Greetings From New York.

Why try?
Why try?

I wrote a poem for my friend Billy years ago. It goes like this:

In New York,
I think of you;
When I am,
I always do.

To tell the tale of this poem, however, we must leave New York for a moment and return to Chicago. When I moved to the city in 2001, I found a decent studio apartment for an unheard-of $420/mo. A year into my life there, Billy called to say he was moving to Chicago too. I felt like I had won the lottery. I was really lonely. Bill and I had met in college and instantly liked each other a lot. He was a tousled musician, I was… Well, it’s up to him to describe a junior co-ed me. But we bonded on enough occasions to become bonafide friends.

When he was on his way here, I nabbed him a unit in my building, so we were sort of like roommates except I didn’t have to wash his dishes, which was for the best. And so it was in the early 2000s, Billy and I were the best of friends during some tough times. We were both struggling to carve out lives in Chicago and we clung to each other. We never dated. We were just…Mary and Bill. He wrote songs. I wrote poems. We both worked nights: he worked the desk at a mental health facility on the west side; I worked coat check at a couple nightclubs downtown. We were simply there for each other, and even though he’d disappear for awhile or I would, we always came back together just in time.

 

Today, Billy is in a rock band that is doing very, very well. It was always so clear that that was exactly what he would do with his life. We always knew. And I always knew that it wouldn’t be long before I was making a living doing what I loved — and we were right about that, too. By 2005, I was a full-time freelancer, writing and performing; no waitressing or coat-checking needed.

So why is the poem about New York?

Because some of the best memories I have of New York City involve Billy. It hasn’t happened in a long time, but for years of our lives, even before that important time in Chicago, we would frequently end up in New York at the same time. And we’d connect and have an adventure, some bacchanalian night that ended up with him driving me in his red car to wherever I was staying. Sometimes we’d make out. Sometimes we wouldn’t. But there was always love, always creativity, inspiration, and learning.

One night, in Times Square, we were walking around. It started to rain. Billy was a few paces ahead of me. Suddenly, he turned around and grabbed me by the face and kissed me full on the mouth. He pulled back from me and smiled this huge smile and said,

“This the first night of the rest of our lives, baby.”

And we walked into the blur of Times Square, into the city, into the night. I’m pretty sure we were holding hands.

In New York,
I think of you;
When I am,
I always do.

 

Grief Quilt, Holiday Quilt, Impossible Quilt.

This is the caption.
This is the caption.

A Jewish friend of mine told me that if you do a charitable act…you kinda aren’t allowed to talk about it. Obviously, an office charity fundraiser requires group knowledge; a marathoner gets pledges; a wife will need to know about a sizable gift her husband wants to give this year, etc. That’s all fine. The point my friend made is that if you do something nice and go around crowing about it, it can all but cancel out your good deed. Your gesture toward your fellow man becomes about you and this great thing you did. “Suboptimal,” my friend said, and I agreed.

So in telling you the story I’m about to tell you, I am taking a risk. But it’s a story about a quilt, so I gotta. I also want to tell you about Alameda* and what happened to her this week. By doing that, perhaps her ball of grief will dislodge in some cosmic way and allow her to rest.

Alameda works in the receiving room in my building. It is a depressing, windowless box in the back hallway. She’s been there about four months, I’d guess; she came on when the management changed. Alameda is from Mexico. She’s around twenty-four, I’d guess, and smart. She’s funny, too, and upbeat, even in that dank, horrible room, and we chat whenever I’m picking something up or shipping something out; Alameda and I have become friends, because there’s a lot of shipping in my life.

Yesterday, I picked up a package. Alameda came from around the desk to take it and she looked awful. “Puffy” didn’t describe her eyes; they were red-rimmed, swollen, spent.

“Oh my,” I said, quietly, because there were other people behind me. “Are you okay? Have you been crying, Alma?” She nodded. “It’s okay, it’s okay,” she said, and smiled a “thanks for asking” sort of smile. I gave her a furrowed brow and a pat on her arm and I left.

Later that afternoon, I had to drop something off for UPS. I went in and no one else was there. Without being terribly nosy, I made the attempt to talk to her if she wanted to talk.

“Bad day?”

“Yeah.”

“Can I ask what’s wrong? You don’t have to… If you don’t want to talk about it, that’s totally cool.”

Alameda paused. “My brother died yesterday.”

