Class status has been a hot topic during the political conventions these last few weeks. At the Republican convention last week, it seemed like everybody (except Romney, of course!) had a working-class grandfather. Rick Santorum, for instance,  proudly declared that his Italian grandfather, who was a coal miner,  never thought about labor rights or fair pay, but was just happy to work hard so that his children and grandchildren could have a “better life.” And there his anti-labor grandson stood, the proud benefactor of this legacy, now advocating for a individualistic political system that rewards the wealthy and punishes everyday workers. You know, people like his grandfather.

At the Democratic convention, working-class relatives didn’t seem as far removed from the everyday realities of politicians. San Antonio mayor Juan Castro spoke about living with his grandmother, who worked as a housekeeper in order to send her daughter and grandsons to college. Michelle Obama described her childhood in Chicago, where her father was a pump operator who struggled to maintain his job while suffering from MS. Taking a sharp turn from Santorum’s politics, the first lady admonished those who “slam the door” of opportunity on others who have yet to cross the threshold of the American dream.

Bill Clinton got it right when he joked that every politician grew up in a log cabin. (He can joke about this, because for him, it’s pretty much true.) It’s somehow become The Thing to have working-class roots. For Democrats, it gives credence to the motto, stated quite eloquently by Mr. Clinton, that Democrats believe in “individual responsibility and collective action.” Castro and Obama both highlighted how they did not find their way out of the working class by their own power, but with help from their community and their government. For Republicans, having a working-class relative helps them justify their anti-working-class policies. If their grandparents can get by without help, so can every other working stiff.

The problem with all of this, in my opinion, is that no one uses the term “working class” to describe these noble relatives. The Democrats talk about the “middle class” instead–giving them tax breaks and helping them to stay afloat financially in difficult times. “The average middle-class American” is a phrase I heard often, and it seemed to me that many of the people being described were actually working class. While it’s The Thing to have a working-class grandparent or parent, it’s not The Thing to call them that, or to identify the current working class as such.

This is rather puzzling and fascinating, and it’s also very American. Working-class denial has been a part of our social fabric since we were a colony. While it’s always been The Thing to be a hard worker, it has never been The Thing to be working-class.

All of this makes me wonder, again, what it really means to be working class. Does it mean you work with your hands for a living? Does it mean you didn’t go to college and work in a trade? Does it mean you’re poor? Does it mean you’re liberal and pro-labor?

As I listened to all of the politicians tell their folksy stories, I got to thinking about my own folksy story–and my current work situation, which defies classification, in many ways. My dad’s parents were Sicilian immigrants, and my grandfather worked at a meat-packing plant. He had very little education and couldn’t speak English, but thanks to the golden era of American labor, he earned a living wage, was able to buy a modest home, and could retire before working himself to death. My dad and his brother, while also having little education, started their own business and did quite well financially for a while. Seems like the American Dream, huh?

But now, we digress. My dad’s business failed. He couldn’t pay the bills. He started selling drugs, got caught, and went to prison for sixteen years. His daughter, who, in the grand American Dream narrative, was supposed to be the shining star of success, was actually raised without much money. My mom, at one point, went on welfare, because she, too, lacked a college education and job skills. Then, the government helped her find a job–a job she had to work at seven days a week to eck out a meager living.

But wait! We return to the narrative! Thanks to help from generous relatives and government grants, I went to college–and (wah-wah) majored in English, which, as you may know, is not a practical major. Then, I went to graduate school, and in December, I’ll have a PhD. I am everything Michelle Obama was talking about at the convention!

Or am I? Despite the cultural capital associated with my degree, jobs as English teachers don’t pay well. IF I can even find one of those jobs, because they’re more scarce than ever, thanks to education cuts.

What happens when the golden grandchild of working-class immigrants goes back to the working class? I didn’t hear about this at either convention! But this year, that’s what I did. When I ran out of dissertation funding, I started cleaning houses. Then I also added another job selling produce for a farm collective. Both of these jobs involve working with my hands, sweating, getting dirty. Neither of them pays well. I think this makes me–dare I say it?–working class.

Or am I? My degree and the white privilege I’ve inherited dictate that I’m economically mobile. I’m not “stuck” in these jobs. I have the means to procure a professional job, and I have a chance at doing that in the near future. I may just be a working-class tourist–like Paul Ryan, who boasted that when he was mowing lawns and busing tables, HE never felt trapped in the working class! Because he wasn’t. And neither am I.

