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Prologue to South Central

One of the bigger projects I am working on is a memoir of my six years living in South Central. I imagine this as the prologue to that book:

I stepped out the doors into a tunnel of scaffold-covered sidewalk. The air was grey and dirty. The traffic was like water in my ears as I swam upstream against people who all felt bigger than me.

I hit sunlight and open pavement at the end of the block. My eyelids crushed together as I shuffled to the first park bench I could find. I wished for the scaffolding to hide me. It felt like the barest block I had yet seen in New York City.

I sat down and took a breath. The deepest breath I had taken in days. No, it was the deepest breath in months since I had begun my application process to film school. Four years of work and eight years of dreams come down to a set of GRE scores, a video tape, an essay, an application, and an interview.

As the exhale passed over my lips and my shoulders fell from my ears, I was left to face the wall of impassable failure, of inadequacy, of rejection, that had just been handed to me. I knew without them telling me. I knew without the tell-tale letter in my mailbox. I was not going to NYU.

The night before, I had treated myself to dinner at Robert DeNiro’s Tribeca Grill. I read about it six years earlier when he opened it. I had clipped the article and put it in my New York scrapbook. I had seen every movie DeNiro ever did and every movie Scorsese ever directed. I knew the artwork on the walls was DeNiro’s father’s. I knew his offices were just upstairs. I splurged on raspberry cheesecake for dessert and was certain everyone was staring at me, eating there alone. I wondered how much they left for tips in New York City.

The day before, I had walked the streets. I walked by all the places I had seen and read about, the buildings I had seen in the movies. I walked Wall Street and Broadway, Fulton and Canal. I walked to Washington Square and back, smiling at the purple NYU banners billowing off the buildings I passed. I wondered which one I would live in and how small my room would be.

No need to wonder anymore. I had arrived so early for my interview. I wore the good luck pendant my roommate gave me. I packed two outfits so I could decide at the last moment which to wear. I tried so hard to look like I belonged amongst the Gothic-chic women who graced the sidewalks here, with their dark sunglasses and their fuck-you swagger. How badly I wanted to be them.

But it was an inquisition, not an interview. It was me facing three tables full of artists who knew better than me and we both knew it in a moment – the moment I stepped inside that room. I was twenty-one years old and had been almost nowhere and worse yet, I was trying to tell stories that were not mine. I had a dream, but I had no life. What did I have to say to these people, artistically or not?

And I quickly knew it was nothing. I had nothing for them, despite the unending and condescending nature of their questions.

So as the exhale passed my lips and I sank into the park bench, I absorbed my failure. My dream of eight years was done. The four years of college I had busted my ass to make up for my public school pedigree was for naught. I was not going to NYU.

At home, on my desk, I had stacked the other eight rejection letters. I only applied to the top ten graduate schools. Anything else seemed pointless. NYU was the only one that called me. The number one school in the country had called me, while eight lesser schools said no.

The only school left was USC. For me, the only thing left was damage control. The only thing left was other-than-NYU.

I had to go home to my professors and classmates. I had to tell them I had not made it. I would tell them of the Inquisition, but I would leave out crying on the park bench.

It would be weeks before a letter from USC arrived. It was not particularly thick or particularly thin. I stared at it for a long time before I opened it. I tried not to think about what would be other than other-than-NYU.

I opened it carefully along the seam, in the hopes it was an acceptance letter. I read it. And then I read it again. I called three times to make sure I was really in.

I had never been to California before. I had never been west of Wisconsin.

I would go to USC, I told myself. I would move to California, but just for three years. I would go there and then come home to New York City. That was the plan.

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The Nature of South Central

The first day I moved to South Central I noticed a stench that filled the air outside my door. Two days later I realized it was the body of a dog rotting in the neighbor’s backyard. The flies persisted for weeks.

I was just finishing my first semester as a graduate student at USC. I lived in the overpriced university housing north of campus. For five hundred and fifty dollars a month I could stand in the center of my apartment and nearly touch three out of four walls without moving. My refrigerator came up to my thigh. The toilet never flushed properly. The mattress had what I told myself were not blood stains on the side I flipped down to face the floor.

I had never been to California before the day I moved there. I thought it was better to live on university property until I knew the neighborhood. After a semester in student housing I struck out on my own, or as far as one could strike without a car in Los Angeles.

I found an ad for an apartment south of Exposition. I had not lived in Los Angeles long enough to know what it meant to be south of Exposition. The apartment was bigger than the one I lived in. It had hard wood floors and big Craftsman style windows. It had a porch where I pictured my flower garden. I could have a cat. It was five hundred square feet, three hundred seventy five dollars per month, and I could move in anytime.

I signed my first lease and moved within a couple of weeks.

It did not smell like dead dog the day I met the landlord and viewed the apartment. It smelled like dead dog the day I moved in. My guts bound up every time I inhaled and the flies were thick. It was not until I peered over the wrought iron fence that I discovered the source – the half rotten dog laying in the hot summer sunshine. I thought someone might dispose of him, but no one did. The smell faded after a week or maybe I just got used to it.

I had no furniture. My father had always built my furniture by hand. I never bought furniture before. I cobbled together a few pieces from newspaper ads. I found a store filled with lacquer leopards and glass top tables that sold me a bed frame on wheels, a mattress and a box spring for sixty-nine dollars including delivery. I doubted the tag that claimed it was filled with “all new materials” but at least there were no blood stains.

I spent my first day hanging blinds on all the windows and putting motion detectors on every pane. I added locks to the front and back doors. I determined which route would be best for a quick escape. In the morning I was woken by the crowing of roosters. I had not heard those since my childhood. A different kind of rooster then. I tip-toed out into my living room, relieved to find my belongings still there. Maybe this will be alright after all, I thought.