I clapped my hand over my mouth. I asked her if it was an accident. It was not. Her brother killed himself. The entire family was at his house for Sunday dinner. Alma’s brother went downstairs and hung himself in his room. She said they “heard something” and didn’t think anything of it, kept eating dinner. He had been very depressed, she said. He was working three jobs, he wasn’t a citizen, he had a bad breakup, he was scared and anxious all the time. And he ended it on Sunday, right there in the house, while his two-year-old daughter sat in her booster seat eating mashed peas.

When she told me all this, I was too shocked to burst into tears, though it’s so awful, I wondered why I didn’t. The truth is, I cry less than I used to. When she said that his fondest wish was to join the Navy, get a pilot’s license, and fly, that’s when the tears burbled up for both of us.

“The potential,” I said.

“Yeah,” she said, and put her hand over her face.

It was hard to leave her. As soon as I did, I knew I wanted to do something for her for the holiday. But what? I called my sister Nan and asked for her sage advice. She didn’t disappoint.

“What do I do for this girl?” I asked Nan. “What do I give her?”

Nan paused. “Well, I reckon you should give her a quilt.”

I slapped my forehead, which hurt a lot because I was outside in the Chicago icebox. “Of course,” I said. “Of course.”

“People in crisis, they get quilts,” she said. “Think about the Red Cross. Floods, tornados, family crises — it’s quilts that bring people comfort.”

So I’m going to give Alameda a quilt from my collection. I’m not sure exactly which one, but I have an idea. And I’ll put a label on the back and I’ll put it into a big box, wrap it up pretty, and stick an enormous, obnoxious bow on it.

He hung himself. He hung himself downstairs.

*Name changed. 

Swinger.

Notice happy chap, downstage left.
The Swing,”  by John-Honore Fragonard, 1767. Notice happy fellow downstage left. He’s there for the view, I’m guessing.

Yesterday I swung on a swing. I swang. I love to swang almost as much as I love to ice skate. “Swang” is not a word according to my spellcheck, which is going nuts. But I think it should be a word, so take that, spellcheck.

In the afternoon, I went with my friend Sonja and her little boy to see Redmoon Theater’s Winter Pageant, an annual show heavy on glowy tableaus, light on coherence. No matter; the kids love it. As is customary for Redmoon, when the show is over, the audience is invited to hang out, touch the actors (!) and explore the set. It’s cool. They had rigged up several swings on loooong chains in the huge warehouse that serves as their performance space. My 5-year-old comrade took to them at once. The middle swing was a two-seater so at his request, Aunt May-May hopped on with him. He calls me “Aunt May-May.” I call him lots of loving things, e.g., “Squirt,” “Captain Bunker,” etc.

Sonja gave us a push. We kicked our legs. We sailed over the theater seats, whooshing back, then plunging headlong into space. I looked over at his tow-head and said, “Hold on tight, Babycakes.”

The last time I was on a swing I was home in Iowa. My mother and I had had words and this happens so rarely, I was quite upset. When our conversation had reached a fevered pitch, I tersely excused myself, put on my sneakers, and literally took off running. I ran to the city park, trying to calm down and expend (destroy) my unpleasant energy. Halfway through the park loop I spied the swings up on the hill. I turned on my heel and jogged up to them. Man, did I ever swing. I went so high on the swingset that the chains went slack at the top; this harshed my mellow a bit — I like my skull and would like to keep it from splashing onto park district gravel. I pulled back and settled into a blissful rhythm. I probably swang for a half hour, letting the wind rush past my ears on the back push, feeling my heart in my chest when I cut through the air to go forward.

An object in motion tends to stay in motion. A kid on a swing tends to want to stay there all night. A fight with a parent is usually over something important. Dusk in Iowa in June is heartbreakingly beautiful. Theater is relevant, but only to some people.

These are things we know.

 

Best Christmas Ever.

posted in: Family, Food, Story 1
The shoes, Mama! The shoes!
The shoes, Mama! The shoes!

Here’s stuff people win:

a bet
money from a slot machine
a raffle
BINGO
favor with the king

These are all good things to win and I have won maybe two of them. When I was very young, I also won a prize from a pack of gum. Now, this wasn’t some lame Tootsie Roll Pop prize from a Tootsie Roll Pop star. Remember those? If you got an Indian* shooting a star on your Tootsie Roll Pop wrapper, you could take the wrapper to the dimestore and get a FREE Tootsie Roll Pop. This wasn’t that long ago, even though it sounds way too good to be true; this happened right there in my small town in Iowa in the early 1990s. (I promise you: the next time I’m back home, I’ll take a starred Tootsie Roll Pop wrapper to the counter and let you know here on the blog if it still works.)

So.

