August 9, 2012

Part Two: Detroit, MI; Ann Arbor, MI; Rockford, IL; Madison, WI; Pipestone, MN; Sioux Falls, SD; Mitchell, SD; Wall, SD; Black Hills National Forest; Wyomin…

**I apparently wore the same dress every day. I don’t think it smelled, that could be the road talking.

August 9, 2012

Part one: Pleasantville, NY; Monticello, NY; Binghamton, NY; Ithaca, NY; Jamestown, NY; Ashtabula, OH; Cleveland, OH.

**We used a 1964 State Farm road atlas the entire way. Some of the connecting highways were not yet finished, and there were little blue lines on the map indicating roads that would exist by the end of the year

August 8, 2012
States of States

"Ascension seemed at such times a natural law. If one added it to a law of completion — that everything must finally be made comprehensible — then some general rescue of the sort I imagined my aunt to have undertaken would be inevitable. For why do our thoughts turn to some gesture of the hand, the fall of a sleeve, some corner of a room on a particular anonymous afternoon, even when we are asleep, and even when we are so old that our thoughts have abandoned other business? What are all these fragments for, if not to be knit up finally?"

- Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping

We left home on a wet, hot day, after a tearful night of bumper pool and Corona in the Sutton Place garage. Sweeney, with his broken finger, and me, with a swelling wasp sting, took off on the Taconic State Parkway with most of our worldly goods to a campground just outside of Ithaca. We were leaving for two years, a fact I did not feel fully until we hit a barren stretch of highway between Wall Drug and Rapid City, South Dakota about five days later. We listened to Bonnie Prince Billy and stopped in Monticello, one of the many towns whose bottom dropped out about forty years ago, for apple pie, ice cream, corned beef and latkes. Back in the car, All Things Considered continued coverage about the Catholic church bullying Women Religious, an international group of admirable and righteous nuns who, berated for (among other things) not taking a stand on abortion, answered How could we? Said Sister Pat Ferrell: “It’s because Women Religious stand in very close proximity to people at the margins, to people with very painful, difficult situations in their lives… Questions there are much less black and white because human realities are much less black and white. That’s where we spend our days.”

Western New York is such a different creature than the five boroughs and their famous suburbs, which, seen on a map, are as slight as fingernail clippings, and yet consume the national imagination of the entire state. More than a quarter of which is national park. We rolled through hilly farmland that reminded me of Oregon. Ithaca, Utica, Troy and Rome carry on in the dark, rocky wilderness, bearing names of an ancient empire. In Binghamton, which, other than being home to the top SUNY university, seems wedged in slate and rust, we stopped for coconut water from a gas station across the street from a derelict Masonic temple. And when we entered Ithaca, I wondered how that quaint city had avoided the fate of the others around it. With its sloping leafy streets, sunny gorges, brightly painted craftsman homes. We swam after hours in the falls at Robert Tremaine State Park, and only when we were good and tired realized we were short on supplies. We hurried around a Wal-Mart in damp clothes, cooked dinner in the dark, and tried to sleep through the lightening and rain. I laid under the Pendleton blanket three girlhood friends had gifted us at the wedding, relaxing into the silence until the next peals of grenade-like thunder smacked the wilderness.

We woke up with percolator coffee, and continued West. That afternoon, tornadoes touched down thirty miles from where we camped, warnings persisted through the exact route we’d planned. Caught in torrential rain, we stopped on a Seneca reservation near Buffalo for cigarettes at Ken’s Smoke Shop, the register manned by a big white guy, but what do I know? He let us sample the mysterious reservation brands right there at the counter, which cost about twenty-five dollars a carton and which source tobacco from the same places as Marlboro. Just up the road was Salamanca, the namesake of Walk Two Moons' heroine, whose roadtrip we were incidentally taking. And I just kept thinking, Who was the guy that first decided to fill that sovereign American Indian land with cigarettes and casinos? And I realized I had no idea how they determined laws, nor how at what rate their borders had been hemmed in the last century. We stopped in Jamestown, the birthplace of Lonely Christopher and Lucille Ball. And All Things Considered kept us updated on the Syrian revolution, where people continued to keep their shops open and drink coffee in public plazas, in spite of the flying bullets. 

