Monday, November 14, 2016

Dictator Minute

If you think 2016 was a crap year, try 1933 on for size! What made the 1930s 
so miserable? Dictators!

Not enough people know about dictators, but Dictator Minute aims to fix that. Take a minute every day to learn to learn something new. You'll be glad you did!

8. Dictators Find a Way to Make it Work
Stalin wanted to undertake a massive infrastructure project called the “Byelomorkanal,” a canal that connected the White and Baltic Seas.
Everyone was like, “Yeah, right, Stalin. How’re you going to pay for it? That’ll never happen.”
Stalin outsmarted everyone by arresting everyone, and putting them to work building the Byelomorkanal.

Party Tip

Want to be a hit at parties? Learn more about Stalin’s convict labor.

7. Dictators Love Tall Buildings

Stalin had a nasty shock in 1946 when he realized that “foreigners will come to Moscow, walk around, and there are no skyscrapers.” His reaction was typical of dictators, who find the absence of tall buildings named after themselves intolerable.
In 1947 Stalin marshaled his vast prison labor force and built the seven gothic skyscrapers that would be his architectural legacy. Stalin’s cabinet of serial killers, toadies, and pedophiles lived in some of them, as did the celebrities the dictator favored.
A while back, city boosters tried to get Muscovites to call the buildings “The Seven Sisters.” They were mindful of the crime and corruption associated with Stalin’s name. It didn’t work. These were Stalin’s buildings, not Moscow’s, and the people knew it. Stalinkas is what they are called. They are and always will be Stalin’s buildings.

Party Tip

Want to be a hit at parties? Read more about Stalin’s Buildings.

6. Dictators Don’t Respect People with Disabilities

Hitler believed that people were a lot like racehorses. If two fast, strong racehorses got together, the result would be a really strong, fast, baby racehorse. But pair a racehorse with a slow, stupid donkey? The result of that union would be a less-superior-than-possible animal, and that just would not do.
This is why, years before Hitler’s efforts to exterminate Jews got underway, the program to murder mentally and physically disabled people was already in full swing. Hitler sent teams of “consultants” to hospitals around Germany to identify the disabled and mark them for death in the gas chamber. These unlucky people — around 200,000 of them — were the first of Hitler’s victims. The methods he used to kill them would be the same ones he’d use a few years later on people who, although not disabled, were still not genetically fit enough to keep around.
Hitler did not like disabled people, but it was nothing personal. It was just eugenics.

Party Tip

Want to be a hit at parties? Read more about Hitler and eugenics.

5. Dictators Have Support

Hitler’d been talking about his plans for Jews since way before he became Chancellor. But many German people weren’t too worried. The Jews are a problem, they said. Nobody knows what they’re up to; they can go anywhere and do anything. How do you tell a good one from a bad one? It’s not safe.
Some people hoped the restrictions on the Jews would at least calm the situation down a little. The constant chatter from Jews and their friends about Hitler’s plans for Jews was riling folks up. People were constantly arguing, and anti-Semitic activities were increasing.
Other people said it was a special situation. An emergency. The Jews are attacking us, but our rights are safe. The constitution guarantees the right to freedom of religion, they said, right there in Article 136.

Party Tip

Want to be a hit at parties? Read more about the The Nuremburg Laws.

4. Dictators Are Underestimated

Germany’s leaders didn’t take Hitler seriously until it was too late. Establishment politicians thought they could appease him. They believed that if they named him Chancellor of Germany, he’d have no choice but to fall in line with business as usual. They told themselves that others in the government would influence Hitler and mitigate his power.
Instead, wily Hitler gave himself absolute power through the Enabling Act of 1933! Germany’s institutions failed to protect it from a dictator, as many had hoped. Hitler simply passed laws dismantling those institutions.

Party Tip

Want to be a hit at parties? Read more about the Enabling Act of 1933.

3. Dictators Fool the Journalists

Journalist Dorothy Thompson initially thought that Hitler wasn’t a threat. She believed he wanted to be a dictator, but, c’mon. Him? In power? She called him “Little Man”; wrote that he was insignificant. She was convinced the public would see right through him.
“Imagine a would-be dictator setting out to persuade a sovereign people to vote away their rights,” she wrote in 1932.
When Hitler became Chancellor a year later, she changed her tune and tried to warn people. She documented the brutality and terror she saw as the Nazis consolidated their power. But it was too late.
Like most dictators, Hitler did not like to be criticized. In 1934 he revoked Thompson’s credentials and threw her out of Germany.

Party Tip

Want to be a hit at parties? Read more about Dorothy Thompson.

2. Dictators Don’t Like Treaties

After WWI, the Germans had this treaty they had to live with, the Treaty of Versailles?
Lots of Germans hated it. It crushed them economically and made Germany dependent on hostile foreign powers for its survival. It was humiliating and unfair, said many. They called the establishment leaders who signed the treaty criminals and backstabbers.
Hitler also did not like the Treaty of Versailles. He called it “the greatest villainy of the century” in Mein Kampf.
“The millions of German unemployed are the final result of this development,” he said in a speech in 1933. Hitler wanted to get rid of the Treaty of Versailles and, a year after he became Chancellor, he did!

Party Tip

Want to be a hit at parties? Read more about The Treaty of Versailles.

