Songs & Stories – #2: Spoon – “Do You”

I was at my third job cashier-jockeying at Whole Foods, battling the hazy edges of a migraine to do a price check on some string cheese, when I heard a familiar laugh. I looked up to see Ryan with a woman who was apparently his new girlfriend. He’d lost weight and acquired better jeans. She had long dark hair and flawless makeup, and she was holding a carton of almond milk and saying something I couldn’t overhear. In the two years we had dated, I’d heard him laugh like that only a handful of times – totally unabashed and carefree. I didn’t realize I was staring until he and I made sudden, alarming eye contact. I let my own unwashed hair cloak my face as I hurried back to my register.

“Sorry ma’am, the two for $5 sale only applies to the organic string cheese, not the low fat,” I said. The customer, an apple shaped woman with a bowl cut, snorted. “I don’t need this.” I set the package on the counter next to me, where it would stay all during my shift, accumulating sweat. The scanner beeps dug at my frayed nerves. When there was a lull in customers, I closed my eyes and rubbed my temples. This almost never works, but to my surprise it did that day, and the sharp stabbing sensation in my left parietal lobe relented, slightly.

“Have you ever tried coconut water?” said a chirpy woman’s voice. I opened my eyes, and – who else could it be – Ryan’s girlfriend had pushed their cart up to my line, and she was unloading all their groceries onto my belt. “I love coconut water. It totally helps me. I get, like, really bad headaches.”

“Nah, they make us buy our own here,” I mumbled, immediately regretting sounding bitter and poor.

“Jeez, that really stinks,” she said, stacking boxes of quinoa into a neat pyramid onto the conveyer belt. “Well, I totally swear by this brand, in case you ever want to try it.” She held up a carton, emblazoned with a bright smiling orange cartoon sun.

“I hope DolceVita is giving you commission for this,” I said, and she laughed a little nervously, as I scanned. Kale. Quinoa. Purple carrots. A bag of avocados, which Ryan despised when I had known him. Ryan himself was scarce. I couldn’t be sure, but I guessed that he fled to avoid confrontation, letting his girlfriend deal with their metric tonnage of incredibly healthy groceries. Nary a Dorito bag or Hot Pocket in sight; I guess that explained the weight loss.

“I really like your earrings, by the way.”

“Thanks,” I said. They were little rhinestone sugar skulls. Coincidentally, Ryan had been with me when I’d gotten them, from a stand on the boardwalk in Puerto Vallarta. He might have actually bought them for me, but then again, maybe not – we had been fighting pretty steadily throughout that trip. “They’re from Mexico.”

“Oh my gosh, I’m going there soon!” she said. “Me and my boyfriend are actually planning on going in two weeks!”

Oh, wonderful. “Think you have enough groceries?”

She had a genuine laugh at that. “I cook a lot, so we’ll probably get through most of this! Whatever we don’t eat, we’ll probably leave for the housesitter.” She scrunched her forehead in thought. “You don’t happen to know a good housesitter in the area, do you?”

Ah, so this new girl was the kind of cheerful lunatic who asked complete stranger for housesitting referrals. Also, housesitting happened to be my second job. “Not really. Sorry.”

“Are you okay? I hope I’m not making your headache worse! I just don’t really know anyone in the area,” she said, sighing. “Just my boyfriend! I wish I knew more cool people in the area. Especially other girls, you know? I don’t want to just lame out with my boyfriend all the time.” She set a bag of clementines onto the belt, sighing. “How do you meet people after college?”

“I don’t know. Pick them up at Whole Foods?”

She laughed again. “You’re funny. You should do standup or something.”

Standup was my first, least-paying job. “Funny you should say that. I’m actually on stage this Thursday at the Laugh Barrel.”

“Oh my god! That is so awesome,” she said. “I totally want to go!”

“Yeah, come on out. Bring your…um, so I’m on at eight.” About 90% of my material was about her current boyfriend. “Want your receipt in the bag?”

“No, I’ll take that,” she said, digging a pen out of her purse. “I watched her scribble: “8:00 – Whole Foods girl w/skull earrings – Laugh Barrel.” Then she ripped off a corner and wrote something else on it and gave it to me. “Here’s my number! My name’s Rachel, by the way.”

