Yesterday’s story about quitting a restaurant job in the name of making no money in the name of art reminded me of other tales, all from my early twenties. I did not sleep well. Thinking back on my early days in Chicago, I am filled with a 2:1 ratio of compassion and chagrin: I love the girl who moved to a major city alone, knowing no one, having only a vague idea of what she was going to do once she arrived; I wince when I think of what bar she thought was cool and which lampshade she chose to wear on her head while she hung out there. Youth is wasted on the young — and youth was wasted last night, too.
I moved to Chicago before smartphones. In black and white, here, right now, I am officially “dating myself,” which is something that until this moment, other people older than me did. Well, here we go: I’m dating myself, but I remember what it was like to move to a new city and not have a magical electronic map in my pocket that talked to me. I had a foldout thing I got for graduation, a wing, and a prayer. Just one wing? When has one wing ever worked?
I did not know my way around the city. At all. And I didn’t know anyone, either. I got off the Brown Line train at Wellington a couple days after I had gotten my apartment. The Wellington Brown Line station is on Wellington Street of course. But my apartment was twenty-six blocks west of that station. All I knew was that I lived on Wellington St., so I was like, “Oh. Okay. Well, I don’t know where I am but I live on Wellington, so I’ll just call this one good.” I got off the train. And I walked twenty-six blocks. I realized I was really far away from where I needed to be, but I was on Wellington and the numbers were going up, so I just kept going. I couldn’t spend money on a cab. I didn’t know the bus lines. If I had had a smartphone, that never would’ve happened. Because GPS is watching.
I’d like to say, “And I’m glad I didn’t have a smartphone! That was good for me, that horrible, hot, summer day in Chicago, walking miles and miles.” But it wasn’t good for me. It was bad. I was sad, lost, and alone. There’s no other way to say it. It took so long.
The image above conveys perfectly my disorientation that day. The word “Wellington” always reminds me of “Paddington,” as in Paddington Bear. After seeing WikiCommons’ offerings for the Wellington El stop, I searched for images of Paddington Bear. Nothing good there either, so I went for “Wellington boots.” This image of a Japanese theme park came up on that page. That is actual Japanese in the caption. I have no idea what it says.
My point is that thirty-six is is better than twenty-two; thirty-six with a Samsung Galaxy Note 5 is better still. I will try not to be twenty-two in tomorrow’s post.
When I was new in Chicago — this is fifteen years ago, now — a friend of mine helped me get a job as a hostess at a downtown restaurant. The restaurant was a citywide chain so popular, Saturday night at the host stand felt straight-up dangerous. Elbows were thrown. Twenty-dollar bills were passed to the maitre-d’ for special treatment (woe betide the tipper if the guy from out of town waiting three hours already spied the exchange.) Wine was sloshed. It was loud. And it was an hour commute on the train from my tiny apartment in the middle of nowhere.
I had learned to eat well in college. I worked as a waitress at a cafe there in Iowa City and got my culinary education — and dating the head chef for most of that time meant I got, you know, tutoring help and stuff. By the time I got to Chicago, I actually knew a little about wine. I could make a pan sauce all by myself. This small-town girl not only knew what sweetbreads were, she would order them if she found them on a menu. Aside from the occupational hazards, being a hostess just felt wrong. I was in a restaurant but not doing what I could do. I knew a restaurant job was what I would have for awhile, but the role and the restaurant had to change.
There was an ad in the Chicago Reader for a waiter at a two-star (Michelin stars, that is) restaurant on Taylor Street. Let’s call it The Fancy Napkin. This place was gorgeous: an upscale French bistro owned by a Moroccan man who looked like a swarthy James Bond. The cafe sat sixty, tops, outfitted in impeccable white linen; the waiters wore impeccable white bistro aprons. Each wine glass was spotless and the lights from the chandeliers glinted off them all. Steaming bowls of boulliabaisse. Crusty baguettes. And if you wanted to spend north of a grand on a bottle of wine, the restaurant would be happy to help you do that.
I applied. There were no female waiters, just three dudes, one of whom had been there over ten years. I had to take a wine test. I had to answer serious menu questions. I forget what the owner asked me, but it would’ve been things like, “What is canard? What is mille-feuille? Pair wine with the caviar plate for me.” I got an hour with the menu and then had a quiz. I did very well on everything and the owner offered me the job. But I had a problem.
The theater company I was a part of was producing our first show. I had a small part in the second act. There was zero money. And I had rehearsals at night. As a hostess at the chain restaurant, I could be in the play: I’d just work the lunch shifts. But not at The Fancy Napkin — there was only dinner six nights a week. I told James Bond I would be thrilled to take the job and then gently broached the little matter of needing Wednesdays and Thursdays off for awhile, then swapping those out for the Friday and Saturday nights I’d need for the play. But not for long! Just four weeks or so? Sir?
This did not go well. After expressing his extreme displeasure over taking so much time to vet me, he told me something I will never forget: “Marie, you can be a poor artist. Or you can make a lot of money at this restaurant. But you can’t do both. Decide now. Do you want to be poor and in a little play? Or do you want to live?” I was speechless. I needed money. But the play. Theater was the reason I came to Chicago. But money. But art. But rent. But love. Oh, no, no, no. I was twenty-two years old.
So you know what I did? I took a walk around the block. Someone had told me once that if you have to make a big decision, take a walk around the block and say to yourself firmly, “By the time I get back to where I started, I will have my decision.” It works. You speed up the decision-making process. You get closer to the end of your loop and you’re still in a quandary and then bam! The solution presents itself. The whole way around the block, walking slowly, I didn’t know what to do. But when I got to the door, I did.
It’s been a tough few days. Battling anacondas. Liquidating a Fortune 500 company. Quashing a pandemic seconds before it’s unleashed on the Earth by a villain. Seriously, though: it’s been a tough few days.
Canada has been cancelled. Peru has been cancelled. Let’s call it health reasons and leave it at that. Bon soir, Montreal. Adios, Cuzco. (Balls, I say, and that’s plain English.) But life is consistently weird and often lousy and what can you do? Well, fun things. You can do fun things and try to not be as lame as you were yesterday. That’s all you can do — and that’s advanced stuff.
I walked up to a doctor’s appointment this afternoon and got done early. Feelin’ blue, I did what any red-blooded American would do in my situation: I went into the AT&T store to see if I could get a new phone. It turned out that I could, provided that I promised my firstborn child to the ghost of Alexander Graham Bell. Sure, dude. Do I sign with my finger or the stylus? Doesn’t matter? Right on.
The upside of getting a new phone at the phone store is that you don’t do any of the data transferring. You punch in your password and the tiny magic doo-dads are synched by someone who won’t ruin everything. The downside is that it takes a very long time. If you amble into the phone store and think you’re going to amble on out with a new phone in twenty minutes, you are incorrect. I learned today that “getting a new phone” may be something I procrastinate about when time comes to do it again. It’s not a “Let’s play hooky and go get a new phone!” proposition; it’s an errand.
That is, unless someone groovy helps you. Then it’s a blast. Bekie, an extremely pretty Hispanic girl with hair that I will never, ever have and could never even fake, greeted me at the door. I told her what I was after and she walked me through my options. I could have a dinner plate-sized phone or a turkey platter-sized phone. I went with the dinner plate, but it was tough choice.
While we waited for Samsung to transfer all the information it has on me from one X-ray spy machine — sorry, phone — to another, me n’ Bekie got to talking. We talked about men. Boys, really. We moved through relationship drama, jobs, other jobs, past lives, patterns, dreams, annoyances. We covered territory like we hadn’t seen each other since college, but I was just a customer, she was on her shift..
