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The magic word.

bagels_1

 

I wanted an oat bran bagel with peanut butter.

I got shit instead.

I was at the bagel shop, mid-afternoon, post-lunch. I overheard two women in line ahead of me talk about their friend, a woman who’d suffered a stroke. She was 43 years old – my age! I made a mental note to never skip my daily blood thinner. The women mentioned that their friend was receiving rehabilitative therapy and regaining the ability to speak, though very slowly. Her vocabulary was limited to three words, one of which was “shit.”

Limited indeed, I thought.

How much could that poor woman communicate if one of her three words was shit? I waited my turn to order and wondered what I would want my three words to be, if in a similar circumstance.

My turn to order approached and the bagel situation behind the counter did not look promising. Many of the bins were empty. Supply was limited. I ordered an oat bran bagel, not toasted, with peanut butter. The young man at the register tilted his head and gave me a pouty face.

“Oh, I’m so sorry. We’re out of whole grain bagels. We’ll have a fresh supply tomorrow morning!”

“Oh,” I replied.

That one sorry syllable was inadequate; it couldn’t even hint at everything I wanted to, but didn’t say: “Listen junior, how does a fresh supply tomorrow help me right now? I don’t want to come back tomorrow. I know it’s not your fault there are no more whole grain bagels, but your trying to be all friendly and cute doesn’t help me. I want my oat bran bagel. Now.”

I changed my order to a plain bagel. The situation was almost redeemed when I realized I had a choice of smooth or my favored crunchy peanut butter, but then I had to wait more than ten minutes for a non-toasted bagel. What was up with taking forever to spread crunchy peanut butter on a bagel? As I waited, I didn’t have a fit as I normally would have. I had a revelation: I recognized the brilliance of the word shit. It can be various kinds of noun (a person or a thing) or it can be a verb. Shit can communicate a wide range of emotion. I had never before appreciated how multi-functional it was and how perfectly applicable it could have been at that moment.

“Shit, no whole grain bagels? I don’t give a shit about tomorrow’s delivery. I will shit upon the counter in protest.”

I’d never get that much mileage out of a word like “please.” Magic word my ass. Please would have made me sound like some wimp begging for a bagel. Please invites the possibility of no, whereas shit displays cojones. Shit is defiant and shows authority. Shit would have shown this mamacita takes no shit. It would have made clear that I was not happy about waiting for a second-choice bagel and introduced the possibility of menace, like there might have been hell to pay because I was displeased.

I didn’t use shit or any of those words that afternoon at the bagel shop, but I carry the knowledge of shit’s potential with me, like a super power I can unleash when needed. That’s a real magic word.

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Domestic Diva: A 90-second opera.

laundry pile

 

SCENE: The hallway in a domestic dwelling, a two-bedroom condo, in modern-day New Jersey.

A woman, not young, but certainly not old. A woman of a certain age. This woman stands in the hallway with a wheeled cart filled with colored clothing. A man, her husband, steps out of a bedroom into the hallway. He places a pair of still body-heated briefs onto the pile of clothes.

 

 

THE MAN

Hey, I’ve run out of whites. Would you wash them too?

THE WOMAN

(She looks over the clothes in the cart, piled taller than her, at the man. Her face darkens.)

It would take me double the time. There are other matters to which I must attend this morning.

THE MAN

I don’t have any undershirts or socks for the week.

THE WOMAN

For how long have you been aware of this?

(The Man looks confused. The Woman continues, louder.)

Your lack of white clothing is not a surprise to you.

You did not stumble from our bedroom, clutching your chest, exclaiming,

“Oh wife, oh! The day is doomed!

I have no clean articles of white clothing

with which to cover this temple, mine body!”

No, you stated it as a fact, a long-standing truth,

as unsurprising as “My nose is on my face.”

THE MAN

I don’t get this.

THE WOMAN

(Steps from behind the cart and closer to The Man.)

As your supply of clean whites dwindled,

you took no action. Until now.

You tossed the task of cleaning whites onto my chore heap,

as high and precarious as the pile onto which you added

your soiled undergarments!

