Where You From?

Where You From?

Whenever I’m asked where I’m from, I hesitate. It takes a moment to wrangle shame to the ground long enough to scare up the truest truth to tell. The aftereffect of my parents’ inability to halt their rodeo boozing long enough to pay the rent accounts for a long trail of midnight moves.

Annapolis, Maryland; three different homes in Washington DC, two in Terre Haute Indiana, a hotel in Indianapolis, two homes in St.Louis, a hotel in Chicago, homes in Kenilworth, Wilmette, and Lake Forest, Illinois, two cottages in Sea Girt, New Jersey, two New York apartments, a Williamsburg, Virginia boarding school and back to Sea Girt.

At that point, after fourteen or fifteen schools, with a lick and a promise, I barely graduated from Manasquan high school. I spent the last year drinking and smoking in the school parking lot with a posse of flirty no-goods. I dropped out of Monmouth College, married, had a baby, moved to Vermont, divorced, got addicted to loco weed, moved to Point Pleasant, New Jersey, married again, joined a cult, divorced again. When I was twenty-nine years old I moved with my son back to Chicago, where I’ve mostly lived for forty-seven years as a tenderfoot, sober alcoholic. 

What do I say? I like to say I’m from the Midwest, like Bob Dylan, with God on my side. 

            Oh my name it ain’t nothin’

            My age it means less

            The country I come from

            Is called the Midwest

My three sisters say they are from New Jersey as if it has all the romance of Bruce Springsteen’s Jersey Girl.

              So don’t bother me cause I ain’t got no time

            I’m on my way to see that girl of mine

            Nothing else matters in this whole wide world

            When you’re in love with a Jersey girl

There are a lot of cool people at the Jersey Shore. I had a stable of romantic encounters like Springsteen’s Jersey Girl—on the beach, in the backseat of Mustang convertibles, in public bathrooms of raucous bars. Jersey boys drink beer. Morning. Noon. And Night. Not me. I drank gin. They have mononucleosis and venereal diseases. They drive drunk and kill you with sarcasm. And still they seek the girl from the right neighborhood, the right school, and the right family. I’m lucky I made it out of there alive.

In the Midwest of my girlhood, I knocked on neighbors’ doors for a ride to  school when I couldn’t wake up my mother or our car was out of gas. They helped me look for my missing dog, Lefty, in a snowstorm. When that rodeo was dusting up inside my home and danger was afoot, they taught me to hide in trees.

Midwestern fun: Beatles Sing Along

When I arrived back in Chicago to a corral of footloose midwestern strangers in the 1970s, I expected bound-for-glory hellos and found them. A friend from fifth grade I hadn’t seen in sixty-five years read my book recently and sent me a note: “you always belonged to us.”

That’s the Midwest. Where I’m from.

Prayers

Prayers

(excerpted from the November 2022 Grapevine, the International Journal of Alcoholics Anonymous)

My mother’s cousin, Father Long, asked to meet me on the wraparound porch of the1900s-era resort hotel in Spring Lake, New Jersey.

I had recently left my husband and was living at my mother’s house with my two-year-old boy. Assuming Father Long wanted to force feed me unwanted marriage counseling, I hung a defiant roach clip from an anti-establishment leather string around my 22-year-old neck to amplify my hippie ensemble.

He talked about my marijuana use. “Give it up, for your mother’s sake,” he said. I paused. “Are you talking to her about giving up drinking for my sake?”

Father Long started his career as a disciplinarian of an inner-city Catholic boys’ school. Realizing I was no match for him, I scrambled out of the painted wood rocking chair and made a fast exit. I heard him call to me as I walked away, “I’ll pray for you.” 

Father Long spent a few weeks every year near Sea Girt where I lived during adolescence and young adulthood. That summer his vacation on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean was interrupted by my mother’s cry for help. She wanted him to help me. My mother’s lips never parted to pray and I doubt her thoughts ever enter the spiritual realm. On the way home, I wondered how drunk she must have been to ask for help from her cousin, a soldier of God. Had Father Long been summoned to help other wayward children sprung from our very wayward relatives?

