Pilgrims

The most important thing to know about the Thanksgiving I spent in Portland, Oregon is that I’m not sure I was even really supposed to be there. It was a delayed realization after I’d packed the bag and bought a plane ticket and watched my roommate give me a look of wilting indifference. It was after I told my parents I was absolutely not–oh-hell-no–coming home to spend the holidays with my recently expanded step-family in my mother’s brand new suburban tract mansion on the far other side of town from where I grew up and where it was miles to downtown and I knew no one. None of my high school friends that would still speak to me would even  drive all the way out there and the ones that maybe would—Portland and Ivy League– were spending their Thanksgiving together elsewhere so it’s only natural that I crashed their party

The day I left to fly out, my father was driving me from my hometown to the Charlotte airport when I mentioned that that friend that I was ostensibly staying with for the week had not ever responded to my I’M COMING email. This might have been a 1996-access-to-email thing or it could have been an oh, so, like, she’s really coming? thing. Whatever the case, Dad sensed there might be more to it than I was letting on. I was twenty years old, on my first cross-country trip, alone and I maybe had a hundred bucks in my checking account (which counted as rich in those days). He handed me a credit card out of his wallet—a loaner, only for emergencies—and instructed me to use it for a hotel if anything went sideways.

We stopped in Dallas for a layover. I smoked in a glass box and wrote in my journal, which isa guaranteed way to avoid talking to people when you’re a twenty-year-old box-dyed unnatural ginger in a tweed mini skirt and a motorcycle jacket. The journal was a tiny, square sketch book.  Maybe 5×5. I scribbled furiously. All caps, tiny letters, as if to say Art is suffering and I’m way too hardcore to let a little handcramp slow me down. I drew lots of pictures of emaciated people with unflinchingly punk rock hair. Probably because I was a fat person with the kind of punk rock hair that allowed me to work part-time as an office assistant at an upscale residential real estate firm. Which is to say, not very.

I landed at Portland at 9pm their time. I stepped off the jetway into the Pacific Time Zone. I  didn’t feel any different, but I went to the bathroom to check my reflection just in case. Outside, I was relieved to find my friends who seemed reasonably happy and not at all aggrieved to see me. They remarked about the size of my suitcase (Large).

“Planning to say awhile?” asked my Portland friend.

I laughed like that was funny. I thought, maybe. I didn’t tell them I’d brought 600 page drafts of my unpublished first nove I’d spend the night previous frantically xeroxing for them to read. I sort of hated myself for that.

 We drove through the rain to Portland friend’s house. Ivy League sat in the passenger seat. I sat in the back. I didn’t care. We listened to Prince on the stereo and I watched Portland shimmer through the rivulets of rainwater on the car window.

Portland friend lived in a brown, shingled rental house of pre-war vintage on the southeast side of town. There was a spacious front porch, surrounded by rhododendrons and various brambles. An old car front seat of what I think was a Buick, had been set up like a divan in the far corner. That’s where I smoked and wrote

None of Portland friend’s roommates were west coast natives. Everyone were nonchalantly stranded in Oregon for the holidays. The plan was that we would make our own Thanksgiving. Everyone would make a dish. Ivy League and I decided to make a grits casserole because we were both from the south. Someone put out an open call to the International Students at Reed College and told their friends to tell friends. Crafty scroungers came by to erect banquet tables out of rain-warped plywood and cinderblock. Portland friend’s twenty-one-year old roommate hit up a Sam Adams distributor[1] and bought cases of day-of-expiration beer for nickel per bottle. We spent the better part of two days driving around to pick up ingredients and, sort of, incidentally sightsee along the way.

