Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Peeburgerheatwave

I'm not so great at the sleeping lately. It's too hot here. And it's too sad here. Stupid, sad, hot, Alabama days. I always feel like I've got a thick rubber band around pieces of my body. They slip around to new locations all the time. Right now they are sitting just below my rib cage and around my right hip.

I locked myself out of the house yesterday. It's my 'thing', being locked out of the house. Some people like to wear a particular color. My mom made navy blue her 'thing' for two decades. Some people only eat organic food. My little brother likes to collect tennis shoes so much that he would rather be (and therefore, he is) homeless than go without, it's his 'thing'. My little sister would rather risk a life of painful hospitalizations than swallow a pill. Most people have a 'thing'.

Like I said, my 'thing' is being locked out of the house. During times of really high stress I can do it more than once a month. That's how you can tell the real me from all other imitations. When in doubt, ask my suspected impostors how many times they have locked themselves out of their apartment in the last six months. If the number they give you is anything less than four, shoot first and ask questions later.

Yesterday, I locked myself out in the usual way. I sat down to tie my shoes and left the keys on the hall steps. In a weird way I kind of like it, being locked out. It makes me feel self-sufficient like I might finally get the opportunity to live on dandelion greens and my credit card (For some reason I never leave my purse or phone in the house). However, I do not like having to get back in. My landlord doesn't like it either. I also don't like having to walk two miles to work on day seven of a triple-digit heat wave.

Birmingham has almost no public transportation. It is kind of Birmingham's 'thing', being the city that requires a car and yet has a significant number of residents well below the poverty line. I went down to University street to wait for the DART trolley. I've seen them on the street but I've never ridden on one. Yesterday was no exception since, after 20 minutes of waiting for the non-existent trolley, I decided that I might as well melt on the move.

I crossed University by St. Vincent's so that I could have continuous sidewalk access on my journey. As I was crossing, a man came from McDonald's and ambled up to the corner. He about 40, wearing dark, crisply pressed, jeans and a tucked-in white t-shirt. While he was waiting to cross the street he began to eat a hamburger he pulled from a paper bag. He balled up the burger wrapper and dropped it on the ground at his feet. I was standing about five feet behind him. I idly considered saying something about the wrapper but didn't really have any desire to follow through with the impulse. It was too hot to hassle, already 101 F, and who cares if you drop burger wrappers at the apparent gates of hell? Good thing too because it was a long light and we had to stand there for a while. It would have been awkward to have an after-school-special exchange about littering followed by standing around on the corner. Plus, he started peeing on himself while he ate his sandwich so that would also have been a little weird too, if we had made eye contact.

A steady stream of urine was dripping from his jean cuff, pooling under one foot and then trickling down the sidewalk. It caught up the burger wrapper and pushed it out into the street before the walk signal appeared. To my surprise, I was much more freaked out that he kept eating his sandwich than that he was peeing on himself. I think I would have had to stop chewing to concentrate. He looked from side to side but if he saw me behind him I didn't catch it because I was too busy staring at his feet.

The light changed and he walked halfway into the street and then politely paused for a few cars making a right turn. I let him get ahead of me and then stayed behind him, walking as slowly as I possibly could. He didn't weave in his path and continued to pull burgers from the bag, eat them and toss the wrappers into the street. After two blocks the bag was apparently empty and that too was discarded on the sidewalk. To people driving by, I must have looked like the insane one, walking by barely putting one foot in front of the other, clutching my book bag.

He finally sat down in one of the stairwells of the project housing that lines the street. I hoped he would move on before I reached him. He was still sitting there as I drew closer. I sped up my pace to a ridiculous power walk and caught his eye as I blazed past him. I broke into a run when I hit the next crosswalk just in case he had followed me. I felt silly when I got to the other side. I was sweating and out of breath with lungs burning from the street exhaust. Silly. I'm still not sure what I envisioned, that he would grab me and pee on me? Or maybe he might demand burgers and a clean pair of jeans. What a terrible thing, to spend a hot day in pee-soaked jeans while University kids run by you on the street.

I thought about him all day. I told a few people the story. Sometimes I thought it was funny. Sometimes I thought I had been very brave. Everyone asked me if he was homeless. That seemed like a strange thing to ask.

"How would I know if he had a home?", I responded.

You can have eight pairs of $300 sneakers and be homeless. There really is no way to tell by looking at someone, you can only guess.

When I got home at the end of the day my landlord had unlocked the door for me and had left me a sweet note about it. I think he felt that the heat was punishment enough for anyone. I fixed myself a bowl of greens and ate them standing in the middle of the kitchen. Then I put a slice of cheese on a cracker and took it into the bathroom. I tried to see if I could eat it while I peed but ended up tossing it in the garbage...who wants to eat a cracker that has been in the bathroom?

My mom called and I told her about being locked out, and the pee-burger guy, and my day at work. We tried to avoid talking about my little brother and sister. Neither one of us can fathom that it got to be as bad as it was, as quickly as it did. We usually try not to talk about it but sometimes it is harder to ignore than a man at a crosswalk peeing on his own feet.

"We did what we could." we reassured each other and then neither of us slept last night.

We both realize that we won't know for some time if they will be okay. There is no way to tell by looking at someone, you can only guess.
Stupid, sad, hot, Alabama days.

Monday, August 6, 2007

My Nekkid Chicken Booty (Part 1: The MnM-I-love-you-song)

Recently, things have changed in my life and it is all very Chinua Achebe meets Charles Dickens. Things fell apart and then a plague of locusts dropped plucky street urchins on my stoop. Or maybe there was some political upheaval and men with guns forced me take cover in my home where I will live out my days, in a four-poster bed while wearing an old wedding dress. Or maybe a new health epidemic arose in the 1980’s and sometime in the 1990’s I decided to get involved for a few weeks. You know, so I might have something to pat myself on the back for. Everyone loves a good deed, almost as much as they love a good epidemic.

In 1997 I was 23 and back in school after 18 months of working then traveling. I hated college. I had always been a truly terrible student, which was in direct conflict with my desired career path, research scientist. I had a sweet, green-eyed, stoner boyfriend, a job in a developmental biology lab, lived in a city where the average summer highs are 75 degrees, and owned my own apartment. When I look back at it now, it seems strange that I was so discontent. I’m 33 now and I am still a student in a biology lab, rent my apartment, it is 96 F outside, I’m single, and I have gained a solid 25 pounds. I have no idea why we can’t all be happier, but I do know that at 23 I was willing to try almost anything to feel more connected to the world at large. When one of my coworkers suggested I volunteer as a camp counselor for two weeks that summer, I jumped at the chance.

AIDS camp. “For Kids and Teens Whose Lives are affected by HIV and AIDS”. I thought that it would be great and of course, noble. I already liked working with kids and my coworker/friend who had suggested it was older, thinner, and cooler than I was. It was flattering. There was an interview with the camp directors complete with questions to make sure that I would be suitable for the job.

There were questions to make sure I could get along with other people:

Q: What do you do in a conflict?
Wrong Answer: Cry like a baby.
Correct Answer: Confront it directly and listen to the other person.

Questions to make sure I wasn’t a religious conservative:

Q: Why do you think AIDS exists?
Wrong Answer: Because God will always punish sodomy.
Correct Answer: Viruses are opportunistic, which sucks.

Questions to make sure I knew something about kids:

Q: What do you like about kids?
Wrong Answer: Their silence.
Correct Answer: Their honesty and spontaneity! (Said with a straight face)

But there were no questions to make sure that I had my own immunity in place. I was never asked if I would be able to walk away once engaged or if I would think twice before taxing my own support system to the utmost limits. By the end of this story I will have dropped out of college two more times, be living in Alabama, have several best friends who no longer be speak to me, and I will have involved my mother in a story that leaves her just as heart-broken as I am.

We are however, only at the beginning. This is Part One, before the drought and locusts. I will introduce you to ‘Froggie’ and tell you that she has AIDS. But she won’t die at the end of this story so it is safe to fall in love with her. You can know that now but we didn’t know that then and for years to follow we waited for her body to stop. We held our breath and alternated between trying no to love her and loving her even more fiercely when guilt and joy got the best of us. By the end of this story she will have been hospitalized multiple times, expelled from school at least once a year, homeless twice, and in her teens will become her own mother’s end-of-life caregiver. But for now she’s safe, and so you are too. It’s okay to love her.