1. Dictators Hold Grudges

“To choose one’s victims, to prepare one’s plans minutely, to slake an implacable vengeance, and then to go to bed — there is nothing sweeter in the world.”
This was Stalin, talking about his hobbies. The “victims” he’s referring to are the ministers and generals he chose to run the Soviet Union.
The turn-over on Stalin’s staff was high, thanks to regular purges. Stalin’s focus on petty grievances and imagined plots in his administration distracted him from the real threat massing on his border: the Nazis.
Stalin’s disorganized, depleted staff was no match for Hitler when he invaded in 1939.

Party Tip

Want to be a hit at parties? Read more about Stalin.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

My Other Hobby

If you think my hobbies are limited to reading about 1930s world history, writing poems to trade magazines, and thinking about maritime disasters, think again. I also enjoy cross stitching.

Here are some of my favorites.

This is the first in what I hope will become a series of safety-icon cross stitches. I call it "Corrosive."

 This one is called "Abu Ghraib." I did it back in 2003, when the story about torture at the notorious prison, where people were kept for years without charges, broke.

Maybe I was thinking something deep about persecution based on religion, but I think I was just struck by the form of the image of the man on the box, wires attached to his outstretched arms.

It seemed archetypal to me back then, like it referenced something more than what it was.

This one is called "Jesus," because it's an image of Jesus.

I'm very sad that I can't find the finished cross-stitch of this pattern.

The pictures and detail I left the same, but instead of the words you see, I substituted "Happen Is Happen" (above the blue flowers) and "Pee Is Pee" (above the beehive)

This was a sort of motto for me for a while. Sadie's dad was a cab driver in NYC for 13 years, and used to tell the story of an Indian cab driver he knew who, whatever befell him, would shrug his shoulders and say "Happen is happen."

If he got mugged? Stiffed? Splashed with filthy water? "Happen is happen."

Then, many years later, I took a rug into the dry cleaners to see if it could be saved. It had been stored in an outbuilding for years and was filthy. The Indian man behind the counter asked me when I brought it in, "Something has peed on this rug?"

"Yes," I said. "A cat." It occurred to me that I really had no idea what had peed on the rug while it was in the outbuilding. Why was I so sure it was a cat? It could have been anything. Would this make a difference? Like, with what kind of chemicals he might use to clean it?

"Actually," I said. "It might not have been a cat. It could have been a dog. Or even a raccoon. Does that make a difference?"

The man patted my hand so kindly and said "Pee is pee." I felt so relieved for some reason, like there was nothing at all to worry about.

So: Happen Is Happen. Pee Is Pee.

Finally, this is my favorite one. I call it "Doxology."

During the time that I was working on this one, I took my co-worker to get a colonoscopy (and it wasn't even Take Your Co-Worker to Get A Colonoscopy Day!).

I had about 3 hours to sit in a waiting room before my friend was done, so I pulled out this project and got to work.

With me in the waiting room were four elderly ladies, probably waiting on their husbands. They were in their late 70s, it seemed like, and as soon as they saw that I, a young whippersnapper, was engaged in a lost womanly art, they became very friendly and talkative.

"Oh, that's so nice, dear," said one of them. "I did not think any young people were interested in that anymore."

"Oh yes," I said. "I love to cross stitch!"

They cooed about this for a while and then another one said, "What is it?"

"The Doxology," I said.

This really got them going. Here is a young person at the gastroenterologist's office, and instead of snapchatting or planning to cohabitate with someone, she's cross-stitching the Doxology! Maybe the world will be OK after all! They all jumped up to come and look, and that's when things went awry.

I have and always have had letter-color synesthesia, a harmless condition where I "see" letters and numbers in color. Here are the results of my synesthesia test, if you don't believe me:

So, technically, I was stitching the Doxology, but instead of representing it using the letters of the prayer, I was doing the colors I see when I look at, think about, or sing it. Like this:

Praise God from whom all blessings flow
Praise Him all creatures here below
Praise Him above ye heavenly host
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost

Interestingly, two days ago Merrill was screaming and Sadie turned to me and said "That is such a blue scream." Huh.

That's it! I'll post more as I finish them.  

Monday, August 22, 2016

WTH? Athens: Meat Sales and Butt Smears

"Your receptionist tells me you don't experiment on any of the meat you sell to the public."
"Well, sometimes we do," he replies.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Potemkin Villages

Let's say you manage a McDonald's across the street from the bus station, on the rough side of town. You show up one morning to learn that the CEO of the company -- that's right, the whole international corporation -- is coming to visit your McDonald's in just a few days. On a "fact-finding" tour, it says.

"Fact-finding my eye," you think.

You know the real reason the big boss is dropping in for a visit. It's because, somehow, you, General Manager #5308429, and the leader of this iconic company had a hot, torrid romance a few years back. Yes, it's true. It was doomed to end, obviously, and it did. Badly. And that's why your boss' boss' boss' boss is coming to see your store. To wallow in your embarrassment. In your obvious lack of achievement.

You look around at the smears on the windows. Some of them must be ketchup, but you can't be sure. There's Dwayne, the homeless guy, over in the corner with his newspapers and his already empty small coffee. There's Sheila, the fry cook. She's high on some kind of solvent, and the hairnet has fallen off her beard, again. You sigh. The franchise you manage is definitely a hole. But what can you expect? It's out on the edge of an already edgy town. Your main customers are the Greyhound bus passengers and the ladies from the dialysis clinic. This ain't no Chipotle. What are you going to do?

