The quiet of this cyber space should not be confused for an absence of activity. I’ve been working, working, working on a stand-alone novel that includes some of the characters you might already know. It’s an exorcism (or maybe an announcement?) of the ghosts that have been trailing me, as more and more important faces in my daily life vanish from earthly existence and leave the rest of us flailing and floundering about the earthcraft. I’m not sure I can write anything else until I finish writing this, but I’ll set it to print the moment it’s finished, or finishes me (whatever comes first). Until that moment I’ll remain a quiet sort, save for the obligatory social media raving about political discourse, and the occasional coffee shop observation. Which brings me to an important point: the gentleman to my left raises his cup, and then loudly slurps, once, twice, three times, before he sets the cup back down. It’s kinda like he’s racing the coffee. What. Is. The. Finish. Line? It also smells like burning bagels in here, which would be my personal perfume if it was available at the neighborhood drugstore. This is not Electric Youth. This is Blackened You.
I think I’m going to run for president in 2020. By then I’ll have over 15 years of nonprofit experience, and a whole lifetime as a writer to buoy that resume. I’ll kick things off by walking across the stage and announcing, “As a woman, I hate myself” which should snag the interest of 20% of registered voters. I’ll then follow up with lightning fast twitter disses of all the candidates. My taxes will be so released, and will raise a lot of questions. How did she survive in 2012? for example. Why don’t writers get paid for anything? You paid that much for healthcare? Are you okay? I’ll be ready to answer those questions. My theme song choice will not earn a stern reprimand from Fleetwood Mac. I will not wear pants, let alone pantsuits, which will leave my vagina vulnerable to grabbing, but I know how to stand now. Instead of having points or ideas at the debates, I’ll have charts and graphs. They won’t be charting or graphing anything, but I want to be able to go, “Boom! Chart! Boom! Graph!” I think Americans will appreciate my use of Boom! When I need to respond to my opponent, I’ll just go with, “I’m sorry, I wasn’t listening.” Then I’ll lick the Doritos dust over my fingers and take a quick selfie. If they ask about foreign policy, I’ll just say, “I really like tacos. What’s your point?” The economy? “You said I had two minutes. It’s only been fifteen seconds. You said I had two minutes. This is maybe 30 seconds.” Now all I need is a logo, a slogan, and people to support me no matter what I do with cult-like fervor.
Rachael hypnotized everyone upon arrival. Adorable, red-haired, cherubic Rachael was the only reason my older sister Dawn and I ever got to enjoy free baked goods. Between Dawn’s lazy eye and pigeon toes, and my freakishly large eyes on a tiny head, we failed to attract the cooing attention that so effortlessly fell upon Rachael. Her curls inspired the women working behind the counter at the bakery to offer her flat sugar cookies stuffed with M&Ms, and then me and Dawn, once they realized we were with her. Both parents were out-gunned by her wit, and she could cut off my mom by simply burping into her hand and blowing it at her, or wagging her finger at her in a parody of parental meltdown.
Initially, my approach to her cuteness and humor was psychological warfare. It seemed an injustice that she was so easily adored and even-tempered. I’d hide her toys in the back of the closet, aka the toy graveyard. When she asked me where they were, I’d say, “I don’t know. Where do YOU think they are?”
Her retaliation was carving the letter A for Amanda into my father’s guitar. Despite the telltale-looping scrawl of a five-year-old, I still had to make a case to my parents like a tiny attorney. To the bitter end, they were reluctant to concede something could be Rachael’s fault – and Rachael just sat there, quiet and blinking underneath her red curls. I would never beat her.
It was more interesting when we worked together, anyway. I wrote songs and poems and plays and then talked her into performing them. Our first and finest production was Hansel and Gretel, with Rachael performing as Hansel and our dog Pepper making a special appearance as the hungry birds. We rehearsed for days and then presented two performances for the family, with her comedic delivery stealing the show. We also sang weepy, desperate, Suzanne Vega inspired power ballads about dead flowers and nonspecific pain, and pressed the pause button while recording our voices to get slowed down versions of 80s classics like Careless Whisper.
