Category Archives: Uncategorized

Dear Professor Graham

I never was one for changing

names, or facts –

You may remember me,

Another mediocre poet who ambled

Through four years, never quite rising

Much above where I began.

 

I am writing to say that

After years of fits and starts

Pounds gained, children birthed,

Loved ones lost and also found –

That haggard muse has returned and

I am writing again

 

To say

I am trying harder,

Waking earlier, reading more

Is all I wanted you to know.

 

Without a guide,

Limping along,

As if chased by my shadow

In ridiculous noir fashion,

chased by years of

Clamoring words and

Poems that never happened,

Except to me.

 

 

 

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Crosby Farm Preserve – October 26, 2014

Ivan’s friend Charles joined us for a hike at the perennially satisfying Crosby Farm Preserve along the Mississippi River. How could one not feel a lightness of heart watching them amble along the beaches, skipping stones, climbing the great fallen tree trunks and seeking out “huge weird giant fish” beneath the boardwalks that jut through the marshes.

Adam found this poem by Raymond Carver that captures their spirit.

Happiness

So early it’s still almost dark out.
I’m near the window with coffee,
and the usual early morning stuff
that passes for thought.
When I see the boy and his friend
walking up the road
to deliver the newspaper.

They wear caps and sweaters,
and one boy has a bag over his shoulder.
They are so happy
they aren’t saying anything, these boys.
I think if they could, they would take
each other’s arm.
It’s early in the morning,
and they are doing this thing together.
They come on, slowly.
The sky is taking on light,
though the moon still hangs pale over the water.
Such beauty that for a minute
death and ambition, even love,
doesn’t enter into this.

Happiness. It comes on
unexpectedly. And goes beyond, really,
any early morning talk about it.

 

On the Mike with Susan Fellner

Screen Shot 2012-10-22 at 4.51.23 PMThe following transcript is of a never aired interview featuring public radio personality Susan Fellner interviewing obscure the obscure country western flash-in-the-pan singer songwriter Tammy Rae. Despite recording only one EP on the Spyco record label, Tammy Rae’s stormy relationship with the historically reclusive producer Ganderson made her an intriguing interview subject.