At seven years old her head was the biggest part of her body. The rest was sinew and brown skin. When she stepped out of her clothes she was so tiny it surprised even those people who saw her every day. Her bottom was comprised only of where her legs met her back bone. A shock of wooly hair and large brown eyes were the only things to grab attention from her face splitting grin. Mostly she refused to eat unless it was chicken or pancakes and then she would comfortably consume her own body weight. She was in my cabin, a total pain in the ass and rapidly becoming my favorite.

That summer was unusually hot and the camp lake was overgrown with vicious algae. The campers, especially those few with HIV, weren’t allowed to swim for fear of incurable swimmer’s itch. Everyone was becoming restless and the arts and crafts shed was always overcrowded, being the only cool spot in camp. On the fourth day of camp we decided to take Froggie’s cabin on a hike into the sweltering woods. To call it a hike was a bit of a stretch on our part but it sounded more exciting than “a-little-walk-up-that-hill-by-the-big-tree” and the girls were ready to do anything that was more daring than making paper plate masks.

There were five girls and three counselors. The way up the hill was filled with happy chatter. There was the occasional name-calling but it was mostly ignored by the counselors and enjoyed by the girls. At the crest of the hill we rested, fed them juice and peanuts, and then got ready to head back down. The girls had lost most of their enthusiasm by then and so, to distract them from the heat and dust, one of the counselors started the “I love you” game/song. It was a progressive song, requiring that each person repeated what had come before and then added a new verse. The rules were laid out as follows: “You say ‘I love you like’ and then you say what it is you love. For example ‘I love you like some popcorn’. Then the next person says what you said and adds a verse, like this ‘I love you like some popcorn, I love you like some ice cream’ and so on.”

The girls, between seven and nine years old, took the examples literally and all of the verses involved food.

“I love you like some popcorn
I love you like some ice cream
I love you like some M n’ Ms
I love you like some pizza….”

Froggie, as usual, wasn’t listening but instead was running in circles around the rest of the group as we descended.

“It’s your turn” we told her.
“My turn for what?” she called.
“Your turn for the song.”
“What song?”
And so she was coached through the first four verses, repeating after us:
“I love you like some popcorn
I love you like some ice cream
I love you like some M n’ Ms
I love you like some pizza!”

She looked triumphant at the end and then exasperated when we called her back to hear her verse.

She thought for a moment and then laughed; the voice booming out of her tiny body was as surprising as a gallon poured from a Dixie cup. She did a little dance shaking the air where her hips would be, if she were anything more than vertical.

“I love you like some POPcorn
I love you like some ice CREAM
I love you like some MnMmmmmmmmms
I love you like some Pizz-uh…

AND I LOVE YOU LIKE MY NEKKID CHICKEN BOOOOTY!”

As adults, setting an example for impressionable children, we tried not to laugh and then gave up. Froggie ran down the rest of the hill, leaving a trail of laughter and choking dust in her wake. I was completely charmed and on a path that would change my life forever and throw into question many of the things I thought I knew about America, family, friendship, responsibility, obligation, HIV and love.

I can't always write about this. It's too hard. But from time to time, when I'm feeling strong, I'll try to tell you this story. In the end, it is a story about an epidemic but not about AIDS. I hope I'll be able to show you, through only one family, and my involvement with them, how difficult life can be in America. You might not believe me now, but if I tell it right, if I don't leave out too much, or get caught up in my own issues, you might be able to see how living in this country can be so bad that a life-threatening illness became the closest thing they had to salvation even as it was killing them.

Between the three of them, Dickens, Achebe, and Froggie, they had it right. From Dickens: There is much comedy in tragedy, from Achebe: the randomness of life will not always reward good people and from Froggie: nothing says 'love' like shaking your nekkid chicken booty. Not even Mn'Ms.

The home of water


May 28th, 2007

(old post from the myspace)

It was a stroke of luck that P~ picked up the phone when I called on the 17th of May. It was around 9:30 pm Birmingham time and an hour later in Cape Cod.

“Hey! What are you doin?” she said, sounding more southern than usual.
“I’m about to go skinny dipping” I told her.
“Seriously? I wish I was there! How warm is it?”
“Not warm, it’s freezing actually but we are going anyway.”

We start giggling and I can feel the nerves start to tickle my stomach. Now that I had announced my plans to P~ there would be no going back on it. I was definitely going into the bay.

Before setting out, the leader of our group had reminded us that we had to be quiet as public nudity was a felony. “It is when you do it!” I quipped and for that I was rewarded with cheers. The cheering was followed by good-natured shushing and then more giggling as we set off to the beach on foot.
I kept P~ on the phone with me during the walk.

“How many people is it?” she asked.
I counted and told her we were 23 people, about an equal distribution of men and women and an age span of about 40 years. I whispered to her for the duration of the walk. I told her how fundamentally tired I was and how long I had been working.

When she asked me if the work was worthwhile I replied with, ‘absolutely!’ but in truth, I’m not always so sure. Something about sneaking around in the salt-windy dark made the previous months seem less consequential and less painful. We talked about a mutual friend and how much I missed the both of them after only two weeks. She told me a little about the weather at home, my house plants and quitting her job.

The wind picked up when we rounded the corner to the beach. It hit the mouth piece of my cell phone and P~ gasped, “I can hear it! It sounds so cold there!”

I was still whispering but I increased my volume slightly to compete with the wind.
“We’re walking through some bushes now” I told her, “We have to press our sides into the fence of a tennis court because the path is so narrow. People are disappearing around a corner in front of me…I’m there! I’m here! I’m at the water. I have to go, I wish you were here, can you hear it? I have to go!”
I was babbling with excitement as a fresh surge of wind pushed off the ocean. She was laughing on the other end of the phone. “Go! Go!” she said, breathless, “Bye!”

Later, when I reached my dorm room again I called her back, but she didn’t pick up. In voice mail I told her that it was amazing and great and that I would talk to her soon. Her voice mail cuts you off quickly so I didn’t tell her the following until I returned to Birmingham:

The beach was cold and completely sandy. As I stood there, trying to get my bearings I could hear shouts and laughter coming from the water. It was frightening because the wind and surf muted their calls, making it sound like they had been carried out much further than could be safe. Along the reeds at the top of the beach people were stripping off clothes and running into the waves. They were mostly naked, some clothed but the only thing that marked the distinction was a slight change in the light their bodies reflected from a little sliver of the moon. I removed my shoes, jeans, and tee-shirt but kept my underwear and a tank top on. I told myself that it wasn’t prudish modesty, just practicality and protection from the cold water. I stood there for a second more and then ran, straight into the water, not stopping until it hit my shoulders. I could feel my feet slip and my head went under. For a second I panicked, feeling like I would be swept away, and no one would know I was gone. Then the tide surged forward just enough to plant my feet in the sand and my eyes adjusted to see all of the people bobbing around me. I pulled my clothes off under the water and started laughing.
It was colder than my skin could comprehend and while my brain tried to sort out information about temperature, salinity, motion and time it was unable to think the following things:

1) Graduate school is scary because success is not guaranteed. You can not depend on the outcome.

2) Your family needs you and you are not there. You can not be depended on.

3) Some day soon your little sister will learn that being an adult means being alone, even when you are surrounded by people who love you. You can not always depend on others.

4) Every day something can happen to change everything that came before and love may not fix it. You can depend on that.

My brain put everything aside and for once, just processed the information at hand. The temperature was extremely cold, the salinity was high, the motion was soothing and time didn’t matter. Once that piece of news reached me, I walked out of the bay. I didn’t care that my thighs were still fat and that I was holding my underwear in front of relative strangers. I found my towel just as a naked Swiss man grabbed me in a bear hug.
“We did it! Ja! We did it!”

I couldn’t stop laughing as I pulled on dry clothes. Further up the beach another student heard me laughing. We had butted heads for most of the course but when he spotted me he called out, “Mariya! Did you see me? I did it! Did you see me? I went in!”

I lied, and told him that I had seen him go in. Then I told the truth and said that it was awesome that he went in. I pulled a water bottle full of whiskey from the pocket of my sweatshirt, took a swig and then offered it around. Everyone had some and everyone thanked me for it. The walk back from the beach seemed too short. It was over and already becoming a sandy, damp, ridiculous memory.

When I think about it now it seems a shame that a feeling like that can ever fade. I guess if we walked around thinking, ‘the motion is soothing and time doesn’t matter’ it would be hard to get things done. So now I’m home. It’s hot in Birmingham and the wildfires from Georgia have made a thick haze throughout the city. We are landlocked here, so no ocean to clear the smoke away from our brains and our bodies. Nothing is perfect but one thing did surface from that salty cleansing of my brain. I read it when I was in college it is one of my favorite quotes from Zora Neale Hurston. The day after skinny dipping I woke up with it in the front of my mind.