By the time we hit high school Rachael emerged as oddly good at everything she attempted, but reluctant to get attention for it. She had awards for dozens of perfect scores on calculus tests, earned trophies for every racket sport, wrote with humor and grace, memorized whole books of sports trivia and statistics, and somehow managed to be the extremely rare combination of funny and empathetic. In high school she joined the literary magazine since I was her ride home and the editor, and Rachael provided crucial feedback for each submission so that the magazine included only the best.
And speaking of rides home: no one was more surprised that my driver’s license was legal than Rachael. She saw plenty of evidence that it should have been revoked. In one of many minor accidents, I was staring down a bus driver to my left when I smashed into a car in front of me. My glasses and shoes popped off, and the frame of the radio ended up around Rachael’s wrist like a bracelet. I rolled out of the car (no shoes, glasses askew) to ask the other driver if he was okay. Instead of responding, he asked for directions to the airport, while Rachael reported she’d also punched a hole in the heating vent. After this event she started collecting photos of people who fell or got injured and lost their shoes in the process. In another incredible feat of dumb, I somehow managed to get the car stuck on one of those raised gas station islands. For several minutes I drove back and forth, back and forth, and a couple of guys inside the gas station came out to marvel silently, their hands in their pockets. As I reversed and finally freed the car, I screamed, “Does my life ever stop sucking!” Though later this became a popular family catch phrase, somehow Rachael’s expression never changed. No, the accident where she completely fell apart and unleashed her trademark Rachael cackle was when I attempted to pull into the drive thru at Burger King and ended up a full car length away from the speaker. Since reversing only caused me more problems, I decided to put the car in park, open the door, and lean over while shouting my order into the speaker. I asked for a “chocolate shlake” instead of a shake, which unleashed the force of her first guffaw, and I lost my grip on the door and fell face first onto the concrete. As I hand-walked my way up the door and back into the car Rachael laughed so hard the whole car shook, her face red, tears running down her face, and she kicked her feet while the hapless drive thru worker repeatedly said, “hello? Hello?” I don’t remember her ever stopping, but I remember tapping out a beat on the car horn to salute the worker who had to deal with us, and then spraying shake all over my windshield. Even though I’m a better driver now, after leaving her condo to continue a road trip in 2011, she sent me a text that said, “my driver’s side door and window are broken, and I know it’s because you were here, you walking calamity.”
Over the past few years we traded text messages for hours late at night: a direct result of her night owl status and my own chronic insomnia. She suggested that I consider watching her favorite murder shows because, and I quote, “There’s nothing more soothing that partially submerged corpses.” Then we traded texts about what the various cats on the APL website must be thinking, before returning to arguing over which one of us had greater potential to be a character in the next Harmony Korine film.
The last time I was in Cleveland we explored thrift stores, and Rachael attempted to refuse a gift her nieces, Rayne and Simone, selected from the piles of miscellaneous merchandise: a sad wooden napkin holder dubbed Burglecut the Duck. When she intentionally left it behind at Dawn’s house, we hatched a plan. At Rachael’s condo, I was lookout while Simone planted Burglecut the Duck under Rachael’s bed blankets. When Rachael walked into her bedroom to discover what was happening, I had my camera ready to capture the exact moment of discovery. It was classic, and she finally accepted Burglecut into her home. Later that night we talked about having a slumber party with Rayne and Simone and our mom, with Burglecut supervising the shenanigans.
I am sad that the slumber party as imagined will never happen, and even more sad about only having one sister. Two sisters doesn’t sound nearly as good as three. And it is even more rare to encounter a person who is truly good people to the core – and no one will dispute that Rachael was a truly good person. And I’m certain that she’ll still be around in some way, laughing at everything, burping and blowing it at me for writing this, and beaming at every brilliant moment her spirit won’t allow her to miss.
