Posted by: patti | October 28, 2010

Screaming Females

In March of 2009, the Librarian and I went to a Kristin Hersh/Throwing Muses/50 Foot Wave concert at the Music Hall of Williamsburg.  We were in counseling, just starting to talk about separating, and a night out in Brooklyn featuring anguished, ridiculously loud, slamming-hard art rock seemed like just what we needed.  As if the universe knew this, it offered up a band called Screaming Females as the opening act.

We got there early and found a spot up on the balcony, away from the crowd and with a perfect view of the stage.  Screaming Females is actually just one screaming female, a smallish girl with a powerful voice and an even more powerful guitar, helped out by a guy on drums and a guy on bass.  She wore the same kind of form-fitting suit-dress my mother used to wear to work in the ’80s: London-callbox red with a double row of white buttons down the front, black stockings, shoulder pads out to the suburbs.  That’s where the comparison to my mother starts and ends, and not just because this girl was wearing black Keds to complete her outfit.

She approached the mic with her head down, her black hair hiding her pale face, and made a few tentative sound-check-esque strums on her guitar.  And then, without warning, the noise began.  She played and sang with complete abandon, loud and fast and hard, giving herself over to the music.  She performed on stage like a teenager alone in her bedroom with the mirrors turned away and the hairbrush turned up, able to let go because she knows no one is watching, secretly preparing for when everyone will be watching.

When it comes to music, I’m a lyrics girl; the tune can be catchy as all hell but if the lyrics are dumb, the song might as well be off-key.  I couldn’t understand a word this girl screeched, but it didn’t matter, I couldn’t take my eyes off her.  I lost myself in wonder, in the wall of sound coming from her guitar. She thrashed jumped ran slid across the stage.  She humped her guitar.  She fit the entire microphone head in her mouth.  I was embarrassed for her.  I was jealous of her.  I was fascinated by her.

Because I’m a lyrics girl, when I can’t understand the words to a song, my brain tends to supply its own.  By the third or fourth song of the Screaming Females set, WB Yeats was starring in a little rock opera in my head.  “Labor’s blossoming or dancing where! The body’s not! Bruised to pleasure SOOOUUUUULLLL!”, mind-bending guitar solo, “O! Body swayed to music! O somethingsomething glance! HOW can WE KNOW the DANCER from the DAAAAAAAAAAAAAANCE!!”, ear-bleeding guitar solo . . .

And while I was thinking of that fit of grief or rage, the Librarian had a completely different take.  Yeats and Females were smashing to a climax when the Librarian put his mouth close to my ear and shouted, “She’s not as good a guitarist as she thinks she is!  She’s good, but…”

I didn’t hear the “but.”  The floor was sliding out from under me. I had to grip the rail of the balcony to stand up straight.  My deepest, darkest fear had just been articulated by the one person I trusted to protect me from deep dark fears:  When you give yourself over, fully, joyfully, really lose yourself in something, you leave yourself open to snark from the balcony.

I watched the rest of the Screaming Females set numb and detached.  I could hear now where her guitar playing could be tighter, how her voice was losing power as the set wore on.  During the last number, she sounded like a bad Eddie Vedder impersonator, and she either had an orgasm or a seizure before she collapsed completely onto the stage.  I was only embarrassed for her now.

To avoid the between-show crush, I slipped to the bar before the song ended.  Waiting for our beers, I stood elbow to elbow with scrawny Brooklyn know-it-all hipsters who talked like impresarios but had probably never held an instrument in their smug little lives.  I watched the band finish the set on the TV above the bar and tried to ignore the guitar heroes around me.  For the first time all night, the lead singer was standing still, and her feet rolled outward in the thin sneakers, so that her anklebones threatened to touch the stage.  Her speaking voice was a surprise: high and trembly, betraying almost as much discomfort as her shy feet.   She thanked the crowd, and then stammered through a good-bye: “We have these, um, records, out there somewhere.  If you like us.  We’re not 50 Foot Wave, though, they’re uh, they’re next.  We’re Screaming, um, Screaming Females.”

I come from a big family, a big family with a lot of very strong women. We are not screaming females. We are opinionated and smart.  We are sharp-tongued and quick-witted, and we are very, very funny.  We use our wit and our humor to hide our own discomfort or hurt feelings; that very wit and humor is often the cause of discomfort and hurt feelings.  We talk frankly and openly about each other, but we are rarely so direct with each other.  We are critical, we are judgmental, and yes, sometimes, we are mean.  But it’s for your own good, really, because we are right, we know what’s best for you, and you shouldn’t get ahead of yourself.  And, come on.  We’re only teasing.  Can’t you take a joke?

Over the years, though, we’ve softened, matured.  As women tend to do, we’ve added to our family.  And so we’ve had the chance to see the power of our words register on the faces of our partners and our children.  We recognized that quick flex of the mid-forehead, that fast blink, those telltale signs of pretending something doesn’t hurt.  We learned to keep some of our harsher comments to ourselves and to be smarter about being overheard.

Because I went to a very competitive, all-girls, Catholic, high school, I was surrounded, both at home and at school, by women who were smarter than me, better than me, stronger than me.  For all of my teenage years, I knew, as only a teenager can know, that always, somewhere, someone was talking about me behind my back.  And because she was smarter better stronger, I could also be certain that she was right.

I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to shake that feeling, trying to be indifferent to what other people might be saying.  Adolescents are naturally solipsistic; it takes time to mature into the realization that you are not the center of the universe, that only you spend that much time thinking about you, talking about you, noticing or caring what you do.  Thinking critically is not the same thing as being critical, but good luck convincing a shy, sensitive fifteen-year-old girl there’s a difference.

I had not quite finished that maturation process when I met the Librarian; we were both in our early twenties when we fell in love.  Funny and smart, with a poet’s sensitivity, the Librarian was just as sharp-tongued and opinionated as me, only quieter.  We bonded quickly over books—we could talk for days about just one book, finding every last flaw in even the books we adored.  We were English majors, trained to be critical, trained to overanalyze.  We could be scathingly cruel, witheringly funny, in our analysis; it’s very easy to forget that a real person lost sleep sweat blood tears to create the art we deconstructed  And we applied the same type of analysis, the same harsh light, to everyone and everything outside of the little bubble of us.  But it’s for your own good, really, because we are right . . .

At the same time, though, we discovered in each other, and developed with each other, a talent for using humor gently, to diffuse confrontation, to make a difficult truth easier to hear.  We meshed, we complemented each other, perfectly, but I never lost the insecurity that he was holding back the mean, critical things that could be said about me, about my work.  When he was critical of me, of my work, he chose his words carefully, but I heard only what he wasn’t saying.

I understand, now, too late, that this insecurity fostered and fueled the very thing that made us us.  There was nothing he and I didn’t share.  There was no part of my inner life I did not offer to him.  I let myself go, fully, joyfully, into us.  Maybe, probably, yes, definitely, my insecurity was irrational, but I spent my whole married life waiting to overhear him say something like, “She’s not as good a writer as she thinks she is.”

It didn’t help that as soon as Kristin Hersh started playing, I could see what the Librarian meant.  The Screaming Females guitarist can only dream of playing like Kristin Hersh, because Kristin Hersh is a guitar god, disguised as a slight blonde woman in white t-shirt and jeans.  I’ve never seen or heard anyone as good as Kristin Hersh play a guitar; her power is intoxicating and her control is flawless.  Her lyrics and music are loud, angry, anxiety-driven, all raw nerve and sinew, but she stood still and straight as a lightning rod when she played.  The veins in her neck popped when she sang, but her face was almost expressionless, even when she spit out lyrics like “it’ll take much more than water / to fix my hot pink, distorted face” or “gonna wash that man right out of my head / and soap him into my eyes” or “don’t touch me I don’t know where you’ve been.”

As I hoped she would, Hersh played “Pneuma,” one of my favorite 50 Foot Wave songs. “Did I just hear you try / To lemon scent the sky?” the first line asks, and the words just get trippier from there.  It’s a tense, paranoid, jarring song, with hot hard technicolor sexual imagery.  Energy coils and coils around the strange lyrics, building to a one-line refrain, “I know what’s in the air,” which she repeats with growing intensity.  There’s a sudden lowering of volume as the guitar tempo increases, and she snarls, “You know what? You know what? You know what?” over and over and then pauses to take a deep breath, all the better to spring that coiled energy and scream, really scream, “Shut the fuck up!”  It is the perfect song to blast when you want to give the world the middle finger, and I can still feel the electric pulse of her live performance of it.

But in spite of songs like “Pneuma,” or maybe because of them, between songs Kristin Hersh was funny and relaxed, cute and charming.  When they transitioned from 50 Foot Wave to Throwing Muses, she called attention to the fact that the bands are essentially the same: as the new player got himself settled onstage, she joked, “Now we’ll march to the beat of a different drummer.”  To start the encore, she said, “I’ve run out of songs, you guys, so I’m just gonna hum.”  And she called us all “sweet as pie” when she said good night.

