Saturday, November 25, 2017

There go I

The man and two beautiful little girls were sitting on a bit of concrete curbing outside the Starbucks that adjoins the grocery store. "Excuse me...can I ask you a question?" he said.

The little girls had matching coats on, hot-pink fleecy trim on their hoods. The older girl was sucking her thumb--surreptitiously, exactly the way my cousin used to: casually propped up behind her free arm, fooling no one. That was the detail that broke me.

Their father explained that they were homeless, had spent the last two nights sleeping in a bus-stop shelter. Could I spare any money? He specified the dollar amount they needed to get...somewhere, something, I've already forgotten. "I don't have any cash on me," I said. "But can I--can I get you some food? Can I buy you lunch?"

They all looked surprised, at that. There's a Panda Express counter inside the market, and after a moment they decided on orange chicken bowls, with fried rice. "A soda?" the dad asked. "A Sprite?" The girls, gap-toothed and warming to the idea, requested apple juice.

And so I ran into the store and bought three crummy bowls of steam-table Chinese takeout, little bottles of juice and lemon-lime soda. I got cash back at the checkout. When I emerged, the thumbsucker jumped up with excitement and ran to me. They were so polite, thanking me as I handed over the bag of hot meals and cellophaned fortune cookies. I slipped the dad $20. "Get them somewhere safe tonight, okay?" I said.

And then I went into the Starbucks, where I had come because I was bored with the obscene quantity of leftovers in my warm, dry, clean house. I sat with my coffee and a magazine and could not focus on a single paragraph. The family were visible through the window. They ate their lunch. A few more people stopped to chat, though I don't know if or what they shared. I watched one man solemnly fist-bump the girls. Eventually, it started to rain, and they got up and crossed the parking lot and the street--the girls skipping and jumping around a little, then running to catch up. I watched them ride away on the bus.

I don't know what I'm supposed to feel. I don't feel better. I'm not writing this down to say oh, look how righteous and good I am. Look at my tiny, meaningless gesture, a stupid greasy rice bowl in the face of this city's homeless emergency. Maybe I got scammed, but I am above worrying about it!

I'm writing it down because I saw those kids. I knew those girls, in their matchy-matchy jackets like Sis and I used to have. I knew the not-at-all-secret thumbsucker. We never went hungry, but sometimes our mother did. I knew kids who did. We were never without a bed to sleep in, but I knew kids who were. A hundred thousand accidents and choices across a dozen generations, and I can go shop in the QFC while someone else sleeps behind it. There but for the grace of God go I, I'd say, but I am not a believer. There but for the total, utter randomness of fate go I. There go I.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

It's Herk-o-we'en!

It is gorgeous out today, a dazzling fall afternoon pushing 65 degrees. Blue sky and lurid leaves and I counted at least three convertibles with their tops down, cruising the annual Phinneywood trick-or-treat--a far cry from last year's torrential downpour. As ever, I took up a window seat at Herkimer Coffee and sat for a couple hours, cracking up and scribbling notes on the paper bag my breakfast pastry had come in.  This is almost my favorite day of the year, definitely preferable to actual Halloween night itself. My neighborhood COMMITS. When I arrived, a grown woman in a rubber Catwoman mask and street clothes was enjoying her coffee at one of the tables.

CHILD DRESSED AS STRIP OF BACON, I texted Sis. She asked for a photo, but the kid had already run down the block in a sugared fever. Anyway, I don't feel right about taking pictures of strangers' children...but I will adore them from afar and describe them endlessly.

A whole Wizard-of-Oz family went past, Mom in what might have been a repurposed Slutty Dorothy costume; she had thick leggings on underneath, but that dress was short for the 1930s. One kid was a magnificent Tin Man, babe in stroller a lion. Dad, pushing the stroller, was wearing a padded plastic mailer like a vest, a house hastily drawn on the front with a Sharpie. I thought that was kind of weak sauce until I saw the wicked-witch legs, stripey stockings and all, sticking out under the...hem, of his bubble envelope. Okay, points.

The Herkimer gorilla was absent this year, giving my heart a little pang. Instead, a mime distributed Dots and Tootsie Rolls in twee silence, which seemed to still freak out a good number of the little urchins. I was relieved and somewhat mollified when Frankenstein emerged across the street to do his thing. Over at the Prost beer hall, I glimpsed their treat person in a Rockford Peaches uniform from A League of Their Own.

A wee spider, with multiple googly eyes attached to its black hoodie. A gorgeous, feathery, sequined pink flamingo. A little girl as the solar system: all the planets as ornaments pinned to her swirly star-patterned dress. She also had on planet socks, Saturn and Mars visible around her ankles. Left Shark hurried past, too intent on candy to bother with choreography of any sort. A lady went by dressed as beer pong, with red Solo cups pinned to her shirt; she was walking a yellow lab in a fuzzy beer keg outfit.