Susan Fellner: Today we’re going to pick the brain of a most unlikely country-western front-woman. Singer and songwriter Tammy Rae rose from complete to relative obscurity after her debut album “Peppermint and Cigarettes”. Along with her band The Aquanets, Tammy Rae sings songs with a melodic and lyric simplicity that is reminiscent of classic country, with a biting autobiographical edge. Welcome to On the Mic, Tammy Rae.
TR: Well thank you so much Susan, I’m just pleased as peach to be here.
SF: Tammy, the story goes that you were working in the lingerie department at Sears when you started writing and singing songs, and that you were 38 years old.
TR: Yeah, well, we call it Intimate Apparel but that’s about right. I’d fooled around with writing, and picked up a guitar before a few times, but I didn’t start writing music until I was pretty much over the hill. All my heroes, June Carter, Loretta, Dolly, Patsy… they were all discovered very young. Well, when I was their age, I was just honky tonkin and moving around. I loved music, and I hung around a lot of musicians. But I never fancied myself one. I kept a diary, and I wrote a lot of poems, but I didn’t even consider it. And then, you know, I had my two precious babies and I was just focused on raising them alone.
SF: Did you sing to your children?
TR: You know, I used to sing to my daughter to try to put her to sleep when she was just a wee thing, and that little firecracker covered up my mouth with her hand! But I sang all the time at home. And in the car. Music was an important part of our lives together, we always sang. And of course both of their father’s were musicians, thought they never met them. My son’s daddy was a trumpet player, and my little girl’s pa played bass.
SF: Are they well-known musicians?
TR: Hmm, I’ve signed a waiver that prevents me from saying.
SF: Oh, well. How did you get started then? When you met your songwriting partner Travis Ritter? How did you meet?
TR: We were sitting in neighboring bar stools, and we started talking drinking gin and talking about music. I found out he was a session guitarist for this little record label I’d always liked, Spyco records. And the more gin we drank, I just felt like singing, and we stepped outside and I let loose on some old song and he joined in. We were fast friends.
SF: Did he suggest that you start writing lyrics?
TR: Well yes, he did. I was always talking, I like to talk a lot. And he just started saying “T-Rae (he calls me T-Rae) you oughta write that down.” So I started to, and I’d bring in my little ideas and some melody I half plucked from the air and half stole from Emmylou Harris, and he thought they weren’t half bad. Finally we drank enough beer to put down a demo.
SF: And did he introduce you to the head of Spyco?
TR: He did, we played him our demo. And Ganderson was not impressed. His opinion was like “This chick is beat. She’s too old and she’s kind of a mess”, I’m no beauty queen you know. And so he said, maybe we can have someone else record this, but he was not interested in signing me.
SF: We’ll hear how Tammy Rae eventually got signed, and more about her band the Aquanets, after this break, on Beyond the Mic. 
STATION BREAK
SF: Welcome back. So Tammy, how did you eventually get signed to Spyco Records then?
TR: Well, I harassed Ganderson relentlessly, and called him up and sang over the phone for weeks. But he always hung up.  So then I broke into his house in the middle of the night.
SF: Really? How?
TR: Oh simple. With the heel of my shoe. And as soon as I was in, I started talking real loud,- I was a little drunk – but I didn’t want him to think I was a robber, and I’m fumbling through the dark and yelling “Come on out here Ganderson you son of a bitch and I’m gonna sing you a song!” Well, he comes out in his just his little briefs waving a damned 45 around saying “Who the hell?!” And then he saw it was me but he didn’t put the gun down or nothing. So I just started singing with him standing there. I wasn’t scared. He wasn’t gonna shoot me, I’m a damned single mother for god’s sake. Anyway, I finished and he said “Tammy if I let you cut an album, will you leave me the hell alone?” And I said would.
SF: What song was it?
TR: I have no damn idea.
SF: And how is your relationship with Ganderson now?
TR: Well, I never really have left him alone. But he aint shot me. Yet.
SF: I’ve heard you have an unorthodox writing method.
TR: Well Travis Ritter is my main man. I call him up and sing into his answering machine. Then he writes and arranges all the music. I mean, I come up with the basic melody, but he’s the one that makes it come to life. He lays down some tracks, and the next time I come over, we work it out together.
SF: We have one of those recordings. Do you mind if we listen to it?
TR: Did Travis give you that? Why that little… oh Lord, fine sure. It’ll be a hoot.
SF: OK, lets roll that, and then we’ll hear the finished recording.
[Travis, answering machine] Hi, this is Travis. If this is that crazy bitch Tanya Tucker, unless you got my two hundred dollars, I don’t wanna hear it. Everyone else, wait for the beep:
[15 seconds of shitty demo.]
[30 seconds of real song.]
TR: Whooee, I sure am lucky for the miracles of modern recording.
SF: Tell me about the Aquanets.
TR: Well they’re just a great bunch of guys. Travis plays guitar, and he produces the music. And he sings harmony with me, got a voice sweet as syrup that one. Then we got Earl on bass. Earl Potter. He’s quiet like, but real sweet. And of course there’s Cyrus, the drummer. Cyrus Jawbone. I don’t think that’s his real name. He’s just a big old bear but he sings like a damn angel. They’re just a bunch of old softies is what they are. And a real tight band.
SF: Any plans for a follow up album?
TR: Working on it all the time. After the Drunk Cities Tour. And all this promotion for Peppermint and Cigarettes is tripping me up. It’s like laundry, you just never finish.
SF: Well thank you for your time Tammy Rae. It’s been a pleasure.
TR: Oh the pleasure is mine Susan, I assure you.
SF: And that’s it for On the Mic.

Midnight Mass

This is a piece I wrote to read at the Unitarian Fellowship on Christmas Eve in 2009. It was the first Christmas I spent without my children following my divorce. As I got to the end of it, I couldn’t read on. I asked my friend Liz to finish reading it for me, and sat crying silently as she read the last few paragraphs. It was another painful Christmas, mourning a particular loss. 
The next morning I woke up and drove through a fresh 6 inches of snow to my friend Douglas’ house, and spent a long Christmas day with him and his 100 pound German Shepherd, Otto. We ate a southern Christmas feast, and listened to a lot of vinyl. I was sad, but as it often was in those difficult months following my divorce, the comfort of Doug’s familiar living room, his easy company – our universe of two was a balm to me.This year of course, I’m thinking of Doug and his family, and what a hard year it will be for them, with his tragic end so fresh and new. I hope healing comes in some form for them. I pray for grace. I imagine it will come in the form of music. I think it is good to cry.

———–

The year after my sister Julie died, my mother gently informed me she didn’t have the heart to “do” Christmas. This did not disappoint. I was seventeen, long past believing in Santa Claus. As a particularly self-involved teen, I found my family at turns both  irritating and embarrassing. And as the baby of the family whose siblings were all married with children, I often felt awkwardly displaced somewhere between the kids table and the grown ups. I was, possibly, too cool for Christmas.