That Kristin Hersh was calm and collected on stage is not unexpected when you consider she’s been a professional, working musician since she was a teenager.  She formed Throwing Muses in the early 1980s, when she was still in high school; she is 44 now.  Throughout her career, whenever Hersh experienced a setback (and she’s had a few doozies), she simply reinvented herself or her band or her industry.  I doubt it would even occur to Kristin Hersh that there might be snark from the balcony.  I can guess what she’d say if she heard it, though.

Last Monday afternoon, All Things Considered aired a segment about Screaming Females, and I was brought right back to the balcony in Williamsburg.  I learned that the tiny dark-haired guitarist is named Marissa Paternoster, and that she is just as shy as her turned ankles and stammering suggested.  Listening to her play again, I realized that she is better than I remembered—even when I allow for the difference between a recorded track and a live performance.

She doesn’t like it, she said, when people are surprised that she’s a girl with a guitar: “I don’t want to be turned into some kind of, like, freak show, you know? I’d like to be considered as a good musician, even though I don’t consider myself a very good musician.”  I flinched when she said it.  Oh, honey, I thought, just ignore the smug hipsters!

But as I listened, I realized that Marissa, like Kristin, is more than capable of a You know what? / Shut the fuck up protective layer of skin.  The segment contains a great story about her encounter with a Guitar World photographer: Marissa refused to pose as a “screaming female.”  Where Kristin founded the innovative, open-source CASH Music project to “make the Internet easier for musicians,” Marissa and the Screaming Females are almost single-handedly keeping an underground music scene alive in New Brunswick, New Jersey.  She and the band, like Kristin and her band(s), listen to the voices in their heads, not the voices in the balcony: “We don’t sound like what’s currently hip, and what people are trying to copy.”

The memories and emotions stirred by the NPR interview have left my thoughts in a bit of a Yeatsian jumble.  A lifetime ago, the Librarian and I would have poured over our separate volumes of Yeats, teasing out threads together, turning the disconnected dots of social media and lyric poetry into a patterned whole, and there would be a much neater ending to this essay.

Instead, though, I’m going to turn up “Pneuma,” real loud.  I’m going to take my battered, tattered copy of Yeats out by the pool, and I’m going to try to read and make sense of it on my own.  But I will get distracted by the generations of notes in the margins, carefully penciled in by different versions of me, and I’m probably going to cry, remembering, longing.  But then Yeats’s words will take hold of me, and I will lose myself, fully, joyfully, in poetry.

Posted by: patti | October 26, 2010


Many of you have written to me, asking me for the next installment of the RoadTrip.  Thank you so much for your continued interest and support: nothing can keep a writer writing like an enthusiastic audience.  I promise I have not abandoned my plan to relate the RoadTrip stories, far from it.  I’ve outlined essays for each of the days of the trip, and I’ll be posting them as I finish them.  The blog hiatus was a necessary, productive one, although it did stretch longer than I’d hoped.

The hiatus began because of my own version of writer’s block:  I have a lot of stories to tell, and sometimes my mind races ahead through all of the details, too fast for the rest of me to keep up.  And then I get locked up, because instead of having nothing to say, I have too much to say and either no idea how to say it, or worse, no idea how to organize it so that other sentient and/or literate beings can understand it.

A major theme of the RoadTrip story is, of course, how bad I am at letting go of a plan, so it’s not inappropriate that I got locked up in the telling.

In both my personal life and in my writing life, I have a discernable pattern of behavior when it comes to The Plan.  In this case, I had The Plan of relating the RoadTrip story, one day at a time, but the essays were taking too long to write, and other, more current stories started piling up.  It seemed important to tell the whole story in one narrative line, to not jump around chronologically, but this was frustrating:  the newer stories seemed more fun to tell.  So I jumped around in draft form, finished nothing and posted nothing, because I was sticking to The Plan.

Eventually, I stopped writing essays that would have moved The Plan forward because I couldn’t admit to myself that it was no longer a good plan.  I couldn’t let go of The Plan.  Instead, and this is the good news, I worked on my novel, which, for better or worse, has no plan whatsoever, because I have no idea how to write a novel and it never even occurred to me to create a plan.  There have been times when the chaos of this novel has made me want to Frisbee the laptop into the pool, but not enough, not yet, to make a plan.  When I do make a plan, and I will make a plan, because, well, it’s what I do, I will need to remember to keep that plan a fluid, malleable thing.

Because there is no such thing as a plan when there is a toddler involved, I can also blame the blog hiatus and my latest acquisition of self-awareness on these little guys:

I spent the end of September and early October with the Little Brother and his family, helping them prepare for, welcome, and adjust to, Baby Brother.  The adjustment was hardest for Big Sister Sophia, naturally.  She’s only three (“ThreeInAugust,” as she would say), and even though her parents did as much as they could to prepare her for her new sibling, there is only so much she can understand.  She is a sensitive, brave girl, and she will process everything on her own, in her own way, in her own time.   But watching her struggle with all the new realities in her little world made my heart ache.

I slept in her room again during my stay, and again, almost every morning, she would climb into bed with me and we’d have our “Here’s your Snuffy and here’s my Snuffy” conversation.  Some mornings, though, we had much deeper conversations.

“We see Baby John today and tell him to come home,” she informed me as she settled under my covers the morning after the baby was born.

“Yes, we’ll go see him today.” It would be at least two more days before Mommy and Baby John could come home, but I decided we could cover that later.  I started to drift back to sleep, listening to the rain on the window and feeling her breathing against me.  But she was awake, playing with our Snuffy bears, and thinking.

“I can hold her?”

I thought for a moment she meant Snuffy, but she meant the baby; her pronouns, to say nothing of her understanding of gender, are still evolving.  “You can hold him.  Do you remember how?”

“Mommy’s at the doctor’s office with Baby Brudder and I can hold her and be nice,” she said.  “Gentle,” she added, as she pulled stuffing out of the hole in my Snuffy’s belly.

“That’s right.”  She calls the hospital the “doctor’s office” because Mommy’s doctor’s offices are, in fact, on the grounds of the hospital, and she recognized the location when we drove in, and I didn’t have the heart to teach a three year old the word “hospital.”

The day before had been long and exciting and stressful for her.  She was eager and curious at first, wanting to hold the baby, wide-eyed with questions about the tubes and machines and bandages all over Mommy.  The first time she held the baby, Sophia listened solemnly to us, placing her hands and arms exactly where she was told.  She looked up at us, as if to say, “Now what?”  We smiled at her and took a hundred-thousand pictures.  She kissed his fuzzy head.  She counted his toes.  She handed him back.  Over the day, she asked often to hold him again, but each time we put him in her arms, she looked more and more sad.  She was exhausted when I took her home, and she endured the familiar rituals of dinner, bath, and bed with a quiet intensity that worried me.

And so I had taken it as a Very Good Sign that Baby John was the first thing she mentioned when she woke up.  But then her tiny voice asked, “Mommy is hurt?”

“No, no, Mommy’s okay, honeybear.  She’s just really tired and needs to rest.”

Sophia was not buying it.  “The doctor takes Baby John out of Mommy’s tummy and that hurts Mommy,” she insisted.

“Yes, that’s why Mommy needs her rest.”

“We go to the doctor’s office, and Daddy tells the doctor, ‘you make them all better’ and then Mommy and Baby John come home now.”

I pulled her closer to me and kissed her hair.  “Mommy will be home very soon.  We’ll go see her today.”

Before I brought her to the “doctor’s office” that day, I found a florist so that she could bring Mommy flowers.  The tiny shop was overflowing with glass and fragile gift-y things, all arranged within reach of an enthusiastic toddler.  Even though I was nervous about how much the adventure would cost me, I was delighted to see her running around, counting balloons, pulling flowers out of pots, climbing display stands.  She was her old self, a blur of fingers and giggles, naming things she recognized, issuing a litany of the familiar: blue flower, green frog (bibbit!!), lellow futterbly, teapot like for Patti’s tea, pink kitty.  I tried to keep her near the baskets of stuffed animals, where she could do the least damage, but that just resulted in a lot of empty baskets.  And then, jumping up from the center of her pastel pile, Sophia held up a white bear with blue ears and a blue ribbon: “Baby John!” she shouted.

I started to laugh and cry at the same time.  I wanted to buy every white and blue bear in the place and help her carry them all to Baby John.  I wanted to pick her up and squeeze her tight and never, ever let her go.