Eventually I would buy a futon, wallpaper border for each room, black and white checkered contact paper with which to line my kitchen cupboards, and call this place home.

When I moved in I dragged all the carpet out of the apartment. It was old, worn through, and not even attached to the floor. I wanted the hard wood underneath. Even damaged and stained it was better than the carpet. The carpet lay in the yard for a long time. One day I decided to drag it closer to the garbage cans. Maybe somebody would take it away. As I pulled on the rug a swarm of giant black bugs emerged from underneath. I jumped back quickly and up onto my porch.

“Oh the water bugs!” yelled my neighbor Gracie from the kitchen window of the front house. Water bugs. These were not the water bugs of Michigan that flicked across the surface of the lakes, daintily skating on the tension. These were cockroaches unafraid of sunlight, unafraid of me.

I did some of my grocery shopping at the corner store. I bought soda and sometimes a box of Nilla Wafers. I was careful to not make eye contact with the gangsters that tried to flirt with me in the parking lot. They would always call after me as I walked by, staring at my feet. I minded them less than I minded the Mexicans. It always bothered me I did not know what they were saying in Spanish. It sounded sinister and lecherous. I would walk back on the far side of my street to avoid the Dobermans and Rottweilers two houses down from me. I did not trust the chains and the old wood of the porch to hold them still.

At home I called a friend to talk. I opened the box of Nilla Wafers and mindlessly munched on them while we chatted. As I reached into the box, I felt a strange sensation on my forearm. I looked down to discover ants from my fingertips to my elbows. My arm went into convulsions, but I kept talking to my friend without missing a beat. I would not let anyone know this was how it was.

Our yard was mostly concrete and sand. The landlord tried to seed some grass at one point, but it never took. The family in front watered the dirt for months in desperation, in commitment to the possibility of something better. I planted my pots of flowers and lined my porch. The old lady upstairs said I could use her portion of the patio, too. I must have had twenty pots of every type of flower that could withstand the sunshine and lack of rain. The neighbor’s feral cats peed in my pots and napped on my plants, mashing down the leaves.

One night in winter, during the rare rainstorm, I awoke to a banging in my kitchen. It was as if someone was slamming my cupboards shut repeatedly. I heard the howl of cats too loudly. I went into my kitchen and discovered my cat staring at the cupboards. The feral cats, motivated by the rain, had busted in through the crawlspace and were in my kitchen cupboards trying to reach the heat inside my home. I kicked the cupboard doors, but it only quieted them for a second. I was grateful I had put the childproof latches on all my cupboards doors because the years of paint layers had them never quite shut right. The banging continued. I wondered if I could sleep through this when in a flash one of the doors burst open. A black cat flew into the room and then right back out. My cat disappeared after it. I screamed and ran into the yard in the pouring rain. I begged for half an hour for him to reappear before I found him curled up behind the apartment, afraid of a world with no ceiling and water from the sky.

In the drier times I learned to dodge the Black Widow webs. She would sit on the spigot where I got the water for my plants. She would taunt me there. Like the cockroaches she was not supposed to like the sunshine, but she did. She and her mate wove their ill-planned web every day across my porch. I did not know the lack of symmetry was a sign of the Black Widow web. I learned the night I walked right into it and felt something hit my head. Gracie screamed from her kitchen window and I fluttered around the yard smacking my head until I was sure it was gone. Forever after I swung objects in front of me and ducked as I walked up my steps at night.

The Black Widow’s husband appeared in my closet one evening. I emptied half a can of poison on his segmented alien body and left him to sit there in the puddle for days.

I got used to spraying the baseboards and my closets and my tub. The bugs and ants crept in whenever I turned my back. I could see through the floorboards to the crawlspace below, the wood slats shrunken, the house settled unevenly, leaving openings for nature to crawl in. Eventually I made a nightly habit of stripping all the linens off my bed and putting them back on again before going to sleep. This was the harshest lesson of my time in South Central.

It was summer and I had no air conditioning. The heat gave me nightmares. It always has, since I was a child. Summers were hot, sleepless times for me, but I learned to take the nightmares with a grain of salt as I aged. That summer in South Central, I dreamt of eating bugs. I dreamt they crawled into my mouth and I swallowed them.

During the day I found strange translucent bits of something scattered about the apartment. At first I thought my cats were shedding their nails. Then I found them in my bed. I pulled back the sheet and I could not see the surface of the mattress through the layer of circling termites. These visitors in my dream were not a dream. These bugs I had eaten, they covered my bed, every inch, a constant thick movement. I kicked the bed away from the wall, the casters spinning across the wood. There was a hole in the wall where the termites flowed like oil. Their little wings were piled on the floor where my bed had been.

I slept on my futon for days until they kicked us out to tent the building. I drown my mattress in bug spray and flipped that side down toward the floor. From then on, every night I pulled off all the bedding to examine the mattress before remaking my bed and going to sleep.

After they tented the building I did not see another creature for nine months. No ants in my tub, no spiders in my closet, no termites in my bed or in the walls. They were a blessing in disguise, those hot summer dreams, those wicked little bugs.

One afternoon, as I lay on my futon peering out through the half inch of daylight between the wooden window frame of my front door and fabric of its curtain, I saw the hummingbirds. They were there to visit my flowers. I thought they would only last a second, but they let me watch them for a time. They were like floating Faberge eggs. They seemed unreal. Their movement disjointed; their appearance illogical. Their wings vibrated, an aura around their bulbous bodies preventing me from discerning their edges. They were of a slightly different dimension. Little jewels, alit upon my world for just a moment.

