks were chubbier, our belly pudgier, our chin rounder than the gymnasts or soccer players. We will not tell them that we used to resent our younger sisters for their slender legs and tight ribcages. That we still do.

We will never explain to them that we enjoy this selectivity as it allows us to manipulate the conversation, to disclose only what we think they should hear. Bulimia is, after all, all about perception.

It is the perception we crave, the idea that others might see us as strong, as fearless, as instinctively thin. We want to be the heroines we read about in novels, who eat whatever they want, kick ass, and never gain a pound. We want to look effortless in clothing, trick society into believing that we are self-assured, that we do not need to wear make-up. We want everyone to believe that we are the natural ones.

And because bulimia is about perception, the battle of belief over substance surreptitiously flushed down the toilet, it begins with the idea of itself.

Health class, sixth grade. The eighth grade boys whisper dirty suggestions concerning teeth and pubic hair as we try to keep the flush from our faces and our gazes level, actions that to them, resemble coy acceptance. We do not yet understand the art of perception.

The teacher, middle-aged and slightly pudgy, though she seems ancient and fat compared to our youth, lectures loudly on the perils of the unhealthy lifestyle, which include unprotected sex, drugs/alcohol, under-eating, and obesity. At the mention of obesity, the older boys snigger, looking pointedly at Meghan, the largest female student in the class. The teacher does not seem to notice, clicking the slideshow forward to a photo of an emaciated naked back with the words, ANOREXIA NERVOSA, in bold across the top.

The back, unmistakably female, consists mostly of shoulder blades that jut out tightly underneath the skin like frustrated wings. Nodules of spine poke out from between the wings as from a vacuum, then curve back into the ribs’ well-defined corporeal abyss. A light coat of hair, so pale as to almost be translucent, covers the body like a shawl, a last-ditch effort to keep out the cold.

Groans of male disgust undulate through the classroom, but we are silent, holding our breath, shivering under the persistent air-conditioning.

There is no photo for the slide on bulimia, only a terse definition regarding binging and purging, and an eating disorder hotline. The teacher moves on to obesity.

At lunch, we bring questions of biology to our peers, who always seem to know more on this subject than we do.

“I heard Lindsay and them were all drinking last night at Katie’s house.”

“I heard they get alcohol from Lauren’s older brother.”

“I heard Katie’s parents just leave her alone when they go out of town.”

“Oh yeah, and then they invite guys over, and they all make out.”

“Well I heard that Lauren and Jill throw up in the seventh grade bathroom after lunch.”

The bell rings before we can ask why.

After school, we bring a selection of our newly acquired knowledge to our mothers in the form of workbook pages, parent signatures required. Our mothers don’t want to talk about sex any more than we do, but when we get to the section on bulimia, they pause, finger hovering over the word, considering us.

“I was never skinny growing up, you know,” they say to us as though we can imagine that they were ever our age.

We look at them blankly, unsure of where this is going.

“I did a lot of things to make weight in the army, things that were really unhealthy, things that have made it harder for me to lose weight the older I get.”

They shrug, assuming we’re too young to feel the pressure of tight shirts against our stomachs and bikini strings around our love handles. It is this assumption that prevents them from naming it, that keeps it personal, half-secret.

“Anyway, I just don’t want you to make the same mistakes I did when I was young. It’s not worth it.” They sign the page and move on, while we are stuck wondering how they could ever think that we were like them.

We do not think that we are like anyone, or rather, we do not think that anyone is like us. We have been called different since we can remember, and this difference has woven itself into a coat that would totally work if only our waist was—or our thighs were—or if clothes fit correctly, like how they do on everyone else. It would work if only we could forget to be conscious of ourselves and the space that we occupy.

But we cannot forget. We are female, after all, and to be female is to be required to justify our corporeality in society.

We hear the justifications manifest so frequently we don’t recognize them anymore, these arguments over our right to social space. In grocery isles above the M&M’s and 3Musketeers, curvaceous women like Kim Kardashian explain: It’s okay that my ass is this big. Most guys would still bend me over a table to fuck me. On Amazon, reviews from XFitGirl94 clarify: 5’4’’, 135, but it’s mostly muscle.

But we aren’t as fuckable as Kim Kardashian, or as muscular as Amazonian CrossFitters, and so we are expected to deny our need for space. We sit on laps, holding seatbacks and clenching our butts to diminish the perception of weight. We Saran-Wrap ourselves into high-rise skinny jeans and lycra body shapers. We even practice geometry, contouring our faces with color pallets to hide any evidence of excess skin or enlarged pores.

But we are not satisfied, as society is never satisfied, as the male gaze can never be satisfied. We still intrude: knocking coat hangers off racks with our shoulders, plastic cups off tables with our asses. We are chastised if we speak too loudly, or glared at when we try to prevent others from cutting in front of us. We are ranked, measured, weighed—always found wonting. We are confined in boxes too small to breathe.

We suffocate in these boxes, too-large bodies pressed up against transparent plastic, the same material that once held our Barbies on Toys“R”Us shelves. Here, we understand that our bodies are public, for sale—what the dirty whispers from the eighth grade boys were trying to show us. We are reminded whenever we are catcalled or groped, propositioned or ogled. This is your space, society says. Be grateful for it.

But we are not grateful; we are spiteful. We want to be able to breathe. We want privacy. Crouching over a toilet, we carve spaces out of ourselves as tithes for existence. We become their predestined statistics.

The knowledge of statistics rarely helps anyone. It is not enough to know that more than 5% of individuals suffering from eating disorders die from health complications, just as it is not enough to know the dangers of drug or alcohol abuse. A certificate of D.A.R.E. completion does nothing to erase memories of powerlessness or injustice.

So rather than sitting on psychiatric couches attempting to remember a specific date or incident, it seems more important and more effective to come together as a community, to find the similarities in our stories, to call into question that which allowed us to consider bulimia as a solution. So that the next time we are exasperated at the size of airplane seats or the measurements of runway models, we do not seek comfort in the tile under our knees and the edges of our porcelain thrones.

Instead, we begin to understand and revile bulimia for what it is: acceptance of the patriarchal subjugation of the female body. Only then, when we seek to remedy our anger and not the food in our throats, can we be cured. Hell hath no fury like a woman full of bile. Viva la cuerpa!

 

 

BIO

kymcunningham1Kym Cunningham will receive her MFA from San José State University with emphases in creative nonfiction and poetry.  She is the lead Nonfiction Editor of Reed Magazine, the oldest literary magazine West of the Mississippi.  She received the Ida Fay Sachs Ludwig Memorial Scholarship and the Academy of American Poets Prize for outstanding achievement in her writing. Her writing has been published in Drunk Monkeys and Reed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Why I’m not a Hypochondriac

by Rachel Croskrey

 

 

According to the simple rules of growing up, burping should be mastered by age ten. Everyone should be able to pull it off: a Calvin and Hobbes worthy, mouth askew, one eye wide, fist clenched, great burp. wikiHow even has an instruction page on how to burp, written undoubtedly for truly educated individuals who wish to learn. They give helpful tips, such as: to accomplish “truly horrifying odor combinations, experiment with different foods!” and keep your mouth wide open for “cavern-like acoustics.” Only the sophisticated select transverse these useful informationals – them, and of course, those who can’t burp.

The inability to burp could be a medical condition – something wrong (unless you’re a prenatal baby, and if so there’s no gas to burp). There’s a doctor on Facebook for this type of illness. He has created a support group page: Dysfunction of the Belch Reflex – We Can’t Burp. I stopped taking their survey after questions like: have you ever had a hiatus/hiatal hernia? – Please list foods, drinks, activities, and your thoughts about what make your DBR worse. Um, I don’t know? What I do know is that since my youth I’ve I wanted to be like my brothers and dad and let loose great burps, but I haven’t been able to burp on command. In fact, I can’t burp – or eructate – unless it’s accidental. Burping is more like a hollow bubble of gas traveling up the bottom of my throat and stopping somewhere in the middle of my esophagus. Medhelp.com and other such sites help individuals who also cannot burp meet and discuss their conditions. Moth-eatenDeerhead says that he calls his rumbling gurgle a “burgle.” jillsinlalaland was so self-conscious about her gurgling throat that she added it to her dating profile. Louis11 thinks he can’t burp because as a kid he was scared of throwing up – a fairly good reason to suppress those eructations. It’s why I did it. A fear of vomiting might keep a lot of people from burping, or maybe even emetophobia, the fear of puking. Upchucking. Gut-souping. Ralphing. Barfing. It may even be a good enough reason to let go of the ability to give a good, intentional supragastric burp. At least, I seemed to think so as a kid. I was so afraid of throwing up that I used to take painkillers every night of my period for around a year because of one instance in which I woke up in pain and vomited.

One UK website claimed that 3 million people suffer from Emetophobia. It’s a fear that vomiting will lead to or cause insanity, death, endless vomiting, etc. Emetophobics fear being out of control. They have a cycle. First, there is a reminder of vomit, puke, or the porcelain throne of chunks. Which then moves them to worry about vomiting. Emetophobia. They then participate in impulsive behavior to escape vomiting. Starvation. Agoraphobia. The background of the KidsHealth page “What’s Puke” would be enough to set emetophobics off. It’s yellow with darkly outlined squares – quite chunky. My own fear of puking was never that bad. Although, there was that time in daycare where I examined that one book on puke with appalled curiosity – it had a raised illustration on the cover and everything – and solemnly brought it to the attention of an adult, safely disposing of the thing. Things were better after that.

More recently, that one night I woke up in burning pain and threw up happened three or four or five more times – not all during my period. I didn’t know what it was, or why it hurt. I know now. Celiac disease (over 200,000 new discoveries a year) combined with a dairy allergy. For those with Celiac disease, gluten causes their immune system to attack the villi in the small intestine – it destroys the microvilli that absorb nutrients and transfer them to the blood stream. Candida (a yeast that actually implants itself between the cells in the intestinal wall) allows food particles to get into the bloodstream which the white blood cells then attack, causing food allergies. Hence, the dairy allergy. 95% of your body’s serotonin is produced in your gut. You can imagine what happens when you have gut problems.

Now that I’ve also discovered that I have Lyme Disease (the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi that hinders the endothelial cells in the vessel lining, platelets, chondrocytes, and extracellular matrix from operating correctly) I fear other things. Kidney failure is my latest kick. A friend (who recently defeated Lyme) said that Lyme Disease is serious – someone went into kidney failure because of it. Well, most dogs who die of Lyme Disease die of renal failure. Point-in-case. Symptoms include: no urine, swelling – especially in the legs and the feet –, loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting, feeling confused, anxious, restless, or sleepy, and pain in the back below the rib cage, according to webmd.com.

One week it was brain fog, bloating, and an exhausted nap after being awake only three hours. The fatigue made me realize something was really wrong. But what? It turned out my white blood cells were responding to something they thought was a foreign intruder in my bloodstream – little bits of egg that had leaked through my gut lining. A new allergy.

Sometimes I experience other symptoms, and sometimes they are nothing. Like the red bumps on the backs of my legs and the backs of my arms. They itch, I scratch, I rub. But, it was probably just from dirty clothes right? It’s up to me and webmd.com to decide.

Hypochondriac. Valetudinarian. Neurotic.

Fearful. Fixated. Frantic.

I’m not a hypochondriac. I’ve never considered myself one. There are tests to measure if you’re a hypochondriac (I bet only hypochondriacs take them). I took it. But, I’m not one because I live by myself, my best friend moved, and I have serious medical conditions. I’m just lonely. I’m not a hypochondriac. It’s just my way of convincing myself I’m special. Maybe. I wrote a piece once about the depression my conditions have medically caused. It got published. You can find it in Gravel Magazine, February 2016. But, I have never been officially diagnosed with any of the things I have diagnosed myself with.

I’m not a hypochondriac. Maybe I’m an un-hypochondriac. I’ll go to their kick-off parties and talk about Denise Richards, Matt Lauer, and Charlie Brooker who all have emetophobia. I just won’t drink the Kool-Aid.

I’ve discovered that the bump on my wrist is in fact not cancer, but a cyst. And I haven’t stopped peeing yet so my kidneys haven’t failed. So I can relax, right? Relax.

 

 

BIO

rachelcroskrey2Rachel Croskrey is an English major with a concentration in Creative Writing at Cedarville University. She greatly enjoys stories of other people’s lives and one can often find her reading or watching those accounts. In addition to her interest in other people, she also appreciates order and peace and hopes to be a law enforcement officer one day. Her work can be found in the Cedarville Review and Gravel Magazine.

 

 

 

0
Jon Wilkman

Jon WiIkman Interview

Author of Floodpath: The Deadliest Man-Made Disaster of 20th Century America and the Making of Modern Los Angeles

 

Floodpath

 

Jon Wilkman is a writer and documentary filmmaker. Along with a number of documentaries about Los Angeles, he is the author of an illustrated narrative history of the city, Picturing Los Angeles. His new book, Floodpath: The Deadliest Man-Made Disaster of 20th Century America and the Making of Modern Los Angeles, chronicles the events that lead up to the 1928 collapse of the St. Francis Dam, as well as the aftermat, and relevance to today. An Amazon Book of the Month, Floodpath is considered a definitive account of the disaster that took the lives of nearly 500 people 50 miles north of Los Angeles. The event was a tragic turning point in the life and career of William Mulholland—one that would ultimately ruin his reputation and legacy as the man who brought water to Los Angeles. I sat down with Jon recently to discuss his work on both the book and the upcoming documentary film of the same title.

 

Where did you grow up?

 

In the San Fernando Valley suburb of North Hollywood., Growing up in Los Angeles, like every kid, the only history you learned about were the missions and statehood of California in the fourth grade, and that was the last you heard of it. All of the other history we learned took place on the east coast. So when I graduated from high school, I was interested in history and culture. Why would I want to hang around here?

 

What did you study in college?

 

I went to Oberlin College in Ohio. And one of the great things about Oberlin is that you were free to explore. I had a major in sociology, but I had enough credits for a history major or an English degree. By the time I graduated, I knew I wanted to work in documentary films, so that sent me to New York, where some fortuitous events led me to one of the best places to work at the time, CBS.

At CBS I worked on a documentary series called The Twentieth Century, which was a great show. And then I worked on a science series, called The Twenty First Century where I met a lot of people who were designing the world we live in today. The internet was just beginning, and they talked about lasers and satellites, things that were new at the time. They talked about their vision, and they were pretty much right.

After fourteen years in New York, I came back Los Angeles and I saw the city in an entirely different way. It was more than just Hollywood and the Beach Boys. L.A.’s a very interesting city. And that’s when I got hooked on Los Angeles history. I produced a series for KCET called The Los Angeles History Project, which was the first TV series that looked at Los Angeles history in a systematic way, this was around 1988. And that’s when I first learned about the St. Francis Dam disaster.

 

I watched the video trailer for the documentary film on Floodpath, which is a companion piece to your book.

