I do not have a desire to travel the world.
It’s only been in the past year that I figured out why this might be, and only a matter of months that I’ve been brave enough to admit it.
It’s not something a person is supposed to say. When the “What would you do if you only had a year to live?” question is posed, we’re expected to get a dreamy look on our faces as we picture ourselves meandering through Moroccan spice markets, skiing through Switzerland, eating caviar in Red Square. We’re expected to want to explore everywhere that is not here, wherever “here” is, the argument being that world travel makes you smarter, more compassionate, more interesting; everyone wants to be described as cosmopolitan, someone “at ease in faraway lands, with an exciting and glamorous character associated with travel and a mixture of cultures.”
To be ambivalent about wanting to see the world is to be seen as too simple to grasp the importance — the necessity, even — of doing whatever you can to crisscross the globe before you’re dead. And watch out, because being pitied is a best-case scenario: The real danger here is that you’ll be labeled a xenophobe, which is one of the worst things a person can be. “Xenophobe” isn’t 100 percent synonymous with “racist”, but it’s real close.
Much to my relief (and yours, no doubt), it is my admiration of and fascination with people who grew up in cultures other than my own that is behind my reason for not needing to travel the world. It comes down to one simple thing:
If I can’t speak the language of a place — and aside from having survival Spanish, you can bet I can’t — I’m miserable.
Language is as fundamental to the shape of a country as the indelible lines of its border. A people’s language nourishes the people who speak, read, and write it, and as they do, they turn the words and phrases over and over across centuries until their language is a smooth, polished stone, carried and shared within their culture. The language of a place is the code for its literature, its science and medicine, its faith and prayer. Language puts words to experience, which is to say that it is experience itself. To experience a place without access to its language is, to me, no way to experience a place at all.
One of the most distressing aspects of this, for me anyway, is that without being able to fluently speak the language of a country while I’m in it, I am locked out of the humor of its people. This is disastrous. Sure, the language of pratfalls is universal, but delighting in the way someone plays with entendre, rhyme, puns; the structure of a great joke and the syntactical eccentricities of the teller, the timing — this is the stuff of humor, and outside of love, humor is the only thing that makes life bearable. What people find funny — and I mean really, really funny — is everything. If you want to truly be with someone, or a nation of someones (and this is the only way I ever want to be with anyone), you must understand nuance. If I can’t read a sign on a shop door that says “Back in 5 minutes”, how am I to have a nuanced experience with a place? How can I truly be in a foreign land without being able to speak the language(s) there?
Some of you might say, “Well, Mary, then study some languages! You’re young.”
You are very generous, but I am no longer officially young. I’m 41, and if a woman is not a polyglot by my age, she’s probably not going to be one. Yes, I could still learn Arabic before I die — and I would love to, and German, and Norwegian, the language of my ancestors — but if I were serious about it, I could do nothing else. My life would have to be that of a full-time student for the next who-knows-how-many years and as much as I’d like to travel the world and finally be there, upending my whole life so that I can appreciate the best knock-knock joke in the Sahara seems like a lot of work.
Here’s the thing: I have had the privilege to visit a couple other countries, namely Italy, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, France, Germany, and England. And in all but that last one, I have found myself sad and suffocated much of the time. I don’t want to have just a few words to communicate with someone. I want to use more than the blunt instruments of “yes” and “no” and “thank you” and “no thank you” when communicating with another a human being and I do not want to force everyone I come into contact with — while I’m in their house — to speak English so that I can get around and feel comfortable. Why should they have to do all the heavy lifting just because I was born in a country that expects them to learn my language, but has never insisted that I learn theirs? On my soil, okay, we can speak English and I would love to, because I want to know everything. But when I’m in their country, I ought to speak their language and though I desperately wish I could, I can’t.