“Don't you realize that the sea is the home of water? All water is off on a journey unless it's in the sea, and it's homesick, and bound to make its way home someday”

In my perfect world you always know to cut the red wire first.

February-ish 2007

(old post from the myspace)

Yesterday I started to write a new blog entry. It started like this: Well, it's been ages since my last entry but I haven't had any misdemeanors to report.

It's like I willed it to happen. I finished the first sentence and then walked into the lab tissue culture room to set some media warming while I finished my blog. The three other graduate students who I work with were already in the room.

"Just ask everyone!" one student was saying to another.

"Nooooo, that's too weird" the other one replied.

"Ask people what?" I asked.

The first student turned to me and said, "She had some NutriGrain bars and a magazine in her desk that went missing. You haven't seen them have you?"
I laughed and said that I hadn't. Because I'm a jerk I asked what flavor the bars were and told her that she shouldn't have gay porn magazines in her desk anyway. Then, because I'm a really big jerk, I offered to sell the missing bars back to her at a considerable mark-up. The whole point was to tease my labmate about the possibility of someone stealing three NutriGrain bars out of her desk. I mean…they aren't even tasty. She took it in good humor so I asked around the rest of the lab. No one had the NutriGrain bars. The magazine turned out to be a Dell Computers catalogue so that also seemed like a pretty lame item to steal.

We were in the middle of writing a message on a board in the hallway ("did you enjoy the Nutrigrain bars and the Dell Magazine?") and continuing to tease my labmate about her loss (maybe the thief has a crush on you and they are making a shrine!) when a technician in our lab mentioned that she was missing some popcorn out of her desk too. I am really fortunate to work with people whom I trust and respect so at no point did any of us think that it was the work of somebody actually in the lab but we did start to feel creeped out.

I sat down to finish my blog entry, now with exciting news to report, and decided to put my ipod on for inspiration. My ipod was not in my desk and neither was the cord that goes with the ipod, nor the earphones. I informed my boss and called campus police. The man on the other end of the line told me that it might be a while. Half an hour went by and our post-doc discovered that his laptop was missing. Another graduate student was missing a T-shirt and a pair of socks from a desk. Now I felt terrible for teasing about the NutriGrain bars.

I called the police to report the other thefts. We were informed that it would be a while longer before someone could come out to take our report but they couldn't tell us how long it would be.

"Look" the officer said "I don't want to tell you that it will be ten minutes if it might be eleven".

I tell him that we can handle waiting for an extra minute; it's the difference of hours that we're trying to ascertain.

"Yeah, I can't tell you that." He says that the UAB police were all dealing with an incident and they wouldn't be able to help us any time soon. We decide to leave. One of my labmates gives me a ride to my car and on our way there we can see that two city blocks are barricaded and completely saturated with emergency vehicles. Here is what they were doing instead of taking our report…

**************
Police Detonate Suspicious Package At UAB
Friday, Jan 26, 2007 - 12:15 PM by Chris Pallone
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Just after four on Thursday, UAB students left their classes and discovered chaos.
Police got a report of a 'suspicious package' inside the engineering building at the corner of 11th avenue and 13th street south. Streets around many UAB buildings, including the Alys Stephens center, were back open about three hours after the bomb scare ended.

The scare disrupted rush hour traffic, students couldn't get to their cars or classes.

Birmingham and UAB police shut down at least six blocks of the University's downtown campus.

Fire trucks, Haz-Mat vehicles and police cars were scattered everywhere.

Curious onlookers didn't know what was going on.

"I didn't know what to make of it. I just hoped it wasn't in the building I was in." said Heather Torbert a UAB student.

Heather Torbert soon learned police were investigating a suspicious package. Someone had discovered what looked like a bomb in a knapsack, just inside the entrance of a UAB engineering building.

A bomb squad member dressed in a heavy protective suit went in and out of the building several times examining the device. Around 6:30 p.m., they pulled it out onto 13th street and destroyed it.

"We did trigger the device and it turned out not to be real," said Henry Irby from the Birmingham Police Department.

Police say it was a hoax, something meant to look like a real bomb.

For two hours, police prevented Heather Torbert from getting to her car but she finally left campus, glad that nothing bad came from the tense situation.

"It's scary. It's scary. It really is," she said.

Tonight, the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms is leading the investigation into who put this fake bomb in the engineering building, and why."
******************

Why did they blow the backpack up first? In my perfect world the bomb squad would have opened the bag first. I've seen how to do it on TV, you sweat buckets and shake and then you cut the red wire…or is it the blue?

Anyway, in my perfect world:
The bomb squad opens the bag, the air is tense. The lead member of the squad is training a rookie. She's tough but attractive and there has been plenty of jockeying for power position mixed with a little sexual innuendo. They will no doubt sleep together later.

"What do you see rookie?" That's what he calls her. Later, when they move past the animosity she'll ask him to call her by her first name but for now she's just 'rookie'.

"I don't know!" she's shaking but trying to hide it.

"Look, you've got to do this. It's now or never." He's unforgiving.

"Jesus" she says, almost under her breath. "It's…wait."

"There's no time! ID the wires and get them cut NOW!"

He starts to move towards her but she puts her hand up, waving him away.

"I've got an ID. It appears to be an ipod, a laptop that runs on a Japanese operating system, several NutriGrain wrappers, a computer catalogue and a pair of socks."

"GET OUT ROOKIE!! The wrappers are a fuse; it's the Kellogg's cereal bomber. Grab the ipod and GET OUT NOW!"

We see her spring to her feet, ipod in hand, running as if her life depends on it. Her life does depend on it and just as she reaches the safety perimeter the ipod starts to play the Carter Family's 'Let the circle be unbroken'. The backpack explodes. She is thrown into his arms. There is an awkward moment while they look at each other. He releases her and says,

"Good job saving that ipod. The jerk who built that bomb didn't deserve to have such a great collection of tunes. I mean, this thing has got the Carter Family and Nina Simone for chrissakes"

She looks him dead in the eye, confident again.

"Yeah, I guess we're looking for someone who is crazy but has regular bowel movements"

He gives her a questioning look but there is a tinge of respect starting to shine through his eyes.

"Well, the way I figure it, you'd have to be crazy to blow up even a single David Bowie track and those NutriGrain bars will...excuse my french sir...give you the shits."

And that's just the way it happened in my perfect world. Oh, and I want my damn ipod back.

I miss you honey and I can't wait to hear the news of your most recent incident report

Thursday, November 16, 2006

(old blog from the myspace)

I haven't really talked to my best friend since her birthday in early October. We had a falling out in August and recovery has been slow at best. This is a woman with whom I can have a four hour discussion every Saturday even when absolutely NOTHING has taken place in the intervening week. So it has been strange not to communicate with her but then, for a while, talking was even stranger. We've been trying to reconnect and have been playing a little half-hearted phone tag as a result. She's got a new beau to keep her busy and I'm dating graduate school (no, not SOMEONE at graduate school or the WHOLE graduate school. Basically, 'graduate school' is my surly, crappy, boyfriend and it keeps me busy) so it has been easy to avoid an actual conversation.

I don't normally mention this kind of thing much in a venue like the web-log. It is personal, and not just to me, so I won't say much more about it…except, one way that she has been able to keep up with me as I go incommunicado is to read my blog. The danger in judging my life by the blog is that I appear spend my days going from a party to witnessing a misdemeanor to another party and so on. It's kind of disturbing and I hadn't noticed the trend until she called me last night. I was glad to see her number on my cell phone and, although I was otherwise engaged, I answered her call.

"Hey, I'm not ignoring you but can I call you right back? I'm busy."
"Sure!" She sounded cheerful, "What's going on?"
"I'm filling out an incident report with police"
"Again?" she said.
"What?"
"Well I just got done reading your blog."
"Ah, right. Yeah, again. I'll call you right back, kay?"

This is why it is important to keep your dear friends around for the rest of your life. If you lose them, then who will remind you of the patterns in your world? I would have completely missed the point that I was participating in an incident report for the second time in less than two weeks. I was caught up in the moment.