What is the collective noun, for an array of Wonder Women? (Besides "Congress 2018," amirite, nasty ladies?) I lost count of them, though the one that nearly impaled someone else's dad on her sword was memorable, as was the one that happened to be a Chihuahua mix. Another mom went by in a Handmaid's robe and hood, a Nolite te bastardes carborundorum placard around her neck. I gave her a grim thumbs-up through the glass. There was a Joker-Trump, and a Latino Trump, the only two I saw. The latter kid might have been of Puerto Rican or Dominican extraction, his candyfloss combover wig riding up on his own natural curls, and if that concept gives our bigot blowhard President nightmares, good.

A young couple took seats beside me, agog. "We just moved to this neighborhood. Do they do this every year?" they asked, awestruck and thrilled.

Little Orphan Annie needed to go potty, I think, judging by how she was clutching her DownThere. A lion tamer foisted her flaming (hula) hoop, festooned with fluttering yellow and red crepe paper, on her mother. (This is another part I love, the parents toting and/or wearing the various disintegrating heads and weapons and tiaras and accessories as the day grinds on.)  In a weird hiccup of the zeitgeist, two Bob Marleys (Bobs Marley?)  and then two Wednesday Addams...es went by within minutes of each other, none of them together. A tall gangly boy, I think? was dressed in a tweedy pink suit as Dolores Umbridge. Hey, Aquaman! You do you, buddy. Several kids wore their own backup snack distribution systems: one was a vending machine, lumbering along in a cardboard box with a plastic-wrap window displaying real bags of chips. Another was a gumball machine in a red onesie, with a clear plastic cake dome from the grocery-store taped to his or her belly, full of jawbreakers.

A tiny toddler lumberjack in plaid flannel, suspenders, toque and pegged jeans let his mother carry his wee plastic chainsaw. An even tinier infant Viking, with horned helmet and thick red beard, had to be carried. A girl was a carefully painted giant cardboard BOK CHOY--kiddo, you win for Most Unique. My other favorite? Two dads and two little kids, a quartet of Steves Zissou.

I know it's time to leave when the sugar crashes start to unfold in real time. That Ewok was out like the proverbial light in her stroller. Jack Skellington nodded out on his dad's shoulder with a nearly audible THUD. Behind me, a NASCAR driver was taking a little break, sorting candy. "Are you having fun?" asked one of his or her pit crew.

"I'm HAPPY!" declared the kid, holding up a peanut-butter cup. Me too, li'l leadfoot. Me too.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Dark side

I remember the 1979 North American solar eclipse only vaguely. I was nine. My Grammy, an internationally ranked worrywart, had absorbed the warnings and convinced me that if I so much as glanced skyward, I would be struck blind in an instant: two smoking holes in my skull where eyeballs should be. As an anxious kid (can't think why), I was terrified. Helen Keller was A Big Deal in my popular iconography at the time, but I didn't want to go BLIND.

In Seattle, the eclipse took place during the morning commute. It was February, and so the sky was grey and overcast and the sun completely obscured...but I took no chances. I remember staring grimly at the sidewalk at my school bus stop, wondering how much of the day I could get through with my eyes closed, maybe my stocking cap pulled over my face? On the bus, I put my back to the windows. As far as I can recall, nobody handed out eclipse glasses with hamburgers or Slurpees; we didn't punch pinholes in cereal boxes in my third-grade class or anything. The sky darkened, but it was already pretty dark. The streetlights came back on, briefly. Then it was over. For all intents and purposes, we missed it.

* * * * *

I didn't get around to buying eclipse glasses (or crafting a pinhole viewer) this time either. (Or even running outside with a colander, which a woman suggested on NPR this morning, too late.) I had dinner with Sis this past weekend, and we talked about our shared indifference to this event. "What's the big deal?" she asked. She would have been almost 6, in 1979; she has no memory of that eclipse at all.

But I've been thinking about it, even though I didn't look. I took a couple photos after the high point, crescents of light in the leaf-shadow dappling the ground. (Grammy would be relieved; I'm still focused on the pavement.) And I watched ABC's 1979 coverage, the Frank Reynolds clip that's been making the rounds.

"So that's it--the last solar eclipse to be seen on this continent in this century," Reynolds said before signing off. "And as I said not until August 21, 2017, will another eclipse be visible from North America. That's 38 years from now. May the shadow of the moon fall on a world in peace."
I had to check: Reynolds died in 1983. Sorry, man; I suspect you'd be disappointed.

It's what I keep coming back to: the recognition of my own mortality, in the context of everyone else's. That I'm unlikely to see such a thing with my own eyes, now, in my lifetime. Not without chasing it across continents, or oceans. I wish my fretful Grammy had had the opportunity. I chuckle over the point in the hazy, lo-fi ABC broadcast when Reynolds gets OH WOW! excited. I think about the gruesome, ugly, hateful world of the last week--just the last WEEK!--and I have a hard time reconciling that with two minutes of awe from the heavens, with Reynold's sweet and hopelessly naive wish for the future. The widening gyre. I'll be looking at the moon, but I'll be seeing you.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Who'll be my role model, now that my role model is gone, gone?