The tables at the AT&T store on Michigan Avenue are high-tops, so when you’re sitting down you have the feeling you’re in a bar. Several times over the course of my two-hour relationship with Bekie, I had to get over the uncomfortable feeling that our waiter was really slow bringing our drinks. It was just that friendly there in the AT&T store. Bekie told me her eight-year-old daughter recently turned eight.
“Oh, that’s great. I’ll bet she had a princess party. Is Frozen still cool?”
“Yeah,” Bekie said. “It’s still cool, but she didn’t want a party like that. She wanted to go to this adventure place, like an activity place. I took her. It was really fun.”
When my phone was done, I gathered up all my things and gave Bekie a big hug.
Earlier today, I flung onto my couch and slammed my knee right where the two cushions come together in the center of it. I had never hurt my knee flinging before, so I investigated. Ah. There was a big ballpoint pen in there and I had landed straight on it.
The pen wasn’t all that was in the couch. As I looked, I realized that I was looking at 1.5 years of other people’s couch cushion stuff. Don’t worry; there wasn’t anything wet. Just a peanut, some hair. A quarter. Pink fibers from a pink blanket. That damned pen.
And I found pink post-it note with my handwriting on it. It said “AUG 29th”, a date important enough to be singled out for its own neon pink post-it note to be stuck someplace where I’d see it. The post-it has to be at least three years old. Because on August 29th, 2015, I was in Washington, D.C. On August 29th, 2014, I was in New York City. This note has to be from 2013 or 2012; I got the couch in 2011 but I’m pretty sure I’ve cleaned the couch since then.
Being a dedicated journal-keeper, I have the luxury — or the bad luck — of going back to the books. I write in my journal a lot, but it’s not every single last day that I write; there are days I don’t. But it appears I have entries on August 29th, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015. I thought I’d pull one line from each for you. I think each line sums up pretty nicely what my life was like that summer, if not that year. Note: “dumping” was what I called it when my ileostomy would just dump liter after liter of liquid/fluid out of my ostomy and I couldn’t get it “stopped up,” if you will. It sucked when that happened and I would get extremely tired and dehydrated.
August 29th, 2011: “But my stomach flips inside me like a fish and I’m dumping today; can’t fill the hole, the hole. It’s probably good I’m going to Iowa to film TV.”
August 29th, 2012: “I’m putting myself on a white wine diet.”
August 29th, 2013: “The reality of love is pile-driving me and the wind that it has knocked out of me is stale in comparison to the air we breathe in bed. He cannot be unmagical to me. He cannot be wrong.”
August 29th, 2014: “Day by day. Meal by meal. Cooky by warm cooky. Earnest conversation by earnest conversation.”
August 29th, 2015: “The summer isn’t quite over, but everyone is assuming the close. I so look forward to the fall, even if the Autumn Dread grips me possibly tighter than ever. Statistically, I should have an easy year in that respect; 2012 and 2013 were both heavy with hospital in the fall. Can every autumn be a crisis?”
When something like this post-it happens, I realize that it’s so painful to have these books. But they’re my life. Literally: they are my life. If I go, they go. If they go, I probably will, too.
I’m in Door County and will stay for about a week. There are many fun things to see and do up here. The last time I was at our family’s lake house there was a wedding taking place. There are no weddings going on right now because a) no one is engaged and b) hypothermia is real.
Washington Island is cold this time of year. Right now it’s five degrees outside. The Island has a year-round population of 660, which means 660 people don’t think a winter this cold and snowy is that big of a deal, though I think the number is misleading: there have to be some folks who take off for Daytona Beach for, say, the months of January and February. They’d still count as year-round, probably.
But cold and the ice make beautiful air and beautiful pictures, and that I’m here at all proves I like that air and those pictures a lot. When a bright sun shines off a subzero Lake Michigan and you’re on the puffy couch, with tea, counting swans, you don’t mind that you have to wear two coats later and pull on actual long underwear if you want to go on a walk.
Today, I fell through the ice on the lake and that was not great. When I say I “fell through the ice,” I mean that I fell through the ice. And when I say I fell through the ice, I meant that I took one step, then another step, then fell through the ice. I was not submerged. But I went down and I felt water. I was walking on the table rocks at the shore and, like an idiot, pranced over to look at a plant completely encased in ice that looked like glass and did not picture in my mind what the ground is like when it is not covered in ice, itself: big rocks with lots of spaces between them. In the summer, water is flowing around these rocks. Ergo, in winter, ice around the rocks. Ice that will surely be varying levels of thickness.
I’m okay. No blood, just sputtering. And don’t worry, I wasn’t alone. Claus was with me. When he heard the crash-splash, he ran to make sure I was okay but he didn’t come too far out on the ice. He could see I was going to make it. And I did; I made it back into the house and then I made minestrone and everything was fine.
When I was in high school, my older sister and I snuck out of the house and went to raves in Des Moines.
My mom knows now. We told her years later that Hannah and I would wait till she and Rebecca (our younger sister) were asleep then open a second floor bedroom window and jump to the ground below. I did that in platform heels, once. Youth is not only wasted on the young, it gifts and forgives and protects the young. I should’ve broken my ankle or my neck. Instead, I just went, “Did you see that?! Did I get a grass stain on my butt? No? Okay, let’s go!”
Raves, for those who were not in high school, college, or the club kid scene in Manhattan in the mid-90s, were just dance parties. It was the music that distinguished them from a bunny hop or a prom or a Sadie Hawkins dance. At raves, this newfangled “techno” music was blasted through giant speakers. Techno — and I’m ashamed to reduce it down so far but it’s late — is an electronic music melange of Chicago house, jazz, deep African rhythms, and the concept that in late-capitalist America, the Body and the Machine are pretty close to becoming the same thing. But it’s got a catchy beat! And you can dance to it! (Seriously: you can really, really dance to it. I learned to dance to it, in fact, and I feel like I can actually cut a rug to most genres of music and I owe this to Fatboy Slim.)
My hometown of Winterset, IA, had a population of 5,000. Des Moines was the closest city and close enough: a 45-minute drive got you downtown. Me, my sister, and our friends — who had snuck out of their houses — had the audacity to take my grandmother’s white station wagon to Des Moines about once a month to dance at a rave. I named my grandma’s station wagon Honky. Honky served us well. We got like eight people in that thing and never had a flat tire.
We didn’t do drugs. We didn’t even drink. I did a little drinking in high school, but that was always at high school parties on level-B roads. The raves, they were for dancing. We got lost in the music. We got lost in a community that wasn’t our own — and most of us didn’t fit too well in ours and we needed to know that there were other communities that existed. We could be different people at raves; perhaps it’s more accurate that we could truly be ourselves. Though we didn’t use the word at the time, we were fabulous. Oh, we were wearing glittery shirts and way too much eye makeup, so I don’t mean we were fabulous. But these infiltrators, these refugees, these desperate, giddy teenagers were fabulous. You bet your hotpants.
The NBC news affiliate came one night to do a story on this crazy youth movement (?) called “rave parties.” I waved to the camera and my friend Justin and I booty-shaked with renewed vigor from atop the bank of speakers, waving and sticking out our tongues in a rebel sort of way, many, many years before Miley Cyrus was born. That clip of us made the news. I saw the report myself at the five-o’clock broadcast. Guess who watched the ten-o’clock broadcast diligently, every night, in bed? Marianne Fons.
That night, Hannah and I went to say goodnight to Mom, just because “We love you, Mom! We just wanted to see how your day was!” We placed our bodies in front of the TV screen till we heard the report was over.
So far away those lives are, now. But the news archives. They live forever.
I come this night with a true tale of a dinner party, a doorknob, pants, and great distress. I got permission from my friend to tell this story.