That particular 'moment' had started about 45 minutes before the incident report. I was watching TV. It was showing me a story about a man who wakes up every day in the same day but with the ability to affect different (violent) outcomes. I liked it; it's a lot like graduate school. You wake up every day with a sense of what you are going to do differently to achieve success and instead you learn six new ways to screw up your data. But back to last night, there was a lot of noise in the TV show that sounded like a windshield being bashed in with a baseball bat so when that same noise was talking place outside my apartment, I didn't notice it at first.

When the TV switched to showing me a commercial of children smiling in silence I realized that there was something wrong on my street. I jumped up and looked out my living room window to see if my car was okay. It was. Then I looked across the street just as a man who had been crouching on the ground looked up at me and started running down the street. I ran to my back room and watched him run. He made relatively slow progress since it was raining and he had chosen to run down one of the few really steep streets in Birmingham.

I ran back to my front of room to pull on a pair of jeans and to call my downstairs neighbor. She came outside with me and we went over to the car in question. To my surprise, it looked fine and for a second I felt sort of silly. Other neighbors were coming out of their apartment buildings including my neighbor, Fred-the-Grillmaster.

"Ohhhh, lookit that tire!" someone said and then I saw it. The front tire of the car, a cobalt blue mustang, had been punctured. Looking down the street we could see another car that had lost its front tires and was pointing nose-down into the asphalt. I was surprised that it made so much noise to slash a tire. It was a dull popping sound and I had expected to see broken windshields when I heard it. I called the police and told them that we thought we had seen the guy who was responsible; they said they would be right out.

By the time the police arrived the mustang had finished sinking into the road. Three of its tires were slashed as were three tires on the SUV a few cars down. One of the neighbors knew who owned the SUV so the owner was now standing out in the street with us. He was barefoot and wearing a t-shirt with the sleeves cut off. I don't say this to criticize his outfit, (I was wearing an oversized, bright red Dale Earnhardt Jr. nightshirt over my jeans) but rather to point out that he was mad enough that the rain didn't even seem to faze him. The mustang belonged to his girlfriend.

When this piece of information was revealed, the rest of the neighbors all exchanged a look. Fred asked Mr. SUV if he and Ms. Mustang had any enemies. Mr. SUV swore that this was not a possibility, they had just moved to Birmingham and no one knew his girlfriend's car. Fred tried to look like he believed Mr. SUV. It was funny to watch the two men interact. Mr. SUV was about 6'4", white, and extremely skinny. Fred is black, about 5'7" and weighs around 300 pounds. He had just returned from his job as a janitor and, because he walks to work, he was wearing a yellow rain jacket that reached his past his calves and a matching yellow rain hat. Imagine the love child of Paddington Bear and the Gordon's Fishsticks Fisherman.

The police officer who showed up only contributed confusion to our little group. He was fairly young, early 30's at the most. He walked over to the first car and said,
"Oh, geeze! Oh man! What is WRONG with people? That guy must have been a real slimeball; I mean…that's a MUSTANG!"

This was not encouraging to hear since: a) he must have learned his dialect from watching the Andy Griffith show and b) the murder rate in Birmingham has jumped in the last month to several killings a week. One might imagine that there are more disturbing things happening in the city than a few slashed tires but then, maybe it is different when it is a mustang. I'm not really a car girl.

When he was done riling up the car owners with more exclamations of regret, the police officer took our statements. We gave him conflicting descriptions (he was tall/ short/ white/ black/ young/ older/ clean-cut/ had a mustache) and when we were finished he asked each of us if the guy looked like "a real wacko" or "a total slimeball".

Frankly, I was starting to suspect the police officer. Who says "slimeball" and "real wacko" under the age of 60?

It was around this time that my best friend called. I was giving my home address to the officer and I stuck around for a few minutes just to see if Ms. Mustang and Mr. SUV would own up to who might have slashed their tires. There were two cars parked in between theirs and a total of about twenty cars on the street which were left unharmed, pretty coincidental coincidence. However, no additional gossip was revealed so I went back into my house in time to see the hero of the TV show wake up once more to the same day only this time he had been shot in his chest.

The TV ended the story, changing to Birmingham local news and a trial involving a triple homicide. I turned the sound off and thought about how I would write about the tire slashing in this blog and what I would say to my friend when I called her back. There have been a few other happenings in my life aside from parties and misdemeanors. A little bit of stress, some academic failure, some academic success, a sinus infection, some old heartbreak and a few funny stories along with worries from the family at home. Somehow those things have gotten left behind when we try to talk lately. My phone rang and it was her.

"Hi!" she said, "So I couldn't wait to hear about your latest incident report! Wait, are you okay? What happened?"
"Oh, it was no big deal. Someone had their tires slashed and I saw the guy. I think it was the police officer drumming up business for himself or maybe a jilted lover getting revenge. It doesn't matter really."

I gave her the synopsis of the evening. She told me her reaction to the Greyhound bus story. We paused. It was there again, that sticking point. For several minutes I talked while I stuffed my mouth with an entire roll of Mentos, three at a time. We chattered a little, making inane jokes, and then I finally took a deep breath and said, "You know, really things are okay. I'm mostly fine these days. There have been one or two things going on though. Listen…."

And she did.

Since when do you have a crack baby?

November 10th, 2006

(old post from the myspace)

Last week I went to Nashville for a conference. I gave my first talk at a national meeting. I did not burp into the microphone so by my standards it was a roaring success. There are other things I would like to tell you about that meeting but I can't. I want to keep my job. Just know that, if you ever have a chance to go line dancing with about 60 scientists, you should do it.

What I can tell you is that our banquet was held in the Country Music Hall of Fame. I love that place. If you think that American culture is a compilation of the lowest common denominators (Brad Paisley, velveeta cheese, televised award shows) then this museum will blow you away. Early country music was full of color and energy. Some of the people involved were flat ugly to look at but so sweet to hear. My favorite exhibits at the museum: Koko Taylor videos (Fujiyama Mamma) and Elvis' car with recording equipment in the back seat and real crushed diamonds and gold in the paint. Okay, so maybe some of America's culture was built on some wildly tacky sh*t but as far as low denominators go, ours can be pretty cool.

Of course, there are those lowest common denominators which do not make it into the Country Music Hall of Fame. I'm convinced that those particular "denominators" are all on their way down to Orlando, Florida via the Greyhound Bus. Which brings me to this question- If you could be in any one of the following three places would you prefer to be:

1) Walking at night in Birmingham's Five Points neighborhood when a strange man pulls out his penis and shakes it at you.

2) At your ex-boyfriend's wedding while his mother tells you how forgettable you were/are.

3) On a Greyhound bus heading towards Huntsville, Alabama.

If you picked anything other than the Greyhound bus you were correct. The last day of the conference I decided to skip my ride home with the boss and stick around Nashville for a few extra hours. I have a good friend who lives there and we hadn't had much time to catch up during the conference. We checked out the Vanderbilt campus and then had a nice lunch. I had already reserved my bus ticket for later that afternoon but we got to the bus station early just to be safe.

I was filling out luggage ID tags when we overheard one side the following cell phone conversation: "Well just send me some money. No….send me some money. I have to get out of here! No. No. I can't stay here okay? No I can't go back there. I already TOLD you, if I go back to Alabama I'll be arrested, they got a warrant out for me. Well forget that. He owes me a shit-load of money, just take a hundred, hundred-fifty bucks out of the register and wire it to me! Hello? Hello? Hello? Hello? F@CK!"

My friend and I exchanged a look. All I could think was that at least phone-dude wouldn't be on my bus because I was definitely going back to Alabama. The man continued to make phone calls, demanding money and alternately cajoling then threatening to "get completely wasted" if the person on the other end didn't help him.

Meanwhile, two little boys were throwing themselves onto the filthy lobby floor, using their jackets to slid face first into each other. I couldn't figure out who had brought them. There were a number of lethargic men and women in the vicinity but no one seemed to be looking at the boys. They had something about the way their faces were formed that suggested low birth weight and fetal drug addiction. My friend and I stood next to each other for a minute, not saying anything, just taking it all in. "What are you thinking?" I asked him. He raised his eyebrows and said "I'm thinking that I've never been so freaked out in a place before and I just spent a month alone in Africa."

We didn't say much for the rest of the wait. I kept insisting that I was fine and that he could go and he would look around the lobby, smile tightly, and insist that he didn't mind staying. I was relieved when we could finally line up for the bus and he could be released from his uncomfortable vigilance. We said goodbye and I promised to call when I got in. "So if you don't call…by what time should I assume that you've been murdered?" he asked.