It was a sunny afternoon. I was knee-high to a cornstalk. My sister Hannah and I were playing in the living room of our family’s country home. There was this huge picture window that looked out onto the orchard and I remember being afraid of the boxelder bug that was making its slow path up to the top. Somehow, gloriously, I had scored an entire pack of HubbaBubba bubble gum and I was working my way through the stack, making every piece count. I chewed one soft pink wad until it was dead and then went for the next. I unwrapped the hot pink wrapping on the gum carefully, probably because I wanted to make a dress for my finger out of it later.

Then it happened. Tearing away more paper, I saw that one of the individually-wrapped cubes of gum was wrapped in a different color of paper.

“MARY!” my sister Hannah screamed. She practically took flight, so fast she was in moving from her spot on the couch to where I was on the carpet. She tackled me, gaping, wide-eyed at the pack in my paw. “MARY, YOU WON!”

It said it right there: “YOU WON!!! YOU WON!!! YOU WON!!! YOU WON!!!” again and again, printed round and round in teeny-tiny little hot pink letters on a white gum wrapper. Dumbly, I examined it. I won? What did that mean? Luck was not a concept I grasped at that point in my life, to say nothing of fate or providence — I was just excited because my sister was. She patiently explained to me that I was going to get a toy just because I had the pack of gum with the special wrapper and I think that was exactly the moment I did understand the concept of luck. File under, “Paradise, lost.”

My prize was the coolest. I was given the chance choose between a He-Man action figure and a She-Ra action figure. I didn’t get to choose the specific doll, but I could call gender. I firmly selected the She-Ra doll and about a year later I received my Hubba Bubba spoils. I got a Catra doll. Catra was a member of — wait for it — “The Evil Horde,” the fearsome (or just “fierce” — heyy!) pack of villains in Mattel’s She-Ra: Princess of Power series. Would I have rather had She-Ra? Yes. Would I have settled for Castaspella, Spinnarella, or Sweet Bee? Don’t remind me! But Catra would do; she was the most powerful of all the Evil Horde and she was free, after all. That’s the second best part of winning something: first comes the surprise, then comes the free stuff.

When I think about childlike wonder this time of year, I think of winning a She-Ra doll in a pack of Hubba Bubba bubble gum. I guess it’s because I felt like there was magic in the world that would find me, or that there were forces beyond me that were waiting to grant favors to kids who were good. The best news ever is that we’re all good and the force is with us already. And yeah, I know I just mixed my sci-fi action figure catch phrases, but I don’t think Yoda minds. He didn’t sign with Hubba Bubba.

Soup So Good, I Laughed.

Try me.
Try me.

 

I once ate something so delicious, I burst out laughing.

It happened in Paris; so many glorious moments do. Was I twenty? Was I blonde? I think I was twenty and blonde and I was in Paris on the back-end of a trip to Provence to visit fabric manufacturers with a murder of quilters.*

I entered a cafe on that end-of-June day. It was any cafe, every cafe. The sun was setting over Paris; Paris, that jewel-encrusted dot on Planet Earth. I was full of Paris but my stomach was rumbling and I remembered what Hemingway said in A Moveable Feast: “…the pictures do look better when you are hungry.” Sure they did, and I was ravenous. I ordered a large chicken (prepared) and ate with gusto, the only person in the cafe actually having dinner. Parisians seem to eat nothing — and they eat late. But I didn’t care; I had sacrificed real shoe leather exploring the city that day. I had earned my supper.

I also earned my dessert.

The snooty waiter — straight out of central casting — handed me the dessert menu. Rhubarb soup. That was on the menu, rhubarb soup! I had not had rhubarb soup. Growing up in a town of 5,000 people in rural Iowa, you don’t get many opportunities for these sorts of things.

The soup came chilled in a shallow, wide-lipped ceramic bowl. There was maybe three-quarters of a cup of this impossibly delicate, translucent pink wash. Floating on top were slivered strawberries and a few green springs, which I determined to be mint.

“Et voila,” said the waiter, and he sashayed away. I took my spoon and dipped it into that cold little lake, swiped a touch of the cream on the top, and delivered the spoonful into my mouth.

Float. Moment.

It was like drinking water that had made love to a strawberry bush. It was like sucking a peach. It was like having a crush on a boy.

I burst out laughing. “This is so good! Oh, it’s so good! Oh my god. Oh my god. Oh my god.”

And I just sat back and laughed. I was like Sarah in the Old Testament, except that she was a really long way from Paris. It was absurd, this bowl of chilled rhubarb soup. I had never eaten anything like that in my life and to be honest, I haven’t since. I’ve had some fine food in my day: ’tis no small praise to say it was the most marvelous thing I’ve ever put in my mouth.