But my body tells the true story of my material circumstances right now. I have callouses on my hands, dirt under my broken nails that I can never entirely wash off. My hands often smell like bleach or another cleaning product. I have scratches and bruises on my arms and legs from moving and lifting heavy boxes of produce in and out of a truck. I think I might actually have visible muscles in my arms. My body, if not my mind, is decidedly working-class.

And I know why most people who brag about their working-class relatives aren’t actually working class. Because hard work, as “rewarding” as it may be for some, totally sucks a lot of the time.

No matter what the politicians may call it, there is such a thing as a working class right now. We, like other Americans, should have individual responsibility for our jobs, our families, our finances. But we should also recognize that we are all connected, and nobody labors alone. We act collectively, whether we are working-, middle-, or upper-class. Whether the American Dream “elevates” us or not.

Reading Life

April 17, 2012

In their autobiographies from the 1890s, New England textile operatives Lucy Larcom and Harriet Robinson call the reading habits of their fellow workers “omnivorous.” With little money to buy print and even less free time to read, some of the first factory workers in America nonetheless read whatever they could find, from Pilgrim’s Progress to the sermons of John Calvin to The Romance of the Forest to the collected poems of Lord Byron. They read at work and in tenements, with poor light and no privacy. They read to understand and escape reality, to find some beauty in an industrializing world. Reading was a part of everyday life, inseparable from the mundane, but also transcending it.

When I uncovered the reading habits of antebellum mill workers a few months ago by looking at their autobiographies, newspapers, letters, and poetry, their zeal for reading didn’t surprise me. Even though many people (including those who should know better) like to make generalizations about the bad or nonexistent reading habits of underprivileged groups, I’ve been raised with the reality that the act of reading is perhaps more important to those for whom it is a struggle.

My grandfather, Giovanni, couldn’t read Italian (his first language) very well, and he couldn’t read English at all, even after decades living and working in America. My grandmother, Marianna, was proud of her education and literacy: she’d attended school until the fifth grade in Sicily; she always read Italian magazines and letters to my grandfather at their kitchen table. But she never learned to read English, either. My father, newly arrived in America at the age of fifteen, became compulsively literate. Even though he didn’t finish high school (he started working full-time instead), he was an autodidact with his head constantly in a book or magazine. This became even more the case during his time in prison, where he accrued a massive pile of National Geographics, many of which I’ve saved. The image of him pouring over an issue with his awkward reading glasses perched on his nose will always be with me.

And then there’s me. I don’t remember a time in my life without books, without reading. To call me a bookworm is inadequate. I inhale books. Print has been a part of my everyday life, and a part of my internal life, since I’ve been conscious of myself. Despite the fact that my paternal grandparents were semi-literate, my life has been, and continues to be, a reading life.

Only part of this has been intentional. Yes, I was read to as a child and encouraged to read as I grew into adolescence. My dad’s immigrant identity underscored the importance of literacy. But my reading habits, like those of the mill girls, have been “omnivorous.” I’ve always favored odd texts that I found in unexpected places. A novel buried in my grandmother’s cedar trunk. The Cider House Rules found in my grandmother’s spare bedroom. Paperbacks that my cousin saved for me in an antique apothecary stand in her family room. I almost never read the books assigned to me in high school English. Instead, I roamed the public library, bringing home Anna Karenina and a biography of Guns n’ Roses.  It was haphazard and serendipitous and wonderful.

I prefer reading to talking, and I always have, which has caused quite a bit of social awkwardness over the the years. Family members were always looking for me in quiet rooms on holidays, where I would have hidden to read. At a great aunt’s house one Christmas, I discovered an old copy of Lady Chatterly’s Lover and felt deliciously scandalous as I skimmed it alone in the family room while the adults finished dessert. I later took to reading unabashedly at the dinner table. If this was weird, I never noticed: I was too busy reading.

Of course, this reading life of mine could never have much visibility in high school, but in college, I realized reading could, literally, become my life’s work. I met like-minded people who wanted to spend a Saturday afternoon reading silently beside me at the Barnes and Noble. I started dating a guy who actually wanted to spend weekend nights reading instead of, like, being normal. Then I married him, because an opportunity like that only comes along once. (He does, however, disapprove of some of my reading habits. No one’s perfect.)