Toward the end of my junior year in college, I embarked on what I intended to be an epic piece of fiction about a dying romance called “States of States,” the chapters, and all atmospheric effects therein, dictated by which ever state the two lovers happened to be passing through. Sweeney and I had just split up. Also I was in the throes of a class about Western allegory and most of the stuff I was working on at the time more or less looked like this (including, but not limited to, a story wherein every character is named after an astrological constellation), and while I was perhaps onto something, the thing fizzled out after Kansas. When the chapters were reduced to quick, lazy paragraphs, I knew I had to stop. I hadn’t thought it through. The scope was far too big, and I was under the burdensome impression that I had special knowledge about the spirit the states. I wanted to express these places through things the characters felt, and the ways they acted, as they crossed each border. As wild as it was, I still love the idea — though it probably requires a great deal more humility. Because, after this trip, I still believe that some new humor is felt at every state line.

While Sweeney and I have undertaken some serious continental travel in our years together, none of it ended in semi-permanence. Once, with a bag of baby carrots and two hundred bucks, we drove to Savannah, Georgia and back for no reason but curiosity. With complimentary airfare we spent five days camping around New Mexico the week the housing market crashed. In 2009, we went on a ten-day book tour from Brooklyn to Madison, and a hitch-hiking tour later that summer up and down the West Coast. A midnight haul to Cape May for a christening, readings all around New England. But as we drew West, the sense of no-return filled us with a newfound vulnerability — and I began reading Housekeeping aloud. On US 20 through Ohio we passed a thruway called Lost Nation Rd., and we wondered how many times the Cuyahoga River caught fire, and for how long? We passed through Cleveland around sunset (bright, open, quiet, semi-Classical, semi-70s) and stopped to scramble down forested paths and swim in Lake Erie a few miles outside of town.

It continued to rain through our continental breakfast, and across the rest of The Buckeye State. We arrived in Detroit in the early afternoon, though the city limits blurred in with the highway. We never saw a sign. We just drove in on this wide boulevard toward city center, surrounded by burned out auto body shops, rows of vacant, crumbling buildings, poor neighborhoods you might see on the outskirts of any major American city, and I thought, This is not so different from Baltimore. But the outskirts never ended. And it’s bigger than Baltimore. Michigan Central Depot, a storied, Classical building, stands at the edge of Woodward Ave utterly gutted, and the railroad itself has returned to prairie, dipping in and out of empty storehouses. We drove up and down Rosa Parks, through the Southeast and Northeastern neighborhoods, for two hours, and part of me thought the whole thing was sick, my anthropological interest in a “fallen city” where people are still living their lives. But I wanted so badly to see. Miles and miles of big, grand, free-standing, two-family houses — brick, gingerbread, with big yards and balconies, totally reclaimed by the natural world, trees growing through windows, entire blocks of what were once the homes of an apparently enormous middle class — empty, full of snake grass and Queen Anne’s Lace, abandoned cars and buses rusting away in side yards. Without Ford’s strength, everything fell apart, and after the Detroit suburbs grew to the top wealthiest counties in the country, and after the service economy championed all, there was no going back. Of course we saw plenty of people, too, sitting out on their porches with a few family members, on a street they shared with one or two others, or none at all. Since 2005, 100 public schools have closed in Detroit — and there were schools for sale all over. It began to pour rain, and we ended up at a BBQ place called Slows next to a loan office with a “Going Out of Business” sign from 1967. And we watched the Olympics and ate brisket and drank Michigan IPA, and outside it rained and across the street was Michigan Central Depot.

Now, don’t let me tell an anti-fairy tale: there’s burgeoning commercial districts in the Motor City, and a booming hip hop scene. Sweeney and I were probably the last people to come marvel at the ruins. There’s a lot more to it than that, and a self-proclaimed renaissance that began long before I realized that Detroit had ever fallen at all. But we’d apparently elected to take the Rust Belt trail across America, which landed us again and again in these urban ruins, in the dispossessed expanses of this enormous and difficult country. 

From Detroit we stopped in Ann Arbor, a mere hour-and-a-half away and in a state of college-town bliss. It was confounding that the two could be so close. And we sailed through Michigan, a stony-feeling, mitten-shaped place, Indiana, and Illinois, the edge of Chicago, reading and talking and listening to the radio until very late, and we stayed in a smoking room in Motel 6 about an hour west of that. West, and ever wester! Traveling west comes with the feeling of heading ever-farther away from the known world, toward an uncharted darkness, though it grows only flatter and lighter. We’d gone so fast because we wanted to spend a whole day in and around Madison, where we arrived with some friends three years back, and had loved instantly.