The nights Sophia and I spent on our own, we would play for an hour or so, assembling her favorite puzzles over and over and over again, making up games: anything she wanted to play, we played.  When it was time to eat dinner and then take a bath and then read stories for bed, her quiet intensity would return.  She led me through her familiar routines, missing Mommy and Daddy, but not mentioning them.  And then once I had closed the last book and adjusted her nightlight, she would start talking.  She would go through the list of what she did understand (Mommy is at the doctor’s office with Baby John and Daddy is there too), circling and circling around what she did not understand (Mommy and Baby John come home now).  She was sad, and she was confused, but she did not cry.  She twisted her fingers into the fabric of my shirt, clutching.

I sang her to sleep, something I’ve never done for anyone.  I sang “Frere Jacques,” in French, in English, hesitantly, quietly.  I rubbed her back and watched as her eyes blinked slowly slowly slowly closed.   I switched to humming as I felt her fingers relax; when I was sure she was asleep, I tried to ease myself off her bed.  She half-opened her eyes, clutched my shirt tighter, and whispered, “Don’t leave.”

Never, Sophia, my peanut, my monkey, my little love, never.

Posted by: patti | September 1, 2010

RoadTrip Day One: New York to Pennsylvania

It probably goes without saying, but I slept very well the Thursday night I spent with my parents.  Sleepless, air-conditioning-less weeks of work and packing and stress caught up with me, and I was fast asleep before it occurred to me to pull my Snuffy bear out of my overnight bag.

Dad was up early Friday morning, to get to a job in New Jersey.  I woke, but stayed in bed and listened from the guest room.  His morning routine has not changed in the thirty-some-odd years I’ve been aware of it; I have no doubt it predates both me and my awareness.  He’s usually the first one awake; the sounds rise and fall as he remembers and forgets that he’s trying to be quiet.

Cabinets open and close.  Water runs.  Two Corelle mugs, white with a green-flower border, meet the marble counter.  The tiny coffee maker starts its hissing and gurgling.  A spoon mixes instant oatmeal in one mug, clink-link-clink-link-clink-link.  The microwave door opens and closes, time is binged into the  keypad.  The microwave hums the oatmeal hot.  A final long hiss announces the arrival of coffee.  Clink-link-clink-link-clink-link incorporates milk and sugar and coffee in the second mug.  The front door opens and closes, New York Newsday is unfurled and spread on the kitchen table.  The microwave beeeeeeeeps, and its door opens and closes. Clink-link-clink-link stirs the steaming oatmeal.  Then, stillness:  the occasional rattle of a newspaper page or the ting of spoon in mug, but mostly, the morning calm of my father.

That morning, he had WCBS 880 on low, to hear the traffic reports, when I came into the kitchen.  We reviewed the route I was going to take out of New York; he gave me alternatives based on what he’d already heard.  We reviewed the entire route of the RoadTrip.  We guesstimated when I’d get to Chicago.  I promised I’d give them daily updates on my progress.  We, essentially, repeated the entire conversation we’d had the night before.  We listened to two traffic reports more than he really had time to stay for, and he finally, reluctantly, left to meet his client.

Mom was still asleep.  I made tea and sat with my laptop on the kitchen table, right on Dad’s Newsday.  I used to get quite wound up right before a big trip, double-checking details and repacking and fretting about missing connections or being late, trying to foresee all unforeseen complications.  I would leave hours ahead of schedule because it felt like if I didn’t move, I would jump straight out of my skin.  But I wasn’t manic that morning; I was in no hurry, even though I had a lunch date in Pennsylvania with a friend from high school.

It wasn’t that I was reluctant to leave, not at all.  I was eager to see Casey, of course, and very eager to get on the road.  It was more that I was ready, or as ready as I ever would be.   Ready to go, ready to explore, ready to see what there was to see.  And I’d get there when I got there.  I had deliberately kept the RoadTrip plan as loose as I possibly could.  The entire point of the RoadTrip was to enjoy the unforeseen; there was no such thing as a complication.

It’s a good way to travel, let me tell you.

So, instead of jumping up and hitting the road right after Dad left, I sat with my tea and waited for Mom to wake up.  I wrote and posted this essay.  It was my intention to post stories of the RoadTrip live, from the road, and I wanted the stories of Ladybug and Ocho to be complete, as background, before I left.  I imagined every morning of my trip would be like this:  an hour or two of quiet, recording my thoughts and sipping tea.

And, well, yeah, that didn’t happen.  As it turned out, I didn’t give myself the reflective time necessary to blog from the road; I was too busy doing and seeing things to report on what I was seeing and doing.  I’ve got messy notes scrawled on receipts and on the backs of maps; my journal is barely legible.  I’m sorry to have lost my in-the-moment reactions, and I’m sad to realize I’ve already forgotten many of the little details of each day.  In my writing about the trip now, I struggle with balancing the parts and the whole.

My mother always says that I suffer from a “forest and trees” problem, and I always get mad when she says that, but whoa boy, is she right.  And nothing helps me with it like writing.  I should have spent each morning of the trip with a cuppa and my notebook, and I didn’t, and my head, and the trip, suffered from new chaos each day. An important lesson, one I should have learned from Dad.

If my mother has a morning routine, it is a private one.  She usually appears in the kitchen fully dressed, usually with handbag and keys in hand, ready to head out the door.  Some weekend mornings, she materializes in her bathrobe, but even then, she’s ready to go, and heads right to the stove to make a weekend breakfast (which is, of course, elevenses for Dad, who has already oatmealed.)

This Friday, she emerged from her room fully dressed, bag and keys in hand, and went out to run some errands.  I was still typing when she returned; she flicked on the TV to wait while I finished my essay.  The last 500 words took longer to write than the first 1500, but I didn’t mind:  Mom and I were still happily pretending there had been no misunderstanding.  And, Dad called three times to give traffic updates and to get a progress report.  Once the essay was posted, I took a quick shower and started gathering my things to go.

Mom helped me pack and repack the car.  We weren’t fretting or being fussy; if you are going to travel in a Beetle for any extended time, you need to fit your belongings in like you’re assembling a jigsaw puzzle.  I travel very light — I needed only a smallish overnight bag and a biggish book bag for the RoadTrip — but I also had two boxes of my writing notebooks, two laptop bags, and a backpack full of odds and ends I didn’t want to send on the moving truck (jewelry, some pictures, things like that).  And then, of course, Mom would not let me leave without provisions:  she filled Ocho’s backseat with a months’ worth of bottled water and snacks.

The whole time we were carrying things to the car and repacking the trunk and backseat, the condo complex was conducting a test of the fire alarms.  The alarm came in startling bursts, BLANG BLANG BLANG right overhead, and then nothing.  The ringing in our ears would subside just in time for the next burst; it seemed like every time we tried to talk, it would start up again.  We packed fast.

Mom did not review the route with me; she simply asked, “You know where you’re going?”  She did not remind me to keep them updated; she simply said, “You’ll give us a call.”  She folded cash into my hand: “It’s mad money, just in case.  Hide it, forget about it, unless you need it for an emergency.”  We hugged, and she patted my arm, and her eyes were red when she said, “You take care.” It was, for us, a very emotional parting, and we both pretended that it was the fire alarm that kept it short.

And so:  the RoadTrip commenced.  Meadowbrook to the Northern State to the Grand Central to the Triborough to the Harlem River to the George Washington to Route 80:  I had reviewed it with Dad so many times it was almost a mantra.  Unfortunately, traffic did not cooperate with me:  I got stuck in the wrong lane off the Triborough, so instead of heading toward the Harlem River Drive, I was shunted on to the Deegan.  Which didn’t have to be a mistake, as long as I didn’t miss the exit for the GWB, which, of course, I did, because the traffic was impossible.

So, I took what would be the first of many unexpected detours:  University Heights Bridge to 207th to Broadway, down to the ramp onto GWB.  I slipped through Inwood and Washington Heights, blinking hot tears of goodbye to everything I used to call home.

I zipped across the GWB, and cut through Jersey on Route 80.  I stopped for a biobreak and to snap a few Ocho pictures at the Delaware Water Gap, but otherwise made a general beeline to Wilkes-Barre, where I met Casey for lunch.

Casey and I had been very close friends; there is no one I’ve missed more from high school.  She moved to Pennsylvania, near Scranton, after we graduated, and we kept in touch at first, but life got in the way, for both of us.  I went to her wedding, she came to mine; she brought her little girls to visit when she was in New York.  We wrote the occasional letter or email, made the odd phone call, but contact slowed and, eventually, stopped.  And then she found me on Facebook a few months ago, and we’ve picked up just about where we left off.

And lunch with Casey in Wilkes-Barre was just like lunch with Casey in high school, only better, because we weren’t in high school.  Flitting from topic to topic, we tried to make up ten missing years.  Casey is exactly the same she was in high school, only more so, and I mean this as a compliment:  she always possessed an easy humor, a nonjudgmental way of treating other people, a grace that made her seem older than she was.  And now she is older, and she is a nurse and a mother, and she is solid, grounded, calm.  She still has her way of shrugging with one shoulder, and saying, “What’re you gonna do?”  That’s life, and life is long, this shrug says.