Turns out this is a Norwegian dish? My internet research tells me so. It’s called rabarbrasuppe and the recipe is as simple as can be. My people are Norwegian on my father’s side. We’re fierce Vikings to be sure, but I like to think of my Thors and Vals sitting around slurping rabarbrasuppe between battles, holding onto their horned helmets as they laugh out loud at impossible things: death, losing a battle, and chilled rhubarb soup.

*The most compelling choice for a group of quilters is not a gaggle or a flock (what are we, peahens?) but a murder, as in a murder of crows. We’d get a little more street cred.

Under Attack!

*see below for caption
*See below for rather long but heartwarming/deer chilling caption.

I broke my usual rule to opt out of Black Friday shopping. I broke my rule because it was a matter of survival. I bought $50.04 worth of hunter orange today to protect my kith and kin.

Up here on the Island, we are at the height of deer hunting season. This means dozens of people are in the woods with guns at any hour of the day, prowling around for animals to shoot. As everyone in this house is an animal and most of the Island is woods, the past few days have been ever-so-slightly tense — and it ain’t because we’ve been playing 6 hours of Yahtzee every day. Mom spoke to the sheriff at the general store last week and the conversation centered around one main idea: this week, if you leave your house without dressing in head-to-toe hunter orange, you’re probably going to get shot.

When Mom reported this, many pairs of eyebrows were raised. We’ve been on the Island at all times of the year for decades and we’ve never been on such high alert. Apparently, there are way more people hunting this year than ever and apparently, my family has been taking our lives in our hands for years, taking out the garbage, walking to the car, opening a window, etc., in normal-people clothes.

Last night, everyone at the house under 40 went out to Nelsen’s for carousing. Nelsen’s Hall is the ale house on Main Road where you can get a bucket of Maker’s Mark for three dollars. We shot pool, we played songs on the juke, we laughed till our sides hurt, and we made sure to check with some locals on the whole hunter orange thing. We simply didn’t believe the sheriff that it was that dangerous outside.

We asked the bartender first. She was beautiful; pleasantly plump, with the creamy skin one can only achieve by being fed cheese curds from infancy. She looked at us all blankly.

“Why do you want to be outside? It’s winter.”

We didn’t end up asking anyone else.

Today, I stopped by the mercantile and I bought fifty bucks worth of neon orange stuff: a vest, a sweatshirt, some duct tape, two hats, and a kerchief that was so stiff you could use it as a bone saw in a pinch. Better safe than shot, I say.

Ah, I forgot: I bought something else, too.

Kristina and I stopped by Fisk’s restaurant to inquire about the fish dinner tonight and we spied two freshly baked pies cooling on a shelf. Pumpkin! They were clearly not on offer for sale, but we asked if we could buy a whole one, anyway. Sure, they said, twelve bucks. We forked over the cash and promised to bring back the pie tin when the pie was gone. That means I actually spend $62.04 on Black Friday, but for survival and pie, I shall make exceptions.

*Blaze Orange is a photographic coffee table book full of timeless images of the Whitetail Deer gun hunting season in Wisconsin. Wisconsin deer hunting is all about family. Families raise their children safely into the sport of hunting which is filled with traditions. Wisconsin’s Whitetail Deer gun season is 9 days long and requires hunters to wear Blaze Orange for safety. The season in closely monitored by the Wisconsin DNR. The DNR expects more than 600,000 hunters, about 10% of the state’s population, to take to the Wisconsin woods and fields next weekend. Wisconsin deer hunting runs deep with heritage for many Wisconsinites as the deer season here has an almost cult-like following.

“Why’s It Called ‘PaperGirl,’ Grandma?”

WWII propaganda poster by Fougasse; ironic appropriation by me.
WWII propaganda poster by Fougasse; ironic appropriation by me.

“Why’s it called ‘PaperGirl,’ grandma?”

“Sit on my knee, child, and I’ll tell you.”

“Can I have a another cooky first? You tell long stories.”

“Here. Anything else?”

“No.”

“Good. Okay, then, PaperGirl. Well, once upon a time, long ago, I wrote a poem.”

“What was it called?”

“I’m getting to it. It was called ‘The Paper Poem,’ and it was an extended metaphor about the nature of existence being fragile like paper, but beautiful, too, like paper is beautiful.”

“What’s paper?”

“Before your time.”

“Oh. Your poem sounds cool, grandma.”

