2 September 2008

And Wear The Dress I Like So Well And Meet Me In The Old Saloon

I am safe; I left New Orleans early and now I’m in Memphis.  I’m dry, grateful, and a better houseguest to Republicans than you ever might have imagined.

hurricane gustav_small

28 August 2008

In The Wintertime Keep Your Feet Warm But Keep Your Clothes On And Don’t Forget Me Keep The Memories But Keep Your Powder Dry Too

by Emma Rebhorn

Two things became clear after I spent a day with my grandmother last week: I have beautiful teeth, and I am her favorite niece.

Todd Rundgren_Couldn’t I Just Tell You

My grandmother, Ardel, lives in Ocean City, at the Memory Unit of the Shores at Wesley Manor, and she grew up during the Depression, in a poor family that did not have enough money for regular dentist trips. Teeth are important, the specifics of familial relations have become less so.


The Flanders Hotel, Ocean City, NJ (1992)

I walked into the Shores and the woman at the front desk beamed at me: proudly, I’d imagine. I signed in. The lady kept beaming and gave me an extensive set of directions based on hallway color that I promptly forgot. As far as I was concerned, the color of each hallway was “pastel”.

I made my way, appropriately enough, by memory, to the Memory Unit, which seems to have a remarkably rudimentary security system, until it occurs to you that the people it is supposed to be securing have remarkably rudimentary cognitive abilities. I opened one glass-paned door and let it close slowly behind me. I was in a small foyer that is supposed to trap—securely—patients who have figured out one of the doors but forgotten that they wanted to figure out the next.

The first door closed, and I pressed the code for the second. One-two-three-four. That is the code to all the doors in the memory unit. The nurses tell their patients this, the patients appreciate the nurses’ confidence, and then the patients promptly forget the entire exchange. Goodwill prevails.


Ocean Boulevard, Deal, NJ (1985)

Once the second door had wheezed open, I was standing in the middle of recreation hour: a bony, middle-aged man was pounding away at Rogers and Hammerstein on a cheap upright and twelve eighty-somethings were staring at him, mouths agape. I made my way to my grandmother, tentative and mindful of the tantrums my preschool students threw when their parents came in the middle of story time.

“Grandmom?” I whispered, hunching over because maybe that would insult the pianist and the wheelchair-bound less, “Hi, Grandmom! It’s Emma!”

Her eyes, bluer than ever, blinked.

“Hi?” I offered again, kneeling down next to her.

“Oh, Emma!” I wasn’t sure if she’d processed my face or what I’d said my name was, but I took it.

“My favorite niece!” she hissed. “Granddaughter!” I hissed back. We squeezed hands.

“I’m here to visit you!” I whispered. I looked at her lap and grimaced inadvertently. On a flowered napkin, she was holding something like a Rice Krispie treat on steroids, all kinds of gunky cereal gummed together with chocolate candy and then frosted.

My grandmother saw me looking and leaned over to me, “What am I eating?”

“Grandmom,” I said, “I have no idea.”

A nurse had been hovering over us for a few seconds, so I turned and shook her hand. “I’m Emma,” I said. “Ardel’s granddaughter,” I said, loud enough so that Ardel herself could hear it.

“Of course,” said the nurse, a wide hipped young blond woman who looked like everyone in Ocean City, which is to say, a former lifeguard. The nurse glanced over her shoulder at the piano. I asked her where we should go; I didn’t want to interrupt enrichment time. She nodded, “you can go to her room.”

I looked at my grandmother, who was gazing at the nurse and I with utter unconcern. I decided to ask, “Where is her room, again?” not sure where the line was between being polite and getting lost in another pastel hallway.

“She knows,” said the nurse, and I was surprised.


Point Pleasant Boardwalk, NJ (1988)

My grandmother and I made our way slowly to the elevator, both half remembering from our most recent trips, each of which felt like it had been months earlier.

“Emma!” she exclaimed. “I can’t believe you’re here!”

“Well,” I shrugged, “I am!”