My plan for Day Two was Fallingwater and Pittsburgh, so after Wilkes-Barre, I headed west on 80, then south on 99.  I was aiming for Ohiopyle, because I had it on good authority (read: Dan & George) that that was the best place to stay for Fallingwater.  The traffic on 80 was very heavy, because all of Pennsylvania is under construction, so it was almost dark when I turned off 99 onto 22 in Altoona, still a good two hours away from Ohiopyle.

I was refueling Ocho in Ebensburg when it occurred to me to call ahead and see if there was a place for me to stay in Ohiopyle.  And, of course, there was not.

I was not in Ebensburg long enough to tell you much more than this:  It is not large, as towns go, but the signs there reveal it is the Crossroads of Cambria, it is home to the Dauntless Fire Company, and it hosts something called Potatofest.  If you park on Main Street and walk up and down, looking for signs to tell you if you have to feed the meter, a cop will come by and tell you, “Nah, you’re good.”  (This may only apply to cars painted like Herbie.) Clark Powell’s Restaurant on High Street has a limited beer selection but an excellent BLT (and the pizza smelled very good).  Some locals (Ebensburgers?) will be falling-down drunk before 8 pm; said locals are all Pirates fans.

Over that excellent BLT, I gave up trying to coax the Internet out of a very reluctant iPhone.  I had left 3G back on Route 80; gears were grinding as the EDGE network struggled to load maps.  I had a spiral-bound Michelin road atlas, plus I’d picked up maps and brochures every time I stopped.  Avoiding eye contact with blotto Pirates fans, I spread my maps, and targeted Somerset as the place to spent the night.

PA-219 comes together with 70/76 at Somerset; I had my pick of affordable motels and the perfect starting point for Fallingwater in the morning.  When I pulled into the parking lot of the A-1 Economy Inn on North Center, it was almost eleven.  The “inn” was standard-issue roadside motel, but it met my three requirements: not scary, very clean, and cheap enough.  And this one offered free breakfast and free Internet.

Checking in took almost an hour, however, because the desk clerk was a manic Lebanese man who was rather ecstatic about Volkswagens.  We stood next to Ocho, or, rather, he paced and gestured and I leaned on Ocho in exhaustion, and talked about cars, or, rather, he talked about his cars and I made noises of agreement and unsubtle hints that I needed to sleep.  I don’t think he even noticed the car’s paint job.   He wanted to sell me a converter kit he imported from China; this kit would allow the headlights to use LED bulbs instead of halogens.  I had had trouble with Ladybug’s halogens, but I had zero interest in futzing with anything:  Ocho was working just fine thankyouverymuch, and I would like to sleep now, Mr. Crazy Light Man.  He was still talking (to Ocho, I guess?) when I closed and locked the door to my room.

I slept.  I dreamed of driving past green green hills in a big old blue bus, I dreamed of flying over green green fields in a little white and red plane.  I dreamed Ocho was nothing but a pair of big round headlamps, the rest of him scattered in hundreds of little pieces in the parking lot right outside my door, and I woke up.  I  scrambled to peek out the window to make sure the manic Lebanese had not “fixed” my car during the night.  Ocho winked at me, all in one piece.

I made a cup of tea and opened my notebook, and prepared for Day Two.

Posted by: patti | August 31, 2010

RoadTrip Eve

My parents did not want me to make this move, and they are still struggling to understand why I am now so far away.  When I first told them I was considering it, my father and I had one conversation that consisted only of him saying: “Don’t go. Don’t go? Don’t go… Don’t go! Don’t go.”

But as soon as I told them my mind was set, that I was going, “Don’t go” turned into “How can we help?”

When I told them how I was moving, shipping most of my things and driving cross-country on my own, they, to put it mildly, freaked.  Every time I talked to Mom, she added a new bad thing to the list of very bad things that could happen to a single woman on her own on the road.   Every time I talked to Dad, he added another landmark to the list of things I absolutely could not miss on my trip.  I should not have been surprised when, about a month before I was set to leave, they took me out to dinner and sprang their idea on me:  They would do the cross-country drive with me.

This was before I had finalized the Ocho purchase, so one of their major concerns was the stunning lack of reliability displayed by Ladybug.  They had been lobbying hard for me to fly to California and buy a new car once I got here, even going so far as offering to help me pay for this option, but I wouldn’t budge on needing to do the drive.

So they had it all figured out.  The week I was planning to leave, my mother had to work, so Dad and I would leave together, take the route I’d mapped out, and Mom would fly to meet us in California.  They’d help me get settled, and then they’d turn around and drive back to New York, on the route Dad had mapped out.  Or I could postpone my departure a week, and we could all of us drive together.

I almost dropped my fork.  I thought it best to order another glass of wine before Tourettesing my gut reaction: over my dead body.

I tried to explain how important it was for me to do the drive by myself.  I needed that time alone, just me and the empty road, to rebuild and repair my sense of self.  I needed the time to think, to plan, to grow, to build my confidence that I would be just fine on my own.  How could I do this with my mommy and daddy in the car with me?

I also tried, gently, to explain that there was no way the three of us would make it to California.  We would kill each other before we hit the Mississippi, possibly before we got out of New York State.  My mother and I are terrible passengers.   You can be the safest, most reliable driver in the world; maybe you’ve won awards for what an awesome driver you are.  It really doesn’t matter:  if you’ve got either of us in the car, just let us drive.  It will be less stressful for everyone involved.  It’s a control thing.  I’m sorry.

And our traveling styles are completely different.  My mother likes to go and go and go and only stop when she gets to her destination.  She will stop midroute only if the gas light is on or if someone’s bladder is threatening the upholstery.  A friend of the Little Brother once announced from the backseat that she was feeling really nauseous, and my mother moved into the right lane and whirred down the backseat windows.  (She did slow down when Clare began yawking out the window.)  This is how my mom was raised, though:  as a kid, there was no stopping on family car trips.  “I hafta go to the bathroom” was answered with “Look at the birds.”  The thing is, if my father doesn’t eat every three hours, he gets cranky, so mom has a system to keep him happy — she always has snacks in the car for long trips, and she always knows exactly how far they are from one of their preferred road trip break spots.

Maybe it was because we all had plenty of wine, but this dinner did not devolve into a shouting match.   It was a fun conversation, actually, teasing each other about our driving habits and remembering car trips we’ve taken together.   But they did have every angle covered:  Fine, they said, you drive your car and we’ll follow behind you in our car.

I was firm.  I was going to stop whenever and wherever I wanted, and see what I wanted to see.  I was not going to count pigeons to distract me if I wanted to take a pee break.  There was no way I was going to do the Cracker Barrel tour of North America.  And they were not driving with me.  They could follow along if they wanted, but I was going by myself and following my own agenda.

In the following weeks, they kept trying to change my mind about the drive.  I got Ocho, which settled part of the argument because I now had a reliable car, but it gave them a new angle: I was going to be too much of a target in such a visible, recognizable car.

My father sat me down and explained why they were so worried about me.  “There are a lot of crazy people out there, and you are just so naïve,” he said.  “They will take advantage of you.”

This made me laugh.  I’ve traveled all over Europe, mostly on my own.  I’ve lived in Dublin, in Washington, DC.  And I lived in Manhattan for almost seven years, ok, not on my own, and on the Upper East Side, but that should still count for something. And I grew up in Queens, for crying out loud.  How much crazier can people in the rest of this country be?  I know I’ll always be his little girl, but come on, how naïve does he really think I am?

My father often teases me that I am a “bleeding heart liberal.”  We don’t discuss politics or religion — we’re never going to change the other’s mind, and we agree enough on the important things in life to not have to wrangle over details.  But his jokes about my supposed bleeding heart stem from what he knows about how I interact with people.  I do have a tendency to help strangers, to open my door and my wallet readily for people who seem to need that help; and yes, I have been taken advantage of.  Remembering some of these encounters, and realizing that he only knows about half of them, I stopped laughing.

Other people were also expressing concerns about my taking this trip by myself.  I was told how lonely the roads in the West could be.  I was warned how easy it was to run out of gas, especially when crossing the desert.  I was reminded over and over of the dangers facing a woman traveling alone.  I’m not stupid, and I know what to do when I am tired or distracted, and I’m not careless, and I had no plans to broadcast that I was a woman traveling alone.  But as much as I wanted that lonely road all to myself (“I do it!”), I started to wonder how smart it was to go it alone.

My route, and the entire RoadTrip schedule, was built around three days I needed to be in Chicago to finish a project.  The Pilot’s current job is also in Chicago, and it looked like his schedule could be made to overlap with mine.  He offered to do some of the drive with me from Chicago to California; how much would depend on his schedule and my tolerance for a coPilot.  I wasn’t sure about this decision – I am not good at wait-and-see plans and I really wasn’t sure I wanted anyone at all with me on the trip.  But my family and friends breathed a collective sigh of relief when I announced that I’d have someone with me for at least part of the way.