A few years later, I made it to Alcoholics Anonymous and, after six months sober, I was asked to speak at a large AA meeting in Montclair. In the meeting, I talked about my inability to stop drinking, stop smoking pot, stop consuming illicit drugs. I welled up speaking of gratitude for my father, who had brought me into the Fellowship.

My father had sobered up at Towns Hospital in Manhattan. He attended meetings on the Upper East Side and had been able to sustain abstinence during the time I was dying way out there in some other dimension of addiction. We hadn’t seen each other for five years. Then he showed up at the public mental institution where I had been sent after I overdosed at 24 years old. He suggested I go to the AA meeting on the grounds of the institution.

After I wrapped up my six-months sober talk at that meeting in Montclair, a petite, pearly lady stood out from a line of well-wishers. She approached and said, “I pray for you every day.” “What?” I asked. “Do I know you?”

“I go to meetings in New York with your father,” she said. “We helped him when he went to see you in the hospital. We told him what to say, to just share his story, what it was like, what happened and what it was like now. Like we do with any other alcoholic—and suggest you go to meetings. A lot of us have been praying for you for a long time.” 

 “And here you are.” 

That was the summer of 1971.

___________________________________________________

NOTE: Father Long was removed from the priesthood in 1995 for sexual abuse. He’s on the Pennsylvania, Maryland and Washington DC, lists of accused priests. He died in 2004.

Letter to the Boyfriend

Letter to the Boyfriend

I found your book from the early ’90’s the other day. It’s the mystery about martial arts, ritual tattooing, sumo wrestling and a murderous Japanese crime syndicate. Mysteries are my favorite genre and I’ve read my share of torture and ritual killings, but no book ever frightened me more than yours.

Remember when you came to see me in Washington on your book tour? You phoned to ask if you could come over to my place. How did you know I wasn’t married? When I said no, you insisted on meeting me in the lobby of your hotel. Why were you staying so close to where I lived?

“Ok, but I’m not going to your room.” I said.

We sat in the hotel bar revealing certain truths of our lives from the past twenty-five years. Neither of us drank. You, of course, insisted I come to your room for a copy of the book. I relented, armed with my pocketed cell phone. You said I broke your heart when we were together one teenage summer. A high school teacher suggested you pour out your dejection on paper, which started your writing career. I was surprised, even flattered, to hear you’d written hundreds of pages about me, including detailed sex scenes some of which you duplicated in your novels.

I remember hiding naked with you in the basement of your parent’s Jersey Shore bungalow, listening to the undulating Atlantic Ocean, giggling at talk of marrying, concocting funny names for our children. Once, on the boardwalk, your mother’s eyes locked me down. “Don’t get pregnant,” she smiled. You returned to Philadelphia for senior year. I stayed, and went to someone else. You drove back to the Shore periodically that year, ambushed me at school and home, and tried to snare me into embracing you. You, the oversexed, body-building wrestler. You, the alpha male cornering me with your power. Did you have any sense of how frightening you were?

In your Washington hotel room I tried to avoid answering your demand, but you insisted over and over asking, “You really did love me, didn’t you?” 

“No. I just wanted the experience to write about.” I said.

“But you didn’t write. I did.” You said.

My head burned so hot I stepped outside of my body to cool off. Unaware, you gave a walking monologue on how successful you were, how physically fit you were and how you were taking female hormones to reduce whatever estrogen was active in your body. 

I scrambled out of there without the book.

A few days later multiple copies were stacked up in my neighborhood book store. Isn’t that what you’ve always wanted? For your old girlfriends to see your fruit on display? I bought it. In a straight-back chair at my dining room table I made it through a few nightmarish chapters, then hid the book in a cardboard box.

The book, your book, is now headed to a landfill.

May Day! Mothering Rough Seas

For a few years, my son and I lived at the Jersey Shore with his stepfather, Jack, on the confluence of a fresh water river and a saltwater bay. The east-west Toms River begins in the swamps of the Pine Barrens, widens and swells its way east, eventually slamming into the Barnegat Bay. Sailors love the Toms River, especially during the summer’s prevailing southerlies.

