Losing the Familiarity of What We Used to Call Home

Age of Adeline

In 2011, when I arrive at my parents’ house in Pittsburgh for the last time before they move across the country, I find wardrobe boxes in my old bedroom. In the kitchen, new appliances (toaster, faucet) have appeared, and the second floor bathrooms—tiny sinks; fifties tile—long ago merged into one spacious room, whose shower doesn’t take a year to heat up in winter. It’s as though the house knows my parents are leaving, and is shedding evidence of their presence plate by plate, wall-hanging by wall-hanging.

But of course, my parents did it, performed this sloughing, this find-and-replace. For what seems like years, even before the house went on the market, before my father announced his retirement, my mother has been packing, slowly planning her departure. She bought the mugs and glasses that don’t feel right in my hand or on my lip, replaced her own paintings of Mahalia Jackson and the California coastline with vintage record sleeves. At first it looks like my mother has hung her own records up. But I spent my teenage years listening to her collection of 33 1/3s—Bob Dylan, Lowell George, Joe and Eddie, Steve Goodman—and these are not albums she’s ever owned, or would even ever listen to.

When she left California to marry my father in 1982, my mother brought the items she would need to assemble a kind of altar to her promise to return. A roll-top writing desk that had belonged to her grandmother; a leather wine-holder she’d tooled in the seventies; a wool sarape her half-Spanish mother bought on one of her many trips to Mexico. In her basement studio, which doubled as our laundry room, she painted California landscape: the Golden Gate Bridge, the beach at Carmel, a waterfall at Yosemite. She painted from her own photographs, as if slowly, painstakingly enlarging her memories of her real home, and hanging them on the walls of her temporary one, would allow her a portal, an easier passage back.

In 2011, my own passage back home from Ann Arbor, Michigan, is easy, familiar: the exit off route 579, the Oz-like glimmer of Pittsburgh in the distance. The cruise through Polish Hill, the turns at a car dealership, a strip club, then a prep school. Our dead end street, where I learned to make a three-point turn. My childhood bed, one of the few pieces of furniture that’s survived the purge, sags and creaks and gives me a bad back, so I sleep in my brother’s room. There, my mother has left me a box of clothing: a mustard-colored sweater, a polyester bias-cut dress, a deep salmon silk slip. Her shrugging off of clothing is habitual, a seasonal ritual. I’ve learned, when I visit, to leave room in my suitcase for her hand-me-downs. In Ann Arbor, I pass off my own unwanted T-shirts and high heels to Goodwill and Kiwanis, to no one who knows me. READ MORE


Grandpa and His $2 Bills

Two Dollar Bills

My grandpa collected $2 bills. We’d get them from him in birthday cards and at Christmas, and as my cousins and I got older, the dollar amounts grew and I had nearly forgotten about the tradition and how exciting it was to have currency so seldom seen in circulation.

He died nearly 18 months ago after a very quick decline.

We just got back from a family reunion. The first day, Grandma held a trivia contest about Grandpa for the 60 of us. It was super hard—favorite color? I can’t even imagine him having one. There were Korean War questions; questions about his childhood hobbies. My grandfather had talked a lot, just not about the early years of his life, because those were hard years and he didn’t want to dwell. So he spoke mostly of legal cases and clients, his fascination with accounting and tax law coming through loud and clear.

For each correct trivia answer, Grandma handed out $2 bills, some from as far back as 1928 with red printing on the green bills and language about a silver standard. At the end, Grandma revealed a secret: She had found all the special money in a pile in Grandpa’s desk drawer after he died. There were fifty $2 bills in the pile and she gave them all away to her kids, grandkids, great-grands and in-laws.

My grandfather and I weren’t close, because I lived far away and only visited once a year. I felt bad for the trivia answers I missed, and guilty at his funeral for handling things well. But when Grandma explained where the money had come from and why she was gifting it, I got teary. READ MORE


When Christmas Doesn’t Feel the Same

I never believed in Santa. Seeing my dad or uncle march into the living room on Christmas Eve wearing a baggy Santa Claus costume and a garbage bag stuffed with wrapped gifts was all the proof I needed to know that the holiday was absolute magic.

We’re a Christmas Eve family, always have been. My mom and her three sisters lived near each other, so they took turns hosting every year. Like at any decent Hispanic party, the adults would blast music, drink and yell “Wepa!” while the kids did their own thing — mainly, sugaring up as much as humanly possible and plotting ways to convince our tipsy parents that yes, it was midnight and could we pleaaaase start opening gifts already?

Eventually they’d relent and we’d all gather on the floor near the tree. One of the older kids or a parent would be the announcer, grabbing a gift from the stack and calling out the name of the recipient. After each name was called we’d whoop and holler and applaud, and the person would get up to claim their present, hugging the gift giver in thanks. In my grown up mind, I like to think this tradition made us more grateful for each other and our hard-working parents, not some bald white dude.

But back then, it was really only a means to get to our toys faster. We couldn’t imagine how friends we knew and kids we saw on TV went to bed early on Christmas Eve and waited all night long to see what they’d scored. In the wee hours of the morning, we’d all pass out and the next day everyone would find their way home, then gather again later for sancocho or a similarly huge meal.