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California Hospital

Two hours earlier I had been tip-toeing through the pitch black side yard, wrought iron fence on my left, homemade beans and rice through the window to my right, dodging ill-woven Black Widow webs in front of me. My nightly sojourn from the front gate to my front door.

Two hours later I stood with Josh in front of a podium. Behind the podium was a security guard. A big man with pitch black skin, he demanded we sign our names before we entered through the sliding glass doors. He asked to see identification. As I printed my name I noticed the metal detectors.

“Why are you here?” he asked us. Josh was frozen.

“To visit a friend,” I replied.

“What?” he asked. I knew he heard me.

“We’re here to visit a friend who was admitted,” I said.

He squinted at me. Then he squinted at our identification and at our names on the paper.

“What’s the name?” he asked.

“What?” I responded.

“Your friend’s name,” he said. I told him her name. He nodded toward the door.

Gracie had knocked on my front door as soon as I arrived home. My book-bags barely on the floor, I heard the sound of her tiny knuckles. She asked if I knew what happened. I did not. She told me the ambulance had come for Faith.

The hospital doors slid shut behind us. We took three steps forward, Josh and I. We stopped. The emergency room was full. Jerry Springer played on the televisions hung from the ceiling. Televisions I knew were old with their fake wood laminate. The pile of the carpet had long ago been crushed. Crushed, stained, cut, melted. An old man with a crusty nose slept at the end of a row of seats. A heavyset woman yelled at her child, as he crawled half-naked on the ground. Another woman fed her children McDonald’s. The clamor in the room was deafening. Arguing. Yelling.

Josh and I stared. Our feet stuck. I was glad for the metal detectors.

A few of them stared back at us. These two white kids, Josh and I.

Stiffly, silently, we walked to the counter. We told them we were there to see our friend.

“Are you sure?” the male Asian nurse asked. “Are you from USC?”

We nodded. He tried to tell us we were in the wrong place. We insisted we were not. Finally he found her name.

“Why did they bring her here?” he asked. They never bring students here.

“Why did they bring her here?” he asked again. We did not know why.

He told us we would not be allowed to see her. We were not family. They were still waiting for the psychiatric evaluation.

Gracie had told me they took her. That Faith had called the ambulance. That something had happened. They took her to California Hospital, Gracie told me. She had taken too many of her pills. I knew she was struggling with her dosage, I told Gracie.

“No,” said Gracie. “On purpose.”

The Asian nurse stared at us.

“Well, maybe one of you,” he said. He would let Josh enter. He was her best friend, after all.

He told us to wait in the chairs until we were called. We stood in the corner and tried not to make eye contact with the room full of why-are-you-here stares. We did not even speak to each other, Josh and I.

The Asian nurse came for Josh. He glanced over his shoulder at me as they shuffled away. At least I was used to hospitals. None of this was for Josh. He followed the nurse through the security door, through to the exam rooms, leaving me alone, locked out, or in.

When Gracie told me, Josh was the first person I called. He was her best friend, after all. He had been scared to drive through the neighborhood. Scared to park. Intimidated by the security guard. He was as sure as them that we did not belong here.

As the minutes passed, I slowly maneuvered myself sideways, nearer and nearer to the security door. I pretended to watch Jerry Springer. The door swung open slightly. I slid sideways through it and flattened myself against the inner wall. To my right was Josh. I could see his chest pumping.

“How is she?” I whispered. He had not seen her yet, but they had told her we were here. The psychiatrist was with her. We put our heads down and walked through the hallway to her room. We stopped at her door, but we could not see through the yellowed glass of her window, through the yellow curtain inside.

We flattened ourselves against the wall and waited. We stared at our shoes, the molding, the edges of the linoleum. The walls were yellow. The curtains were yellow. The edges of the linoleum were yellow.

The door suddenly opened and the doctors told us to go in. They did not know we were not supposed to be here. I let Josh go first.

She looked embarrassed, Faith did. I let Josh do the talking, let him do the asking, as we waited for her explanation. As her lips moved, a trail of charcoal leaked from the side of her mouth.

A copy of the psychiatric evaluation form lay discarded on her lap. She seemed not to notice it there. She began to tell Josh what happened. She did not know how she was going to pay for this, she said. Insurance does not cover this.

I glanced at the form between exchanges of dialogue, stealing one sentence at a time, so she would not notice me reading.

She was going to have to call her parents, she said. Her family would be disappointed.

Had she meant to harm herself? My eyes glanced at the check box marked, yes.

They would be disappointed because she had done this before.

Would she harm herself again? The form asked.

They were going to take her to Northridge, she said. Seventy-two hours.

The check box marked, yes.

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The Muddle

I have a keen and utterly useless ability when it comes to accents.  I have an ability to detect even the slightest presence of the slightest accent. That is it. I cannot tell you where the accent is from – that would be a great parlor trick – but, I can tell you if someone has one, even if they think no one can hear it. I can hear it.

Consequently, I end up saying things in conversations frequently like, “So, where is it you are from?” or “So, how long have you been in the States?” Sometimes people are surprised at the question and other times they know full well their speech is muddled.

I became aware of accents at the age of twelve. Our family was relocating from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan back down to the Lower Peninsula. On the drive south, every time we stopped in a convenience store or gas station, people kept asking us which part of Canada we were from. I had no idea why. My mother never told me we had an accent.

Then I went to school. The kids there made fun of me every time I said the word “out.” I thought I sounded like the people on television. When they talked about the General American Accent, I thought I had that. I had no idea I sounded like a half-Canadian-Mid-Western hick.