I loved Portland. I loved it instantly and wholly. Maybe because it reminded me of a bigger, more cosmopolitan version of my hometown with bigger mountains and more water. Maybe because it reminded me of a bigger, more cosmopolitan version of my hometown a continent and nearly 3000 miles away from everything I was trying to get away from in my hometown. But I adored the rain and the green things and bookshops and the bridges. I loved the overwrought cafes and the bungalows and the pretty, lithe, literary-tattooed boys who would look you right in the eye and tell you earnestly that they were studying revolution. Compared to the ugly, rigid, beige sprawl of the New South city where I unhappily lived in those days, Portland looked heavenly. My ridiculous journal at the time reflects this. I wrote long passages about feeling content, about being warm, despite spending, in retrospect, much of that trip feeling sort of lonely, at a distance from my friends (who I believed–at the time– were maybe kind of ashamed of me because I was always  ashamed of myself) sitting outside on the porch in the chilly November drizzle, blinking back tears at the city lights.

On the day of Thanksgiving, we rose early and spent almost the whole day in the kitchen. Ivy League and I made giant aluminum vats of cheese grits and only-recently-no-longer-vegan Portland friend posed with her excellent turkey. The crowds started to mass just after sunset. Twice as many people showed as were expected. They came with casserole and wine and beer and pot. They came with travelling packs still strapped to their backs. They came from multiple schools and multiple cities and and  out of a car from somewhere in the California desert and off a train on a journey that began in New Hampshire. They came from Kenya and Thailand and Germany and Colombia and Detroit and Charleston, SC. As I went down the line, talking to people, carving out servings from dozens of dishes I didn’t recognize, among strangers, in a place I had never been, on the other side of the continent from home, I had this notion of This is Thanksgiving. Like, for real.  In a moment, a holiday I’d long since associated with 17th century religious zealots, ugly history, awkward family get-togethers and grotesque and unnatural acts committed upon sweet potatoes became kind of my favorite holiday. And throughout the rest of that evening, I wandered fizzy-headed and almost impossibly happy through a house crammed with food and fascinating stories. I was enchanted by the we’re all going to sit down and eat this together. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you believe or where you’re from or what you do or the fact that you maybe brought that tripping raver girl that’s offering to recreationally taze people “for fun” in the front yard and, like, maybe that’s kinda dangerous, so maybe someone should go out there and try to disarm her? That night I went to bed in a sleeping bag on Portland friend’s bedroom floor thinking, this was one of the best days of my life.

 I spent most of the rest of the 90s and into the 2000s, traveling over Thanksgiving, trying to recreate some semblance of whatever alchemy occurred in Portland. I went to Massachusetts and Texas and South Carolina. I insinuated myself into numerous friends’ family affairs and tried to cobble together new traditions in other places. It never took. For the longest time, I thought it was maybe a geographical problem. Something about not being on the west coast, in general, or in Portland, in specific. But in 2002, I found myself living in a shabby, rambling bungalow in Carrboro, North Carolina. It was house full of people I loved, with a large screened in porch fitted with an old wicker love seat in the corner, where I smoked cigarettes and wrote in my journal (larger, lined, no longer in cramped All Caps). Late at night I would sit out there, as the season cooled, and talk about Thanksgiving in Portland, about the lights from  porch  of the house on the hill and the foggy indigo color of the cloudy night skyand how all of the guests though Ivy League’s and my grits casserole was polenta. A couple days before Thanksgiving that year, I called people and made a turkey. Only twelve people came that first year, but I felt stir of something familiar. So thirty-five people came the next year. Then I moved into a new (ironically smaller)house. Our invite list expanded. Fifty-eight people came the fifth year. That was a record.

So.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I know the historical baggage. I know the family complications. I know the psychological challenges. I know it’s bad for your health and weird for your friend with all the dietary restrictions. For me, though, it’s not really about any of that. It’s about sitting down to eat with people I love and people I’ve never met. It’s hearing stories, trying new things and having a house so jam-packed with people you wonder, during, if you’ll find a seat, and, after it’s all over, at how lucky you are to have spent the evening with all these people. It’s about not taking your community, in its broadest sense, for granted and celebrating all that has to offer.