Now I read and write and research about reading. Hopefully, some college or university will hire me soon to continue doing this full-time.  But even if they don’t, my reading life continues, and it still refuses to be contained. I read books I’m “supposed” to read, but also those I’m not. My favorite pastimes are to speed-read popular fiction at Barnes and Noble and to wander the stacks at Carnegie Library in Oakland. Much of what I read is crappy. Much of what I read is brilliant and moving. Both have an equally important place in my reading life.

Muriel Rukeyser, mid-twentieth-century journalist and poet, used these lines to begin her collection of documentary poems about the Gauley Bridge tragedy in West Virginia called The Book of the Dead. Putting the reader in the position of a tourist driving on the then-new interstates that tend to bypass the realities of local lives, Rukeyser encourages readers to put down their cameras and to follow the roads that really lead them into their country–even if they find something dark and disruptive at the end of them. While tourists on road trips like to think rhapsodic and grandiose thoughts about the highway-parted landscape, Rukeyser tells us that we must follow these roads further to see the ugly but somehow transformative  realities that define our country.

Rukeyser’s lines went through my head several times yesterday as I drove across Pennsylvania, through southern New York, Connecticut, and finally, into Massachusetts. Mostly, the lines were a chastisement. I was being a total tourist, allowing myself to rhapsodize about the cold beauty of frozen springs on the cliffs along the highway, letting my spirit soar as I swooped down mountains after laboring in my tiny car to climb them. This is America, I thought to myself smugly, adolescently.

Well, kind of, but no, not really. Actually, not at all.

Highwayside landscapes are nice and all, and I’ll always love the feeling of driving away and into the unknown, the road before me splitting mountains effortlessly and darting casually around dangerous cliffs. But aside from the fact that this effortlessness is an illusion (laborers took serious risks and probably were paid very little to build these roads), the idea of America that highways present is a fake, and here’s why.

Interstates almost always give drivers ways to avoid local populations. Take the turn-pike or thru-way rest-stop: instead of forcing you to eat dinner at the Moose Head Diner five miles from poorly lit Exit 12, which is 50 miles from a sizable town, you get to pull into a food court and eat Sbarro pizza that’s been under a heat lamp for hours and grab a latte at Starbucks before getting back on the highway and admiring America. Sure, there are local people working at Sbarro, but they’re wearing uniforms we recognize, and they’re serving us. So they can’t be that dangerous, we think.

This is exactly what I did last night. Passing multiple restaurants and getting hungrier and hungrier, I waited until I entered the Massachusetts Turn-pike and spotted one of these comforting food courts. I screeched into the parking lot, hoovered two slices of pizza, and continued on my way.

I did this because I know what’s down those other roads. I’ve seen what America’s really like, and it scared the shit out of me.

Take, for instance, the time Mike and I drove to New Orleans. At about 10pm, in the middle of Mississippi, we realized we needed gas. Like, immediately. It had been a while since we’d seen any lights, let alone an actual town. But, we exited at a lonely exit with no street lights to mark it and began driving down a lonely road. We saw nothing–NOTHING–for what seemed like hours but was actually five minutes. Then, on a small hill, appeared a nightmarish mirage: a run-down gas station that also seemed to function as a town square and retirement home. Old men were lazing in rocking chairs outside, smoking pipes. Teenagers were necking in the shadows behind the air pump. Children chased each other through the convenience store.

When we pulled up to one of the pumps, we realized it didn’t have a credit card slot. This meant that contact with the local population was a necessity. Mike pumped the gas, and everyone turned to stare, first in curiosity, then in disapproval. They seemed to decide that we couldn’t have voted for Bush, with our fuel-efficient vehicle, public radio stickers, PA plates, and nerd glasses. When Mike courageously approached the rocking grandpas to pay, I turned coward, locked the car doors, and ducked down. I’m not proud of myself, but that’s what fear can do to you. It can make you fear elderly tobacco-chewers.

That, my friends, is America. Scary, no?

To be honest, though, while the real America IS scary, it’s also great. That gas station in the middle of Mississippi is a real place, and those grandpas were real.  We reluctantly followed the roads leading into our country, and that’s what we found.