Teenage pressures insist anomalies be eliminated, however, and I started listening to other people’s speech. I started hearing the vowels and the dropped consonants. I started hearing what made you different from me. It became an unconscious habit, like listening for pitch once you have learned to tune an instrument. My musician’s ear came in handy. I started tuning my own instrument, naturally imitating those around me in a perhaps not so unconscious effort to blend.

I moved to the west coast in 1997. By this time I believed I had eliminated the tell-tale signs of my upbringing. I thought I had it all down. I thought I could get away with being the cultured city girl. Then it started. People started asking me the question.

I was sitting at a bar in Portland, Oregon. I was chatting with a professional fighter from South Africa. We were both just visiting Portland for a fight show. I had, of course, asked him how long he had been living in the States. He told me, then looked at me and said, “And you?”

“Damn,” I thought. It was the first time I realized people with accents have some sort of radar for other people with accents. I told him I was from the States and he gave me a dubious look. “I grew up near the Canadian border,” I offered and this seemed to allay his doubts.

Even now, after over a decade in Los Angeles it happens. Recently a client of mine asked me where I grew up. I told him Michigan. He squinted at me and asked me where my parents were from. I told him Michigan. The squint of disbelief continued. “But, what is that accent?” he asked, giving up on politeness.

For that question, I have no answer. It is apparent, however, people with an ear for the muddle can hear mine, loud and clear. It is obvious something is off, but it cannot quite be placed. In that, my musician’s ear has failed me. My skill at hearing accents evolved into an inadvertent habit of absorbing pieces of yours. I pick up random words from people and say them with their lilt. If you talk to me too much I will start talking like you. It is by accident. It is just how my ear works.

And then, when I get upset or I get excited everything turns to “out” and “about” once again and people pause and tilt their heads at me.

The nasal drawl of Oregon. The thick round vowels of the Upper Penninsula. The missing g’s at the end of every Mid-Westerner’s verbs. The lazy flat vowels of the Valley. They are all in there somewhere, in my General American Muddle.

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Me Versus the Peas

The sun had set sometime earlier and I sat alone staring at my peas. The rest of the family had eaten and retired to watch television. It was winter and darkness fully set in by six o’clock at night. All I could see in the patio doors was a reflection. A reflection of me, with my hands in my lap, my feet dangling, not reaching the ground, and one last place setting staring at me from the table top. The rest of the table had been cleared. The room was silent. It was just me and the peas.

We had a rule in my family. You were required to eat one spoonful of everything served for dinner. I had perfected the art of avoiding that spoonful, through a combination of sleight of hand and stubbornness. I had long since progressed past hiding things in my napkin or sneaking them to the dog. No one ever actually got away with those. When you refused to eat just about anything, as I did, you elevated your game.

I would not eat meat. I would not eat most vegetables. I would eat some fruit. It was not until the age of thirty-four that I voluntarily ate fish. Unless you count Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks, battered beyond recognition and drowning in tartar sauce. Meat was intolerable unless it was hot dogs or baloney. Essentially I would only eat meat that was not meat. I refused to eat anything off the bone.

I liked strawberries and raspberries. I only ate green grapes, with no seeds. I only ate green apples. I loved rhubarb. I liked potatoes and cauliflower and wax beans. I liked cranberry sauce, but only the jelly kind, nothing with sticks and twigs. I would request my mother not mash it up so I could admire the cone of cranberry gelatin with its perfectly formed ribs left by the can.

I ate nothing grape flavored and nothing peach flavored. I did not like oranges or orange juice with pulp. At one time I did eat blueberries, but too many summers of picking wild ones and too many camping trips where my brother and I subjected everyone to green mushy pancakes cured me of blueberries in the long run.

I mostly survived on Saltines, Cheerios, and Creamette noodles awash in butter and grated Parmesan cheese. I drank a lot of Ovaltine and Country Time lemonade. I ate Malto-Meal by the box.

And when it came to that dreaded spoonful I put up a battle. My father would watch me chew and chew. “Are you ever going to swallow that?” he would ask. I would pretend to swallow and even drink some milk, but I am quite sure he could spot the bulge in my cheek. The longer it sat there the more disgusting it became. Eventually, if there was no hiding it, no excusing myself from the table and spitting it out as I passed the garbage, I would swallow the offending material, horrified at the act and yet relieved it was over.

But the peas, the peas never came near my mouth. You have to hold your ground somewhere. For me, it was the peas. That evening, I watched in morbid stillness as my mother sunk the spoon into the bowl, lifted up the offending green mound and tilted it over my plate.

“You’re not leaving this table until you eat those,” she told me.

I hung my head and stared at my plate. I put my hands in my lap, as if to keep them as far from my utensils as possible. I sat silently.  I will wait her out, I thought.

As everyone finished their meals, they cleared the food – my father and brother first, then my mother. She wiped down the table around me. I sat there, staring at the lonely spoonful of peas, a solitary green pile on my otherwise clean plate.

My parents and brother drifted down to the basement living room. I could hear the faint sound of the evening sitcoms. I could hear the murmur of their voices and the occasional laughter. The tick of the dining room clock permeated the room as the hour of television I was allowed each evening passed, without me present.

Eventually my brother came up the stairs and headed for his room. It was our bedtime. The clock kept ticking. I swung my feet. I traced my eyes along the filigree design on the clock face, over and over again.

I heard my father’s voice from the basement, followed by my mother’s steps in the stairwell. My father was hungry for his evening snack. My mother emerged from the kitchen to find me sitting there in the dining room with my doppelganger in the patio doors, staring at our peas, hands in our laps.

“Oh, just go to bed,” she said, exasperated.