My great grandmother Stephania Pocztarska grew up in Julianowo, in Russian dominated Poland, and left the port of Bremen on the SS Cassel on Nov 22, 1902. She arrived at Ellis Island on December 8, totally alone, at the age of 16 and with $4 to her name. Since she didn’t speak any English she was detained until her sister arrived from New Jersey to accept her. Eventually she met and married Michael Sledz, a saloon and soda shop owner in the Warszawa neighborhood of Slavic Village in Cleveland. After he died she became a shrewd landlord and savvy business woman, while somehow raising five children on her own. Michael’s parents immigrated in 1881, during a time when Poland was part of Prussia, and they helped establish Slavic Village, with Joseph Sledz operating successful businesses. Joseph was also the first elected councilman of the Warszawa neighborhood, and helped construct St. Stanislaus Church in 1886, which still stands today. My father’s side of the family fled Russian and German domination, to send clothes and money back to Poland during more periods of Russian or German domination. They took great risk to be here, and could not return to Poland to visit until living in the United States for 30 years and thus achieving naturalization. Knowing your roots encourages empathy. All land is borrowed or stolen. Families who built something didn’t build the last thing. There are more innovations to be mined by unfamiliar faces. If your gut reaction to refugees from struggling nations seeking new opportunities in Europe or the US is to tell them to go home, consider your own ancestry carefully, and whether your world would even exist if sanctuary had been denied.
I cannot read white guys for awhile. It’s not that I dislike white guy writing; some of my favorite writers are fellows of the pasty persuasion. George Orwell. John Milton. That other dead guy; that one who lives forever. Doesn’t mean I haven’t had my fill of hard drinking, working class men with surly dispositions, fretting over the women who’ve done them wrong…written by tender guys living off trust funds in Brooklyn brownstones. Had enough of five o’clock shadows and fifty-yard stares, emotional detachment and simmering resentment, unions that unraveled and road trips to nowhere — nobody consults a map, unless there’s a woman in the car, in which case that’s exactly what she’s doing. I’ve had enough of cops on the other side of the law and misunderstood criminals, corporate executives ducking out of afternoon meetings and into bars, marriages forever tense and inscrutable with no notion of tenderness beyond thank you, goodnight. These white men don’t recover from the backslap of romance, don’t enter into the soothing space of just knowing someone and relaxing. They are too busy drinking, divorcing, finding themselves, which usually means another woman, in a bar, in an office, in a car opening a map while he’s driving.
And speaking of this particular sort of writer, I’ve had my fill of female characters that place phone calls about child support payments and scream across the street about when he’s coming back, and never have ambitions beyond Lady Macbeth. This type of male writer never writes women thinking like they do, wondering like they do, plotting like they do. No, this white male writer makes women thin and demanding or fat and sorry, hunting for a hero or fulfilling childhood fantasies of sparkling eyes and inspired statements released as riddles. He will meet her in the park, he will meet her in the bar, he will meet her in the office when she comes in late and dressed inappropriately and unwilling to file anything alphabetically. Women described as “used up” and worn down by life, permanent mothers flanked by angry children that spit at each other across the dinner table, wild women whose only rebellion involves sexual promiscuity and growing their hair long and white and tangled.
In their interviews they will wear beards and soft sad eyes and tucked in flannel shirts and talk about the loneliness of writing. They will talk about adopting children from foreign countries as the long drunken route towards empathy. They will talk about their mothers, the abortion their girlfriend once had, their trip to Africa/Malaysia/Thailand that was totally different from the other white guys who were there for worse reasons. They will talk about the disappointment of their fathers, how they will never receive tenure; they will not talk about their trust funds. They will rattle off lists of other white male writers writing about divorce and murder and dogs and strippers and guns and rivers, and talk about their next book that will cover more of the same. In six weeks the black cover will promise a something-something “tour de force” and I will wonder if that’s a bicycle tour in France.
Too small, too drunk, too troubled, too on-to-something, too lost. This is too small, when a world of other worlds lies waiting.
There’s a long yarn unspooling from his jaws, and there’s still a whole lot to untangle. A giant box of cds leaves him doing double duty as DJ, laser-spinning Marianne Faithful and the Cocteau Twins and a whole lot of troubled women that might find me fair company. This CD of Ms. Faithful was recorded when she entered her silver-haired years, and she sounds like a chain-smoking blue collar coaxed toward the microphone by her drunken karaoke counterparts. It’s not nearly as sad as younger Marianne trapped in a black and white time-machine, prisoner of evening variety shows and hair spray, posed for a portrait by stony hands. This isn’t loneliness; this is nostalgia. As her throat reports fire I’m thinking that there’s also something within me burning to the surface, a remake. Something that cannot be sorted clean. It’s then that I think he needs to play “Horses” in honor of Patti Smith’s prophecies, but that yarn has filled his cheeks and tied me and needs a pull to unwind.