A philosopher said once that “Having a second language is like having a second soul.” I want like, 50 souls, but I only have one. And the one I have knows that language is her life raft. Without it, she drowns. In a foreign country. And she doesn’t know how to ask to use the bathroom. And she can’t read the poetry. And she can’t go see stand-up. And she can’t tell the difference between a sad love song and a song about someone who died. And she orders fermented mung bean soup when she thought she was ordering delicious cake. She knows she is supposed think all of this is mind-expanding, but she doesn’t think that. She thinks it sucks. She’d give anything to read the plaques on the old city’s walls and marvel at the history of the country. She’d give anything to read a book written in the country’s mother tongue and understand something deep and fundamental about the place. She wants to exchange pleasantries with the kid at the bakery where she gets the bread every day and she wants to ask if there is coconut in the custard because she’s allergic, and she wants to understand that this pastry has coconut but that one doesn’t, and she want to be able to buy several of the second kind, thank you very much, and she wants to use exact change at the till.
She wants to not just understand the jokes; she wants to tell them. She wants to be in a foreign country where everything is different and she has the words to figure it out.
Enter England, stage right.
If you follow me on social media, you probably know that I’m in London. If you don’t follow me on social media and we don’t communicate IRL, London might come as a surprise. Heck, London is still a surprise to me and I’ve been here for two months.
There’s a lot to cover. But we have to start somewhere, and I’d like to start with social media. Let me put down my fish and chips. (Drops greasy wax paper into bin; wipes mouth with sleeve.)
This summer, after years of resisting all but the barest minimum of engagement on social media, I succumbed to her deadly embrace. For the past couple months I’ve been regularly posting content on Instagram, and it turns out that I like making short videos for the internet and captioning the pictures I post with more than brief, sterile descriptions and arbitrary timestamps, which is all I did with my Instagram photos for years.
I’ve not been completely out of the social media game, it’s true. I like Instagram because I genuinely enjoy taking pictures and it’s fun to throw my adventures into the mix with everyone else’s. It’s a good thing I like Instagram because at this point, you have to commit to at least one platform. My husband is a Twitter person, for example, but I never use it. So Eric, the Twitteriot, reads me breaking news and I, the Instagramarian, show him puppies. Neither of us do complicated dance breaks, as those are best left to TikTokerean youngsters who, judging by the volume of content they create, are very, very ready for the pandemic to be over.
But I never felt like I was doing Instagram — or any social media — correctly. In case you missed it, “doing” effective social media now basically requires a master’s degree. (I think I’m kidding, but it could be true.) Successful social media engagement is a scientific proposition. Or a militaristic one. Because if you want results, it takes a war-room approach: You have to tag things, always, and you’d better be cross-posting to all the platforms or you’re wasting your time. You have to use the right hashtags and follow others so they’ll follow you, but don’t just randomly follow anyone; you must be smart about the followed and the followers — and you need a lot of the second kind. No, like a lot. At all costs, you must not commit a cardinal social media sin in front of God and Mark Zuckerberg and everybody, because they will eviscerate you. What sin? It depends. And who is “they”? No one knows. It’s just them, and you’d better watch out because if they decide you screwed up, they will hate you. But who cares! It’s the internet. Everyone’s attention span has been worn down to a nub by this point. They’ll forget about it by tomorrow. It’s just social media! Have fun with it!
All this is vexing in the extreme, so my post volume has always been extremely low. Until recently, I never posted videos. And I’ve always been religious about writing as little as I could in any given caption or comment box. I mean, if you want to write 500 words on the internet, get a … blog.
Well that’s an interesting point, Mary.
Right, so about a month ago, I caught myself writing a paragraph’s worth of copy for a single Instagram caption. “This is a blog post,” I said to myself, looking up at the clock. I’d been at it for 20 minutes. “What are you doing?”
It appears that I’m still producing content on the internet, just in a different form. I’m not entirely comfortable with this arrangement, but I have to admit it reminds me of something.