In a flash I was gone. Peas in the garbage, plate in the sink, me in my bedroom. I had her now, I thought. I would never eat those peas again.

It was past my bedtime and I wanted to read. I crawled under my covers with my book and my flashlight. I would read for however many precious moments I could until my parents discovered my glowing, tented blankets.  Eventually the knock on the door would come.

“Rebecca Suzanne, turn that light out now,” they would say.

And after a long wait. After I heard it go quiet in their bedroom, I tip-toed across my room, book clamped under my arm, and eased myself out into the hallway. The shag carpet disguised my footsteps as I picked my way toward the bathroom. I closed the door and turned on the light. I climbed up on the counter and opened my book. In my little mind, I had concocted the perfect plan. It was normal to see a bathroom light on in the middle of the night. Here I could read undisturbed until morning.

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Things I Never Learned In Film School

When I excused myself to go to the bathroom I did not expect to be confronted by a man with a machine gun. He was a rather large African-American man. He and two other men stood positioned at the three entryways to the sitting room. They each wore dark suits and black t-shirts. They each had ample bellies and a surplus of over-sized jewelry. They each carried machine guns.

They never told me in film school this was how it was going to be. There is a lot of talk in film school. A lot of talk. They pretend to teach you things, but they never tell you how it will really be.

They never tell you everyone will assume you are technologically ignorant because you are a young woman, everyone will assume you are Jewish because you have a Slavic last name, and everyone will assume you are a liberal because you are breathing.

This is all information that would have come in handy.

They most certainly never told me I would find myself in a recording studio blockaded with sand bags and reeking of Dr. Dre’s marijuana. Yet, here I was. I stopped cold when I saw the man with the machine gun. He stared at me. Making eye contact did not seem like a good idea. I waited and he said nothing.

“I’d like to use the restroom,” I offered.

He threw me a reverse nod in the direction of the bathrooms. I tiptoed stiffly across the plush carpet of the lounge, passing the white leather couches and glass table tops, acutely aware of the three sets of eyes on me. I got to the restroom, pulled the door shut behind me and exhaled.

I was torn between thinking this was cool and thinking of all the reasons one would have to blockade the front doors with sandbags. Thank God we came in the back way. Thank God for Mariah’s paranoia that we were in the studio at the back end of the building and nobody knew we were here. Dr. Dre could have the front studio. The vibrations of the bass came up through the floor and into my forehead as I leaned against the door.

I needed to get back to the studio, but I gave myself a moment to enjoy the high-end soaps and poke through the various toiletries on the bathroom counter. This was always one of the best things about visiting studios, recording or otherwise. Celebrity sightings and fancy soap. And Twizzlers. Everybody always had Twizzlers. I was discerning for myself the useful information in my profession.

Because, they never tell you how to get yourself through a producer’s meeting when the composer you work for has just downed a handful of pills.

They never tell you to be ready to answer to the word “Darling” because no middle-aged mixer, former hippie and failed musician, who thinks you are the coffee girl, is going to remember your name.

They never tell you how to lie your way into the union and they certainly never tell you how to break all the union rules once you are in.

It was one in the morning and we were just getting started. I made my way back across the lounge, keeping my eyes on the floor. When did shag become cool again? The three men were like statues. I wondered if they had ever actually used those things.

In the back hallway Mariah was whispering to some of her entourage. She glanced at me and pulled them into a side room. I heard the click of the door lock. She knew who I was, but she was sure we were all sent by him, that someone was out to get her. We thought she was crazy until her single got leaked. Turned out she was not so crazy after all.

I slid into my seat, next to the recording engineer. This was my station and my safe spot. Here I am the organizer, the note taker, and the only one who remembers which hard drive is which. The engineers teach me editing tricks. They trust me because they know I am paying attention. I am the only one paying attention. Everyone else is playing their game and playing their character.

I am okay with that. I am okay with my little side chair. Here is where the music happens anyway. Behind us, the producer rues the day Mariah discovered ProTools. We pitch her voice up and down through the night.

They never tell you where the best fluff-n-folds are and how much you will need one by the time you realize you have not seen daylight in weeks.

They never tell you that a fair amount of your co-workers will be on their second or third wife and their children have stopped speaking to them.

They never tell you how to handle producers hitting on you and you wondering if your response will leave you out of a job.

Sitting next to producers, sitting next to recording engineers, whether it be mixing stage or recording studio you can find me in my chair, just off to the side, with my binders and endless paperwork in front of me. This is my throne and I am the Queen of Information, ready at any given moment with the right answer.  Ready with a “Yes, sir,” no matter the question, no matter how good or how bad the idea.

This is the same seat I sat in every week we recorded live jazz for the sitcom nobody ever heard of. It was the best job I ever had. It was the best music for a show you never saw. I worked for the only punctual Brazilian ever born, one of the founders of the Bossa Nova, and a phenomenal human being.

The music was fantastic, but lunch time was better. We ordered in and sat around eating sandwiches while the musicians told stories. They were crotchety artists, finicky old virtuosos. Geniuses. In the studio I marveled at their ability to perform perfection almost immediately, together, spontaneously. At lunch, I soaked up their tales. “You’re too young to remember…” so many of them began.

They never told me I would get paid to eat free lunches and listen to jazz legends tell their life stories.

They never told me I would sit in the studio where Michael Jackson recorded and where the Beatles recorded.

And if you had told me, when I was a little girl obsessively reading the liner notes wrapped around my cassette tapes, that I would someday work with Jimmy Jam and Terri Lewis, I would never have believed you anyway.

Maybe it is just as well that film school never taught me any of these things. I got out of the business before the dark rooms and Twizzlers took their toll on me, but sometimes I still miss the energy of those walls, the history in those couches, the feeling of being part of something bigger.