 

Working with my late wife and partner, Nancy, I actually started the film well before I wrote the book. Most of the interviews I conducted, many of which are in the book, were done as early as 1995. There were twenty interviews with survivors of the disaster. They’re all dead now. It’s one of those things. When you are an independent filmmaker, you go from one project to another. There were periods of years when I didn’t work on the St. Francis dam project, but it was always in my mind.

 

Did the documentary come first?

 

Yes, I first started researching it in the 1980s. I hope the book will be a way to attract interest in the film. I only need to complete a few more sequences, including computer-generated photo realistic animation showing the collapse of the dam, and re-enactments of the night of flood.

 

You interviewed the granddaughter of William Mulholland.

 

Yes. Catherine Mulholland, her grandfather’s biographer, has since died. I have the last taped interview with her. I knew her socially. She gave me several boxes of her own research about the collapse, which really helped with the book. I told her that I couldn’t promise anything, and that I would come to my own conclusions. I was honored she trusted me.

 

She didn’t care if your conclusion was positive or negative.

 

She said she’d been burned by others who’d interviewed her. The story is burdened by the movie, Chinatown, which was a wonderful movie,

but more fiction than fact. It contributes to appreciating the complexity of William Mulholland. He’s either the devil incarnate or untarnished icon. In fact there wouldn’t be a city of Los Angeles with William Mulholland. And yet he made some terrible miscalculations with the St. Francis dam. What I tried to do was to tell this as a complex, nuanced story. And so often what you do in books is you look at it in the present, when you know everything. But when I wrote the book, what I wanted to do was to put the reader in the time frame. So what the reader knows is what anybody knew at any particular time back then. The story reveals itself. There were things that happened that weren’t really understood until later. And what I hope I accomplished in doing that is to get people today to think in the same way. It gets them involved in the story as it unfolds in real time..

 

Mulholland also built the Mulholland Dam, overlooking Hollywood. I remember you writing about how it was lowered after the collapse of the St. Francis dam, which was a virtual duplicate.

 

Safety concerns after the St. Francis Dam required the city to lower it. There’s an image of it in Floodpath, looming over downtown Hollywood, which it still does, but obscured by a earthen berm and trees and shrubs.

 

How did you go about finding all these people to interview?

 

One of the pleasures of documentary work, and certainly writing a book, is the research. One aspect of the story that had been underplayed, and again what attracted me, was how this is a great disaster story, and a technological detective story, and courtroom drama also reflects on how history is written. Clearly, it’s the deadliest disaster in the history of twentieth century America. Why isn’t it more well-known or written about?

 

I told several people about your book, and they reacted the same way. They sort of remember hearing something about it.

 

One of the subtexts of the book is how history is written, and particularly how Los Angeles history is written—or not written. I discuss many aspects of this in Floodpath. Many of the victims were Mexican-American farm workers, not the majority, but a sizeable number. Even people who know of the tragedy, don’t know the story of these mostly farmworkers. I wanted to interview everyone involved. So early on, I brought in some Spanish-speaking friends, and they helped us find eyewitnesses and families of the victims that were Mexican-American. We also went through the Spanish press to see how they viewed the story. And a point I make in the book is why they should be included. And how more people are interested in their story today, then perhaps in the past.

When you visit these small agricultural towns along the floodpath, most of the people, and their families, have lived there for generations. So when you inquire at a local historical society, or talk to old-timers in the area, they know, and will tell you, “Oh, you should talk to this person—their mother was caught in the flood.” Or so and so was a little kid at the time.” One lead takes you to another. So my wife Nancy and I began to meet these people, and they would tell us about other people. In some cases you can look at a newspaper of the time and see the names of eyewitnesses. When you look at a phone directory today, you can see that this person still lives in town.

 

How was the story reported in the Mexican press?

 

La Voz de la Colonia was the Spanish language newspaper in Santa Paula at the time. It was basically a one-man operation. They didn’t have a lot of money. In general, they didn’t have the means to report what the bigger newspapers were reporting, but they covered local events. On the editorial page, they also had a chance to reflect on the disaster. The Anglo press would divide them into Mexicans and Americans. But the Hispanic population didn’t see it that way. The editor of the newspaper said, “We are not a race. We are Mexicans and Americans.” He had a very modern idea of American culture. It was an idea that was not popular at the time. You have to remember that in the 1920s, it was a pretty racist society. There was even a proud KKK chapter in Santa Paula.

 

What was the hardest or most interesting part of writing Floodpath?

 

The hardest part about doing this book, Floodpath, but also the most fun, was you already know the ending, you know how it’s going to turn out. So how do you write about, and make it interesting for the reader? That was the most challenging part of the book. You’re constantly trying to keep the reader involved. It happens in the first chapter, the dam is down and everyone has died. So the average reader would look and see that there’s another 250 pages. So it worked to my advantage, as you wonder what’s in these other pages. There’s got to be something interested. So you sort of lure people in. And the story is being told in real time. So you are engaging the reader with events as they unfolded back then. The reader tries to guess what caused the dam to break — was it dynamite, was it an earthquake – what was it? So slowly you uncover the truth about how and why it happened. And then you get to a point where all the official reports are in and you think that’s that final word. And you eventually learn that—no, not really. There are a lot of possible answers. From a writing point of view it was one of the biggest challenges, and the most fun.

What also what attracted me to the story, most people will look at it and say, oh, what a sad event. But it’s also reminder that we have this infrastructure today that is in serious need of repair. The dams and bridges across this country were built decades ago. This tragedy could happen again. So it’s a wake up call, to look at some of these aging structures. Even if they’re maintained, which many are not, they’re still fifty years old or more. They need to be upgraded and properly maintained. There are 4,400 dams that have been determined to be susceptible to failure.

Every time you think this story is over, there’s another aspect to it. So at the end of the book, when you say, it’s finally over, there’s still another chapter that talks about other dams that are at risk of failing—that could collapse. And nobody is doing anything about this.

That’s part of the problem in the making of the St. Francis Dam in 1928, that there were no laws requiring state supervision. That all changed after the collapse. The entire dam safety movement was a result of this St. Francis dam. So that’s great, all the newly built dams after that were deemed safe. But if nobody maintains them, they aren’t safe.

Today, they’re beginning to fill the Owens Lake again, and bring water back to the Owens Valley. And it seems that today a resolution is coming. There’s now a chance to correct these errors of the past. In Los Angeles now they’re trying to reclaim the concreted-in L.A. River.. The question today is how do you create a liveable and sustainable urban environment.

 

When you first started working on Floodpath, did you have a publisher? How did it go from concept to publishing?

 

I saw this new book as a national story. Through a friend on the east coast I found an agent at William Morris. He sold the book to Bloomsbury publishing They’re one of the top publishers in the world. It was a very smooth process. I wrote a treatment and that was how I got the book sold. The writing went relatively quickly because of all the research I had for the documentary film. We had cabinets fill of material. I had an idea of the structure. I had all these photos and interviews and newspaper clips. So I had everything I needed to complete the book in a timely manner. I could have written Floodpath ten years ago. But I was lucky I didn’t. One of the real obstacles to research was accessing the DWP archives. It wasn’t that they were inaccessible, but no one knew where they were or how to do find specific information. Fortunately for me, DWP hired an archivist who began to sort all the material. So I had access to all this information that was never available before., in cluding internal memos and notes from the field.

 

How did you turn all this research material into a narrative?

 

I really wanted to write Floodpath in a nonfiction narrative style so it has dialogue and description in it. But every bit of dialogue has a justifiable source. So when someone says something, I have a record that that’s what they said.

The difference between standard fiction and nonfiction is the narrative style. In nonfiction, unless you have a diary, you can’t get into a character’s mind, but you can tell people what they said and did. For Floodpath, a major resource to do this was the transcripts of the Los Angeles Coroner’s Inquest But when I started researching, nobody seemed to have a copy. It had disappeared — a major reason we didn’t do this book sooner. From my research, I knew the transcript was about 800 pages. But I didn’t have it – nor did the LA City Archives, or even the DWP. So one day my wife Nancy was researching at the Huntington Library and she came back and proudly announced she’d found them in the obscure collection of a retired engineer. I knew then I could do the book and the documentary film.

There’s a lot of engineering information in Floodpath, but I was fortunate to have the help of J. David Rogers, a geological engineer who’d spend decades studying the disaster. As I was writing the book, he vetted a lot of the technical information. But the book is written for a general audience. It’s not just for academics or engineers.

 

Why isn’t this disaster better known?

 

To me, that was another major mystery to be solved. One of the reasons why people don’t remember was that everything was settled fast—people got paid, houses were rebuilt, the valley was restored. That’s what most people wanted. They wanted to get on with their lives and not slow progress. People wanted to put the story behind them, and have it disappear. Also, the DWP and the City of Los Angeles had no reason to keep the embarrassing memory alive. Atr the same time, a the great era of dam building in the 1930s and 40s was about to begin and engineers didn’t want to create what they thought was unnecessary public doubt after the failure.. The Hoover dam was being planned at the time. Lastly, it wasn’t long before Americans were more concerning by the Great Depression and looming World War II. The story of the St. Francis Dam got engulfed by other bigger stories.

 

I think this story could not only make a great documentary, but a dramatic film as well.

 

Well, there’s some discussion about making it into a TV mini-series. But we’ll see how that progresses. There are a lot of intriguing elements to this story, with William Mulholland and his enemies, and the Valley and the dynamiting, the courtroom drama, and the rise and fall of a great man. It’s all contained within this tragic event.

 

Who are some of the documentary filmmakers that inspired you?

 

I think Frederick Wiseman is one of the greatest documentary filmmakers. But starting in the late 1950s, I was watching Fred Friendly and Edward R. Murrow,

and the See It Now series on CBS, which took a more journalistic approach. In the 60s the Cinéma Vérité movement started, because the equipment allowed you to run around and sych the sound. So I was at the very beginning of that. A documentary filmmaker is sort of like a teacher. You go and find something out, and then you tell people about it. When you show people what you’ve produced, they’re learning something for the first time. I find that satisfying and fun.

 

Have you ever written any fiction?

 

No, just nonfiction, and documentary filmmaking work. The pleasure of doing nonfiction is you’re up against the ultimate arbiter – the factual truth, If you’re writing fiction, you can have your characters say and do whatever you want, because you created them. But with nonfiction you’re always up against the facts. And that’s how you have to play it. It’s a challenge. To me, that’s true with any artistic medium, where the really great work is done within a form. I never thought I would be a professional writer. I liked to write. I learned I was good at it. And almost before I knew it, along with making documentaries, I was writing nonfiction books like Floodpath.  It took more than 20 years, but I hope readers will think it was worth it. It was for me.

 

Thank you very much for your time. I hope everyone reads your new book.

 

 

JON WILKMAN

Produced as a companion to the new book Floodpath: The Deadliest Man-Made Disaster of 20th Century America and the Making of Modern Los Angeles, this ninety-minute documentary will include interviews with survivors, rare stills and footage, and 3-D computer graphics that recreate the collapse and aftermath.

SHORT PREVIEW OF FLOODPATH DOCUMENTARY

 

 

 

 

Shay Siegel

Don’t Quiet Down Please

By Shay Siegel

 

I was voted ‘quietest’ in high school, an achievement that required me to send in an embarrassing picture of myself doing the “shh” sign to the yearbook committee (see below). Because being ‘loudest’ is where it’s really at, right? Apparently. It wasn’t one of those things that I developed one day because some traumatic incident occurred that scarred me for life or anything like that. No, I have always been shy. It kind of became the signature thing about me as I grew up—not quite the trademark everyone would strive for. The quiet girl—a la Hampton Bays High School 2008 yearbook.

 

Shay

Me silently hating the yearbook committee.

 

I was diagnosed “selective mute” at age seven. Now, I know what you are thinking, “Is that a thing?” I am here to tell you that yes, it is a real thing. I wouldn’t speak to anyone other than family and a few close friends. So, you see I was selecting whom I would be mute to. I am proud to report; however, that I am no longer selectively mute with the exception of Terrance who I am afraid will remain selected because quite frankly, he deserves it. I don’t see myself as just ‘the quiet girl’, but it isn’t as if I can show people the rest of who I am right when I meet them. That is not something that quiet introverts do. I’m not the person who will spill her life story in the first fifteen minutes of meeting her. i.e.: “Hi, I’m Sandra, OMG that cake looks so good. Is that hazelnut? I have the BEST hazelnut cake recipe, passed down from my grandma. The secret is just a pinch of salt, funny how one ingredient can totally change the recipe, right? Anyway, I really shouldn’t be eating cake, I have this wedding coming up and I have to fit into my dress. Strapless dress! Ugh, that cake really does look good though, maybe just a bite.” Now, me, I usually just say “Hi, nice to meet you.” And, it’s most likely barely audible at that.

In a previous life, I was a European gentleman who was protesting Parliament. At least that’s what one of my therapists told me. After all the sporadic therapy over the years and all the different interpretations as to why I have so much trouble speaking, this one finally did it—she found the cause of my anxiety and shyness. She is an “energy healer” who can sense things in other realms. So, when she told me that I was a Scandinavian activist many lifetimes ago who was beheaded for what he had said at a political hearing, I had no choice but to believe her. I am all for blaming problems on past lives.

Even though I now know the cause of my selective mutism, it doesn’t quite make the speaking pressures any easier. It has been within the last few years that I have really had to accept that this is who I am. When I started the fiction program at Sarah Lawrence, I didn’t realize how much speaking there would be in the writing program. Isn’t this why writers are writers and not speakers? Apparently not. And it isn’t as though these are big classrooms like say a lecture hall or maybe a basketball arena. No, these are tiny rooms with round tables and sometimes as few as seven students in a class. You can’t hide. People do not forget that you are there. And you certainly cannot stand up and explain that you have a condition due to your colorful past as a European Greenpeace activist—not that I would ever stand up to make an announcement anyway.

When I was younger, in school, I used to write notes for my teachers when they would ask me a question. Things such as, “the correct spelling of banana is b-a-n-a-n-a,” (I was a fantastic speller). This writing of notes didn’t only take place in school; it translated to my home life as well. Not my actual home life because my parents were puzzled as to how I had so much trouble speaking to others, but was as loud and annoying as an incessant, buzzing mosquito at home. One time I tried to sell my sister the leftover cheese off my plate at a restaurant, and I would frequently tell my dad to ‘bring all he’s got’ when he’d take me shopping. I would run through the house screaming, porpoise on the bed, and my friend and I even started a “band” where I was the lead singer. But, these instances were all about who I was comfortable with. I used to go over my best friend’s house everyday, and her mom was a receiver of some of my infamous ‘substitute for voice interaction’ notes. One day I was at her house and while we were prancing around the yard on our stick horses, we discovered that her cat, Midnight, had kittens. My friend told me to run into the house and tell her mom about the newborn felines. This is the effective way in which the selective mute child delivered such information:

 

shay siegel

 

My family used to joke about hoping that no one ever got sick or injured around me because I would be too shy to call nine-one-one. I’d like to think I could have overcome the shyness and risen to the occasion when faced with a real crisis, but thankfully I never had to find out. That phone call would have been brutal—only because I’d have to talk to a stranger, of course—and perhaps would have led to my own illness. i.e.: Severe panic attack.