THE MAN

Geesh, I’ll help you…

THE WOMAN

(She tosses her head back and gives a laugh.)

Help? How could you possibly help,

wring the injustice from my plight, alleviate my burden?

Push the cart? Push the elevator button? Push “Start”

on the washing machine? No. You have already pushed

me off the brink and into the abyss of domestic doom.

THE MAN

(His face shows greater confusion. He does not move from where he stands, and maintains his distance.)

Have you eaten this morning? Do you need a cup of coffee?

THE WOMAN

(She reaches toward the heavens with her gaze and her arms.)

He offers food, drink, as if these could right the wrongs

of this life, this world. The luxury of a moment to nourish myself

is never mine. I must do everything. Nothing –

not the colors, the whites, the earth’s rotation –

gets done if not by me. Nothing is mine. Everyone demands my time,

breathes in my space, deprives me of the life-sustaining air around me!

 

(The Woman lowers her arms and looks at The Man. He looks back at her, scratches his chest. She sighs. She asks The Man to place the hamper filled with whites into the cart. The clothes smell. Their stomachs grumble. The Woman sighs again, pushes the cart, asks The Man to grind the beans and get the coffee started. He walks ahead of The Woman to hold open the door so she can push the cart out of their condo unit and to the building’s laundry room.)

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Spring and new spaces.

la casa azulI felt hopeful on Sunday, March 8. The sun was out, the temperature was above forty degrees, and because daylight savings time had begun at 2:00 a.m., I looked forward to walking outdoors and enjoying daylight past 4:30 p.m.

I left for Manhattan at midday. My destination: Into Our Space, a reading and networking event for writers of color hosted at La Casa Azul Bookstore in East Harlem. My anticipation had been building since I’d received the invitation in February: I wanted to be in the company of other creative people of color, and be reminded that I am a writer and my life and ambitions are bigger than the daily to-do list of adjunct responsibilities, family obligations, and household chores.

The event was organized by Ahimsa Timoteo Bodhrán, a poet, author, and one of those generous forces that keeps entering my life. He seems to know everyone, do everything, be everywhere, and keeps me on the guest list. His greeting and introductions made it easier for this shy boricua to socialize. I was able to talk about the challenges of writing, working, and living with other writers. I work alone or remotely so often that it’s easy to forget I’m not just a weirdo malcontent and there are others who face the same challenges and anxieties I do.

The 11 readers represented different communities of color, sex, orientation, and ethnicity, but their work reminded me why we write: our stories are human stories. One male reader’s poem highlighted that love, no matter between whom it is shared, is a museum-quality treasure. An Armenian female author shared my childhood anxieties of being too ethnic in America. The neighborhood soundtrack in a Latino author’s novel excerpt described the same sounds I sought to leave behind in my 20s, just like the author’s young homosexual male narrator.

As writers of color, our voices need to be recognized not just as representative of our particular “group”, but as communicating the universal desires and fears shared by everyone and anyone outside of our space.

I returned home to Jersey with a new book, a fresh infusion of vitamin D, and renewed energy for my work. Well worth the trip out of my “space” and essential as I face a new season. Pa’lante.

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Sugar fiend (part V).

sugar-lumps

 

It’s easy to blame others for my sugar addiction, but it’s no cop-out. I’m justified. There’s the conditioning of the American palate to crave sweets so we’ll buy the manufactured processed foods that leave us wanting more and continues the cycle. The studies continue to be conducted, and the science is out there. I also blame my family. We are a family of sugar friends. If my childhood soundtrack consists of candy jingles, my earliest memories of comfort and love are associated with candy.

My grandfather was the patriarch of our candy-loving dynasty. I remember the long-ago days with my abuelo, when I was too young for kindergarten, but old enough to be trusted with the location of his candy stash: behind the sliding doors of his bedroom closet, on the right side, third shelf, underneath his Sunday fedora. Light in color and weight to shield his pate from the tropical sun, abuelo would pinch the hat’s sharp crease on the crown front and lift it off the shelf to reveal–TA DA!–the stash: a brown paper bag, filled not with a hearty lunch but with glistening bits of magic.

