Category Archives: Personal Essay

A Short Distance from Southie, but a World Away

Tara Wanda Merrigan | Longreads | September 2017 | 14 minutes (3,431 words)

 

South Boston, my first world, extends out on the Boston Harbor like an oversized jetty. Winds that whip off the brisk, slate-colored ocean often make the neighborhood feel 10 degrees colder than the weather report, a great advantage in the summer. The grid of streets mapped onto its slopes — lettered verticals and enumerated laterals — offers relieving certainty in a haphazardly planned city known for its confusing road designations. The three-decker, a multi-family home with three individual apartments stacked on top of one another, reigns supreme here. Before gentrification swept across the peninsula and housing prices skyrocketed, entire extended families could live together in the blissful discord of tight quarters. South Boston was, and still is to some extent, the kind of place where residents nod to the people they pass on the street, because if they don’t know the passerby personally, he’s likely the best friend of one of their uncle’s drinking buddies. It is a small town in an urban metropolis. For all these reasons, and many others, some residents insist it’s the best place in the world.

My parents spent the first years of their marriage in South Boston — commonly called “Southie” by residents — living in a waterfront multi-family on Columbia Road. It was there I learned how to crawl and to push buttons on the television remote, and, when presented with my first birthday cake, to smear chocolate frosting all over my face. But a few months before my sister was born, my nuclear family moved to Milton, a “white flight” suburb south of Boston. But the house stayed in the family, and the rest of my mother’s family — my grandparents, uncles, cousins — stayed in South Boston. So it was in South Boston that I celebrated holidays. It was in South Boston that I spent my childhood summer vacations, sitting in front of the air conditioner in my grandparents’ tiny three-room apartment on East Eighth Street.

And Columbia Road once again became my home, after my parents’ divorce seven years ago and the subsequent selling of the house in the suburbs. (It’s as if the suburban experiment was just some dream gone awry.) So Columbia Road was the place I sought refuge when I left my first post-graduate job at a magazine in New York. I lived with my Aunt Jola and Uncle Jack in the first-floor apartment. They tended to me well. They offered me coffee in the morning and wine in the evening. My aunt learned my favorite foods — avocados, blue corn tortilla chips, kale — and made sure to buy them when she went to the market. She saved the Sunday Globe for me. From my bedroom window I could see the small waves of the Boston Harbor splash against the beach across the street.

But after a few months I realized I had to leave Southie. After you’ve lived in a place so different from your home and become of that place, you can never really go home again.

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Camping with Kids: A Non-Primer

Reid Doughten | Longreads | September 2017 | 12 minutes (3,073 words)

 

It’s dark and I’m sitting beside the smoldering remnants of sausage fat and cocoa powder. My kids roll around noisily in a tent behind me. I can hear my son try to reason with his younger sister, a bedtime dialogue marked by grunts and half-English. She cries out every now and again, fighting the sleepiness which, by god, must surely win out.

I’ve ventured into Virginia’s George Washington National Forest to go camping with my kids — ages 1 and 3 — and I elect to do this without the help of my wife. She’d started working full time as a nurse several months before, including back-to-back 12-hour shifts every other weekend, while I was working a standard Monday-to-Friday schedule. And so for the first time since my children were born, I was left to solo parent for two days every other week. How hard could it be?

After several weekends, the answer was clear enough — it can be incredibly hard. Set aside the notion of treating time off of work as time “off.” Understand that your days are no longer your own, that time is marked not by numerals on the clock face but by bouts of wakefulness and sleep, of meals, snacks, playdates, shitty diapers, baths, and bedtime stories. Of course, anyone who spends their day as the lone supervisor of small children knows this instinctively, and should probably be awarded a fucking medal. This includes my wife.

So in my naiveté, I decide hastily that on this Saturday in early September, while my wife spends her “days off” from watching the kids working the telemetry floor at the hospital, that the children and I will do something that I enjoy and that perhaps they might get a kick out of as well.

Later that night beside the fire, while we haven’t technically been out of the car for more than five or six hours I realize this is not the purposeful experience I’d imagined. I’ve spent the majority of those hours in a state of frustration as I roll back the tape in my head. I lie in the dirt, push my sleeves down, and stew on all of this — my misguided preparation, my skewed expectations, how little sound is muffled by tent walls. I wonder, What the hell was I thinking?