The days before the RoadTrip were positively awful.  I was still weak from being sick and the antibiotics made me terribly nauseous.  My apartment was approximately the same temperature as the surface of the sun.  I somehow, miraculously, finished my work for the Puzzle Factory, but I couldn’t relax:  I had four days to say goodbye to everyone and to pack up my entire apartment.

And then Mom and I had a bad fight the Sunday before I was due to leave.  It was a communications breakdown, a misunderstanding that was launched to epic proportions because it happened so close to my departure date.  As a very wise friend said to me, “It’s easier to be angry than sad.”

The movers were due on Thursday; it had been my plan to start the RoadTrip as soon as the truck was gone.  I changed my plan, though, because I could not bear to leave with Mom so upset, with things so unsettled.  With the new plan, I’d spend Thursday night with my parents and hit the road Friday morning. This turned out to be a smart idea for many reasons, not least of which is the fact that the first sleep I got that week was Thursday night.

The movers were due between 8 and 9 am; I did not have a lot of stuff and I assumed they’d be done by noon, the latest.  This was reasonable, but incorrect, as assumptions go.  They arrived at 10:30.  They left at 2:15.  They were, as I have said, the worst movers in the history of movers.

The foreman reminded me of Alex from Everything Is Illuminated.  Not only was he unequivocally tall, he was, he informed me, “Best foreman in business.”  The second guy was big and thick: Nikolai from Six Feet Under.  Remember Larry Darryl and Darryl?  Mover number three was My Other Brother Darryl.

Alex informed me that the estimate the moving company had given me was way off (“This number, miss, this number needs to be argumented by four”) based on what he could see.  Math and I are not friends, but it quickly became apparent that he was right.  The cost-per-square-foot was very low, but the square feet had been calculated incorrectly.  And Alex kept finding things to charge me extra for (“Miss, this glass bookcase, she is old, we wrap very well, we charge you miss, not too much, but we charge for wrapping”), so he and I bickered nonstop while Nikolai and Darryl pitched my things in the truck.  Nikolai tried to make peace at one point:  “He is best foreman in business,” he advised me, to which Alex replied, “Yes, yes, I already tell her this.”

While they were busy destroying my things, I had to clean the apartment in order to get my full security deposit back.  And so I was scrubbing the stove when I heard a very loud craaaaack.  Darryl had been taping a blanket around the coffee table legs, and he had leaned too hard, and it snapped under the pressure.  Our eyes met, and we shared a “Shit, that broke, didn’t it?” moment.  Alex, though, was not alarmed at all.  “Why you wrap table?  Is only Ikea table.  Take apart, put in boxes, like this, easier, see?”

Darryl and I were both like, no, dude, that’s broken, but Alex kept putting pieces of table in boxes.  “Miss, no, miss, is no broken.  Better in boxes, safer, miss, see?  All fine, easier, miss.” And then he added two boxes to the growing list of itemized charges.  Oh, hi, Insult! Have you met Injury?

Because I was too busy cleaning the apartment, I missed some of the details of what they did, things I only discovered when my stuff finally arrived in California.  I have three very tall, very well made, very expensive bookcases; they yanked the fixed shelves out of them and boxed them all up.  And yes, of course, he charged me for the packing and the boxes.  All three bookcases were damaged in transit because the fixed shelves are fixed to give them stability and structure.

The Pilot was able to rebuild the table and the bookcases, and I have filed a claim.  But those two missing boxes are still missing, and the broken things are still broken, and I still get very worked up just thinking about it.

It was a scorching hot, chaotic day, and I made sure they had plenty of water.  And in spite of everything, I tipped them more than I should have, probably, but they did work hard, even if they didn’t work well.  Dad might be right about me, I’m afraid.

The night before, to minimize confusion during the move, I had packed Ocho with my RoadTrip stuff and the things I really couldn’t afford to lose (my writing and my laptops).  So, once the movers were gone and the apartment was clean enough, there was nothing left to do but hand in the apartment keys and drive away.  I took a moment to consider the empty space.  It was the only home I’ve ever had all to myself.  I expected to feel something:  affection, sadness, regret, nostalgia, peace, pride, I don’t know.   Something.  But I was too worn out to feel anything at all.  I had not slept in days.  I had been overcharged and outwitted by three very dumb movers and I might not ever get back the books and things that had made this apartment a home.  I was homeless and unemployed.   And I did not know if my mother was going to speak to me when I saw her.

Now, I knew when I left New Haven that I was running low on gas.  But I wasn’t worried, because Ocho has a diesel engine, which means it gets fantastic gas mileage, plus I knew I had plenty of options for refueling on 95.  (Being a diesel also means Ocho is still not registered by the State of California, and trust me when I tell you this is another essay in the making.)  By fantastic gas mileage, I mean the neighborhood of 55-60 miles per gallon, which is pretty nice neighborhood.  But I was distracted or tired or just plain careless, apparently, because I was on the Whitestone Bridge when the fuel buzzer started going off.  Volkswagens have a lot of really neat safety features, and they have a lot of really annoying safety features.   Really neat:  it is impossible to lock your keys in a Volkswagen.  Really annoying: the air-raid siren that sounds when you are low on fuel.  The Pilot tells me that if it were a plane, this kind of alarm would be called a “Bitching Betty,” which makes it sound more charming than it actually is.

I didn’t know Ocho well enough yet to know how much gas I had left.  I was on the Hutch, on the approach to the Whitestone Bridge, when Bitching Betty started bitching.  If Ocho was like Ladybug, then I had two gallons left, which meant over a hundred miles and I had nothing to worry about.  Unless, of course, I hit traffic, which, of course, I promptly did.  It took me a very stressful forty-five minutes to cross the Whitestone and get to the first exit to find a gas station, approximately three miles from when the alarm sounded.

And of course, because I was desperate, I had to take the first station that had diesel, which was a BP gas station, and their diesel was $3.59 a gallon.  These two details had me tied in knots.  For starters, diesel is the easiest and cheapest fuel to produce and should be a lot cheaper than regular gas, not 40-50 cents MORE a gallon.  And I’ve been staying away from BP stations for obvious Gulf-related reasons.  I told myself that the franchisee needed the business, and his crime was the price he was charging, not the death of eleven men and an ecosystem.  And then, because I was distracted or tired or just plain careless, I did something wrong when pumping the gas and managed to cover myself with overpriced diesel fuel.

And Ocho sucked down 13.9 gallons into his 14.5-gallon tank.  Yes.  My big RoadTrip, my big “I do it!” adventure.  It almost began with me running out of gas on the Whitestone freaking Bridge.

I got to my parents’ place almost three hours later than I had planned.  I was waiting at the traffic light to make the left turn into their complex when I saw my mom heading toward me in her car, arriving home from work.  I meeped, she waved, and I pulled in behind her.  I helped her carry some bags into the condo.  We were a little uncertain with each other, but what we were sharing was that hesitant awkwardness that said, Look, we were both wrong and I’m really sorry for my part in it and talking about will probably start the fight all over again, so let’s pretend it never ever happened.  And that’s what we did.  We made brownies, talked about the trip, about work, about her friends, everything but what we’d done and said to hurt each other.

She went to a dinner party that night, and Dad took me out to a really nice Italian place.  The restaurant was only a few blocks from my grandparents, so I called them and asked if I could stop in to say goodbye.  It was late for them, after nine, but Gramma answered and said I could come in for a quick hug, but she was already in her pajamas, so Dad had to stay in the car.  Which was so cute, and so her, that I was laughing and crying even before I went in.  My goodbye with them was short and so, so sweet.  They told me they are proud of me.  And Gramma repeated something she’d said to me when I first told them I was going: “You’ve got two strong legs under you.  You’ll be fine.”

I’ve been quite tired and impossibly distracted and just plain careless, but my Gramma is not wrong.  Some days, her words alone keep me up on these legs, but that’s enough.

Posted by: patti | August 26, 2010


I will never learn.

As I predicted, malaise caught up with me this week.  Instead of doing things that I know will prevent malaise, I wandered the house, sleepless and listless, unable to pick up one project and stick to it.  I let myself sink.  Taking stock of this week, it was not unproductive, but it was productive in all the wrong ways:  I’m gathering all the details of my trip but not actually writing about it.  I’m researching how to fix the Pilot’s garden but not actually planting anything.  I’m watching a lot of Food Network but not actually cooking anything.  I’m organizing my books but not actually reading them.

But that is the problem with malaise: I know how to avoid it, I know how to make it go away, but knowing and doing are two very different things.  And I hate that cringing realization that I am only making matters worse, that I will feel better if I only do X, Y, or Z.  But I can’t work up the energy or the motivation to do X, Y, or Z because, really, if I’m honest, I don’t want to feel better.  Feeling better means going back to work, means facing whatever I’m not facing.  It means feeling.