Human contents of air-conditioned pod of refuge: man with a tribal wreath tattooed all around his leg, reaching up towards his knee. Despite sitting his bag remains draped over his shoulder, his eyes on his phone, his hands pulling at the pubic remains of a soul patch. “Nothingman” by Pearl Jam launches in the background, which inspires him to get up and take his shoulder bag and cell phone with him.
Six feet away, a man who has been stared down by grim shades: black hair, black shirt, grey pocket, grey pants, black shoes. He’s folded into a question mark to accommodate the chair and table, his shoulders sink low, and stickers cover his laptop and scream LA DISPUTE. I google it and discover a band from Michigan and suspect that we should hate each other and blame it on sports teams.
Three seniors crowd around the comfortable easy chairs, and when they ask to borrow the extra chair across from me I hope one of them uses it for feet, or as a makeshift card table. Instead the older man sits himself between the two women, as they remove lids and fuss with sugar packets and plastic cream cups and don’t say anything. A table opens up, and they take all their cups and containers and bagels and the chair that once held a ghost across from me with them.
Directly across from me: an older Asian women with threads of silver dancing down her scalp. The only skin I see is a patch escaping her sleeves, red roads traveling two inches down into elbow. There is book opened flat in front of her, and she tracks words with a highlighter between long looks out the window at the man with the leg tattoo and too many 90s adornments, avoiding Pearl Jam and pacing.
I like bars that look like hollowed-out bowling alleys, right down to the lingering smoke smell and people arguing over phantom scores. The booths all plastic and faded into beige, strange folds chased around metal until they anchor. The lights are overhead and on until someone who refuses to remove sunglasses complains, and with a flick of a switch the sad remains of a brown carpet better suited for a 70s-era airport, or a hotel room in Idaho, are suddenly disguised. Replacing the overheads is a slow moving globe of holiday colors, orbiting every face: the world is red, the world is green, the world is blue. These places don’t have jukeboxes, they have a DJ who hasn’t left the booth since 1986, a prisoner of records with Jehri curls on the cover and shoulder pads and shirts buttoned right up to the top and pencil mustaches. The Electric Slide is going to be played; it’s only a matter of time. The waitress has also never not been there, and she doesn’t come to take an order, she arrives with a great big bucket of ice, bottles of cheap beer jutting out from the frozen slab like they grew that way. Choose, and choose often. The chalkboard behind the bartender announces Tuesday as 10 cent wing night, and mozzarella sticks as a thing every day, all the time, along with a couple of things that come with a side of ranch dressing. There’s a bottle of Jack and another of Absolute and the Maker’s Mark occupies the high shelf, and the bartender is kind and twice the size of an average man, and the glasses he pours heavy into are dirty and no one is going to say shit. Then the DJ is moving his hands and talking fast to wild-drive us into George Clinton. Without a word every citizen of the middle-aged crowd herds onto the tiny dance floor for obligatory booty shaking. I am Pavlov’s Atomic Dog.
The world is red, the world is green, the world is blue.
I don’t think I truly love where I live until another describes it as a den of horrors.
Blame my Cleveland childhood. Going to school meant boarding a bus with the windows stuck open in winter and stuck shut in summer at 5:30AM. The bus took a snake’s path through the industrial parkway, before crossing the Harvard Avenue Bridge, which felt like crossing Mordor. Steels mills spouted fire all around us, dragons singing their death song. Between swallowing fat mouthfuls of this air and swimming in the grim green of Lake Erie, to the instant mashed potatoes and cardboard and ketchup pizza of school lunches, my body programmed to thrive on poison; too much organic material leads to rashes.