Anyway, I had to work. I was a an “on-air personality” at the local polka radio station. Every DJ was obligated to work a three hour shift on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day and I always volunteered for Christmas Eve.

Now, I hated Polka. Christmas Eve was the one night of the year I didn’t have to play it. Instead, I munched on Christmas cookies that Helen our long-suffering receptionist baked, smoked cigarettes in the newsroom, and gorged myself on Bing Crosby, Elvis and Barbara Streisand. Our station overlooked our tiny picaresque downtown Main Street, and I’d stand at the window feeling older than my teenage years, nostalgic for a past I never knew when crooners crooned and families didn’t get divorced, sisters didn’t die in head on collisions, and people still went to church on Christmas Eve, at least. I’d turn the lights off in the studio, and strike a sort of noir pose while the streetlights blinked red and green on the deserted street.

This year I was assuming a very hard-boiled outlook. My sister’s death had left me both emotionally raw and prematurely adult in ways I couldn’t begin to understand. My response was a poor attempt at cool detachment. When I got off work at nine, I had plans to drive out to Holy Hill, a stunning church on a hilltop in the nearby countryside, for midnight mass.

IMG_3282Holy Hill is a Carmelite Monestary and minor Catholic Basilica. The Neo-Romanesque shrine itself sits on about 40 acres, surrounded by an additional 400 acres of rolling woodlands. It features a 192 foot tower from which, on a clear day, you can see Milwaukee thirty miles away. The interior of the church is an amazement considering the rural setting; 20 foot rose windows, 8 foot marble statues, gold leaf frescoes and glass mosaics. When my sister Julie married into a large Catholic family, she converted – partially to appease the family, and I think, so that she could be married at Holy Hill.

The church entrance is on Highway 167, a designated scenic “rustic road” that winds and bends through the kettle moraine landscape. In the fall, tourists flock to drive the beneath canopies of riotous color on sun-dappled pavement. In the spring, pilgrims descend on the church to walk the stations of the cross. In the winter, the roads are icy, poorly lit and treacherous. My sister died on this same road in June, on a warm and rainy morning, making her way to work.

A few miles from the church, one of my closest friends Angie lived with her family in a remodeled barn. I was a frequent guest at their home, and actually, I think I might have earned resident status one summer. The Balistreris embodied an idea of family that was completely foreign to me, romantic and captivating. The parents Frank and Mary were hot blooded Italian Americans, artists and hippies who had moved from the city as part of the “back to the earth” movement. Angie was the eldest of five. In contrast to my single-mother upbringing, the Balistreri house was in near constant upheaval. They were always low on cash, the kids fought bitterly, the parents and children recriminated each other on a daily basis. There was shouting and tears and a sense of overwhelming love and togetherness.

I stopped in before the service, because the choir didn’t start until 11pm. The family was in the middle of exchanging gifts. Recently, Christmas at my house had become an escalating affair, with the pile under the tree spreading further into the room every year. I was humbled and heartened to see what the Balistrieri’s exchanged. Shampoo, one book, a wooden hairbrush. Every gift was accepted with gratitude and embraces were given in exchange. The highlight of the evening was the gift for young Peter, just over a year old. Frank had made a perfectly plain and beautiful red wooden wagon. As he wheeled it into the living room the whole family exploded in applause and laughter.

I had been quietly drinking tea on the couch, but was suddenly overwhelmed with emotion. I slipped out the door and heaved sobs into the crisp night air. I cried because I felt so blessed to be a part of this family. I cried because I was not really a part of this family, but my own. My own family broken first by divorce and now, death. I cried because I missed my sister, and I missed my mother, who was irrevocably changed. I cried for myself, because it was such a burden to feel so deeply, to feel so old when I was so young.

Angie’s mother Mary found me, and held me silently. There was no need to tell her what the matter was. I cried until I was shivering, thanked her for having me, and said I would head up to the church now.

In retrospect I might have skipped the service, being as I was nearly out of control with emotion. A sane person would have. But grief is not the territory of the rational. I was now an open wound, numb with the night air and blind to reason. The stars and midnight sky were bright against the steeple spires as I made my way up to the church.

There was no room to sit, so I found a place near the back wall, shoulder to shoulder with strangers, our puffy winter coats whispering against each other. The choir filed in holding candles and singing O Come O Come Emmanuel. It was achingly beautiful. I held it together for about five minutes, until they started in with O Holy Night. Then, I crumpled.