Not so long ago, I attended a get-together at my friend Nathan’s* house. Dinner was served, there was plenty of wine. Everyone around the table had interesting jobs, so we talked about those. We discussed books. I often look around and can’t believe I’m an adult. I get bills in my mailbox and I think, “I get bills. And I paythem. I have kitchen utensils. I can get myself showered and to the airport on time.” I can’t believe I do these things on my own. At this dinner party, I had that feeling. I was listening intently to someone discussing their recent trip to Bangkok, took a sip of red wine, and thought, “Fons, you are pulling this off.”
Between dinner and dessert, my friend excused herself to go to the ladies’ room upstairs. Keeping tabs on how long people spend in the bathroom is weird, so I didn’t do that exactly, but it did cross my mind at one point that my friend had been upstairs longer than a typical bathroom visit takes. But before I was officially considering it, she came down and everyone had fruit.
I stuck around after the other guests left to help with dishes, and that was when Nathan and I learned what had happened up there. “Did you notice how long I was gone?” Sally asked. I told her that I kinda noticed, but it wasn’t weird or anything.
“Oh, it was weird, all right,” she said. “As I was leaving the bathroom, the door swung closed behind me and my pantloop got caught on the doorknob. Have you seen that thing? It’s this weird curlique doorknob. I twisted around to free myself, but I guess I went the wrong way somehow, because I made it worse. Like, the twist got twisted and I was stuck. I was stuck on door to the bathroom.”
I brought a dish towel to my chest. “Sally no.”
“Yes,” she said, and our eyes got big and mirth began to well up in us and Nathan stopped loading the dishwasher. “I was twisting this way and that way, just trying to get free. I was up there the whole time, stuck on the door! I could hear you all downstairs, laughing and clinking glasses. I’m telling you: I was really stuck. I was moving back and forth and the door was banging… I thought the only thing I was going to be able to do would be try to take my pants off but I couldn’t do that, either — I mean, how was that gonna happen?” We were weak with laughter. Sally squeaked, “Could you hear me? Could you hear me like, rustling?”
I shook my head and wiped tears from my eyes. Poor, poor Sally, dangling like a fish on a hook, only feet above the civilized dinner party, thrashing silently, trying not to curse, Sally — a woman of faith — prayed for divine intervention. We imagined her sweating, pulling, pushing, all in shame, desperate to solve a very strange, very immediate problem.
“Just when I was about to call down, ‘Hey, Mary, can you come up here for just a sec?’ and make it sound real casual, like I wanted to show you a new dress I bought or something, just that moment, I untangled it. I kind of fell forward, but I caught myself.”
I haven’t known Sally too long, but I foresee good things. And as getting one’s pant loop hooked to a doorknob is something that does not happen to grownups very often, I may be able to avoid these “I am an adult” realizations if I hang out with her more. Done.
While in the admission line for the Adler Planetarium on New Year’s Day, Claus and I looked at a pamphlet advertising something called the Chicago CityPass. For $96 bucks, you can buy a book of tickets to five of Chicago’s best art/culture destinations for half the cost if you were to buy tickets for all of them separately. The catch is that you have to use your book of tickets within nine days, which means you have nine days to see: The Field Museum, The Shedd Aquarium, SkyDeck Chicago, The Museum of Science & Industry or 360 Chicago, The Adler Planetarium or The Art Institute.
It’s lousy they make you pick between The Art Institute and the Planetarium, both of them being potentially life-changing experiences if you’re on a family vacation and you’re six. “Look, Denny: it’s either stars or art. Make up your mind or we’re getting in the car and going back to your Aunt Rita’s. I need a bathroom.”
Claus and I went to the SkyDeck on Tuesday. The SkyDeck is the observatory on the top floor of the Willis née Sears Tower. It’s strange that I like flying so much; airplanes hang out at 30,000 feet or so. The Willis Tower is 1,450 in the sky and I hated being up there. I got nauseated. I got dizzy. And then I had to “face my fears” and step out onto “The Ledge.”
The Ledge is a clear glass box that extends 4.3 feet out from the tower. You’re supposed to walk out into the box and stand there. Stand in a 4-sided glass box 1,450 feet in the air. There’s nothing under your feet but a clear glass shelf. I do not ride amusement park rides. I do not sky dive. And The Ledge? I did not want to do it.
“You have to do it Mary,” Claus said. When he says “Mary” it sounds so nice, like, “Mah-rie” and this is dangerous.
“Absolutely not,” I said. I was feeling queasy again and wanted to go back to the gift shop to discern why they were selling those monkey toys with the velcro hands that hang around your neck. How was that a relevant Willis Tower gift shop item? Plus, the gift shop is at the center of the observatory, so I was safer there.
“Oh, come on, Mah-rie. Face your feers.”
I hate it when Claus or anyone else says that because then I have to. What, I’m going to live this life without facing at least half of my fears? Damnit! People laughed at me because I had to stick one toe at a time into the cube. Inch by inch, I made it out there, took one look left, one right, one out, and one down past my feet (oh sweet mercy) then immediately nose-dived back to what now seemed like safety. Relativity is a cruel mistress.
We checked the SkyDeck off the CityPass. Tomorrow: The Shedd Aquarium.
You don’t know me. I’m in the area for work. I leave early tomorrow morning but before I leave Florida, I need to talk to you.
Lindsay, I stole your deli items.
My host took me by the Publix near the place I’m teaching to grab something to eat. There wasn’t much time. When we got there, I made a beeline for the Deli & Bakery section of the store.
There were tureens of soup. I got a portion of the turkey-kale-sweet potato, which I recommend to you the next time you’re in the Publix that I know for a fact is your grocery store of choice.
Just below that long deli counter, there on the right side, there were great piles of pre-cut meats and cheeses. I like a bit o’ thin-sliced chicken breast. I like a lil’ thin-sliced Swiss cheese. So I grabbed a bag of each. With the soup and then some kind of chocolate afterward, well. A perfect lunch, and it had all come together quickly. (I had chocolate in my purse already.)
Lindsay, that was your chicken and cheese. I had no idea what I had done until I got back to my hotel room and tore into my grocery bag. In the world today, apparently you can order portions of deli meats and cheeses online, go to the store, and have no wait to collect your meat or cheese. You thought ahead. You planned. You made deli selections and what did I do? I took them. I took your chicken and your cheese and I am horrified.
Because you were mad. When you got to the Publix later and dug around in that bin for your order, dug around like a badger in heat, Lindsay, because that’s what I would’ve been, a badger in heat, looking for cheese, well, you probably got real mad that your order wasn’t in there. I don’t blame you one bit. But it wasn’t anyone’s fault but mine. I didn’t know your name was on the label. I’ve never seen anything like that and I sincerely apologize.
I do need to tell you, with all seriousness, that that was the best deli meat I haver had in my life.
With Warm Regards,
Editor’s Note: It’s the “Tuscan Smokehouse Chicken Breast,” for those who have a Publix nearby. Delicious.
There are a number of booth awards handed out at the show each year; this afternoon, the Mary Fons Small Wonders booth won the Best Merchandising Award, which to me is one of the best awards to get, of course. It means your concept was clear, your goods were presented exactly they way they should have been for ultimate easy-viewing and shopping enjoyment, your design was pitch-perfect and, frankly, that you got good taste. Thank you to the Academy — I mean the judges — and thank you to the whole Springs team. We did it!
But enough of all that for a moment. It’s impossible to believe while it’s happening, but there is a world beyond Quilt Market. Indeed, it’s good to remember that. The show is over tomorrow afternoon. Dust will settle. Everyone just calm down. This means me.
In less than a month, I’ll be opening my Chicago door. Claus is going to help me with the move, which is even better than winning the award today — that’s saying a lot. I cannot lift any more boxes by myself. I won’t make it. The last time I moved (the fourth time) I was carrying a too-heavy box and the bottom fell out in the hallway. Everything spilled out. I cursed the best one-word curse you can curse, then I sank to my knees to put things back together.