This is almost exactly the situation Grigorii Potemkin found himself in in 1787, except the company he worked for was called Russia, the CEO was named Catherine the Great, and the particular shithole he was in charge of was called the Crimean peninsula. When he got the memo that Catherine, empress of Russia and his ex-girlfriend, would be stopping by, he took extreme measures to fancy up his franchise. He drafted the thousands of peasants sitting around with their newspapers and empty cups and forced them to build elaborate, false building fronts. The facades were painted pastel green and blue, and had cute little wooden curlicues decorating the windows and doors. Passing by, peering from a carriage window, you'd never be able to tell they weren't real houses inhabited by content residents. At least that's what Potemkin hoped. At night, while Catherine and her retinue slept, Potemkin’s army of peasants dismantled the fake villages and moved them to a spot further up the empress’ planned route.

Whether or not Catherine noticed that all of the gleaming villages looked suspiciously alike – indeed, whether or not any of this actually happened or is just malicious anti-Potemkin gossip – is up for debate. What is true, however, is that "Potemkin village" is still an expression used today to describe an elaborate, carefully planned whitewash. A beautiful mask covering an ugly face; an artifice, a fraud.

I've always found this story compelling because America, where I live, is a country that is committed to pretending that our difficult, often shabby reality is something other than what it is. We venture out of subdivisions named to evoke exclusive English hunting clubs to restaurants built to look like Spanish missions, where we consume microwaved entrees that the menu assures us are house-made and authentic. We vacation on purpose in places that are built specifically to look like somewhere else, like Disney World, or Las Vegas. And we choose media that show us what we want to believe about ourselves and others, instead of the more confounding, more convicting reality. We are heavily invested in euphemism in America, particularly if the topic is something -- like ageing, or illness, or dying -- that we don't want to think about. And so I was extremely excited when I stumbled on one little corner of America that is taking a stand against all of this obfuscation and admitting, straight up, that it's lying about everything it's pretending to be.

Potemkin Senior Village is a retirement community in the military town of Warner-Robins, GA, which, as luck would have it, is about two hours from where I live. When I stumbled upon it on the internet I considered it a gift from the universe directly to me, and spent many happy hours imagining the circumstances behind its existence. What would I find if I went there, I wondered each night as my husband drifted off to sleep next to me. A few well-fed elderly people prominently positioned, knitting, in rocking chairs, while the rest of their co-villagers sat in a drafty warehouse painstakingly unraveling stained mattress covers so the thread could be sold at a 200% mark up to t-shirt factories in China? It has to be something exactly like this, I told myself.

Or maybe, I thought as I handed my four-year-old her sippy cup and told her to go watch My Little Pony, maybe Potemkin Senior Village is not an actual retirement community at all, but instead is an art installation put together by some rogue gerontologist who has decided to construct an impossibly, over-the-topply cheery version of ageing which will, thanks to its highly competent staff, engaged community volunteers, and incessant parades, shame us all into reevaluating our treatment of the elderly. Wouldn't that be awesome?

But then, I reasoned as I stood in the grocery store, staring at the avocado display, it's way more likely that Potemkin Senior Village is some kind of terrible mistake made by someone who started out as a realtor, or something, and found herself in charge of marketing because she was married to the owner's cousin and knew how to use Photoshop. Yes, yes, that makes much more sense. I could picture her, hunched over a glossy, tri-fold brochure, an empty space at the top where the name should go.

"What should we call it?" she'd think. "How about Madison Ponds? Or Bridlebrooke Manor?"

And then she'd half-remember a phrase she'd heard once -- where did she hear it? Oh well, it doesn't matter. What matters is that it has the word "village" already in it, see, and also sounds vaguely European. And everyone knows that Europe is both classy and also comforting in an old-world, return-to-your-roots kind of way. And so:

"Potemkin Senior Village it is!"

 Eventually, the speculation became too much for me. "Call us for a tour!" begged their website, so I did. Twice. I left a message both times, practicing beforehand so I'd sound normal when I said the name of their community. But both times, my message was ignored, as was the email I sent. Finally there was nothing to do but go down there, so I strapped my two-year-old in the car, cranked up the AC, and lit out in the direction of Macon.

Warner-Robins is a terrible town, way more terrible than most. The treeless, 6-lane main drag is chock full of Linens and Thingses and Toys R Usses and Red Lobsters, and even the older side of town, which at least usually has more interesting sineage, looks cookie-cutter and pre-assembled, like they're phoning it in. I drove around for a few minutes and immediately became hopelessly lost. Eventually, I pulled into the parking lot of the public library, which shares its space with the campus of South-Central-Western-Middle-Georgia University. The doors were flanked by two cop cars, their window tinting so dark that it was impossible to tell whether they were occupied, or just put there to dissuade potential readers.

"That's OK," I told my two-year-old, "We'll just go in here for a minute and use their computers to look up the address."

But the sign on the door told me it was not to be. "Due to recent criminal activity, internet has been suspended," it said.

Trying to focus on the task at hand and not get derailed by wondering just what kind of criminal activity at the library had led to the disabling of the internet, I approached the front desk, where two librarians stood. They were both staring raptly at a large monitor, which showed various shots of the library taken by security cameras. I stared at it, too, watching as a grainy 5-year-old pulled a book from a shelf and dropped it on the floor.