No one sat next to me on the bus. The floor-sliding boys were there, just a few seats behind me. They had an old woman and a ten-year-old girl with them. The smaller of the two boys was about four or five. He was having a hard time sitting still. His grandmother grabbed him by the throat and pushed his head back into the seat. He was gagging and she was growling into his upturned face "You sit down you hear me you sit down you hear me you sit down you hear me you sit down you WILL sit down do you hear me…" She finally released his head with a final push into the seat. Able to breathe again, he started coughing and crying which only earned him a slap. I sent a text message to my friend "woman on bus hitting child thanks for lunch was great!"

The bus started out of the station and we were informed that we couldn't smoke, take illegal drugs or consume alcohol. Someone opened a bottle of nail polish and the driver informed us that we couldn't do that either due to improper ventilation. The crack-babies were running up and down the aisle. Their grandmother vacillated between ignoring them, feeding them candy and hitting them. About 30 minutes into the ride, the littlest boy jumped into the seat next to me.

"Me a story" he said. He was holding the cover insert to an Avril Lavigne CD. There wasn't really a story there so much as several mopey pictures of a skinny white girl so I made one up. When we got to a picture of Avril lying on a cot I told him that the little girl was sleeping because she was tired from changing her clothes for all those pictures.
"She not sleepin' she dead" he told me.
"No, she's sleeping."
"She dead cause they kill her dead and she's dead".

He was a creepy little boy.

"Little boy, what is your name?" I asked him.
"L'boy, my name is li'l boy" he said.
"No, your name is not little boy. You must have a name, what do they call you?"
"My name IS LI'L BOY!" He seemed angry.
"I don't think so," I said.
"My name is LI'L BOY and yo name is UGLLLLYYY li'l Girl!"
At that point he looked very pleased with my facial expression and decided to crawl into my lap for a short nap.

My new crack baby had just wandered back to his grandmother when voices rose up from the back of the bus. I ignored them in case they were also proclaiming my homeliness. A man walked to the front of the bus and spoke to the bus driver but then went back to his seat. Moments later the voices rose again and this time I could make out someone saying, "I warned you!"

The man from the back of the bus came to the front again only this time he was yelling "Bus driver I told him and told him, it's about to go down!" The driver pulled the bus over. We were somewhere in Alabama, not yet to Huntsville, and it was early but completely dark outside. By the time the driver got out of his seat a fist fight had broken out. I called my friend to tell him that there was a fight on the bus and I might be a bit late getting home. Li'l Boy decided that this would be a perfect time to start running up and down the aisle again. When he ran by me I hauled him by the back of his pants into the seat next to me. I was afraid he would be trampled. I hung up on my friend and tried to keep LB-Crack Baby in his seat with the promise of cheetoes. He was indignant. His body went completely stiff and then completely limp as he threw himself into the aisle just in time to trip the bus driver on his way back up to the front. I sent him back to his grandmother and gave them the bag of cheetoes and a handful of starburst that were lurking in my book bag.

The fight seemed to be over and bus started moving again. When we pulled into the Huntsville station a few minutes later the police were waiting for us. The man blamed for instigating the fight turned out to be completely soaked in booze. How they even let him on the bus is a mystery to me. According to the people involved he had taken it upon himself to harass a nine year old boy who was traveling with his father. We waited for the police to arrest him and make an incident report before we finally loaded up again and headed for Birmingham.

I called my friend back to apologize for hanging up on him.
"Are you okay? What happened?" he asked.
"I had to get my crack baby out of the aisle to keep him from getting trampled" I explained.
"Since when do you have a crack baby?"
"Since this bus ride."
"You know, it's never boring when we hang out" he told me, but it didn't totally sound like a compliment.

The rest of the bus ride was more uneventful but stinky. A woman across the aisle from me talked to herself constantly in a low hiss but I tuned it out and fell asleep, clutching my purse. Strangely, no one sat next to me even though the bus was nearly full after Huntsville. Probably the fact that I had showered that very day was putting them off or maybe no one wanted to sit next to an ugly li'l girl. What ever it was, I was grateful. P picked me up at the station, wisely choosing to bring her big black dog. She warned me that he was in need of a bath but I just laughed.

"Trust me" I told her, "I can't smell a thing."

B'ham, you are on your way to being the strangest place I've ever been to (and I've been places)

Monday, October 02, 2006

(old post from the myspace)

I swear that Birmingham is not the strangest place I've ever been to. The Corn Palace in Mitchell, SD is stranger. But Birmingham might be the strangest place I've ever lived in. I don't say that lightly. I once lived in Vienna, Austria and those people buy milk you can leave on the counter for days and all of their local wine comes in bottles that say either Rot or Weisse. Plus they yell at you if you can't remember the word for "stamp" in German. Apparently asking for "A small piece of paper with glue which I will to you pay 90 schillings and use to send this letter to my mother in America" is annoying to them. Don't even get me started on the mean old ladies in fur coats with teeny dogs or the rendered goose fat that they spread on bread or the way there is NO live music other than the symphony....I digress.

Point is, I once lived in a city that puts corn on pizza but made fun of me for bringing homemade brownies to a party and I still find Birmingham to be the stranger place.

Example: Friday night I went out with M~. She's a huge Karaoke fan so we started the night at Starz. I hadn't been there before, probably because karaoke makes me so nervous that I get light headed. Unfortunately/fortunately I was the designated so there was no way that I was going to be drunk enough to perform a song. This did not keep me from doing it anyway. I think I felt bad that M~ was out with a total karaoke-pooper. I droned Mazzy Star's "Fade into You". My knees literally knocked together and the KJ put flashy lights up in my face, maybe to pep up my rendition. If you want to know what I sounded like, pick a note. Make it any note but not your favorite note and then sing any song but only with that note. That will sound better than I did.

Not long afterwards the bar started filling up. Some people were pretty good but most weren't. It was fun once I started breathing again. There was a guy there who kept dropping by our table to do magic tricks. Card tricks mostly and one trick that involved lighting a quarter on fire which ultimately didn't work but we didn't care because of the entertaining fire.

By far my favorite people of Starz were the girly-girls. (I know there is a theme emerging in this blog and it is: Mariya-makes-fun-of-girls-with-smaller-hips-and-better-fashion-sense-than-she-has. What's your point?)
So there were lots of girly-girls there. I insisted that they were all coke-heads but M~ told me that they were from Samford and were able to be that ridiculous on one and a half beers. Each and every one picked a "sexy" song. The best was a rendition of Kelli's' "Milkshake". Two girls got up to perform that one. There was a fat one, about a size 8, and a thin one, wearing a size 2 but it was falling off of her. They didn't know any of the words except for the chorus but the dancing was magnificent. The Thin One attempted a jelly-shake but not having any jelly it was possible to hear her bones knocking together. At one point I thought she was collapsing, having used up the very last of her energy stores. I actually stood up to see if she was going to be okay but it turned out that she was just dropping it like it was hot and not falling over from hunger.

Actually, I was the one who was falling over from hunger so I dragged M~ out of Starz and over to midnight sushi at Sakura. The place is under new ownership and I do really like what they have done with the d├ęcor and the menu. They have lots more veggie choices now. The staff however, is still just as underpaid and over utilized as they ever were. M~ and I sat at the sushi bar and got to witness several staff meltdowns between cooks and waiters. The place was slammed and people started to leave when their food never arrived. At one point, the sushi chef standing in front of us took the lid of a rice pot and banged it down over and over in response to a particularly annoying waitress. But we survived, got our food (very) eventually, and had a nice chat in the process.

We left around 1:30 AM and although it was Friday, Five Points was definitely emptying out. I was just saying to M~ that I regretted parking so far from the restaurant when we heard a commotion to our left. In the street next to us was a yellow cab with the back door open. The cab driver was in the driver's seat. In the back seat was a man half lying in the cab while outside a second man was trying to pull him to the curb by his pant legs. The man still in the cab was yelling "you can't make me!" over and over. The second man reached into the cab and tried to pull the first man out by his collar. At that point the first man changed his cry to "I will cut you! I will f@$king CUT YOU!" while kicking the other man in the nuts.

I chose to run across the street in the opposite direction, forgetting that M~ was wearing heels. We crossed into a red light and I heard her clack-clack-clacking behind me but neither of us was hit by a car. We were however, regretting our (my) choice a moment later. The street was pretty much deserted except for us and one other person. He was walking towards us with a very purposeful step. M~ and I were a little nervous and both of us picked up our speed when we saw him. Out of the corner of my eye I could see him reaching for something at his waist band and I was pretty sure it was going to be a gun. We tried not to look at him directly and kept walking. Both of us breathed a sigh of relief when we could hear his footsteps continuing to recede behind us.