“Did I know you were coming?”

I hadn’t expected that. “Well, no,” I said. “It’s a surprise, I guess. So, surprise!” That line made her laugh a few times throughout the day. When I next go to see her, I think I will call ahead, because there’s no reason not to make her happy on a Monday and then surprise her eight times during the same Tuesday afternoon.

We got to her room, a stoveless studio with a railing in the bathroom, and her coffee table was covered with papers. Tiny scraps of note paper, opened and unopened greeting cards, half-finished word games, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Atlantic City Press. I was ready to tell her I didn’t mind the mess, but she never apologized for it. When I wondered what she’d been reading she said she didn’t know, so I read her a headline.

“Bernanke, Frank Form Improbable Alliance Over Subprime Crisis. Uh, well. I don’t even really know.” I faltered but I was heartened to see my grandmother looking at me with mild curiosity. I scanned the article, “Oh, Barney Frank?” Barney Frank is the first openly gay member of the House. On her most lucid day my grandmother would have needed me to explain “gay”. “Well, Barney Frank, huh. It’s basically about the Fed. Ben Bernanke is the Chairman of the Federal Reserve. And subprime, it’s houses, houses that were sold—”

My grandmother beamed at me, “you have such beautiful teeth!”

“Thank you,” I said, and I meant it. “I came to visit today, Grandmom, well, because I love you—”

“I love you!” she said, almost desperately.

“I love you, too, so I came to tell you that, but also because I’m going to law school.”

“You are?” She was wide-eyed, and more aggressively complementary than I remembered. “See, you’re so smart. You can do anything.”

“Well, I guess, then, let’s hope I can do law school?”

“You have such beautiful teeth.”

“Thank you, Grandmom.”

I told her more about law school, about living in Brooklyn—“you like that?” she kept asking. “You like being in the city?”

“I do,” I told her. “I am sad to be leaving.”

“Where are you going?” she’d ask. My favorite line from the Sarah Kane play, Crave, is “Begin again.”

“Where are you going?” My grandmother asked. Law school. Begin again.

I started to think that I liked this, the constant chance for self-editing, the circular conversation. I started to have fun revising my answers in order to fit in everything that was true. Sometimes I was sad to leave New York, the city where everything happens; sometimes, I told her, my world in Brooklyn was insufferably self-important. Sometimes I mainly biked around the city, sometimes I used the subway every day. I had a boyfriend; I had a lot of very close friends. I was a writer; I was working on research for someone else’s book. I would come see her again soon, I had no idea if I would see her again at all. The last part is the only truth I could not fit in.

Neil Young_Truth Be Known

Finally I looked out the window. “You know, Grandmom, I was hoping we could go to the boardwalk this afternoon, but when I called and told someone here that I wanted to take you, he said the weather was ‘iffy.’ Isn’t that funny? Like I might show up and there might be no weather at all? Or something?”

She beamed at me, eyes blue and clear.

I continued. “And the weather doesn’t look so great. Which is I guess what he was saying. Heh. But, oh, would you like to go out, anyway? We don’t have to go to the boardwalk, but do you want to go for a drive? Do you want to go for a drive and have ice cream?”

My grandmother chuckled in a disconcertingly knowing way. “You know I love ice cream.”

I had not known that, but I loved that she knew it. “I love ice cream, too!” I said. It came as a relief. I have never felt like I had much in common with my grandmother, who spent her time gambling in Atlantic City and play pinochle after dinner. She left high school before she’d graduated, and I have never seen her reading a book. (Newspapers, of course, yes.)

“Should I wear a sweater?” she asked, anxiously. Since my grandmother developed Alzheimer’s disease several years ago her main preoccupation is her personal body temperature. Hot and cold are immediate sensations, and “too hot” and “too cold” are reassuringly basic emotions. The temperature was in the mid-eighties, but my grandmother is a frail woman in her mid-eighties, too, and I told her she should probably bring a sweater.