From about 2001 to 2005, I was a hardcore performance poet, slamming my early-twenties heart out every Sunday night at Chicago’s legendary Green Mill Cocktail Lounge, the birthplace of slam poetry, the cradle of slam civilization. The form has extreme specifications: A slam poet goes onstage in front of a captive audience and gets a microphone. That’s it. No props, no costumes. She does not have access sound cues or lighting changes. It’s just her and her poem. And the simplicity of that set-up, the restrictions imposed by it, that spareness, it shapes the work in a beautiful way. You, the poet, have nowhere to hide. You have to come out swinging because you are the show and your poems and your performance provide the drama, the humor, the set and the scenery. But a good slam poet shouldn’t need light cues or a soundtrack to evoke emotion: The words and the delivery should be enough — and when performance poetry is done right, it’s more than enough.
By the way, everything I just said I learned in real time. And after years in the solo performance trenches, I had to admit that I desperately wanted to play with some props. Anything, really. Plastic lobster. Paper hat. Peanut butter and jelly. Anything. I had so many ideas! Imagine what I could do with just one tiny sound clip! My kingdom for a sock puppet! I had the word stuff down well enough; I needed to advance to the next level of making work for the stage: blackouts. Stage doors. Sound effects. Maybe someone other than my damn self onstage for once.
So I auditioned for the Neo-Futurists — a prop-friendly ensemble if there ever was one — and for the next almost-six years, I had all the plastic lobsters a girl could want. I got my paper hat, my light cues, all of it. The work I was allowed to do with the Neos was full-color and required tremendous physical effort. There was so much material in every sense of the word. The two eras shared much in common (e.g., wild creativity, breathless excitement, incredible people) but if Neo-Futurism was abundance, slam performance was austerity, and both eras brought tremendous gifts.
I think PaperGirl is slam. And my social media content isn’t Neo-Futurism, exactly, but it’s definitely a space where I get to use props if I want to, or goof around with sound cues, or make as many set changes as I please. You could make the argument that I’d better use all of those things if I want to exist in the dripping, gaping maw of social media. And doesn’t that sound fun.
So, if you want to hang out with me on my Instagram page or on my Facebook page, that would be nice. You’ll get a peek at London, and at Eric, every once in awhile. I styled a photo shoot for Liberty, and I posted about that. I am posting pictures of London, a city I am deeply in love with, which is alarming. And I’m filming a lot of quilt-related video content and that makes me happy.
Most of the content is on Instagram but I try to make sure it’s cross-posted to Facebook. However much I advance in the social media game, I remain deathly allergic Facebook. It’s bad. Facebook makes my throat close up and my body gets all scratchy and puffy and then I basically die of anaphylactic shock and then I’m buried and then I rise from the dead and come back and put a 1,000-year curse on Facebook for its crimes against humanity and then, just to be safe — and since at that point I’m a sentient, powerful ghost — I melt all Facebook’s servers and turn the resulting river of boiling plastic into a sweet, clear, babbling brook, which becomes a home for magic ducklings who grant me three wishes.
Oh, look: I have a chunk of fish left and a few chips.
(Picks up fish, eats. Wipes mouth on sleeve.)
This is the 15th installment in a series of 51 posts inspired by a list of writing prompts from the website Journal Buddies. If you’d like to know more, here’s where I explain what this is and why I’m doing it.
I’m going to take a pause from Babs and tell you about Eric. And virtual reality.
Eric, by the way, is my husband.
Yes, I did get married, as many of you have either figured out, suspected, or been told by a trusted source. Eric and I celebrated our one-year anniversary one week ago.
The story of this occurrence is so lovely, true, and massive, I’ve struggled to write about how it happened, how it’s been, and how it is. I haven’t written about it explicitly until this very moment. I’ve begun many times and stalled, because there have been events in my 40 years life that are hard to write about, not for lack of wanting to write about them, but because writing is hard, but writing well is much, much harder, and when a sublime and massive event arrives, a writer who cares wants to write about that event not just well, but sublimely. She wants to write the story so that the text itself feels as lovely as the experience was, as true as it’s been, and as massive as it continues to be.