Most people consider being shy a bad thing because we are all expected to not just have lots to say, but to actually say it. We live in a world where exterior success and image is valued over who we are on the inside. You must show who you are! So, of course, those who don’t struggle with social situations won’t realize that shy people do most likely have a lot to say. As a result, you have the teachers who will feel they have to force quiet students to participate by calling on them in class. If I had a nickel for every time I heard, “Now, Sharon, what did you think of that?” Well, I’d have a lot of nickels. It’s not like I’m not paying attention, if anything I’d bet I’m listening more intently than most. It’s called selective mutism! And then, there are all the people who feel the need to keep repeating, “You’re so quiet!” Why thank you for stating the obvious and pointing out that there is something different about me, moreover, suggesting that this difference is wrong. Why not just push my insecurities to the surface, people? How would they feel if I went around saying, “Oh my gosh, you’re so fat!” or maybe “Whoa, you’re extremely smelly!” I’d say it’s probably an equally pleasant experience to hear about how quiet you are every single day. And, for some reason it’s acceptable to point this out, but not to point out weight and hygiene issues. Of course, I’d never say those things anyway. Not just because they’re quite rude, but also because I don’t say much to strangers.

This is who I am, and I have mostly made peace with it. There is a certain girl, let’s call her Marian. She really helped me come to terms with my shyness. Not because she is a nice person who discussed it with me, but because she is the loudest, most annoying human in the world that has to make every situation about herself. (Refer to ‘Sandra’ on page two). So, I had to say to myself “Well, I’d rather not say a word than sound like a cackling hyena from The Lion King all day long.” I would not strive to be someone who talks a lot but doesn’t say anything.

Do I feel stupid when I sit through my classes or at work not saying a word? Sure. But it isn’t logical for me to tell myself I’m going to be the liveliest participant in a group discussion. I’ve tried telling myself that before and my real self knew I was being a damned liar. Sometimes accepting who we are is half the battle. The other half is finding a profession where there is as little human interaction as possible.

 

 

BIO

Shay SiegelShay Siegel is from Long Island, New York. She received a B.A. in English from Tulane University in New Orleans where she was a member of the Women’s Tennis Team. She recently completed an MFA in Fiction at Sarah Lawrence College. Her writing has appeared in The Montreal Review, Burning Word, Mouse Tales Press, The Cat’s Meow for Writers and Readers, The Rusty Nail Literary Magazine, Belleville Park Pages, Black Heart Magazine and Extract(s). Her website is www.shaysiegel.com.

 

 

 

vertigo book cover

“The feeling of falling, which was not falling”

A review of Vertigo by Joanna Walsh

Dorothy (US), 2015; And Other Stories (UK); Tramp Press (Ireland), 2016. 123pp

 

Vertigo Joanna Walsh

Review by Ruby Cowling

 

Struck with vertigo, suddenly things are not what you thought. You’re dizzy, disorientated, and it turns out the world is not, after all, what your brain has been constructing every day through its normal sensory feeds. Actual physical vertigo is not pleasant, but a literary style that steps away from the one we know best is exciting, and Joanna Walsh’s approach in this collection certainly does that.

This is not to say that her stories are obscure or “difficult”; I’d hesitate to even label them with that damningly nutritious word “experimental”. They are full of recognisable situations, humour and relatable moments. It’s just that she goes directly for “the truth”, without all the niceness that the mainstream short story slips into so easily. She unhooks herself from common expectations of narrative, in turn untethering the reader from the standard, safe experience of reading short fiction.

Short stories in the form we know best – the form you find in weekend magazines or in annuals from big, safe publishers – typically feature a little aching moment of truth at their heart, which is wonderful, of course; it’s an authentic experience, a quiet, humane offering in a noisy and brutal world. But too often they’re under pressure to deliver that moment up to the reader in a nice velvet-lined box of comfort and familiarity (a named character, going about business you recognise (even if in an exotic setting), working up to a relatable moment of realisation or change). The lid of that beautiful box gently closes at the end of the story, reassuring you of solid ground. However, instead of apologetically working up to a tentative assertion about Life, Walsh just states a truth and kicks it around – no box, no lid, no tethering it to reassuring elements such as softly-introduced character or plot. Because she pulls no punches in her stories – simply stating facts, observing behaviours and honestly presenting the kind of psychic darkness that usually gets fudged – the peculiar is made powerfully universal.

There is so much in this collection: so much intellectual and emotional content, so many direct gestures toward the biggest, scariest parts of human existence. No wonder we get dizzy. One of her skills is to achieve an almost-real-time expression of thought. Internal reality moves quickly and the resulting impression is that we are inhabiting a real mind. “A man sits down at the table next to me. I wonder whether he is French, whether he is foreign, whether he is a tourist. I also wonder whether I could say hello to him, in French or in English, whether we would like each other, whether we could sleep together.” Aren’t characters in cafés supposed to mull things over in a Stately And Important Way, using their observations of the people around them to Come To A Subtle But Profound Conclusion? Once again, we are untethered from expectations, unhooked from the usual steady, authorly manipulation of time. Walsh gives us a more honest experience, and we are giddy.

“The first effect of abroad is strangeness,” says the opening story’s narrator, and it’s because we are “abroad” stylistically that it feels strange at first. But my argument is that these stories are more radically realist than the standard so-called lyrical realism. Drowning, the final story, may be one of the more accessible stories in the collection (perhaps deliberately, so that we think we’re back in safe waters and are even more emotionally unprepared for the stunning ending), and even here Walsh doesn’t shy away from admitting that “the abyss” is real, and although it is “your family who would not like to see” it, it is nevertheless a real part of lived experience which must be acknowledged, however vertiginous that makes us feel.

* * *

Some of the fourteen stories are very short and focused, addressing quite viscerally the internalities of humanhood – and, all right, of womanhood. Here, I get hesitant. It’s essential not to circumscribe Walsh’s intellectual ambition by claiming her focus is “women’s experience”. It’s easy for it to seem that way, because her narrators are female, and because of her “otherly” narrative form – the “other” arguably being aligned with the feminine. She speaks powerfully and concisely of the experience of “failed girls”, and many of her detailed observations encompass clothing, food, and the specific ways people touch each other and use language to manipulate their relationships. Historically, these have tended not to be Great Literature’s dominant concerns; I don’t have a PhD-length space here, so let’s quickly agree that this is because clothing and food have been part of the domestic realm and the significance of the domestic has been side-lined, and that if a writer includes these, the writing ends up with the label female interest. This is not a complimentary epithet: it still carries the accusation of smallness, weakness, intellectual parochialism, so I am loath to bring it up at all. But there is still that political paradox in which you have to marginalize yourself to point out that your voice is not yet, and should be, part of the mainstream – so, there, I’ve brought it up.

These female interest stories are stark and muscular; full of invitation, full of provocation, full of the acknowledgement of the non-separation of body and mind. This latter position has been a concern of feminist thought, and there are certainly explicitly “feminist” moments here (“I’ve heard him shout at her to pick up the telephone, as though she were his extra hand”, says the narrator in Claustrophobia, about her parents). But even to label these as “feminist” is to put a boundary around them: to say, well, that’s an argument, that’s a position, an opinion – instead of a fact. Hence my hesitation to bring up any of these terms.

What Walsh does, in her refusal to use standard story conceits or a banal lyrical realist style to soften the blow, is to bring all this female interest material into the realm of hard fact – of unapologetic, undeniable truth – reminding us that women’s intellectual lives are actually being lived, in reality. They are not a special interest or a theory. They are real.

It still feels radical to be intellectual, in fiction, from a specifically female perspective. It gives us vertigo. “There’s something about our un-control, no men to watch over us,” notes a character in Claustrophobia, a story in which the narrator’s father dies. “What if it never stops?” In these moments vertigo is giddy possibility: freedom, danger, adventure, the sudden removal of the gravitational force of embedded power structures.

* * *

For reasons I’ve just alluded to, clothing is a neglected node of social significance; Walsh’s narrators notice clothing and its meanings perhaps more than any other writer I’ve read. Indeed, the book opens with Fin de Collection, a plot-light exploration of a Parisian department store and its stock (and its customers). In later stories, her eye for clothes is that of an artistic sociologist: she knows what these colours and shapes and fabrics and choices mean. Nurses’ uniforms in The Children’s Ward are unsettlingly the same blue as the attendants at petrol stations; in Relativity a grandmother’s “shades are mint, peach, lemon, blueberry, cream. She dresses as she would like to see her granddaughter dressed: edibly.” A daughter’s “short pink skirt with lace” ignites the title story. And in the Paris of Half The World Over, the young women tourists “are all dressed the same, in the current fashion. The older women are dressed either more primly or more provocatively than the older women, but always in reaction to them.” The iterative effect of these observations is that they are not the stuff of flimsy domesticity but a type of forensic anthropology.

Walsh is preoccupied with the disorientating experiences of contemporary life; its shocks; its threats; the things that throw us off balance. And what delights me most is that she doesn’t shy away from any of it: she doesn’t pull the cozy blanket of standard narrative over the dark and difficult things. Like family. In the complex, multi-generational story Claustrophobia, children are mentioned in passing as “blind lumps of my flesh, detached…”, while the narrator wrestles more centrally with the meaning of her own mother. In The Children’s Ward babies and children are the pulsing, “beeping” heart of the horrific tension of being a parent at all. This story is strung out with the hopeless terror attached to parenthood, the supremely attached status a mother has, against her own will. Young Mothers takes this further: the mothers have become children in the way they dress, behave, and speak, even though it is mysteriously important to everyone that the contract remain “kids be kids” and “mothers be mothers”. Do we get soothing resolutions to these unsettling scenarios? Of course not.

It’s brave and essential to lay out so starkly the details of life – and often, women’s lives – in all their uncomfortable ambiguity. Not to say that laying things out starkly means there are no layers of meaning – quite the opposite; this book is full of those. But the layers of meaning aren’t here because of that standard, MFA-story, show-don’t-tell manipulation. They’re part of the honest presentation of the complexities we negotiate as we go through life, as “good people, who can hardly live in this world, which continues almost entirely at our expense”.

Vertigo is packed full of the stuff we’re afraid of and attracted to, in the way we’re attracted to wild animals and cliff edges and the disconcerting behaviour of other humans we’re close to. And ourselves. The overall experience is exciting in the way only a truly original reading experience can be.

 

 

BIO

Ruby CowlingRuby Cowling is a British writer currently living in London. Her work has won awards that include, The White Review Short Story Prize and the London Short Story Prize, and has been shortlisted in contests from Glimmer Train, Short Fiction, and Aesthetica, among others. Recent anthology credits include I Am Because You Are (a Freight Books collection of work inspired by the theory of General Relativity); Flamingo Land and Other Stories, from Flight Press; and Unreal City: Constructing the Capital, a book of fiction and non-fiction about London, from Cours de Poétique.

Elizabeth Johnson

Chartwell Manor

by Jennifer Elizabeth Johnson

 

 chartwell manor

 

“Forgive and forget all the while, love and pain become one and the same in the eyes of a wounded child”
Pat Benatar

 

*Some of the students’ names have been changed to protect their privacy.

 

Have you ever as a child, been so victimized by a caretaker that you carried the scar well into adulthood? Many of you have, so let me ask you this instead: What if you found out later on in life that other children had been terrorized to a greater extent than you had by that same person? Let’s add another layer: What if you suddenly learn that said perpetrator did prison time for some of the most egregious of his crimes? What would your emotional reaction be? Would you feel sorrow for those with the bigger scars? Would you feel relief or joy knowing that the abuser was punished? What happens when you realize that what happened to you could have been worse, and was for many others?

I went to a nightmarish, Kafkaesque boarding school when I was eight-years-old.   I was a terrible kid, unquestionably, and needed to be separated from my younger sister, Laurie, for her protection. I was a breech birth. I had tried to exit the womb butt first, folded into two slabs of infant meat, with my feet pressed against my head. There was an oxygen shortage and as a result, I had minimal brain dysfunction, which later resulted in a severe behavioral disorder. Or maybe it happened because I fell in the bathroom when I was still a baby and hit my head on the tiled floor, hard. Could it be that my preexisting condition was exacerbated by my father’s unforgiving parenting style? Whatever the reason, I was a monster, but these issues didn’t’t surface until I was two, which is when my sister Laurie came into the world.

According to my parents, I was jealous of the new infant, and I would act out in ways that they weren’t equipped to deal with. I would engage in frequent tantrums, throw things and punch holes in my bright pink bedroom wall. I stopped eating most foods, especially vegetables. My father’s version of this is that it did it all for attention, even though that attention came in the form of a beating. I preferred negative attention to none at all.

As I got older I didn’t get along with other children. Rumor has it that I threw a brick at another child, and that I wasn’t nice to animals.  But nobody suffered my wrath more than my little sister. My mother claims that from a very young age my father beat me mercilessly, and that I turned it around onto Laurie.

My parents’ marriage was an unholy union, to say the least. They fought constantly, and when I was five, my dad moved out, followed by acrimonious divorce proceedings. My mother had to take on the task of policing my sister and me on her own. After the divorce, my father moved to a slum in Piscataway, New Jersey, while we remained in Kendall Park. My sister and I only saw him once every other weekend, so my mother, for all intents and purposes, was a single parent. I can still remember a day when I was especially vicious to my sister. My mother was on her own with the two of us in tow. She needed to run a quick errand, and didn’t’t want to deal with the hassle of packing us up in the station wagon. I was seven-years-old and Laurie was five.

“Let me babysit,” I said.

“That’s a terrible idea,” my mother answered.

I begged. “Pleeeeeaaase? I promise I’ll be good”

Against what I suspect was her better judgment, she agreed. She was barely five minutes out the door when I was on top of my sister, who was lying on our grey velvet sofa, with my knees in her chest, pounding on her with closed fists and a dragon-like malevolence. For reasons I can’t recall, I really wanted to do damage. I was filled with an unidentifiable rage.

My sister’s harrowing screams must have been audible from outside the house because upon her return, my mother bolted through the door, made a B-line for the couch, pulled me off of my sister, and threw me to the floor. I don’t begrudge her that. I’d do the same thing as a parent. I still experience guilt for everything I did to Laurie, but that day stands out in my mind because I was so out of control, that I believe there was some chance I could have killed my sister if my mom had come home mere minutes later. It was a terrifying prospect for my mother. Geographical separation was the only effective solution, so at eight years old I was sentenced to Chartwell Manor for an undetermined amount of time.

* * *

Chartwell Manor, named for Winston Churchill’s estate, was located in the town of Mendham, New Jersey in Morris County. It was run by Terrence and Judy Lynch or as I like to call them, The Lynch Mob. I did three years time there before I was released. The headmaster was a sadistic British man in his thirties. He wore wire-rimmed glasses, spoke in a thick British accent, and had dark hair perfectly parted to one side. His body was slightly rotund and he had a round, cherubic shaped head, which gave him a deceptively innocuous appearance. We were instructed to refer to him only as “Sir”.