"Hello," I said, finally. "I'm trying to find (I looked around and lowered my voice, embarrassed) Potemkin Senior Village."

Neither librarian flinched. Dismayed, I said again, louder this time, "Did you hear what I said? I said I'm trying to find Potemkin Senior Village. POTEMKIN (senior) VILLAGE!"

"We heard you," said one of them, looking bored. She kindly printed a map out for me, and I pointed my car down the streets she'd highlighted.

A few minutes later, I passed by the Omi QuickMart #3, the Instant Money You Keep Your Title store, and a giant pile of mattresses resting in front of a dumpster, and pulled up at the large iron fence surrounding the community. Beyond the automatic gate, the buildings gleamed. In front of the tidy bungalows, which were painted a sophisticated taupe color, mounds of pink impatiens and coleus bloomed in planters. The streets were clean and wide, no crushed possums or fast-food cups in evidence at all.

"Man, these people are good," I said, punching the "office" button and asking to be let in. Inside the combination sales office/community center, a few comfortable couches sat empty in front of a large television screen, which was showing Judge Judy. I could see the sales office and the person in it out of the corner of my eye, over to the left, but I pretended to be confused and wandered around the lobby instead, looking for evidence. The pink marble floor was shining like a mirror under the dust-free chandelier. The fresh coffee was steaming on the burner over at the hospitality station. The peace lily in the brass pot next to the window was real, its leaves green and glossy. There was no dirt anywhere, and the air was free of the typical smells (disinfectant, hopelessness) I associate with old folks' homes. Now actually confused, I walked over to the office, where Letitia smiled at me from behind a Louis IV reproduction desk.

My toddler chewed on the camera I'd brought with me while we talked. Letitia, the sales manager, told me all kinds of stuff, like how there's a one-year waiting list to get in, because people like it here so much that they don't leave unless they're dead, and how the residents get together to exercise and watch TV and do crafts on a regular basis, and how the people who live here are not all white folks, oh no, there's a bunch of different people here, all kinds of colors and from all kinds of places, probably because of the military base.

It was time to get down to brass tacks. "Well, Letitia," I said, prying the camera from my toddler's mouth and fixing her with a penetrating gaze. "That certainly all sounds far too good to actually be true. I have to be honest with you. I'm really here because I'm interested in the name. 'Potemkin Village.' It sounds kind of, uh...foreign to me. Do you know anything about it?"

"Oh, I know all about it," snapped Letitia, rolling her eyes and leaning back in her chair. "It is foreign. It's Russian. It was this guy, Potemkin. When Queen Elizabeth came to visit he installed all these fancy houses, but behind them, everything was just ugly. Dirty. They called it a Potemkin village."

"Ah, ubb," I stammered, surprised. "So, uh, what must you think every day, then, coming to work here, at Potemkin Senior Village?"

She laughed and shook her head. "I think, 'I better keep the insides of these buildings really clean.'"

"Uh huh," I laughed, too. "And how do you know all this?"

She shrugged. "I looked it up on the internet."


"Because people kept asking me about it."

"What people?"

"The residents, the family members. Everybody. I got curious and looked it up."

"So, you mean, the people who live here know what a Potemkin village is, and they know they're living in one?"

"Yep," nodded Letitia.

"And they don't even care?"

"Nope," said Letitia. "They don't mind. They know it's nice here. I mean, it really is nice."

"Huh," I said, deflated. "Well, who named it? Where'd it come from?"

"It was the owner," said Letitia. "He's the one who picked the name."

"Ah. So he's the one who doesn't know what it means."

"No, he knows."

"You mean, he knows because you told him. After he named it."

"Naw. He knew beforehand."

"What?" I shouted at Letitia. "You mean the owner knew that he was naming his complex after something that pretends to be nice but is actually really terrible, and he went ahead and did it anyway? Why? What was he thinking?"

"I know, right? I guess he just liked how it sounded. I guess he doesn't care what it means. But you know, the next I see him, I'm going to ask him." she nodded decisively. "Yeah, I'm just going to ask him about it."

"Well, you should," I said. "Somebody should."

I said goodbye to Letitia and walked back to my car through the quiet, well-maintained entry garden. I'd thought about asking Letitia if I could have the name of the owner so I could ask him myself, or requesting to speak to some of the residents, but in the end, I decided not to bother. Because really, what would would they say? 'Yes, we know all about Grigorii Potemkin and his fake houses. We may be old, and stuck here in Warner-Robins, Georgia in between the Omi QuickMart #3 and a bunch of trashed mattresses, but that doesn't mean we're stupid. Where would you rather we live? Incontinence Acres? Loneliness Town?  Now please quit pestering us so we can live out our final days in some kind of peace."

And they would be right if they said all this, I realized. The joke was on me, not them.

At the curb, I got out of my car and snapped a few pictures of the sign. A disheveled-looking man digging through the dumpster eyed me curiously, wondering what around here was worth photographing. The cheery houses of the community that was named after a fraud grew smaller in my rearview mirror and I turned onto the main road again, into the sea of fast-food restaurants and chain-store logos that is real life in America.

Monday, June 27, 2016

My First Alternative Boyfriend

This is a picture of my first alternative boyfriend. I will call him Jay, because that was his name. I was 15 when I met him on August 15, 1986. It was a Friday.