In 2001 everything changed.



The Poverty-Stricken Half-Jewish Brooklyn Christmases Of Our Youth

Holy Night, The West Wing: Gangsters in Old Timey Brooklyn

I have never thought of myself as Christian. Even before my Catholic mother definitively settled the custody battle by leaving the state without warning, I had spent enough time and high holy days with my father’s urbane, agnostic Jewish clan on Long Island to establish my identity as a New York Jew. Now, having married and divorced a Jew, and raising my two kids Jewish, I am the one who stands firm against assimilation, telling my boys that Santa does not come to our house. What I don’t tell them is that I have a strangely sentimental relationship with Christmas, and a fond childhood memory of the most goyishe of goy holidays.

There was a time when my mom wasn’t around, the stretch when cocaine addiction and other demons caused everything to fall apart and sent her back to the reluctant care of her mother in Iowa. When that happened, I was seven years old and New York City was my whole world. Iowa was a concept without substance, a void you could call on the telephone and fill up with notions. Since it was fall when my mom disappeared there, and December when she started calling and telling me about the snow and the country quiet she could see through the window from her bed, Iowa turned into a sort of abstract Christmastime wonderland in my head.

After she left, my mom also told me why she had left. It was an absurd, horrible story, about how some enemies of hers from the Portland, Oregon, branch of the mafia (I know) had hired my father and grandfather to break into her apartment in Brooklyn and inject a huge amount of cocaine into her nose with one of those four-pointed needles they use to give tuberculosis vaccines, so that her inevitable death would look like an overdose (I know!). But of course, my mother’s flinty midwestern grit was too great for them, and though she collapsed and hit her head on a typewriter and didn’t wake up for days, she survived and fled to Sioux City.

I didn’t know what to make of this narrative, which, among other things, apparently placed me in the care of a schlumpy, overweight computer programmer who moonlighted as a mob hit man. I loved my dad too much to believe that he really could have done this, but I loved my mom too much to think she was lying. Also, I was seven. READ MORE


When the Holidays Aren’t Really Your Thing

Shattered Ornaments

When you tell people that you don’t like Christmas, they automatically think you’re a monster. “Everyone likes Christmas!” they say, their eyes wide as they slowly step back. “What could you possibly not like about Christmas! Its the best time of the year!” I am usually prepared with a laundry list of reasons why Christmas—or any holiday, really—isn’t my thing. I find that rattling this off incenses them further. Usually, these conversations happen at various holiday events, all of which I attend not because I care deeply about the season, but because I love a good party. I shrug in an attempt at explanation, and try, very hard, to change the subject.

Christmas is a weird time of year, full of stress and joy and financial worry. Christmas means spending time with family, sure, but it also feels like enforced over-spending, harried shoppers Sephora after work, clutching armfuls of gift sets. A gift is a wonderful thing to give and a wonderful thing to receive, but I think it’s much more special when it’s spontaneous. A gift for a friend, purchased because you saw it in a store and thought they would like it is nice. It showcases a generosity of spirit and a kindness that the holiday season, with its constant sales and flashing lights, lacks. Christmas gifts are purchased often out of habit. It’s December, there are sales, you will have to go home and spend time with your family, and they will have bought you socks and maybe a bathrobe. You will give them something that you think they need, but really probably already have because they are your parents, and ostensibly, can buy whatever it is they need or want for themselves. So, we buy things to give at this pre-ordained time, because it is customary. These things accumulate in corners of empty houses, gathering dust, still in the plastic. These things are eventually thrown out, and room is made for new things. READ MORE


What It’s Like to Work as a Professional Frozen Food Taster

Originally published March 25, 2014.

Matthew is a 24-year-old freelance illustrator and a former professional “sensory panelist” for a frozen foods company. We recently talked about his experience eating french fries and other frozen fried foods for four hours a day, three days a week over the course of eight months. “I’d come home with huge blisters in my mouth from the salt,” Matthew said. He earned $4,200.

Mike: How did you get this job in the first place?

Matthew: I do freelance art, but in order to stay afloat I have to take odd jobs whenever my cash flow is low. I was browsing my college’s alumni job board, and a temp agency had posted an ad titled, “Would you love to eat food for a living?” and I figured it was worth a shot. I applied, and after an initial interview at the temp agency, I was invited to go down to the company’s headquarters for further testing.

Mike: What is the application process like for this?

Matthew: The first application was all questions about your history with food: “How many times do you eat fast food a month?” “Describe the last great meal you ate.” “How would you describe mayonnaise to someone who has never tasted mayonnaise?”

Mike: How would you describe mayonnaise to someone?

Matthew: I think I said “eggy, creamy notes, vinegar tang.” I wowed them.

Mike: I believe it!

Matthew: And for the second interview they put us in this long hallway-shaped room with special sensory lights that show the full spectrum of the rainbow. Every shadow has RGBV, it was sort of bizarre. In the room there is a long desk with dividers, and in each divider there is a sliding door and a light switch, and they gave us trays of different taste solutions, and asked us to identify which was which. When we were done with a test you’d hit a light switch and a new tray would appear from through the window—salt solutions that you’d put on a scale, bitter solutions, etc. It had a nice dystopian future sort of feeling.