Once we crossed into Wisconsin, people started talking to us. It was a clear, balmy day, and the gray, used-up landscape of the Rust Belt gave way to the dense, lush agrarian greenery of this new, lake-pocked state. We’d been seeing corn, but now we were seeing more than ever. What would happen to all this land if we caught a corn blight? We stopped at a lake, and a kind, older couple talked with us in the picnic area for an hour, and their accents were so thick Sweeney thought they were Dutch.

Madison was as idyllic a college town as we remembered it, a lovely mix of independent commercial districts, on an isthmus surrounded by lakes, and a lively university community that is well integrated into the city. Good German-inspired food, and a student union on the lake that’s open to the public. We swam in Lake Mendota, whose banks were surrounded by 19th Century fraternity mansions. Some frat boys and sorority gals were hanging out in one of the backyards, and Sweeney got the brilliant idea of asking if we could camp on their hidden, rolling lawn for the night. They enthusiastically granted us permission, and we joined them for Keystone Light on the rickety dock until sunset. At dark we wandered up the street to the Union beer garden where a live band was playing old funk and Motown, and we came across a contingent of Couch Surfers who were congregating for a summer fest, and we drank, and danced, and played cards with them late into the night.

We woke up early in the morning in our backyard campsite to the sun rising over the lake, took a dip, and headed on through Minnesota (with a stop at Devil’s Lake). It is then, in the southeast border of the state, that the West truly began. It’s hard to explain why I know this. It’s just — the trees grew denser, taller, darker purpley-green. The Mississippi River created a sudden, verdant valley, and at the first rest stop, the historical placard began speaking of Lewis and Clark, Paul Bunyan, Babe the Blue Ox, the Green Giant, and all myths, real and unconfirmed, that I associate with the wild, mysterious dreams of the frontier. Windfarms popped up like alien invasions, and the Amish, and nice people at truck stops, like a cowboy wearing a yin yang ring with an iPhone and a joint and naked lady pictures on his dashboard who told us all about his life, and who I suspected had post-polio dystrophy. 

And then South Dakota, which goes on forever. Giant tee-pee replicas adorn every rest stop, and it is as flat and bright and dry as you can imagine. We narrowly missed the Corn Palace and the fossil dig in Mitchell, and an old lady at the chamber of commerce gave us recommendations of where to camp. A tourist attraction called Wall Drug advertises itself for four-hundred miles (5cent Coffee! Camping supplies! Dougnuts! Fireworks!). Brontosaurus models pop up at gas stations and signs for Gutzon Borglum’s legacy, the sculptor who designed Mt. Rushmore, rise up on the painted-undersides of shipping crates positioned along the highway. On South Dakota Public Radio, bad news from the Pine Ridge reservation surfaced, and broadcasts about the meth epidemic, and occasionally in a mini-mart we’d come across a copy of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. At 3,000 feet above sea-level, on these pre-historic feeling plains, I began to feel light-headed, and suddenly very far away from anything I’d ever known, and this is when I realized it was really happening. We entered the Badlands, with it’s toothy canyons, ribboned sandstone, and crumbling ridge, and took pictures in the heavy, dusty heat, winding through formations that, for a short time, thwarted the pioneers’ movement. It really makes you wonder: what the hell were these people thinking? How brave and psychotic must they have been, how powerful and vivid their fantasies, to drag their family (and heirlooms and china) by ox-and-cart across this desert, and eventually over the continental divide?

The Badlands were breathtaking, and spit us out right in the seat of Wall Drug, whose signs had commanded our attention across the entire state. Sweeney bought a pocket knife, and I got Tampax, in the faux-Western facades of “ye olde” Main Street. Here we were, near the border, and heading towards the mouth of the Black Hills National forest — a small, inexplicable mountain range the rises out of the plains, and becomes verdant, full of lakes — “black,” perhaps, because of its dark appearance in the distance — and night was falling. Here we were, near the battleground of Little Big Horn, when the Sioux won and Custer fell, and here we were in the holy land of the Lakota, where, in 1868 the US government signed the Fort Laramie Treaty protecting the area from white settlement forever, and where, a mere six years later Americans started mining for gold anyway, and the US government violated the treaty and forced the Lakota to remote reservations, and where (are you with me?) in 1934 a Danish-American who was an active member in the Ku Klux Klan began drilling the faces of four founding fathers in the rock formation where the Lakota believed the world to have begun. The interpretive center at the monument, which we visited the next day, represented none of this, but rather claimed it as a space where one’s patriotism could be refreshed. 