Princess Leia was the first Halloween costume I chose myself, and the first that was a character rather than a simple noun: tiger, witch, clown, pumpkin-headed ghost thing my mother slapped together at the last minute after I balked at railroad engineer (striped overalls). My grandma whipped me up a gown out of an old bedsheet, and I set to wrapping strips of tinfoil around a discarded belt.

Like thousands of other 70s kids, though, I had the standard Dorothy Hamill bowl cut, my head round as that of a Fisher-Price peg person. What to do? I have no idea how much effort my mother put into coiling and gluing whorls of yarn onto two discs of cereal-box cardboard, which I guess she planned to bobby-pin to the sides of my head. If memory serves, they probably looked pretty good. I can remember her presenting them to me in our tiny, avocado-green kitchen.

But. The yarn she’d used was black. Black! And I was a fairly mellow kid, master of the passive tantrum, where I’d just lie on the floor or the ground or under the bed when I’d had enough, getting my Gandhi on. But over those yarn bun blobs, I had a complete and utter meltdown. No! NO, WRONG! Princess Leia’s hair was BROWN! Brown like MY hair! Brown like YOUR hair, Mama, WHAT THE HELL? No, no, forget it, HALLOWEEN WAS RUINED, THROW EVERYTHING AWAY.

I posted the resulting photo on Instagram this Halloween: me as The Sullenest Clown, wearing another hand-sewn-by-Grammy costume for the second year in a row, inconsolable. Or only moderately consolable, by a pillowcase full of candy. I kept the dress, though, stuffed into the back of my closet unworn.
Jerry Lewis in The Day the Clown Whined and Sulked

Sis and I had a smattering of action figures, too. Characters our parents had grabbed at random, not the whole main cast, so maybe that was why we didn’t play with them much. I had a Greedo with his lumpy green head (Han shot first) and a Darth Vader; one of us had a hammer-headed alien from the cantina bar. But someone was smart enough to get us each a Leia, obviating several years of fights-to-the-death.

I coveted the TIE fighters and other accoutrements, too, especially the Death Star playset with its working trash compactor filled with chunks of foam garbage, but it was not to be. My figures lived instead in a floral-patterned box that had once held an Avon bath set. I didn’t play with them narratively, but I liked to take them out and look at them, line them up, especially Leia with her little vinyl cape. A tiny teenage princess, the only girl in space, bossing the boys around. A brunette heroine you could fit in your pocket.
* * * * *

I first got contact lenses in the sixth grade. "Rigid gas-permeable" lenses, newly introduced as the intermediary between hard and soft lenses; it was thought that an eleven-year-old would be less likely to rip one of these in half. I still wear this type. They're smaller than a soft lens, sitting only over the iris.

The originals came very lightly tinted--not the lurid, exotic shades you can buy for beauty purposes or Halloween, these days: just blue, green, a hazel-y gold, and brown, natural eye colors. The idea was that the tint would also help you find one if you dropped it on the floor. My eyes are green...but when I got those first contacts, I chose brown. It was 1981: our carpets and virtually every other surface in our home was brown, so brown contacts were no help there, but I insisted. I don't remember ever explaining myself about this, but my reason was simple: Princess Leia was why. Carrie Fisher was why. I wanted big, deep, dark brown eyes, anime eyes, eyes like my primary icon at the time. Maybe, with brown eyes, I could approach and approximate the brave, fierce, snarky princess movie star I idolized. Maybe I could captivate a charming, roguish scoundrel of my very own, in the halls of Washington Middle School. Maybe brown eyes would make me that kind of pretty.

Photos from those days show me looking a little wide-eyed and blinky, still flinching at sticking little plastic disks into my eyeballs every morning. You can't discern the color. I suspect it was muddy and indistinct at best. But I saw what I wanted to in the mirror, and that was enough.
This absurd pile of hair was also an affectation of the period. Deprived of yarn buns, I grew my own.


(Let’s backtrack for a minute: this article made the rounds during Pussygate, a couple months ago [note: not the David Wong I know and grew up with]. And I am woke, indeed, to rape culture, and recognize how I’ve been steeped in it for nearly half a century. “Consent” is a mountain we’ll all be climbing for generations. But the first example Wong cites, the kiss in The Empire Strikes Back? DEVASTATED me, in this context. I hit puberty precisely when that movie came out. I may have hit puberty the exact moment I watched a clip of that scene, in an interview with Carrie Fisher on Good Morning America. It was romantic. It was a premonition of “sexy,” before I understood that word as anything but giggle-inducing. To look at it through the lens—haha—of consent, nearly 40 years later…and to know that Harrison Ford [and I still would, whew—remember, pubertal imprinting) was in fact screwing a barely-20s Fisher, who’d dropped out of Sarah Lawrence College to shoot the second film, ahem—was I wrong, to base my first understanding of LOOOooooOOOOOVE on that moment? How am I supposed to feel, now? 2016, ladies and gentlemen, ruining every little fucking thing, even backwards through time.)