“I liked it. Other people liked it, too, and I performed it in many places all over the country.”

“Like in Bismark?”

“No, never actually in Bismark, I don’t think. Maybe. It was a long time ago. Anyway, there’s a verse where I say ‘I will be your paper girl,’ and that’s where ‘PaperGirl’ comes from.”

“What’s the verse?”

“You want to hear the whole verse?”

“Is it long?”

“No, it’s not long. It’s the second-to-last verse of the poem and it goes like this:

But if you are a paper doll, too, then I shall know you on sight,
And if you are with me, come with me tonight; I will match up our bodies
by the tears in our arms —
We will form paper barricades against matchstick harm;
I will make paper love to you for as long as I can in this shreddable world;
I will be your paper girl.

“That’s nice, grandma.”

“Thanks.”

“And you named your blog that because of that poem?”

“Yes. And PaperGirl is the name of my LLC, too. And that small island I bought. And the Beaux Arts building you like so much in Paris. And my foundation in Dubai and all the vineyards in Spain. Everything in my empire, it’s all under the PaperGirl umbrella.”

“I wanna go to the zoo and see a rhinoceros.”

“Get your coat.”

PaperGirl Celebrity Sighting: Joe Bastianich!

We go way back, me and Joe.
We go way back, me and Joe.

There are a handful of moments in my life that could be described as “smooth.” When playing Trivial Pursuit once, I was asked, “Who was the Duke of Flatbush?” and without missing a beat I replied, “Levi Strauss?” My sister actually shot Mountain Dew out her nose. And in Las Vegas once, I winked at a man before he shot dice at the craps table and he won an enormous pile of money. These are the moments we cling to when we realize we’ve had a shred of Kleenex hanging out our nose for the better part of the afternoon.

Well, I was real smooth last night. With a celebrity. 

I was walking to dinner with Yuri. We were on Michigan Avenue and turned onto Ohio, where I noticed the banners for Eataly. Eataly is chef Mario Batali’s death star, an enormous, multi-level Italian restaurant/marketplace that first opened in New York City. At Eataly, you can have a fishbowl-size glass of wine, buy imported salami, sit down to dinner, and then be rolled out the door by attractive young people in chic aprons who will give you a cannoli for the road. And we’re getting an Eataly here, on Ohio and Michigan, and ours will actually be bigger than New York’s, coming in at 63,000 square feet to Union Square’s runty 50,000. Doors open next week.

Yuri and I were arm-in-arm (it was freezing) and I see the Eataly banners; as we pass the first bank of papered-up windows, I see standing under the entrance a man I recognize to be Joe Bastianich. I recognize him because Joe Bastianich is famous. He owns vineyards and produces fine wines; he is one of three celebrity judges on popular television program Master Chef; and he’s a restauranteur titan who aside from having his own 3- and 4-star joints scattered ’round the globe, works closely with chefs — such as Mario Batali of Eataly. Joe Bastianich was standing under the eaves of his new restaurant, presumably waiting to meet someone. Maybe his wife, maybe his buddy, maybe God. He’s a very important guy.

I see him, he sees me see him. With nary a pause in my gait (and without breaking from Yuri), I glance up at the Eataly banner above us and go, “How’s it goin’ in there?” And Joe Bastianch looks a little surprised, like maybe he should know me, and he goes, “It’s good.” He looked at me again, closer, but he can’t place me.

I was like, so cool at that moment I felt I could speak for the entire city of Chicago, so as I pass him, like over my shoulder, I go, “We’re looking forward to it.”

“Me, too,” says Joe Bastianich, and Yuri and I just keep on a’walkin.

“Who was that?” Yuri asked me. Yuri doesn’t watch Master Chef.

“That was a famous man,” I said with a tiny little bunny hop, allowing myself to finally geek out. Being smooth with a celebrity is tough for one simple reason: broad exposure in television, print, and film makes a human being seem like an alien life-form that can eternally replicate itself. We would all act a little weird around a replicating alien if we met one, so that’s why it’s weird to see Madonna hailing a taxi, or Igor Stravinsky eating at Jimmy John’s. Or Joe Bastianich checking his text messages on Ohio Street.

Mr. Bastianich, you don’t know me. And I am not nearly as cool as I may have appeared last night. But Chicago is looking forward to Eataly and I can speak for the city when I say welcome, sir.*

Cin-cin.

*Mary Fons may be reached for gift cards, exclusive wine tastings, and general VIP treatment at Eataly via the contact form on this website. Thank you. — The Management

I Still Don’t Know Why It Worked, But It Worked.