At the ice cream store, my grandmother looked around vacantly. “The flavors are there,” I pointed, and she laughed in her “you know I love ice cream” way. I asked the young, equally vacant looking server the name of a certain brown flavor, veined with cookies and fudge. “It’s coffee moose peanut caramel blah blah blah,” I heard her respond, and then I heard my grandmother say, “Ooh, that sounds good.”

I turned to her. “Does it? What do you usually get? Do you usually get, like, vanilla?” I recognized the absurdity of my question, and I said, “Okay, then. One of those. Cup.” I ordered vanilla for myself. Things seemed calmer that way.


Tent City, Ocean Grove, NJ (1991)

We ate at a bench outside and, during one of my particularly messy slurps, my grandmother said, “You have beautiful teeth.” Afterwards we went on a drive, south through the narrow, salt-crusted towns of Strathmere and Avalon, and I played the new Bonnie Prince Billy. Bonnie Prince Billy writes haunted, raw, oversexualized folk. It is the most poignant and most instructive love making music I can imagine. My favorite Bonnie Billy song is called “The Mountain Low” and includes the lyric, “If I could fuck a mountain, Lord, I would fuck a mountain.” My grandmother said she liked it.

It was getting late, and the Memory Unit begins serving supper at four-thirty, so I turned the car around in Avalon. My grandmother started asking me where we were, and I continued telling her.

“Do I live here?”

“Well, you live north of here. In Ocean City. This is Avalon.”

“I live in Ocean City? Does my husband live with me?”

Her husband, formerly known as my grandfather. “He doesn’t live with you anymore, Grandmom. He died.”

She was already nodding. “He died. And what—” I knew what was coming. I answered this question no less than forty times on the day of my grandfather’s funeral, “and what did he die of?”

“I don’t know, Grandmom. Nobody knows. It was just his time.”

She nodded and stared at her hands folded in her lap. “He wasn’t sick, was he?”

“No, he wasn’t sick.” I preempted her next question, “you would have known if he were sick.”

The Walkmen_Passing Through [Daytrotter Session]

All of the visitor parking spots were full, and it took us forever in the hot afternoon sun to walk back into The Shores. My grandmother had both knees replaced about ten years ago, but forgot to do the necessary rehabilitation exercises. The long walk hurt her more than I’d realized it would, and as we got back into the elevator she looked at me and said, “Is it supposed to hurt this much?”

I could feel my face crumble and I looked at the wall so she would not see my tears. One of the hardest things about treating senile or otherwise cognitively impaired patients is understanding what “this much” means. It’s possible—and her doctor believes—that my grandmother’s knees have been hurting “this much” for a decade. I swallowed and turned back to her, “I don’t know how much they’re supposed to hurt. Let’s tell the nurses about it.”

When the head nurse, JoAnn, asked about our day, I told her. After I was done, my grandmother clutched my arm and announced, “This is my favorite niece!”

“Thank you,” I said.

When we went into her room I made clear that I would need to leave shortly. I didn’t want that to be a surprise, too. My grandmother alternated between wondering why I’d ever bothered to come see her at all and making sure I’d promise to come again. She started crying and I put my arm around her. “I need to blow my nose before I kiss you goodbye,” she said.

I sat on her bed and watched her make her way, carefully, into the bathroom. She shuffled to the tissue box. I was exhausted. She shuffled to the sink to wash her hands. I leaned against the wall. She sniffed again, and shuffled to the tissue box. Then she shuffled back to the sink wash her hands. Tissue box. Sink. Tissue box. Sink. Tissue box. Sink. Tissue box. Sink. Tissue box.

Begin again.

I watched and waited, breathing deeply. After a “sink,” I said, “Grandmom? I have to go now.” I wondered how frequently a nurse had come to call her for dinner and found her doing laps in the bathroom: tissue box, sink.

At the door, we hugged for a very long time. She said, “My hands are clean. You know I wouldn’t touch you if my hands weren’t clean.”

And I said, “Grandmom, I know you wouldn’t.”