I am not a sailor. 

In our family, swimming, passed down from one generation to the next, was a right of passage for a three-year old.  Water is in our blood. Our sandy backyard, bulkheaded rich brine that nourished vibrant sea creatures and, in turn, fed migratory bird colonies. Life on the water with my inquisitive six-year old was pure joy.

Jack arrived home one day with a used polystyrene Sunfish trailing his ’65 Mustang. For fifty dollars, the previous owner threw in a booklet on ‘how to sail’. A 1971 ad in Boating magazine called the thirty pound Sunfish the “Volkswagen of sailboats. A perfect learner’s boat” 

I called it a styrofoam bathtub.

Joe and I practiced our new book-learned sailing skills, 100 feet offshore, moored to the bulkhead. On our first untethered day at sea, Joe rigged the sails. We lulled away the dead calm until Joe spotted our German Shepherd swimming our way. As she approached the boat, I stood up, pointed toward shore and shouted “go home!” Which of course she did. She was, after all, a German Shepherd.

The next time Joe and I unmoored, we sailed expertly into the middle of the widest part of the river. We took turns at the tiller, successfully jibing and tacking as the wind took us west. But then we tacked to come back downriver. The sweet southerlies that had funneled us upriver suddenly turned on us like a mad dog turning on its master. The rogue wind bared its teeth. Thunderclouds whipped up the tide. And the sail luffed out of control. We. Were. Trapped.

The boat, too light for wind-churned waters, threw us around like a sea monster. I reassured Joe we were safe since we were both good swimmers. 

“We can’t leave the boat,” pleaded Joe.

“We won’t!” I assured him. But truth is, he’d seen the thought to abandon the boat cross my brow. I could swim to shore with one arm around Joe’s chest but I couldn’t pull the Sunfish with the other. 

Private docks, woods and marinas dotted the riverfront. I spotted a sliver of sand and rowed furiously. We pulled the boat up, tied it to a tree and ran to the door of a stranger who drove us home. The next day the Coast Guard towed our Sunfish home. 

“No markings on this thing,” the officer said. 

“You should name her ‘May Day.’”

At twenty-seven years old, I had no reason to believe motherhood would come naturally. All my choices to that point had been daring, radical, reckless.  Only four years before, I’d taken LSD, left toddler Joe with his father and trekked to Woodstock in a station wagon full of Rolling Rock chugging hippies. I was separated from them on the first night while swooning over Richie Havens’ performance of “Freedom”. During the muddy aftermath, I smoked opium with a stranger and hitched a ride home with him to New Jersey.

Ancestral maternal instincts swelled up out of nowhere that first day battering around in the Sunfish on the roiling Toms River. No matter how afraid I was, I had to show no fear, lest my six year old become traumatized and frightened by open water for the rest of his life. 

“Let’s try again,” I announced one day and we eagerly sailed into the prevailing southerlies on a sunny calm morning. Upriver, nature turned against us again.

“We need help,” Joe shouted in the sea spray. And we beached the boat once more.

Our sailing adventures made for wild-eyed good stories with our friends and family, but I feared my recklessness may have given Joe a subconscious dread of the sea  into adulthood.

I needn’t have given it a second thought. In his fifties now, Joe and his family leave their midwestern flatlands to vacation on tropical seas—snorkeling, bodysurfing and scuba diving. 

But.

No sailing.

On the Road to the OB

On the Road to the OB

Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey appeared on the list of required reading in my high school. One book a month. Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage. Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.

Mark Twain emerged as the only fun author. Other equally lofty and more disturbing classics were listed. Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the inevitable adolescent eye-opener, marks my first trip into the world of an anguishing conscience. I became personally familiar with that angst as I fully fledged. My favorite was and still is Dickens’ Great Expectations. But Thornton Wilder? His book had more presence and greater standing in my hollow, blossoming thoughts.

Thornton Wilder had lived in my neck of the woods near the Jersey Shore during or after his Princeton years. No one knew exactly. His old farmhouse stood on a v-shaped wooded lot on the road to the Ocean Bay Diner. The “OB” was a popular teenage hangout for those who had cars or, in my case, those with friends who had cars.