White wedding.
White wedding.

What can I say about this time last year?

The physical suffering for several months was greater than anything I had felt in four years of the fallout from my ulcerative colitis and multiple (botched) surgeries. The pain began to have a shape, a personality. Its tyranny was beyond belief, so bad I would giggle, sometimes, in the midst of an attack. One night I actually turned on the voice memo recorder on my phone when I was spluttering and screaming to have proof later that it was as bad as I thought it was; the most incredible thing about pain that bad is that you don’t remember how bad it was when you’re out of it, usually. This is a blessing, because you might start looking for the nearest set of train tracks if you thought it would happen again.

All that and ensuing hospital trips, lonesomeness. I have loved ones and friends aplenty, but I was stuck in a weird silence, longing for a different sort of hug in so many dark nights of cold snow.

And then an acute, Stage IV existential crisis slammed itself into my chest, which sounds sorta funny except that those aren’t, really. What is the purpose of life? Why does it have to be so beautiful and then end? How come I’m getting older? What happens when someone in my family dies? Why does my body have to hurt like this? What is the meaning of this? I’ve heard people joke about having an existential crisis, but I actually caught one last year and trust: they are no laughing matter. I would cast about each day, numb, going through the motions of work (glorious life-raft) and at night would try to sew, try to take a walk and let the cold sting my cheeks into roses. I felt the blues, the mean reds, and yellow bile in my throat, pretty much all the time. Primary colors.

But then something happened and I turned the corner.

I was walking down State St. one evening, wide-eyed and gaunt. I hadn’t been able to eat for awhile because it hurt to eat and it hurt to digest and it hurt to poop. I was a shell. There was still snow on the ground from the last storm. I went into a designer discount place that contains buried treasure if you’re willing to look. I was not interested in shopping that night; I was interested in not shuffling down State St. as the Ghost of Christmas Future. So I went in.

Up the escalator to the second floor. I floated around for awhile and got sadder. It was so depressing, all those lifeless corpses of clothes, all those clearance tags. And then, snapping through the hangers on the rack in the very back, I saw something remarkable. It was a dress. A white dress by Celine, my favoritest designer ever. It looked like paper. It was like a paper doll dress. It had a Peter Pan collar; it looked like a candy-striper’s dress without the stripes. And it was filthy. It had been marked down from $2,200 to $1,500 to $1,200 to $800 to $425 to $225 to $80 ($80!) and it showed every month of mark downs, every try-on, every grubby hand of every shopper in the store. That poor, poor, beautiful dress. I seized it and looked at the tag. A French 40. My size.

I raced down the stairs with it. I paid. The clerk shoved it in the bag and I hurried home as fast as I could. I felt strange and knew what I had to do. I had rescued the dress from the floor of the store and its fate: certain destruction. It was bound for the mill of damaged-out apparel, destined to become true paper, which is what they do with useless clothes, turn them into paper. I had rescued it and now I had to restore it, nurse the nurse dress back to health. My own vulnerability seemed tied to the dress; my health in the balance, too.

A garment so fine, even made from cotton like it was, cannot be put into the wash. In fact, the beat up tag even advised to take it to not just any dry cleaner but to give it “the highest quality of professional garment treatment.” I came into the house and took off my boots. I  took the gentlest detergent I own from the laundry shelf. I ran cold water in the bathtub.  I swished and swished and made a gentle, cool, soapy bath. I lay the dress in the water. It floated on the top and then slowly sunk down. I knelt at the tub. And I cleaned it. Like I was washing a baby bird, I tenderly rubbed the dress on itself, took a never-used soft toothbrush and flicked the dirt off. I rinsed that thing nine times, probably. I got it spotless. It was white as the newly fallen snow. I opened the window and hung the dress on a wide hanger on a jerry-rigged stand so it would touch nothing. It dried through the night, retaining its paper doll shape.

Then I made a small rack of lamb chops rubbed with rosemary and devoured each chop like I had been starving for a week. Not too far off. I got into bed and sank into sleep and that night, I didn’t wake up in a panic.

In the morning, I felt better. A lot better. I put the dress on. I pulled thick tights and boots on and wrapped myself up in a sweater; the dress is a summer dress and for it to work in winter, I needed accoutrements. I was warm. I braided my hair and went out into the world and I swear, the sun was shining.

I have felt better ever since.

Another Bathroom Story or, “Toilet Humor.”

posted in: Day In The Life, Story, Tips 3
We hang out.
We hang out.

I locked myself in the bathroom Monday night and against all odds, with nothing but human ingenuity and good old fashioned fear, I escaped.