"Just so I'm clear, that was his penis right?" She has a very charming southern accent so "penis" came out sounding like "pay-nuhs".

"Yeah, M~. He just shook his dick at us."

"Oh, I didn't want to look directly at it in case it was a gun."

She considered for a second and then added, "Or a penis, I also didn't want to look directly at a penis."

We were nearly to my green Rolla when a car full of men started hooting at us. I wasn't fazed; they kept their pants on or, if they were pant-less, they at least stayed seated.

So that was our night. Strange, a little scary, but still not as wierd as a whole building covered in corn kernels. Give it a few more weeks, I'm sure Birmingham can live up to the challenge.


Your plywood breasts are cutting my face

Sunday, September 17, 2006

(old post from the myspace)

So graduate school continues to be...continuous, constantly. The work is going well but every day I realize that I am only scratching the surface of what I need to be doing. Here is how I'm handling the situation:

1) Don't panic

2) Work harder

3) If the first two fail you and you still feel overwhelmed, go out for beers with your best friend on Friday afternoon.

4) If the third option still doesn't lift the weight from your chest then when he's not looking, go into the bathroom and start crying.

So that seems to be the plan I have adopted and it's working out nicely. Friday I went to the Mill/Grill/Schmill (I can never remember which it is now) with B. We ordered a pitcher of beer, tortilla chips, and a steaming hot bowl of fat. Right there that should have been enough to ease the rising panic that is grad school but something was off. There wasn't enough cheese in the fat-bowl or something. We were chatting about life and fighting over the last congealed globs when I realized that I was going to start crying.

So I headed for the "ladies" and once there I had a nice little sob. Deeee-lightful. I was rinsing my face when a very tall, very outfitted, woman walked in. She was a quintisential B'ham woman. Her age was somewhere between 21-45. She was painfully thin, blonde, overdressed for a brew pub, and had cleavage that looked harder than Washington's chin on Mt.Rushmore.

I was blowing my nose and wondering why gold necklace belts were once again stylish when she asked me if I was okay.
"I'm great." I said, and then let out a completely pathetic sniffle.
"Oh sweetie!" And the next thing I knew she had used her long stick arms to pull me into her rock-hard boobs. I could feel a blood vessel break in my left cheek.
"Damn! that's going to leave a mark" I thought.
"I'm Amy Jo" she said, as she released me. She was smiling with what I think was supposed to be a benevolent and warm gaze. Instead, it reminded me of a TV commercial and I was the particularly well-performing dish soap.

"Listen, sweetie, I know it doesn't look like it but I have been through some real tough times. See this?" she was pointing to her mascara which would have been hard to miss in a black-out.
"Uh-huh" I was rubbing the circulation back into my cheek.
"Well it's waterproof! Because you believe me, I have cried before!"

It was sort of cute really. I decided that she must be in her mid-twenties and although her sympathy was really unwelcome, it was at least sincere. I was just starting to warm up to Amy Jo when she hit me with a wammy even tougher than her chest.

"Do you believe in GOD?"
"Right now I believe in another pitcher of beer Amy Jo."
"You might feel that way now, but in the morning when you wake up, say a little prayer."
I assumed that she didn't mean to the god of porcelain but rather to a giant white man sitting on a cloud.
"And you will hear HIM. HE is real. HE's there for you. Okay?"

I wanted to ask Amy Jo about her 'HIM'. I wanted to know if HE was so great why she felt the need to second guess HIM on the whole breast situation. Also, I'm not sure you can get into heaven while wearing a gold chain belt.

I refrained from saying anything else other than a quick 'thank you'. When I got back to the table it was clear that I had been crying but B didn't press me about it much. We both knew what was happening there. M showed up not long after and we decided to head on to the Blue Monkey. We passed Amy Jo on our way out and she gave me a truely sweet smile with a little wave.

"Wow," said M, "you know everyone!"
And I thought, "True, and I've got the bruises to prove it to you."
Which brings me to the final step in coping with graduate school:

5) If all else fails, have some plywood knockers smashed into your face. It will make you laugh and after that, there is very little that two cool friends and another beer can't fix.

Seattle-homey-home-home-home


Tuesday, August 15, 2006

(old post from the myspace)

So last week I snuck home. Snuck? Sneaked? Snooked? I think it's sneaked.
Whatever, I went home and I only told five people in Seattle. Mom, Alli, my little brother and sister and my friend Pam. One for every full day that I was home. It was all I could handle and I'm glad I limited myself even though there were other people who I would have liked to see (you know who you are).
It was a last minute trip anyway. Hannibal Lecter mice suddenly freed me from the lab (literally, but I can't explain that here). I called my mom nearly in tears. "Get me home, I can come home next week, get me home okay?"

I hate to seem ungrateful. Graduate school is fine lately except how it seems to be taking place under a giant bowl of hot sorghum syrup. The heat, the humidity, the way I can't seem to get anything to really take off in lab, the Hannibal Lecter mice. The so-very-far-away-from-home.

So a week later I was on a plane and by the time I was on my final connecting flight, Birmingham seemed like an elaborate dream. In fact, I slept most of the way to Seattle and when I woke up, Mt. Rainier was standing just outside of the plane window. We observed each other. He told me I looked tired. I told him I was really worried about his snow cover. He looked naked and his foot hills were completely bare. Global mountain denuding. But still, it was good to see him regardless of his lacking modesty.

Momma Jo was there to greet me when I got off the plane. She looked great. Then home to Capital Hill. The city was all shiny eyes and teeth, definatley showing off for me. Every inch was green, temperate, and full of punk kids in subarus (subari?). After homemade mom food and a nap I hooked up with Alli for a Sunday afternoon of total Seattle indulgence. But I couldn't stop laughing. I honestly had to stop on the street to double over and laugh and laugh.

I haven't seen a summer in Seattle in two years. It's soooo cute. Men drinking water out of platypus bottles, with microbrew beer guts and $2,000 bicycles. 30-something punk couples, covered in tattoos, pushing babies in $1300 strollers. Neurotic white ladies marching around capital hill in giant gortex sunhats and long sleeves. All of them, I missed them all.

We walked to volunteer park and watched the people in the park tell their children to "use your words!" and to "try to be more considerate". Snort!

One little girl and boy had two daddies or maybe a Dad and a Poppa. Everyone in the family looked really happy. Ahhhh.

Then off to Liberty. Not "the pursuit of" but Seattle's latest...okay Southerners, you are going to love this...Cocktails, Sushi & Espresso Bar. That's actually how they bill themselves. It was great. We drank some kind of insanely alcoholic drinks and ate little veggie sushi bites with mango in them. Our bartender looked like Ricky Martin and when he told us he was originally from Puerto Rico we tried not to giggle. But he made a mean cocktail and we got to taste all kinds of numbly drinks from the leftovers in his shaker.

Floating out of Liberty and down 15th all I could do was grin like a fool. People were staring. I didn't care. There were still five days left before I had to leave again. It didn't get better than that and as with most trips home; it was much harder at times.

So there is the best moment, not because of my cocktail buzz but because of the everything. The absolutely everything. My best friend is chattering away at me and I know that my mom is looking forward to seeing me walk through her front door in a few hours. My little sister is waiting for my call. The weather is cool enough in the early evening for a light sweater. And there are five days stretching in front of me. I will be hugged every day. I will not have to explain that I am a vegetarian. I will not be the only woman without makeup. I will not stick out in any unfamiliar ways. I am home.

In the days of the underground railroad, 7-layer dip only had one layer...bean (dedicated to P)

Okay, so another story from the reunion:
I had one cousin who showed up to the family registration drunk, and wearing an oversized white-tee. When I say 'oversized white-tee' I mean the damn thing looked like a dress with jeans underneath. I hated the skirpants look (skirt over pants) when it was popular for girls a few years ago, I really can't understand why it has now moved on to men. Anyway, he showed up with a beer and some Hennesy in hand, stinking, and loud. He had to be at least my age. He was politely tolerated but just barely. After watching the family photo DVD we were invited back up to the hospitality suit for some chips and dip. Not having finished the plate of cheese and cantaloupe that I stole from a different family reunion (guilt, I threw it out) I was more exicted about onion dip than usual.

When I got up to the room, cousin white-tee was there, busily scooping up grocery store 7-layer dip. I debated waiting until he was done, since he was still doing his best to look intimidating, but hunger won out and it's hard to be really intimidating when you're wearing a cotton dress over your jeans.