The problem began Sunday night, when I started an essay about my last weeks on the East Coast.   Those last weeks were predictably difficult, marked with an impossible amount of work, a visit to the emergency room, many emotional goodbyes, and an unfortunate lack of air-conditioning during a particularly rotten heat wave.  Page after crinkly page on my yellow legal pad outlines and details those frenzied days; I am amazed at how much I got done in such a short time.  I was looking for the connective tissue, the theme to thread through the essay, but the only answer that came back was:  I’m exhausted.

And when I relived those emotional goodbyes, I locked up further.  With email and IM and Facebook and everything but the phone because I have AT&T and AT&T hates me, I am as connected to everyone as I was before I left, when they were all right at hand.  But this week, I feel every mile between me and my friends and family.

And as much as I hate to admit this, I kind of miss my job.

I worked at the Puzzle Factory for eleven and a half years; I started there six months after I got married.  When I married, I believed it was for life, but I took the job as a puzzle editor thinking I’d be there a year or two.  I thought it would be a fun way to earn a paycheck until I was a World Famous Novelist.  And it was a fun way to earn a paycheck – the Puzzle Factory is a wonderful and a frustrating place to work.  The people are smart and strange and funny and warm; I count many of my former coworkers as my dearest friends.

I don’t want to romanticize my time there, to focus only on who or what was wonderful, but to be fair, much of my frustration with the place stemmed from how easy it was to stay there, from how easily a year or two turns into twelve into twenty.  I can, and will, go on and on about all the things wrong with the Puzzle Factory, but even I have to admit that the list of things that are right with the place is the longer list.  But when my marriage was over, it stopped being easy to stay there.

What I miss is the familiar routine of the job, the way every day taught me new words, gave me a new game to win, made me feel smart and secure.  Every day, I took something broken – a crossword grid, a computer program, a magazine layout – and I fixed it.  In fact, I would fix the hell out of it — I was really goddamn good at my job.  And now, I am pining for those daily, easy victories because writing is really fucking hard.

Not that I want to go back, or anything.  I’m just saying.

I gave my notice at the Puzzle Factory as soon as I was sure of my decision, which meant that my manager and I had a little over two months to reassign or complete my tasks and projects.  I had always known I was doing too much for what I was paid at the Puzzle Factory, but it still came as a bit of shock when my responsibilities were distributed among seven other people.  As gratifying as that was, it meant I had to train most of those people before I left, plus meet my own deadlines and organize things to hand off neatly.  This, in addition to two freelance projects and packing for a move across the country.

Absolutely no one was surprised when I got sick.  I’ll spare you the details, or, rather, spare myself the embarrassment of the details, and just say that because I ran myself ragged and didn’t eat or sleep properly, I developed an infection that landed me in the emergency room.

Unfortunately, the fever spike that won me nine hours in the ER happened during a long weekend with the Little Brother and Little Sister-In-Law.  It was his birthday, and my last chance to see them before I headed West, and if it had been anyone else, I would have stayed home like a smart person.  But I’m a stubborn person, not a smart person, and so I drove from New Haven to Takoma Park with a fever of 103 and had lunch with friends on the way.  The drive took almost eight hours and a lot of Tylenol, but Ocho and I made it in one piece.  (I wasn’t contagious, John and Stacy, I promise.)

The Little Brother and I were playing with the Peanut at the Silver Spring fountain when I started to feel really Not Right.  I had a fever, and it was a hot, humid day, but I had the chills.  The Little Brother whisked me to Washington Adventist, and if I didn’t tell him then, I’m telling him now: maybe it’s being a father that did it, but the Little Brother has turned into someone you want around when there’s any kind of crisis.  He had Peanut wrapped in a towel before she could protest about having to leave the water, and had me at the ER before I could protest that I was just fine, really.

The Little Brother and the Peanut were allowed to come sit with me in the ER and keep me company between tests.  The Peanut sat on the bed with me and drew pictures, and by pictures, I mean great swirls of ink all over the paper and the sheets and my leg and her shirt, because she just turned three. Her eyes were big with questions.  We read to her, and when she got bored with her books, we made up stories about the other patients. Every time a nurse wheeled a gurney past us, she asked, “When the man come push Patti truck?”  When they finally did come push Patti truck, though, the Little Brother had already taken the Peanut home, and the LSIL was with me.

The Little Brother spent his birthday in the emergency room holding my hand and making me laugh.  And after a long day of work, the LSIL, who is pregnant, came and held my hand until I was released.  I am so grateful, and so lucky, to have such a family, but remembering all this only made me feel sorry for myself, not grateful:  who will hold my hand now, when I get sick?

During that visit, I slept in the Peanut’s room, which used to be the guest room but was repurposed because she’s about to get her own Little Brother.  She’s very proud of her Big Girl Bed, but every morning, she woke up and climbed into bed with me.  We have the same Snuffy bear, and after a “Here’s your Snuffy and here’s my Snuffy, no wait, I want your Snuffy” conversation, she would snuggle into me and fall back to sleep.  Each night now, I curl around my Snuffy bear in my empty bed, and I miss her so much I can feel it in the tender back of my knees.

When I arrived in California, there was a letter from the Librarian waiting for me.  It is a perfect poem of a letter, just like the love letters he used to write to me before we were married, when I was in Dublin and he was in Connecticut.  Our goodbye was the most painful, the most difficult of all of them, and it is this, this burden of memory and longing, that I have been not facing.

And it is this that I will never learn, the connective tissue I was hunting for:  Like the three-year-old Peanut, I have two settings.  I grab a thing away and clutch it tight to me, and shout, “I do it!”  When I am determined to do something on my own, even the light touch of fingertips on the small of my back is too much pressure.  I will shake you off.  But before long I will realize I just can’t do it, or it will start to feel like I can’t do it, and I will stand close to you, big-eyed and small-voiced, and tug on your hand, saying, “You help.”

Posted by: patti | August 19, 2010


Not long after the Librarian and I moved to the Upper East Side, I developed a problem with my neck.  It was one of those weird, slept-on-it wrong kind of things; the problem occasionally recurs, and I still haven’t figured out what causes it.  But that first appearance came at absolutely the worst time: our tiny apartment was crammed with boxes that needed unpacking and furniture that needed arranging.  Plus, I had used all my vacation time for the move, and was just starting out telecommuting for work and could not afford to risk falling behind on any deadlines.

I love New York, and I was overjoyed to be a Manhattanite, but in those first weeks, I felt pressured and overwhelmed, and I was in too much pain to enjoy my new city.  I was depressed, and I slept a lot.  The Librarian and I had shorthand for my bouts with depression – we called it my malaise, stretching out the word in a languid drawl, as if by joking about it, as if by making it sound like I was a Victorian lady who took to her bed at the slightest provocation, we could make it go away.

I was somewhere between malaise and actually taking to my bed the day my neighbor across the hall had a stroke.  I had met Mildred a few times, because our apartment doors were facing, and she always left hers wide open when she was cooking or ironing.  I’d stop and chat with her when I could, usually about impersonal things like the weather or what she was cooking.  She gave me some information about the building and the neighborhood.  But I didn’t really know her, and I didn’t know she had been in the hospital and had been brought home the night before Donald came looking for her.

Every block in New York City has its share of crazy, but I am positive that East 89th between Second and Third had more than its fair share.  And Donald, I soon learned, was the mayor of crazy on 89th Street.  He was born in the building two up from ours, and Mildred had been a kind of grandma to him.  He patrolled the stoops up and down the block, looking for handouts and odd jobs.  He drank a lot, he probably did drugs, but he was a reader and a good talker, and he was honest and kind.  Donald was a rambling, shambling mess, and the Librarian and I grew quite fond of him.  We often gave him a buck or two or ten, and he always paid us back – never in cash, mind you, but always with strange, unexpected gifts: a picture frame, a paperweight, French jam, bottles of pear nectar, a ceramic jewelry box, an impressively vile bottle of wine, a collection of six Stella beer glasses.  He adored us and looked out for us, but he never got our names right – to Donald, I was Terry and Terence was Pat.  Like I said.  Donald was a mess.

But I didn’t know any of this the morning Donald woke me, pounding on my door and Mildred’s, shouting her name.  Through the peephole, I saw only a rambling shambling mess of a black man, and I tiptoed back to my bed.  I was in an Advil haze, and my chin rested approximately on my collarbone:  I was not going to be much help.   It was not so much “I don’t want to get involved” as it was an inability to process all the details of the situation, but I am probably splitting hairs.  I was shy and uncertain, not confident, afraid of doing or saying the wrong thing. But Donald’s calls to Mildred, begging her to open the door, became more frantic.  Still, I hesitated, listening for too long inside my door before I finally opened it and asked Donald how I could help.