This is tall order for her brain and the poor English language, who will quickly wonder how it got into this mess. And, because the writer who cares knows it’s possible to make the English language tell the truth about sublime and massive things — the books on her shelf prove it — it makes it easy to stall. In fact, stalling is the easiest thing to do when a person wants to put into words a sublime, massive situation because the hardest thing to do is to get it right.
I should probably just tell you what happened, event by event. I could just aim for “simple” and forget “sublime”, just build small words, one by one, and let massive take care of itself. I’ll keep at it, I promise. I can’t help but try; there are two true joys in my life and they are writing and Eric. It would be lovely to marry them well.
I cannot believe I’ve shared this news in a post that features an image of a floppy disk of Frogger from 1984.
Okay, let’s talk about this quarantine business because it’s what’s on my mind. Is it on yours? Eric and I began our official, strict, shelter-in-place, safer-at-home experience on Friday, March 13th. That day, we took a Sharpie and wrote on the old, peeling wallpaper in the hallway: “Mary + Eric’s Covid Quarantine 2020” because it was amusing to us, like we were cartoons on a cartoon desert island, carving the days on a coconut tree. And that first week, we dutifully added a hashmark on the wallpaper each day. Perhaps we stopped because it did seem sort of silly, sort of fun, but there’s nothing silly about this.
Incidentally, I’ve always believed that aside from first-responders and ethical journalists, the people that deserve protection and respect in any society are the great standup comedians. That might seem strange to some of you, but the maestros — Dave Chapelle, Chris Rock, George Carlin, Louis C.K., Patton Oswalt, and Michelle Wolf come to mind — witness and artfully tell the truth about human nature. When they do, we’re given access to a measure of relief, since laughing at ourselves is often the only way to get any. But not even the greats can help right now, so who are Eric and I to ironically mark days in the hall? It stopped being amusing so we stopped marking the days and now they all run together.
Anyway, about Frogger. A few months back, Eric purchased a VR headset for his PlayStation. “VR” stands for “Virtual Reality” and that thing looked ridiculous. I married Eric at City Hall four months after we met, and never once, not a single time — even through some real gnarly days in the past year — have I wondered if I made the right decision. I love the man more every day. But I do confess that when this 42-year-old person, this brilliant man, this funny Valentine of mine put that plastic contraption on his head and started swinging these two blinking wands into thin air, I stopped what I was doing and thought, “Well, you knew he was a nerd when you married him, Fons.”
When he handed the VR thing to me, I flatly refused it.
“Absolutely not,” I said. “I’m sure it’s very cool, but I am a serious person. I cannot put a plastic headset on my head and look around at things that do not exist. I support your fun, but I prefer to stay in regular reality, thank you very much.”
Headset or not, I am not a video game person, anyway. The last time I “gamed” was in 6th grade, probably, bored enough on a hot summer day in Iowa to pick up a controller on our old Nintendo. I was pretty sure I’d never “game” again. Pointless!
But because he was so into it and wanted to share the experience with me, he finally wore me down.
“Just for a second,” Eric said. “Just put it on for a second to see what it looks like. There’s a field of bunnies! You can walk around and look at everything! And there’s bunnies!”
I took the headset from him, holding it like a bag of old bananas. I put it on my head. Lo and behold, there was a navigable, digital field of shimmering bunnies that looked so real that I became dizzy and terrified and clawed it off of me.
Then came the pandemic. And around Week 2 of quarantine, after braving the long line at Trader Joe’s and seeing pictures semi trailers full of bodies parked behind New York hospitals, slipping into a different reality started to look attractive.