“I can’t do this alone anymore,” I said out loud. “I need help. I need a partner.” After I said that, well, it was Miss Mary’s Pity Party and I invited all my friends and no one came, boo-hoo, boo-hoo.
I don’t have a partner but I do have Claus*. He’s going to fly to Washington and help me drive a small truck from Point A to B. He grew up on a farm in Germany. He is very tall. He is very efficient (see: Germany). He says adorable things, so if he drops a box on my foot, I can’t be mad at him. Examples of adorable things:
1. When we have an argument: “Are you mad on me?”
2. When figuring out logistics: “If we must be at the airport at 7am, we must stand up at 5am. Oh, god…”
To say stand up is brilliant; wake up doesn’t mean much. Until you stand up, you’re not going anywhere. Isn’t that great??
3. When I whisper something sexy to him when we’re out getting sandwiches: “Mary, please do not say forbidden things.”
I know. It’s so hot.
Anyway, the move is happening in the middle of the month next month and you may have noticed that it is almost next month. I have a number of jobs before this happens and I’m even hesitant to say so; it appears I can only do things the hard way. But I didn’t plan on moving home next month, so I’ll be going to Williamsburg, Denver, and Charleston before Claus and I get in that truck. It’s a good thing I’m so deliriously happy about going home or I’d have to lie on the couch for a few days just staring at the ceiling, eating packets of instant miso soup mix by licking my finger and sticking it in the pouch.
You do such a great job sewing step-outs and demo materials for Love of Quilting for PBS and for many videos for Fons & Porter. It’s great that I get to see you twice a year when we tape TV in Iowa. You’re great.
As you are an enthusiastic Catholic, I thought I might tell you a pretty cool story.
Before I left for this four-day trip to Portland, I went to get my trousers tailored at the local dry cleaner in my DC neighborhood. While I was waiting for the lady to issue me the ticket for pickup, I looked around and spied two photographs and a letter professionally framed in a single frame hanging on the wall to my right. The pictures featured my dry cleaner lady and her husband proudly holding a big white papal robe. There was a nun (sister?) in the picture, as well. I walked over to get a closer look.
The letter was from an apparently important church (order?) in town. The author of the letter was the nun in the picture. The letter was addressed to the owners of the dry cleaning business, thanking them for cleaning the robes (habits?) over many years and always doing a great job. The letter then thanked them for cleaning the Pope’s robes (cassocks?) while he visited Washington a few weeks ago.
“Holy crap!” I couldn’t help but exclaim, later recognizing that I’ll never get to use the phrase “holy crap” in a more appropriate situation ever again.
“You cleaned the Pope’s robes??” I asked the lady. She nodded and gave a little smile that said, “We are actually the bomb chronic, yes.”
I never thought about how the Pope needs stuff dry cleaned like everyone else, Colleen! What amazed me is that his entourage would take his (His?) special outfits — outfits no one on the planet but him is able to wear in a non-ironic way — to a neighborhood dry cleaner! If I had ever considered it, I’d figure they had a holy dry cleaner who used that special incense thing (thurible?) to steam clean Mr. Pope’s things. Who knew? Well, the nun knew. But I didn’t know and now we all do!
I thought you might like that story, Colleen. Have a great day today.
Last night, I slept in the sanctuary of a church in rural Iowa.
I just got a bee in my bonnet and felt like I needed to commune, so I got in the car, searched on my phone for “country church, Iowa”, and drove north. I found a humble church, broke open the door, and poked around. When it was time for bed, I had to try various pews throughout the night because for some reason I slept poorly.
Just kidding. But I did sleep in a sanctuary!
The Quilted Steeple is a retreat center in Lone Rock, IA, far and away the coolest retreat center I’ve ever retreated to. Several years ago, this church was shuttered and up for sale. The fabulous Julie Dodds, who had attended church there most of her life (and whose mother played the organ there for decades) came down from Michigan to buy the collection plates for sentimental reasons. She ended up buying the church itself, partly because she was not keen on the idea of a motorcycle gang taking over the place; they had put in an offer and it looked like they might get it. By the name of the retreat center, you have surmised Julie is a quilter, so she followed her vision to make it a haven for quilters to come and sew and relax. Hooray!
It’s amazing how perfect a church is for a retreat; I am teaching here this weekend and I saw it for myself. Classes take place in the in the church basement. There’s a fully tricked-out kitchen down there for big-group meal prep. Lectures and trunk shows happen in the sanctuary, and the (many bedroomed, many bathroomed) parsonage across the gravel sidewalk serves as lodging. Cornfields as far as the eye can see muffle the big world beyond and I can’t even talk about the sunset/sunrise out here.
When I got the tour, we went into the pretty-but-definitely-country sanctuary; there’s no stained glass here just wood lattice work over the peaked windows — this is no mega-church. It’s not chapel-small, but seeing as I have not been in a chapel except in Vegas, I might be wrong about this. At any rate, it is neat. Julie pointed up to the choir loft and said, “That’s a bedroom now.”
I took the Lord’s name in vain and whirled on Julie. “Is it taken?? Can I sleep there??” Julie said that I could.
I take it as a good sign that I slept like a damned baby.* The trundle bed was comfortable; I wrote in my journal after gazing down at the big bowl of prayer below for awhile. This morning, the sun from the front door lit up the whole aisle in toasted, golden light. I am not a church-going woman, but I do recommend sleeping in a choir loft at least once in life. Very peaceful, even for a depraved sinner like myself.
The Quilted Steeple isn’t just for quilt retreats. I have no compunction about endorsing, even shamelessly advertising this place. Weddings, funerals, any kind of educational retreat, family reunions — whenever you need a bunch of people for at least one overnight, book the Quilted Steeple. One lucky person will get the choir loft bedroom and if the cat’s out of the bag that it exists, I recommend early dibs.
Thank you, Julie. And thank you for taking the organ out because I had room for my suitcase and my purse and my computer bag.
I smelled donuts this morning and recalled the summer my older sister got a job as a night baker for the bakery up on the town square.
Hannah was in high school; I was in middle school. When she got the job making donuts and rolls through the night, I thought there had never been a cooler thing to happen to anyone, ever. A job that took place at night? A job making donuts? I didn’t even know donuts were made. I thought they just appeared in a box. How was a donut made? Did she get to eat some as she went? Hannah would be able to tell me.
Many times that summer I would get up at 4am and go down to the backyard. I’d lay back in the hammock and look up at the pre-dawn sky and wait for Hannah to come home. The small bakery was just up on the square, which meant it was roughly three blocks from the hammock. Before too long, Hannah would open the gate and she would be so stoked that I got up to meet her. She’d lay on the hammock with me and we’d talk about all kinds of things. She smelled amazing because smelled like donuts.
Those days are so far away, now. We all know being home is a fraught thing. Here’s the bakery where Hannah worked and the place where the hammock used to swing; there’s the familiar creak and groan on the eighth and ninth step of the staircase; there’s the place where the armoire used to be. A lot of people who live far from their childhood home don’t go back nearly as often as I do; I come back at least twice a year to tape TV; this means I have an ongoing relationship with my hometown past but I also see changes as they occur.
Last month, my mother bought the old movie theater on the square. It’s right next to the bakery. More on that tomorrow. Will we all smell like film?
Below is a conversation I heard tonight as I waited for the east elevator here at the beautiful Kennedy Warren. In case you are just joining us, my towering, Art Deco, super-historic building borders the Smithsonian National Zoo. My neighbors are animals. From time to time, one can hear the call of the wild when heading out to the store or opening the window for some fresh air. And now:
IT WAS LIKE A DRAGON:
A short play by Mary Fons
Woman 1: It was like a dragon.
Woman 2: A what?
Woman 1: A dragon.