I’m also thinking about another road I followed years ago, during a college road trip in the Midwest. A group of friends and I went to a crazy diner in the middle of a cabbage field in Indiana, and it was magical. Yes, magical. The food was gross, and the people seemed odd, but that field was full of the most gigantic cabbages I’ve ever seen–and the most gigantic fireflies. After leaving the diner at twilight, we were drawn as if by magnetic force to the field, and then found ourselves running into it, laughing in amazement. We were children again, discovering something new and seemingly inexplicable. It was wonderful, and it was America.

Last night, after my Sbarro run, I finally ran out of highway on the city streets of Lowell. It’s an odd thing when you’ve been driving on a highway for eight hours and suddenly find that the highway has dumped you into a city. You freak out a little, because highway logic no longer rules. Even though I live in one of the hardest to navigate cities in the country, this happened to me when the highway dumped me in Lowell. Suddenly, there were canals, and old brick buildings, and cars, and pedestrians. The streets, which grew up incidentally around the mills, seemed haphazard, and I immediately lost my bearings. But, when I looked up from my map, I realized that I had again found real America.

I was reminded of this today, when I left the archive at about 2:30 and was engulfed by teenagers leaving the high school across the street. These kids were loud, and cliquey, and a fight broke out, causing other kids to run over to watch. A girl behind me said, in a bored tone, to her friend, “Why do people always run to fights?” A traffic policeman broke it up. I was caught up in streams of teenagers walking home, and home, for many of them, was apartment buildings that had once housed millworkers or are reclaimed mills.  After reading old newspapers in a library all day, I suddenly felt Lowell become a reality to me. Through the throngs of twenty-first century teenagers, who have the privilege of going to school until the age of eighteen, I imagined the ghosts of teenagers from another era, streaming out of the mills at quitting time and going home to these same buildings, back when they were new. They’d been working for twelve hours, standing at machines and getting cotton lint in their eyes, but they probably still sounded a lot like these teenagers (minus the f-word, probably), excited to be done with a day of school.

This, I think, is what Muriel Rukeyser wanted me to see. These are the roads that lead you into your country.

This is your land

December 21, 2011

In 2011, I went from owning zero properties to owning two–one here, in Pittsburgh, and the other in Realmonte, Sicily. The first one was intentional: Mike and I realized we could actually save money by buying a house instead of renting a larger apartment, which is one of the reasons why Pittsburgh is so great. The second one was a total shock: my uncle died unexpectedly and, being his nearest relative, I inherited his little house in the town where he and my dad were born. My property in Pittsburgh immersed me in the fun aspects of home ownership, such as decorating, gardening, etc., while my property in Sicily plunged me into the crazy netherworld of Italian law and real estate and family issues, which will certainly become a topic for a later blog post (when–or IF!–it’s ever resolved).

In both cases, owning property has been philosophically strange for me. Since I was young, I’ve known all about how land ownership can screw you–especially when you, like,  run  out of money. This happened to my maternal grandfather, who owned several properties outright but couldn’t keep up with the taxes. He died before his properties went into foreclosure, but it would have happened sooner than later. My mom, the harried and often angry executor of his doomed estate, took this opportunity to teach me that your land is never really your land: even if you’ve paid for it outright or paid off your mortgage, “they” (meaning the local government) can still take it away from you.

There was a bitterness to this lesson, and an anti-taxation bent, that was difficult to ignore. As I grew older, though, the bitterness remained while the anti-taxation bent faded–at least, for me. After all, taxes allow our municipalities to function, making our cities and towns more liveable, and they also make common land and spaces, like city and state parks and public libraries, possible. These are the spaces, above all others, that are truly ours: as long as the tax money is coming in, paying people to care for these spaces, we can always go hiking or picnicing in our parks, or we can read whatever we like in our libraries, no matter who we are, how much money we make, what color our skin may be, or if we own property of our own. In fact, even if you haven’t paid your taxes this year, you can still hang out in the park and get books from the library.

This is why, for a long time, I wasn’t interested in property ownership. While friends insisted that renting was “throwing away” money, I disagreed. As long as I was renting, I knew that I would only have to pay the rent–not property taxes, not for unexpected repairs, not for anything else. In the meantime, I always spent a lot of time in public spaces, particularly Schenley Park and the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh in Oakland. These places taught me a few lessons about public ownership. First, it preserves our resources. Throughout Schenley Park, there are beautiful stone bridges and steps that bear placards engraved with “W.P.A. 1939.” The Works Progress Administration, part of Roosevelt’s New Deal, put millions of unemployed people to work in the ’30s and ’40s improving the infrastructure of existing public land and creating new infrastructure in many places. Not only did this program provide jobs during the Great Depression, but it also ensured that future generations would be able to enjoy the same rural enclave in the middle of Pittsburgh in the decades to come. When I see the W.P.A. signs, I am grateful the government saved the park for me.