On top of that, Eric somehow managed to score an Oculus Quest. The Oculus Quest is one of the newest, most advanced VR contraptions on the market and it is a world away from the one he originally purchased (the one with the bunnies.) The Oculus Quest is sold out absolutely everywhere, but he just kept checking the website, I guess, and one day he got lucky. The old VR thing had a cord that had to connect to the TV and those derpy wands; the Oculus Quest is wireless and the derpy wands have been replaced with sleek controllers you hold in both hands. The headset is light and …
Y’all, I spend at least two hours a day on that thing. At least. I love it. I’m obsessed! When I finish this post, I’m going to go into the living room and put it on and play Beat Saber until I’m positively dripping with sweat.
Beat Saber is consistently ranked as the best game made so far in the VR genre. You put on the headset and suddenly you are basically in Tron. It’s not Tron, but it is this digital world — a very beautiful one, with moving set pieces and gradually changing colors and pretty, glowy things far up over your head. And suddenly you have a light saber in each hand — a light saber! — and then the music starts and it’s dancey music that (mostly) isn’t lame, and then these glowing blocks fly at you and you have to hit them before they hit you!
I’m telling you, it really, really feels like you have light sabers, because the VR thing works visually but it’s haptic, too, so when you cross your light sabers over your head, the real-life controllers in your hands actually buzz and give resistance, like you’re crossing the streams of two light sabers! I don’t know what that would actually feel like because light sabers are not real, but they feel so real in the game and it’s just amazing. It’s really amazing.
I am getting very, very good at Beat Saber. In the past month and a half, I have moved up the ranks. I went from playing games at the “Easy” level to the “Normal” level. Then I mastered all the “Hard” levels. Now I’m crushing the “Expert” levels. The final level is “Expert+” and I’ve got my work cut out for me. The higher the levels, the faster the glowing blocks fly at your head and in Expert+, they go fast enough to make me laugh. It looks impossible. But when my faith flags, I like to think of Serena Williams and how she practices every day and she perseveres and she’s one of the best tennis players to ever play the game. And I pick up my sabers and I hit glowing bricks. Hard.
Thank you for reading about how I got married and also about how I play video games, now. “I am the one who” never thought I’d do either of those things again, ever, but here we are.
And it’s sublime.
This is the 15th installment in a series of 51 posts inspired by a list of writing prompts from the website Journal Buddies. If you’d like to know more, here’s where I explain what this is and why I’m doing it.
There are legions of people I admire — frontline healthcare workers come to mind — but I think we could all use a little more Babs right now, am I right? Much to my delight (though not at all to my surprise), the lady has been awfully popular around here.
However much her personality has chafed certain people over the years, I suspect Babs has been popular her whole life. I say this because of the pictures of her I’ve seen from her young adulthood looking achingly pretty in expensive dressed, and also something that happened at the building Christmas party.
First, you need to know that Babs has a great laugh, partly because she doesn’t laugh very often, not outright. Hers is a dry, acerbic sense of humor, so she’s generally the one making the joke, or the one pointing out the obvious. Babs is droll. She does not chortle; she would die before she’d ever guffaw. She’s more likely to simply acknowledge when something is objectively amusing. When she does laugh, however, out comes this surprising glissando laugh: “Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!” It’s musical. It goes up and down the scale. It’s the sound of pure mirth.
I discovered this laugh when I was over at her place one evening, obviously drinking wine. Babs was in an elegant pantsuit, freshly manicured, dishing about the condo board. She was trying to remember the name of the person who had most recently annoyed her.
“Oh, oh, wait,” I said, “is it the lady who always looks like this?” I squinted my eyes, furrowed my brow, and wrinkled my nose like I was smelling smelly garbage and said in a nasal voice, “Oh, hi Mary. How arrrre you?”
Babs opened her mouth and out came that laugh. She didn’t throw her head back, she didn’t lean forward. She just pushed play on that “Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!” music. She was delighted at my impression and I detected she was also impressed at my ability as a mimic. It felt a bit mean, poking fun at our neighbor, but I confess that I basked, just a tiny bit, in Babs’s approval.