Every time we passed it, someone would say, “that’s where Thornton Wilder lived” as if it was his ancestral home. Until I read his 1975 obituary, I thought he grew up in that house at the intersection of Ocean and Beaver Dam Roads. Driving past it once, the smartest girl I knew piped up from the back seat, “He wrote The Bridge of San Luis Rey there.”

Don’t take that as gospel. I have no idea where he wrote it. And I have no idea what I thought when I read it the first time. Except this: I wanted to write like him. I admit the fact that passing by the house where he may have written it gave weight to my desire.

“Did you ever read The Bridge of San Luis Rey?” Veronica asked me last year. Her book group read it.

“Oh yeah, in high school.”

“Do you remember any of it?”

When I confessed I didn’t, she suggested I pick it up again. Months passed before the Kindle version loaded in. Settling into another one of my many pandemic iPad slouches, I finally clicked into it.

Immediately my old muse ignited anew. Here’s why I wanted to write like Thornton Wilder. The bridge in the title is a centuries old Inca rope crossing in mountainous Peru. Wilder hadn’t been to Peru when he wrote it. At age fifteen I could easily picture myself creating stories about places I’d never been, based on descriptions in the Encyclopedia Britannica or travel brochures.

Wilder concocted fables of the five people who died when the bridge collapsed. I could develop that skill. I told good stories.

Or at least good lies.

But oh, the writing. Was I capable of dreaming up sentences like “It is on this visit to the theater that further matter hangs.” ? I thought so then. And perhaps it would be so now, had I started earlier than age sixty-five!

Love Transcends Rules

<strong>Love Transcends Rules</strong>

Point Pleasant Nursing Home was a popular employer for minimum wage teenage workers.

The Jersey Shore’s borough of Point Pleasant straddles an expanded spit of land on the Atlantic Ocean between the Manasquan and Metedeconk Rivers. The 25,000 year-round residents reluctantly provide an oceanfront haven for summer visitors. Evelyn Adams, two-time winner of the New Jersey Lottery, is Point Pleasant’s most famous citizen.

An old colonial institution, Point Pleasant Nursing Home sat on the highway a mile away from the mainstreet town of shops and restaurants. Shoppers at the Brave New World Surf Shop across the road supplied a low level hum of traffic.

At my interview for the job, a clear dress code was laid out: wear a uniform, no flip flops, no make-up and no jewelry. My waitress uniforms from two previous jobs at the Asbury Park boardwalk and the Olde Mill Inn were acceptable. 

New employees trained on the night shift. On my first night I clocked in at 11:00 pm. A seasoned attendant showed me the ropes. Direct patient care, other than help feeding those who needed it, was the responsibility of the nurses. We were helpers. 

Some residents were roaming the halls though it was way past lights out. We left them alone so they wouldn’t get too agitated and scream at us, which would have cascaded into waking others. Eventually they would go to their rooms, but we had to keep an eye on them lest they fall asleep in the hallway and keel over. There’s a certain knack, instinct maybe, to knowing just the right point to steer people into bed. It might be droopy eyelids, slower walking, leaning against the walls; every patient’s body gave off a different signal. My trainer told me not to worry, that I’d pick it up fast.

When all were safely tucked into bed, we began straightening up the day room while listening for disturbances from the sleeping patients. My job was to put games like Monopoly, bingo and chess in their respective boxes and wiggle them into overstuffed cabinets. I wrote down pieces of each game that were missing so the next shift could look for them in patients’ hiding spots—pockets, drawers, purses.

A completed jigsaw puzzle of an Impressionist painting lay on its box cover under a window. I put the pieces back in the box and stuffed it into the cabinet along with art supplies, books and magazines. The maintenance crew cleaned and swept.

I was instructed to offer a simple greeting to each awakening patient before my shift ended at 7:00. One woman wandered toward the day room. I followed her. She stopped at the space where the completed jigsaw had been and looked at me panic-stricken. In a flash she grabbed my hair, shrieked I stole her art, and smacked me in the face. By the time the nurse reached us we were both screaming.