I’d stashed all her groceries into two canvas whale-print bags she’d brought. “Um, let me help you to your car,” I said, as I saw her pathetically try to lift the one in which I’d put cantaloupes.

“Are you sure? Is that okay, with your headache and all?” I nodded as I turned off the light at my register. “You are like the nicest person ever, you so don’t have to do this!”

“It’s my job,” I said, though probably I could have called one of the high school boys in the stockroom to come out. Instead, we tiny women struggled with overladen bags as rain poured down on us. Through the blurry rear windshield of her blue Dodge hatchback, I thought I felt a pair of eyes watching me, before the trunk lifted.

“Thank you so much,” she said, lifting her arms almost as if to hug me, then reconsidering. “I am so sorry if I seem like a creepy weirdo! It is so hard to make friends, though. It can get a little lonely in a city.”

“Yeah, I hear you,” I said. “Take care.” I walked back towards the store, pain tracing my head again, as they drove off in the rain.

This piece is part of a New Year’s Resolution challenge: write a piece of fiction loosely (and I mean loosely) inspired by songs I listened to on repeat from 2014. I changed the name of the series so as not to make promises I can’t keep.

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Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie

Yes, I am writing about Paris again, but in the genres of both non-fiction and horror.

Artwork by my wonderfully talented friend Leah Hoelscher.

Aghast at the butchery of satirists, like almost everyone in the Western world with access to social media, I updated my Facebook status to echo the current hashtag of solidarity: “Je Suis Charlie.” Since the initial hashtag started to trend, the conversation has shifted and other variants have popped up, the best one being “#JeSuisAhmed,” for the name of the Muslim policeman who perished while defending the lives of those who drew crude pictures of his revered prophet making out with dudes and sundry. Several convincing op-eds have come come out – most notably, by Philip Gourevitch of the New Yorker – calling out the majority of us dilettantes who took up the #JeSuisCharlie slogan:

We are not Charlie, in other words, because we risk so little for what we claim to value so much. We are not Charlie, too, because most of us are relatively inoffensive, whereas Charlie, like so many liberating pioneers of free expression—think not only of Lenny Bruce and Mad magazine but also of Gandhi and Martin Luther King—were always glad to give offense to what offended them. And we are not Charlie, today, because we are alive.

Gourevitch is completely right. I am absolutely, positively not a Charlie. I am a bonafide conflict-averse Midwesterner, who will walk miles out of my way if it means avoiding awkwardness or potential confrontation. If it were me in this situation, it would have to take place in an alternate universe. In this incarnation, I just wouldn’t do something offensive, particularly if it hurt someone’s feelings in such a disproportionate amount to the benefit that I received. It would be inconceivable.

This world is in desperate need of peacemakers. The climate darkens in France, and one frighteningly realistic fear is that this incident is exactly the catalyst needed to propel the neo-fascist Marine le Pen and her followers into major power. We need fewer hotheaded reactionaries, and more people who are willing to sit down and resolve conflicts in a calm, rational manner.

But along with those peacemakers, this world needs Charlies. We need satirists, we need clowns to push boundaries and stand up to powerful people and institutions. We need our Charlies to be alive, and yes, sometimes we need to hear their obnoxious, braying voices. We need them around to instigate conversation, incite doubt, and spur us out of complacent comfort. If we object to what they are saying, we must learn how to voice our dissent without resorting to bullets and bloodshed.

Stephane Charbonnier was no Stephen Colbert. The satire produced by his agency is sophomoric and wantonly offensive. Ultimately, the most resonant quality about Charb is that he was, much like the terrorists who killed him, so dedicated to his mission that he was willing to die for what he believed. Unlike his murderers, however, Charb came armed with only courage and a pen.