His wife Judy was a very large and curvy American woman. She had enormous breasts, a macro-booty and always wore a big, dark brown bun on the top of her head.  She wore form-fitting, dark colored dresses.  I had never seen such a big derriere in my entire life. Her hips moved so much when she walked it was easy to picture her shimmying down a narrow corridor, swinging them left and right, hitting the walls each time. She was cold, stoic and just as intimidating as her husband was. She rarely smiled, and sometimes beat the girls viciously. Although I never witnessed it first hand, one student claims that they saw her beat a girl with a riding crop for what felt like an eternity. Another stated that he and his friend looked on helplessly as she punched a twelve-year-old girl in the face, knocking her to the ground for the alleged crime of having kissed a boy. Judy wore a large diamond wring in the shape of a crystal doorknob, so her punches did some damage. Every time she entered a room, most of us were in the habit of disappearing, whenever that was an option.

 

chartwell manor

 

“Sir” would have made a great post-apocalyptic dictator. It wasn’t until I was much older that I realized just how unhinged he was, and only very recently I discovered that he was far sicker than I had previously imagined.

I can still conjure up a pretty clear image of the day I was taken there for the interviewing process.  We stood at the top of his majestic, sanguine colored staircase as he smiled at my mother and I with that phony, Muppet-like joviality. He looked a little to Pillsbury Dough Boyish for either of us to sense any type of peril.

The large, stone mansion was regal and elegant, stunning to some, I imagine. The building contained The Lynch’s living quarters, the classrooms and the boys’ dormitory. The foyer was huge, with classrooms to the left and a large dining hall to the left of the classrooms. Elegant French doors connected all three sections, and French windows graced the entire building. So did chandeliers.  Red carpet covered every room in the building except for the dining hall and classrooms, which had painted brick and hardwood floors, respectively. The carpeting gave the place a Stephen King like quality and seemed to reflect The Lynch’s blood lust. It extended from the foyer to the double, wrap around, mansion style stairs, to all of the second and third floor hallways, which featured Sir’s office, the Lynch’s apartment, a payphone, and boys’ dormitories.

“Have you ever been to sleep away camp, Jennifer?”, Lynch asked me. I smiled and nodded. “Well this is a lot like that,” he said, grinning.

It turned out that except for the element of living away from home; it was nothing like sleep away camp. I had lived in several summer camps. I remember arts and crafts, roasting marshmallows, volley ball games, campfires and the lush greens of Pennsylvania campgrounds. I don’t remember ever having been beaten or humiliated by a person of authority at such a place.

As I ran in circles around the majestic staircase I overheard Mr. Lynch tell my mother, “Our specialty is hyperactives.” or something to that effect. As his eyes followed my frenzied little feet scurrying around, it didn’t occur to me at the time that he was probably thinking about the beating he’d be giving me, had not been for the presence of my mother. He saw a wild beast in me. I was the shrew, and he was damn sure going to tame me.

The boys outnumbered the girls about five to one. There were approximately sixteen girls and eighty boys, so the girls lived down the road in a separate little cottage, which was actually a five-bedroom house. Each room except for our housemother’s was color themed. There was a red, orange, green, and purple room. The walls were white, but the bedding and carpets had a color scheme. I lived in all of them at one time or another. There was a payphone for collect calls in the downstairs hallway.

The girls’ dorm was a kind of hell in and of itself, despite the lack of “Sir’s” presence there. There was only one bathroom where the older girls picked on me constantly; always trying to force me to take baths I didn’t think I needed.  They called me names: “ugly”, “greasy hair” and others. We had a lovely housemother named Barbara Sainsbury for a brief time during my tenure there, but Olga Reimer, who was far more unpleasant than any of my coeds, soon replaced her. What a nasty old hag Olga was.  She was also British, but much older than the Lynches. I don’t know what her relation to Sir was, but she was a pretty good stand-in for him in terms of excessive discipline. I remember wondering what was wrong with British people, having had such limited exposure to them at that time. I can vaguely recall her dragging me by the hair on more than one occasion. She loved to tell me what and idiot I was. “You’re an idiot, Jennifer. You really are. You really are an idiot!” she’d say in a piercing, high-pitched voice and hoity British accent.

 

chartwell manor

 

In the beginning, I went home every weekend. I’ll never forget the first time I returned Sunday night sobbing in my mother’s car. My mother had moved us New York City, so it was a little over an hour’s ride to the school. After we drove up the long winding driveway and past the snow covered forestry that spanned the distance between the girls housing quarters and the mansion, I begged my mother not to leave me there. I wouldn’t even know how to describe the feeling of terror and abandonment. Mr. Lynch had no love for me. My mother had to drag me to the door and drive away as quickly as possible.  Later that evening, I called my mother, still sobbing. Much like prison, collect calls were the only option.

I would dial zero and the number and when the operator came on line I’d say. “Hi, I’d like to make a collect call, my name is Jennifer.”

My mother always accepted the calls when she was home, at least it seemed that way. But she was back on the dating scene, so sometimes she was out and some babysitter would answer the phone. I hated those nights. On this particular evening I made the mistake of calling my mom from the mansion payphone, just down the hall from Sir’s office and the couple’s apartment.

“Mom please don’t make me stay here. I hate it here. I’m so homesick and they’re so mean!’’

“You’ll get used to it Jen, I promise. It’s just going to take some t…”

My mother barely made it through a sentence before Sir grabbed the phone from my hand and demanded that I go wait for him in his office. As I headed in that direction I heard him talking to my mother.  He was eerily composed. “No worries, Mrs. Johnson. Jennifer is just a little agitated right now. I’m going to try and calm her down.” He hung up the phone.He stormed back to his office and began striking me left and right, mostly on my head and face. “How dare you make a scene like that?!” he told me. I begged him to stop hitting me and finally, after about five or six blows he shoved me out of his office. I practiced what I would say to my mother the next weekend when I went home again. This man was lying to parents. Surely, she would understand that this gulag was no place for her daughter.

Well I wasn’t withdrawn; in fact I started spending most weekends there. My parents decided that I needed to get used to the place, and that taking me home to be with my Mom or Dad was just too disruptive. I’m fairly certain Mr. Lynch was behind this decision. Like most sociopaths, he could be extremely charming and convincing when he had an agenda. Parents saw an entirely different person than we did.  They saw Fred Rogers. We saw a draconian prison guard. Lynch could be so charming at times that many parents donated money to the school on a regular basis, and one student even told me that her mother had put the Lynches in her will. My mother believed that Mr. Lynch was a good disciplinarian who was acting in my best interest, and that my tales were just the result of the active imagination of children.

My mother was wrong, and I made all of my future calls from the girls’ dormitory. Shortly after my escape at age eleven the school was investigated for allegations of child abuse.  In the year of 1976 Lynch’s accusers were unsuccessful in their pursuit of justice. What I discovered recently is that school did eventually shut down in 1984, when I was nineteen years old, after the headmaster Terrence Michael Lynch was sentenced to fourteen years of incarceration, for the ritualistic sexual and physical abuse of young boys. There is also a great degree of speculation that some of the worst abuses were never brought to trial and remain undocumented: incidents including sex trafficking and the creation of child pornography, which was all said to have taken place during Chartwell’s annual excursions to Europe.

Lynch only served seven years of his sentence and was released in 1997 only to become a volunteer at a Beginnings, a substance abuse rehab center where he molested grown men in a similar fashion, in spite of the fact that he was branded under Megan’s Law. Apparently, he wasn’t only a pedophile; anybody vulnerable was fair game. As reported by Kevin Coughlin, of The Daily Record a local Morristown paper, in 2009 three survivors of Beginnings received a total of 780,000 for the abuse they endured under Lynch’s care. More will be revealed later in the essay, but if you’re feeling curious, dubious, or impatient here is one of the sourced articles:

No Spank

* * *

If I had to choose a room at Chartwell as the most ominous place on the campus, I’d have to go with the foyer. We would all stand there downstairs, on that god awful crimson carpet, lined up according to grade in our school uniforms for what Sir called assembly. The uniforms were absurd: navy blue blazers with the Chartwell Manor insignia, with grey skirts for girls and grey slacks for boys.  Both sexes had to wear a tie. I looked ridiculous standing in front of the mirror. Who dresses like this? Was this a British thing too? Mr. Lynch would stand at his podium in all of his eccentric glory, and preach to us about nonsense.

 

chartwell manor

 

Assembly met several times a day. Of all the images of rooms at this school this one stayed with me the strongest, because it’s where Mr. Lynch was the least restrained and the most venomous. It was in this room that Mr. Lynch repeatedly subjected us to his terrifying psychobabble, knowing full well that many of us were too young to understand it. There was nowhere to go and nothing we could do about it unless we wanted beatings, so we would stand there and listen to him, until he dismissed us.

He was our personal evangelist preacher, only unlike a TV evangelist; we didn’t have the option of turning him off. I didn’t understand most of what he carried on about, but the gist of it was about debauchery and disobedience, and the subsequent consequences. Just like any talking head on The 700 Club, he used fear and propaganda to keep us in line.

He would start with a stern yet serene tone of voice, and then get progressively louder and more delusional, waving his hands around while he yelled about drugs, lust, or whatever his scourge du jour was. One of his favorite topics was the benefits of corporal punishment. He never tired of hearing himself “reassure” us that he beat us out of love.

I’ve been interviewing former students, and many of them actually believed that Lynch’s declarations of affection were genuine. While they feared Sir, they also considered him a father figure, and felt desperate for his approbation. According to some of the boys I interviewed, this betrayal of trust was perhaps the most detrimental aspect of the abuse. The pain that some carried around later in life was so unmanageable that many suffered from Stockholm Syndrome, with memories of the abuse repressed well into their twenties and thirties. A few former students responded to my research with reactionary contempt, which I can only imagine stems from the pain associated with these memories, and the need to suppress them.

Beyond the usual “If I don’t beat you, you won’t learn, and if you don’t learn you won’t survive in the world” bullshit, I mostly just recall random words during these assemblies. The only other word group that comes to memory was “Fuck fuck fuck! Lovely, lovely!” His hands seemed to fly every which way as he said it. He was trying to make a point about how ugly curse words were, and what sinners we all were for using them. Other words that I recall hearing were “sin, lust, bedlam, anarchy, drugs, honor, whore, virgin, pure, slut, zeppelin, woman, and temptation.

Terrence Michael Lynch was the first to teach me about the virgin/whore complex. As far as he was concerned girls should be “pure.” He spoke with great contempt about a girl from his school days called “Mattress Mary” who he referred to as a “slut.” The oldest students at Chartwell were 15-years-old. Since teenagers are wired to be both sexual and curious, some heavy petting was inevitable, and occasionally one of the female students was made an example of, in the worst way imaginable. First they were slut shamed in front of the whole student body, and then beaten. I can’t remember the exact words Sir used, but at eight-years-old I knew what a tramp was, and I knew that you could only be one if you were a girl.  I also knew that if you did happen to be one of the girls caught in some teenage dalliance sanctioned by Mother Nature, Sir would convince the rest of us that you were a Jezebel of the worst kind, capable of the darkest of sexual transgressions. Yes, we were the perverts: Projection in action: Calling Dr. Freud! What occurs to me now is that Sir was jealous of girls, because they were the object of the boys’ affections. Judy Lynch was said to have done routine “virginity checks” on some of the older girls. Officials tried to make a case against her as well, but the state lacked witnesses who were willing to testify.

I can’t remember which fundamentalist brand of Christianity Sir embraced, but in light of the fact that I now know that was a convicted sex offender, it’s so much easier to connect the psychopathic dots. It’s fairly common knowledge that there is a strong link between sexual repression and sexual deviation, and the more an orator follows the narrative that “sex is dirty and shameful” the bigger pervert he either currently is, or is destined to become. You know the saying: “Me think thou art protest too much” or something like that. While I attended Chartwell there were at least two girls who were either expelled or withdrawn for sexual “indiscretions”. The official story was that they were expelled, but I knew what a pathological liar Sir was, so I questioned everything.

Dianna Carrington and Courtney Abbot both left Chartwell Manor for these reasons, but not before they were branded with both a physical and psychological Scarlett Letter. Bruising students was commonplace. I remember going home with a giant bruise on my ass, although on that particular occasion it was Mrs. Lynch who had savaged me. My mother was strangely unaffected when I showed it to her. Shortly after Dianna left, her parents decided to take Sir to court. They were not impressed with the welts on their daughter’s backside. The girls were set to be witnesses. Some time before her parents were scheduled to come The Lynches pulled all the girls into a classroom for “rehearsal.”

“Miss Carrington’s parents are going to ask some of you some questions.” Sir told us. “They’re going to ask you if we beat you here and you’re to tell them that we don’t. Is that clear?”

We all nodded in agreement. Nobody was going to martyr herself to this cause. Thankfully, Dianna’s parents never approached me.  I don’t think I would have been brave enough to tell them the truth.

* * *

Assemblies were bad enough when Sir just went on some random diatribe, but once in a while he required an actual victim: someone to accuse, mock or terrify for no good reason.  I can remember at least two times when I was the victim of choice.  I was one of the students he hated, so I was targeted disproportionately. Nothing was more dreadful than being singled out as this man’s personal plaything, especially in front of the whole school. I had seen him do it to others.

Even at eight I was enough of an independent thinker to know that something was horribly wrong, even when he targeted other students. I had seen him make an announcement that someone clogged up one of the boys’ toilets, and then look around for a scapegoat. It didn’t take him long to point to a eleven-year-old and say “Mr. Green, you have a very guilty look on your face! Go up to my office and wait for me.!“ This is how Mr. Lynch adjudicated our alleged crimes. Apparently, he wasn’t a big fan of the American justice system, where actual evidence is required before a sentence is passed.

Not much later, I was accused of a more serious crime. During the weekends most of the students went home, so the girls would sleep in the empty boys’ rooms in the mansion dormitory. During such a weekend, a male student’s belongings were ransacked and his musical apparatus was smashed. I knew nothing of it and had nothing to do with it, but damned if Il Duce let that get in the way of administering his own special style of justice.  After he ranted about the alleged vandalism that took place, he announced without hesitation that I was the guilty party.

“Miss Johnson!” he said. “You broke that boy’s radio just because you didn’t have one of your own! Get up to my office! We’ll be docking your student account to replace it!”

So just like that I was simultaneously losing money, having the entire student body turned against me, AND I was getting a beating? The combination of rage and fear I experienced was unimaginable, because I was so angry I wanted to kill him, but also so terrified all I could mutter was “But I didn’t do it! It wasn’t me! It wasn’t me!” which as you can imagine, was not effective.

I never went up to his office so I didn’t receive that beating. I refused to get a beating with a wooden hairbrush for something I just didn’t do. Luckily, he had so many other kids to beat or violate that day that he must have forgotten about it. I later discovered that it was commonplace for some of Lynch’s former victims to return to the school, often in a drug or alcohol addled state, in order to vandalize the property and steal cars, money and other things. In all likelihood I was taking the rap for someone Lynch no longer had access to.