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Writing the Monsignor

Mary O’Connell | Longreads | September 2017 | 18 minutes (4,609 words)

 

How we loved his very name: Monsignor Thomas O’Brien. The elevated French titlethat magnificent silent “g” — coupled with his sturdy Irish name, which, imbued with our cultural bias, suggested all good things. Monsignor O’Brien can tell a joke like nobody’s business! Monsignor O’Brien loves Jameson shots and telling stories late into the smoky night! Monsignor O’Brien always carries Tootsie Rolls to give to children! Monsignor doesn’t stand on ceremony, no sir! Did you hear him mumble “Holy Shit” when his sleeve brushed the altar candle and caught fire?

Now Monsignor O’Brien belongs to a lost age, our personal Pompeii. Excavate us from the lava ash and see us in our innocence: our voluminous eighties hair and hoop earrings, our hands clutching cassettes tapes, The Go-Go’s, A Flock of Seagulls, LL Cool J. See the random fortune that shaped our days and gave us our bold, laughing profiles, the lowered eyes and caved shoulders of a different experience. It was a time when “monsignor” or “priest” was spoken without the slightest wince, without the explicit worry — uh-oh — before the saddest of the sad trombones replaced the golden crash of church bells at Midnight Mass, before the newspaper stories and the movie and the documentaries told a truth more devastating and inconvenient to the faithful than anything Al Gore could conjure, before Sinead O’Connor ripped up a photo of John Paul II on Saturday Night Live. (Note to my outraged 24-year-old self: Go ahead and proclaim Sinead a delusional attention whore, for that will amp up your moral vigor and you will feel ever so righteous, ever so wholesome! But she knows things.)

Back then, we believed the Monsignor was a holy man, but he also walked among us as a totally regular guy, so we pitied him his natural yearnings stemmed by sacrifice. We mourned with him when he gave a Mother’s Day homily about missing his own mother. We spied him driving through McDonald’s with nobody in the passenger seat, nobody in the backseat. The lonely subtext: Having a family of his own to sit down to dinner with was pretty much off the table.

Yet we imagined that loneliness as sublime. It was the waxen sweetness of ivory altar candles and spent wedding roses, the scrape and rasp of his black wing-tips on the icy church steps at dawn, a dinner taken by himself, something hearty, we imagined, something priestly: Shepherds pie chased with Folgers coffee in an earthenware mug stamped with a chunky Celtic cross. Later, if he craved a treat and if it wasn’t Lent, Monsignor O’Brien might eat an off-brand sandwich cookie leftover from a funeral luncheon while he watched the Chiefs on the small TV in the rectory. Later still, he might lay in bed with a notebook, laboring over his upcoming homily.

Perhaps he would rise and pace for a bit; the business of inspiration and enlightenment was surely stressful, the word of the Lord so far-off, so starry and oblique. In his endearing humility, Monsignor O’Brien would never quite feel up to the task of interpreting God for the rest of us. Did he console himself by thinking that the valor was in the effort, not the accomplishment? Did he click off his bedside lamp and listen to jazz on his AM/FM clock radio as his eyelids fluttered shut? Did Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman take him to his rest? Goodnight, Monsignor O’Brien. Goodnight, Jesus. Goodnight to all those saints and angels who have sung your praises throughout the years.

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Taking Up Smoking at the End of the World

John Sherman | Longreads | September 2017 | 9 minutes (2,250 words)

 

I started smoking this year. In Berlin, where I lived before recently returning to New York, almost everyone seems to smoke, almost everywhere, almost all the time. It’s like a 1970s game show, but in German and with better hair.

It wasn’t the ubiquity of smoking that sold me as much as the opportunity to become excellent at rolling cigarettes — a simple task that is wildly impressive when done well. The most practiced rollers can assemble a factory-grade filtered cigarette in about ten seconds, packing it casually against a thumbnail while your own attempt looks like a slightly crumpled, pregnant snake, leaking tobacco from both ends.

I’ve watched Berliners roll cigarettes walking, standing up in a moving subway car, and even once while biking through traffic on Karl-Marx-Straße. A German friend claimed her father could roll a cigarette inside his pants pocket, which, bullshit or not, puts the bar for trick-rolling higher than I can even imagine.

Aside from being a cheap way to smoke — about €5 for a bag of decent rolling tobacco, plus €1 each for filters and rolling paper — it’s an excellent sideline for fidgeters, people like me who can’t help but curl straw wrappers into intricate fiddleheads, or peel the label off their beer bottle to fold origami fortune tellers. Cigarette rolling is a mini-craft project unto itself, repeatable and perfectible. I probably enjoy rolling cigarettes even more than I enjoy smoking them.

***

I don’t mean to be flip about the health hazards of smoking, which are illustrated in full color on every side of every tobacco product I’ve ever purchased, and rattled off by every serious smoker I’ve ever talked to about it. I was born in America in 1989; the only thing I know about smoking is that it’s bad for me.