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Songs & Stories – #1: Phantogram – “Fall in Love”

Truth be told, I was not that excited about going to Paris. I realize that makes me sound very spoiled and unlikeable. In my defense I was seventeen, and back then everything was an ordeal. But so were all of my friends, and they had all been in a state of near constant rapture, particularly Cora – petite and blonde and passably fluent in French. Oh, all right, maybe that was it. I had actually been born in France, a refugee baby, and that was the extent of my language immersion until that summer. I elected to take French out of obligation (parents), but I mostly sat there in class with my book open, the letters and frilly accents retaining their mystery – these were the same accents as my mother tongue, Vietnamese, a language I also did not know. I could write well enough to pass public school French but kept a mime-like vow of silence in class, so the teacher recommended to my parents that they send me on this trip.

So they did, and it sparked off a near constant reminder of how much I was costing them, what with college around the corner and everything, and how I should have been absolutely ecstatic, but wasn’t. I was an ocean away from the love of my life (of 1997), in a country where the streets didn’t make sense, the bathrooms were horrorshows and everything reeked of sewage or cheese or both. French people fawned over Cora, who spoke with a Dallas twang (“SEE-voo-play?”). They called me “chinoise.” We both looked laughable trying on the dresses featured in the tiny boutiques made for tinier frames, but Cora never seemed to mind and would often drag me along with her all over Montmarte. Some days I would escape when Cora was trying on the dix-septième shapeless gray sweater bag-dress of the day, and I would wander around until I found the nearest pay-phone, and dig out one of the dozen or so pre-paid international calling cards my dad had bought for me and use it to call Michael. Once in awhile I’d reach him and we’d spend ten or fifteen expensive minutes swapping professions of love, mine in mangled French (“je t’aime!”) and his in Texanized English (“I miss hanging with you”). Most of the time, though, I wouldn’t get to talk to him (he was, I would later find out, busy making out with the captain of the girls’ soccer team – to this day, I have a bias against Stephanies), but I would cling to hyped-up memories of him, his long stringy hair and his skinny wiry arms around me, clumsily fumbling around for my bra clasp. When the gorgeous maître d’ at the restaurant around the corner, who looked exactly like Leonardo DiCaprio but with darker hair, slipped Cora a business card with his number on it, I used Michael to shield my ego. I remembered that I had my own lover waiting for me at home, and I would not remember that he often had weed-breath and kissed like a singing Billy Bass.

I had actually been waiting around for Cora, when I got mugged. We had been given a free “study” afternoon on the last weekend before we were set to go home, which probably wasn’t the best idea on Madame Henderson’s part. Cora wanted to call Luc (the hot maître d’) but didn’t want to use the phone at the hostel’s front desk, or anywhere out in the open in our neighborhood – “this is how you do a tryst, Sophia,” she said with her usual dramatic flair – so we traveled down a couple stops on the Metro, and walked into random shops, with Cora asking “puis-je utiliser le téléphone?” in her noticeable drawl. Most people didn’t or pretended not to understand us. Eventually we found a shop crammed wall to wall with flowers and ribbons and taxidermied doves; the florist here let Cora use her phone. “Merci milles fois,” said Cora, “c’est de l’amour vrai!”

I waited for her to connect and then snuck out. The soapy flower smells were overwhelming, and it was hot. I stumbled, scent-drunk, to the sidewalk and looked down the street before me. All up and down, people were in constant motion, selling knock-off paintings and silk scarves and baubles. Everything before me was a little dollhouse city, painted in hues of blue and pink and lavender. Women in smart dresses marched up and down the street with purpose, satchels laden with groceries in either arm. An old man on a rusty bicycle slowly pedaled down the street, serenading the passersby with a heartfelt, doleful voice; a little terrier trotted after him on a leash. Both the man and the terrier were wearing matching tweed jackets. Languid piano chords floated from somewhere just above me.

Holy shit, I am in Paris, I realized, staring at the scene in wonder. I had been there for four weeks and hadn’t really stopped to observe where I was. I stood there, enchanted for a few minutes, jolted awake by someone abruptly bashing into my left side: “excusez-moi!” It took another full beat for me to realize that my purse had gone with him.