I slid down the cold wall of the church and buried my face in my hands, weeping openly, audibly. I lost control of my voice – the word caterwaul comes to mind. People stared: I am ruining their Christmas spirit. But I couldn’t stand. Someone helped me up and I with my head down I ran for the door. Tears froze on my cheeks. When I got to my car I sat with my forehead against the cold steering wheel and beat it with my hands, until I was finally calm enough to drive. On the way home I tuned in to my old Polka station and drove careful, careful along the frozen roads listening to Elvis singing Blue Christmas. When I finally made it home – warm, and quiet and dim – I was grateful.

The truth is, I’ve never felt more connected to my sister than I did that night. And that is the reason I return whenever I can to Holy Hill Midnight Mass. I’m really not one for visiting graves. When I go to my sister’s grave, I just feel awkward and inauthentic. Only her bones are there. But amongst the incense and the hymns in the cold upper church of a Carmelite monastery, I feel happily at peace with her. Though my family now celebrates together at Christmas, this pilgrimage I always make alone. To reunite with old friends and reconnect to a sacred place. And when I can’t get there, at least I have music. I listen to the carols I love, and happily, I cry.

Dog Days in Frogtown

My ex-husband and I are not a pair known for our superior communication skills. Hence, the responsibility of finding someone to watch the kids for the month of August got lost. We We both non-comittally agreed to do something about it, and we both sort-of tried, but when the first of the month rolled around, we were still pretty much screwed. We hired a babysitter, but it became quickly apparent she wasn’t cut out for the job.

I called Dave and had a very stupid conversation in which nothing was resolved that left me angrily huffing on a cig and bitching to a neighbor. Robyn, a mother from down the hall, tells me about a program at the rec center across the street that offers free afternoon programs. Summer Dog Days Shangri La. OK, the next day is Friday I am taking the kids.

We show up and walk into the cool of the Scheffer Rec Center. It is your typical cinder-block box,   coated in institutional paint, a mural along the back side of kids playing sports. Inside, younger kids huddle around a foosball table and older ones linger in clumps, messing around. I find a woman in a baseball hat who looks like she knows what’s up.

“Hi, my neighbor told me you have afternoon programs? For kids?” I am embarrassed by how little I know about what is going on right across the street form my home.

“Yeah, that would be Summer Splash.” She says to me and then, “ANDRE! Put that chair DOWN!!” Andre freezes with chair held aloft, wide eyed, then slowly puts the chair down. I like this woman. She continues, “But that’s Monday through Thursday. Today is Friday and we’re taking the Circulator bus to a water park.” Ivan, standing next to me whispers, “YES!” and pumps his arm.

“Oh, well, can they go? When do you leave? I can get suits and towels, I just live across the street.” She nods and starts grabbing registration forms, permission slips, and hands me a pen, “We leave in about a half hour.” I take the forms into the next room and start filling them out on a ping-pong table. Veronica crowds in and says quietly,

“I don’t want to go mom.” I look up from writing, surprised. It is a water park after all, “Why hon? What’s up” She hesitates for just a moment, looking around the bustling room,

“Um. We’re the only white people here.” She is not lying. We are absolutely the only white people there. I crouch down to meet her eyes,

“You know, this is true. But that’s no reason to miss out on something fun.” Just then a tall, brown girl comes over to the table, points at Ivan and asks me if he has a life jacket.

“No, but he’s a good swimmer, he doesn’t need one.” She has giant, kind, almond-shaped eyes. I ask what her name is.

“Shaughnessy.”

“Well Shaughnessy, this is Veronica, and this is Ivan. Veronica is feeling a little shy about going along today. Do you think she should go?”

She smiles widely, “YEAH! It’s awesome!” Oh thank you nice girl! I look at Veronica pointedly. See?

I finish filling out the forms and we hurry home to pack towels and swimsuits. Veronica continues to voice her concern, “I feel happy and excited and upset at the same time,” she says as we hurry to our door.

“That’s called anxiety.” I tell her, “It’s normal when you try something new and you don’t know anyone.” As we’re cramming towels into backpacks I say, “You know, the town I grew up in almost everyone was white, but the few black kids didn’t let it stop them from doing cool stuff.” This is a half-truth, I realize as I say it. I have absolutely no idea how the one black boy at my grade school felt, but he kept mostly to himself and his few friends. But this is the truth I want for her, so I leave it at that. Ivan jumps on the bandwagon too. Gesturing with his hands like a lawyer he says,

“You have to try new things Veronica. Otherwise you’ll never know if you’re going to like them.” He is lobbying hard for the waterpark.