I know precisely when I started dating him because I stopped dating him exactly one week later. We broke up forever right before Henry Rollins took the stage at Einstein-A-Go-Go, a legendary club in Jacksonville Beach.

Even though we’d not gone out anywhere or even spoken to each other during the 7 days of our courtship, the breakup still stung. I was so excited to finally have a boyfriend who understood me – the real me that most guys my age thought was weird, and ugly.

But not Jay. He also loved that Nemesis song by Shriekback, and not only could but actually would cut quite a step when the DJ put on Love and Rockets’ Ball of Confusion. At last, I had an actual boy to dance with instead of the cloud of shuffling girls I was usually a part of. And that was what we did the first night we met; the first and last time we saw each other before our relationship shattered. We danced.

But that wasn’t all. Jay wore eyeliner, and skirts, and shirts buttoned all the way up to the top button. I was absolutely sure that this indicated an artistic, creative bent, and probably also familiarity with or at least sympathy for the fringe dwellers of the world. This was someone who would not ask “why?” when I announced I wanted to break into an abandoned building, see if I could find some homeless people who would agree to be photographed, or fall asleep listening to Psychocandy. He’d be right next to me, holding the crowbar, lens cap, and record player. This was perfect. I was 15, and I was so excited about my first alternative boyfriend.

There was only one problem.

“Robin,” said my friend Christine when I told her the news the next week, “Jay cannot be your boyfriend. Jay is gay.”

“That’s so racist, Christine.” I said. “You think just because he’s wearing a skirt, and make-up, that makes him gay? Way to stereotype, there.”

It was true; I was right. This was 1986, when the most desirable guys around looked like this:

and this:

and this:

See? Wearing a skirt.
And then there was our very own beloved DJ and notorious local hottie, Jay Totty, who looked so great in a skirt in 1986 that he even made the front page of our newspaper’s lifestyle section. 

 Everyone agreed, Christine. Even the Florida Times Union. Wearing a skirt or eyeliner definitely did not mean you were gay.

“No but,” said Christine, “I know Jay. He’s gay. He’s definitely gay. I know because he told me. And I’ve only ever seen him date guys. Look, I know he’s gay, he knows he’s gay; you are the only person who doesn’t know he’s gay.”

I looked at our mutual friend Billy, who was standing there in the heat with his Salvation Army suit coat and amethyst brooch. “Could this be true?”

“Oh yes, it’s true. It’s not a secret. He’s very open about it.”

“Well, huh,” I said.

A few days later, on Friday, it was time to meet up with Jay again for our second date. This was going to be an absolutely fantastic night, I told myself, not only because I was going to see Jay, my love, but also because Henry Rollins was going to read his poetry. I’d never heard him read anything before – he had just started doing it. But I’d seen him leading Black Flag the year before, and if that show was any indication, this would be something to see. This would be a night to remember.

Black Flag. Jeez, mom, what were you thinking? 

Christine’s news about Jay bothered me not at all as I Aqua-Netted my bangs and pulled on my silk pajama pants.

“Hey,” I told myself, “I am a tolerant, accepting, worldly person. So what if my boyfriend only likes boys? This was a problem, certainly, but one that could still be overcome. It’s not like Christine revealed that she’d caught him listening to Huey Lewis and the News, or something. Now that would have been it. But this?”

This is what I told myself as I pinned my beanie to my hair and waited for Jackie to pick me up in her shiny red Hyundai. But deep down, I knew this was not true.

The fact is, Jay could have been a desk caddy, a serial killer, or an avocado, and that would have been just fine with me. Because what mattered was that, whatever else he was, he was someone who liked me. Me, you see. Like many other unfortunate people, I was years out of my adolescence before I understood that “well, he likes me,” is not actually the most important attribute on the list when it comes to potential partners. Back then, with my braces and my funny way of dancing and the awful memories of being fat in middle school still defining who I was, just liking me was enough. And Jay did like me.

I showed up at Einstein’s that Friday, August 22, 1986, insides a-flutter. Jay was there already, wearing a different skirt this time. And guess what? He’d brought me flowers. A big bouquet of gladiolus and lilies. No one had ever waited just for me to arrive anywhere before. No one had ever bought me flowers and hugged me and kissed me on the cheek. And in 15 minutes, I’d be sitting with my gay boyfriend and my flowers and we’d be listening to Henry Rollins together. This wasn’t absolutely perfect, sure, but it was still pretty good. The only thing was, where was Jay?

I walked outside with my flowers, outside the clove-scented air of Einstein’s and into the syrupy heat of Florida in August. The low-slung buildings around me were closed for the night; the streets, deserted. I walked a few blocks, aimlessly, looking for Jay, I guess, but also trying to think now that I was away from the lights and the music. I believed that what Christine had said was true, but that wasn’t what was bothering me. What was bothering me was what this obviously meant about Jay. He’s going to talk to me for a whole night about music and movies and concerts and art-type things and all the things he likes, but he’s going to leave out that piece of information? What else is he not telling me, then? What kind of boyfriend is my first alternative boyfriend, exactly, I belatedly began to wonder.