My passport was in there. My ticket home. Madame Henderson had instructed us all to entrust those precious documents to her safekeeping, and I was totally going to do so but never did, and now it was being carried off somewhere. “Au voleur!” I shouted as I ran after him, finally remembering the appropriate thing to say in a situation. He darted in between the sidewalk stands, wove in and out of bicycles and pedestrians. “Au voleur!” Here, a strange thing happened: it was like that shove had knocked me into thinking in French. Il portait un veste marron, cheveux noir, baskets sales. I ran right into a panier de parapluies, just as up ahead, I saw a man tackle the thief and wrest my purse from his possession. An elderly woman helped me up; she looked at me and tutted, her grip surprisingly strong.

“Merci!” I said, breathless, as I ran up to the hero. The thief had scurried off in the distraction, but my purse was there. “Merci beaucoup!” The man handed me my purse and started talking rapidly; I blushed, as the spell faded and I went back to being bad at French again. “Je suis americainne!”

“Ah, really?” said the man, who looked to be around my father’s age. He had a streak of white through his hair, was slightly heavyset, and had frost blue eyes; he wore a smudged apron over striped shirt and pants. “I thought you were maybe Chinese. Are you okay?”

“I’m fine, thank you,” and he offered me a chair – we were standing outside a cafe, which turned out to be his cafe, and the elderly woman who had helped me up earlier turned out to be his mother. I sat down, dazzled and out of breath, hugging my purse like a teddy bear as he talked and talked.

“Actually I spent some time in America, a long time ago,” he said, while the old woman went into the cafe; she reemerged with a tray bearing a carafe of coffee and a plate of little chocolate bonbons. He told me that when he had been in high school, he’d also studied abroad in the US, and he had not been mugged but had gotten involved in a street brawl with some drunk guys outside of a bar in Mississippi, and had narrowly escaped being arrested.

“That’s terrible!”

“No, it was okay,” he said, laughing. “It can make a good story, you see?”

I never cared for coffee, mostly because my parents never drank it and only kept around sugary instant packets for guests. What I desperately wanted was a glass of water, cold and full of ice cubes, but no one ever seemed to drink water here or mind its absence. I took a sip of the hot liquid, acutely aware of sweat dripping down my neck and back. The coffee was strong and bitter, and I felt suddenly more alert and awake than ever.

“You have a boyfriend?” he asked. I nearly choked on the coffee as he continued, “I have a son your age, maybe. He is very handsome, but a little bit lazy.”

“Oh. I already have a boyfriend at home!”

“Ah, boyfriends, they come and they go,” he said. (How right he was, but at the time I rolled my eyes). “My son, he is away at school right now, so you cannot meet him. But next time you must meet him, and tell me how you think of him? He is almost as handsome as me,” he said, winking. He called out something to the old woman, who came back with a tall green vase filled with tepid water, and two empty glasses. I downed nearly the entire vase in one gulp, and he laughed and commented that I was quite the drinker, and I should really come back later that evening to try some wine.

Now that I had calmed down a bit, I braved a bite of one of the little dark chocolates – it melted as soon as it touched my tongue, and it was the richest and most delicious thing I had ever tried up to that point in my life. Magically, more sweets appeared on our table, atop a silver filigreed tray. There was a tower of fruit perched atop a base of custard, and a chocolate peanut buttery confection soaked in a good amount of rum, shimmering in edible gold. My favorite was a tiny, delicate swan, fashioned of crème and clouds. I must have looked crestfallen as he reached towards the swan; he winked again at me again as he set the swan onto a gilded saucer, and presented the saucer aloft in both hands as a gift to me. It tasted like a dream.

While I stuffed my face with sugar, he entertained me with travel stories; he had backpacked throughout most of the U.S. during his twenties. His favorite place was the Badlands – “it was so bleak, lonely and beautiful and terrible, like another planet.” He also liked Las Vegas quite a bit, though he had been stranded there for a few months until he could earn enough gambling to afford a train ticket to continue his journey westward. I told him about actually having been born here in France. “So you are one of us, you are French,” he declared, beaming. I told him about my parents, and about Michael, and even though my troubles must have sounded stupid and petty to someone with actual life experiences, he treated every word I said with gravity. He didn’t offer any advice or lectures or anything, just listened.