Woman 2: Maybe it was a wild boar. They’ve got the wild boars out right now.
Woman 1: I don’t know…
Woman 2: Maybe it was just the zebras. You know how they’re always going on.
A couple moons ago, I told a story about going on a date with a doctor. He diagnosed me with a fatty deposit when we were making out. As you can imagine, this cooled things off for me pretty quick. But there’s more to the story and when you learn the rest, you’ll see why I was cooled off before The Smooch Heard Round My Hip.
We’re at dinner. Low light, pretty dress, etc. And the doctor is talking. He’s talking a lot. He eventually asked me: “So tell me more about what you do. Knitting, right?”
I answered in an abbreviated manner because as I explained how I earn my living, he looked away at least four times. I was not yammering on. I was not entertaining myself. I was answering his question and attempting to engage in the “Let’s get to know each other” thing. Crazy to do on a date, I realize. But the doctor was eating bread and glancing around as I spoke and I hate that. I don’t like talking to people who don’t care one cc what I’m saying but also, lucky for him, I like listening to people talk about themselves way more than talking about myself. I figured out pretty quick that the best thing to do was to clam up and ask him questions about himself and get through dinner.
So I asked questions. I let his tape run. Yes, he did have interesting stories to tell and he was intelligent. Successful. A father. A widower, as I’ve just recalled. But when you spend the first forty-five minutes of a date smiling and nodding and going, “Mm, I see,” it’s tiring. It’s a drag. One can also be in danger of drinking too much wine because there’s nothing else to do with one’s mouth.
My date excuses himself to use the men’s room. The head waiter comes over and removes our first course plates.
“Did you enjoy your beet salad, Miss?”
“Oh, it was wonderful, thank you so much. Really good.”
I engaged him in a conversation about how beets are gross unless you get them on a fancy plate. He agreed; we had this instant rapport. Then he gave me a strange look. An earnest look. A conspiratorial look. He looked toward the men’s room and back to me.
“And how is your evening going?” he asked, cocking his head and squeezing his eyes at me. I, too, glanced at the men’s room. I, too, cocked my head and squeezed my eyes.
“Can I be honest?”
“It’s not good. He is just talking and talking and talking. He hasn’t asked me a single thing about myself! I don’t want to go on and on, but we’re supposed to be on a date. I’m pretty bummed.”
“We give you forty minutes, tops.”
“We’ve been watching you two since you came in because your table is right in the line of the service area. He hasn’t let you get a word in since you got here. We all feel really sorry for you. Can I bring you another Champagne? On the house, Miss.”
I looked over my left shoulder and saw two bartenders, a busboy, and another waiter at various positions near the wood paneled, chrome bar. One of the bartenders saw me looking and gave me a little wave and a cringe. My date appeared from around the corner to the restrooms and came back to the table.
“I would like a glass of Champagne,” I said to the waiter, my new BFF. “Thank you so much.” My new BFF and I shared the most awesome, subtle look. We were in cahoots now; we were allied. He asked my date if he wanted anything from the bar or if he was ready for wine with the entrees on their way. He was ready for wine, and I was ready for dessert. Yes, I know, I sold out for some smooching at the end of the date. What can I say? It had been a long week.
The last thing to say about it is that I didn’t have to fight the doctor off with a stick; neither of us pursued a second date. Maybe he thought I was a dull conversationalist, that I had nothing good to say, nothing interesting to talk about.
As usual, doing something important fast had consequences. Two Facebook fans, one born in Detroit and one who now lives in the suburbs, commented that Detroit has many good things going for it and should not be considered a lost cause. They are absolutely right: there are many positive things to say about Detroit and the people there are clearly not all addicted to drugs, indigent, or looking to break into your car. I apologize to the ladies and indeed, mean no offense by my commentary. It is fair to note, however, that the lady born there did not stay and the lady in the suburbs does not live in the city.
Before I begin this rather in-depth post, keep in mind that I am not an investigative reporter; I have no press credentials. I am but a naturally curious person who went to Detroit and has a blog. If you want source material for the stats I give and a list of the numerous articles I’ve been reading about Detroit — those showing reasons/data for growth and those denying any such thing — email me and I’ll share that immediately. Also, there’s no way in a PaperGirl post to cover the vast Detroit Thing. Don’t read this like it’s the news and don’t stop here if you have any interest in the topic. There’s a whole lot more, good and less good, about Detroit, MI.
Okay. The Census Bureau counted 1.84 million people in Detroit in 1950. In 2010, there were under 714,000.That’s a 60% decline in 60 years. Estimates from the Bureau put population at 700,000, so it’s still dropping. Big changes in the design of the US auto industry began all this, though it’s more complicated than that. But Detroit was Motor City, making basically All The Cars for a long time. Making All The Cars made Detroit the fourth largest city in the country during that 1950-ish period. (BTW: Motown music was born in Detroit; “Mo” = motor, “Town” = Detroit.) As the 60s and 70s came along, you had gas crises, racial unrest, foreign auto makers getting toeholds in the market, and labor getting shifted overseas to improve the bottom line.
Then the recession happened in the 80s. But according to the police officer I met and talked to for a good while, it was in the 90s things went from bad to nightmarish for the city he was born and raised in. Casinos were allowed to be built and helped only the corrupt officials who let them in; more addiction and poverty followed the casino construction. Perhaps sadder still is that school district segregation had a huge part to play in the KO punch of the 90s: neighborhoods were redlined, people moved out for better school districts. This was a racially- and socioeconomically-driven tide. The more people who left, the fewer companies wanted to invest in the city. The fewer investors, the fewer jobs, etc., etc. On the heels of the 90s, you get the 2000s: Iraq, financial crisis, etc. Oh, Detroit. Oh, honey.
By 2013, the city had to file for bankruptcy, a move that marked the largest municipal bankruptcy case in our nation’s history. Detroit was $18 billion in debt. Crooked officials, a problem almost too big to solve, and a lack of people to take a whack at it created that debt. Now, because the bankruptcy happened, Detroit actually is in better shape than it was: bankruptcy is designed to help a person — or an entire city — get right. It’s way better to pay your debts, though.
I’ve read for a couple years now that Detroit is growing and it’s getting “really cool,” which for a lifestyle magazine means that white hipsters are moving there. A one-page feature in, say, Chicago Magazine, picturing a guy with a mustache who has a food truck in Detroit is enough to make a lot of folks relax and think Superman saved the day. Superman does not run a food truck, though. This hype about Detroit becoming the next Brooklyn isn’t the case just yet. Detroit deliverance, from what I am understanding and from what I saw myself, is going to take years of deep thinking, actual doing, and leadership from people who are not stealing from the mouths of hungry Detroit-born babies.
Because when you have a small number of people living in a big city, you don’t have enough people paying taxes to cover the costs of living in a big city. Snow plowing, trash removal, street lights, public transit, etc.: these things require tax money. But if no one lives there to pay those taxes and no one who does live there can afford to pay those taxes, snow stays. Trash stays a long time. Lights literally go out. And no one wants to move into that city because the property taxes are insanely high. Huh? Yes, because the city is desperate for money. So the services are terrible and they cost a fortune.
There are gorgeous houses in downtown Detroit and just outside of it. I looked at many of them and part of my brain was freaking out, considering the possibilities. I could get a Victorian mansion for 50k or so. But most of the houses in these areas are in ruins. My ideal fixer-upper has been sitting empty since 2008. Animals live there. And pretend for a minute that I don’t work from home: if I moved to Detroit, into a “wait for it” Barbie dream house, where would I work? There are jobs in Detroit but many are in the suburbs, so I’d need a car. Not a big deal, except that car theft is so high in Detroit auto insurance premiums are the highest in the nation, hitting as high as $5000 a year.