And sometimes I just miss the fancy soaps.

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Casper

There was Muffy. She was the first pet  I remember. Muffy, the cat, and Scruffy, the Lhasa Apso. Scruffy died of distemper and Muffy met a bad ending with a badger. There was Sugar, the Cockapoo, who ran away every week. We were always driving the country roads looking for her, until the day we did not find her. There was Winston, the purebred Cocker Spaniel, who never adjusted to life outside the kennel so we returned him. There was Jack, the anorexic Labrador. There was Kinky, the first of our blue-eyed Siamese cats. There was Hobbes, who the veterinarian told us had a personality disorder. There was Bob, who never meowed and seemed to have prehensile paws. There was Elvira, who was quite simply the epitome of the Halloween cat.

Kinky passed away while I was at college. While I was home for the summer, I came home one night from work and my parents gifted me with Martin. He was a tiny blue-point Siamese. He had beautiful blue eyes like Kinky and I would forever after fall in love with blue-eyed cats.

My bed was lofted and I feared he would fall out, so that first night I put him in his bed on the floor. He would not stop meowing, there below me on the hardwood, all alone. In my mind there was only one solution, so for the first few nights I slept on the floor with him, until my mother discovered me. She opened the bedroom door to find me asleep on my stomach, while Martin slept curled in a ball on the back of my head.

Martin made it to California with me. He meowed the entire flight. Nobody knew it was my carry-on that was meowing. I played innocent. For a little while there was Pinky, such a nervous little one. Then they were both gone. In their stead came Henry, the Ragdoll cat who thinks he is a dog, and Casper.

Casper. My Japanese Bobtail. My Maneki Neko. He came from Northern California. I had researched breeds and fallen in love with the “JBT,” but they were rare. The breeder I spoke with did not have kittens, but she knew of one in San Francisco. She was going to be up there at a cat show. She brought him back for me.

I went to her house and when we entered the cat room the dozen JBT’s scattered and disappeared into the furniture. She assured me once we located him I would fall in love. She told me he was special, that he was a lover. “Once you get to know him, you’ll understand,” she told me.

We poked around until she spied him under the bed. She and I sprawled on the floor calling to him for quite some time before she coaxed him out. She stuffed him into my cat carrier and away we went.

When I got him home he immediately hid. He found a six inch space between the couch and the wall and squeezed himself back into the corner. He refused to budge. For three days he refused to budge. I was not sure what to do. How could I live like this, with the cat stuffed in the corner? I thought he might starve himself, so I left little bowls of water and food by the edge of the couch. They remained untouched.

On the third day I went to look for him and he was not there. I found him cowering in the bathroom sink. When he felt my eyes on him he panicked and in a white streak returned to his dark little corner.

On the fourth day he decided he loved me. There was no turning back. From then on he was under my feet, in my lap, on my computer keyboard, in my book. He had to be where I was, no matter where I was. And if you pet him, if you even made eye contact with him, he was just so excited to have a friend, he could not sit still. He would knead and circle and meow and poke. He would purr and purr and purr.

I could hold him only briefly before his excitement turned him into a squirming octopus. I learned to hold his paws in my hand when I picked him up to cuddle him. Otherwise when I went to put him down, he would spin and attach his claws to me like Velcro. He had to be attached, but he could not sit still. It would be the first of a millions times I uttered the words, “Casper, stop!”

When I came home from work he would be there inside the door waiting for me. Half asleep, fur scruffy, stumbling out from the closet and not sure why, except that he knew he was supposed to greet me.

At night, I would build a little wall of pillows around me if I read in bed, otherwise he would poke me incessantly and shove his fishy-breath face in mine. I slept with my back to him or he would not stop moving. He would curl up in a ball and press himself between my shoulder blades.

There was never enough love and he never stopped purring. His purr was more of a coo, like a mourning dove. The moment your fingertips brushed against his fur, he would sing. Even when he got sick, he still cooed.

The only time he refused to purr was during the syringe feeding, the pill swallowing, and the towel swaddling. We got better at that over time, he and I. We made each other pretty mad more than once. I tried to tell him we had to do this. He had to get better. Please.

It was the only time in his life I ever really got to hold him, when he was sick and swaddled. After the pills and food I would hug him until we both fell asleep. When I awoke, he would be purring again, tucked inside the towel, wrapped inside my arms.

A month passed. He was not getting better. He was skinnier. A few times he teased me, eating a bite of food on his own, drinking sips of water, but it never lasted. “This wasn’t supposed to happen,” the vet told me. “It just sucks,” she said. I whole-heartedly agreed. I thought if I fed him enough, if I gave him enough pills, if we tried different pills, things might change.

Nothing changed. And one day I realized it was time. I comforted him as the vet administered the drugs and he cooed right up until the end. I pet him until the purring stopped.

I laid my head on his little belly. I could feel the bones in his skinny body. I could feel the warmth still emanating. I told him I was sorry. I pet him and hugged him until I could feel the warmth start to leave. It was time to say goodbye.

I don’t know how they do it, how they get inside you like that. Muffy and Scruffy, Kinky and Martin, Sugar and Jack. And Casper. He was the sweetest cat that ever was. I am sure of it. Everybody told me so. I got to know him and I understood, and it does not quite feel like home without him.

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The Day Dale Earnhardt Died

Monte Carlo plus one. This is how my father remembers the year I was born. We had a ’73 Monte Carlo. I was born in 1974. Monte Carlo plus one.

Monte Carlo plus one. Never buy a Ford. Always root for number “3”. This was the logic and reasoning of my childhood, passed on by my father.