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Raising Brown Boys in Post-9/11 America

Sorayya Khan | Longreads | September 2017 | 23 minutes (5,871 words)

My mother was white and my father was brown, my mother Dutch, my father Pakistani. If she’d had a choice, she would have been brown. She tried, sitting near swimming pools during short summers in Vienna and long ones in Islamabad, but her attempts came to a full stop with basal cell carcinoma, when sunscreen replaced sun as her best friend. My father’s brown was constant, except that when he grew older and gray, in the right light and on the right part of him, his color lightened. I, on the other hand, am in between. I pretended I didn’t know I was brown until we moved from Austria to Pakistan and I saw it all around and made it mine. But the truth is that it took leaving behind Pakistan to claim the country and color as my own.

Color is a fact, a given, for my American-born children. We didn’t wake up one morning and decide our children were ready for the news: You’re brown. Almost as soon as they could talk, they put their little arms next to mine and decided they were darker. They were always right, because when summer came and my color deepened, so did theirs and our skin tones never matched. Next to their father’s, their arms and legs were not a match, but close enough. “That’s okay,” my sons said about my outsider status and patted my arm because they must have thought I needed comforting. Soon enough, they asked, “Where are we from?” I’d say, “You are from where we are from, Pakistan. And also from where you were born, here.” Naeem, my husband, would remember my mother and add, “Also from Holland, where Nani is from.” There is no flag for their combination and, anyway, the white in that equation, the one-fourth of them that is my mother, was ignored even then. “She’s the brownest person we know,” I heard them say once, as if they knew all along that color is a state of mind, not pigment.

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The Whistleblower in the Family

Pearl Abraham | Michigan Quarterly Review | September 2017 | 18 minutes (5,007 words)

“The power of narrative stems from the narrator’s ability to be there and then, as well as here and now.”

— C. Fred Alford, Whistleblowers: Broken Lives and Organizational Power

1

In 1974, the year Richard Nixon resigned to avoid impeachment, my father, a man with rabbinic aspirations, was deep in his own pickle, indicted for conspiracy and fraud in the federal summer school lunch program.

Nixon was brought down by Deep Throat, the pseudonym given the informant who passed information to Washington Post journalists about his administration’s involvement in what came to be known as the Watergate Scandal. My father got off somehow.

With him in court for one of his hearings, I suffered his ashen face, then his palpable relief when the case was deferred or dismissed, I’m not now sure which. I also don’t know whether his case made headlines the way rabbinic and priestly scandals do these days, “Five NJ Rabbis Arrested for Fraud and Conspiracy” a recent one.

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Weighing Justice With a Jury of Her ‘Peers’

Susana Morris | Longreads | September 2017 | 20 minutes (4,997 words)

I received the notice for jury duty with mild annoyance. I hoped I wouldn’t get picked as I put the date of the summons on my calendar. I thought about how jury duty would throw me off my work schedule; how I didn’t want to participate in this particular part of civic life in small town Alabama; how I didn’t want to help someone, probably another Black person, go to jail.

But I didn’t spend too much time worrying. It was summertime and the date, during a week in the middle of September, seemed an unpleasant blip on the road far ahead. I pushed it out of my mind and tried to enjoy the remaining pieces of a waning summer in my sleepy southern town.

Eventually the summer break gave way to the fall semester, though the weather stayed oppressively muggy. Living in a college town where God and football are rivals for people’s undying devotion meant there was also an air of jubilance and anticipation everywhere. I care little for football and even less for their God, so I did not have much to look forward to except the return of my regular paycheck and the eventual end of sultry weather. Otherwise, the date of my summons — September 12th — loomed unpleasantly before me.

***

It was 2011, the tenth anniversary of the attacks on September 11th. The decade had rushed by impossibly fast, but there it was, on the news and emblazoned in public memory like an unwanted tattoo. I had been a college senior when the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon happened and now here I was, a grownup with a job. Maybe it was growing up with my mother always reminding us that “the days are being shortened for the sake of God’s elect” — those chosen for salvation — plus our being unaware of the day or the hour of God’s return, but even though I was scared, I was not shocked about terrorism on American soil. Or maybe it was having grown up in Caribbean immigrant communities where America was loved more pragmatically than patriotically. Curiously, when I moved to the white, rural South in 2007, far away from New York, D.C., and the Pennsylvania field where the third plane went down, there seemed to be more anger, more panicked rhetoric about terrorism and violence than in my hometown of Fort Lauderdale. At first it didn’t make sense. What would terrorists want with a state in which memories of the Confederacy were wistful and sweetly savored? Still, on the tenth anniversary, there didn’t seem to be any commemorations in town, aside from faded t-shirts and bumper stickers proclaiming, “These colors never run,” and “Never forget.”