Me: Hi
WT: Hey
Me: Can you tell if there is meat in that?
WT: Yeah.
Me: Yeah there is?
WT: What? No, not in here. My friend's girlfriend makes this and she puts meat in it. I like it when she makes it. It's really good. But there isn't any in this one.
Me: Okay, thanks
WT: Why you askin?
Me: I'm a vegetarian so...
WT: *snorts* Well you know, they couldn't be worrying about that back in them underground railroad days!

I swear that is an actual quote and I will never forget it. He looked me dead in the eye when he said it too. Like I might start crying at the challenge.

I stared back at him and said, "Right. Well I guess it's a good thing we aren't there then. You know, what with the meat they had in the bean dip and the slavery and all."

We left it there.

I considered telling Cousin White-tee that back in the days of the underground railroad slaves used to sing songs and sew quilts that contained the directions to freedom so that they could pass the information along without being caught. Who knows, maybe they also passed along recipes for bean dip that way? I think the words of the old underground railroad song sum it up best:
Folloooooooow the drinking gourd, folloooooow the drinking gourd. For the Old Man is awaitin' for to carry you to bean dip, follow the drinking gourd. Well the river bends between two hills, the ground beef will show you the way, and it's left foot, peg foot, sour cream on, follow the drinking gourd.

But it wouldn't be fair to end the story here. I must say that the next morning, cousin white-tee showed up in the hotel lobby. This time he was considerably more friendly and was wearing his family reunion t-shirt (giant peach on the tummy) tucked into tan dockers with a brown leather belt. He behaved himself for the rest of the reunion and was actually quite pleasant and well spoken. I met his mother the next day. She is a high school teacher, one of many in the family. When I asked her who her children were she introduced me to her 18 year old daughter and then said "My son is the one who had too much to drink yesterday and showed out. Did you meet him?" I admitted that I had, but I left out the part about the bean dip.

Better to save that sort of thing for the internet.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

96 cousins, three aunts later...the family reunion

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

(old post from the myspace)

For an only child who was raised by a single mother, I sometimes have a lot of family. Last weekend I took the Greyhound to Atlanta, GA for a family reunion. It's an amazing group of people. We trace our ancestry back to the mid 1800's and one slave, we are the descendants of her children. It is over 150 years later and we are every color, work in every profession and live in every region of the country. Most of us have only met through these reunions. It is surprising what a word can do. Complete strangers assembled in the downtown Atlanta Hilton and because we said the word 'family' we fell into an ease that is normally reserved for people known for months or years. I will always be amazed by this.

However, before we all wipe a tear from our collective eye, let me remind us that this can backfire. Like when I spent the first 20 minutes of my family reunion with the wrong family. As I was checking in at the front desk, I asked several times where I might find my family.
I repeated it back to the desk clerk, "Suite 550, and I'm in 710. Right?"
"Correct" he lied.

Suite 550 did contain a family reunion of black people who ranged in tone from deep to extremely light, just like my family. They had platters of cheese, pinwheel sandwiches, and fresh fruit. I was starving from the bus ride, so before approaching the registration table I helped myself to several pieces of cantaloupe and cheddar cheese. When I finally introduced myself and discovered that I was NOT in the hospitality suite of the Mc~-G~ family reunion it was too late to put the plate back. I called the front desk from the room phone, clutched my plate of stolen snacks and smiled awkwardly at a completely random family from Austen, TX.
My family reunion suite, the one that contained my actual family, was in 750. When I got there my cousin, Mgn, spotted me and whisked me off to another room. On our way, we ran into a family of four. They were introduced to me and the youngest, a boy of about 12 stepped forward and said "What color are you?".

As a biracial woman, I can tell you that I have spent my entire life answering that question so I responded quickly. Now, if I had paused for half a second, I would have noticed that this boy and his brother were both a mid shade of brown, his father was very light, and his grandmother even lighter than me. But no, I am so used to being asked that by nearly every new acquaintance I meet, "what color are you?" that I gave him my usual response.
"I'm tan. Taupe? I don't know, you're looking at me, what color do I look like?"
He shrank back into his dad and everyone laughed. It was explained that the whole family was playing a game where we had to find the other people in the family who had the same color dot on their nametags. I hadn't received my nametag yet. Ironically, mine was pink. I found my little cousin to tell him which color I was, but for the rest of the reunion he hid whenever he saw me coming.

Later, we watched a DVD of family photos displayed to music. I have cousins who were called Mop and Bucket and Scooter. This would be the first of the five times I saw the DVD over the course of three days. My favorite part was when we would get shushed by the older cousins so that we could look at the pictures. Apparently, looking at pictures requires a complete and collective silence. By the third viewing, I was prepared and looking forward to my 'shuuuushing'. See? Family.

On the night of the family banquet, my friend, B~ came out to meet me. He had called before making the 2.5 hour drive.

"Are you having fun?" he asked.

"I am, but I'm kind of tired."

"You sound a little tired. Were you up late?"

"No, but I've spent the day being bossed around by various black women. It takes a little out of you."

He laughed longer than seemed necessary, and informed me that it takes one to know one. I resented that. I almost never boss him around. Well, not more than once an hour anyway.
He arrived after the banquet was finished and we joined some of my cousins in the lobby bar. I think this was one of my favorite moments.

For me, family is never something obvious or easy. My parents were met with opposition from both sides when they had me. Not much later, having handled the pressure of their families, they found that their real opposition wasn't race or their parents but each other. My white mother raised me with pride for my black heritage but we lived in a different state from everyone else. I didn't have much opportunity to forge my own relationships with either side of my family as I was growing up. So we are in the lobby bar in Atlanta and there is B~ to witness the moment but not direct it and there is my youngest Aunt and her youngest son who know my father. There are several other cousins ranging in age from 20 to 70 who don't know my father. We are telling stories that start earlier in the day and then ramble back as far as 50 years.

If I put the stories together, they sound like this:

What did you think of St. Bart? I loved it, but I haven't been there in a while.

I drive a truck out of Pheonix. No, it's only got ten gears, that's becoming more common.

So my friends and I, we were just going to see a movie right? And we were going to pay but then he put us against the back of the car and I spent 6 hours in jail. No, my dad didn't say too much.

You fenced? Really? Like you had a sword and everything? Listen, I could use those when the kids come into my office. Every high school principal should get a sword.

You should have seen me come out of that elevator, I looked wonderful and I knew it. People asked me if I was the mother of the bride and I said no, I was the mother of the groom.

Yes, I slipped planting a rose bush, I tell everyone it was the most expensive rose I ever planted. I love gardening.

I'm a firefighter. Most of the work I do is rescue and emergency medical. You get used to it. Where are the kids? They're in bed. What are we doing tomorrow night? Is there a jazz club?

I teach high school English but last semester I taught a drama class. I was just winging it but it went really well.

You know I don't ever have a problem with your dad, I just say Yes to pretty much what ever he says.

Your aunt did a really beautiful dance tonight, don't you think? I've never seen a praise dance before. Do you know Jason? From Seattle? No, he doesn't come to these reunions. I'm single and I like it that way. I'm retired now and I play a lot of golf.

Would you look at this museum in my purse!

Can't you get me a drink? I'll be 21 in two months.

Doesn't he know he could get served if he dressed a little older? Sagging like that he looks his age.

Good night sweetheart, I'm tired but I'm sure I'll see you tomorrow. You going to the aquarium?

Okay, good night, it was nice to meet your friend.

No, she got the whole tab for everyone!

Well good night.

Good night.

We'll see you tomorrow.

Good night now.

It was nice to meet you.

You have a good night.

Good night.
--------------------------
When I think about it I guess that's how all families might sound, if they met in the lobby of the Atlanta Hilton, more than a century after their conception from a slave woman and her slave owner. Or at least the lucky ones.

Birthday party Boom-boom

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

(old post from the myspace)

Saturday was my birthday and I had a party. This is the 32nd time I've had a party for my birthday but I think it made it into the top five.
Top Five Birthdays:

1) My third birthday because I didn't have to wear a shirt the whole time AND I got a Mandy Doll who I promptly and originally named 'Mandy'. No pictures on account of the shirtlessness of little me and the creepyness of the internet.

2) My fourth birthday. There were tons of kids in the back yard. My mom convinced me that my favorite birthday cake was a low sugar blueberry cake with no frosting. She served it with a side of carrot sticks. Later, I danced in the wrapping paper that came around a stuffed lion.