Back to the Christmas party:
That night, I was feeling puffy. You know how you just feel puffy, sometimes? I put on a black dress that usually works, but I was just so puffy and my cheeks were blotchy and I had a blemish. I also have agonizing social anxiety, but it’s extra bad when I’m in large groups of people with whom I wish to make a good impression. But there was no getting around it: Making an appearance at this function — especially as the building’s newest resident – was essentially mandatory. I groaned and took my puffy self up to the seventh floor dragging Eric, who is even less enthused about these sorts of things than I am. He could stay 10 minutes and dip, I said; I’ll take one for the team and make the rounds.
In the host’s apartment on the seventh floor (a three-settee living room), people were milling about. There was a shrimp platter and finger sandwiches; there was focaccia; there were pinots blanc and noir and a basket of chocolate-dipped snacks. I took a deep breath and introduced myself to this and that person as I made my way from room to room, checking my teeth a zillion times for kiwi seeds and/or lipstick as I told people that I work in the quilt industry, yes, that’s right, yes, quilting, like quilts, for the bed, but there are other kinds also, and I’m the editor of the bestselling quilt magazine, yes, there is more than one quilt magazine, the quilt industry, yes there’s a quilt industry, is valued around 3.5 billion and you know, online dating is worth just 3 billion … I was getting more exhausted by the minute because being obsessed with the state of one’s teeth and explaining what I do takes effort when I’m meeting a new person, but it takes true endurance to meet so many new people I have to explain it six or seven times in two hours.
Finally, I spied Babs. She was perched on a settee (!) in the living room, holding court. When she saw me, she lit up and waved me over.
“Mary, I have to talk to you,” she said. I sat down, thrilled to be off-duty. It was this conversation that led me to concur that Babs has doubtless always been one of the popular girls and, though I cringe to say so, probably one of the mean girls from time to time. It was how she put a hand on my shoulder and turned us just slightly away from the crowd to basically whisper gossip in my ear. I was instantly uncomfortable with this, party because I have been present at parties where I was the one being whispered about and it’s such an awful experience, but — far more critically — I did not want to be cast as a scuttlebutt at this, my building debut.
Then Babs pulled me in. It was like Babs a tractor beam. She mentioned the neighbor I had done the impression of a few weeks back and again couldn’t remember her name. Before I knew it, I wrinkled my nose and said under my breath, “Oh hi, Mary” and out it came: “Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!” The laugh of the most popular — and potentially most resented — girl at the party rose above the sounds of the crowd and there I was, in cahoots with Babs.
I do adore her. I do admire her, but I don’t like to be in cahoots with anyone. I’m not a cahooter.
Oh, my dearlings! These blog entries keep getting longer and longer. I’ll finish up with Babs next time. I’m afraid that if I keep writing novels here in PaperGirl 2.0 I’ll lose folks, not because the content is bad (I’m enjoying writing to you more than ever, which I hope comes through) but because we are on the internet and when we’re in the strange, wide saddle of the internet, attention tends to slide off. It happens to us all, even Babs, who I know does a little online shopping from time to time.
The pandemic has brought its gifts, however ruinous and deadly it continues to be: Babs and I have become closer than ever in the past month. There’s no cahooting, either; just aid, affection … and phone conversations about Governor Cuomo:
“Oh, that Cuomo is just divine,” Babs said. “I wouldn’t mind snuggling up to him on a cold night.”
This is the 14th installment in a series of 51 posts inspired by a list of writing prompts from the website Journal Buddies. If you’d like to know more, here’s where I explain what this is and why I’m doing it.
Since schools are closed, and I belong to the extremely fortunate demographic who doesn’t have to go “to” or “from” work right now, if I don’t take things in a different direction with this particular prompt, I won’t have much to say and we’ll all just be sitting around looking at each other until one of us starts crying or we start another card game, or we both start crying because we’re starting yet another card game.