And that was the end of that job.

Twenty-five years later my mother was moved to Point Pleasant Nursing Home after assisted living facilities could no longer care for her. By that time all the people with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias lived in dormitory settings on the first floor. My mother spent her time taking clothes and jewelry from others and hiding them in her closet. The nurses kept a watchful eye but said nothing. They were as relaxed with her as they were years prior when people roamed the halls until they tired out. 

Until the last, my mother did what she always loved: broke the rules.

Was She a Racist?

Adele pulled herself out of alcoholism, made a small fortune in real estate and provided shelter and security for her four children and husband. I met the whole family at an evangelical christian church in the early 1970s. As my role model for a brief time, she showed me how to survive in the extremist Christian cult. Neither of us belonged. We tripped over the threshold searching for a deeper understanding of the word “God”, and got sucked in. 

She rejected the White male elders’ biblical interpretation that wives should not work, that the man is the head of the hosehold. I trusted her. She was on her third marriage; she convinced me that financial independence was the first step to freedom if I wanted to get out of my violent second marriage.

 The ease of Adele’s sales skills to prospective homebuyers enthralled me. I wanted to be like her. I studied and finally earned my own real estate license while working as an unpaid apprentice to Adele in a planned development.  Month after month with no salary and no prospects, I persevered, supported by my husband’s income and buoyed by Adele’s words: “You only need one sale.”

One day a couple in a splendid new car parked in front of the office. I ran out to greet them, showed them the model, obtained qualifying information, and walked them around the grounds to view the plots. The couple, Princeton University professors, picked out their dream house-to-be, and I called the owner of the development announcing my first sale. The owner arrived with a blank contract as the couple discussed their choice of bathroom tiles. I envisioned thousands of dollars exploding in my mailbox.

Since high school, I’d been politically active, and at age twenty-seven, I had no evidence to suggest that America wasn’t heeding the call to social and racial change espoused by John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. It never occurred to me that people thought any other way.

The owner hemmed and hawed, saying he wasn’t sure he could provide the couple their tile choice, or carpet, or kitchen cabinets. Still, nothing about his interaction with this couple seemed unusually negative, at least not to me. They signed a contract contingent on later negotiations for the decor.

The whole project slowed, then halted. Adele claimed the money ran out, thanked me for my sweat equity, and found me a part-time job making stained-glass lamps.

A few months later, I stood at my mailbox reading a legal notice naming me and the owner in a civil rights lawsuit for discrimination against the Black couple from Princeton. Adele brought me a news article saying the NAACP was testing the efficacy of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 by sending Black couples to White neighborhoods to purchase homes.

“See?” Adele said. “They were shills.”

It never went to court. I crawled away from my adulation of Adele. And left the real estate business.

Free at Last: Lima Beans and Love

Free at Last: Lima Beans and Love

Abraham Maslow’s self-actualization movement took root in the 1940s and bloomed thirty years later when seekers started reading books such as The Prophet, I’m Ok-You’re Ok, and Be Here Now. These bestsellers moved me to cultivate a deeper self by rooting out my hatred for lima beans.

I tilled the backyard of my Jersey Shore bungalow and planted seeds of the detested vegetable. After a few weeks, bumps appeared under the thick skin of the seed pod. I diligently hosed away aphids, leafhoppers, and mites, but I was sure my crop was deformed. Consulting Rodale’s Basic Organic Gardening, I learned the bumps were part of the bean apparatus—four lima beans per pod.

The morning of the first harvest, I pulled the bean pods from the vines, broke them open and started eating the sun-drenched crop right there on my knees in the garden. My neighbor flew out of her back door.

“Stop! You can’t eat raw lima beans! They’re poison!”

Uh-oh. Another reason to hate them. 

But I was determined to use lima beans to crack open the hardened interior space between the habitual prison of what was and the freedom of what could be. I brought an apronful of beans inside, cooked, salted, and buttered them. They were good. I’d turned a corner. 