There were starlight mints, and butterscotch and fruit-flavored hard candies in transparent wrappers. There were better treasures like the caramel squares, dark as abuelo, and the milky colored nougat blocks studded with multicolored jellies. The best treasures were in the shiny foils: little logs of toffee filled in the center with chocolate, orange or other fillings. All with twisted ends, all perfectly packed little gifts.

Abuelo would take a handful and lower the bag so I could select my pieces. He would re-hide the stash, give the hat a pat as reward for keeping the secret so well, and give me a wink. We’d walk from the bedroom to the living room, where we could hear the sounds from the kitchen: canciones de amor on the radio, knives on cutting boards, and the murmurings of my grandmother and mother. Abuelo and I would settle into his orange velour arm chair (it was the 70s, it was Puerto Rico, and it was el campo) in front of the color television set encased in its faux wood, colonial-style cabinet. He’d sit first, leaving a space just big enough for a four-year-old Nancy to wedge myself between his left hip and the chair’s left arm rest. The television would be set to the local news program, delivering las noticias del pueblo before the afternoon novellas. It was our slot of in-between time, and it belonged only to us.

I used to believe we were hidden by the high back of the arm chair. Truth is only I was hidden, tucked beside abuelo, my cheek resting on the worn cotton of his undershirt, feeling the dependable firmness of his belly underneath, and smelling his Old Spice as I drifted to sleep with a toffee dissolving in my mouth. Abuelo used to pat my head until his hand rested there when he too fell asleep. We would sit there, asleep, until awakened by abuela, who scolded us for spoiling our appetites with candy and dropping the wrappers on the floor.


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Say something. Get nothing.

crosswalk victimI barely notice the weekly hit-and-run accidents at the intersection of Liberty and St. Paul’s Avenues anymore. Always the same point of impact, always the same victim. The only variety in the routine is where the body ends up: Did the impact send it flying onto someone’s front lawn? Did it land on the stinky, steamy sewer grate?

Again, I refer to the pedestrian crosswalk sign that spends the least amount of time in its designated spot: the center of the crosswalk hatches painted across St. Paul’s Avenue. Friends who do not live in my neighborhood have suggested I complain to the Division of Engineering, Traffic and Transportation. Lot of good that does. The crosshatches were painted and the sign placed because residents complained, and the complaints became especially urgent after a fatal hit-and-run in 2012 at that location.

The safety “improvements” are not laughable, but they are a joke. However, some areas get nothing at all. One example: My parents live in a building for residents aged 55 and over. It takes up an entire block bordered on the east by a main route into the Holland Tunnel, and on the west by a road trafficked heavily by delivery vans and caffeinated commuters rushing downtown or to the tunnel. Every intersection is perilous, but the riskiest is the one that has two stop signs and requires alternate yields. This is the intersection where drivers reliably yield to nothing and no one: not the stop signs, the crossing guard, the school children who attend the neighborhood’s two schools, the day care customers with strollers, the elderly with limited mobility.

Residents of the area and my parents’ building requested more effective methods of traffic control, such as a traffic light. The initial response was that the intersection would be observed and evaluated to determine need. The determination after a few months: the stop signs were adequate to ensure safe crossing at an intersection of non-main streets.

Perhaps my neighbors and  I should feel lucky that we got something — even though the “improvements” seem to have done nothing.


The crosswalk sign gets no respect: it gets hit, run over, dented, twisted, sent flying. Poor thing deserves the dignity of a proper name if I am to write about it so much.

So… name the crosswalk sign. Post your suggestions in the “Comments” section.


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Roar.

Katy Perry.

She’s performing at half-time during Super Bowl XLIX. She’s broken Billboard records, won music awards, been named “Woman of the Year” and a “Top-Earning Woman in Music” various years, and appeared on the cover of major publications worldwide.

Big deal.

I roared first. My post: published 2011. “Roar,” the single: released 2013.

So there.

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Crosswalk or crosshairs?