“But mom,” Veronica pleads as we head back to the center, “What if they forget us, and the bus leaves without us?” I can’t help but smile. “Oh honey. They won’t forget you.”

I shuffle them into the room where everyone is waiting. As I look around, I know, it is more than skin color that divides my kids from the rest of the crowd. Most of the kids are older, middle-school aged. The rest of the kids have been coming to this rec center all summer, they know each other’s names and are friends. And I am self-aware enough to know we are whiter than even most white people. Well screw it. We live here, this is our neighborhood, and my kids are just kids. I seek out the guy in charge, wearing a powder blue staff t-shirt and holding a clipboard. I make sure he knows their names. Veronica hangs back against the wall at the back of the line and Ivan bounces on toes. They look impossibly small, and pale, but I know they are going to be fine.

Our little slice of Frogtown, Census tract 327, has the following make-up: Black: 40%, Asian: 34% White: 19%, Hispanic: 4%, Other: 4%. By comparison, the neighborhood we moved from in St Cloud was about 86% White, and the area I grew up in, Hartford, Wisconsin, is about 95% White. Needless to say, it is, by far, the most diverse place I have ever lived. And I do, without reservation, love that.

I love watching the tiny elderly Hmong couples with sun umbrellas walking to work in the marketplace. I love that the Hmong Marketplace is so far out, I can’t even figure out what to buy there. I love watching the shirtless men of varying shades play pick-up basketball at the playground across the street, and not in an entirely innocent way. I love the chaos of the local Holiday station and the crush of humanity that flows in a constant, CONSTANT, stream through it. I love that as I bike through my neighborhood, people turn their heads to see me biking through, because well, I suppose: “there goes that fat white lady on the bike again!” I also like that living in Frogtown challenges my assumptions –about my self, about other people. Like many progressive white folks, I don’t think I am racist. I try hard not to be. But that is easy to say when you live around a bunch of other people that look exactly like yourself. Now when I catch myself factoring people’s race in as I see them, meet them, it’s like getting my clothes snagged on a nail. I have to stop and unravel my thoughts, reconsider. Maybe I am old to be learning this, but I am at least learning.

And though I am free to embrace the diversity, deconstruct it and measure it against my own experience, I have wondered what my kids make of it. I’ll never know what it is like to be on a bus, playground, or a field trip where I am the only white kid. Which is why I was so glad Veronica had the insight to name her feeling, that she felt comfortable enough with me to say it plainly and openly.

When I went to pick them up four hours later, Ivan was playing foosball with some boys, and Veronica was bossing around some younger kids by the vending machine. When they saw me they ran up and hugged me. “How was it?” I asked.

“It was awesome! Can we go back every day next week?” And we did.

Music for Root Canals

The pain on the right side of my mouth began, with a dull ache, on the ride from Door County back to my mother’s house in Central Wisconsin. By the time I left her house  for home 36 hours later, I was dosing myself with ibuprofen and acetaminophen in two hour rotations. The pain peaked while I was hauling ass down highway 29, heading towards St Paul with the kids in the backseat. I’ll spare you the gory details except to say that I passed through what I believe to be a Gate of Hell, screaming and clutching my cheek on the side of the road while my kids stared in silent disbelief through the back windows.  Ivan was a ten pound baby I delivered without drugs; this was worse. After I may or may not have ripped the root out my tooth, the pain decreased to a manageable throb. We drove on.

It’s not that I don’t want to go to the dentist, it’s just that I am afraid to go. Not so much because of the pain, but because I fear the truth. I can’t handle the truth about my mouth. Or the resulting invoice. I considered many extreme and insane options involving the procurement of street drugs and power tools before I called the dentist. But finally I did.

I told the nurse my story – I did not spare her the details. “I think you should come in right away.” she said, “Today.”

“Yeah, thing is, I can’t really pay for any major work today, I need to wait to get paid next week.”

“Oh, yeah, you would need to pay for it. Let’s get you in soon then.” So we schedule an appointment and I take up a variety of home remedies and hippie medicine. I take garlic and astragalus pills for immunity, and swish with water and peroxide or tea tree oil to fight infection. I take a lot of Aleve. In my spare time, I read horror stories about tooth decay on the internet and drink Jameson for the pain. Everyone I tell about my ordeal has a story to share; exploding abscesses, broken teeth at sea, emergency extractions paid for with cash after hours. It crosses cultural and socioeconomic bounds, and seems to depend on one thing: the person’s ability to withstand pain while remaining in complete denial. Here I excel.