We camped for two days in a remote campground in Custer State Park, by a little creek, and saw a wild buffalo, did laps in Center Lake, and were swarmed by my least favorite creature of the region: yellow jackets. And after that we carried on, across the border, into the marvelous, uncultivated, open space of Wyoming…

June 22, 2012
on Girls (or Things I Did Before Getting Married)

"And if my experience in that church did nothing else for me, it accustomed me to strange outpourings of the Spirit, and gave me a tender regard for con artists and voices in the wilderness, no matter how odd or suspicious their message might be."

- Salvation on Sand Mountain by Dennis Covington

The first review that appears in a Google search of “Girls HBO” is a website called Ask Men. Following that is an NPR feature and a New York Times op-ed by a woman who all but sneers at twenty-six-year-old Lena Dunham’s new series about four post-grads living haphazardly in Brooklyn. She signs off with a comment about it displaying the general ineptitude and stuntedness of my generation, but I charge her to find anyone who wasn’t an idiot at twenty-two, twenty-four, whatever. The show’s rising drama revolves around these characters talking, for the most part, about the same shit most people in the given situation would: biting, self-deprecating, naval-gazing meditations on jobs and joblessness, delusional and demoralizing romantic interludes, stagnant creative projects, and typing Google searching reproductive woes in long, detailed sentences that yield zero results (“the stuff that gets up over the edge of the condom”). And the writing and direction are delightfully specific, embarrassing, and funny! It’s not revolutionary, but no one else is doing it, and it’s joining a New York tradition, isn’t it?

Enter: That Girl, Seinfeld, Friends, 70% of Woody Allen’s oeuvre. Comparisons have been inevitably made to Sex and the City, but only at the expense of Girls' essential ennui. Viewers never doubted that Carrie Bradshaw was on some spectacular horizon at a given moment, even if it was preceded by a comedy of errors. Some reviewer, and it may have even been the one on Ask Men, described the show as being about people who were only just now discovering, silently, that Sex and the City was a fantasy. In Girls we feel Hannah’s unyielding trepidation, a sentiment echoed in Manhattan and all Seinfeld's final scenes, that things may never actually work out. 

And all this stuff about privileged white girls, which is typically at the core of these reviews, is making me suspicious of media motives. No one made “white privilege”
their biggest qualm about either of the aforementioned productions — it came up, sure, but it never determined the whole critical scope. Good criticism begins only when the critic can convince you if the art failed or succeeded in what it was trying to do. If the characters are unlikable that’s one thing, but I’ve noticed that it takes much less persuasion for a male character to be likable. I’ve noticed that people cringe when a few young women show up on the screen and say absurd things, but not as quickly as when men do. Is this because creators are writing bad female roles or because people can’t stand to watch girls have fun — or not have fun, for that matter? A friend recently said he thinks the upper-middle-class white girl thing only bothers him because he’s bored, and people weren’t talking about it ten years ago because they weren’t bored yet. Which is a good point.

The morning after he said this, Lina and I went to Randall’s Island in search of the Robert Moses Building. We plundered the island all day, crossing under the Triborough Bridge rebar, and over groomed recreational fields where junior soccer games were in session, and even all the way to the department of waste treatment where we asked the gate guards for directions. Finally, we found ourselves heading down a narrow, shrubby walkway across a salt marsh, and over a sort-of boardwalk that went back around the perimeter of the island toward an unmarked road that, as far as we could tell, contained only highway entrances, wondering, wondering where, as Lina called it, the “Robert Moses house” was. And suddenly we were right before it. A great limestone thing which looks out across the Harlem River to seven identical housing projects, angled equally against the sunset. We marched up the driveway and tried to get in, finally keying into security and being told we had to leave. So we sat on a curb, looking out at the projects, and imagining how easy it could have been to sit at that distance and think those superblocks were a good idea.