Steel Pier, Atlantic City, NJ (1982)

[All pictures in the post are from the Library of Congress collection, "Built in America, 1933-present," a project of the Historic American Buildings Survey.]

24 August 2008

Bad Train Etiquette As An Alternative To A Not-So-Unique Tattoo In The 21st Century

The L Train Spitter

By Ariel Kouvaras

After a rip roaring dance party power-hour at a bar in the microcosm of clones in cowboy boots who pay too much for an apartment in what was previously a Jewish ghetto that is Williamsburg, Brooklyn, I waited on the subterranean platform of the L train; but if you ask my Grandmother, the L train will always mean “elevated” and the abbreviation would read “El.”

The two fleshy sides of my underarms felt of corn-syrup sweat, which had the same sensation of two cottonmouth tongues kissing. I was drunk and hot, glaring down into the jet black subway tunnel at lame, empty tracks. 10, 15, 20 minutes after 12am – late night subway service is a reason for any New Yorker to wear a grimace and occasionally eye-roll strangers next to them.

I thought I was going to vomit into the trashcan, but then the air down there started to stir and the rolling steel on steel squealed. The elusive train arrived. The doors opened and manufactured cold air rushed my face and cooled the pearls of sweat beading on my forehead.

I found one of those coveted two-seater seats where only one of my sides is pushed up against a wall, hindering the potential of me being squashed between two buffoons: One smells of dirty PBR and cool-perspiration; and on my other side, the person who pretends not to notice their fat spilling over onto my arm. I settled comfortably into my golden throne and rested my head on a college advertisement. Nobody had yet to squeeze into the seat in between me and the pole. I was a lone sitter and coasting through the intestines of the city.

The train pulled into 1st Avenue station, and an emaciated woman in a short, gold, synthetic halter dress got on and homed in on the vacant seat next to me on my private island paradise – I wasn’t quite an island-monkey like the Brits are according to the Germans, but solitary and drunk. Feeling amicable and sorry for any poor soul not yet in bed, I slid my ass an inch or two over to make room for the skinny broad.

Despite the short hem line of her cheap dress, she sat down and spread her legs wide so that our knees bumped each other. I was steadfast. My feet remained firmly planted in their place, and I let the skin of our knees remain touching.

Unable to nudge my knee, she squirmed around, stood up and sat down again. She spoke unintelligibly. I could only make out faint sounds of verbal waste that made their way in between my earphones and eardrums. Was she talking to me, talking to me about my unbelievable knee planting stamina?

I made eye contact with a young twenty something across the way. He was leaning up against the sliding doors and wearing a white shirt and black horn-rimmed glasses that had everything to do with science class and sex appeal. He looked at me, then at her, and we smiled gregariously at each other. We had telepathically agreed on the plausibility of this skinny dame being truly unhinged.

The song was just changing on my MP3 player -that moment of latency between the last song and the next song to come, when there is utter silence and I am thrust into the world surrounding me. It was at that very moment, when she sat back down and whacked my leg with her clutch handbag. Fighting for my knee territory was one thing, but physical abuse brought out my worst fear: FIGHT OR COWER? I folded.

If a white flag had been handy, I would have thrown it into the center of the train car so that everybody could acknowledge my defeat, but my cowardice act of doing nothing wasn’t enough to appease her irate manner.

Just as I was timidly pulling my knee closer to myself, giving up my previous fight and forcing my whole skeletal frame into the wall, which had served as a safe place to rest my soused head on not too long before, she turned her mean jaw in my direction, opened her pink mouth, and spat a puddle of mucus and saliva directly on my gray suede boots. Some hit the area of my leg between boot rim and cut-off shorts. I sat there exposing my castrated balls and unable to do anything but dream of a vat of antiseptic and prowess.

Broken Social Scene_Lover’s Spit

Pictures courtesy of Zomboider and Streets Are Saying Things.

24 August 2008

I’m Feeling Richer Today I Can Hit It Then Stay

Did you know that we have a baby blog? Go find us. We’ll keep unpacking, like a big girl.

The Smiths_Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others