Second, public ownership sustains and disperses money from the private sector. The Carnegie library system is the perfect example of this. Andrew Carnegie, that old Scottish devil, made an obscene amount of money off the backs of working Pittsburghers. Then, to keep us from hating him completely, he gave a bunch of it back, founding a public library system for the very people he initially screwed–as well as their descendants. Instead of hording this money in private holdings (like he did for most of his life), Carnegie gave it to Pittsburgh and told them to sustain it. That’s why I (and 70% of Pittsburgh voters) voted “yes” to the library tax in November: we want the library we love to be around for our kids.

Third, and finally, public ownership introduces us to our neighbors. When you go to the park or the library instead of just hanging out at home, you come face-to-face with the people of your community. Sometimes, these people are really great. For instance, one day this last autumn, I was walking past the Panther Hollow pond when a flock of geese landed on it. Their swooping grace as they dove out of the sky and their simultaneous splashes stopped me in my tracks, and there I met an elderly lady who had the same reaction. She told me she walked to the pond every day to see the ducks and geese. Our interaction was brief, but we had shared a rare moment of beauty made possible by the continued existence of our park.

Sometimes, the people who share public spaces with us are annoying. And crazy. I think I’d be disappointed if they weren’t.

One of the major reasons why Mike and I chose our house is its proximity to Schenley Park. The park is literally two blocks away. This last summer, I was there almost every day, enjoying a soccer field that someone else mowed and trails that someone else maintained. Of course, I spent a lot of time in my own yard, too. Inspired by the rock walls in the park, I built my own in front of my house. Mike and I also decided to buy the empty lot behind our house so I could expand our garden. In my opinion, it’s the best of both worlds, public and private.

One of the things that has gotten me thinking about this is an article I read in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about Marcellus Shale leases (read it here: http://shale.sites.post-gazette.com/index.php/news/business/24199). The article reported that drilling companies can sell the leases they’ve contracted with property owners to another drilling company, who can then change the terms of the lease without telling the property owner. Interestingly, while property owners think that they have control of their own lease agreements, drillers ultimately have the upper hand. In fact, the drillers don’t even map their sites by private holdings, but by region, meaning that they often apply the same rules to lands held under different lease agreements.

The land that you think is your land is not really your land.

But the problem of drilling leases on private property leads to another potential problem–drilling on public land. In Pennsylvania, drilling has been permitted in state forests, but not state parks. Current trends in legislation (or the lack thereof) may mean that state parks are open to drilling in the not-so-distant future. There are many problems with this, particularly regarding environmental sustainability, but the biggest problem that I see with drilling on public land is a lack of economic sustainability. In PA, drillers are not paying taxes on their enormous earnings. Already, they’re not “giving back.” But if they drill on public land–draining our parks of their vitality and safety–they are screwing us twice over. As Mike so eloquently put it in his recent letter to the editor (http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/11332/1193005-110-0.stm), they “socialize the financial risk of drilling while they privatize the profit.” This is capitalism at its worst. This is Andrew Carnegie before old age made him guilty and scared enough of death to start giving his wealth back to the community.

Most importantly, this is YOUR land caught in the balance–your land, and your society.

Old Things

September 21, 2011

I grew up around old things: old people with old stuff filling their old houses. As the only child and grandchild on both sides of my family–meaning no siblings or first cousins to keep me in young company at family gatherings–I became saturated in the old and knew no other reality.

After school, I would go to my maternal grandmother’s house which was filled with antique furniture: old leather chairs that my butt would slide off of if I wasn’t careful, dry sinks and wash stands that took the place of modern sideboards and microwave stands, and kerosine lamps with glass shades that had been electrified sometime in the 1950s. For fun, my grandma and I would bake old-fashioned snickerdoodles and other once-popular baked goods that had faded from mainstream domesticity in the 1980s.