Tuesday morning I get a high-tech x-ray in a room that looks like a Stanley Kubrik set. “This will give us a good picture of your whole jaw, so we can see if you will die of cancer in three months,” the dental tech said – more or less. After I spent two intense minutes accepting my imminent, tragic demise, the dentist assured me I had “many sound teeth”, which came as a total shock since I was mentally prepared for a full set of dentures.

OK, so it isn’t so bad. I need two root canals. It shows how warped my sense of “not so bad” is that I feel this. I call a friend and tell him the ‘good news’, and he says “Whatever you do, don’t listen to Rush. I listened to Hemispheres when I had mine done in the eighties and it was absolute hell.” Duly noted. It reminded me of my first psychedelic experience.

I was nine and needed several cavities filled. It was a new novelty to offer a cassette Walkman to listen to while you had work done. The Hygienist flipped through some cassettes mumbling “Not much here for kids…” and held up Urban Chipmunk. “How about this?” I had Chipmunk Punk at home, so I figured “Why not?”. Then they put on the Green Nose with it’s cool, nitrous hiss. So, you know, I’m high on nitrous, listening to The Devil Went Down To Georgia as sung by Alvin and the Chipmunks. I was only nine but I knew that shit was fucked UP.

Tuesday evening, I settle into the chair for my Pulpectomy – I swear they call it that – armed with headphones. By the time they have six instruments crammed into my mouth, I’m listening to Cat Stevens’, “On the Road to Find Out” and I feel like I am in a Wes Anderson movie.

The scene opens on an empty instrument tray shown from above. A blue gloved hand slowly loads up the tray with instruments one-by-one while Cat is picking the through the intro. The next shot is close up of my face from above, mouth pried open wide and eyes darting in terror while my Dentist (played by Bill Murray) and the Dental Tech (played by anyone but Gwyneth Paltrow) jam instruments into my mouth. The subplot is that the Bill Murray character is my real father, only I don’t know it… yet. The dental scene alternates scenes of my lover (Owen Wilson, duh) pawning his priceless collection of antique thimbles to pay for my root canals. That is how strong our love is. Feel it.

Next comes “Love in Vain” by the Rolling Stones, which is a lovely enough song to enjoy anytime, even while a woman who is not Gwenyth Paltrow wrenches a metal band around your tooth. After that comes “End of The Line” by Roxy Music, with it’s crooning Bryan Ferry and swelling guitars. A bit much, but not worth hitting skip. “Sheena is A Punk Rocker”? Not in the dentist’s chair she’s not. Then “Rory Rides Me Raw” by the Vaselines comes on, and I feel sexually uncomfortable listening to it while two other people are leaning over me. Vampire Weekend? That’s like Rush circa 20o8: no. Finally, just as “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding” (HA!) begins, they start removing the hardware from my cheeks. I tongue my fat Novacaine lips and head to reception.

I stop to schedule the first of the two root canals on my way out. “How long does the procedure take?” I ask. “About eighty minutes.” Duly noted. My appointment is two weeks away, but I have already composed my playlist. I can’t take any chances.


Restaurant Review: New York

The menu from Ivan's Room remains, as a tribute to New York's historic roots.

I was recently invited to dine at the fine new bistro in the upstairs of our apartment. New York occupies the space formerly known as Ivan’s Room. In its former incarnation, it served up wooden and plastic vegetables amidst an atmosphere of dinosaurs and superheroes. It was then particularly known for the revolving artwork that donned the walls, almost always monsters, that provided an atmosphere of cheery terror.

The brother and sister team who run the restaurant, Veronica and Ivan, are charming and eager to please. Veronica, armed with a sketchbook and crayon, seats me at a table – a very small table – opposite a small Buffalo.

“This is our guest Miss Buffles” she smiles. Ivan calls from the corner, “It’s NOT a GIRL!” Veronica laughs demurely, “Well I guess that’s Mr. Buffles. I’ll get you a menu.” As she leaves the table, Ivan, approaches.

“After you are done eating, you might like to spend some more money in the gift shop!” He smiles widely and gestures to a child’s desk in the corner. The array of items for sale are eerily similar to the flotsam I skimmed off his bedroom floor earlier that morning; a yo-yo with no string, several markers, a couple feathers and of-course, a stack of hand made books. I promise to look before I go.

Veronica returns and hands me a Child’s Illustrated Atlas of the World. “Here is your menu.” I flip through the pages. “Salad is our specialty, ” she says, while I look at a map of Portugal.