I’ve often wondered if the Cleveland Browns call a segment of the stadium “the dawg pound” because of the perpetual underdog status of the team, and the city itself, with hard to swallow nicknames like “the mistake on the Lake” and “city of the burning river.” Media (and movies) focus on the ongoing failure of sports teams, the staggering poverty, the government corruption. It’s also one of the only major metropolitan areas with a totally free art museum thanks to unusual commitment to the arts. It’s a city where I was able to get a scholarship to college, a city that supported the earliest days of my writing career, and provided opportunities that I happily took. It was where I got to be in a crowd shot of the movie “Major League” courtesy of free tickets distributed to Cleveland Public School students, where I stuffed tacos and burritos for $4.35 an hour, where you can still get a donut for under a dollar. It’s also where my great uncles were Saloon owners until prohibition (where they ran “soda shops” instead), where my great aunt worked as a secretary for Elliot Ness, and where my great great grandfather was the first councilman of the Warzawa neighborhood. It’s a city thick with history from 1796, and long before, where walking in older places means Rockefellers or fossils or rust, where the portions in restaurants are ridiculous and shopping malls don’t have to make fake snow. I love it. I hate it. You think it’s terrible; I like it more.
Then there’s Portland, the cuddly darling of the New York Times, the top place to move for San Francisco’s rent-suffering residents and small town sorts strangely dazzled by the douchery of D-grade TV shows. It’s described in squeals and exclamation marks, with the O replaced with a heart shape by thousands of starry-eyed people desperately seeking exodus. None of these adoring articles championing bicycle culture, liberal politics, and excellent public transportation mention the massive homeless camps that recall the Hoovervilles of the Great Depression, the rapid rent increases that sharply contrast with salaries that have been stuck since 2000, the high unemployment and heavy reliance on food stamps, the lack of support for the arts and the ridiculously low corporate contributions to struggling nonprofits. They don’t mention how sickly so many become in a climate where mold and fungus thrive, how agonizingly long and grey the winters can be, how difficult it is to form community when so many are transplants in transition, and unlikely to stay. These affectionate declarations rarely note that the street fairs that once celebrated regional culture are constantly under threat, that New Seasons and Little Big Burger have kinda become our Walmart and Applebee’s (they’re everywhere), and the artists and strange sorts that once kept Portland “weird” are now being exiled to neighboring suburbs. I have loved and hated everywhere I’ve lived, but this is the first time I felt that the city hated me. After 12 long years I’ve been feeling ready to leave, my eye on just about anywhere else.
Then the New Yorker article happened, the great panic button reminding all the excited new citizens that they’ve moved into the Ring of Fire. In Cleveland, you know that the Cuyahoga River is the one that famously burned; in Portland, most of the new citizens and many of the old don’t understand that those mountains are also volcanoes, and there’s a little thing called the Cascadia subduction zone. When Hurricane Katrina happened, internet know-it-alls liked to scoff about how the whole city was built below sea level, so what did they expect? In the case of Portland, the whole city is doomed…and yet people keep moving here like the streets are lined with gold.
And yet this coming-doom thing isn’t new to me; I’ve been dreaming about Portland’s forthcoming boom for years. In the dream the ugliest part is that the skies darken in warning of a coming storm, which inspires many to hunker down in their houses and seek shelter in basements, when they really need to be running for the highest point they can find. This is what I do in this dream, and when I reach that high point I look over at what used to be my city and all I see is water. I’m an unexpected island dweller, clinging to an old cedar, flanked by a few friends who also remembered to run high. I’ve been writing about it for years, and wrote a young adult book around it that perhaps now is ready to be read.
If the promotional tide has finally turned and the golden city is one waiting to rot, I can’t help but love it just a little bit more. There are no heroes and no villains, and as soon as the hero shows his weakness or the villain outs himself as soft, they suddenly become so much more relatable to me. If these great trees and glorious hills are not the promised land, but soon to sink into murky waters, with internet blow-hards lying in wait to tell us all the reasons we should heed the warnings and run, isn’t that a very good reason to cling to those cedars a little bit tighter so that they’re loved all the way down? This is not the sort of thing someone seeking out an easy life will develop any affection for, but someone who was born and raised an underdog biting for every scrap might thrive in such a climate. If there’s any climate left to thrive in at all.