One of final acts of retaliatory vandalism against the Lynchs: Terrence and Judy’s gravestone was “christened” by a former student.

Calls to my mother were frequent. “When can I come home?” I asked after returning from Thanksgiving break. My homesickness was always worse after visiting my mom or dad.

“Christmas,” she said.

“Christmas?” I asked. “Christmas is like six weeks from now.’’

“It will go by fast, you’ll see,” she said.

Sometimes I begged her. “Let me come back home,” I’d say. “I promise I’ll be good.” But she’d heard that before.

Christmas break would come and go with all the excitement and subsequent heartache that came with seeing family for only a couple of weeks. Christmas and summers were the longest breaks I got from Chartwell, but the longer I was home the harder it always was to go back, although after the first year I was more resigned to the sadness.  I believe the psychoanalytic term is “learned helplessness” It wasn’t like my parents were going to listen to me anyway.

The aforementioned bruise was a consequence of smoking. At the time I lived upstairs with the older girls: Karen, Anita and “slutty” Courtney. There were four of us in the room, and sometimes some of the boys would sneak down from the mansion to the girls’ dorm in the middle of the night. We had a ledge right outside our window, where the boys would hang out, although I have no idea how they got up there in the first place.  My roommates and the boys woke me from the deepest of slumbers. I let out a grunt. I was tired.

“Go back to sleep. You’re dreaming,” Courtney would say over and over again. Eventually I was fully awake. There wasn’t much point in trying to sleep. The girls were all up smoking and talking. I had little interest in smoking at the time, but Courtney said “She’s a witness, so she has to take a security drag.” So I did. I sucked on a cigarette and blew out the smoke immediately without inhaling. The very next morning after my roommates had gone Olga entered the room to do some cleaning and began sniffing.

“I smell cigarettes. Jennifer, were any of the girls smoking in here? I had intended to lie, but became so nervous I just gulped a little and then heard myself saying “Yes” in hesitant, almost whisper like tone.

Later that day all four of us were beaten with the wooden side of a hairbrush. We all sat in the Lynch’s living room and when it was our turn, Mrs. Lynch took us to their bedroom and ordered us to lift our skirts and pull down our underwear. She remained very quiet during the beatings. She hardly uttered a word the entire time we were all in there. Sometimes the quietist villains are the scariest. When my turn came around I tried to block the first blows with my hands, but that hurt just as much. The burn on my ass was intense and I screamed. It was the worst pain I’d ever experienced. I’ve never been so relieved as I was the minute it was over. I don’t know how many lashes I received, probably about ten, but I believed that the grapefruit size bruise that spanned both cheeks had a story to tell.

Child protection laws rendered it illegal to leave long lasting marks, especially bruises. I don’t remember how, but I was familiar with these laws, so I assumed that naturally, this would be the tipping point for my mother. She couldn’t ignore bruises like that, could she?  Her reaction to the bruise was similar to all of my other complaints of abuse. “What did you do?” or “I’m sure they didn’t mean to leave a bruise like that.” I think she felt trapped and conflicted with her lack of choices, which caused her to ignore inconvenient truths. How else does one justify such victim-blaming statements?

On another occasion Sir saw fit to humiliate me during an assembly, for no reason in particular. He was explaining that a new girl from a foreign country had just become a student, but didn’t speak any English.

“You have to talk softly to her,” he said. “Not like Jennifer Johnson. Don’t say ‘Helloooo!’” he said, while making loud, guttural sounds, as though he were mimicking an actual monster. The students laughed as I teared up. It didn’t seem to matter that I was the new girl’s only friend, and had been spending my free time taking her around, pointing to objects and saying them in English so she could repeat and learn, which she seemed to greatly appreciate. I was absolutely mortified. After the laughter died down he asked,  “Is Jennifer crying yet?” with a big shit eating grin on his face. To his great satisfaction, I was.

Mr. Lynch did this to me on more than two occasions, but these were the most memorable. Perhaps my behavioral problems were so severe that I deserved a beating now and again. But I can’t recall any “fair” beatings.  Justified disciplinary actions are far less eventful than flagrant acts of abuse, so the abuse what I remember.

The thing is, I knew he was wrong. I knew that what was happening to me was not normal. I knew it was unjust. I often wonder if this has something to do with the fact that I was raised without religion. Most kids accept what happens in their childhoods as the norm, but I had a better bullshit detector than most, and I wasn’t even remotely impressed with fake father figures with misguided God complexes. I hated the man, through and through. I understood his intentions.

* * *

I can’t remember why, at the age of eleven I was finally withdrawn. Maybe my mother’s guilt got the better of her, or maybe she believed that I would be less violent after living in such punitive, despotic circumstances. I honestly don’t recall many the details of my visits home because as bad as they might have been, it was always better to be home. For this reason, I can’t reliably tell you if I struck Laurie less often or with less malice during visits home or after my tenure at Chartwell. What I can tell you is that I was still a very angry child, probably more so than I had been previously.

What I didn’t figure out until adulthood was that the man was just bat shit crazy. Before that, I was too busy reflecting on how evil he was and how much he had hurt me.  I didn’t have the emotional resources left to consider his illness.  After some processing, the guilty verdict remains in tact. I have no pity for the man and his sickness.  He’s harmed too many people to cash in on any of my empathy. As one victim stated,  “ The ruined lives this guy is responsible for is staggering.”

Brendan Burt was a student in the early eighties right before the school was shut down. He told me that Lynch would routinely bring him into his office, order him to pull down his pants, fondle his genitals, penetrate his anus with his finger and then beat him. He also informed me that on one occasion Lynch threatened to break his mother’s arm if he told anyone about the abuse, and that sometimes after beatings Lynch would congratulate him for “taking it like a man.”

Perhaps one of the most disturbing accounts revolved around a year long epidemic of bowel incontinence that took place in the boys’ dormitories. According to Brendan, some of the boys were defecating in their beds, and the afflicted students were all assigned to designated rooms. “Those rooms should have been quarantined,” he recounted, since the odor was so foul. None of the girls were affected, which suggests it was not the result of a contagious illness. At first I thought it must have been caused by rectal damage resulting from sodomy, but an equally plausible scenario is that it was psychosomatic; students were soiling themselves to keep Lynch away from their rectums. Apparently, some students just stopped wiping themselves after a bowel movement, probably to the same end.

I understand that Lynch died in 2011 after becoming very ill during a trip to Cuba. The official story is that he went there with a group of missionaries, but it is widely suspected that this trip was intended as a sex tour for pedophiles, although I cannot confirm or deny this.

* * *

The worst part about this for me is that my mom had always been dodgy when it came to being accountable for having sent me to this school in the first place. We had blowouts about it every Christmas for a while, until my stepfather Phil, made a point of convincing my mother to accept some blame for what had happened.

I remember wailing, sitting on our soft off-white sectional sofa, all facing one another surrounded by ravaged gift-wrapping paper and an all-white-lit Christmas tree several feet away.  I don’t remember how the conversation started, but I remember saying something like “I came home with a huge bruise on my ass and you sent me back!”

“How do you know you had a bruise? How could you see it?” Yeah, she really asked me that.

“In a mirror!” I said

“What mirror?” my mom answered.

At this point my stepfather Phil intervened. “Gretchen!” he said with a shocked look.

This was the Christmas that put this subject to rest. By her own admission, Phil was the only man my mom ever really loved. She didn’t love my father or my first stepfather. Phil was her one and only true love, so his opinion mattered. My mom realized that this was the time to stop belittling me, and take my complaints about Chartwell seriously. I was about twenty-two or twenty-three and this was the first robust apology she’d ever given me. It was heartfelt, and all I ever needed from her.

“I’m sorry Jen, I’m sorry I sent you to such a horrible place. If I had to do it over I would choose another option. I wish I could take it back, but I just can’t. I was a young mother and I didn’t know how to control the situation. I had no support from your father or anyone else. The seventies were a very mother-blaming era. I thought I was doing the right thing at the time.”

There was truth to a lot in that. They didn’t know then what they know now about ADHD. Every time there was something wrong with a kid it was just assumed that the mother was fully culpable. My mother was working full-time, taking care of my sister, and going through rancorous court proceedings with my father regarding retroactive, unpaid child support. Consequently, she had deluded herself into thinking that a military type environment would protect Laurie for a time and set me straight. She was correct about the former, but mistaken about the latter.

* * *

I googled  “Chartwell Manor boarding school abuse” just recently, and several articles popped out at me. In the internet age with so much information at my disposal, I wonder why I never considered doing this earlier. All these years it was just a button tap away. It might have given me better clarity into the depths of Lynch’s twisted inner workings.  I guess I thought it was all behind me.

According to an article published in 2006 by Peggy Wright also from the Morristown, New Jersey Daily Record, boys were routinely lined up naked, beaten, and molested through various ceremonial manifestations. As Wright points out, Michael Uhl described Lynch as having “a forceful, hypnotic quality that compelled students to obey him, even when he bent them over his knee to beat them with a slipper, his hand, a brush or paddle”.  The article also explains that Lynch “went to prison for seven of a 14-year sentence for sexually abusing boys by spanking them, squeezing their genitals, or giving them enemas.”

I spoke to Mr. Uhl on the phone for five hours recently. Due to the statute of limitations, Uhl was the only student from our era to successfully sue Lynch. His lawyer argued that the memories of the abuse were so painful that Uhl had repressed them until his twenties,

so effectively that he was sending Lynch yearly Christmas cards, even after he had been incarcerated for his crimes. Lynch used various techniques to indoctrinate students. What I remember specifically is being forced to watch the Sidney Poitier movie “To Sir With Love” every year. I also remember graduation ceremonies, where graduates were forced to sing “Thank You Very Much” from “A Chorus Line”. Our yearbooks were filled with self-aggrandizing statements written by and about Lynch in the third person. The pervasive theme in all these examples seemed to be the unending gratitude we should all feel for a person who was essentially, our kidnapper.

Some of Wright’s anecdotes came from students like Andrew Fleisig who claimed he got a “bare-bottomed spanking” just for crying when he arrived at Chartwell for the first time. Sound familiar? Student Glenn Head, who attended Chartwell around the same time I did, claimed that Lynch was fond of “beating the boys, and then cuddling them when they cried.”

Some students claim that they were commanded to masturbate in front of Lynch, while others say that he forced them to perform oral sex on him. Still others have stated that Lynch sodomized them. The school offered an annual trip to Europe for one thousand dollars, which was a lot of money at the time. My parents were broke, so I never went myself. In retrospect I’m grateful for my parents financial limitations, because some-of the worst abuse was said to have occurred on these trips. Since laws regarding the consumption of alcohol are more relaxed in Europe, Lynch allowed the students to drink beer and wine. One student claimed that he was drugged, raped and filmed by a group accompanying Lynch. That student has since committed suicide. He confided in Uhl about the incident, and for this reason I am unaware of his identity. Since then, I have heard of at least four other boys who took their own lives sometime after leaving Chartwell. I did specifically seek out information about suicide in my research. This was all mentioned to me through casual conversation. If you consider the fact that the percentage of former students who are in touch with one another is a mere fraction of all Chartwell alumni, it would be logical from a mathematical standpoint to assume that there were many more, perhaps dozens who took their own lives.

Many students such as Sam Jacobs and Kevin Steiner struggled with substance abuse. Some became criminals. Kevin Steiner died in a car accident, during which time he was in and out of rehab and stealing cars. At one point he stole Lynch’s cars. Sam Jacobs became a convicted rapist at the age of 14, mere weeks after Lynch had sodomized him.

Brendan internalized the blame and engaged in self-sabotage in the form of heavy drug abuse. He didn’t know why until the age of 30, when visions of Chartwell were revealed in a dream. “I barely slept for the next three years,” he told me. Both Mike Uhl and Brendan Burt had managed to keep the memories at bay until adulthood, but in both cases all their recollections came flooding back in a single defining moment, like an emotional tsunami. In Uhl’s case it occurred when Lynch sent him an odd, metaphor riddled, parable from prison, which contained a strange message about embracing victimhood.

But Lynch abused children even before the creation of Chartwell Manor. Bill Moore was a Jewish sixth grader in the 1960s at Somerset Hills School in Warren, Somerset County where according to former teacher Jerry Amedeo Lynch was fired when the owner discovered he was spanking children. The sexual abuse was only discovered after Lynch left, when students felt safe enough to start talking.  Not only were students beaten, forced to parade naked together and selected to cuddle in bed with Mr. Lynch for intimate TV time, Wright explains how Moore described a scene to him where “Lynch would hold part of a comb to his upper lip and imitate Adolf Hitler.” In 2006 Lynch volunteered at an adult rehab center called Beginnings where he molested men, presumably because he no longer had access to children.

His Beginnings victims say he posed as a real doctor to facilitate molestation, and asked to be called “Dr. Mike” In an ironic twist; it was Lynch’s parole officer that landed him the position at Beginnings, on account of his “experience” as a headmaster, in spite of his status as a registered sex offender.  Lynch pleaded guilty to three fondling charges, after which he did spent only ten months in a county jail. The short sentence probably had something to do with how well he was well connected with the local police, to whom he gave expensive bottles of scotch every Christmas.

* * *

The year of 1984 completed almost two decades of Lynch abuse that fell under the radar of law enforcement. I was nineteen that year, and wished I’d heard about his incarceration then. It might have given me some closure earlier. I also might have been able to write this essay while the Lynches were still alive, exposing them to the entire country. I had never realized that I was actually one of the lucky ones. There are undoubtedly countless survivors as well as causalities.

“Sir” Terrence Michael Lynch is dead and in the ground, but his legacy of tyranny will live on a long time. According to extensive psychological research, it is likely that many victims’ stories will bleed into generations of families to come. Jacobs is a case in point.

After a great deal of research I discovered that Sam started sexually abusing girls in early adolescence and at fourteen, raped a girl at knifepoint. According to Sam, Lynch had attempted to sodomize him shortly before, but was unable to complete the act, because Sam screamed so loudly from the pain that Lynch retreated for fear of exposure.

“He would beat me, molest me, and then rub my butt and tell me how much he loved me,” Sam told me. “He was like a father figure.”

“That’s probably what fucked you up the most,” I said.

“It definitely is,” he responded.

Sam committed his first offense as an adult in the year of 1977 and spent ten years in prison. As far as I’m concerned, this is Lynch’s handiwork. I don’t excuse Sam for his behavior, as I believe he made a choice to rape. I firmly believe however, that he would not have become a rapist if it weren’t for the years of abuse he endured.

Sam was released from a treatment facility in 1987 and in 1994, married and had a daughter, but was divorced shortly thereafter on account of heavy drug and alcohol use. He was re-incarcerated from 2002-2006 on a stalking charge. According to court documents from 2006 and 2009, Sam was sentenced to remain at a sex offender treatment facility under a civil commitment mandate, in spite of the fact that he had completed his prison sentence and hadn’t committed an actual sex crime in decades.  Because of the stalking incident, the court decided that he was still a sexually violent predator, even though the stalking charge was ruled as a non-sexual. He is still being detained today.