Anyway. I was in college when I first heard "She Moves On," its reference to "her cold coffee eyes," and who else could it possibly be about? The quote "maybe these emotions are as near to love as love will ever be" was a gift from Fisher to Paul Simon, I am certain, one genius poet to another.

 * * * * *

As an adult, I love Fisher’s books, her wordplay and punning and obvious love of language. I found her public persona intimidating: she was such a brash and brassy broad, which I intend as an honorific. A broad’s broad, so smart and so funny. I’ve known a few friends—and writers—like that: the kind of funny you hope to stay on the good side of, knowing that they could slash you to ribbons with that wit if they chose. Though, from everything I’ve heard this week, Carrie Fisher didn’t have a mean bone in her body, would cheerfully shred herself rather than turn on anyone else.

She was brave, battling addiction and mental health crises, and didn’t give two shits about saying so. She spoke her truth, blared it; she stood in her truth, and sometimes waded through it neck-deep. Not so unlike that trash compactor. Feeling trapped? Blow a hole in the wall, jump through. You might have to flounder through a fetid swamp of garbage, for 15 minutes or a year (or a Presidential administration), but you can grapple and claw your way to the top of it eventually. Friends you’ve just met will love you despite your- and themselves, will help push and shove and drag you out.

As a child, I thought Leia was my role model. Now, it needs to be Carrie Fisher: kinda fat, kinda furious, hopefully hilarious, brutally honest. To live up to her is my new year’s resolution. So I’ve got one more truth to lay on you, if you’re still reading.  To explain it, though, I have to duck back into adolescence again for a moment.

My middle and high schools were served by the same school bus route, so I rode with many of the same kids from ages 11-18. There was one girl, older, who’d get on a few stops after mine and often sat next to me, perhaps because I was shy and silent in a way that passed for “friendly.” I remember her name, but I won’t out her here; suffice to say that she was a geek, an awkward, nerdy kid, much more visibly than I was. It came off her like an aura—something about her haircuts, her thick greenish glasses, the paperbacks she carried around emblazoned with dragons and lasers: geek.

I was, absolutely, also a nerd. I was also also consumed with self-consciousness, with fitting in and staying beneath the radar. Mostly, I prayed not to be noticed, or to have any obvious flaw that could be made fun of. Hence the contact lenses, for example. I dressed plainly; I read a little sci-fi and fantasy, but wouldn’t have been caught dead toting a dorky novel where someone might see it. On the other hand, when the Star Wars movies cropped up on HBO (in one of the flush periods where we could afford cable), I had mastered the art of faking sick. I had thus committed the trilogy to memory, privately—plus had all three novelizations worn flimsy and spine-cracked in my bookshelf.

One gray, pre-dawn winter morning, Geek Girl got on the bus clutching a typed and stapled manuscript. She shuffled down the aisle still reading and sat beside me with a half-shrug “hi,” eyes never leaving the page, avid.

It looked like a term paper. Nosy, wondering what so completely captured her attention, I craned my eyeballs left hard enough to hurt, trying to get a glimpse of the page in the grimy light. What I finally read, a snatch of a paragraph, astonished me: it was a story about Star Wars. It was, in fact, a description of Han and Leia’s wedding. Flowers, candles. Probably some Ewok ringbearers.

I gaped at it, seizing on sentences here and there. Where the hell had she gotten such a thing? I wondered, followed in an instant by Oh my god, people actually wrote this shit down? Because I had thought it, at least, before. I’d made up backstories and missing scenes and denouements for these characters, just in my head. Dreamily, falling asleep. I’d imagined this very wedding, and—sshhhh—The Sex that I knew should occur afterwards, within the sacred bonds of galactic matrimony blah blah. I’d never heard of fanfic, and had no word for this bizarre and amazing document in Geek Girl’s hands. (Ironically, I had always hated the language-arts exercises in this same vein: what do YOU think should have happened to Susan? Now write the story from Tommy’s perspective instead! Who gave a crap what happened to dumb Susan and Tommy in the bland, dull textbook? But STAR WARS! Holy shit!)

And it is touching to me, now, a little, to imagine how Geek Girl had worked to get hold of this thing, so carefully typed and Xeroxed, probably at great cost to someone, five or ten cents a page at the Copy Mart. Maybe she went to a convention, or ordered it out of the back of a fan club ‘zine. Paying for the SASE and the privilege. That somebody had done this, that somebody could do this, just start making shit up about someone else’s imagined world, and write it down, was a revelation to me.