And unlike Robert Moses, I learned to drive that week. I went to White Plains, a city-sized business park where there are no plains nor whiteness, and waited in line for an hour and half only to be told I had to go to Peekskill. We drove to Peekskill and I cried when the attendant said I didn’t have enough documents that confirmed my middle name was Claire. I found a W2 crammed in my wallet, passed my test, and immediately got behind the wheel. We drove around Sweeney’s childhood home, and stopped to chat with an old neighbor who gave me pointers. I practiced in a parking lot in the rain in a bad mood. I drove the last ten miles to the town we were to be married in. Several days later I entered the Bronx River Parkway. I registered for a 5-hour driving class in Mt. Kisco at a school that shared my name (Adrian’s Driving School), and paid forty-five dollars in cash to be given pointers about the road test by a middle-aged Russian-American guy and watch twenty-year-old PSAs about seatbelts and DUIs. The seat belt program was a national organization called “Room to Live,” and the spokesperson was an ex-cop from the Midwest who made cheesy jokes about his good looks and told gruesome testimonies about deaths he’d seen while on the force which were direct results from neglectful seatbelt users. Early 3D animation cut to a graveyard of seatbelt myths. Intermittently, the camera would close up on an audience member’s face, people of all races and genders, with frosty, buoyant hairstyles, crying, laughing

The next video was introduced by Carly Simon, who gave a drunk driving statistic and closed out with, “This is Carly Simon,” giving way to a detailed re-enactment/documentary about a tragic drunk driving accident from 1988 which involved an Olympic diver barreling his car into several Florida high school students who were partying in a parking lot. For twenty five minutes we listened to victims and their families talk about the night, nurses and cops talk about the mutilated bodies they saw when they arrived on site, and courtroom shots of the Olympic diver being walked around with handcuffs and giving a court apology with his eyes down. Why did New York State choose this particular case study for its mandatory drivers’ safety course, a film which seemed to present a much more complex drama then a drinking and driving accident? The Olympic diver’s blood alcohol content level was twice the legal limit, which is drunk, but not blacked out, and he drove furiously, full speed, into a dead-end and well-know spot where teenagers hung out. His father was his coach, a very small man, and said he was proud of his son for pleading guilty after the final trial. And the two survivors both suffered the loss of their legs. The video goes into such detail about the lives of the kids who died — but did not go into the life of the Olympian with the single offense who had gone to prison for seventeen years. By the end of it, I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to feel about driving. But I had lots of feelings about the fates of these Floridians, the diver, the eerie fact that the alcohol seemed to play a minor role in this terrible, maniacal crash.

Among the other pre-wedding experiences, Sweeney and I went to a Yankee’s game, and sat behind the foul pole for twenty dollars, and whatever the Bud and cheesefries cost. Fortunately, they won that night.

June 5, 2012

(Source: feetcold-eyesred)

April 26, 2012
Rise up with fists

"I think it is fair to say that the West has lost its place in the national imagination because, by some sad evolution, the idea of human nature has become the opposite of what it was when the myth of the West began, and now people who are less shaped and constrained by society are assumed to be disabled and dangerous. this is bad news for the American psyche, a fearful and antidemocratic idea, which threatens to close down change. I think it would be a positively good thing for the West to assert itself in the most interesting of terms, so that the whole country must hear and be reanimated by dreams and passions it has too casually put aside and too readily forgotten."

- Marilynne Robinson

My parents’ generation moved to the West Coast, if they weren’t already there, from places like Chicago, Nebraska, Long Island, so they could do things like get married barefoot or in a garage and no one would think anything of it. So it would follow that people move to the East Coast from places like Portland, Washington, the Bay Area, so they can have a cocktail hour and a bridal brunch. But, no. It’s not parallel. Isn’t that funny?

April 8, 2012
"If our lives are gifts to begin with… in some sense they are not ‘ours’ even when we become adults. Or perhaps they are only until such time as we find a way to bestow them. The belief that life is a gift carries with it the corollary feeling that the gift should not be hoarded. As we mature, and particularly as we come into the isolation of ‘being on our own,’ we begin to feel the desire to give ourselves away—in love, in marriage, to our work, to the gods, to politics, to our children. And adolescence is marked by that restless, erotic, disturbing inquisition: is this person, this nation, this work, worthy of the life I have to give?"