Sam and I talk on the phone a lot these days.  He told me that Lynch abused him sexually, physically and emotionally with frequency and severity. “ I don’t hate women,” he told me. “When I raped those girls I never really wanted to hurt anybody. Some of them fought back and I let those girls go, because I didn’t want to be violent. I didn’t realize that rape was violent or harmful. I was insecure and didn’t know how to talk to girls. Lynch took away all my control. I thought this was the only way to get it back. I thought it was the only way to prove that I was a man.”

“Didn’t your victims cry?” I asked him.

“No, actually, they just begged me not to hurt them. I told them I didn’t want to hurt them. During my incarceration I underwent a lot of therapy. It wasn’t until then that I realized what kind of damage I had done. Before that, I actually believed that they enjoyed it. I even went down on a few of them before I raped them, so it could feel more like seduction than rape”

Earlier, I had sent Sam a heartfelt letter along with a copy of my latest version of the memoir and some copies of articles regarding Lynch’s incarceration. He said that the pictures of Lynch in the article filled him with terror and that he cried when he read my letter. I don’t think he is accustomed to people treating him with empathy.

“Sam,” I said. “You do realize that when your victims see pictures of you they have the same visceral reaction. You get that, right?”

“I do now,” he said. “I really regret hurting those women. I was an asshole.”

Sam Jacobs was a handsome, young boy. When he was only four years old his father put him in Lynch’s care at Somerset Hills where Lynch was then headmaster. After Lynch was fired from Somerset and created Chartwell Manor, Sam’s father allowed Lynch to take his son with him. Research conducted over a number of years indicates that a child’s conscience and capacity for empathy is not fully formed before the age of six. Some people remember a very different Sam Jacobs than the one that the psychologists, lawyers and inmate staff know today.

The Sam Jacobs I briefly knew as a kid was sweet and playful, never mean spirited; at least not to me. There were plenty of bullies there. He was not one of them, despite the fact that I was an awkward, skinny little girl with buck teeth, six years his junior, who was bullied by many. Amedeo, who was also Sam’s teacher from Somerset recalls Sam as “a great kid.” Lynch robbed Sam of both his innocence and humanity. He never stood a chance. His tragic story gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “school to prison pipeline”

So how do I think and feel, now that I know what I know? I’m sad for his male victims, but thankful that he didn’t molest girls, at least as far as I know. As unpleasantly as I experienced those three years, I take comfort in the fact that I wasn’t a young boy or teenage girl at Chartwell Manor. I now wonder how many former students have become pedophiles themselves. I’m happy Lynch did some hard time, but I wish it had been longer. I’m disgusted that a registered sex offender was given the freedom to abuse again with such apparent ease and negligent oversight.

How many other victims are now out there hurting people? And who will their victims hurt? How many lost, broken Lynch souls are running amok without refuge? These are questions few of us can answer. We only know that the infamy of the man we knew as “Sir” and “Dr. Mike” is likely to live on well after our lifetimes, and that is the most unsettling aspect of all.

 

 

BIO

Elizabeth JohnsonJennifer Elizabeth Johnson has a BA in sociology, studied creative writing at Austin Community College. She currently lives in Newark, New Jersey. She’s lived in five countries and is a cinephile who believes that dubbing movies in another language is a grave crime against art. She wishes Bernie Sanders was her father.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bloodline

by Janet Damaske

 

 

My mother had the best set of legs; anyone who ever saw them would agree. They didn’t see much sun and they didn’t go on forever like some great legs do, but they were dancer legs, always working, twirling, pointing, flexing, barely ever still.

When she got the call that her cancer had come back for the third time, she and I were standing in a subway station. When I saw her face fall, I sat down on a bench and lowered my head, my eyes resting on those legs. They were still for longer than a moment. But when they started moving again, her body stayed still and her left leg straightened and stiffened, while her right leg swung forward, kicking back, toe pointed. I heard her words, quietly spoken, but kept my eyes on those dancing legs and hung onto a shred of hope.

My daughter Grace, now 4, got her Grammy’s legs. They have more definition than one would expect in a tiny person, solid little calves, a miniature version of my mother’s, with the right calve a bit larger than the left. Her legs do not work with the skill that my mother’s did and her toes are never pointed, but they move just as fast and often. Legs pumping, arms flailing, she dances and skips and she runs, towards me, away from me, sometimes stumbling, always counting on me to steady her, no matter where I am.

Grace and Mom missed each other by six months and seven days. I took the pregnancy test in the hospice house where my mother was dying of ovarian cancer. She cried and then laughed: “I bet that’s the only pregnancy test that’s ever been taken in this place.” It was April then; we thought if only she could make it to Christmas, she’d get to meet my second child. But she was gone by May.

In the weeks when my mother lay dying, Grace was taking form – her heart pumping blood; her brain and spine developing; her tiny nose, toes, fingernails, all brand new. I cannot decide how I feel about this, that at the precise time my mom’s heart was slowing pace, as her body was shutting down for its final rest, Grace’s was booting up. The little girl whom Mom and I had spent years envisioning slipped right past her Grammy, leaving me hopelessly shouting, “You missed her! You missed Grammy! She was JUST HERE!” And to Mom, “Tell me you can see this child. Tell me you aren’t actually missing this.” One is here and one is not.

And now, I see my mother’s legs and her petite hands and her long, narrow fingers and the walnut shell shape of her eyes in my 4-year old girl. I wrap her folded hands in mine and cup them to my face, breathe her in. I never meant to see my mother in my daughter, but I do, and I am grateful, but also troubled.

My mother got her good looks and her hot temper from her mother. Her love of music and her nervous energy came from her father. And, it seems, the mutated BRCA2 gene that we discovered in the years before her death came from him as well. This imperceptibly small error lay along the Chromosome 13, where one particular gene, whose job is to suppress certain cancers, breast and ovarian among them, simply does not work. The BRCA gene ended my mother’s life long before her body should have ever shut down.

I can’t say I was shocked to learn years after her death that the exact same mutated gene ended up on my own Chromosome 13. I have her green eyes and her inability to lie and that tiny dimple at the top of my left ear. I have her nervous energy and I have her bloody BRCA2 mutation, and I have a terrible suspicion that my daughter does too.

“Will Grace have to do what you did?” My 7-year old son asks on our way home from karate.

He refers to my double mastectomy and my bilateral salpingo-oopherectomy, though he doesn’t entirely understand what he’s asking or what’s gone on. My breasts and ovaries and fallopian tubes are gone now, but that doesn’t mean a whole lot to him. He has been told there will be no more siblings, which he’s responded to with relief more than anything. And he knows that if he puts his hand on my chest I will flinch, not out of pain, but because I’ll never get used to this numbness. I’ve been scraped out and refilled, and what is there now is hard, foreign, and entirely man made.

“I hope not, Noah, but I really don’t know,” I say, looking in the rearview mirror as Grace, buckled in her five-point harness, stares sleepily out her window.

When he was 5 and she was 2, and I had just learned I was BRCA positive, I had my breasts removed to prevent my near 50 percent chance of getting breast cancer before age 70. My toddling girl stared at me in bed, poked at my bandages and stared at the drainage tubes protruding out of my skin. “That hurt, mama? Your booboos hurt? Why did you get boobies at the hospital?” The words are used interchangeably and over time, it sticks. Booboos, boobies, they are the same.

My tiny nurse watched over me in the weeks that followed my mastectomy, nestled up to my side, sometimes standing over me as I awoke from medication-induced naps. She’d stay an arms length from the tubes dangling from my chest, but she was not afraid of the rest of me. She’d run her tiny finger along the bandages, and later, along the bright red scabbing lines, and later, along the fading scars. She’d check on me by the day; she’d comment on my improvement. “Oh! Better! The booboos look great, Mama! No more boobies!”

If ever I’d been forced to picture this time of my life, breasts removed, a sense of disfigurement sweeping through me, it was my mother who was standing over me, feeding me comfort and warmth, with soft words and soup from a can. But in her place, a not quite three foot, fuzzy-headed, pacifier-addicted, heavy-breathing, sweaty morsel of energy. She fed me plastic chicken thighs in tiny blue bowls made for stuffed animal tea parties and I felt better.

Early this year, when she was 4 and I, 36, a spike in a routine screening test resulted in a surgery my doctor advised I have as soon as possible, and so out came my ovaries and my fallopian tubes and any hope of one more pregnancy. I came home exhausted and infertile, and began my recovery by sleeping through the day. Grace peered in on me, listless on the couch, that late Friday morning, and then quietly mentioned she was tired too. She walked up the stairs and slept, three long naps within that one day, broken up only by mealtimes. She hadn’t napped in over a year and she’s never napped since. She will likely not remember this day, but I always will.

I did not expect to accept empathy from a 4 year old or nurturing from a 2 year old, but I suppose she started holding me up long before I even met her, perhaps from the moment I realized a life was starting in a place that only sees death. A chance of hope, subdued indeed by my own shame at envisioning a future while those residing in the same space were reaching back into their lives once lived or, worse, simply at a standstill, just waiting to die.

Because I never really believed my mother was actually dying, even as she lay on her deathbed, she held her place in my daydreams, right plunk in the middle, holding the new baby while I chased my son. Still, today, she is there in my head, coming in the front door of my home, whisking the kids away to the park, laughing as she closes the door behind her and runs to catch up with them.

The room across the hospice house hall must have welcomed and parted with at least five people in the six weeks we were there. I always knew when the end had come; calmly whispering nurses, sometimes with tears, followed by a noticeable increase in activity in and out of the room. At some point, our door would get quietly closed as the room across the hall was emptied. I listened and watched as it all took place, every time, and still I could not picture the moment that this scene would be ours to experience.

Things were perhaps more settled in our room, but our shared desperation became more palpable by the day until we could not help but acknowledge it. My mother took the lead, and in stunned, silent resolution, we followed. One day, she asked me to bring my laptop to her bed; we spent that afternoon online buying clothes for her grandkids in ascending sizes to cover the next several years. Another day, she sat the family down to explain where all Christmas decorations could be found. Other days, she talked about where she wanted her clothes to go after she was gone. On the nights when it was only she and I, we talked about baby names.

Most days, I lay next to my mother in a reclining chair and sometimes I crawled into bed with her, unable to put any space between us. At times, I sobbed until I could hardly breathe, and when my mother, sinking deeper, could no longer calm me down, the thought of my little boy and the tiny person I was supposed to be making usually did; I’d catch my breath, anyway; I’d pause to breathe. I wondered if a fetus could survive this sort of stress. Hang on, please just hang on, I thought, hand on my stomach, eyes on my mother.

I hovered over her in those final weeks, checked her feeding tubes, brushed her hair, added blush to her cheeks, and, later on, I sat towards her head and dripped water from a sponge, the slowest drips, every few minutes, onto her lips and her tongue.

What I wanted, every minute, just one more lucid moment with her, and then one more, until the day came when I was too afraid I’d waste her energy if she gave it to me. I begged my father to stop trying to make her talk because I wanted her around longer. He looked at me frantically and I covered my face, knowing full well I had chosen her stability over his.

And there I was, both daughter and mother to my mother, holding on for dear life.

The years following my mother’s death were uniquely lonely and humbling for all of us. I did not stop it – or even realize it – when Grace, in her infancy and in all her innocence, somehow took the reins and blindly guided us along. I welcomed her neediness, my hands in motion all day, changing diapers, offering milk, wiping spit-up, thrusting something new into the life of our family.

I never meant for Grace to help save us from our grief. But it couldn’t be helped. Born into a family in mourning, this six-pound morsel seemed to have passed her maternal grandmother in the night. Six months and seven days after our loss, here was Grace, reflexively grabbing our thumbs and not letting go, and we could not help but feel a relief akin to rescue. It was never fair, but it couldn’t be helped.

And now she is a child. I look towards this little girl and, it seems, I’ve created a miniature version of myself. I see her fine, scraggly hair and hear her raucous, unapologetic laugh. I watch her in her shyness, stepping back, observing, and I see her, in moments, tangle her words in her tongue and quickly ask me to erase what she said. I see her head in the clouds and her eyes on me and, as I look back at her, I see my own reflection.

But oh, how I want a map of her genes, to be assured that if we magnified her Chromosome 13, it would look exactly like her daddy’s and nothing at all like mine. Perhaps the day our coded strands were grabbed and combined at random was a lucky day for her. I am full of doubt, but for now, what more can I do but hold onto the chance that her shapely leg gene and her boisterous laugh gene lie on any other chromosome than 13? Perhaps her BRCA2 gene is entirely intact and we have somehow broken this wearisome, worrisome pattern.

Each morning, she slowly emerges from her room and walks downstairs, a late riser like me, with her arms outstretched. She’s getting big now, but I lift her up and she collapses in my arms. I pat down the thin layer of hair that covers her head, pull it out of her face and look at her. “I missed you last night!” I say, and it’s true. Because, after all, this is a love story. It is a love story with perhaps more complexities than other love stories I’ve been able to tell. It’s a love story between a daughter and a mother and a grandmother, though two of us have never met. Here are three Davis girls who, in and out of life, have held each other together, swapping roles, instinctively grabbing ahold of one another in desperation or support. Yes, we are daughters of BRCA, but more importantly, what runs through our blood is fierce love, an intuitive need to heal each other’s pain, an energy that endures on and on and on. We dance on until we’re entirely out of breath.

I was not there the morning my mother died. After weeks of sleeping on a hospice house couch, I began to think that if this baby did have any chance of surviving, I needed to spend my nights in my home, make steps towards some sense of balance. The last evening we spoke, she was barely conscious and impossibly weak; she had not moved on her own in days. I sat on the left side of the bed, leaned over her head and kissed her again and again. “I can’t say goodbye but I need to watch out for this baby,” I said. “I think I need to go home tonight, Mom. How can I go?” I laid my head and arms upon my mother’s tiny body and shook with sadness, soaking my face and her sheets. And then I felt a hand on my head, the gentlest touch, now smoothing my hair. I looked up and saw her face, drenched in tears, and I saw she was nodding. I will miss you so much, said the sorrow in her eyes. But you need to take care of my daughter and my grandbaby, said their twinkle, still alive, amidst the green. At some point that night, and I don’t know when, I lifted my head, rose from her bed, and slowly walked to the door.

 

 

 

BIO

Janet DamaskeJanet Hope Damaske is a stay-at-home mother with interests in writing, reading, editing and psychology. After earning her BA in psychology with a minor in creative writing at Hamilton College, she worked for several years at a rehabilitation center for people with mental illness, providing job training and running a writer’s group for creative therapy. She later moved onto a career in medical publishing, where she continues to work part-time. Janet currently volunteers with several non-profit organizations in her hometown of Winchester MA, where she lives with her husband and two children. She writes a blog, which can be found at http://jhdamaske.blogspot.com. This is her first published piece.