But I was too embarrassed to expose my own geekery. I stared holes in the pages from the window seat, and never never asked Geek Girl about it, afraid that she’d rub off on me, dork-by-association. I said nothing, and she clomped off the bus at the high school, and that was the end of that.

Fifteen years passed. Al Gore invented the Internet. I was a grown-ass woman (though still comically young to my now-self), working a real job, with a laptop I got to take home. I had my MFA in creative writing, but because I also enjoyed both food and shelter, the authorial life I’d envisioned had been subsumed by the need to work for The Man. I’d also been recently dumped. I soothed myself by developing an obsession with the X-Files reruns playing, in order, nightly on cable. And at some point, I installed AOL dial-up on that company laptop, so I could Internet from home, and went poking around online for reviews and analysis and plain old gossip about my favorite show. A rabbit-hole montage of links later, I hit the motherlode, and learned the vocabulary to go with it: Fanfic. Shipper. OTP. A no-infringement-intended universe being born.

I…dabbled, let’s say. I roughed out Mulder and Scully moments that never saw the light of day, even with an avatar to hide behind. I read a metric ton of other people's stories. And yes, there are hordes of semi-literate, erotically…uh, naïve…twelve-year-old auteurs to sift through, to find the good stuff…but it’s there. I found authors I admired, strangers toiling away in anonymity, writers so good I envied them. “I hope you write in Real Life,” I told more than one. “Please, please do.” I watched certain writers evolve, getting better in real time, fascinating and humbling to witness.

It still took me another decade to realize that I could try it, too—that this was a way to keep a hand in, when my original fiction stuttered and stalled and went nowhere. I could hang a story on someone else’s scaffolding, as practice. I knew, incidentally, that between her novels and memoirs Carrie Fisher worked as a script doctor, but only this week did I realize what a lot of gold she spun out of somebody else's shit-caked straw indeed. How do YOU think the story should have ended?  

That’s the confession I’m inspired to today, that I’ve found some joy in writing, again, by pushing other people’s chess pieces around the board. It’s embarrassing, but at this age what isn’t, and who cares? I’ve published a handful of stories to fanfic sites on the web, for Fringe and The Killing fandoms. (Apparently, petite, feisty, powerful women bicker-bantering with their hot male partners are forever my JAM…that and whatever they’re pumping into the atmosphere in Vancouver, B.C.) I’m still not quite ready to own up to my pseudonym, though folks who know me well could suss it out, I bet.
* * * * *

When I started this piece, Debbie Reynolds was still alive to grieve. I can’t begin to think what hell Billie Lourd is going through tonight, and I have no tidy way to wrap this up. How DO you think the story should have ended? Well, Christ, not like this.

But here are a couple lessons, morals, pithy reminders to take forward, should you want to, that I’ll try to: I am, at heart, the girl I’ve always been. We all are whoever we are. Keep being you, and do what you love—on weekends, on buses, in line at the bank, wherever whenever you can. Quit wasting time, don’t fuck around. Even the longest hours and days and lifetimes are just so goddamn short.

And 2016, get the fuck out of here, seriously. I will burn you to the ground.


Saturday, October 29, 2016

Treat yo'self

I've written before about my great love of the annual Hallowen trick-or-treat event sponsored by my neighborhood's business district. It's such a joy to me, to grab a window seat at Herkimer Coffee and get a look at the kiddos in daylight, when they're not running shrieking from porch to porch in the dark (like they will Monday night). Poor birthday girl Mom has a cold, ugh, and poor Sis is working a Saturday shift...so it was just me, nursing a coffee and trying to live-tweet and text my favorites to them. Eventually I gave up and just started jotting in a notebook, for later. I'm trying to write more, trying to psych myself up for NaNo after too many long months of neglect...thus, this post.

It was dumping rain when I arrived, and the coffee shop was crowded and steamy, but there was one stool left at the window. Better still was the little kid in line with his parents, dressed as a donut--complete with a carton-of-milk hat. "Look at you, you're a donut!" I said to him. "YEEEAAAAAHHH!" he replied. Extra points for enthusiasm, my man!

Candy at Herkimer is traditionally distributed by a gorilla. I am not sure whether the same person takes on gorilla duties every year, but someone puts on the costume and hoots and scratches and brandishes a banana or two, seated in the recessed doorway to their roasting room and wholesale arm. I was lucky enough to get the seat next to the gorilla area, and my all-time favorite Halloween thing each year is watching kids react to the gorilla, oh lord, I shouldn't laugh that hard but it is THE BEST. Little princesses and ladybugs and firefighters amble down the block, grinning around a mouthful of lollipop, and then THEY FREEZE. Their little HOLY SHIT A GORILLA expressions are just amazing. The gorilla has softened its antics over time; for the most paralyzed kids, the gorilla will just toss candy in their general direction, and that often unsticks them. (The gorilla also pelts unsuspecting adults with Twizzlers in the slow moments. I approve.) The older kids mouth "oh my God" and queue up gladly. A lion and a kangaroo waved happily to their wild-animal compatriot. I only saw two criers this year: a something-or-other in arms and a weeping Pop-Tart who gave the gorilla a wide berth. I did also very much enjoy a bumblebee who walked away backwards, keeping eyes on the gorilla AT ALL TIMES. Hermione Granger, on the other hand, was completely unfazed.