3) My fifth birthday. We went to Palo Alto to visit my grandparents. I requested a chocolate cake with cherries on top. My mom and grandma made me a homemade round layer cake with fresh black cherries pressed into the frosting. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I got a musical jewlery box with a dancing ballerina inside. I had also requested a plane trip, destination anywhere, alone. I had discovered that one could fly without a parent at the age of five. In addition to the music box I got a plane ticket to visit my dad.

4) My ninth birthday. The last birthday that was really kid-like. It was a Smurfday. Complete with a Smurf cake and Smurf party favors and I wore my smurfyest Smurfette shirt which I totally Smurfed out with additional Smurf stickers.

5) My 32nd birthday. We had a cocktail party and some of the greatest people in Birmingham were there. Debbie flew out from Portland, OR. I cooked little numbly things for two days. Mushroom-stuffed Mushrooms, twice roasted beets with yogurt chive sauce, shrimp with coconut curry sauce, fig cake and manchego cheese wrapped in proscuttio, spinach dip, grilled polenta, goat cheese smothered in tomatoes and capers, fresh berry salad with honey ginger dressing, candied nuts, herbed olives.

There was dancing on the porch. A breeze came up to cool us off. We hula hooped. Marcus hula hoops like he is at war with the hoop and he intends to be the one who walks away victorious. Sameera hula hoops as if they are old friends, having a lazy conversation that could last all day. Somebody used most of my dish soap to make bubbles in the yard. Somebody else was a little wasted and sneaked into my kitchen to dilute the last of the dish soap with water and fresh-cut limes. My sneaker shoe laces were sacrificed to the bubble gods.

Tomasz made me a wall hanging of cells that look like a school of fish. Glenn and Maggi brought an awesome set of CDs, including some Brazillian woman who entranced the entire party into two minutes of delighted silence. There was a new cookbook from P~. JD made me a beautiful box with a bracelet inside. Although they couldn't make the party, David and Magaret Anne gave me a bouquet of flowers they grew on their farm. Paul brought a bottle of plum wine that he made himself...

Lovely, lovely, birthday. It was Smurfless and I had to wear a shirt the whole time, but still, a total blast. Thanks to all of you who made it so wonderful.

Which one is the one in the middle, can you put my foot on it?

Thursday, June 15, 2006

(old post from the myspace)

Meanwhile...as the Polish Mafia of Birmingham returned to their laboratories, I was heading home on foot. It was a nice day for walking. Still early enough in the summer that we haven't had an "Ozone Alert" day yet and the humidity was still pretty low.
I took the long way home, through Five Points South and around Highland. When I got to the gas station on 22nd, near Bottega, I stepped around a Lincoln Towncar that was parked on the sidewalk. In the backseat was an old man with his door open. He had to be at least ninety. I was just on the other side of the car when he said "Miss..oh Miss!". I kept walking for a few more steps but he called out to me again. I turned around and saw him beckoning me back to the car.
I relucantly walked back, pulling my headphones off. When I got to the car I noticed a wheelchair in the front passenger seat and a woman in the driver's side. She looked much younger than the man, maybe about 70 or so.
He smiled at me and said, "Excuse me, could you please get in the car and start the engine? We can't get the engine started, you have to push on the break."
"You want me to get into your car and start it?" I ask. He assures me that this is exactly what they want. However, when I walk around to the drivers side the woman opens the door, looks at me, but doesn't make a move to get out of the car. I realize that the very act of walking on the sidewalk for a distance longer than from a parking lot to a store front is already suspicious behavior in Birmingham. I'm sure that my nebulous ethnicity, my sweaty jeans and my t-shirt didn't do much to make her feel any better.
We stay like that for at least a full minute and finally I say "Um, I'm going to go soon so I guess if you want some help I should do it now."
She looks at me again and says "Well....alright. I guess so. But I am stepping on the break." Then she proceeds to get out of the car. This requires much hanging on to the dash and then to the door of the car but I don't offer her my arm since she's already a little wary of me. I sit down in the seat and realize that this was a standard transmission which has been converted for a disability. I can't tell if the clutch still works so I start by stepping on the break and turning the key. The engine starts immediately.
The old man in the back seat crows and the woman says to me "Now what did you do?"
"Just lucky I guess, I stepped on the break like he asked me to"
I get out of the car and she lowers herself back in saying, "I stepped on the break already. Which one is the break?"
"It's the one in the middle" I say.
She is a few inches taller than I am, wearing a skirt, a silk blouse and low black pumps. Her feet wave around under the dash, searching for the peddles. Her left foot is wiggling under the break. With a look of great concentration at her knees she says to me (or maybe to her knees) "Which one is the one in the middle? Can you put my foot on it?"
I am alarmed, and starting to feel like I might be on a candid camera show. I crouch down in the driveway of the gas station and put her foot on the break. "That one, sweetie, that one is the break." I am freaked out enough to call an old woman 'sweetie'. The man in the backseat rolls his eyes at me when I stand up. His look says "Do you see what I have to put up with here?".
I close the driver side door and walk around the car. Then I walk around to the back passenger side and close his door. I start again on my way home and when I look back, they are pulling slowly through the gas station. For the rest of the walk I think about how I should have driven them to where they were going and then called a cab to go home.
So anyway...if you see me on a new candid camera show entitled "Old People Behaving Badly" or something, could you please let me know? I'm still a little wierded out.

Whaterya pick'n wit yer cherry picka?

Monday, May 29, 2006

(old post from the myspace)

Yesterday I pooped out on the couch.
Saturday was good, Pepper Place Market, chat with Alli, work, read a little, cooked for Leslie's dinner thing. I was heading out the door with my sort of tragically healthy-looking white beans and greens (mustard, chard, beet), when my mom called. I won't go into it here but basically I spent the next two hours on the phone, trying to work out a family situation. Sadly, missed the potluck. Sooooo many beans and greens!
So yesterday I pooped out on the couch. It's hot here in the 'Ham (northwesterners: by hot I mean, you would die) and I can't really afford to AC my poorly insulated apartment as much as I would like. By 3pm I had watched five hours of TV and was down to my underware (no cookies in sight) with a glass of water on my tummy.
If you've never been to my place then I should explain that I live in the top floor of a house that has been converted into apartments. The house is situated on a steep hill so that the back end sits very far off of the surrounding streets. For this reason, I don't really bother to close my blinds on the north or east faces of the apartment. Therefore, you may be able to imagine my surprise as my landlord's head slowly rose up into my livingroom window yesterday afternoon.
Me? I grabbed a t-shirt off the floor and dove over the back of the couch. Nothing breaks up a really good afternoon of wallowing like crouching on your own living room floor, hiding behind the couch and trying to find the armholes of your t-shirt. Feeling kind of pissed off and exhausted by actually moving my ass for only the third time that day, I gave up and took a nap on the floor behind the couch.
When I finally got up, there was a man-lift /cherry-picker/ thing-a-majig still parked on the front lawn but nobody looking into my bedroom, bathroom, or living room windows. I did what seemed appropriate, took off my t-shirt and watched three more hours of TV on the couch.
This morning I woke up, decided that I would never watch TV again AND that I would definately wear clothes for most of the day. Good thing too, because I had to go into work. When I looked outside, my landlord was still at it. I was walking out to my car when he saw me and offered me a ride in the lift. I assured him that I'm not afraid of hights (kind of a lie) and climbed up into the basket. We rode up and then he pushed the arm out over the empty lot next to my house. The lot sits well below the street line so suddenly the ground was more than fifty feet away, then sixty....we were well over the roof of my house. I could see the entire city, 360 degrees. A bit higher and we were over the top of the magnolia tree in my yard.
Someone across the street yelled "Whaterya pick'n wit yer cherry picka?" but I couldn't see them. I looked down at my apartment. I could see my bedroom, my bathroom, and my living room. In the living room I could see the TV, the couch, and OH GOD, the back of the couch. I could see the couch pillow I had napped on in my panties and t-shirt. I could see three water glasses, a lunch plate, and a coffee mug on the floor in front of the couch. The dishes were nestled in drifts of junk mail and netflix envelopes. I looked at my landlord and said "Wow, you can really see my whole apartment, huh?"
He was looking over downtown Birmingham and said "Oh really?" Then, glancing over he said "Oh...yeah, I guess you can."
On the way back down we stopped in the tree and picked magnolia blossoms.
The moral of this story? Clean your house and put some damn clothes on. I know it's hot but there may be people outside with cherry pickers.
-M
PS-want any beans and greens? I still have a ton left.