Naïve as I was at the time, the possibility of serious flirtation or anything beyond conversation with him never overtly crossed my mind – he was quite an old man, after all, in my eyes – but looking back, after having seen my fair share of twisted foreign films, this could have gone a very different route. But it didn’t. We continued chatting and eating cake; eventually it occurred to me that it was getting late, and I had no idea how to get back to the hostel. I wasn’t even sure which way the metro stop was. Oh, and I had forgotten all about Cora! I had just left her at the flower shop. How far away had I run, chasing after the thief? I blurted this all out at once, abruptly, and he probably understood half of what I said but seemed to get my predicament anyways. He nodded to his mother and then walked with me back to the Metro stop, which was indeed quite some distance away from the cafe.

“Next time you will come and drink wine, and meet my son, and maybe you can be married?” He and I laughed, and he kissed me goodbye on both cheeks. It was during the Metro ride back that I realized that I had not asked the man’s name. He had saved me from being stuck in Paris forever (or however long it took to get a replacement passport), had plied me with endless sweets, and had even offered me his first-born son. In the last few days before we returned home, I thought about going back to the metro stop and trying to find the cafe again, to drop off a thank you note, but there were too many museum trips and French exams crammed in at the end (merci, Madame Henderson!).

I reunited with Cora and the rest of my classmates outside our hostel. She had convinced everyone that in the hours I’d been gone, I had been kidnapped and sold as a sex slave. She had not, of course, confided in Madame Henderson, since that would have involved a lengthy explanation as to what our business was in that random neighborhood. My classmates all hugged me, some tearfully – Cora really had worked up everyone into a frenzy – and we all went to the theater to see “Batman and Robin” because it was in English, and it ended up being so awful that we would have been better off just studying instead.

Aside from the bad movie, I found myself relishing the rest of my time in France. I even discovered that though most art still bored me into narcolepsy, that I actually enjoyed the Musee d’Art Moderne, and lingered in one room staring at a blinking TV display exhibit long enough that Madame Henderson herself had to usher me out. On our last night there, a few of us snuck up to the hostel rooftop with some cheap individual sized bottles of wine we had bought at the neighborhood grocery store. We toasted to the stars, and I secretly dedicated my first sip of alcohol to the man who had saved me.

As we waited in the airport to depart, I remembered something. “I’m sorry if my being mugged ruined your hot date with Luc,” I said to Cora, who was rubbing different samples of perfume onto her wrist and sniffing them.

“Oh, that asshole!” Cora rolled her eyes. “I ran into him at the market a couple of days ago. He was with his wife and kids. And he still tried to corner me and grab my boobs.”


“Yeah. Paris sucks,” she said. We laughed and saluted the city with middle fingers and air-kisses, as we boarded our plane home.

This piece is part of a New Year’s Resolution challenge: write a piece of fiction loosely (and I mean loosely) inspired by songs I listened to on repeat from 2014. Please pardon my French, for I used Google Translate.

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Sympathy for the Cyclist

(Still working on the first post in the playlist series – I really am – haven’t busted this resolution just yet!)

Last week, my sister’s neighbor was killed in a high profile bike accident. The driver, who had a prior DUI charge, fled the scene but returned after 45 minutes – whether out of remorse, or because she was flagged down by witnesses, is unknown. Oh, and the driver happened to be an Episcopal priest.

I know that it is never ever a good idea to read online commentary on news articles, and the commentary on these articles is no exception. Commenters are predictably filled with outrage at the priest who fled, yes – but also, as with every single news item involving a cyclist related accident, there are those who chime in and talk about how much they hate cyclists. Yes, even in reaction to stories about cyclists getting killed! I am a bit shocked at the lack of empathy towards cyclists, who I see as being the definite Davids of the road, under constant threat from roving four ton Goliaths. I suspect it has to do with the fact that the majority of people don’t ride, and therefore really haven’t experienced that perspective enough to empathize. More people can relate to texting while driving, or probably even drinking while driving, than street cycling, which is a sad state of affairs.

Yes, this really happened, and yes there were still people who saw this and took the opportunity to grouse about them "damn cyclists."

Yes, this really happened, and yes there were still people who saw this and took the opportunity to grouse about them goddamn cyclists. I can’t even.