My thoughts were interrupted by a snuffling sound coming from a recessed doorway up ahead. I got even with the entryway and there, in the alcove, leaning up against the locked glass shop doors, was Jay. He was deeply involved in kissing someone, I noticed. He was facing me but his eyes were closed, his head turned to the side. I stood there for a minute, and then I guess Jay sensed something, because he opened his eyes and saw me. This broke the kiss, and the person he was sharing it with turned around and saw me, too. It was a boy, of course, a boy wearing eyeliner and hairspray, just like Jay, just like me.

“Aw, man,” I said, setting down the flowers and turning back in the direction of Einstein’s. I was snuffling, pitiful, not so much because of what I had seen, but because of what I feared it meant about me. I wasn’t mad at Jay; he was obviously gay, and so he should just go be gay and try to be happy doing it. But jeez, why did he have to pick me? Why me?

You know that Smiths’ song that goes “how can you stay with a fat girl who says ‘Ahhh, would you like to marry me, and if you like you can buy the ring?’” As I took my seat on the floor at the front of Einstein’s stage, I realized that even though I thought I had lost all the weight, I was still the fat girl. I was the girl who was so – what? Weird? Stupid? Needy? – that I’d never have a straightforward, healthy relationship with anyone. Didn’t this pretty much prove it?

I sat at the very front of the stage as Henry Rollins launched into Family Man, and cried into my hands. I cried through Art to Choke Hearts and Pissing in the Gene Pool. I cried through it all, I tell you, his whole first set. (These are actual pictures from that very night, by the amazing Jim Leatherman.)  

Cried through Family Man.
Credit: Jim Leatherman
Cried through Art to Choke Hearts.
Credit: Jim Leatherman
Cried through all of it.
Credit: Jim Leatherman

When the set was over, I was still crying. I felt a hand on my shoulder and, sure that it was Jay, looked up, ready to tell him off. But it wasn’t. It was Henry Rollins.

He was squatting down next to me, right at eye-level, and he held a slip of paper in the hand that was not on my shoulder. He shoved the slip of paper at me and shook his head sympathetically.

“Hey,” he said, patting me. “I don’t know what he did to you, but here’s my phone number. If he does it again call me and I will come cut his penis off.” He patted me one more time for good measure, stood up, and strolled off to the bar. I was confused. My gay boyfriend and I had just broken up, and that was bad, but then Henry Rollins had just given me his phone number. And that was good. I stared at the slip of paper, my week-long relationship with Jay forgotten. “Maybe I’m not the fat girl who says ‘Ahhh,’” I thought. “Maybe there will be other alternative boyfriends sometime in my future. I’m only 15, who can really say?”

I shrugged and shoved the note in my pocket, then stood up and danced.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Turning to Crime

From 1993

Every morning the cat comes in through the window and wakes me up licking my face. I greet the day with superstitious dread, remembering old wives' tales of breath-snatching cats and smothered sleepers. The smell of her breath as her pink tongue exfoliates my face unnerves me. Sour milk, Tender Vittles, mouse; her breath smells like none of these things because she eats like we do: badly and infrequently. She smells like ant bites and the heat of the middle of the day, and that's it. She is skinny and parched like the asphalt my car is parked on.

My roommate Susan and I are both recent recipients of Russian degrees, and in the small Florida town we're currently exiled in, jobs requiring Russian-language skills are scarce. We are forced to be resourceful for our income. And the closer it gets to rent day, the more resourceful we become. Susan starts talking again about Chris, that guy we know who has a Chinese automatic weapon disassembled in his closet. I try to convince myself that I really look like someone who would purchase a pink fishnet halter top and thus it won't be obvious that I'm trying to return shoplifted clothing. What I'm talking about here is turning to crime, and sometimes it is a comfort to make yourself believe that you have so very little to lose.

But I can't think about all this right now. I can't be late, I've got to wait. Rat and Dinghy's Sour Smell, Rave and Dammit's Sure-Fire Hell; no, Ray and Donna's Seafood Grille: that's where I work, and where, later tonight, I'll wait on a table that will leave me nine cents on a 33-dollar tab, because that's just the kind of place it is. But now, in the hot Florida morning, I'm still optimistic as I find and smoke Susan's emergency cigarette. Perhaps, I tell myself, this will be the day that our fortunes turn around.

Two shifts and twelve hours later, I'm driving us home. Susan's agreed to give John, the recently paroled cook, a lift to his duplex.

"I don't know what I'm going to do," sighs Susan, reaching into her apron and pulling out a wad of ones and fives. "My school loans are coming due. Creditors are calling me. I've already borrowed money from everyone who still talks to me."

"Hmm," replies John, "Do you have a tampon?"

"What?" says Susan.

"Cheaper than papers." John rolls up a joint in the powder-scented paper and passes it to Susan. "What about your insurance scam?"

"Oh," says Susan. "Well, Rich was all set. He kept leaving his windows open so I could break in and move out all his stuff. Man...he was insured for like $6000, and he lives in such a bad neighborhood that no one would ever have suspected it was someone he knew."

"So?" says John. "He's giving you half? Three thousand?"

"Yeah, well, the day before I was actually going to go do it, somebody broke in and stole all his stuff. Can you believe that?"

"Scumbags," says John, shaking his head. And then, after a silence: "I could, uh, maybe help you out if you wanted."

Turns out that John scored some stuff the other day, he says, some "really good shit."