Here we are at 2017. Tomorrow will be the sixteenth time I’ve cooked a turkey. The sixteenth time I’ve moved the furniture around. The sixteenth time I’ve made the same dumb Puritan jokes. The sixteenth Potluck. It’s my favorite day of the year. It’s hard and messy and cramped. It will be over so fast that, in just a day, I’ll already be pining for next year

 

 

 

[1] These were the days, by and large, before microbrews, children.

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Closer

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. It was the autumn of Joy Division cover bands. I’d seen one of them the night before, at a party house up behind the ballfield, around the corner from my Dad’s place. I’d drowsed on a sticky vinyl basement sofa of mid-century vintage, back in the days before vinyl midcentury sofas became a yuppie status symbol, and entertained myself by doodling on baby doll heads glued to the wall, while a reputed local drug dealer did a C-grade Ian Curtis impression. I was probably the least trashed person there, on account of having driven there alone, and I figured that explained  most of the discrepancy between my enjoyment of the band and everyone else’s enjoyment of the band, but looking back on it now, it’s probably because almost everyone else was already in some kind of Joy Division cover band and worried than any lack of enthusiasm detected by a competing local cover band would reflect badly on their own. Which was sort of the way Asheville worked in the early oughts. Everyone was equally supportive of everyone else’s creative endeavor out of both genuine empathy and a paralyzing fear of karmic retribution, which made it frankly impossible to know, in advance, whether anything was actually worth going to see.

I’d bowed out of the party during “She’s Lost Control” because I certainly hadn’t and I had a record review to edit before midnight deadline. I was not at all worried about karma on the record review front, because the publication I wrote for was based in Chicago, not Asheville, and maybe got more hits when I hated records, and I hated records rather grandiloquently in those days. So the editorial staff sent me either terrible bands or bands comprised of women (and often terrible bands comprised of women), probably because  I was a woman writing in an overwhelmingly male dominated area for  an overwhelmingly male audience and it’s safe to say they all  figured a woman would only ever voluntarily write about music if she were already accustomed to being despised.

My desk was in the dining room of the second best apartment I ever lived in. It had this elaborate balcony tricked out with oversized Corinthian columns and weird secret compartments, and a kettle warmer on the radiator and high windows that looked out over an intersection where I regularly watched low-level car accidents from my chair. I loved that apartment even though it was old and rundown. The plumbing didn’t always work and you’d blow a fuse on the whole building if you tried to make toast and coffee at the same time.  Untended vines grew through the windows in the back bedroom. And just about the only thing that made it fit for human habitation was the whimsical antique  architecture.  Our slumlord of a landlord made us sign waivers when we moved in to indicate we were aware of:

1) His plan to do nothing about the lead paint and asbestos

2)`The fact that the building was highly flammable

3) And we lived on a third floor accessible only by wooden staircases

4) So in the event of fire, we would almost certainly die horrible deaths

5) But we were cool with that because location, location, location.

My roommate sensibly balked at the outset. She threatened a rent strike the first month, after our landlord informed us we’d need to use a bucket to flush the toilet until he felt like paying a plumber. North Carolina law is not super-friendly to tenants, especially tenants of a good-old-boy slumlord who inherited all his property. I tried to explain this to my roommate before the landlord showed up and threatened to evict us. I remember he said, people don’t live here for the comfort and convenience; they live here for the charm, as whole sections of the Sunday NYT floated about the living room, borne upon the currents of the frigid draft. But the fact that my roommate argued anyway, unperturbed at the prospect of being suddenly homeless in January because of the principle of thing was one of the reasons I loved her. And I like to think the fact that I had zero intention of letting either one of us end up homeless in January is one of the reasons she loved me as well, even if she did get mad and accuse me of being a capitalist pawn from time to time. She was also, frankly, my best friend.

She was moving in a few weeks, back to the west coast from whence she’d come. I planned to stay on behind her for another six months or so, before moving further east and out of my hometown, I thought, for good.  I was sad about my roommate leaving and a little anxious about whatever choices I was and was not making about my future. In other circumstances, the situation might have been fraught. But I was twenty-five, barely two years out of a personal nadir, and it was November of 2001, where there were more things than just Joy Division cover bands to worry about– like George W. Bush and the War on Terror and  whether it was, strictly speaking, okay to enjoy that Strokes record as much as we all did.