“Give me the Porteugese Salad, please.” She nods and scribbles illegibly in her book. A sophisticated code no doubt. “We also have a vegetable soup.” She says. “Sounds good,” I agree, and she turns to begin cooking the meal.

While she cooks, I inquire after the name New York. “Well, ” Veronica begins, artfully arranging the wooden peppers on my plate, “We are named New York becasue we are…” she looks ahead, appearing to search for the right word, “We are functioned by the New Yorker.”

“The magazine, The New Yorker?”

“Yes, we give them all our money, but then we get some change.” As a reviewer, I’m dubious of the business model. As their mother, I’m proud of their dedication to the arts.

Ivan interrupts, “Would you like a RARE ORANGE BANANA?” I am never one to turn down a rare culinaryA healthful salad is their specialty. experience, so I accept. Ivan hands me hard plastic orange crescent. Rare indeed. I wonder if the service here might be improved by a better coordination of efforts, but then, my salad and soup arrive in a timely manner, accompanied my a thimble-sized serving of ice tea. The food is very similar to the fare served in Ivan’s Room; bright, simple, and perfectly portioned. What it lacks in flavor, it makes up for in presentation. I nibble at the air for a minute, producing satisfying eating sounds, and hand the plate to Veronica.

I pay my bill (one nickel) but before I am permitted to leave, am led by hand to the gift shop. This seems to be Ivan’s gig. He shows me a book, drawn in blue highlighter. “I made that.” He says, then grows impatient as I look through it. “This one is better, it’s called The Book. We were going to name it Monster’s Habitat, but I didn’t know how to spell habitat, so we called it The Book.” It is, in fact, monsters in their habitats. I choose to buy it, am again charged a nickel, and then allowed to leave to go finish the laundry.

Upon reflection, the staff’s attire – underpants and t-shirts – raises some sanitary concerns. However, given the lack of air conditioning, it is understandable. It looks as if the new tenants here in the second floor of our house will enjoy success, and even bolster the coffers of the esteemed New Yorker. I’ll just renew my subscription in their honor.

Food Shelf Caviar

The first time I went to the food shelf  it was a Friday, and I wouldn’t be paid until Monday. The cupboards were bare but for odds and ends that would make one sodium laden, frightful meal.  The kids would be there at three, gunning for snacks. Time to suck it up and go.

The Catholic Charities in St Cloud run a nice operation. It’s spacious as an airplane hanger, with quilts forming a colorful false ceiling. A thin man with sandy gray hair greets you and tells you what to do. Take this number, it’s this color, go when they call your name. He says it with a smile, gracious but not condescending. The women who work the counter are like any midwestern, middle-aged women who run small beurocratic hives of civic authority. Nattering amongst themselves, sighing heavily as they push paperwork at you and fill out a card with your name on it. They do not check income. If you are there, they assume you need to be, which is a small mercy.

They walk you around with your cart and you can take an allotted number of items from each area, depending on your household size. An elderly man checked off items from a clipboard as we walked. I got a lot of food. A lot of strange food. Huge bags of frozen fruit from some restaurant, a wide variety of beans, a bag of frozen french fries probably from Perkins, a jar of grape leaves that sit in my cupboard still. Pastries from the Cold Spring bakery, including a pie. A Pie! And zucchini. They gave away boxes of it at the end, after your cart was weighed. A cardboard sign said “Take all you want”. It would go bad soon, but I have many, many uses for zucchini. I grabbed two boxes.

I lugged my booty up the back stairs of the duplex and into the narrow kitchen and stashed it. My kitchen was brimming, I was wearing a sundress and I felt good. I had food for my family. I wondered if I should feel badly about taking charity, about needing it. I didn’t. I looked at the zucchini. Too much. I grabbed a box and headed over to Tracy and Kramer’s place. They lived in an apartment building next door. I cut through the laundry room of their building, and came out on the other side, at the base of their back steps, and walked up to their back porch on the third floor.

I found Kramer in her lawn chair, doing soduko and listening to the radio. If I had not found Kramer doing this very thing I would have fallen over the balcony with surprise. She glanced up non-chalant and addressed me,  “Crazy Neighbor Lady. Whatcha got there?” “Zucchini.” Tracy came out wiping her hands on a towel. I gestured at the box of zucchini. “You can make fritters.” I suggested. Her eyes brightened. “Look what I just got!”. She opened the screen door and I saw a fry-daddy still in the box. Later that night, I met Kramer at the bottom of my stairs and she handed me a tin foil packet of zucchini fritters, with a small bowl of home made ranch dressing. I ate them warm, at my windows, looking out at the stoplights lined up on Hwy 23, thinking about the past year.