Mike: So it was mostly, “What do these mystery liquids taste like?”

Matthew: Some of them were just basic tastes, salt, sour, and bitter. Other solutions had different flavorings or spices and we had to identify them and give food associations: anise, orange, lemon, cherry, etc.

Mike: You passed the test, obviously.

Matthew: Yes!



A Bridge and Tunnel Holiday


There’s a phrase some city kids use to describe the suburban teenagers that flock to New York City on weekends: “bridge-and-tunnel kids.” It means uncool, unwelcome, poser, trying too hard. City kids head to subway stations and bus stops at the end of the night, but the B&T crowd retreats to the uncompromising fluorescent light of Penn Station to wait for the next train home.

I’ll be tracing that same route again this week as I head home for the holidays, shuffling along 34th Street and down into Penn Station with the rest of the Christmas Eve crowd. I’ll probably run into old classmates or their parents, and almost certainly a former coach or teacher. It’s so strange to be a commuter now, heading east at the end of the day while packs of giddy teenagers hop westbound trains into Manhattan. READ MORE


A Plot of Land of One’s Own

Baby Boom vermont

The photograph is a casual, half-assed shot of pale young trees at knee height. Without a house at their center, photographs of land for sale seem almost pointless. It’s easy to imagine the realtor rolling her eyes and snapping pictures of the sky, a puddle, the horizon. The parcel is 54.2 acres, priced at $69,700 down from $88,000, in an area normally three or four times that price. I take a deep breath and, sitting in a San Francisco cafe, start to do the math on an imaginary mortgage in Vermont.

In blue pen, on the back of training handouts, I draw three columns. Incoming, outgoing and running total over the next six months. I ignore any ‘likely’ but unconfirmed pieces of freelance work, and round up the property tax the agent quoted.  It is … tight.

Worse than tight, it is tantalizingly possible. There are whispers in my head. Trust in the universe. Then I think of foreclosure signs in lawns, of losing everything that’s taken years to gather. I’m a single freelancer, and for the last three years I have had a health plan of travel insurance and crossed fingers. That seems enough trust-in-the-universe for one woman. I double-check my arithmetic and then draw some stars and hearts and dollar signs around the margins, just in case. READ MORE


What Happens When One of Your Coworkers Dies

Originally published Dec. 19, 2013.

The first thing that happens is someone tells you.

It’s Tuesday, it’s February, it’s my first day back at work after a week on vacation. I notice the candle in the foyer just as the whoosh of the door blows it out. They never did that for my birthday, I think as I walk past reception.

This is my job. It’s a publisher, we make coffee table books about movies, architecture, political issues that lend themselves to stock photography. Most of us think of ourselves as writers, though that is not really what we do anymore.

Dominic is the one who tells me. He and Naomi are here already, sitting at opposite desks, leaning in like they’re playing Battleship. Dominic bikes here from some distant suburb I’ve never heard of, then showers and changes into the same thing every day: pressed white shirt, pastel v-neck, khakis, loafers. I’ve never been here early enough to see what he’s wearing when he arrives.

“Hey there Mike,” he says. His Dutch accent sharpens the th’s into d’s. Hey der. He turns off his monitor and swivels toward me.

Naomi looks up, holding a mug dangling two teabag strings. She moved here three months ago from Australia, she still has that new-hire enthusiasm, the “let’s make great books!” gusto we’re all waiting to wear off.

“Well hello, Mike!” she says as I de-layer at my desk—hat, scarf, gloves—and turn my computer on.

She’s about to say something else, but Dominic gives a little traffic-cop hand wave and she stops.

“Mike don’t open your e-mails,” he says.

That’s when I notice that our office has a candle in it too.

“You need to know,” he says, trails off, starts again, “that Colin has passed away.”



The Cost of Stress Baking


Whenever I have to update my resume, send out cover letters, or look for new jobs, I find other productive activities to distract me from the stress. By far, baking is my favorite way to procrastinate. At the end, I have proof of my efforts that I can then devour, which is much more satisfying than sending applications out into a void only to receive auto-generated confirmations that someone might read them someday. This might not be the smartest stress management method, especially during periods of unemployment, but it has been a consistent part of my career.

June 2011
Career move: Paid work to go with my unpaid internship
Results: Two loaves of banana bread, one with chocolate chips ($20); multiple batches of chocolate chip cookies ($25), one job as a line cook

Immediately after graduating from college, I moved in with my boyfriend in Philadelphia to take an unpaid internship at a publishing company. I worked there two days a week and in the meantime needed to find a paying part-time job. For the first few weeks I frequently home alone while my boyfriend went to work. Between filling out job applications, I had a lot of time on my hands to watch the Food Network and bake. I found a job at a coffee shop a few blocks away, but before I could learn how to properly froth milk, one of the line cooks quit. The job lasted the length of the internship and taught me how to make excellent egg sandwiches. READ MORE