I’m not sure about the efficacy of things like Critical Mass, which take on a defiant “fuck tha cars” tone, as far as raising awareness about cycling. Awareness is definitely raised, as well as annoyance. I do participate in Baltimore Bike Party, which is less hostile and more of a fun and happy parade with costumes and spectacle on wheels. Even so, there still remains an “us vs. them” mentality when it comes to bikes and cars.

Today, there was a memorial ride in honor of the victim. I decided to ride along; I hadn’t met Tom Palermo, but my sister is friends with his wife (he also had two very young children) and I wanted to ride in support. I am, by no means, a hardcore cyclist. Even though I have been on my fair share of epic bike trips, every time I go out amongst the real hardcore cyclists, the distinction feels acute. The last time I had taken the bike out for an extended ride was the Halloween Baltimore Bike Party. Since the beginning of the winter chill, I have been less enthused about bicycling – at least when walking, I can shelter freezing hands inside coat pockets – and have only taken it out for quick trips down to the next neighborhood and back. But no, I was going to do this bike ride – and I was going to bike all the way to the meetup spot, which was also a bit of a hoof in and of itself. This, despite that I have a little folding bike that could easily plop in the back of the trunk of a highly mobile car and – no, fuck that noise, I’m gonna be a badass chica and ride out there with nothing but my bike and helmet, not even my phone, and no way am I going to check my tire pressure before I leave. Fuck…yeah?

So I gamely huffed and puffed and watched as hundreds of people glided past me up the gentle inclines of Roland Avenue, inclines that even my tiny folding bike wheels could have managed had they been properly inflated (oh, and the user of said wheels properly in shape). I kept up for awhile, though it was getting increasingly harder to propel forward, even on the flat surfaces. I had expected there would be some sort of police escort, but there wasn’t any that I could see. With massive rides like this, there can be the potential for confusion – are we rolling through all the red lights, and keeping together, but annoying the cars going in the opposite direction? Or are we stopping at red lights, splitting the group into smaller contingents – annoying the cars sandwiched in between the groups? On this ride, we stopped at some lights but rolled through others, and I overheard, while huffing past an intersection, a pedestrian complain to his companion, “they’re just rolling right through, ignoring the light.” Again – another area in which cyclists and the rest of the world perceive things differently. I’m not sure what the solution is, but it likely involves better communication and urban planning.

After the fifth or sixth rider hollered “looks like you need more air!” while zipping past, I was well and thoroughly ready to give up and just walk the rest of the way, for it would be several orders of magnitude faster than my current pace. “There sure are all types of cyclists on this ride,” I overheard – yes! I am my own classification, lamus slowpokius. Somewhere about six blocks away from the end point, when the two schoolchildren passed me, and the rear guard of the party looked hesitantly towards me – it was then that I decided to call scene on my ride, and also call my brother-in-law to come pick me up. For that is the genius of a folding bike, even one which has properly inflated tires – it can go in the back of any car.

A fellow folding-bike rider stopped with me, and tried to inflate my tires with his portable bike pump, but to no avail (I myself have never been able to accomplish anything with those besides letting the remaining air out of the tire). “Leave no man behind,” he declared, and lent me his phone to call my rescue, and shared stories of how he had nearly been left behind – darn mountain bikes with their sizable wheels – on his first mass ride.

Yet one of the truly warm and fuzzy things about cycling is the sense of community involved. You’re in the group, no matter how lame and slow, just by virtue of having wheels. If you’re stopped on the side of the road, another cyclist will surely stop and check to see if you need any assistance. When Tom Palermo was hit, it was passing cyclists who called 911, who chased after the driver, who checked his pulse and stayed with him as he laid dying. Many of those hundreds (myself included) never actually met Tom, but we all came anyway, because we are part of the same tribe. The same tribe of weirdos, propelling ourselves towards some variable goal with nothing but our own two feet.

This is a "ghost bike" - a memorial to those killed in bike accidents at that particular location. (credit: SpektrumEnt

Ever spotted a bike painted entirely white? This is a “ghost bike” – a memorial to those killed in bike accidents at that particular location. I hope to see fewer of these.(credit: SpektrumEnt)

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