The bathroom I was in is the one that today is absolute rubble and exposed pipe and tufts of insulation. Before it was rubble, though, it had to be a bathroom without any stuff in it. This is an important detail.

“Get everything outta there,” my contractor said on the phone, “’cause on Tuesday the whole thing’s going into a dumpster.” My eyes got real big and I began at once to move my belongings into my back bathroom with visions of Danny and his crew tossing my perfume samples and sea sponges into a bin with the old tile. By the end of the day, the bathroom was denuded, empty of mouthwash bottles, bobby pins, half-rolled up tubes of Ben Gay (when did I buy Ben-Gay?) and contact lens juice. I did leave a roll of toilet paper in there, however. Until they removed the toilet, the bathroom was still functional in that regard and I might as well use that part of it, right?

No. Dumb.

On Monday night I went into that bathroom to pee. (Well, it’s true!) I shut the door behind me, heard a tiny click, and A Great Dread passed over me. There was no doorknob on that door. What there was was the inner apparatus where there is typically an attendant doorknob. This meant that the door’s internal tumbler latch thingy was latched but there was no knob to turn the works. I stuck my finger in the metal and wiggled it. Okay, wow. I was locked in my bathroom. An empty, tool-less bathroom. Had I not taken every last item out of the space earlier in the day, I wouldn’t have been terribly worried. A toothbrush would jimmy the latch all right; one of those bobby pins would’ve worked great. But I had nothing. And I would need something to work in that door latch. Immediately.

I spun around. Ah-ha! The shower curtain! I hadn’t taken it down! I seized the curtain and pulled off one of the hooks. Yes, a piece of skinny metal! But it was useless; the curve of it was too thick and tight and it wouldn’t fit where I needed it to go. I tossed it to the floor. What else, what else? Ah! There, by the sink, an empty matchbook! I grabbed it and tore it into a hard little cardboard stick and jimmied at the latch. The stick bent. It bent into a wad and the door laughed. I was getting concerned. My ultimate “I will do anything to get out of here” plan was to body slam myself against the door again and again and again until I broke it open, but getting a running start from the tub was not going to be easy. It would be more of a flying leap from the edge of it and I foresaw a chipped tooth and a concussion, but I ask you: What price, freedom?

Just as I was about to start my flying leaps, I saw it: the doorstop. One of those spring metal ones. I wrenched it off the door and uncoiled it, bending it back on itself, fashioning a dandy and rather dangerous-looking tool. I worked it in the latch. Worked it some more. Turned. Jiggled. And then…

Ah.

There was no fanfare. No picture in the paper celebrating my derring-do. I had but the personal satisfaction of a job stupidly done (locking myself in my empty bathroom) followed by a job well done (getting out.) Incidentally, I had an appointment with my shrink yesterday and when I got there, he had locked himself out of his office — the key had broken in the lock. The session would likely not happen, he said, which was fine with me. Sometimes I don’t feel like digging through the dirt. The weather was so rainy and cozy, I just wanted to drink cocoa and read a book.

“I’m so sorry, Mary. I’ll call you to reschedule,” said Dr. Herman. “Twenty years of practice, this has never happened to me before.”

“You’ll figure it out,” I said, opened my umbrella, and walked out into the rain.

Roses On Noses.

Go ahead. Try it sometime.
Go ahead. Try it sometime.

I dated a vaudevillian magician. Talk about confessions!

This was an astonishing eight years ago, before I got sick, before I got married and divorced, before all of that.

The Magician and I met at the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge, a legendary jazz club here in Chicago. If you are good at jazz, you work a long, long time to get to play at the Mill — all the known greats have done so, all the future greats will. But every Sunday night for the past twenty-five years, the Uptown Poetry Slam takes over the club and it’s “See ya later, jazz, hello, poetry.”

The show’s format includes a half-hour set from a feature performer. The night I met The Magician, he was that act. Usually it’s a poet in the slot, or on rare occasions it’s a music group, but because The Magician was/is a bit of a lyricist and, as he would tell you, a sesquipedalian, (lover of big words) he fit right in and his act was quite popular with the slam crowd. He wore a three-piece suit and he was in his thirties and he had this broad smile and a head of thick black hair and I was smitten. He saw me be a bloodsport poet onstage that night. I saw him pull a Queen of Spades from his shoe. We met and were laughing with each other in under twelve seconds. Et voila: le boyfriend.