In the evenings, I would visit my great-grandmother, called Nana, whose house was filled with old clocks that ticked and chimed constantly, reminding me that the new was becoming old and the old was getting older.  In one of her many old armoirs, I found a pair of Dutch baby shoes carved of wood and painted; my great-grandfather, called Pop, who had been 100% Dutch, had worn these as an infant in the 1890s. In the same cabinet, I found a copy of the problematic children’s book Little Black Sambo that had belonged to my grandfather in the 1930s. In Nana’s bedroom, I sat at her old-fashioned dressing table pushing my awkwardly permed ’80s hair back with tortoiseshell combs from the 1920s. Often, I would help her in that antiquated task of canning tomatoes and freeze-drying strawberries.

Every once in a while, I would stay all night with my cousin Chuck and his wife, Joy. Chuck was my grandfather’s first cousin, and so he and Joy were like a third set of grandparents to me, especially because they had no children or grandchildren of their own. Their house was filled with antiques, too–dry sinks, wash stands, and glass lamps, but also nineteenth-century Currier and Ives prints, an apothecary’s cabinet with numerous little drawers, and–the tour de force–a Victorian settee reupholstered in lime green. To foster my own antique-collecting tendencies, Joy built me a Tudor-style wooden dollhouse complete with miniature Victorian furnishings. Every time I went to visit, she pulled another set of Victorian-style paper dolls out of a drawer in the apothecary’s cabinet, and I would cut them out carefully so these lushly dressed creatures could populate the dollhouse–until someone bumped into it and they fell over.

And then, every Christmas and Memorial Day, there were visits to my great-great-Aunt Margie’s house, a sprawling Cape Cod on the shore of Lake Ontario. Margie, my Nana’s sister, had been the one sibling in that family to marry money–her husband, Jack Scully, had been a high-powered criminal defense attorney from the 1920s until the 1950s. While he was at work defending the down-and-out, Margie was living a cushy life in her custom-built house, filling it with antiques and perfecting the role of the wealthy dilettante. This house, by the time I came around, still looked like it did in the 1960s, with boldly printed wallpaper, dark carpets, and oil paintings of now-dead people covering the walls. My favorite room, and one that I spent quite a bit of time in while the adults argued about politics in the dining room, was the Book Room, a little study with a large fireplace, an antique daybed, and a large bay window overlooking the brick patio and the wide expanse of the lake.  The window had small shelves built in front of it lined with green and blue glass bottles that caught the light. I would sprawl on the daybed and pour through old books, mainly about antiques, the sound of raised adult voices and waves in the background.

My dad’s parents, as immigrants from Sicily who arrived at Ellis Island in the wake of World War II’s devastation of Italy, did not have the luxury of filling their house with family heirlooms, nor did they have the money or the desire to go “antiquing,” as my mom’s family had. They had come from a very old island where they had lived in centuries-old crumbling houses among the ruins of their former conquerors. In America, they were starting over and were glad of it: the old did not quite hold the same nostalgia for them as it did for my mom’s family. During my childhood, their house was filled with their “new” furniture, purchased around the same time as their 1950s ranch house on the outskirts of Rochester. One of my favorite retro pieces was the teal sectional couch, streamlined and mod, upon which my grandfather, called Nono, sat to watch Jeopardy every evening, even though he really couldn’t understand simple English, let alone arcane trivia. But the piece de resistance, in my opinion, was the light-up Jesus in the corner of their bedroom that was, eerily, always lit. While the adults were arguing around the kitchen table after dinner, I would sneak down the hall to their bedroom and stand before the Jesus, half in fear and half in awe. My dad was no longer Catholic, so this was the only place I had access to the kitsch of Catholicism at this level of grandeur. Imported from Italy in the 1950s, this Jesus was awash with pastel glory, his eyes filled with martyrdom and his hands raised in blessing in the glow of a bulb carefully concealed behind a large, random rose. This Jesus was different than the one on the felt board in my Baptist Sunday school room; he was mystical, distant, wonderful, and old.

After all of these descriptive paragraphs, I hardly need to say that I deeply loved these old people and their things. Perhaps I loved them even more than I would have if my mother hadn’t been so scornful of old things. Having grown up around antiques, she couldn’t wait to banish them from her adult living space: we lived in a new ranch house filled with tacky new ’80s stuff that always felt wrong to me. It was too light, too insubstantial, too lacking in back stories. I had been wooed by the old, and I was in thrall to it. In fact, I remember embarrassing my mom by hinting strongly that I would really like to have some random old trinket just about every time we went to a relative’s house.