I can’t let that happen, so I’m going to tell you about my favorite neighbor, Babs.*
Since Babs is the grandest of all the dames; since Babs is a force of nature; since Babs is the walking embodiment of a Babs in all the ways a Babs could possibly be, I can’t just drop Babs on you. I can’t just launch into Babs. One must be ready for a person like this; one must be prepared. Thus, I shall provide a bit of context, first.
One year ago this month, I collected all my belongings and moved them 2.5 miles to the north. I left Chicago’s scrappy, youthful, grimy-in-a-good-way South Loop for her crusty, gorgeous, fusty-in-a-good-way Gold Coast. It took fortitude; there were sacrifices. I went from having 1500 square feet of space down to 900; in the South Loop, I paid a wince-inducing HOA monthly assessment, but the assessment for this place is almost nauseating, especially with the mortgage on top of that; and if you asked me how much paint was peeling off the walls in my previous apartment, I would have said “none”, but if you ask me how much paint is peeling off the walls in this one, I will say “so much.”
So what. The place is half the size and needs significant work. But when you’ve got crown molding, parquet wood floors, bookshelves built right into the walls, and the original 1920 elevator with Art Deco brass details, you almost feel like keeping those paint chips in a pretty box on the mantle. (There’s a mantle.) And hey, when I scribble my signature on my check to pay the bills each month, I get to see my name on that check with my new address on it, and that helps me stop weeping long enough to tear the check off the pad and get it into the envelope.
In July, Eric moved here from Seattle. One day we decided to go for a walk.
“Most of the people in this building seem like they’re … older,” Eric said.
We stepped aside for Gordon (day doorman extraordinaire) to let in Mr. and Mrs. Ackerman, which took awhile. Outside, a man in a sweater vest with his socks pulled up was poking at a flower bed with his cane. He waved.
We waved back and Eric, who is 42, said, “Are we the youngest people in this building?”
It’s true: Most of the people who live in our vintage building might also be described as “vintage.” I won’t put my foot in my mouth and suggest a median age, but I will say that when there’s a notice on the desk in the lobby about a board meeting or a maintenance issue, the font is very large. This, to me, is an ideal living situation. People of a certain age rarely feel like putting on heavy boots and running back and forth on the floor above me; neither do they tend to listen to music loudly. If they do decide to listen to music loudly, it’s only every five years or so, and in this building you’re going to get Duke Ellington or Connie Francis or Beethoven if the person is brooding. Could be worse, right?
Eric wasn’t quite right about us being the youngest people who live here, though; down the hall on our same floor there’s a thirty-something couple and they are the youngest people here. Caitlin is literally a professional brain surgeon, which I think we can all agree is the best kind of brain surgeon. Her slightly younger French husband, Jean Luc, is a professional brain scientist, so these two are a good match. They got married in October. We had a little wine and cheese party up on the room last summer and Caitlin and I had more wine than cheese and it was fun because they are very nice people.
There are four apartments on each floor, and Lorraine and Alan live in the one directly across from us. Alan has been a university professor for absolute ages, and Lorraine bakes when she’s stressed.
“Mary, I’ve been stress-baking.”
We were chatting on the phone the first week of the official shelter-in-place order here in Chicago, which was somewhere between 10,000 and 100,000 years ago.
“Tell me about it,” I said, scraping cookie batter off the sides of a mixing bowl.
Lorraine sighed and said the least she could do was leave some goodies at our front door. I told her she didn’t have to do that and she said oh it’s no problem, and I said stay safe and she said you too, Mary, and say hi to Eric. When I opened the door, I was super happy to find two fat banana-walnut muffins, which Lorraine stress-bakes in mini-bundt cake pans. They are so moist you have to eat them right away or they’ll go bad. The muffins were, as always, tucked inside a small gift bag with ribbon handles. It’s safe to say Lorraine has a big box of small gift bags with ribbon handles in the hall closet at all times, because you never know.