I addressed this with my roommate the night after the party. I bought us a couple Taco Locos at the cheap Mexican restaurant with the sparkly waterfall fresco. I told her I would miss her. She told me she didn’t have much of a plan for what came next.  I confessed that my plan was similar, but, like, walking distance to several venues with decent rock shows.  We drank most of a bottle of wine we bought at the fancy corner market. She worried about leaving her boyfriend–a warm, smart, generous man who was impossible not to love. There might not be another like him. I worried about ever finding a boyfriend. Most of the guys I was into were caustic, self-obsessed know-it alls who were basically incapable of love and certainly incapable of loving me. The world seemed only too full of guys like that. We sat on our freezing porch, smoking cigarettes amid all-season Christmas lights and a downstairs neighbor plunking out perfectly imperfect Debussy.

Still, I must have been thinking about that Joy Division cover band when I finally went to bed, because I drifted in and out of chilly dreams about ice ages and radios and their black transmissions. I heard the kitchen door rattle closed and knew it was my roommate’s boyfriend, coming in late after a closing shift at the bar where he worked. I rolled back into sleep and came too sometime later out of a dream about England when I heard the toilet flush, then my bedroom door open, then bare feet over the floor and, after a moment, the squeak of the bedsprings as someone pitched onto the bed beside me.

I was pretty sure I was conscious, though not entirely. And I was just comfortable enough under the blankets that I didn’t want to move.  I thought it’s probably my roommate, even though my roommate had never crawled in bed with me before. I thought, her boyfriend is probably snoring, even though I didn’t think he did. Then I realized the person behind me was wearing very little. I remember thinking, is my roommate naked? Is she making a pass at me? Weird that it would happen now. We’d never discussed it. I wasn’t even sure she was into girls. But maybe she was emboldened by the fact she was leaving soon. Maybe she thought it would be a way to say goodbye. And sure, it was awkward, especially given the fact that I’m maybe, maybe, a soft two on the Kinsey scale and she’s not really my type and her boyfriend is in the other room. But fine. She didn’t seem aggressive. She probably thought she was being nice and I’ll just lie here until I figure out how to nicely tell her this isn’t a great idea. And then I felt a warm breath on my ear that reeked of alcohol and I tried to remember how much wine did we have that night, it occurred to me that the chin nestled into the hollow of my shoulder was quite a bit hairier than I remembered my roommate’s being and God, that’s awkward, I wonder if she’s having some sort of hormonal . . .

And suddenly I was wide awake.

My roommate’s boyfriend decidedly was not. He snored operatically as I wriggled out of the sheets, half panicked that he would wake and half wishing he would. I crept around the bed and out the far door—our apartment was a modified railroad style and my bedroom was the middle car—back into the dining room and then circled back through the kitchen to my roommate’s door.

As it turned out, she also snored. I knocked frantically. “Roommate[1],“ I said. “Roommate! Roommate! Please wake up. Get up. Wake up! Please wake up!”

 She groaned, finally, annoyed at having her sleep disrupted, and told me she didn’t care if the building was one fire.

“No,” I said “Your boyfriend is in my bed. And you need to get him out of my bed.” Which circumstances required me repeating a 7-8 more times until she roused

“Also,” I said, when she finally appeared, alert, at the door, “I think it’s possible that he’s a sleepwalker.”

I walked out into the living room and stood in front of the windows, half-watching for crashes, as I listened to the muffled conversation from my bedroom, you need to wake up, you’re in the wrong bed. No, I’m already in bed. But the wrong bed. No, I’m already in bed. You’re not in our bed. I’m already in bed, etc. which preceded in the same repetitive fashion as the one I’d just had with my roommate until her boyfriend came to sudden horrified consciousness and realized what had happened.  I heard him shuffle back to her bedroom in a flurry of  apology. After a moment, she reemerged and asked to bum a cigarette.