(Another ritual: kitty-corner across the street, Frankenstein does the handing-out over at the 74th Street Ale House. This year, he had two patio umbrellas at his disposal in the downpour.)

I counted five Reys, in the two hours or so I sat there. One was accompanied by the whole multi-generational fam-damily: Vader, Leia, and Queen Amidala, the latter two stopping in for coffee. I saw a "Return of the Jedi"-era Leia in camouflage poncho ensemble, braids wound over the top of her head...and what I think was another old-school Leia, clutching her skirt and her plastic treat pumpkin in both hands. Her hair was down, and covered with a straw hat in the rain, so I'm not completely confident in my costume identification skills, there. For what it's worth, a Kylo Ren and the lone Donald Trump I saw walked by together, which seemed about right. A dad went by, carrying the papier-mâché segments of a marvelous BB-8 suit that I hope were not dissolving completely; his kid soldiered on in a BB-8 patterned storebought onesie. And finally came another dad with a huge cardboard X-wing perched on his shoulders. His baby, in a backpack, stuck his head out of the droid's seat behind the cockpit. Several people in the window row stood up and applauded, at that guy.

What else? Harley Quinn, her makeup suitably smeary in the pounding rain. A kid dressed as a pack of Glide dental floss. (A moment later I saw his older sibling--a tube of Crest--and his infant sibling, in a Snugli decorated to be one huge tooth.) A centurion led Calvin down the block, clutching his stuffed Hobbes. Grumpy Cat. Robinson Cano, wearing golden Mardi-Gras-bead bling and a drawn-on beard. ZOMBIE RICHARD SHERMAN! Marty McFly, in a red puffy vest and headphones. Hey, mom: Hulk cannot see where Hulk going, can you please rotate Hulk's eyeholes. A beautiful suffragette went past in a long dark gown and coat, with an elegant hat and a VOTES FOR WOMEN sash and picket sign. (Her sister was a unicorn; her parents, Cubbies.)

There was a rat terrier sporting bat wings, and a pug dressed as Wonder Woman. A ninja took a very un-ninja-like header in front of the coffee house, ouch. Twin chocolate-chip cookies, and a beautiful owl with real feathers on her mask and cardboard wings, and a Holstein cow...in a top hat. Red Riding Hood was accompanied by the very patient and obliging family dog, who had on Grandma's floral nightgown and ruffled sleeping cap. I counted three Ghostbusters, of disparate genders, but what I was truly waiting for was the one who was plainly, gloriously Holtzman, one set of goggles perched atop her head and another over her eyes. YAAASS. And finally I got up, stiff from sitting and out of coffee, and walked down to Ken's Market to put a couple cans of soup in the Hunger Goblin food-drive barrel. Happy Halloween, all you sodden and sugared-up wonderful little humans. Don't dream it, be it, etc.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

One in four women


One.

I am nine years old, maybe—ten at the most—so Sis is six or seven. It’s the 1970s, so we are free to rove around unsupervised, but all our destinations fall within a four-block radius of home anyway: the playground at the local elementary school; the tiny neighborhood grocery across the street from it; the park, one street over; the even tinier grocery on its edge. On this particular day, we’ve been to the school playground, or the little store, or both. (Our most devious behavior, to date, is to take our weekly dollar allowance to the store, buy four 25-cent candy bars, scarf three on the way home, and feign innocence and appetite at dinner.) But it’s started to rain, sprinkling a little, and so we’re walking home. We’re half a block away when a car pulls to the curb beside us, window rolled down, and the driver beckons to us, asking something I can’t quite catch.

I’m a polite kid, so I step closer to the car, Sis on my heels. I’m prepared to help this person, provide directions. This is when we see that the man behind the wheel is nude from the waist down. He has on a brown sweater, blue button-down shirt, even a burgundy tie if memory serves, but his bare thighs are on the vinyl car seat, his bare blunt Thing exposed in his naked lap. Sis and I freeze. The man is still talking.

“What’s the name of that school up there?” he asks, pointing up the block, toward the playground where we’ve just been. We’re mute, standing there gaping in the drizzle. We’re not close enough to the car to grab, unless he gets out. He doesn’t get out. He asks us a couple more questions, but we stay silent. It can’t even be a full minute before he loses patience and peels out, and we break and sprint the other direction, pounding home to tell our mother what’s happened. I try to remember the license plate: there was a D or an O, I think, maybe a zero? I know that Mama calls the police and relates our manic tale, but I don’t recall anyone coming to take a statement or otherwise follow up, ever after. Nothing happens, and we continue walking to the park and the store and the school because what else can you do? Mama can’t follow us every waking minute.