— Lewis Hyde, The Gift

February 16, 2012

February 16, 2012
Simple Pleasures, the spa

When I was hired by Mary and Alice Moore, they gave me a lot warnings. They warned of their bickering, of the shop’s propensity to accumulate soot and dust; the freezing temperatures, the demanding customers, the tedious backroom tasks, the occasional invasion of mice and groundhogs; that I’d have to eat lunch standing up, that I’d have to wear sensible shoes, and finally, that I might receive  phone calls from dirty old men looking for a massage parlor. Mother and daughter, both tall, strikingly lovely women, stood telling me this in the midst of their delightfully opulent near-fairy tale gift shop, its shelves and hearth brimming with silk scarves, cashmere gloves, silver neck chains, French perfumes, silkscreened pottery, beeswax candles, salted caramels, twinlking lights, and a rack of rainbow-colored ribbons and wrapping paper: Simple Pleasures.

"Alice has never liked the name," Mary said. "And there’s a smut shop in Central Falls with the same one."

And sure enough, within my first couple of weeks we got a call asking about the “four hand special.” After that, a heavy breather: “How much is a half hour?” Just after Christmas someone called to ask if we’d be open on New Years, and when we said no, he asked if we had “three girls who want to work anyway.” We always follow these questions with a pause, thinking, for a moment, that we might have the answer. And then it clicks. “Are you trying to get a hold of Simple Pleasures, the spa?” At which point said caller usually hangs up.

When the Moores interviewed me, I was still working at the RISD store. I applied for that job the day before Hurricane Irene hit. In every way I could think to, I presented myself as the ideal candidate to sell Color-Aid, Gatorade, and commemorative school mugs to the incoming students and eager parents who’d soon be knocking down the school doors. That night, the city cleaned Walgreens and CVS of votives and bottled water, taped their windows shut, filled their bathtubs, and watched the storm knock down a couple powerlines and uproot a tree. Then I was hired and quickly delegated to the job of folding two thousand RISD logo t-shirts for minimum wage, forty hours a week. I’d stand in the humid, narrow galley-shelving in the cellar, color-coding apparel in absolute, suffocating silence. Then I’d eat my lunch out back over the canal. The old illustration buildings crowded together along the brick walkway like a New England postcard. A few ducks swam by. Some students drafted at a picnic table. Then I’d go back in and stock all manner of candy, gum erasers, gag gifts, interiors magazines, Chapstick, umbrellas, sweatshirts, and sports team paraphernalia — the RISD Balls and Nads, respectively. I became addicted to Lintdor balls. I’d buy several at the register and keep them in my apron pocket to be savored through the day like painkillers. Surveillance cameras hung from all corners, including the basement, and we were not allowed to be still. Employees couldn’t chat. The part of the store I worked in was often dead for long periods, but I had to keep moving. So I’d fiddle around with merchandise, knock t-shirts from the shelf so I could refold them, talk to myself. Someone’s mother died, someone else got sick, two long-time employees quit, the soundsystem stopped working, and the fluorescent lights buzzed louder and louder. The students came in droves and we’d ring up hundreds of dollars worth of supplies and watch the horrible heavy shadow cross their faces when we announced the total. Occupy Providence formed the week I realized that my paltry paycheck — and most people’s in America — was being taxed the same percentage as a CEO at Bain.

One day I came across a book on the shelves called Providence Sketchbook, and I kept a copy behind the counter with me so I could sneak peeks at it when I felt like no one was watching. Life hinged on these little thrills! The book was full of beautiful watercolor drawings of historical buildings throughout the city. One drawing I liked in particular was of an old blacksmith forge, supposedly on Waterman St., though I’d never seen it. After six weeks, I felt thoroughly lousy. Walking home along the canal and under the mall and over the foundry, my mind was set on Yell mode. Walking there and back, all I heard was yelling: WHAT THE HELL AM I DOING HERE. WHY DO I FEEL TRAPPED. Don’t get me wrong; everyone at the store was perfectly nice. But. But what? I was exhausted, and had a spike of dread in both heels, and this expanse of joyless days, no one’s fault but my own. I was scared. This wasn’t what I’d planned on. I responded to a job listing for a tarot reader in Attleboro, Mass, and on a day off I took the commuter train to meet the proprietress. That’s another story. It was a warm, fall day, and while I was sitting on the Attleboro Outbound platform going home, two things happened: an ACELA went by, and Mary Moore from Simple Pleasures called me. I’d never seen those high-speed trains in person before. I held my hand over the receiver. The sheer velocity of the thing was mind-boggling, barreling by like a mythical beast, the force of it felt deep in my chest. The sun was warm on my back, and in just a moment the train virtually vanished down the track. It was sort of amazing. My heart was pounding. And then silence. “Sorry,” I said to Mary. “A train just went by.”