P1020632There’s been another hit-and-run at the intersection of St. Paul’s and Liberty Avenues. It’s the third this week. I saw the victim this morning as I approached the intersection, crossing myself before crossing St. Paul’s Avenue during the morning rush. The victim was twisted into an unnatural angle, marked with tire tread prints, and leaned against the side of the multifamily house on the corner. I didn’t witness the accident but I knew the victim had been in the exact center of the pedestrian crosswalk at the moment of impact. I didn’t know if the force of the impact had thrown the victim against the side of the house or if the driver had moved the victim to that location.

The victim at this intersection is always the same: the pedestrian crosswalk sign. The sign is three feet high (the height of an average three- or four-year-old), bright yellow for high visibility in all weather, and states on both sides “Stop for pedestrians in crosswalk.” Its body is crash-tested and approved, and the base is made of recycled materials so it’s environmentally friendly and sturdy enough to withstand wind gusts. The city’s Division of Engineering, Traffic and Transportation had painted crosswalk crosshatches and placed the sign at the busy intersection in early 2014, which had been the site of a fatal hit-and-run in 2012. A pedestrian was struck at night and died later in the hospital of the crash-related injuries. As far as I know, the driver never came forward nor was apprehended.

The sign and painted crosswalk are supposed to decrease the hazards of being an urban pedestrian. However, I’m more afraid of crossing that intersection than I was before the safety “improvements.” I feel like I am willingly placing myself in the crosshairs. If such is the repeated fate of the crosswalk sign, I fear my fate as a flesh-and-blood pedestrian. The intersection at St. Paul’s and Liberty Avenues has a high volume of high-speed traffic, especially during the rush hours. In the mornings and early evenings, cars accelerate to beat the traffic light at the east end of St. Paul’s Avenue that leads to Kennedy Boulevard, and the traffic light at the west end that leads to Tonnelle Avenue. This is the traffic pedestrians confront to cross St. Paul’s Avenue to head toward the Journal Square transportation hub to catch their bus or train.

Yet who is foolish enough to cross? I believe drivers intentionally take aim and head straight for the crosswalk sign. There are no cameras at that intersection to capture the moment of impact or the identity of the driver. I’m just a small woman, only two feet taller than the crosswalk sign. My only barrier against the metal and fiberglass front-end of an oncoming vehicle is my non-reflective brown skin, and it’s not tough enough to protect my not-impact-resistant tissues and bones. What chance do I have of getting across the street safely?

Why did the chicken cross the road? is no longer just a corny grade school joke. It’s a tale of survival, my daily curbside contemplation. On days when I see the dinged and dented crosswalk sign against the side of the building, I can’t think of anything that is so valuable on the other side of St. Paul’s Avenue. On those days, this woman doesn’t want to cross the road because she’s too chicken.

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Did I miss the storm?

I awoke this morning, ran to the window, opened the curtains and… nada.

No cars on the road, no four-story high snow drifts. No snowpocalypse.

Just another winter Tuesday in Jersey, except I conferenced with my undergrads online (audio only) instead of on campus.

All the hype reminded me of past storms, non-events and otherwise. Remember Hurricane Irene in 2011? Enjoy these warm weather memories with hot cocoa.

And thanks for sharing your disaster preparation strategies. Chocolate chip cookies, a well-stocked bar, and savory snacks. Who needs anything more? Actually, I could have used the NYT this morning, but that’s a gripe for another post…

 

 

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Disaster preparation.

falling-snowflakes1. Supply of fruits. Preferably berries, bananas, grapes, apples, and pears. Good for smoothies, high-energy, antioxidant-rich breakfasts; skin cell re-generation is critical between January and May in preparation for 30th year reunion. Miracle Blur cream only does so much. Fruits can be eaten in whole, solid form if power is lost during the blizzard.

2. Batteries for radio. Lack of television would not be noticed. Lack of radio = disaster. What’s a day without my NPR friends? Soterios, James, Brian, Leonard, Terry? My girl Lakshmi keeping me up to speed with the news headlines? May be confined to condo with husband during the blizzard. No NPR = nothing to talk about = disaster.