I tell my friends, and the story gets funnier with each retelling. I recognize the general menace of a Dangerous Stranger, but the other implicit threat of this guy driving around with his dick in his hand is so beyond my comprehension that it reads to me as a bizarre, hilarious oversight—as if pants were something he just forgot. The Man With No Pants. “The Man With No Pants!” my classmates and I shriek at each other, laughing and laughing. What a nut! What a weirdo! Nearly 40 years later, this is in fact how I ask Sis about it: Do you remember The Man With No Pants? She does, of course.



Two.

I’m in sixth grade. The transition to middle school hasn’t been smooth, but there are positives. For one, I meet Holly, in Mr. Zukowski’s homeroom. (Our friendship will persist through decades and across continents, prom dates, graduate degrees, weddings, babies. Last month, I went with her whole family to Disneyland. Her oldest, Kai, is the same age we were when we met.) For another, I have identified a preteen crush object in the same homeroom, a boy I’ll call Daniel. He is shorter than I am, with big brown eyes and a shaggy brown bowl cut, cute in a Davy Jones sort of way. I am dying for him to Notice me. I’m eleven years old. So is he.

On chilly fall mornings, the cool kids perch on the radiator covers along the windowsill before the bell. Daniel and his buddies are bragging and shoving each other around there on the day I sidle onto the edge of the group, all nonchalance. I’m not a part of the conversation; I don’t know what the boys are talking about, but then Daniel leans over and mutters conspiratorially in my ear:

“I’m going to cut off your tit and lick it.”

It is the worst thing—the weirdest, the most violent and overtly sexual, the most incomprehensible thing—that anyone’s ever said to me. I say nothing; I slide off the windowsill and go back to my desk, appalled in a way I have no words for. Holly must see my expression; she asks what’s wrong and I can’t explain, can’t repeat this terrifying, filthy, casual remark. “He’s crazy. He’s, like, an insane psychopath,” is all I can come up with. Holly’s got my back, though. She bestows the nickname “Psycho” on Daniel, and we refer to him this way for years, in notes and yearbook entries. (Neither of us spells it correctly, for a number of those years.) I begin keeping a regular journal at about this same time, and even there I don’t transcribe what this kid said to me. I never tell Holly, or anyone. I never wrote it down until this moment.

To complicate matters, Daniel remains cute, and I am conflicted. We don’t ever have a conversation, but on Field Day in the spring I sneak a photo of him with my mother’s precious Instamatic and tuck it into the frame of my mirror at home. When he transfers out of the district, later, I pine a little, in absolute secrecy.

I just looked for him on Facebook, curious. His real name is fairly common, and none of the bearded, middle-aged Daniels I found looked familiar. None of them appear to be serial killers either, so that’s something.



Three.

I’m still in middle school, maybe 12 or 13. I’m walking down the hall when a boy walking the other direction, a boy I don’t know, abruptly shoves his hand between my legs, claws at the zipper of my jeans. It happens in a few seconds; I stumble and jerk away, and he’s already gone in the tumult of passing period, kids whooping and guffawing and slamming locker doors. I am mortified and upset, but it doesn’t occur to me to tell anyone—a teacher, my mother, whomever. What difference would it make? Could I even point out the boy? More than anything, I am humiliated, hoping nobody saw. I say nothing; I’m a little tenser in the hallways afterwards, but eventually I forget all about it. Until last week.

(Incidentally, it’s middle school: the other, more “benign” bra-snappings and butt-slappings my girlfriends and I endure are a blur, innumerable. I don’t remember telling anyone. I don’t remember anyone telling.)



Four.

I’m 18, at a screening of Rocky Horror with my friends, some of whom are in the shadow cast. It’s a good night, crowded; we run down to the front of the theatre to do the Time Warp, everybody bumbling and laughing in the dark. At the line “Put your hands on your hips,” we all throw our arms up, to shimmy and jazz-hands them into place. The guy behind me, though, a stranger, sings “Put your hands on your tits! Or somebody else’s!” and grabs both my breasts, a quick honk. And I laugh, I keep dancing—because it’s clever and naughty, because it’s Rocky, because it’s all about breaking down boundaries. I have, to wit, been given a Terrible Thrill. “I just got felt up,” I hiss to Gwyn when we scramble back to our seats, still laughing. I found it funny. I still do; I have always looked back at this moment with bemused fondness. But now I feel strange about that, a little guilty. Is it okay, if it made me laugh? What am I complicit in?