Growing up in Michigan, cars were no small part of our lives. On a summer weekend you could look up and down the street to observe half a dozen men playing mechanic in their driveways. Dream cars, muscle cars, a teenager’s first car. My brother’s room was decorated with framed photos of race cars. Perched atop my father’s desk was a die cast model of NASCAR’s number “3.” Memorial Day weekend was a high holiday and five hundred miles of Indianapolis bliss.

Springtime meant my father put on his special overalls and he, too, headed for the driveway. He would roll up the garage door, pop the hood of the vehicle and, like a pig basking in mud, before long he would be elbow deep in grease. If we were lucky he would ask one of us to be his assistant. We would stand at the front wheel of the car anxious for the moment when he would request a tool and we would scurry to retrieve it.

There was the black Volkswagen Beetle. It rarely ran for very long. There were brief moments when my father would tweak something, when one of us would test the ignition or pump the gas pedal as he called out, “Try it again now…try it again now,” and suddenly the engine would come to life. It was a clarion call, summoning us from all corners of the household into the Beetle for an impromptu country ride.

My father liked to drive down hills fast, making my brother and I float off the back seat, like a roller coaster. My mother would grip the dashboard while my brother and I called out for more. We hit a bump and smacked our heads against the white vinyl of the interior roof. We all laughed. We loved that car. I think it broke his heart a little the day my father decided that Beetle had to go.

Then there was the Opal GT. Many valiant hours, weeks and months in my father’s intensive care unit were dedicated to that car. She was purchased cheap, but expensive to fix. She was rare and finicky. She was, in the end, too far gone for him to save. After she was sold, my father found an Opal GT Matchbox car and bought it for my brother. I was jealous of that car. My little Hot Wheels Trans Am had nothing on that Opal.

One summer a friend of my father’s gave us tickets to the Michigan 500. My brother and I pointed and gawked as we walked by Team Penske’s trucks. We cheered for Unser, Sr., but were skeptical of Junior. Mario Andretti was the coolest, but in our hearts we still rooted for A.J. Foyt. He was our favorite, though even then it was edging past his days of victory. We waited for him to get angry and kick his car.

I can still taste the exhaust and feel the vibration of those vicious machines as they made my heart flutter. Their beauty was grotesque and palpable. Our tender ear drums and sun burnt shoulders were worth every utterance of the high-pitched scream of the engines whipping around the turns of the big oval.

We were not old enough to visit the infield or the pit. We sent my father on a reconnaissance mission and he returned to us in the stands with stories, autographs and photos. He stood next to those cars. He touched them. His joy was infectious and he did not mind that we made him tell us again and again.

But the true sport of our household was not Indy racing, it was NASCAR. When the summer sun was too hot and the air too humid, it was perfect for turning on the basement television, eating Sloppy-Joe sandwiches from paper plates, and watching the cars go round and round. Those tobacco-chewing, Country-music-listening, Southern men were the heroes of our childhood. My brother refused to learn in school, but he knew every bit of math there was to know about those cars. I did not know a thing about football or basketball, but I knew the man who won the Winston Cup.

And, like my father taught us, we always rooted for number “3”.

Our house was a shrine to number “3” and despite how mad my father might get at the television, despite his frustration with the occasional questionable tactic, we all knew that if you were not an Earnhardt fan, you were not one of us. Never buy a Ford and always root for Earnhardt. This is what I learned those summer days in the basement, circled around the television. These were the lessons of my childhood at the age of Monte Carlo plus one.

Eventually I left Michigan. I left the land where men bleed oil and your car is who you are. Even though I never watched the races, I knew the days of the week when three generations of the men in my family could be found, spread across the country, planning their dinner times around the lap count at Daytona, Talladega or Indianapolis.

It was February 18th, 2001. Working as an assistant music editor meant long days and isolation from the rest of the world. It was late at night and I was driving home in the dark. The news came on the radio. I remember exactly where I was, driving up the side of the mountain, headed south, just before the Chinatown exit. The man on the radio said Dale Earnhardt died.

Before I could think, I was crying. I had not watched the races in years. I no longer followed the sport. I was crying for our hero, for the family rally cry of number “3.” I was crying for the men I loved, because in that instant, I knew my father’s heart was broken.

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The Cowbell

My mother hung a cowbell just outside the back door. In the mornings my brother and I were allowed to watch one show on the television. We would choose Sesame Street or Electric Company. Then, my mother would kick us outside.

“Don’t come home until you hear the cowbell,” she would say. And we would not.

For miles surrounding our house in every direction were fields. Most years they were fields of corn. On an odd year they would be alfalfa. I loved the alfalfa because you could crawl in it and roll in it. I imagined myself a princess on a big green pile of pillows. The corn frightened me. Shorter than my brother, I found it hard to navigate. I would trudge through the rows hoping to come out the other side still pointed in the direction I originally aimed. This rarely happened.

Every so often, between the fields were strips of land with tall grass and oak trees. We climbed the trees, like look-out towers, finding endless delight in how small our house looked from where we perched. We would pack ourselves lunch and a thermos of water, enjoying our boloney sandwiches in the sunshine and fresh air, laying back on the grass, picking shapes out of the clouds and brushing ants from our skin.

Then, through the auditory haze of the grasshoppers, birds, swaying grass and distant lawn mowers, we would hear the high pitched clang of the cowbell. She would ring it for a little while and then trust we heard it. We knew if we did not start moving now, she would come back to ring it again and then we would have explaining to do.

I trusted my brother to lead us straight back. I kept my head down and tried not to trip.

