Saturday, July 28, 2007

Allentown Bus Station

Lehigh County is hilly, and the leaves on the trees are green and angular. It seems like a strange place for factories.

The Allentown bus station is on 3rd Street across from a row of empty warehouses. People do drugs on the stoops. The buses have two major destinations: Philadelphia and New York. A one-way fare to Philadelphia is 11 dollars: cash only. At the ticket counter, a sheet of plastic glass separates customers from the cashier. She has a light mustache, drinks coffee with powdered creamer from a Styrofoam cup, and speaks Spanish into the telephone. Women need a key for the ladies’ room. The vending machines contain peanut butter crackers, Hershey bars, and Doritos, and their bags and wrappers look dingy. Everything costs 50 cents. Close to the front doors, a little kiosk dispenses phone cards. It bears a red, white, and blue insignia of a rotary phone, half of which is chipped off.

The rows of blue and white bucket seats could have been installed in the 1960s. Smoking is not currently permitted in the terminal, but cigarette burns remain on the cushions, and there are holes for ashtrays in the armrests at the end of each row. Patrons smoke outside near the busy payphones.

I was there on a Saturday morning. While I waited for my bus, I saw a black couple disembark from an arriving one. They dragged three wheel-less suitcases behind them. Each case was overstuffed, and I noticed a big taped gash in the side of one. The man was short and wore a Phillies tank top. The woman had gold earrings and a tight dark-colored dress on. She sat down and waited in a state of happy impatience while he took directions to Dorney Park from the cashier.

An aging white man in a dirty brown blazer and wrinkled pants approached the counter next. He folded and unfolded a newspaper under his arm and asked the cashier about departures next Monday; he had jury duty. She had to repeat the schedule three times while a neglected Kelly Clarkson ringtone echoed. It played “Because of You.”

A little girl entered the building. She had kinky hair, cinnamon skin, and green eyes. Her pink shirt featured a chocolate ice cream stain. Blue shorts revealed knobby knees and calves dotted with mosquito bites.

“My grandmother wants to know how long she can leave her car here,” she said, looking up at the wide face behind the plastic screen. The adjacent parking lot was small, and there were no meters or fences.

The cashier appeared confused. “As long as she wants,” she replied.

“But, what if it’s like, three or four days?” the little girl persisted.

“That would be fine, I guess. But she would have to understand that she leaves it here at her own risk.”

The little girl left then, looking worried. She let the glass doors close behind her. They didn’t shut properly; they needed someone to push them into place.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Paper Trails

I never like to move without performing a considerable purge. These days, I have my own things to sort through as well as those of three dead people.

The last time I moved, I automatically packed all of my father’s personal papers; I had no idea if I would need them again. Six years have passed since he died, however, so I figure it’s okay to discard old bank statements and checkbooks. I will hold on to the tax returns, though.

One early evening, when I was first getting used to the idea that my mother was dying, I dug out one of my parents’ wedding pictures. This is them, I told my husband, thrusting the picture into his hands. This is what they looked like.

My mother got married in a sea foam mini-dress—mod for 1970. My father wore a plain gray suit. The world depicted in that image is now accessible exclusively through whatever account I cobble together.

Three months before my mom died, our great-aunt Lois died, too. My mother was Lois’s only close relative. These events have made me an archivist. I have turned into a depository for all of the drips and drabs of their individual existences: passports, diaries, leases, utility bills, medical records, high school yearbooks.

Lois never married and had few close friends. My father was an eccentric hermit. My mother, the social butterfly of the group, has no one but me, most likely, to take anything stronger than a passing interest in the minutiae of her life. Sometimes I’ve felt myself to be swimming in all of their folders, books, and papers, spinning in a whirlpool of their Polaroids and daguerrotypes.

I have my mother’s diaries, but I’m wary of reading them. I would rather study her check register or her address book. I hold on to them, though—it seems rude to discard someone’s diary.

Last Saturday afternoon, I sat cross-legged on the floor of my office and spread out a pile of my mother’s files. I scanned the cover of a tattered manila folder with writing on it. My mother had itemized the contents of a safety deposit box—deeds, bonds, the divorce decree. The last line read, in my mom’s careful penmanship, “Restraining order, 1983.”

The order must have been against my father—he’s the logical choice. But why did she keep it in the safety deposit box? Where is it now, and what was it for? I both want to know and don’t want to know.

Lois’s paper trail I keep mainly out of historical interest. Because of her, I have the 1928 handbook for the women’s student government organization of the University of Pennsylvania, for example. (I read it hoping to find something about young ladies’ conduct, but to no avail.) She had multiple copies of her birth certificate, too, so many that I wonder if people used to have to get one to renew a passport—Lois traveled. Pennsylvania birth certificates apparently used to be static forms that a clerk filled out by hand. It used to have boxes to check for “legitimate” or “illegitimate.” Some time during the 1950s, however, they appear to have dropped that question.

During this last purge, I found a letter to Lois from a woman named Dottie. She was returning some papers—someone had been to the Library of Congress to do genealogical research. Lois hadn’t made this trip, but she had the notes.

The notes were typed and detailed; whoever went to the library must have brought a typewriter. The oldest notation is from a census taken in 1797 in Maryland. The separate properties of a brother and a sister are inventoried. Each sibling had a farm, some cottages, carriages, and slaves--the sister fourteen, the brother four. My eyes lingered on that word and those numbers.