Eating the once-dreaded lima bean aerated my closed mind. It served as a gateway to other new experiences: breaking free from a Christian cult, my bad marriage and dead-end jobs. Shifting my consciousness from hating to loving lima beans gave me courage. I could imagine abandoning my secluded basement with its graveyard of empty Smirnoff bottles. Surrendering to a new job as a single mother, my only task was to organize the best plan for a nine-year-old boy’s future happiness—by getting sober. Again.

I returned to Alcoholics Anonynous unable to stop drinking, but too afraid to ask for help. I’d go to meetings, sit in the back, talk to no one, leave early, and go home. Falling into bed sober, I’d feel victorious. The next day, I’d think about nothing but drinking. Drinking and not drinking. I’d drive around in search of a liquor store where no one  knew me. By the time I got the vodka bottle in my hands, I’d feel relieved just holding it. For a few brief moments my body, mind and soul were free.

But I wasn’t free. Before a previous downfall, I’d never even considered sobriety until I was forced into a mental institution. Now it was clear: my drinking was beyond my control. I was a full-blown alcoholic.

I opened up at an AA meeting miles from home on the edge of the New Jersey Pine Barrens. I said my only option was to drink myself to death. Recovered alcoholics from that group sat with me every day until the obsession to drink lifted. It was February 1976. Forty-five years ago.

 Lima beans and love freed me at last.


Maslow’s self-actualizing characteristics:

  • Efficient perceptions of reality. Self-actualizers are able to judge situations correctly and honestly. They are very sensitive to the superficial and dishonest.
  • Comfortable acceptance of self, others and nature. Self-actualizers accept their own human nature with all its flaws. The shortcomings of others and the contradictions of the human condition are accepted with humor and tolerance.
  • Reliant on own experiences and judgement. Independent, not reliant on culture and environment to form opinions and views.
  • Spontaneous and natural. True to oneself, rather than being how others want.
  • Task centering. Most of Maslow’s subjects had a mission to fulfill in life or some task or problem ‘beyond’ themselves (instead of outside themselves) to pursue. Humanitarians such as Albert Schweitzer are considered to have possessed this quality.
  • Autonomy. Self-actualizers are free from reliance on external authorities or other people. They tend to be resourceful and independent.
  • Continued freshness of appreciation. The self-actualizer seems to constantly renew appreciation of life’s basic goods. A sunset or a flower will be experienced as intensely time after time as it was at first. There is an “innocence of vision”, like that of an artist or child.
  • Profound interpersonal relationships. The interpersonal relationships of self-actualizers are marked by deep loving bonds.
  • Comfort with solitude. Despite their satisfying relationships with others, self-actualizing people value solitude and are comfortable being alone.
  • Non-hostile sense of humor. This refers to the ability to laugh at oneself.
  • Peak experiences. All of Maslow’s subjects reported the frequent occurrence of peak experiences (temporary moments of self-actualization). These occasions were marked by feelings of ecstasy, harmony, and deep meaning. Self-actualizers reported feeling at one with the universe, stronger and calmer than ever before, filled with light, beauty, goodness, and so forth.
  • Socially compassionate. Possessing humanity.
  • Few friends. Few close intimate friends rather than many perfunctory relationships.
  • Gemeinschaftsgefühl. According to Maslow, the self-actualizers possess “Gemeinschaftsgefühl”, which refers to “social interest, community feeling, or a sense of oneness with all humanity.

Soft Serve Summer

One teenage summer I was hired to sell soft-serve ice cream on the corner of Eighteenth and Main in South Belmar, New Jersey. I opened the stand in mid-morning and closed my shift at four. I had just enough time to get home, shower off the sugary goo and get to my other job counting out cash drawers at a popular saloon on the beach. The legal age for working at the bar was twenty-one. I was eighteen.

On the east coast the common name for soft serve was carvel after the brand that invented it. Learning to dish it up was the easiest gig to master. I started the day pouring gallons of ice cream mixture into the top of a big aluminum tank, replenished the cones, cups and toppings and waited to pull the lever of creamy goodness for the crowd.