There are 70,000 abandoned buildings in Detroit and 66,000 vacant lots. Forty-percent or more of the city’s residents live below the poverty line. In 2013, the violent crime rate in Detroit was the highest in the nation and five times higher than the national average. Roughly 40% of the street lights don’t work. These statistics go on and on. So I can’t move to Detroit right now. Not as a single woman. Not as a commuter who has to fly and out of my home city several times a month. Not as an Extreme Home Makeover story, not yet.
Look, I don’t wrap this up, I’ll be up all night and you’ll decide to read the rest of this later and likely forget to because it’s depressing to read about something once lively and energetic going on life support. As my Facebook friends pointed out, this is not the whole story of Detroit and it would take a post twice as long as this and twice as long again to detail one iota of the rich history and pride Detroitians (?) have and should have in their town.
I won’t end with some bromide about how I know Detroit will rise from the ashes, or that I hope it will. Everyone hopes that. I don’t have any conclusions or predictions. I saw Detroit and Detroit messed with me. That’s all I can say, except this one other thing: we actually witnessed a man actually breaking into a house. Two minutes after that, we saw a house gutted by fire. Two minutes after that, I saw a prostitute walk toward a man in a car at a gas station. It was all too much. The decay was killing me. I began to cry.
“Don’t cry,” said my friend. He had been most silent most of the drive, too. “It’s also beautiful,” he said. I was shocked. How could he say such a thing? “It’s hard to see, I know. It’s hard to look at all this and see how death has beauty, but you have to try. It’s part of life. Death is part of life.”
At the Iowa State Fair a few days ago, a quilt was stolen. The quilt was a blue ribbon winner, made by a local gal who had worked so hard on it for a long time, obviously. Well, someone just up and took it off the wall where it was being displayed and now the Fair will surely have to add some long insurance rider that protects future quilters from being afraid to win first place, though they won’t be that afraid for that long.
But the story doesn’t end there. Oh, no. There was also a goat stolen.
A young goat was stolen from the petting zoo — one of triplets, apparently. I’d like to think she was a middle child like me and arranged the whole thing to get attention.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: I initially wrote the above sentence this way: “I’d like to think she was a middle child like me, goading the bad guys into kidnapping her for the attention.” Do you see how I cannot possibly use either of these terms in this context without honking a clown horn?]
The story in the article that accompanied the ten o’clock news interviewed the man whose goat it was that was…kidnapped. He said — and this is a direct quote — “How could someone stoop that low to take a baby goat anyway? They knew it was a baby.”
That’s it. I’m done. I can never write anything as sweet, funny, charming, tragic, entertaining, or thought-provoking as those two sentences. Never, as long as I live, can I top that. It’s been nice knowing you. To the quilter who was burgled, it’s awful and I’m so sorry. Here’s hoping you get the quilt back someday. To the goat owner (who did get his goat back, by the way) you are my new hero. A girl can only have so many, so I’m taking Dos Passos off the list and sticking you on there in his place.
Poking Gala apples in the Charlottesville, VA Trader Joe’s this afternoon, I heard an astonished voice say, “Mary??” And so it was that a wildly unexpected reunion began. This story is not going where you think it’s going. Stay with me.
I turned to see a man from my past (not that kind of man, not that kind of past) approaching me from the bulk nuts. I couldn’t believe my eyes.
“It’s Jeff!” the man said, and so it was.
Jeff. Jeff from Milwaukee. My sweet friend Jeff who I met fresh off bus in Chicago in 2001. Jeff, who I haven’t seen in years. Jeff, who is married to Karen, whom I also love and haven’t seen in years because Jeff and Karen, married with children now, have always been connected at the hip and now live in Milwaukee. Here was Jeff, standing in front of me in a Trader Joe’s in Charlottesville, Virginia. Incredible. I gasped like I’d seen a ghost — not incorrect — and I body-slammed him, bubbling over with with joy and surprise. My eyes stung and we hugged hard.
We pulled back to get a good look at each other, smiling like crazy and laughing. Jeff! God, that bushy beard. Those twinkling eyes. The smart glasses. The sort of face, now with a fatherly tone to it, that says, “I own a lot of books” and “I know what good beer tastes like.”
“What are you doing here?” I asked, breathless.
“I live here!” Jeff said.
This is when things took a hard left turn into a parallel universe where reality meant nothing and I wanted to crawl into a hole. See, Jeff didn’t say, “We live here.” He said, “I live here.” But remember, Jeff and his now-wife Karen are basically two halves of one person and I hadn’t heard anything had changed. Since Jeff didn’t say, “We live here,” it could be that Jeff and Karen were no longer together and Jeff moved to Charlottesville as a bachelor. Surely I didn’t hear him right.
“Wow! Okay … So … Karen and… You guys live here now, then?”
Jeff corrected me. “Karen? No, Jody.”
Jody. The spinning wheel of death appeared in my head. Jody. No. So did they? But… What? Karen. Jeff. Who is Jody? Hang on: Jeff. Bushy beard Jeff who I haven’t seen in… Wait. Is this… Oh, god.
My friend gave me a very strange look. “It’s Jeff. From Iowa City.”
Then, because I was surely looking a shade too neanderthal to not treat with kindness and caution, he gave me more information in a gentle tone. “The Motley Cow? Restaurant? Iowa City?”
I had the wrong Jeff. I had mistaken a very special, dear Jeff from my past for another very special, dear Jeff from my past. I wouldn’t believe this story if I heard it.
This Jeff and I worked at the same restaurant together for years in Iowa City. Jeff bartended. I waited tables. We were good friends. We didn’t drive each other to the airport, but we solved all the world’s problems many times over, late into the night with the rest of the gang. This Jeff gave me my first lessons in wine and shared music with me that was way, way better than the stuff I was listening to. Music and booze and making good money over a packed Friday night dinner shift — this is the stuff bonds are made of. So seeing This Jeff and understanding him to be Iowa City Jeff would have elicited the exact same response from me. But I had the wrong guy.
Please, please try to understand and take mercy on me: Iowa City Jeff now looks identical to Milwaukee Jeff did when I saw him last: same build, same eyes, same glasses, same smile, same cheeks, same (face obscuring!!!!!) beard, same haircut, same height. I’m telling you. I’m telling you. But I was so horribly embarrassed. There was this effusive, insanely happy reunion moment shared with a real friend who then realized he was mistaken for someone else. If that had happened to me, at best it would have been awkward; at worst, it would’ve been offensive and reason to feel pretty lousy. Who doesn’t remember friends? (Don’t answer that.)
We were laughing about it by the end of the (great) conversation. I saw pictures of Jeff’s son and wife, Jody. We caught up on a few people from the restaurant. Jeff told me he knows what I’ve been up to because he reads PaperGirl regularly; thanks, buddy. He actually said, “I’m going to be a blog post tonight, I think.” I told him he thought correctly.
My friend Claus saw all of this happen from the other side of the apple stand, by the way. After Jeff went his way, we went ours and my friend, who had witnessed the entire thing from the other side of the apple stand, told me it was the best theater he had ever seen. I don’t know if it was the best theater I’ve ever seen, but it was certainly the truest comedy of errors I have ever experienced.
It was good to see you today, Jeff. So very good to see you.
On my honor, I woke myself up the other morning saying, “dogwood.”
I’m not kidding. It’s super weird. I woke up as I said, “dogwood” — and I was whispering it. I guess I was dreaming about a flowering dogwood tree and needed to tell someone? There are worse things to say out loud in one’s sleep. And dreaming about a dogwood tree is sorta sweet, I guess. I take a medication that from time to time gives me horrific, paralyzing nightmares (panic, gas chambers, blood, fury, etc., etc.) so even though I spooked myself, conditions were fair.