"OK…," she said, wary, "You responded to our Craigslist ad a couple of months ago. We liked your email. But it’s taken a while to organize. Are you still looking for a job? Would you like to come and meet us?"

The following week, I hopped on a bus and navigated to Richmond Square, though the driver had no idea where it was. How could a city this small still hold so many secret places? I found myself standing at the banks of the Seekonk River, in a giant lot abutting Blackstone Park. And there was the little 19th Century blacksmith forge from the Providence Sketchbook. A fenced-in garden patio was open off to the side, and a flock of plump sparrows and morning birds flitted about the stone pots and benches. This was the shop. The door was open, and there were the Moores tucked inside.

I switched my loafers for the pumps stowed in my bag, and introduced myself to Mary. When I briefed her on why I was in Providence to begin with (recently graduated, living out Sweeney’s last year at Brown), and where I’d been working, she said, “That must be hard to be around, especially having just left a period of life that was so communal.”

She hit the nail on the head.

So I quit RISD and worked for the Moores, who welcomed me and paid me well and fed me delicious sandwiches and candies (standing up) and taught me about specialty fibers and jewelry and to properly wrap a gift, and who shared inside jokes and doubts and the great, humorous labors of running a small business for twenty years — and many other things, too. And now I think: O ye of little faith! I guess that’s why I’m telling this story. It was still a while before I felt OK. But that shop is where I convalesced. And though I’ve actually had other jobs since, a wide variety, and other trials that have nothing to do with earning money, Simple Pleasures is still emblematic to me of God’s wild, funny, and gradual way of helping find an Exit sign during a fire.

Providence’s geography is made of optical illusions. As the crow flies, it’s a small city, but the hills, highways, waterways, and 17th Century steeples create these seemingly immense distances. And because there are only a few tall structures, which are spaced few and far between, the vista is skewed. When I’m coming upon the statehouse, which sits atop a steep incline above the train station, my house appears to be miles away — though it’s only two blocks farther. Cobble streets and potholed alleys wind in and around Brown and RISD, a layout carved by horse three hundred years ago, yet I-95 seems to roar by every which way you look. Somewhere in this is a metaphor both for my life thus lived here, and for early adulthood. But I’ve tried to pin this on Providence a few times already.

After the man called Simple Pleasures asking for three working girls on New Years, Mary called the chief of police in Central Falls. “I don’t think that spa is really a spa, if you know what I mean.”

"Oh, Simple Pleasures? Sure," he said. "Everything that you think is happening there is,” he said. “And it’s perfectly legal, what they’re doing. So I don’t really know what to tell you.” He paused. “The next time one of them calls, have some fun with it — tell them to show up wearing women’s underwear or something.”

And that, as they say, was that.

January 29, 2012
Empire State of Mind

"It was one thing to have rich people in your pasture, but when the Clatterbucks thought of Catholics, they saw statues of the Virgin Mary going up in the yard, ten feet high."

- Ann Patchett, The Patron Saint of Liars

There are a lot of things to do in New York City, but if you live there — in the way anyone lives any where — for the most part, you’re going to do the same five or six things over and over again. The Lafayette Bistro on Franklin had the best ten-dollar plate of jerk chicken, sauteed spinach and garlic potatoes in town. Otherwise, the default was deviled eggs and Guinness at Maggie Brown’s, a blue cheese burger and chipotle mayo, or a spinach salad with lots of roasted beets, butter beans and lemon (which has since been removed from the menu). If we were on the run, we’d go next door to Five Spot for chicken po’boys and black eyed peas. At Chez Lolas, all-you-can-eat mussels for twelve-dollars on Tuesdays, a pile of warm Italian bread. The Alibi, Sweet Revenge, Thursday happy-hour at Rope (though Robert claims the draft beer was only that cheap because it’d gone flat). That’s about it. All in the neighborhood, and all within walking distance. And in the short time I’ve been gone even some of those had changed. The Tejada Grocery, where Pedro used to strike Lotto three times a year, has been turned into a fine dining restaurant with low-lighting and a posh tin ceiling, candles on the table, a place I probably never would have had the wherewithal to eat at, but where I might in my future as a New York tourist.