3. Fully charged lap top. I hate reading online, but the blizzard may interrupt delivery of the New York Times and my New Yorker. That ****ing magazine is supposed to arrive on Mondays, not Tuesdays, nor Wednesdays. I should have contacted Customer Care again last week and complained in anticipation of the blizzard. There might have been hope that my New Yorker might arrive today, before the first fat flakes. Put on to-do list: Email Customer Care and complain about New Yorker delivery. Again.

4. Secret sugar stash. My treat tin is stocked with clearance Christmas candy, chocolate bar minis, and individual Laffy Taffies, fruit gels, and Sour Patch Kids. Tin location undisclosed, in case husband reads blog and we are confined to our condo during the blizzard. Crinkly wrappers = noise and possible discovery. Remember to unwrap candies when husband is in bathroom or sent to check the mailbox for delivery of the New Yorker.

5. Coffee. Roads and walkways may be impassable. Daily runs will likely be suspended indefinitely, as well as post-run coffee treat at Max’s corner deli. Max’s might be closed! Might be confined to condo and have to make coffee for self and husband. Indefinitely. Must buy more batteries for radio.

6. Bribe supply. Secret, undisclosed supply of husband’s favorite treats: mini Peanut Butter Cups, small stuffed peppers, mint chocolate chip ice cream. Husband has wine stock (red and white), fresh baked soda bread, and willingness to walk in the snow and cold to procure supplies. Indefinite confinement to condo = rapid deterioration of diplomatic relations. Must be prepared for possible necessary bartering and persuading.

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Bah Humbug Be Gone.

(Originally posted December 2, 2012)

7920683-humorous-illustration-cartoon-of-ebenezer-scrooge-with-one-green-ornamentI read recently that in our forties, we’re wise enough to acknowledge our bad habits and negative personality traits, and pliable enough to reform and avoid becoming cranky, nasty, annoying geezers. I’ve been cranky, nasty, and annoying since birth, and I become even more aware of it during the holiday season. I almost tossed rocks through a neighbor’s window to knock down the Santa figurines he displayed on the sill in mid-October. I know I need to change my ways and attitude or I’ll alienate all the people in my life. No one will visit me at the nursing home, and I’m sure some of my former students will be on staff. They’ll disregard the instructions on my prescription bottles as much as they did the directions for the college assignments they never submitted. I’ll die at their hands of an overdose or lethal medication combination.

I’ve also read that it takes three weeks to acquire a new habit. Therefore, I committed to doing one kind, nice thing every day before Christmas Day in 2012. I hoped to become a nicer Nancy in those 23 days and learn to enjoy the holiday season, instead of staying in bed with my quilt over my head and wishing all the cheer would just go away. To keep myself honest, I posted my progress (or not) every day.

I’m looking back at that time as I try to elevate my spirit again this year.

Saturday, December 1. 2012: I attended the five o’clock mass with my husband B. I didn’t think he’d make it to mass because I shocked el pobre with too much at once: I took a shower, I showered because I was going to accompany him to mass, and I would accompany him to mass in hope that I’d run into fellow parishioners I had not seen in a long time.  When B thinks of me, clean and social do not come to his mind. After mass, I was genuinely glad to catch up with people I hadn’t seen for weeks (okay, months). B was too light-headed to drive home though after I told the pastor I wanted to help decorate the church tree on December 22 and offered to pick up Wonder Bagels for the occasion.

Sunday, December 2, 2012: I complain plenty about, well, everything. A family member once told me, “Nancy, if you didn’t have anything to complain about, you wouldn’t have anything to write about.” Two things I complain about are the constant posting of notices in my building (e.g., the garage door is out of service for two weeks, there will be an increase in monthly maintenance fees, residents cannot park in the driveway for more than five minutes) and how much *&%$# stuff is accumulated in my and B‘s unit. There were new notices in the elevator this morning, but before I lost my s*** all over the place, I did as my therapist reminds me to do: I took a deep breath and rationally assessed the situation. The notice explained that the bins in the lobby are for donations of various items for the needy and homeless. I complain too much and don’t appreciate enough how overly fortunate I am. I placed coats and unworn winter items in the bins, and put non-perishables on the week’s grocery list to donate.

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