 

Kristian Hoffman

David Bowie Diary Entry

by
Kristian Hoffman

 

I was introduced to David Bowie because of a Rolling Stone article about “Hunky Dory.” Yes, I was THAT pedestrian. But it seemed sort of “gay-ish” with that Lauren Bacall cover, and piqued our nascence stirring for an outrageous representative, and our perhaps too forgiving love of all things British. Atypically of the time, my friend Lance Loud had already schooled me in the fine art of shoplifting, and, being a completist, I drove down to Tower Records in L.A. and proceeded to steal everything in the current David Bowie catalogue, which included The Man Who Sold the World, Mad of Words, Man of Music, and a few British import 45s. It was love, and some befuddlement, at first listen.

Then the local record store on Coast Village Road, in Santa Barbara, from which I regularly sneaked out LPs under my faux Portabello Road Pepper-adjacent epauletted jacket, happened to have a whole cardboard box of Bowie’s ill-reviewed Deram 1rst LP, for 10 cents apiece! I actually think I paid for that. I was confused by the Newley mannerisms, and didn’t care for the lumpen “comedy” moments, but was intrigued enough that when “Images” was released, I easily fell profoundly in love with “In The Heat Of The Morning,” a song I have occasionally attempted to perform, with varying, but not altogether unpleasant results, ’til this very day.

It’s hard to imagine a time when I could make out a diary entry as specific as the one I have included here. By the time I moved to NYC in the 1970s, the bridge between the NY Dolls and the CBGBs/Max’s scene was so dizzying with daily incessant adventure and event that I could barely keep track.

But I thought I’d share with you an actual diary entry from 1970, when a fairly unsophisticated child trapped in the rusticating environs of Santa Barbara suburbancy had to share, if only with ‘Dear Diary” his fledgling experience of “La Bowie.”

 

Kristian Hoffman (ACTUAL) Diary Entry
March 7, 1973

 

Last night I went to see David Bowie at the Long Beach Arena with Michele and Delilah Loud, both sisters of my long time “best friend” Lance Loud. Both endearing little nippers in their own way; however I must confide in you I like Michele’s “own way” a trifle more than Delilah’s — I know comparison is odious – but if it’s unfair, that’s just fine, because it’s MY BOOK. It’s just that Michele really laughs when she sees old people fall down.

Anyway, Mr. Bowie (I will resist the temptation to make Mr., Mrs., Miss, and Ms. jokes, but won’t resist it very well) has been one of my very few self-indulgent, coveted, and clipped fave raves lately, and his concerts are “events,” or at least time markers in my life right now. And they are also nice fillers of comfortable small talk for letters to “friends” (still one of my favorite words, along with the meaningless “special”) which otherwise might have been embarrassingly short.

I can chat about him, express concern, delight, and even interest in his hair dressing methods, his clothes, and of course the latest albums, which I can play OVER AND OVER again — a real redeeming feature!

And besides, he’s just so great — he’s made his entire life into a great show, and if the “jams” are too long, the romantic interest makes up, as do the cute idiosyncrasies, so worthy of classic fan magazine write-ups.

On the way down to Long Beach in my fairly recently purchased Chevy Vega ($2,000.00 new, as I recall; I asked for it in silver because I thought that was Andy Warhol-esque), we had to stop for gas at a strange freeway turnoff near the venue, and some stranger who could be kindly described as rumpled, but less kindly described as “homeless” or “a bum” accosted the girls and asked, “Where are you going?” They kindly but a little trepidatiously replied, “To see David Bowie!” The apparently culturally attuned vagrant replied excitedly, “Jane Boo? I LOVE Jane Boo!” without further incident.

Anyway, Michele and I sat, rather conservatively dressed, next to a sparkling and glittering Delilah, whose whole-hearted commitment to a sort of strumpet/contempo prom queen attire is one of her best features, and exchanged turns with the binoculars while waiting with avid attempts at breathlessness for SOMETHING to happen.

It finally did – the lights went down, and as the communal oooh-aaah loosened itself free, a reluctant and somewhat washed-out crowd, a spotlight revealed that, NO! It wasn’t Mr. BOO-wee. It was just the hitherto unnamed “Supporting Act”, which turned out to be JUST THAT – a mediocre, if fashionably imported, ’50s revival band called Fumble with a pleasant lead vocal that failed to even whisper the rumor of competition to the obvious rival in the field, Sha Na Na.

I allowed myself a modicum of irateness because OF COURSE it was an insult to the negligible part of the crowd who had come to see Davey-Baby, and NOT just to make the scene. But even though it didn’t seem like it, Fumble was over soon enough.

Then the already familiar Clockwork Orange-ified Beethoven came on, with the same old familiar strobe, and David and band did “Hang Onto Yourself” with Mr. B in the first of FIVE costumes: a slick white tapestry (with culottes) suit and orange patent leather space boots.

Then a couple more quick rockers and a switch into gold lame, which was quivering and quavering on the edge of fashionability (DANGER! DANGER!) but still looked pretty keen. Mr. B had not brought the “show” that Lance had ranted and raved over, but had brought a quite nice horn section, and a mellotron, so “Space Oddity” didn’t sound quite so much like a rich kid’s home movie, and “Suffragette City” took on a pleasantly pregnant tone.

Then, in “Width of a Circle”, he changed during the ENDLESS GUITAR BREAK (evidently part of the ENDLESS things that showbiz has given us to ponder, and be endlessly ponderous) into the UGLIEST DRESS which Lance calls a “KAFTAN”, which was white satin with those green and orange sort of bird/rainbow deals on it that reminded me of a nice plastic bib to protect a loving but appearance-aware mother from baby’s messy strained pears, and he billowed about in that for a while before settling on an invisible chair to sing “My Death,” which was the FIRST song the crowd warmed up to, oddly enough.

I mean – I like that song – but in my automatically condescending frame of reference towards “THEM,” it never occurred to me that “THEY” would like it.

Then he stood up and these “mysterious” green-clad figures emerged from the shadowy sides of the stage, each grabbing a sleeve from Mr. B’s outstretched arms, and as they pulled back, the costume pulled off “LIKE MAGIC” to reveal the looniest outfit I had seen in a coon’s age.

It was this skin tight sort of double-knit pantsuit with a silly Penney’s stripes and squares pattern on it, completed with detached leggings and sleeves. The main part of it might have been a tank top, except that it extended up the middle of his chest with the sort of turtleneck collar. And of course his sometimes self-consciously posturing bare feet were a sight for sore eyes, or an eyesore, because I had always wondered if he was really THAT white all over.

So — ON with the fluffily light green feather boa, and a vamp with an ENDLESS cigarette holder (to add to that ENDLESS list) to the tune of a great new song called “Time,” during which the rest of the group re-emerged with a bare chested Mick Ronson, who, mere moments before, had sported a fetching black patent leather outfit, and a bass player ensconced in some sort of madcap bird costume – VERY SPACE AGE OF COURSE – with the stupid but fetching little growths curling out from his shoulders.

Oh dear, am I beginning to sound, heaven forbid, like Star Magazine’s fashion editor?

Well, at least I won’t have to bother to remember it all, because, you – dear diary – will remember it for me!

Anyway, B made his ultimate bid for Piaf-dom with that song “Time,” and then pranced around for a few more songs before ending with the aforementioned “Suffragette City,” only to come back for an encore of “Jean Genie” in a white satin jump suit and white iceberg clogs transparently appropriated from the New York Dolls’ Mercer Arts shows, which caused him some consternation and a very near fall. He kicked them off in the general direction of a pretty enthusiastic crowd. What a show!

But that crowd – they were too boring and wishy-washy to rush the stage, and although Delilah and I tried to fend off the brutish security guards and scramble down the aisle, we were thrown back into the backs of an already despairing audience who were heading towards the exits. What are floor seats floor if not to overcome security? So we sat there in our seats, soaking up energy with no release, and that was time enough to nervously ponder the prospects of just GETTING OUT OF THERE before we were trapped in a jumble of bumbling Long Beach-ites. Almost before the encore was over, Michele, Delilah and I rushed out to the parking lot, and, finding all the exits barricaded for some obscure reason, drove my trusty Vega right over the curb – where it teetered agonizingly for a moment next to the screaming “No Stopping At Any Time” sign, and headed back to Santa Barbara. Jane Boo!

 

 

BIO

Kristian HoffmanKristian Hoffman was the founder and main songwriter for Mumps, his CBGBs era punk/pop combo with Lance Loud of PBS’ “American Family,” also being a member of the Contortions, the Swinging Madisons, and Bleaker Street Incident. He went on to become musical director and songwriter for Klaus Nomi, musical director and songwriter for Ann Magnuson, musical director for Rufus Wainwright, and toured with the Kinks’ Dave Davies for five years.

He has since released four solo CDs, while playing keys, touring and/or songwriting with Congo Norvell, Abby Travis, El Vez, Jane Wiedlin, Prince Poppycock, Timur Bekbosunov, Lydia Lunch, and many more.

 

Maximum Compound: Mug Shots

by Stephanie Dickinson

 

“Anything with glitter is great. The girls go crazy over that. We use it for make-up and art so when you see a card with glitter, send it.” — Krystal Riordan, Inmate #661387

 

&

CLINTON, NJ. Edna Mahon Correctional Facility for Women

Maximum Compound revolves around the sun but the air’s darker and more confined. Understand these aren’t the femme fatales and sex selling dahlias, not the thieves and drug dealers, not the welfare cheats or DUI violators, these women are the violent offenders. They don’t pull up in a Porsche; they’re transported under armed guard. They’re young, they’re ghetto, white trash, a few are middle-aged college-graduates, some will get their GED here and take college classes, others will become senior citizens, some will die here. They’ll arrive pregnant, psychotic, post-traumatically stressed, they’ll deliver their baby here, or have a hysterectomy. They’ve got dreads, and natural blonde locks, they’re tattooed like a graphic novel and wearing the last address of their baby daddy inked on their wrist. Many of these women have killed or kidnapped an employer, neighbor, husband, child, a stranger. Maximum Compound women arrive encumbered with their crimes and the weight of their sentences. They arrive put upon and willing to use anyone.

 

“I need to get some favors if it’s possible. I’m really struggling. I have not been getting my state pay for the last 2 months. I have 1 bar of soap to my name. Is there anyway you can send me $30 by next Wednesday so I can order? I feel like a bum. Also can you call this number for my friend Shanikah and tell him to write her or email her. He lives in Newark but has a house in Summit NJ. Happy Holidays

Krystal Riordan, Inmate #661387

 

&

It’s a rule bound world, a world where dance competitions and making birthday chili and rice for your girlfriend co-exist with fight blood on the floor. Although time is filled with a job, a routine, a mess hall schedule, real time stales. It pools around you, goes stagnant, and doesn’t flow. Each day is similar from the view of a locked world, a day hard and long to get through, and the years flying away. There are no hickories and maples and quaking aspen, no huge-eyed deer. No smell of burning pretzel dough. No strolling into a Starbucks for a coffee tall. No dressing to go out looking edible as tiramisu. The outside world stands still, remembered. The inmates in Maximum Compound count their absence from the outside in decades. Television is their one window. Rules, rules. Yet life teems here—new inmates arrive, new friendships, new loves, new hates. I’ve been a friend to this prison planet, this Maximum Compound where the most dangerous women in New Jersey live, the ones who the media portray as topping the depravity index. EMCF lies outside Clinton, a two-hour trip by car from Manhattan, but for those visitors without vehicles, there’s a prison bus that leaves from Midtown on Friday evening and arrives eight hours later. All must prepare to be searched, and to stow their possessions in a locker, before visiting an inmate. No water, no sodas, nothing but your flesh covered appropriately, i.e. no halter tops or bustiers.

 

Can you please find me an image or 2 of Woody Woodpecker, Angry Birds, and Stewie from the Family Guy. My friend needs 3 more copies of gothic lettering. Books must arrive via the publisher or Amazon, but Amazon consistently leaves out the packing slip.”

—Lucy Weems, Inmate #922870-C

 

mugshot #1: Krystal RIORDAN

The reason I’m drawn to this world is Krystal Riordan, Inmate #661387. She’s pictured here in sneakers and the white, knee-length shorts and white, short-sleeved t-shirt inmates wear in warm weather. Summers in the New Jersey heat there’s no air conditioning to cool inmates in Maximum Compound only the administrators can control their climate. Winters, Krystal wears grey sweats, an undershirt, a hooded sweatshirt, and tie-up boots. Visiting days, blocks of two hours, a photographer comes and the inmates can pay for pictures with their commissary money. Everything runs through commissary, the real food, the fun food, Tampax and toothbrushes, shampoo and stamps, sneakers and underwear. Krystal is a beauty, her height 5’10”, her skin, the plush pale of an eighteenth century beauty whose face never sees sun and whose lady maid dusts it with a lead powder. Incarcerated for nine years, she’s moved farther beyond the headlines that once focused on her as if she was guiltier than the perpetrator, as if a male’s lust and aggression could be understood, but not a female who doesn’t to stop an attack on a fellow female. On July 26, 2006, Jennifer Moore, age 18, was abducted after a night of underage drinking. Jennifer’s friend drove them in her mother’s car to Manhattan from New Jersey, to go clubbing. The girls parked in a No Standing Zone and when they returned, discovered the car had been towed. The night has interested me since first seeing Jennifer Moore’s picture on the New York Daily News cover. Teen Missing after Night of Underage Drinking. Her face appears as if born underwater of the half-fish, half-human species, dreamily sloe-eyed as if she’s looking over your shoulder. It’s a mysterious face, her half smile like the Mona Lisa’s. The next day the teen’s body is found in a Weehawken dumpster and a pimp and prostitute are under arrest. Weehawken, New Jersey. The ménage à trois that ends with one girl dead, the other girl charged as an accomplice, and her boyfriend confessing to kidnapping, murder, and rape. The city built on the rock cliffs overlooks the Hudson, the pristine waterway that Henry Hudson, the great navigator, marveled at like the Hackensack nation before him. Manhattan lies just across the river and from the ferry launch Weehawken’s cliffs appear as pedestals for trees and stone mansions—like dreams half-remembered in the sleeping heads of robber barons.

 

 

“I used to get a lot of mail but I never wrote them back. “I’m glad you’re in my life. I asked my Mom if she would be interested in talking to you. She said she doesn’t want to dig into the past. That time was hard for her. The Media following them. People they thought were their friends stopped talking to them. She said when she goes out people still whisper behind her back. She will be 70 in November.”