Is that true? Will I become a tourist? I have had, over the years, a tremendous amount of bad food in New York City. There’s the diner eggs burned brown and flat, crappy pizza, watery soup with dehydrated carrots, old bodega milk. Even the nice cafes are like — really? Two dry bread wedges with a piece of old brie and sliced apple? A flick of arugula? Cooked coffee? A fast-food Chinese restaurant on every block, fit with halogen lights, a pair of knifed chairs, a drain (for what?) in the middle of the floor. But MAN, it’s always the worst of it that tastes best! Grabbing a slice on your way home from work, or an old bagel, or a hot dog slathered in sauerkraut and mustard, a greasy clump of lo mein, I mean these are are about as basic-bad as you get — but there’s nothing like it! You’re more tired, bedraggled, wound-up, humiliated, and abused by a city than you’ve ever been before, and then, magic! A moment of ecstasy, a pause, a New York relief second only to a fifteen minute cab ride home after a night of heavy drinking. Oh, yes, yes, I love it here, you think, right as some odious substance drips from the subway ceiling into your food; right as the most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen walks by without even a glance; right as the craziest man you’ve ever seen nearly shoves you into the tracks. There’s no way this food would be satisfying anywhere else. It would be horrifying, disappointing at least. It’s a lot like how everything tastes amazing when you’re camping.

My father took us on a two-week camping trip when I was a kid, and he made Dinty Moore beef stew one night, and I thought it was the absolute best thing I’d ever had in my life. I was sopping it up with brown bread, raving about it. So, as a little joke, he brought a can home for dinner several months later, and served it to me. The greasy, tepid chunks of potato swirled around in my bowl. I spooned some into my mouth and frowned. Needless to say, I was pretty jaded about the whole thing.

Last weekend I went down to the city for a friend’s birthday party. It was snowing when I left Providence. I had to skid down hills to the bus station, and it was all white, everywhere. I took the passage around the canal and under the bridge, where various panels depict that river’s shrinkage over time. I read The Patron Saint of Liars the whole way down, and liked it very much. In New York, the snow looked more like a septic tank had emptied onto the sidewalks. But I was happy to be there against its flat, white sky. Good friends, weak drinks, elbow-to-elbow, a jukebox at some point later. Robert danced with me to “Waterloo Sunset,” albeit being let down because it wasn’t Abba. The next morning in Sunset Park’s Chinatown, I had the cheapest, freshest plate of squid, cauliflower, pork and chives you could ever dream of — in the coldest, starkest cafeteria you could imagine — under the most demented Chinese TV game show in history. BK 4 lyfe.

Out on the main drag, the Verazanno Bridge was stilled under fog in the distance. The sidewalks were crowded with families haggling over live crabs and toads at the open-air markets on every corner. I wondered where I should be, if my life would be any more sensical in this town I’d invested so much in. I don’t know. How do you know? I don’t think so. I wanted to be in Providence with Sweeney most of last year. Since leaving school, I’ve had five jobs. I’ve worked as an editorial assistant, a clerk at the RISD art store, a tarot reader at a metaphysical shop, a lackey at a high-end gift boutique and an assistant at an interior design firm. And what’s the next step? I guess that’s the wrong question. Be fruitful and productive at whatever’s in front of you. Take care of people, and be kind. I’m a writer, anyway. My friend Yanara said to keep my writerly goggles on at all times, perceiving every situation at all my service jobs as an extension of some story I’m working on. I think this is true.

That evening in Bed-Stuy, Amber and I ate mashed plantains, black beans and hand-cut tortilla chips on her coffee table over small glasses of whiskey, swiping at bits of cat hair and ash, debating things like, oh, whether morals can exist without theology. Then we watched a hysterical episode of Parks and Recreation. I slept on her sinking EZ-chair, my bottom-half on the seat and my head on the ottoman, needing nothing but a fleece throw because New York apartments are just always so warm.

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