One morning months later, I was lounging in his spacious apartment in Logan Square, beaming at him as I watched him rehearse. He was always rehearsing because being good at magic was his profession (it still is.) Magic is all that he does, work-wise, and he’s made his living doing it for over twenty years. I was admiring his dedication and also his jacket and tie; he always wore a jacket and a tie, always. He didn’t own bluejeans. I thought that was so cool.

“Would you like to see something special, Mary?” he asked me. I nodded and clapped and bounced in my seat. Watching magic tricks makes you seven.

He took a rose from his magic case. He kind of shook himself once to loosen up and focus. Then, talking to me sweetly while he moved, he tilted his head back and brought the stem of the rose up to the tip of his nose. That is where he placed it, the tip of the long-stemmed rose, right there on the end of his nose. And then…he let go.

He was balancing it. I couldn’t believe it. He made microscopic movements to the right, back, left, left, backforward, backright to keep the rose upright, right there on his nose! He had definitely stopped talking. I didn’t even breathe. This was not a fake rose, a trick rose. This was a rose rose, and he was magnificent, like a seal or a cartoon come to life. My boyfriend kept it there for fifteen seconds or so until “ah!” it tipped over and he caught it and bowed deeply.

“Wow,” I said, mouth hanging open. “That was so cool! Do it again! Do it again!” And he did do it again for me and many times after that. But I’ll never forget what he said when I asked him how long it took to be able to do it.

He said it took him about ten years.

“Ten years??” I pictured him practicing tilting his head back every day for ten years. All those roses!

“That’s right. Ten years of daily practice for ten seconds of your enjoyment,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. He turned back to his case and began to put away his tools. I sat and thought about the time it takes to really learn something, the years that we spend to get good at what we do, and how there are no overnight successes. Roses fall off noses for years and years and then, with a pinch of luck, we keep them up there. And someone sees.

Storytime: The Hotel Coffeemaker

posted in: Day In The Life, Story, Work 3
Why I oughtta...
Why, I oughtta…

The Hotel Coffeemaker

Once upon a time, there was a girl whose alarm went off.

She fumbled for her phone and knocked it off the bedside table. Thus, she began her day the way she always did, with panic that she had just broken a piece of plastic that cost five hundred dollars. Finding that her phone was fine, the girl shut the alarm off and rubbed her eyelids for awhile.

She got up and shuffled to the bar sink in her hotel room. She took a little paper hat off a coffee mug and plugged in the coffeemaker on the counter. “Hello, coffeemaker,” she said.

The coffeemaker said nothing.

The girl filled her mug to the top with water and poured the water into the coffeemaker’s reservoir. She put the coffee pod in the coffee pod basket. She pushed a button that said BREW and then she stood there at the sink and thought about her job.

The coffeemaker burbled and steamed for a few minutes, and then with a rather rude “Pah!” it was done. The girl — who needed coffee very badly — was excited until she looked at what the machine had produced: a half cup of coffee. But she had poured a full mug of water into the reservoir! However much water was in her mug, when it ran through the coffeemaker, shouldn’t she get exactly that much coffee in her cup? Even adjusting for evaporation/inflation, there was definitely coffee missing. But where had it gone?

The girl drank the coffee, but it was gone too quickly and she was confused.

“Let’s try this again,” the girl said, and she studied the directions on the coffeemaker’s lid. She repeated the steps: mugful — truly full — of water, pod, BREW. Sure enough, “Pah!” went the coffeemaker when it was finished and her mug was again only half-full.

“Coffeemaker, why did you not make a full cup of coffee?” the girl said in a stern voice. Again, the coffeemaker said nothing.

The girl picked up the coffeemaker and shook it. She unplugged it and plugged it back in. She read the instructions on the lid once more; she even tried making two cups at once to see if that might be the ticket, but every time, no matter what she did or how much water she poured into the coffeemaker, she still only got a half cup of coffee in her mug. Every time.

“I don’t like you,” the girl said, narrowing her eyes. “At best, you’re terrible at making coffee. At worst, you’re drinking it. If you don’t explain yourself in the next 60 seconds, I’m going to the breakfast buffet where there are faucets of coffee just waiting to fill up every cup in Houston. Do you understand me? Now talk!”

The coffeemaker was silent. The girl tapped her foot. Almost a minute went by.

“That’s ten more seconds you’ve got, Mister…Coffee,” said the girl, though really it was a different brand so she knew she had just weakened her position. After ten more seconds, after the coffeemaker had stubbornly refused any attempt to explain itself, the girl sniffed and turned on her heels. She promptly tripped on her bathrobe, catching herself on the closet door handle on the way down. The day was shaping up great.

Pah!

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