Krystal Riordan, Inmate #661387

 

&

And it was a mugshot I first saw of Krystal Riordan on the cover of the New York Daily News. Hooker Watched boyfriend kill teen. Arrested at age 20, the prostitute girlfriend of ex-con and small-time pimp Draymond Coleman, she had watched him beat and strangle eighteen-year-old Jennifer Moore in a Weehawken hotel room. Panicked, frozen, she’d not tried to stop him. Although, she’d left the room during the assault, she’d alerted no-one and had used the venting machine to buy a soda. This act was caught on the hot-sheet hotel’s video camera, a shabby black-and-white world where green plants, blue water, and air didn’t exist. Sure he would kill her next, she’d split into two beings, one watching herself from a distance. Not quite a robot programmed to obey him, but loyal to a fault. Wearing a pink tube top with spaghetti straps, a nose piercing, and silver necklace, her lips looked caught in mid-tremble. The mugshot that captures her soft face and frightened eyes speak their own truth. Draymond had cracked wide open, he’d snapped. Terrified, she helped him clean the dead girl’s body, and together they disposed of Jennifer in a nearby dumpster. A public defender represented her. Her sentence: thirty years. The maximum. Tabloids had a field day with the story—the underage girl/victim, a hooker, rape and murder. Fox News blamed the victim, pointing out Jennifer’s scanty attire as if a halter top had made the teen deserving of her rape. What should have been a teenage misadventure, an impulsive flirtation with the forbidden, led to ultimate consequences. Bloggers portrayed Draymond Coleman as a force of nature, bestial, hardly human and uninteresting, while they pilloried Krystal as if she were the murderer. On the escort circuit I imagine her blinking her blue icicle eyes but warm icicles. Later she will tell a friend that Draymond had sex with Jennifer after she was dead. In county jail Krystal stared at the floor for month, not speaking.

 

“Please look in the jewelry section for a cross and chain (Walkenhorsts.com caters to Institutions). The cross no larger than 1 inch by 1 inch. The chain no longer than 12 inches. I want to give Krystal a cross for her birthday. It is the only necklace they allow.”

Lucy Weems, Inmate #922870-C

 

&

After you’ve befriended an inmate, the Maximum Compound of requests comes at you, things that only someone on the outside can finesse. “Please help me buy a toy for my daughter’s birthday from Kmart or Toys R Us. Some type of fashion design kit of lip glosses or a cute purse from Hey Kitty.” You who can make duplicates of court documents, who can goggle and download welfare applications, who can Xerox copies in full-color of the nameless photographs that come in stacks. The photographs are so old especially those of the outside: photos of three girls sticking out their pierced tongues, arms thrown around each other; girls in indigo-blue robes graduating, choir girls singing; girls in slinky club clothes blowing lipsticked kisses. Some photos are so taped they stick to the glass of the Xerox machine and you feel the heft of something precious in your hands, many are of children—brown-eyed boys and girls ages 2 to 7, infants in flannel footsie pajamas, many of the children’s photos are old and those pictured have grown and left behind the selves they are here, but to their mothers the children are fixed, they do not change. The new photographs are from the inside of Maximum Compound—a parade of women in pairs standing before colorful wall painting (as if an altar) wearing winter’s grey sweats or summer’s teeshirts, lovers, friends, cellmates. The newest inmates have Facebook pages and you can look up their profile and page and print pictures from their photo gallery, but no pictures with gang signs or middle fingers or else you can color out hand signs with a marker, but please do send information i.e. the inmate number and address to dirt buddies, (friends from the cradle to the grave).

In Maximum Compound a Santa comes on Christmas. The state pays for the holiday bus that brings children of inmates to Edna Mahan. Here for photographs the inmates wear beige dress slacks and mannish short-sleeved shirts.The pretty mother, heavily tattooed with arms crossed over her chest, stands next to Santa, a scowling black man in red suit and dazzlingly white beard. He’s an inmate from the men’s prison and the baby boy on his lap is howling. On the back of the photo the 20 year old mother Evy Shine has written, “My baby boy don’t like Santa. Me and my Prince Duce.”

 

&

When Krystal first entered the locked land of EMCH she had a cell to herself and worked on the grounds detail. She mowed lawns, painted, waxed floors, took out the trash, and moved people from Maximum to Minimum Security. After almost nine years into her time served her public defender requests through the courts for a sentence reduction. It is denied. Here everyone likes her, both inmates and guards, but that can change in an instant. A slight. A perceived insult. She rarely criticizes anyone and never the prison. Every word leaving or entering the correctional facility is monitored. The Edna Mahan website itself says: “Incoming general postal correspondence may be read as frequently as is necessary to keep safety and security or watch any problems regarding any inmates.” And then a new inmate punches her in the face in the mess hall. Krystal defends herself and finds herself taken to solitary confinement, so too the new inmate who rumor says is psychotic. The only way Krystal could have avoided punishment would be to let herself be hit.

 

“Can you send this to Shaniqua Pierre. Hey Puddin Cup, I was going through my stuff and found letters from you. I really miss you and need you in my life. You were and are my better half. You know we always find our way back. I love you so much. I will be down there on Saturday. Maybe we can get some time together. Write me back on here. Stephanie will send it to me. I wish you were with me right now so I can do some things like we did in Ad Seg.) I didn’t want to leave. I could have done my whole time with you in there. Well I love you. I miss you. Love Always. Snuggle Bunny.”

Krystal Riordan, Inmate #661387

 

In solitary you have quiet time 23 hours a day. 3 showers five minutes each a week. No commissary so Krystal stops eating. She lies on her bunk remembering movies she’s seen. In one a jet stream opens the sky with its tail of mist. Clouds herding, long blue tusks and storm brewing. Panning shots of the Greek caves, temple ruins, islands—chunks of burning lamb over the sea’s fire. If you talk like that with the street pimps their eyes roll back. On the third day she starts making her own movies up. She stars in them. The fine restaurant in Acapulco and on her cocktail fork the white of a shrimp with red vessels. Dessert’s a flaming baked Alaska. Dining out takes three hours. She stars herself as the Marriott maid who cleans the room of Tristan Wilds from The Wire, a hot black actor under 30 Soon they’re both sprawled in the chaises, the remains of breakfast, scrambled eggs and muffins, spilled over. Raspberry jam and butter for lube. She wears a long billowing white robe. The robe’s spreads across the aquamarine pool’s surface like a napkin. The blue is the color of her eyes, she dives in. Here is another movie the one in which she escapes Draymond and her own fate. Her blond hair is matted. She’s wearing a long skirt and a tube top. There are red crumbs around her nostrils. The bell clerk is from Guyana, (like the one at the Park Avenue Hotel) and he’s fallen in love with her. It is the Park Avenue Hotel and the murder hasn’t yet happened. “That lout must have hit you,” he says. “I want to take you away from this place.” She’s picked Jennifer Hudson from Dreamgirls for the role. Funny, it’s a woman she’s cast in the role of a man. “I don’t know how it can be but your face takes my heartbeat away. You are just the right pretty for me.” They are in a tropical country and Krystal’s wearing a thong. She shouldn’t be half naked like that in her fiancé’s Guyana with mosquitoes like small birds and disapproving eyes everywhere. You smack your arm when you feel them drinking their blood meal and your hands come away wet. But soon the woman-man and Krystal are naked and making love.

 

“Steph, me and Nicole were damaged when we got adopted. I would always tell the Riordans they weren’t my parents. I just wanted to go home. I feel like I’m losing it. Please don’t think I’m crazy but I’ve been smelling sometimes lately…I don’t know what it is. But it’s triggering something in me. It’s a bad feeling and my stomach starts to turn. I get scared and want to go somewhere and throw up. I think the smells goes back to when I was young and my uncle was touching me.”

Krystal Riordan, Inmate #661387

 

&

In solitary there is time for life review. Krystal is 29 years old. The child of a prostitute and a drug dealer, Krystal spent the first five years of her life in a dirty apartment sharing a bed with her two sisters, growing up hungry and neglected, nights the oldest sister would ferry out into the wilds of the kitchen in search of food, pilfering the empty cupboards and refrigerator, coming back with treasures of dill pickles and canned ravioli. Tomato-mouthed little girls nestled against each other. Then the night men would visit, brought to the bedside by her mother. The silver bellied men. There are fishes who build nests in the weed-choked waters, like the stickleback, with its long body and strong jaw. The mother lays the eggs in the seaweed nest, and the father fans water over the eggs, then he guards the hatched offspring until they are ready to leave the nest. Krystal’s birth parents were less nurturing than the stickleback. Once the wan blond girl started school, in the fluorescent’s objective light the neglect was apparent. Now Eva has reached her 49th year and her picture on the people profile finder shows Krystal’s biological mother living in Connecticut and still married to Krystal’s father. The tiny photo shows a black-haired woman dressed in grey stretch pants tights bent over and mooning the camera, so what you mainly see is her buttocks. In Charlie’s photo he wears a white t-shirt imprinted with a pot leaf and exhales a gigantic cloud. When Krystal closes her eyes and tries to remember her early years, there’s nothing there but her uncle stroking her hair and then his fingers moving over her, touching her.

 

“As far as the “work” goes, most of the men were okay. A few jerks. The police were the worst. One put a gun to my head. Another put a knife. They would force you to do favors for free. Usually some weird stuff. How would you feel about me putting you on my phone list? It can only be a land line. I think one goes in within a few weeks.”

Krystal Riordan, Inmate #661387

 

Krystal once lived at night and slept days. She worked in the world’s oldest profession inviting strangers to enter her body. I want to ask her about the sex, and while I’ve asked her about the murder, I’ve not gone too near the sex. Did she always use condoms? How did the work make her feel? How much of it was straight sex? When her ad read full-service what did that mean. What kind of men did she attract, and how did she find them? craigslist? I read on-line that one of the escort services Krystal worked for accused her of cheating them out of their percentage.

“My sister Nicole hasn’t been seen or heard from since December. She’s getting high again. Steph, you send me books. My family hasn’t sent me one book in 8 years. I don’t think they understand the whole commissary concept. I have to order everything, nothing is given out. I need to order clothing, sneakers, food, cosmetics, personals. You’re really my only source of income.”

— Krystal Riordan, Inmate #661387

 

&

Krystal tells me of being sent to Elan, the exclusive boarding school for troubled teens. Her adoptive parents, partners in the Greenhaus Riordan accounting firm, don’t know what to do with her. She’s ruining their reputations. Once at Elan she’s made to write a letter to them confessing her sins. She’s never had sex, never had a boyfriend, yet she’s forced, this virgin molested before the age of five, to call herself a whore. “It was a lockdown residential school. I was there for three years. If I’d never been sent there, I might have had a full basketball scholarship. The scouts were watching me from junior high on. In group therapy I started to believe I’d done all those things.” And in Elan she meets other troubled teens, many will later appear in police blotters some charged with murder. After graduation Krystal escapes to New York City, moving in with a girl she went to Elan with. The girl works as a prostitute and initiates Krystal into the trade. You don’t need a resume. No references. Men desiring her enough to pay money for her favors makes her feel beautiful. A princess in a fairy-tale. Placing ads on craigslist, calling herself Lisa, offering the $150 special. The good money buys her clothes and a truck; the good money attracts Draymond Coleman, the husky ex-con.

 

Please send Antoinette Carter the Cristal Bic Pens. Please send ASAP. Her numbers are #179192E/761091. Well I love the Halloween cards. I can’t wait to use the glitter for make-up. I also received Love Highway today. I will start it tonight. Don’t worry I won’t be mad. Your friend Krystal

Krystal Riordan, Inmate #661387

 

&

Sometimes she dreams of returning to the weathered buildings of Weehawken—its sooty cliffs. The Park Avenue Hotel, a single-room occupancy, five-story brick dungeon in the middle of the block, is gone, torn down after the “notorious murder of an 18 year-old girl” in one of its rooms. A senior center has taken its place. Is that a sign that Krystal will be 50 upon her release, almost a senior? Thelonius Monk spent the last years of his life in Weehawken. And Monk’s syncopations might have been playing on WBGO in the taxi ferrying the soon-to-be murdered Jennifer and her Good Samaritan through the Lincoln Tunnel and into the cliff city. The jazz musician’s genius—tinkling piano like the bebop stirring of ice in a mixed drink, like one of the many—the blue licorice, the amaretto—the doomed teen had consumed that night. Across the street from the now senior citizen center there’s still the Dunkin’ Donuts where Candida Moore wishes Jennifer had sought shelter. Krystal staggers into the darkness, “Hey, wait,” she calls to the girl in white mini and black halter. Who doubts that Jennifer is still out there wading into the darkness. Alone.

 

“When you love someone too much, you can’t see past that person. That’s how I felt about Dray. I thought I couldn’t live without him. I can’t compare the way I loved Dray to the way you love Rob. But if I did, I hope that wouldn’t offend you. I never considered myself a strong person. People say if they got the time I got. They would kill themselves. They ask how I do it. Why I’m so nice.”

Krystal Riordan, Inmate #661387

 

&

The Krystal who lives behind bars seems freer than the baby-faced prostitute trapped between her pimp/boyfriend Draymond Coleman, the funny charmer, and Draymond, the killer ex-con. Letters still come from him. “You showed me true love and I didn’t know how to handle it. I thought it was all a game, but it was true. You put your name on your body. You had my baby. You gave me everything. Now it’s all gone thanks to my stupid ass.” There are paragraphs of complete sentences with no misspellings, letters written in a delicate cursive. “We’ll be Natural Born Killers,” he told her after Jennifer’s last breaths. It surprises me to see the handwriting, and think of the same hand breaking every bone in a young girl’s face. Yet Krystal’s never forsaken him. You could interpret that as a great weakness or a strength. “I’m no longer in love with him but I still care for him. He has no one else.” Yes, Krystal bore him a baby girl who Child Welfare Services removed after finding marijuana in the infant’s blood. The night of his arrest Draymond claims that he’d picked up a working girl at the Port Authority. “I am not a wholesome man,” he tells police, “but I am no murderer.” Wholesome, such an odd word to choose. My mother’s generation used it to describe a good girl, a wholesome girl, what they hoped for in their daughters.

 

“Krystal and I can both have 24 pens sent to each of us, and I found a place that will send 24 pens, including shipping and tax, for about $16.50 in total. The pens would be very helpful in many ways to us. I will e-mail you the info when I get a chance (website, item #’s and costs).”

— Lucy Weems, Inmate #922870-C

 

Eight years after the murder, the inmate Krystal is bitten by a spider and her elbow and forearm swell up. When the redness starts to fade, another bite appears on her arm, and on her leg. Krystal goes to Medical and is told the spider’s venom has caused a blood infection. The poison is oozing out through those spots. The spots are like weeping red eyes that open on her torso. Where the poison seeps out it eats away at her flesh, leaving deep and painful wounds. The inflamed sore on her leg makes it impossible to walk and then the soaring fever sets in. Antibiotics and Motrin are at last prescribed. I wonder if Dray is finally leaving her body. Pour rum over yourself and strike a match—ultimate flambé. His dark poison, his love.

 

* * *

 

 

BIO

Stephanie DickinsonStephanie Dickinson, an Iowa native, lives in New York City. Her work appears in Hotel Amerika, Mudfish, Weber Studies, Fjords, Water-Stone Review, Gargoyle, Rhino, Stone Canoe, Westerly, and New Stories from the South, among others. Her novel Half Girl and novella Lust Series are published by Spuyten Duyvil, as is her recent novel Love Highway, based on the 2006 Jennifer Moore murder. Heat: An Interview with Jean Seberg, was released in 2013 by New Michigan Press. Her work has received multiple distinguished story citations in the Pushcart Anthology, Best American Short Stories, and Best American Mysteries.

 

 

 

STAY IN TOUCH

IN THIS ISSUE