But along with my love of old things came the constant knowledge that time was passing quickly, and one day in the not-so-distant future, these old relatives of mine would die. The sense of this was with me indistinctly for a long time before it came to the surface of my consciousness one Christmas while I was standing in the gaudily papered hallway of my aunt Margie’s house. With the clocks ticking and the sound of muted voices from the next room in the background, I found myself suddenly freaked out by the oldness of everything around me. The realization that I was the youngest person there by far, and that I would outlast everyone, and that I would be alone, swept over my mind in a creeping chill. One day it would be only me…and all of these old things.

That day has arrived. One by one, most of those voices dropped from the dinner table as the ’80s became the ’90s and then the ’00s. And the old things that I yearned for so badly as a child have come to be mine. I’ve had the light-up Jesus since my grandparents died, as well as some end tables, glass bottles, china, and lamps from Margie and my grandmother when she sold her house. Just this last weekend, Chuck gave me a huge haul of antiques that were Joy’s, including the lime green settee I’ve always admired. Mike and I loaded them into a U-haul and drove them from Rochester to Pittsburgh, where we integrated them into our current eclectic mix of old and new things.

I still love these old things, and I’m so grateful to have them. But as I wander around my own house (which is old–built in 1911), smelling the distinctive old smell of the items that so vividly stand out in my memory, I feel ambivalent. I feel like I unintentionally made a deal with the devil: beloved old people in exchange for beloved old things. Yes, I’m aware that this is the reality of life, but there’s an uncanny chill that hangs in my mind, reminding me of the day I realized this was going to happen. And then there’s the context issue: I almost feel like I’m blaspheming my memory of the green couch by putting it in my bedroom. It may be superstitious nonsense, but the feeling’s there.

I’m trying instead to meld my memory of these things with my present experience of them, and to think about how it’s a perfect circle that will keep on turning, as these same old things create new memories. In the meantime, the weird smell of them really is getting on my nerves.

 

The etiquette of buying an attractive stranger a drink at a bar or club is well-known, if a bit murky in practice: You see the desired person, ask to buy them a drink, mostly they say yes, and you hope they stick around to drink it with you. I’ve never been the active party in this situation; I have only refused or accepted drinks. But my experience with receiving drinks is limited at best, as I have never done much bar-hopping or clubbing, especially not as a single person. I remember one incident at a bar named Lux in my hometown of Rochester, NY where pre-paid drinks were forced upon my friend Kate and I, and then the buyer followed us outside to ask for a certain sort of reimbursement. We told him off and made our getaway.

As you can see, I have limited but rather awkward and alarming experience with drink-buying etiquette.

So, imagine my chagrin and complete befuddlement when, at the Waterfront Giant Eagle, a man offered to pay for my beer at the cash register.

For those unfamiliar with draconian Pennsylvania liquor laws and wondering what Giant Eagle could possibly be, allow me to briefly explain. Unlike most states of our blessed Union, where you can buy beer and wine at the grocery store or convenience mart, Pennsylvania makes you go to separate stores for each–Independent “beer and pop” stores and state-run liquor and wine stores. At the beer and pop store, you have to buy beer in cases, which can become rather pricey if you prefer craft beers to Coors. Enter Giant Eagle, the Pittsburgh grocery store monopoly, who formed an unholy alliance with the liquor control board and began to sell wine from malfunctioning vending machines and beer in small quantities from their “cafe.” The cafe beer selection is actually pretty decent, and the other day, I innocently decided to buy some Young’s Double Chocolate Stout in a four-pack.

I’ve purchased beer at the Waterfront Giant Eagle numerous times, and it’s about as far-removed from a bar environment as you can get. You grab your beer of choice from the refrigerated cases, dodge the smattering of elderly people drinking coffee, and show the hairnet-wearing cafe employee your ID. Not sexy. Not hip. Not threatening. But as I was standing in line to buy my beer, the man in front of me–who looked like a fortysomething former weight-lifter now running to fat in a basketball jersey and gym shorts–turned to me and tried to make conversation about my beer selection.

“Young’s Double Chocolate,” he stated, as if I were unaware. “That’s a great beer. Really chocolatey.”