"But I got to get it out of my house because the guy I took it from knows me. I could go to jail for this, definitely. Let me just put it at your place until I find my buyer, and then I'll give you half."

"Half?" says Susan, considering. "How much is it?"

"A hundred pounds," says John, "No, wait, man, I'm serious. It sounds like a lot, but I'm telling you, this is good quality stuff. I'm going to have zero problems unloading it. I can take it down to Cedar Key; there's this guy I know there. It's just going to be one day. Two, tops. No problem. Nobody even knows I know you. Come on, man. Help me out."

We ended up giving John the key to our apartment and staying over at Dave's on the night we picked for the drop-off. If John were caught, we decided he would just claim that he'd stolen our purse and found our key and stashed the stuff in a stranger's apartment. Susan and I vowed that if we were questioned we'd just consistently blame each other so there'd be no chance of conviction.

The night passed in sleepless anxiety, and all the next day at work I stared distractedly out the plate-glass window at the parking lot, waiting for the police cars to come screeching through the haze of August heat. At last, it was 11:30 and time to go home.

As Susan and I climbed the stifling stairwell to our second-floor apartment, trepidation over this dirty business mingled with a prickly kind of excitement over being involved with something verboten and also possibly dangerous. I fished for my key on the dark landing and Susan and I looked at each other. There it was, we both knew, right there behind door number four. Not contraband, if you just looked at it the right way, but food, and rent. Maybe even something left over for the cat. This could be the push we needed to propel us into a different kind -- a better kind -- of future. So open that red door, Robin and Susan, and don't be afraid. Turn to crime. Now is your chance.

I swung the door open and there, in the middle of the kitchen floor, wrapped up tightly in brown paper and sporting a cheery logo, was our fortune, our future, our salvation, our...shrimp.

We should have asked John what he meant when he said "stuff." We should have asked how he'd managed to steal 100 pounds of anything truly valuable. We should have known that no matter how much Tom Waits we listened to, we'd never really be criminals, but merely liberal arts majors.

We stood there in the doorway, Susan and I, and looked at the one hundred pounds of peel-and-eat shrimp stolen straight from Ray and Donna's walk-in freezer and melting straight through our un-airconditioned apartment's wooden floor. The ice it had come in had long since disappeared, and the smell of slightly off seafood was settling in for what promised to be a long, long stay.

The cat came in this morning and woke me up licking my face. I still worry that she means me some kind of harm, and am even more unnerved by the smell of her breath. Sour milk, Tender Vittles, mouse? No, it doesn't smell like any of those things. It smells like, what else? Shrimp.


Related stories: Water

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

WTH? Athens: When You Gotta Go

From 2012

"If I'm hanging out in that bathroom to get my jollies, I'm going to be disappointed. All you can see are shoes."

WTH? Athens: When You Gotta Go.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Subdivision Horror Story

In 2009 I was living in a very small town on the outskirts of a slightly bigger town. About a mile from my house was a failed subdivision that I will call Morton Mills. Someone had spent a lot of money on the entryway to Morton Mills. On either side of the drive into the subdivision were big brick terraced structures that had beds in them for flowers (and which were now just filled with pokeberry bushes and reedy grass); a black wrought-iron gate leaning open; matching black wrought-iron letters that were attached to one of the brick structures and that spelled out Morton Mills in a hopeful kind of font.

Once you’re through the gate and into the place, though, you realize how desolate it is. It’s hilly, unusually so for this part of Georgia, and so you can look down and see acre after acre – 100 acres in all -- of empty lots marked off, the pvc pipes for the plumbing sticking up through the dirt like bones. The roads wind through these abandoned lots, each with a little sign optimistically declaring its number. There are 62 of them.

I would roller blade in Morton Mills about once a week or so. Often I would startle deer grazing on the edge of one of the many cul-de-sacs. The lots had been there so long that trash trees were growing in the middle of them, and wildflowers were starting to poke up through the cracks in the pavement I was skating on. Once I skated down the “Community Nature Trail” (according to the faded sign at the start of it) and across a narrow berm that separated two man-made ponds. There were fountain thingamabobs in the middle of each of them, but they were rusty and collapsed in on themselves. The road ended at the “Community Recreation Center,” which was being used as the sales office for the fledgling subdivision when the whole thing was abruptly aborted.

There were blueprints everywhere, and surveys. Things that cost hundreds of dollars to have done. They were piled on a desk, under a fine chalk of pollen. I skated around the office. Brochures advertising Morton Mills' quality of life were scattered on the floor. I picked one up. Grills! Foosball tables! I skated out of the building and back down the road the way I’d come.

In the very middle of the subdivision, in a sort of valley, sat four model houses. They were very large, and built in the creepy-artisanal style you’re familiar with if you can picture Alexandria, the most-recent holdout of the characters in the Walking Dead. Each house sat on a small patch of violently green rye grass. The lawns were so tiny compared to the bulky houses, which were right up next to each other. No one with enough money to buy this big of a house would buy any of these particular ones. Anyone could figure that out. There was no privacy at all. No big yard for the kids to play in. Your neighbors would stare down at you from their dining room as you tried to barbecue. This was not an urban renewal project in a city. This was the suburbs, for crying out loud. Only one of these houses was occupied, by a cop and his wife and kids. The other three empty ones were starting to fall apart.