Donald did not want to come into my apartment, which was okay with me because I wasn’t sure I should let him into my apartment.  We both kept apologizing — he because a blind man could see I was not well and me because I have this nervous tic that makes me end every damn sentence with “sorry” when I’m unsure of myself.  Donald used my phone, in the hallway, to call Mildred, but got no answer.  He was growing hysterical: he could not get in her apartment, and he was sure something was wrong, but he did not want to call 911 until he knew what was wrong.  He kept tugging at his wild hair, hopping from foot to foot.  Donald was a mess.

Somewhere in all this, I remembered that the apartments shared a fire escape along the front window.  Donald scrambled past me, over all the boxes and furniture, and climbed out, shouting back an apology for the footprints he left on my sill.  Very luckily, her windows were unlocked, but even before Donald went in, he could see that her bed was empty – the whole street probably heard him screaming to me to call 911 once he saw the empty bed.

Donald had found her curled on the floor, halfway in her tiny bathroom, barely conscious and unable to speak, and he held her hand and talked to her until the paramedics arrived.  Mildred’s eyes were glassy, wet, and she showed no sign of understanding Donald’s urgent words: “Stay with me, girl, you’re strong now, come on back to me now, that’s my girl, stay with me.”

The doors to both apartments stood wide open, and I sat on Mildred’s kitchen floor with my phone in my lap, grateful that all that was really wrong with me was an annoying pain in my neck.  It made me sad to remember all the times I’d hurried into my apartment instead of chatting with her. I could have learned more about her in those few chats we did have, if I had asked the right questions, possibly enough to understand or even share the desperate affection Donald showed her.

The three paramedics were complete knuckledraggers (or as my cousin’s husband would say, windowlickers).  They complained and fussed about the smell as if bodily functions, or malfunctions, were completely foreign to them.  They were careless and rough when they handled her, letting her nightgown fall open, treating her as if she were already just a body.  They bickered over who would carry her down the one flight of stairs to the street.  One spent more time asking me about my neck than he spent taking care of Mildred.  It was Donald who remembered to gather all her medications, who found the discharge papers from the night before, who thought to hunt for phone numbers, so they could notify her son.

It seems to me now that my life as a true New Yorker began that day, when I realized I didn’t want to be a stereotypical New Yorker.  Mildred spent the next few months in and out of the hospital, and the Librarian and I checked in on her as often as we could, and gave her son, who lived in Virginia, regular updates.  She never made a full recovery, but I was able to get to know her better before she died.

Today, seven years later and three thousand miles west, unpacked boxes, paramedics, and kind neighbors reminded me of my New York morning with Donald and Mildred.  There was a hit-and-run accident on the corner this morning, almost right in front of the house.

The sound of the impact was unmistakable, and it was close – I was sure someone had hit one of cars in the Pilot’s driveway.   His house sits at the top of a hill, one house in from a T-shaped intersection.  My writing room faces the other way; I can only see a bit of street from the window, but it was enough – when I heard the crash, I jumped up in time to watch a black Toyota 4Runner squeal past.  The tires squealed again and again as it rocketed around each twist of the hill down to the main road.

I hurried downstairs and outside.  Shards of black plastic and shattered glass littered the street.  A white Prius hunched a few yards shy of the stop-sign line; tire tracks snaked impossible lines around the car.  I hesitated at the end of the driveway:  a small crowd was gathered around the Prius, and I was barefoot and wearing, essentially, my pajamas.  A dark-haired woman in a white T-shirt was leaning into the Prius’ window, and I could hear her talking gently to the driver: Tell me where it hurts, please stay still, we’re getting help.  When the dark-haired woman stood up straight and asked the others if they’d called 911 yet, she appeared to be pregnant.  A guy in flip-flops and a gray-blue baseball cap was already on the phone; he told her, “I got it.”

I stood and watched these strangers who are now my neighbors.  They had the ease and familiarity of a small community.  And I was back behind the door on 89th Street, back in the high school cafeteria, shy and uncertain, not confident.  Afraid of doing or saying the wrong thing.  But it really did seem like they all “got it.”  They had called 911.  They were keeping the injured driver safe, immobile, and calm.  Someone, I overheard, was even chasing after the 4Runner.  I was an unshowered distracted mess and there was nothing for me to do.

So, I went back inside, refilled my tea mug, and returned to my writing room.

And couldn’t write.

The writing has been going remarkably well since I arrived, mostly because I’m hiding from the chaos around me.  And because I came out here to be a writer, dammit, and a writer writes and is not distracted by every hummingbird that flits by her window and a writer does not stare vapidly out the window at the greenbrown mountains for minutes on end and a writer most certainly does not lose two or more hours a day cooking all the amazing stuff she finds at the farmers’ market.

For the two weeks I’ve been in California, and more so now that the Pilot is back at work, I’ve been battling that bee-in-a-bottle feeling that often precedes my malaise.  I’m vaguely manic, knowing that as soon as I slow down or stop, I could be overwhelmed by everything I have to do, by the enormity of what I’ve already done, by the fresh grief of what I’ve given up to do this.  I flit from room to room, from box to box, from story to story, starting things, finishing nothing.

And so I write.  I start new stories I may never finish.  I grow the novel I may never finish.  And I fill the hummingbird feeders and I dig in the garden and I swim in the pool and I wander the farmers’ market and I cook and yes, dammit, I let my mind go blank and I stare and I stare and I stare at those beautiful mountains.  A writer writes, even when she isn’t gripping a pen or tapping a keyboard.

The chaos in me is enough to hide from, but the chaos around me is even worse.  Before we arrived from the roadtrip, the Pilot had not been home for ten weeks; he figures he’s been home maybe a dozen days in the last eight months.  It’s part of our agreement that I will help get his house in order, but honestly, that could be a full time job.  Looking around his cluttered little house, I constantly have to remind myself that one man lives here, not a family of badgers.

I’ve carved out my own little space in my writing room, and I am comfortable and happy, and so far, productive, up here.  Everything in here is mine, even if the home around it is not.

But some of my things are missing.  More on this in another post, probably, of course, but it’s enough for now to say that I hired the worst movers in the history of movers.  They arrived three days later than scheduled, which meant I cut the roadtip short unnecessarily.  The crew in New Haven yanked the fixed shelves out of my big beautiful expensive bookcases.  (This same crew broke the coffee table and tried to convince me they were taking it apart because it would travel better packed into boxes.)  They must have played rugby with my boxes, or used them as a stage for a piano-playing elephant, or it doesn’t really matter, because every single box had something smashed or cracked or damaged in it.  This is downright impressive when you consider that a full 75% of my boxes contained nothing but books.

I can’t start itemizing the broken and damaged things, lest my malaise gets the better of me.  But the worst of it is that two boxes are missing.  One box has knickknacks, mostly candleholders and vases, all purely of sentimental value.  The other box, oh heartbreak, the other box is all books, containing almost my entire William Trevor collection.  Of my 29 Trevor books (27 by him, two about him), most of which are rare and/or out of print, only After Rain and Elizabeth Alone are here with me.  I cannot overstate the heartbreak of this, if those boxes are not found.

And so this morning, back at my desk with my fresh mug of tea, I looked at the empty shelf where Trevor should be.  I could hear sirens approaching; I could hear the neighbors talking on the street, waiting with the Prius driver.  I looked at the mountains.  I looked at pile of unpacked boxes and remembered Donald clambering over boxes to get to Mildred.

Chaos or not, heartbreak or not, malaise or not, I am extraordinarily blessed and would do well to remember it more often.

I changed my pajamas for more appropriate clothes and went back outside.  There was a bigger crowd on the sidewalk by the Prius.  The dark-haired lady in the white shirt was still talking to the driver, and a man had joined her by the car.  As soon as I saw him, cradling a very tiny baby to his chest, I realized why this woman looked pregnant: this was the couple in the corner house across the street, who brought their newborn home just Monday.  Flip-flops was off his cell phone, and he smiled and waved to me as I approached.  I had seen him before, too, the day the movers came, walking his two little yappy dogs.  Introductions went around, accounts of the accident were exchanged and pieced together, nasty things were said about the driver of the 4Runner.

The first police car arrived moments after I returned, and just like when I opened the door in New York, things started happening fast.  Two more police cars arrived, and then a cop on a motorcycle (sadly, he looked like neither Ponch nor Jon), and then two ambulances and a fire truck.  All of the officers were friendly and efficient, all dark tans and white teeth, and they were armed right up to those white teeth.  The cops sorted out quickly who they needed to talk to, which was Flip-flops.  He had been out on his front lawn when it happened, directly across from the intersection, and was the only one who saw the impact.