I shifted into wary but not rude a-stranger-is-talking-to-me mode and said, “Yep, I like that.”

And that, I thought, was that.

Every once in a while I try to give people the benefit of the doubt, and I did so at that moment. See, I thought, he just likes good beer and was happy to find that someone else at Giant Eagle does, too. But most of the time when I feel the unexpected flush of hope that comes from giving people the benefit of the doubt, I am wrong. Very wrong. And I was certainly wrong in this case.

Because when he finished buying his beer–Boddingtons and Guiness–he stuck around, seemingly putting his wallet away and organizing receipts. He was still there when I gave the cashier my ID. And then he said, “How much is that beer?”

At first I was confused. Was he trying to decide whether to buy some for himself? I told him the price.

“Let me get that for you,” he said, pulling out a twenty. He smiled at me. “Because the only thing better than good beer is good free beer.”

Nothing in my limited drink-buying experience had prepared me for this, and I was completely caught off guard. In a split second that felt like an hour, I looked from the man to the cashier trying to keep a neutral expression and tried to figure this out. I imagined saying no, thank you very much, and then beginning one of those annoying scenes like the one from So I Married an Axe Murderer where he insisted upon paying and I insisted upon declining: “Nonononono.” “Nonononono!” This was tricky.

So I said, in what I hoped was a tone that communicated how weird this was, “Um, if you want. Thank you.”

What? What had I just agreed to?! What did he expect from me afterward? Was this a Lux situation? Would he try to coerce me into the jacked-up pickup that inevitably awaited him in the parking lot?! Oh, the horror! I steeled myself for the repercussions of my acceptance.

But then, it was over. He paid, I took the beer. I said thank you again. He said you’re welcome. And left.

In the safety of my car, I called Mike and told him what had happened. He asked me if the man was following me back to our house. After being certain that he was not, I began to breathe easier. But I remained troubled by what had occurred, even as I drank the spoils.

I tried to figure it all out. Why did he put me in that situation? Was he actually just being nice? Was he confused that I hadn’t upheld my part of the deal, which was to make small talk with him after the purchase, inevitably leading to a date at a brew pub? Should I have refused, even if it resulted in an Axe Murderer scene? Gah!

I still haven’t figured it out, but I do know this: despite the hair nets and the elderly people drinking coffee in the Giant Eagle Cafe, it is NOT SAFE. Someone could attempt to pull a bar scene on you, and there you’ll be, entangled in a web you thought you’d escaped long ago.

About ten years ago, blogs were newfangled and hip. At that time, I began to hear about them, these blogs by people who clearly felt they were hip enough to participate in this newfangled blogosphere. I didn’t actually read any of them until a few years later, when I thought, “That’s nice, but I’ll be damned if I ever publish my life on the internet, suckers.” Then I sat back smugly and waited for blogs to become outre. When that didn’t happen, when blogging instead moved into the mainstream, I decided that it was uncool enough for the likes of me. And besides, I thought, with so many uninteresting people clogging up the blogosphere, perhaps no one untoward will notice the details of my life.

So I started a blog called Marianne Schmarianne, named for my self-deprecating writing style and my inability to come up with a better name. For over a year, under the banner of the Bright Eyes quote “I’m not surprised but I never feel quite prepared,” I wrote about all manner of random things I wasn’t prepared for, mostly to amuse and bemuse myself, my husband, and a handful of friends. Then The Others started encroaching: the random guys asking me out, the strangers trying desperately to get more readers for their own blogs. And then, someone I’d mentioned in a posting googled themselves and found what I’d said about them. I hadn’t said anything particularly BAD, and the person wasn’t angry, but I found it irreparably disarming. That was the end of Marianne Schmarianne.

It was also the end of my attempts at creative non-fiction, which didn’t seem like such a loss until recently, when I began my dissertation and realized I needed a creative foil for my academic writing. And so, Marianne Schmarianne Returns…or perhaps, following the lead of the Batman movie franchise, Marianne Schmarianne Begins, which is just a more clever way of saying the same thing. And this Marianne Schmarianne doesn’t care if you’re a stranger, because this blog doesn’t give a shit about shit. Kinda like Batman, when he returned or began.

I’m still not surprised but never quite prepared for the things that happen to me, which I’ve been told are often quite bizarre, awkward, and unexpected. And so, I’m going to write about them again.