Whispering a two-syllable word that makes zero sense reminded me of Citizen Kane, of course, with the whole “Rosebud” thing. Citizen Kane is the movie that is perfect because it is on every Major List of Important Films as being always, always No. 1. Which makes it all the harder to say what I’m about to say:
I’ve never seen Citizen Kane.
It’s horrible. It’s so horrible I’d like to change the subject but it’s too late. There’s no excuse for this non-seeing of Citizen Kane. The “Rosebud” thing is all I know about Citizen Kane. The world’s most perfect film and I reduce it to a word and a reference so embedded in culture it’s not even a spoiler alert to tell you it’s the name of the guy’s sled! Right? Am I right? Rosebud? The sled? All right, I guess I know two things about Citizen Kane. If you didn’t know Rosebud was the name of his sled, I have zero remorse about spoiling that for you. You haven’t seen it either! What’s wrong with you?
My summer challenge, therefore, is to watch Citizen Kane. That’s it. That’s the whole challenge. Before the summer is out. My D.C. friends — I’m looking at you, modern quilt guild — there may be a Citizen Kane viewing party in my apartment. If I can get dogwood flowers, they will be in a vase on the table.
I’ll find out what cocktail was most popular in 1941 and make those for us, as well.
I have no idea who these people are. When I searched Wiki Commons for “Facebook,” I got pictures of gorgeous landscapes in Bejing and pictures like this, none of which made any sense whatsoever. Is this a Facebook conspiracy? to delete photos of itself on a public domain image repository? Is that a ridiculous thing to say? Not if you saw Facebook headquarters in Silicon Valley two weeks ago, like I did. I’m here to tell you: Facebook is creep city.
(Also, I can’t login to my public page, so all of these posts are going unseen unless you’re a PaperGirl subscriber. Could you drop a line to a fellow reader that I’m back and better than ever when it comes to typing? I’m trying to get the problem fixed, but as Facebook appears to have no actual customer service, this has been difficult.)
One of the stops on the road trip was Silicon Valley. Silicon Valley, as you may know, is not really a valley, just a region in the Bay Area where for every 9,000 startups there is one that makes it and the one that makes it makes billions of dollars, like Uber.
Facebook, too. Facebook’s headquarters are in Silicon Valley, and my friend and I thought it would be fun to check it out. Facebook affects our lives in significant ways; why not see where they make the profiles of all those donuts? We actually went to the Googleplex, first and rode around campus on Google bikes until someone caught on that we weren’t employees and we thought we’d better jam. Google was cool because we could actually bike around the campus a little, but unless you have a friend or family member to get you a visitor pass, you should probably skip a trip there. You can’t go anywhere you would really want go, like Sergei Brin’s helipad.
Then it was onto Facebook headquarters and I’m here to tell you: never go there. Never go there not just because you can’t get in but because it’s terrifying. The building, first of all, is chillingly nondescript, all smooth walls and smallish windows. Is it a privately funded medical laboratory that tests things (read: brains)? perhaps a Quantico’s satellite building? Maybe it’s where they make the big red buttons folks push when they detonate atomic bomb. Someone has to make those things.
People were milling about outside, snapping pictures and generally clogging the walkway to the door and when they got to the door, they turned around immediately and clogged their way back. Because no one gets into Facebook. No one can enter the vestibule, so no one can enter the lobby — not even for the bathroom, which I know because I asked. I could’ve whipped out the “I Can’t Wait” card I carry from the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation that allows me to use a bathroom pretty much anywhere (i.e., the Gap) if I really need to. It’s great fun to watch a snide salesgirl go from, “Sorry, there are no public bathrooms,” to a panicked, “Oh, sure, yeah, come with me” change of heart.
Anyway, Claus and I saw this “visit” was going nowhere, so we made our way past the security guys to the parking lot. I swear, there was a small fleet of camouflaged golf carts at the side of the building where our car was. Camo. Because Silicon Valley (and the Facebook campus) has a lot of tree lines. Look, I realize Facebook and Google aren’t there to entertain tourists; these are places of business. But the citadel thing left a nasty taste in our mouths.
Surely, there will one day be a Facebook theme park with a Zuckerberg Zipper rollercoaster and an I Like This Castle; when that happens, the tourists can get their Facebook photos at Facebook, something that would be so popular I’m surprised Facebook hasn’t done it, yet. Until then, I’m Mary Fons, reporting: Facebook is watching you, but you can’t look.
If I have one iota of coolness in me, I learned it at the Motley Cow Cafe in Iowa City.
When I was a junior, the guy I was seeing wanted to get a bartending job at the newly opened and clearly rad cafe, so we went in one day so he could talk to the owner. They didn’t hire him, but they hired me. (Sorry, Wes.) I worked there for the next two years as a waitress and sometime prep cook and I can say with certainty those were two of the best years of my life thus far. I learned about food, about wine; I learned how to dress, honestly. Everyone in the Motley Cow orbit was cool and soaked up the codes.
The cafe was named for a town in Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, which tells you half of what you need to know about The Motley Cow. The other half is that the food was incredible and the spot created a community: small restaurants in small towns tend to do that. There were many regulars and it was part of the magic of the place.
One of my regulars was Hans. Hans looked like Ernest Hemingway and was a big deal in town because he started the Intermedia department at the University. He taught there from 1966 until 2000 and has been an influential artist in intermedia and performance art in America for decades. I think there was a sandwich on the menu named after Hans. It was basically a croque-monsieur, if I’m remembering correctly.
One day, Hans asked me if I was interested in working on a project with him. I was floored. I was also intimidated and scared because a) Hans! and b) he wanted to record me screaming. Look, he needed audio of a young woman screaming — this is what intermedia artists do. Who am I to question? And I said I’d do it. He also wanted to take pictures of women in the woods, which I would’ve done except the women needed to be naked. The scream was all I was brave enough to do at the time, but it’s a bummer because the naked-women-in-the-woods project on went on to be a seminal one in for Hans. Just think: a picture of my naked, nubile, twenty-something body could be on the walls of MoMA right now. Dangit!
Hans picked me up from the cafe after my lunch shift one spring day in his vintage Porsche Targa ragtop convertible. I had never ridden in a convertible and the Targa was a decent one to break me in, I guess. I was wearing a long, pretty scarf (I had agonized over my outfit; what do you wear to a famous artist’s house to scream into a microphone? this is a wardrobe choice that would stump the most experienced stylist, I feel.) Hans told me I’d better take off the scarf because the famous dancer Isadora Duncan was decapitated when her scarf got caught in the wheels of a convertible.
“Thanks for letting me know, Hans,” I said. I was very pale.
The house was a farmhouse out in the country, every room filled with camera equipment, photography equipment, lighting, etc. I went. I gaped. I screamed. It was fantastic. And the lesson is that all you have to do is get out of bed in the morning and stuff will happen to you. If you show up, you will encounter adventures. If you say yes, you can go on them.
The Motley Cow Cafe is still serving beautiful food on Linn Street and if you’re in Iowa City, do yourself a favor and eat there.
A bird, high in a tree over the Klingle Bridge, pooped. I was crossing the Klingle Bridge and happened to be directly — and I do mean directly — under this pooping bird, so I got poop on my head. “A bird pooped on my head” makes it sound like the bird pooped on me on purpose and I don’t think birds choose where they poop.
Or do they.
I was walking back home from a quick trip to the grocery store. Time: nine o’clock. Weather: pleasant. General mood: excellent. On the way to the store, for some reason I recalled the night I found a $100 dollar bill on Clark Street. It was the night before my 31st birthday. I was riding my bike and there it was, right in the bike lane in Wrigleyville. This is relevant because it shows that last night I was already thinking about odds.
I’m just at the start of the bridge when: ploop!