Saturday, January 16, 2016

Absolute beginner

In the spring of 1989, my First-Year Studies professor, Bella Brodzki, organized an outing for our class to go see Maxine Hong Kingston read at the 92nd Street Y. It was the first time I’d been there; the first time I’d been to a reading not on campus; the first time I shelled out precious dollars for a hardcover copy of her new novel, Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book, for the purpose of getting it signed.

We’d read The Woman Warrior in class, a book that for whatever reason had resonated so deeply with me that it unlocked the quintessential Sarah Lawrence experience, the quintessential Bella experience. I’ve told this bit of the story at prospective-student events for two decades now: how I read my little mass-market paperback to shreds, the pages warped with highlighter ink and held together with rubber bands. (Yes, I still have it.) Bella assigned a 10-page paper, and I wrote and wrote and wrote in a fever and hit something like the 12-page mark with maybe a third of my ideas still lodged in my brain. What to do? In one of our conferences, I asked Bella this, on the verge of panic.
 
First, bless her, Bella laughed. Then, she said the most transformative sentence I’d ever heard, and perhaps that I’ve heard since: “I’m not going to tell you to do less work, Kim.”

It was a lightbulb moment—the realization that I was entitled to have an opinion; the thought that someone else, an adult, an intellectual, a woman of letters that I respected and admired and was a bit worshipful of/intimidated by, wanted to hear it. Keep going. Keep thinking. I had friends who’d gone on to huge universities, who’d been told outright that their professors and overworked TAs would stop reading at the prescribed limit, mid-sentence if it came to that. Your idea should fit within designated dimensions.

I don’t remember just how I wound that paper down—15 pages, 17? Bella praised it lavishly. I’m sure it’s still in a drawer in my home office, and I know I drew upon it on through my graduate degree. But the experience, that door blown wide open for me at 19, has never left me.

Back to our trip to the 92nd Street Y. Bella had checked out a campus van to drive us to the city. That image is hilarious to me now: petite, birdy Bella piloting a hulking 15-passenger van down the Cross County Parkway. (She forever claimed to be 5’3”, a lie I indulged because at 5’1” I loomed over her, even in my Chucks.) At the reading, someone distributed copies of several of MHK’s typed manuscript pages, with scribbles and strikethroughs and notes in the margins. As an aspiring writer, I was taken by these: here was another adult who inspired and awed me, and whose scrawled and typo-ed drafts were not so unlike my own! I blithered something to this effect to poor Ms. Kingston in the autograph line, later…and mentioned the raggedy, rubber-banded The Woman Warrior I’d left at home, afraid it would fall apart in her hands. She let me ramble and signed my book. My first signed book. (She did not personalize it, heh.) Her use of the Chinese character for her maiden name impressed me then. The blue ballpoint amuses me today.


Back in the van. It was night, dark and chilly in early-spring New York City; we first-years swayed and dozed in the stuffy blasts from the heat vents as Bella drove us home, like a mom, like all of our moms. She had the radio on, and somewhere during the ride they played David Bowie.

My Bowie horizons were expanding that year, too. I’d had Let’s Dance and Tonight on vinyl, in high school. (I was fascinated by the short-film video for Blue Jean, with its finger-snapping club audience, too cool to applaud.) But my roommate had arrived with both an Apple Macintosh and a stereo system complete with CD player, two signifiers of unimaginable wealth to scholarship-dependent me. Elizabeth allowed me occasional music privileges, and from her collection I’d made cassette copies for my own sad little single-deck boom box: Elvis Costello and the Attractions.* Talking Heads, Naked and Little Creatures. The Rolling Stones, Hot Licks. And a David Bowie greatest-hits collection.

I came back and back to that one. At one point I had the track list memorized, the exact order I’d copied down in block print on the cramped Maxell label, its particular sequence of Changes to Starman, Fame to Fashion to DJ to TVC 15. When I replaced that tape with a Best of Bowie two-disc set, years and years later, I noticed where it differed. (Now, I can look it up—can look anything up. My roomie’s album might have been the Fame and Fashion compilation, and I’ve scrambled the order in my head. It doesn’t matter. I knew it by heart once, sang along word for word and knew what was coming next.)
 
So. Driving at night, listening to Bowie. I vividly remember hearing it, that click of recognition, thinking, “Ohh, I love this song!”…but if I'm being honest, I can’t remember which song, now. One of the gentler ones. For the purposes of this story, this memory, it ought to be Changes. Me at 19, in New York City, visiting a cultural and literary landmark, learning to write, meeting a Real Writer. Feeling, for a moment, like somebody’s child still, lulled in the back seat even as all my horizons were vanishing at once, so so fast, so many doors opening onto infinite possibilities.

But I can’t be sure. Maybe it was Space Oddity, Major Tom stepping out into those very different stars. Maybe it was Ashes to Ashes.
 
I’m happy, hope you're happy too.
 
 
*Advance notice: If and when Mr. Declan McManus shuffles off this mortal coil, I am going to need a couple days off work. Stay well, Elvis!