Once these archival boxes have found a new home (probably in a closet or a basement), I’m tempted to tear a sheet of paper from a legal pad and attach the following message:

Dear Future Child,
You may or may not be interested in any of this. If you are, you are welcome to read about your grandparents, who were both relatively unstable, and who both died fairly young. You can also get to know your great-great aunt, who was, by all accounts, a miserable, hoarding old lady. (Legitimate, though.)
You will also notice that we are the descendents of slave owners.
Feel free to get rid of it all. Your mother was funny about material things, but she knew that not everyone gets hypnotized by the past like she did.
(She would appreciate if you held on to her computer files, however, even if you never open them.)


[Meta note: Because I'm heading to Pennsylvania tomorrow in order to teach the gifted kids, and because almost immediately after that I'll be penetrating the mystery of the Midwest (moving to Ohio), I'm afraid that I won't be able to post much for the next month. I will try to eek one out here and there--I'm generous (and self-centered) like that. Thank you for reading! I'll check in from either the 6-1-0 or the 4-1-9.]

Monday, July 2, 2007

meal magnificat: a tribute to food

I own a book about blog writing entitled No One Cares What You Had For Lunch.* Virginia Woolf would have cared:

“novelists have a way of making us believe that luncheon parties are invariably memorable for something very witty that was said, or for something very wise that was done…It is part of the novelist’s convention not to mention soup and salmon and ducklings, as if soup and salmon and ducklings were of no importance whatsoever, as if nobody ever smoked a cigar or drank a glass of wine.”*

Woolf herself goes on to describe a splendiferous meal, of course; the book author would be hard pressed to label it a boring blog lunch.

Everyone eats, and, in general, everyone likes to. But, for me, writing accurately and compellingly about food is a struggle. I can think of three methods that writers employ (I’m sure there are more):

--One simply names the food and garnishes it with a few run-of-the-mill adjectives (sweet, savory, etc), and then lets the reader imagine his/her own encounter.

--One uses metaphor and simile—introducing the food by means of comparison (the corn tasted like summer, we enjoyed the Awesome Blossom).

--One appeals to other senses and substitutes the look or feel of the food for its taste (ruby apples, lumpy oatmeal).

Apparently, we cannot communicate directly what happens inside our mouths.

Below, I have made an effort to describe a few foods of endearment. I might have had a few of these for lunch.

~ The Tequeño

Currently, I’m obsessed with Latin pastelitos, especially the tequeño, which is a hollow bread stick filled with guava and white cheese. It’s like the best croissant with jelly I’ve ever had, except that the bread is thicker—closer to pizza dough. Not even the boldest, sweetest strawberry rivals guava’s rhapsodic sting. I like a cafe con leche with it.

Kalamata Olives ~

I could live on these. I covet their smooth skin, and I dote on their color—reddish-brown leather mellowed by the sun. They’re salty without being a nuisance.

A friend of a friend found a jar of olives in a pantry during a party. She clutched it, stared wantonly at the contents, and said, “I need to be alone for a while.”

~ Fiddleheads

Fiddleheads are little crispy, grassy delights; they could be buttons on a wood nymph’s raincoat. I’m not a huge vegetable lover, so I appreciate the fiddlehead’s fanciful appearance and cereal crunch.

Tuna ~

I like my tuna excruciatingly rare. At a certain restaurant, I pierce its slick, meaty chunks with a fork and push it around in a tomato, garlic, and lime sauce. Tomatoes and fish is one of my favorite illogical combinations.

~ The Golden Katong

This petite cumin and coriander mixture is served in a yellow spring roll cup, and it commonly appears on Thai appetizer menus. It sits exotically on my tongue, but it also recalls a comfort dish, like shepherd’s pie. The mixture consists of ground chicken, peas, carrots, and shrimp. I either order it without the shrimp, or I do my best to ignore its presence (see bottom of post).

Round Italian Bread ~

I once had an apartment across the street from a 24-hour Italian bakery. They baked their bread continuously. Together with the person I lived with and one of our friends, I used to smoke a good amount of marijuana, shuffle over to the bakery, and buy a round, white loaf of bread. We would tear off hunks of it and consume it in a luxurious state of stoned bliss. It was the best three hundred -count linen that we could have eaten.

~ Pesto

The greatest pesto is the kind you can smell, the kind made of basil leaves that you saw plucked from the stem. I know of few substances that pesto does not improve, particularly if it has chopped pine nuts. If I peer closely at it (in the privacy of my own home, of course), I can see chaos theory in its variegated colors.

A Pear ~

One of the lustiest of fruits—all the more so because of its subtlety.

It’s a pity that the British have decided that “pear-shaped” is an insult. I like my food full-figured.

~ Classic Coke

The Coca-Cola Corporation is a dominant and pernicious global force. Sadly, this does not negate my enjoyment of the caramel, carbonated goodness of its signature drink. I love it chilled and poured from a green glass bottle.

Addendum: People have used “caramel” to describe Coke before. I don’t like resorting to it, but I don’t know what else to say. Coke tastes like Coke, and it’s delicious.

Shrimp ~

I present this item to demonstrate that there are gastronomic rivers I am not willing to cross. Shrimp is a teeming pustule on the surface of a forbidden planet. Do not lance it near me.

~ Finis ~

* I haven’t found it very useful, by the way. I suspect, however, that this has much more to do with me and my resistance to taking any and all suggestions.

* A Room of One’s Own, Chapter One.