Frantic honking made us all turn to look down the hill:  the black 4Runner pulled up behind the first police car, in front of the Pilot’s driveway.  A silver BMW, still honking, zipped around the 4Runner and blocked him in.  The driver of the BMW was a stout woman with a triumphant smile:  she had followed the 4Runner down to the main road, harassed him in the 7-11 parking lot, and herded him back to the scene of the accident.

The police surrounded the 4Runner.  The entire driver’s side was smashed in and streaked with white.  Still friendly, still efficient, the cops helped the driver out of his huge car.  He needed the help – from where we were all gathered, it was impossible to tell if he was drunk or if he was in shock, but he could barely walk.  The cops sat him on the curb, right outside the Pilot’s house, and started asking him questions.

As I stood with the neighbors, waiting my turn to tell what I’d seen, I realized the cops had pulled a neat trick.  They had gathered us in a bundle between the two damaged vehicles, where we could be seen and could see what was going on, but where we would neither get in the way of the paramedics swarming the Prius nor interfere with the cops questioning the hit-and-run driver.

The driver of the Prius was a middle-aged woman; the paramedics put her in a neck brace and onto a body board.  She appeared to be able to answer all of their questions; I saw her wiggle her fingers and flex her feet for them.  Her car had been hit very hard, and the airbags had deployed.  I hope she will be all right; I was not able to get an assessment of her condition from any of the officers I spoke with.

The driver of the 4Runner was an old guy, tall and lanky, with thin, messy silver hair.  His navy T-shirt and white shorts seemed too big for his wiry frame.  He sat on the curb, with his legs crossed at the knee, all odd angles, but very comfortable, very casual.  Infuriatingly calm, like he was chilling at a block party, enjoying the sun.  The cops played a neat trick on him, too: by being very casual and friendly with him, they kept him calm and kept him talking.  He insisted that he had not been drinking, and that he wasn’t on any medications, but he failed the follow-my-finger eye test, repeatedly, so the cops were keeping him distracted until more officers arrived to conduct a field sobriety test.

One of the cops had a civilian with him, a school psychologist on a ride-along, and after a while, he and I and 4Runner were the only non-cops left on the scene.  The psychologist and I chatted a bit, about the weather, about the community, about his work with kids and the police.  He was a big man, and he had that slow, calm, confidence that all high school psychologists need but very few possess.  That kind of calmness used to bring out all of my nervous tics – not that long ago, talking to this man would have made me run at the mouth, ending every sentence with “sorry.”  Instead, I listened, I watched, and I let his calmness infect me, and we had an easy, gentle conversation.

When the field sobriety test cops arrived, I went back inside.  I had heard the police talking; 4Runner was going to jail regardless of the sobriety test results.  The little information I had to offer had already been collected; I had collected enough to get me writing again.

I don’t know what it will take to make me a true Californian any more than I can know what it will take to make me feel at home again, anywhere.  It is very likely that I will remain a New Yorker who happens to live in California; right now, even that level of self-acceptance would be a comfort.

But I’ve only been here two weeks.  I have some time yet to figure it all out.

Posted by: patti | August 16, 2010


I’m afraid the story of Lovebug is not as interesting as the story of Ladybug — but even I have to admit that it will be hard to top the story of Ladybug.

When Harry told me that I shouldn’t drive Ladybug cross-country because of the failing piston rings, he suggested that if I was set on another Beetle, I should look for a later model, preferably diesel.  So, I searched on “VW,” “manual” (because I’m a big brat now and won’t drive anything else), and “diesel.”  There were five Beetles in the results, but I can’t tell you anything about them, because as soon as I saw the red and blue stripes and that big #53, well.  It was too ridiculous to pass up.  And it was a 2005, with only 45K miles on it.

Perfect.  Except . . . It was priced higher than I could afford without some very creative financing.  And it was located at a Carmax in Orlando, Florida, which meant I would either have to pay to ship it to the East Haven Carmax or fly down to Florida to drive it home. Both options presented expensive risks, but only one was a thoroughly impractical road trip, which is precisely why I wanted to do it.

The next time Ladybug and I went to see Harry, I told him about the car in Orlando.  “Manual and diesel? Buy it,” he said.  “Beg, borrow, or steal, if you have to, but buy it.  It’ll last forever.”  I’m pretty sure he would have had different advice if I had mentioned the paint job.

I asked my parents for help in the creative financing, but they had heard too many Ladybug stories to invest in a Beetle with me.  The suggestion that I look for a nice Honda Civic was repeated with more urgency.

But I couldn’t let go of the idea of driving Herbie the Lovebug cross-country.  I went for the more practical expensive risk and paid to have the car shipped, which gave me time to figure out that creative financing.  Ten weeks and a lot of dull paperwork after I found the Lovebug online, I drove him home.  It is worth noting, however, that neither salesperson at Carmax knew how to drive stick.  This made me unreasonably happy.

And Ladybug?  Carmax bought her, for close enough to the Blue Book value to serve as a down payment and to make the whole transaction possible.  I am sure they sold her at auction instead of doing all the work necessary to put her on their lot.  I really hope whoever has her now is as good to her as I was.  For the first few weeks, I felt guilty for giving up on Ladybug.  The new car was too shiny.  It was too easy to drive.  It was too ridiculous and I had made a horrible mistake and I should have kept my Ladybug and I shouldn’t move to California and . . . I got over it.

The real problem was that the new car came with a story, but the story amounted to a collection of movie clips.  The story wasn’t mine.

Carmax had maddeningly little information about the previous owner of my new car.  I don’t know if the owner bought it all Herbie’d up from the dealership or did it personally with a kit, afterward.  The car is a 2005, which is the year the latest Herbie movie was released, which I’m thinking is not a coincidence.  I keep trying to picture the person who would buy or create such a car to Beetle all around Orlando:  A blue-haired little old lady, only knuckles and bun visible over the steering wheel?  A bespectacled, beflanneled hipster with an overdeveloped sense of the absurd?  A parent who gave in to the whims of an obsessed kid?  A Disney employee who got stuck with a company car?  Lindsay Lohan?

Or maybe it was just someone like me, someone who can’t resist a bit of fun, someone who is really, permanently, twelve years old.  Someone who doesn’t care what the heck the paint job is on a car that goes nearly 600 miles on one tank of gas.

I’m on the other side of my cross-country drive (4,086 miles, give or take, most of which I drove myself), and I’m good and attached to the little guy now.  Everywhere I drive, we make people happy.  Ladybug was just “punch buggy black” to everyone I passed, but in this car, people smile and wave to us.  They point and shout in delight.  They take pictures.  I’m sure this attention is going to get old when I’m just trying to go run a few errands, but so far, the novelty has not worn off.  I mean, when we’re stuck in traffic, scowls of frustration on the drivers around us turn into grins of surprise and recognition: who wouldn’t enjoy that?

But there have been negative reactions, too.  I’ve been called an “attention whore,” which accurate or not, is way harsh.  There’s a segment of the population, almost universally male and over a certain age, who wants to know why I’d ruin a perfectly good car with all that “nonsense.”  Harry, who checked it over and prepped it for the cross-country, refused to take it out for a test drive.

Attached as I am, I’m still struggling with what to call him.  For the longest time, he stubbornly remained an “it.”  Yes, he already has many names, but if I’m going to write about my adventures with him, I should probably look into the obvious copyright issues with Herbie and Lovebug.  And he’s not really Herbie, because, lucky for me, he does not drive off on his own or squirt oil at people he dislikes, or fling bananas on cruise ships.  I did get him up to 124 mph on the Bonneville Salt Flats, but he’s not the racecar the real Herbie was.  And technically, he’s a New Beetle, and the real Herbie was a Classic Beetle.  So.

I started calling him Fifty-Three, but that wasn’t quite personal enough (#53 is the best way to tweet about him, though).  A colleague at the Puzzle Factory, one of the many editors who has a more-than-encyclopedic knowledge of old movies, reminded me of the name Paco gave Herbie in Herbie Goes Bananas: Ocho.  Why Ocho?  Because five and three is eight, Paco is Mexican, and these are terrible terrible movies.

(For the record, the editor who reminded me of Ocho is not the same editor who exclaimed, “Did you buy it from Dean Jones?!” when he saw the car for the first time. You can see why I already miss the circus that is the Puzzle Factory.)

Even though the initial story is not as interesting as Ladybug’s, and the story of his origin remains a mystery, Ocho is already showing signs of wanting to outshine Ladybug.  Getting him registered in California was a Kafkaesque adventure.  And he’s in the shop right now because of a very unlucky pheasant in South Dakota.

In the next few weeks, I’ll tell the stories and post the pictures of my trip across this great, big, beautiful country.  There are more pictures of Ocho than there are of me, which I find hilarious and vaguely appropriate.  I learned more about myself, which is, ultimately, what I wanted from the journey.  The trip was less Eat Pray Love, more Drive Hike Sleep, but every mile was interesting and fun.  And every part of the story is mine.

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