Well, I guess that’s it for my neighbors. An interesting group, right? I’m so grateful we landed on such a good floor with —
Sorry, what’s that? Oh, did I say there are four apartments on each floor of our building? Huh, that’s funny … who am I leaving out? Who could be — ohhh. That’s right. How could I forget … Babs.
The first thing to know about Babs is that I adore her. The second thing to know is that she is infamous around here on account of her rather mercurial personality. One doesn’t “meet” Babs as much as experience her, and lots of residents have had the Babs Experience because she has lived in this building for more than 30 years.
Babs is probably in her seventies, but it’s hard to say. For one thing, a lady never tells her age; for another thing, I have heard from several sources that she is heir to a kitty litter fortune and as such, has long been able to afford all manner of expensive creams, salves, and tinctures, so the woman could be a very well-preserved 90 for all I know. She wears French perfume and I’ve never seen her without lipstick.
The woman probably weighs 90 pounds soaking wet, but Babs would hate being soaking wet: It would ruin her hair! Her hair is a shimmery shade of light blonde appropriate for her age but let’s not ignore the fact that she is maintaining blonde and of course it’s always perfectly set, combed, and coiffed. Babs wears big, round dark sunglasses when she goes out and sometimes when she goes in: She waltzed into a condo board meeting once — fashionably late, of course — and kept her sunglasses on the whole time. She did remove her fur stole, however. I don’t know what animal sacrificed itself for Bab’s stole, but whatever it was, it was very soft and shiny. Babs didn’t say a thing the entire meeting and still managed to hold court; I could tell she was glowering at a couple people across the room who had somehow annoyed her. Believe me: It’s a rotating cast.
Babs has lived in Chicago all her life. When she was 16, she had a real-life coming out party. I’ve seen the pictures. She was a vision in silk gloves and the prettiest dress you’ve ever seen. Later, she ran her own boutique on Michigan Avenue. She’s buried two husbands and has lived alone for a lot of years at this point. I can’t recall just how long. A long time.
Babs is a voracious and extremely selective drinker of white wine. Sometimes she has to call our building’s maintenance man to help her get a cork out. This call occasionally comes around two or three in the afternoon.
Babs is a voracious and extremely selective reader, too. Her library is wall to wall books, all neatly lined up on the wide shelves. It perhaps needs not be said that Babs’s apartment — larger than our fixer upper by a factor of two at least — perhaps led to the very creation of the term “tastefully appointed”. At this point I’m betting you can guess with great accuracy what Babs’s place looks like, right? Right: damask drapes with silk tie-back cords; crystal candy dishes; lacquered wood furniture; still life paintings large and small; striped wallpaper; various platters. There is no dust anywhere, on anything because Babs has a maid that comes every week. There’s a sitting room and a dining room and — oh, you get the idea. The difference between the apartment Eric and I are quarantined in and the one just down the hall is the difference between The Little Match Girl and the Queen of England; extra matches, extra pearls.
Since this post is plenty long enough and there are card games we all have to get to, I’ll tell you more about Babs in the next post. But I cannot resist sharing one of many Babs gems before I go:
Five or six months ago, Babs invited me over for a glass of wine. It had become a kind of a regular thing at that point and I knew to drink slowly because every time I had ever said, “Oh, Babs, I think I’ve had enough for tonight,” she’d pooh-pooh me and take my glass into the kitchen for “just a little splash.”
That night, I was doing what I often do when I hang out with Babs, which is ask her a million questions about her life. Wouldn’t you? She’s as fascinating a person as I’ve ever met, and she also happens to be hilarious.
“Babs,” I said, knowing that at this point I can ask her anything, “Tell me about your husbands. Were you happily married?”
Babs gave a dismissive wave of her hand. “Oh, they were lovely men. I loved them, sure. But sweetie, I was terrible at being married.”
“I was always screwing around!”
[Babs and I will be back soon. Stay safe, everyone.]
*All names in this post have been changed, but none are as perfectly suited to the person described as “Babs”.