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Plasma For Sale (Used) — $20 a Pop

In this essay about her brother at Virginia Quarterly Review, Sarah Smarsh writes about how rich drug companies buy plasma from the poor and working poor, literally feeding their wealth with one of the few renewable resources the poor have to sell — their blood.

Your brother has a hole on the inside of each arm that never quite closes. A blood tap, really, like an oil well for drilling. He is a tall, strong man in his early thirties—an ideal source for plasma.

A woman calls his name. She takes his temperature and blood pressure. He gets to skip the full-blown health screening since he’s been coming here twice a week, off and on, for almost ten years. She pricks his finger to make sure his blood is okay today.

When your brother finally graduated, the economy was in the tank. As a first-generation college student he had no connections in the professional world, and no one to tell him that communications and history degrees were bad bets to begin with. A good job never turned up. For years he has worked at call centers, leasing agencies, shipping companies. Those paychecks don’t cover basic living costs, though. Thus, his face has aged a decade going in and out of this place by necessity.

The materials around the place tout the life-saving service he’s providing others; the plasma stripped from his blood will be turned into pharmaceuticals. Very expensive pharmaceuticals, ones he could never afford were he diagnosed with hemophilia or an immune disorder. He doesn’t have health insurance and could use a trip to the doctor himself. The promotional pamphlets and websites call what he’s doing a donation, but it’s really a sale.

The buyers are corporations with names like BioLife, Biotest, Octapharma. Plasma brings thirty, fifty bucks a pop depending on how often you go and how much you weigh. Your brother is in the highest weight class, which means he gets twenty dollars for the first donation of the week, forty-five dollars for the second.

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I Was a 9-Year-Old Playboy Bunny

Shannon Lell | Longreads | September 2017 | 9 minutes (2,345 words)

 

My first sex partner was a homemade three-foot-tall Raggedy Ann doll lovingly stitched together by a distant relative. She wore a tangled mess of red yarn hair sewn in loops around her head like a halo. A cornflower-blue smock hugged her stuffed body in all the right places. Her undergarments were bloomers made of white fabric with eyelets and lace at the bottom. When stripped naked she was smooth, supple, alabaster cotton. She had adorable black button eyes and a sewn-on smile: permanently enthusiastic. I may have preferred Raggedy Andy — it’s hard to tell when you’re 8 — but he belonged to my big sister. I was left to love the one I was with. Full disclosure: At some point I did have a tryst with Andy. But under his denim overalls, confusingly, he and Ann were anatomically identical. Like many girls who played with dolls, this would prove to be my first disappointing encounter with male genitals.

I shared a room with my sister until I was 14. That’s when my parents could afford a bigger house. For 12 years our family of five — parents, sister, brother, and me, the youngest — lived in a modest three-bedroom home in a cookie-cutter neighborhood on a street called Serene. Our family was the median of every statistic: middle class, middle America, moderately educated, mildly religious.

Before my parents could afford to give us our own beds, and during my late-night love sessions with Ann, I took to sleeping on the floor for privacy. It felt like the right thing to do. And besides, my sister was always brooding for a fight.

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Disguised in Plain Clothes, but No Superman

Chris Wiewiora | Longreads | September 2017 | 13 minutes (3,328 words)

 

Zoe looks right through me as she boards my bus. She was one of my best public speaking students at Iowa State and admirably focused on social justice, but on the bus, she doesn’t give me a hint of recognition. David keeps looking at my rearview mirror as he sits by the door, trying to figure out how he knows me. He was a guy who skimmed along through the academics of class, but emanated a genuineness and care about his work. It’s been only a year since I taught them. I still know their last names and their final grades. Past semesters blur together for me the way that I must blur together, in the minds of these students, with the other drivers who pick them up at the park-and-ride lot by the Alumni Center and chauffeur them to campus.

I justify their blindness with what I think of as my disguise; my CyRide uniform of a tucked in polo and slacks is nothing like my daily teaching outfit of button-ups and unbelted jeans. Under my ball cap, I wear black-framed glasses now. But I’m not Clark Kent and I wasn’t a Superman.

I never felt like a superhero in my classroom and I don’t feel like an everyday driver on the road. After my contract expired, I chose to leave behind sitting in a desk chair in front of students. I was haunted by my inability to protect them, one particular afternoon, from a danger more fearsome than speaking in public. Now I hide behind the wheel of a bus.

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