We sat on the sofa, and smoked, with the balcony door cracked, for a minute or two until I started laughing. And once I started laughing, I could not stop laughing and at that point, she was laughing too.

I left early the next morning to have breakfast with a friend, so it was hours later before my roommate’s boyfriend, much humbled, begged for my forgiveness. And it was so obviously a misunderstanding–and such an over-the top fluffy French bedroom farce of a misunderstanding for the dark-clothed cynics and self-identified intellectuals and smoke drenched music snobs we believed ourselves at the time— I couldn’t even pretend to hold it against him. I think I said something like, “Figure out the sleepwalking thing.”  And as far as I know, he did.

Three weeks later, my roommate moved back to the west coast. Six months later, her boyfriend followed. Not quite two years later, they were married.

I djed their wedding reception. I didn’t play any Joy Division. I played New Order, “Bizarre Love Triangle” to be exact.

It was a real crowd pleaser.

 

[1] Names have been have left out, not to protect the innocence but because we guilty must protect each other. Honor among thieves and all that.

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First Position

(This story won the Inaugural Asheville Moth Grand Slam at Diana Wortham Theatre on Monday, October 30, 2017 . Here is the audio:

I always knew I would grow up to be a great ballerina. I had tights and tutus and leotards. I had a picture book about a girl that danced with the New York City Ballet (I’d memorized it). I had a black patent leather ballet box with a strap and a slot in the bottom for my ballet slippers. They had a magic name—Capezio—and smelled wonderful, like new leather and show business.

My future as a prima ballerina was, perhaps, less obvious to everyone else. I wasn’t a natural dancer. In fact, I wasn’t a natural anything that involved concentrated physical agility. I was a tumble of bruises in perennially ripped tights, with so many scabbed knees and elbows and shins, adults mistook me for some variety of tomboy when, in fact, I was just the kind of klutz that could hardly descend a stair without injury. That’s probably why Mom didn’t enroll me at the dance school with pageant girls and “Nutcracker” auditions, but in classes with a nice, patchouli-scented white lady with cornrows, who taught neighborhood girls in the ballroom of a grand old resort hotel since gone to seed and inhabited by some ghostly cadre of shuffling old people who may or may not have been actual ghosts. We did plies to Joni Mitchell and willowed like a willow. And even there I was hopelessly out of step. I would fail to stay upright doing an arabesque and then take a forty-five minute bathroom break, so I could disappear through racks of dazzling, tulle-skirted costumes and out the other door, which provided Narnia-like access to the ruined hotel.

My ballet teacher was wise to my tracks. I think she was frankly relieved. Because if I was following a semi-feral cat through the old second floor smoking lounge or contemplating the depth of the empty swimming pool,[1] I wasn’t demoralizing the class by falling down and asking why we couldn’t just spend the hour trying on tutus.

Our yearly recitals were named after the oldest and most proficient dancer in hotel ballet classes. Her name was Kendall. She was eleven and the most impressive person I knew. And after a dispiriting show as a seagull in “Kendall’s Trip To The Beach,” during which  I literally sat down and wept in the middle of the performance, my dance teacher pulled my mother an told her she was a fool to pretend my interest in ballet went past costumes.

She was right.

That should have been the end of my ballet career. It probably would have been, but lack of non-sporty extra-curriculars clears the mind. And after a couple of years, I found myself enrolled at the Dance School with the “Nutcracker” auditions and pageant girls that shuffled off to buffalo in ruffled, sequined hot pants. My new ballet teacher was tall and thin, with a perfect Dunkin’ Donuts coffee roll of a ballet bun, and absolutely zero time for shenanigans. That was fine. I had nothing to explore on bathroom breaks save looming adolescence via skinny thirteen year olds smoking cigarettes out the dressing room window and talking about how fat they were. So I did the exercises, the same ones every class, to the same old Tchaikovsky record in the same old damp basement studio and told myself it would only be a few years until pointe shoes and then I would transform from a chubby klutz and into a swan princess gliding across the stage at Lincoln Center.