As the summer wore on, the threat of the combines loomed. Their growl made me nervous.  I feared someday being halfway home, the cowbell in the distance, my little feet dodging stalks and ridges of mud as the combine breathed down my neck. I imagined being sucked up unnoticed into those blades. I tried to move quickly through the fields once the green began to fade from the corn.

After lunch my mother would send us back outside again. If we grew tired of the fields, we would ride our bikes up the long country road until we found the place where the fields met the woods.

At the edge of the woods was the old cemetery. We thought the caretaker had it in for us, but we still dared visit the property. It was small and filled with plain headstones. It was the best place to ride your bike because it had the newest black top. You would grind your way up the hill as you first entered the gate, crest the top, and then a long, gentle curve took you back to the entrance, the misty air sticking to your skin as you flew through it. You never once had to pedal until you got all the way back to the road.

If we ventured inside the woods, we would tip toe along the creek, trying to see into the dark water. At the right time of year I could gather enough frogs to fill all my pockets. Then my brother and I would race home, giggling at the sensation of the squirming frogs trying to break free from our soggy Sears jeans.

Because somewhere in the distance was the cowbell.

Then one day I decided frogs were gross. I did not want them in my pockets. I wondered if the dirt would stick to my pants if I sat down in the grass. I wished we lived closer to town. I hated the hour long bus ride home from school. I envied my city friends who could walk next door to each others houses, who could put lemonade stands out on the sidewalk, and who could walk to the candy store on their own. My nearest friend was a mile away and he did not have a telephone.

I decided I did not want to be a country girl. I wanted to live in the city. I must have been misplaced.

When we moved to a new town, I begged for us not to live in the country. My parents insisted. It made no sense to me. And so, despite the new location, I was once again riding the country roads on my bicycle, packing lunches, and trekking into the woods. But it was just me now, my brother was grown. I would lay in the grass with my book, under the canopy of the white pines, dreaming of other worlds.

Over the years, I plotted and then executed my escape. My father would take me on business trips. I would travel for school. I moved away for college. Every visit to a new city confirmed the wrongness of my upbringing. I was meant to live in the city, I thought. I am smart like a city girl. No one would guess I was from the country. I knew a lot despite my lack of experience.  The city just felt right. It felt like I belonged.

And then one day it did not. After a lifetime of insistence, after moving myself as far from those fields as I could, one day I realized it did not fit. I did not fit. Perhaps once I had, but I did no longer.

That day I missed the green and the fields and the open sky. I missed the sticky morning mist over the cemetery. I thought of my mother on the back porch, listening for the laughter of her children. Waiting to see what their pockets were filled with today.

There are no frogs where I am now. No white pines, no alfalfa, no combines to fear as the autumn sun burns on the horizon.

But somewhere in the distance is the cowbell.

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Yoked

When she shook my hand before our match began I knew I was in trouble. The referee stood between us and gestured for us to shake. The sweat on the bottom of my feet made me stick to the wrestling mat. I wiped my palms off on my t-shirt. She wrapped her hand around mine.  Her grip was strong. Her bicep bulged beneath her rash guard. Her clothes were all skin tight. She was, as my Jiu-Jitsu coach would later state, yoked.

The referee started us. We clinched. Maybe she took me down. Maybe I pulled half-guard. Either way, we ended up on the ground with her on top. She pressed her weight down on me. I could hear my coach clearly and I tried everything he said. I could not move. All my favorite moves, my favorite sweeps, practiced over and over, all for naught. Eventually she got my arm. Eventually I tapped.

My coach, Eddie, took me aside. This was my third tournament. The third time things had gone this way. My fourth place medals were simply for being the fourth and final girl to show.

“You’ve got to get strong,” Eddie implored. “You know the techniques, maybe better than anybody, but you’ve got to figure out how to get strong.”

He turned and glanced behind us as my competitor walked away.

“Damn,” he exclaimed, holding his hands in front of him and flexing in a strong man pose as he said the word. “That girl was yoked!”

Six years later I ran into Eddie in Las Vegas. I had not seen him in a while. I had not trained Jiu-Jitsu in quite some time.

“Damn,” he said, “You’ve got guns!” He made me flex for the man standing with him before introducing me.

“Every time I see a new picture of you on Facebook I remember that conversation we had,” he said. “Do you remember that conversation?”

“Yes,” I replied, “And I did what you said. I went and got strong.”

“Yeah, you did,” he said. “You didn’t have legs like that before.”

I was wearing tight black leggings and a sleeveless shirt. The man standing with Eddie nodded at me in agreement.

It was through following Eddie’s advice that I discovered CrossFit. I discovered my whole new world of weight lifting, running, gymnastics and competition. I started CrossFit to get strong for Jiu-Jitsu. I eventually quit Jiu-Jitsu. I got strong for my life. I discovered my life. I found my muscles and I found my voice.

Earlier today I was taking a CrossFit class at Team Quest MMA. The other women in the class were whispering about me, unaware I could hear them. Out of the corner of their eyes they were watching me do pull ups. Inside I was smiling. This is how it always goes.

“She’s doing those for real,” they whispered.

I continued in my workout. I did some toes-to-bar.

“What are those?” one of them whispered.

“I don’t know, but I’ve seen them on a video before,” the other replied.

I almost laughed out loud. I kind of loved these women for that one. I got down off the bar and introduced myself. They were embarrassed. They thought they were being secretive. I joked with them and we all laughed.

Because I get it. I used to be them.

I used to look at that girl and wish I was her. I used to look at that girl and think I could never do that, that it was ridiculous, that it was impossible. It was impossible for me. I shook that girl’s hand and felt her strength. I lost to her.

But not anymore. No more baggy t-shirts for me. No more being held in place. I went and got strong.

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