One day when I was skating the cop came out of his house just as I was passing by, and I stopped to chat with him. Back then I was a 39-year-old white lady on rollerblades. Clearly I was not up to no good. The cop talked to me freely, answering all my nosy questions about what it was like to live here and even throwing in some anecdotes of his own.

“What about that house up there?” I asked, pointing at the highest hill in the subdivision.

At the top of this hill sat a gray stucco house that was completely different, architecturally, from the 4 model houses it was looming over. It had mansard windows and was trying to be French, or something. (Aw hell I can’t describe it. It looked like this, only smaller.)

“That house up there,” said the cop, “Is haunted.”

“What?” I said, overjoyed. “By whom?”

“By the developer of this subdivision. It was the original family house. When it went belly-up, he shot himself.” He pointed up at the hill.

“In that house?”

“Yep,” said the cop. “That’s what they say.”

“OK, well,” I said, skating around on the driveway pad, “It was nice talking to you.”

I immediately skated up the winding road to the house. I did not care if the cop was watching me. Why would you tell someone something like that and not expect them to go check it out? That’s what I’d say if he came after me, I decided.

The drive led up to the back of the house. There was a filled-in swimming pool, and a carport. The door into the house from the carport was standing open. I took off my skates and went inside.

I was in a kitchen that had last been updated in 1987, maybe. It was all jewel tones and black counter tops. There was an island in the kitchen and there was one thing on it: a plaque thanking Scott Morton (not his real name) for sponsoring the town’s kids’ soccer team. I left it alone, and walked down the hallway towards the front of the house. The stairs were off to the left, and at the foot of them, there was a dead pigeon. It had probably gotten in the house and starved, or broken its neck bouncing off the remarkably few windows, trying to get out.

I climbed up the stairs and walked down a hallway towards an open door at the end. There were closed doors on either side of me but I didn’t open them. The room at the end of the stairs had probably been a bedroom. There was no furniture in it at all, but there were two trash bags on the floor. One was filled with Christmas garland, the other with 45 singles; old records. I picked one up, but I can’t remember what the song was.

I started to get scared. This was this man’s stuff; his records, his plaque. Why had his family left these things behind when they cleared out the house? Were they going to come back for them? It occurred to me that I should have checked out the entire bottom floor of the house before coming up the stairs. I was stuck up here. The stairs were the only way down. I hurried down them before I could think about it too long. “I’ll just go downstairs and get out of here,” I said to myself. I was sorry I had come. This wasn’t a joke.

But when I got downstairs, I talked myself out of it. I knew if I didn’t see the rest of the house I’d have to come back, and I didn’t want to come back. I’d do it quickly, just a quick walk-through, and then I’d get out.

The floorplan was disorienting. There was another big bedroom and a bathroom with a tacky garden tub that had mildewed. A living room that smelled chemically, like the paneling was deteriorating. Another, smaller room that might have been a more formal living room. I walked through this room towards an arch in the far wall. Through this arch was the front door and foyer. It was so weird, the way it was configured. If you came in the front door of this big, grand house, there would be a wall on your right and a wall straight ahead of you, boxing you in. You’d have no choice but to go through this dinky archway into the formal living room, which had no windows, and the only way out of that room was through the door at the other end of it. There was only one way to go. It was claustrophobic. But even worse was what was in the foyer.

It crouched there, black and shiny, like a spider. It was the only thing in the house besides the trash upstairs and the plaque and the dead bird. It was a huge, expensive telescope, with a lens like a tank barrel. The lens was pointed at the front door, which was inset with a big, single piece of glass. Through the glass I could see the four model houses at the bottom of the hill. In fact, with my own eyes I could see the cop walk out to his car and open the trunk. With a lens like the one on the telescope in front of me, I thought, I could read the labels on the cop’s spice jars in his kitchen, assuming he was the kind of cop who used spices.

“Probably,” my brain started insisting, “Probably the poor man who lived here and who killed himself here last used this telescope way before these model houses were even built. Probably he just liked to look out this glass door at the undeveloped land outside, where there are rabbits, and deer, you’ve seen them yourself. Or, at the empty pavements and crumbling infrastructure of his failing dream.”

These thoughts were not helping. I stared at the telescope, struggling to process its presence there. And then I noticed something. The telescope wasn’t dusty. Not at all. The whole rest of the house was slowly being buried under pollen and dust and crumbling drywall. The carpets were yellow with it; I could see my footprints in the room I’d walked through to reach this dead end at the front of the house. There didn’t seem to be any footprints in the dust on the gold and brown linoleum covering the foyer floor, but it was hard to tell. The telescope, though, was so shiny and dust-free that it was practically gleaming in the afternoon sunlight coming through the front door.

I noticed this, and that is when I turned around and hied myself out of there. I put my skates back on and skated down the hill and through the weedy lots and out the black gate. When I got home I took my skates off and went on the internet. I Googled his name, the one on the plaque, and the name of the subdivision. This was a big deal in the community, it turns out. The paper was full of news of the groundbreaking, and minutes of various meetings tell the story of sewer rights and easements granted, and of taxes, and complications, and liens. And then there is his obituary. Really, his obituary, 5 years after the groundbreaking. It doesn’t say what he died from, but you don’t need a lone cop in a model home to help you put together these clues.

Does the family know it’s there? Will they ever come and get it? Does it even belong to them? It haunts me to this day, that telescope.