But that seemed so far away, and after a year, I was only closer to our recital piece, which was also sad and boring. Even the costumes sucked.

The night of the recital, my mother dropped me off at the Civic Center, and I entered a green room smogged with Aquanet and thronged with girls in heavy eyeliner that made them look frozen in surprise, and not at a good thing. My class was act 23 on a 44 act bill. We played crazy eights while we waited and I noted that every single costume that went on stage was better than mine. At five minutes, our teacher gathered us together and reminded us to keep rhythm, to smile and to not lose our nerve in the big, big stage in front of all those people. We filed up to the wings to watch a bunch of teenagers with mall bangs do a snazzy jazz number to “Maneater” by Hall & Oates and I saw, for the first time, the audience, that sea of bodies in the darkness, the huge stage, the brilliant warmth of the lights. And I knew with absolute clarity that I’d never wanted to be anywhere more than on that stage and this was my time to shine.

Our music cued, Single file we came onto the stage, each girl doing the same steps, the same boring choreography, but not me. As soon as I cleared the curtain, I was on. And by on I mean off choreography and into leaps and jumps and spins and Flashdancing and Footloose-ing and whatever the hell Molly Ringwald did in “The Breakfast Club.” I did ever every move I had in my wheelhouse, and a whole lot I really really didn’t. I didn’t care about the other girls. Or my teacher. Or my old teacher. Or Kendall. Or pointe shoes. Or the New York City Ballet. No. This was bigger than that. I would be bigger than that. I would force those people out there to watch and love and let me stay in the warmth of those lights forever because already it felt like home. I gave it everything I had and it is a miracale I didn’t fling myself into the orchestra pit.

I remember thunderous applause. But all applause sounds thunderous to a nine-year-old high on greasepaint and self-regard. I followed the rest of of my classmates down the green room, giddy, buzzing with excitement. This was the greatest thing I’d ever done. I expected a hero’s welcome. Our parents intercepted us at the bottom of the stairs with hugs and cellophane-wrapped supermarket roses. The other parents gave me a stony side-eye and mother gave me a Well . . .  sort of smile. And before she could expand, my teacher furiously stalked, parted the crowd and said, “Alison is not a dancer. Alison will never be a dancer.  I will not have her in my class again.”  It wasn’t exactly the I’d expected. But critics, you know? Sometimes they have a hard time recognizing that something transcendent, something paradigm-shifting has occurred on stage. I thought she would go on, but she didn’t. And as I watched her flounce away, I suddenly realized, no more ballet might mean no more stage. And the cruelty. To deprive me of a thing I so loved at the moment I just discovered it. I started to sniffle. That might have been what provoked my ballet teacher to turn back and look at me. Her face softened, for a flicker and she said “Alison does have a certain theatrical presence. You might look into acting classes, you know, instead of ballet.”

My mom and I walked out the stage door together into the cool spring rain. She comforted me, which confused me, because I was feeling all the feelings—every feeling I had at the same time—but I didn’t think I needed comfort. When we got to the parking deck, she looked down as asked what I thought about the night’s performance.

I was stunned for a moment. Then I thought it might be okay if I never went back to ballet. But honestly?

I think I fucking killed it.

[1]In preparing this story, I learned that said old resort hotel (since renovated as apartments/condos) was built in response to an early no-kids policy at my hometown’s far more famous resort hotel. It was family friendly and the swimming pool was a particularly popular location. Local gossip has it that a visiting John Phillips Sousa, in town for a performance once summer in the early part of the 20h century, provided impromptu swimming lessons to the hotel’s youthful guests.

 

 

 

Feeling generous? I’m shamelessly accepting spare change, tips, trades, wages, gifts, donations and generous offers from rich people to live, fully supported in their scenic villas in the Italian Alps and write terribly droll little somethings that don’t reflect too badly on the aristocracy here:


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