I gasped. No. No, no, no. That was not a bird, I thought to myself. I did not just get pooped on by a bird, I thought. No. Oh dear Lord … It was an acorn. An acorn?? No, it was water. I don’t know why it would be water and be … heavy, but it was not bird poop. This is what I thought to myself, what I tried to think.
Slowly, I raised my hand to my head. Wet. I brought my fingers down, looked, and yes, ’twas poop. Have you ever recoiled from your own head? It’s pretty weird.
I was about two blocks from home and there were a lot of people out walking; I immediately quickened my pace to escape their eyes. I was sure — sure — someone would see that my number was up, that I had been pooped on. The shame! Though even in my pain and disgust, I found it amusing that I was literally holding my head up high. When in disgrace, it’s good to keep your chin up, your head high, right? Yes, but last night I held my head high so that maybe no one would see that poop on it.
“It’s a good thing you’re so tall, Mary,” my friend Marlene said on the phone today. “Unless someone was way taller than you, there’s no way anyone saw it.”
The odds that someone taller than me would have passed me on the bridge last night are pretty good. Better than finding $100 bucks, better than getting pooped on by a bird. But no tall man came. This is why we roll the dice.
I’ve been trying to get more sleep. Much, much more.
Over the past few years (eesh) I’ve been getting around five hours a night. But All The Studies show that this paltry amount of is hazardous to our health. Of course, this is deeply depressing; even when we’re resting, we’re doing something wrong. Thanks, culture.
But a friend encouraged me recently to stop trying to compete with Madonna (she proudly claims to get about 4 hours a night) and shoot for 8 to 9 hours. Oh, I thrashed. I protested. Eight hours?! But that’s eight hours of doing absolutely nothing! Didn’t he understand that life is an hourglass continuously leaking sand? Sleep is sleeping on the job! My friend looked at me with compassion and said something like, “Only someone who is sleep-deprived would say something so foolish.”
I took on the challenge and for about a week, I have slept eight hours each night, except for the night before last. This is because I was ripped out of sleep by an air raid siren.
Actually, it was a fire alarm in the Kennedy Warren. This building (which I fall more deeply in love with daily and I haven’t even tried the pool, yet) contains over 400 units. It’s a monster. I learned yesterday morning around 6:30am that this building is ready to evacuate the people inside all these apartments quickly by instilling abject terror in their hearts and minds. The most unbelievably loud, tormenting siren began to scream across into my home and across the building. It sounded like the world was ending, and then a man’s disembodied voice said, “Attention residents: smoke has been detected in the building. All residents must move toward fire exits immediately. Attention residents: smoke has been detected in the building. All residents must move toward fire exits immediately. Attention…” You get the idea.
My heart did a trapeze flip and I got up off my little sleep mat, promptly tripping on the hem of my nightgown.* I got up, fumbled for my robe, grabbed my cell phone, which I felt was really smart of me, and jammed my feet into slippers. I raced to the door and opened it, maybe expecting smoke? Certainly, I was expecting other people on floor ten to be spilling out of their apartments, hopefully in curlers and with…houseguests. But there was no one! Not a soul! I looked up one long hallway and down the other, but I was the only one out there! Talk about disorienting. I really thought I was dreaming at that point, but the siren was so loud it couldn’t be possible.
Then, with absolutely zero sense of panic, several people began unlocking their doors and sticking their heads out. A dog sniffed out into the hall. I was looking wild-eyed and insane in my robe, clutching my cell phone and these people were eating bagels. The air raid siren stopped and the woman a few doors down said, “You think that’s it?”
Then the disembodied voice said, “Attention residents: there is no danger of fire. Smoke was detected in maintenance room but has been repaired and poses no threat.”
Great. But I couldn’t go back to sleep.
*Yes, I DO wear a nightgown. I’m practicing being a grandmother because it’s never too soon.
I was in a taxi the other day and my driver was cursing under his breath in a foreign language. I could definitely tell what words he was using. He was cursing at cars who were cutting him off, cursing at pedestrians who were taking daredevil crosses from one side of the street to the other. He was justified in his cursing, I’m telling you.
“People are crazy!” he said to me, throwing up his hands. “They don’t look! They don’t care if they die!”
I shook my head and said, “It’s true, man” though I think most people do not want to die; I’m very sure most people don’t want to die by Uber.
But then I remembered what time it was: early May. People are insane. They are. It’s because they are emerging or have emerged from the icy chrysalis they’ve been in since October. Spring fever is a real thing. People are giddy for the smallest reasons: no coat needed to go outside, a green thing in a tree, a pretty girl walking by in a skirt and sandals.
“You know what?” I said to the driver. “I actually think it’s the spring. Like, springtime. People are wild and crazy because they’re happy. It’s really dangerous, but they’re just happy, I think.”
The driver thought about this for a moment and he actually scratched his chin. “I think that you are right,” he said. “Crazy.”
Not much. A sofa makes the news in your head or your household when you buy a new one. A sofa is exciting when you’re shopping for a new one. It’s exciting when you remove the old one and put in the new one. After a few weeks, though, the sofa recedes into the landscape of your home and that’s good because you have better things to think about. Hopefully.
But for me, for almost a year now, the object that is the couch* has stubbornly refused to leave my portfolio of active thoughts. This is because since leaving Chicago almost a year ago, regardless of the agony and the ecstasy of the entire adventure, it has been The Year of Terrible Couches. It’s like the Chinese “Year of The Goat” thing except no one is ever, ever born in The Year of Terrible Couches and we should all be thankful for that. Let’s celebrate by eating a fortune cookie. Done? Excellent. Let’s examine what I’m talking about.
When I was first in New York with Yuri, we had a furnished place for just a couple months on 10th Street and 2nd Ave. I filmed my book promo video while we were in that place. Then, when we officially moved to New York in June, we got a furnished place on St. Mark’s. Then, when everything became hard and sad, I moved into a furnished apartment in D.C. with rats in the walls. Then, the management company relocated me to the place where I’m sitting currently. That’s not one, not two, not three (I’m weeping, now), but four furnished apartments in a single year.
You do realize this is not my normal life, right? I am not a fan of chaos. Chaos, it appears, is extremely fond of me, at least this year. Thanks, chaos.
Here’s the thing about furnished apartments: they are lousy. If you have no furniture, maybe they are great. Any couch is better than no couch, right? Fine. But I have a couch. I have arguably the best couch ever. It’s in Chicago right now, being used by my adorable med school tenants. Why? Because moving to NYC was always going to be a yearlong experiment and what are you, nuts?! You can’t move a couch into Manhattan! You have to go there with your hobo stick and just figure it out from there, find someone who can take you to the IKEA in Jersey! Please! Anyway, my gorgeous couch in Chicago is wide. It’s leather. It’s sky blue leather with chrome legs. (I bought it at a sample sale at Design Within Reach.) It’s sleek and sexy, but it’s functional. You can take a nap on it. You can sit cross-legged and eat your lunch on it. You can watch a movie on it. And you can… Well, you can do a lot of things on that couch. Trust me.
The four couches that I have been subjected to over the past year… I can hardly talk about it. Do you realize how awful a couch can be? If it’s shallow, your back hurts when you try to sit back. If it’s a sectional that doesn’t have those grippy things on the bottom and your floor is slick, the parts separate and slide all around! Good grief! That’s a Beckett play! If the couch is so old it’s buckling (see: St. Mark’s) you are asking for early-onset arthritis. A bad couch is sad, indeed, and I realize this is as luxury a problem as luxury problems get. But what can I do? It’s been The Year of Terrible Couches and as the hourglass runs out of sand, as I am forced to make a decision to stay in D.C. or go back to Chicago, this much is true: The Year of Terrible Couches is about to end. If I go home, I get my couch. If I stay here, I’m going back for all my stuff, kids. If I stay in D.C., I am staying in D.C. with my couch.