Most summer businesses wisely set up on the boardwalk or Ocean Avenue where the action is. The carvel stand opened a mile and a half from the beachfront as a gamble, a beacon of delight beckoning vacationing families. George the owner gambled himself a bit at Monmouth Park Racetrack during the day and at all-night card games. In the 1960s the Jersey Shore had its share of mobsters conducting illegal poker games in summer cottages up and down the Atlantic coast.

I spent a lot of time perched on a stool reading books and magazines that summer. Very few customers came for carvel during the day. The crowds were seaside, swimming, surfing and sunning. A little boy popped up and down at the window one day. I heard him giggling under the ledge where I couldn’t see him.

“I think I hear someone,” I said out loud, “I wonder if I should make a chocolate or vanilla cone.”

“Chocolate!” Came the response loud and clear.

I held the cone out the window without saying a word. A head full of tight black curls slowy pulled up the thin shirtless brown body of Perry. He reached his hand out for the cone.

“Twenty-five cents please.” I said.

“Don’t have no money,” said Perry. “It’s already made so jus’ gimme it.”

I tried to tell him I couldn’t do that but his persuasive smile matched his logical entreaty. I cautioned him not to tell anyone. He did tell someone, of course—all his friends. One by one they appeared below the window in the same way Perry did, as if bobbing up and Unknown 2down was the normal way to get a free cone.

At one point George told me the reason we didn’t have customers was because too many Black kids were hanging around. We both knew that wasn’t true. He loved those funny bobbers as much as I did but that’s what he told his white friends and family to justify his failure.

Between George’s lifting cash from the till and my give-aways to Perry and his friends the post Labor Day accounting showed two thousand dollars in the red.

George, curiously unconcerned, laid plans for his next scheme. 

Irish Buffet

Irish Buffet

A Hero’s Kitchen

I have no memory of my mother’s cooking before she left my father. After their Midwest life of drunken brawls, evictions and midnight moves, she relocated my sisters and me to the unfamiliar Jersey Shore as we approached adolescence.

The kitchen appeared to be an afterthought in our new four bedroom stucco: four corner doors led to the living room, the backyard, the driveway and the dining room. The backyard door swung open and shut on one side of the stove. The fridge sat on the other side, leaving no wiggle room between it and the stove, it and the living room door. It’s as if no one was expected to cook in there.

In an attempt to provide a semblance of order in her new-found single motherdom, Agnes sat her four daughters down to a gourmet dinner every night. Chopping and mixing occurred on the space between the stovetop burners or on the drain area of the sink opposite the stove. An unspoken rule kept food preparation away from the dining room table.

Agnes insisted my sisters and I learn to use the pressure cooker she’d acquired to whip up potato salad in the summer and mashed potatoes in the winter. After the lid blew off and the contents hit the ceiling, I never went near it again. Her recipe for pressure cooker spaghetti sauce required bunches of fresh basil, and Agnes could only find that at the summer farm stand. I don’t know how much the recipe called for, but she dropped so images-1 2much of it into the tomato sauce it came out like basil stew, delicious over spaghetti but awkward to twirl around a fork.

She thought gourmet cooking meant stirring wine into every dish, usually at the last minute. That way the alcohol wouldn’t cook off. She added wine to chile con carne, shrimp newburg, chicken a la king, beef stroganoff and all au jus sauces. My sisters and I exchanged glances when dinner guests remarked on the richness of the sauce. We’d dare not say anything about Agnes’ cuisine, especially the wine additive, for fear of her embarrassing reprisals like, “what do you know about cooking?”

Agnes cherished continental dining. We sat down to dinner around 8:30 depending on how long she stretched the cocktail hour. My sisters and I fought every night about whose turn it was to clean up. We were so tired by the end of dinner we often left dirty dishes piled in the sink. No one ever took the garbage out. Two or three grocery bags full of empty beer cans continually took up precious kitchen floor space. A friend once referred to the sight of it as an “Irish buffet” which Agnes thought hilarious.

As her alcoholism progressed, Agnes’ dinner-table attempt at a normal life fell by the wayside. But for a few brief years, in that tiny trashy kitchen, Agnes was a culinary hero.