People told me it would be hard. I was flip, “I’ve been po’ befo’e!” I said. But when the meager savings ran dry, and I was living on 85% of a junior copywriter’s salary, paying my own rent for the first time in five years, I felt the pinch. More like a squeeze. Playing the cup game where you pay one bill and run late on the next, pick up that one the next month, pay a different one. Keep the creditors at bay. Make your rent, buy generic, budget. It was true, I had been poor before, but never with two children in my care.

They asked for things constantly. From the gum ball at the grocery store to the Florida vacation, the answer was always no. I would be driving, and from the back seat they would ask, “When can we go to [fill in the blank]? When can we get a [insert item here]”. I would burst into tears. I begged them to stop asking for things. I dragged them to pawn shops and I thinned my book collection monthly. Money came in from family, from friends. Once, a paper bag with a cookie decorating kit, mardi gras beads and a grocery store gift card appeared at the bottom of the stairs. A generous gift from a girlfriend who had once walked in my shoes. I cried then too.

I worked an extra job, and I looked for a new job. I tried to get food stamps, but I made too much money. I tried to get legal aid to help with my divorce, but I made too much money. All around me friends lost jobs, and I felt lucky to have mine, though I grew increasingly unhappy there. But a woman who decides to divorce her husband in the middle of a recession doesn’t get too many choices, doesn’t have the luxury of job dissatisfaction. Finally, I suppose I did what every Republican Politician wants you to do. I pulled up the proverbial bootstraps. I got good and pissed off about it. I was too smart to be this poor. This is bullshit. And then I had the benefit of luck, and synchronicity, and incredible opportunity. I seized it. I was offered a new job, which would pay enough to allow me to move to the cities again, to take care of myself, to divorce my husband. I hung up the phone and I wept. Then I screamed. My relief was profound.

I called my friend Doug and told him about the job, and then said, “I know I don’t say this often, but you were right.”

He laughed, “Yeah, about what?”

“It’s hard. It was hard. Harder than I ever thought it would be. Being poor, leaving Dave. You were right. I didn’t know.” He sighed on the other end; my dramatic revelations are tiresome. I know this.

“Well, good for you.” he said. “You’re gonna make it after all, just like Mary Tyler Moore. Though I always thought of you as more of a Rhoda.”  I hung up happy.

That was months ago. Now it was summer, and while I still needed a bump from Catholic Charities, I could see a way out. I could exhale without it becoming a sob. I had friends, neighbors, fritters, hope.

The last time I went to the food shelf, it was July. I took Doug, who was a chef, and so the indignity of it was something we could only laugh about. On the way out he snuck me a sly smile. We loaded the groceries into the trunk, sweating.

“Come over to my house tonight? I’ve got the AC running. We’ll get some beer. Bring Otto.” Doug couldn’t refuse, it was too hot – and Otto, a 110 pound German Shepherd, couldn’t be denied. I picked him up and he loaded a bag of groceries and Otto into the car. We stopped at the store and he picked up water crackers, I bought a Belgian beer, which I really couldn’t afford, and a six pack of PBR tall boys, which I could.

We cracked the beer and sat in front of the fan, which blew air from of the window unit. “I got caviar.” Doug said. I clapped my hands like a toddler in delight. “And veal. I snuck them in the cart at the food shelf when you weren’t looking. We can eat the caviar now, while it’s hot, and I’ll cook the veal later, when it cools down.” I had goat cheese in the refrigerator, and we spread that one the water crackers, then finished with a glop of salty brown fish eggs. I had never had caviar before. It reminded me of the ocean, the salt of it. It made me feel lucky, like I had a delicious secret.

When we met, I was married and solidly middle class. Doug was the Executive Chef at the best restaurant in town. He made me lunches that nearly caused me to lose consciousness. Curry shrimp with mango rice, salmon with saffron risotto, bison osso bucco, the best fried chicken. Then, the restaurant folded, my marriage fell apart. It was more or less complicated than that, but bottom line, it was hard times, and we had spent our fare share of it in co-misery. We staved off the darkness; made music, cooked dinners, drank cheap wine, fought and made up. In a few months I would be moving to St Paul, which was scary but exciting. I didn’t know where I would live, how I would find an apartment, if I would be able to afford it. But here we were now, like a couple of swells. I licked some caviar from my thumb and smiled. There are times when you have too much zucchini, or too much sadness. An ocean of need or just a small jar of caviar. The secret is: it is all best shared.