My Gram’s not doing well and I need to be with my people. We’ll be back.
UPDATE 2/28/17: My lovely Gram died last night and it’ll be a few weeks before FGP is up and running again. I’m lucky enough to be part of a close-knit family, and… well, if I knew how to knit, there’d be a good metaphor here. I’m looking forward to jumping back into the arms of the FGP community when I can give you all my full attention.
If you’re anything like me, you’ve been making your phone calls, being kinder to strangers in public, and shutting down people who don’t show you respect. (It’s really not the week to mansplain to me. Ask a couple guys on Facebook.) I’m not running a new essay today because I know you have other things on your minds.
My own mind keeps coming back to courage and fear, and the inequalities in the U.S. that gives too many people extra helpings of fear—and will require the courage of all of us to change it.
I believe in the power of truthful story-telling. Today, I want to revisit some of the essays that had an impact on me.
I don’t know about you, but I’m in a much different place than I was last year when we did the first virtual FGP holiday party. But I’m still down for a come-as-you-are party at home because life without silliness is a life only partially lived.
Big hugs to all of you. And without further ado, get your laugh on:
Sue Granzella: I was taught by nuns from Ireland, and they were EXTREMELY competitive about winning the “School Spirit” competition at the town’s yearly basketball tournament. Our poor cheerleaders had to do strange routines to music. (E.g., instead of dancing to music, they spun umbrellas in unison [umbrellas decorated with blue and gold shamrocks for our team name]). I provided the musical accompaniment, playing pop songs on my accordion, with lyrics rewritten by the nuns to fit with the basketball team theme. (I played “Raindrops Are Falling on My Head” while the student body screamed the lyrics “Shamrocks are always out ahead!”)
Kristin Wagner: I applied for our town’s pageant (you got a sponsor so your prom dress was paid for—hell yeah, I’m in) and my application was returned to me for revisions because it was “too militant.” I may have said something about our town being clueless about helping poor people because we were richer than other suburbs. Ended up 2nd runner-up, still got to wave from a float in our town parade. I believe I sang a song from Chicago for my talent and dressed as a pool sharp for my sportswear.
Sunanda Vaidheesh: My best friend and I have attended the world’s largest Harry Potter convention. Twice.
Amy Robillard: I lived in Alaska for a year and worked as a legal secretary full time while I wrote for the weekly alternative newspaper part time. I was the play reviewer despite knowing next-to-nothing about reviewing plays.
Naomi Shulman: I have never liked popcorn. Something about the texture, I think. When I was a kid this always got lots of questions and incredulous responses, and many people would try to get me to try some of their popcorn to see if I liked it the way they made it, so I eventually started telling people I was allergic. For many years my friends accepted I was allergic to popcorn, but not to any other corn products.
Sarah Buttenwieser: I may seem pretty nice. If you want to see my less kind side, wait until I’m tired. I get much cattier then and some of my friends prefer this tired version better. [I’ve met Sarah in person—I’d be delighted to see this side of her. —ed.]
Reyna Eisenstark: The summer when I was 19 I worked as a costumer/dresser on a production of La Cage Aux Folles at the Bucks County Playhouse, which involved ironing 22 men’s shirts every morning and zipping and unzipping gorgeous men out of evening dresses every night.
Carol Paik: I was once a hand model. The technology depicted here will give a clue to how long ago.
Janet Skeslien Charles: My first job out of college was teaching English at a high school in Odessa, Ukraine. I loved it even though I worked full-time and only earned $25 per month.
Ona Gritz: When I was 16, I met Evil Knievel at a casino during a family trip to Las Vegas. He was very chatty and insisted on getting my mailing address. After I got home, he sent me a signed poster.
Katie Rose Guest Pryal: I used to knit, design knitting patterns, dye wool, and spin my own yarn. I was a veritable cottage industry in my little NC cottage. You can still see my knit patterns online. But once I had kids, I somehow didn’t have the time any more.
McKel Jensen: I met Jude Law once while standing in line at an aquarium. He was with his kid who had beautiful curly hair. After I told myself to “play cool” and talk to him, the only word that came out of my mouth was “curls.”
Deesha Philyaw: I was a Congressional page (U.S. House of Representatives) during the first half of my junior year in high school. I lived in the page dorm 2 blocks away from the Capitol and went to school from 6 am to 9 am every morning in the attic of one of the Library of Congress buildings. In the course of my tenure on Capitol Hill, I met Johnny Depp (then a 21 Jump Street hearththrob shooting a PSA at the Department of Health and Human Services) and attended Reagan’s last State of the Union address. He really did wear rouge.
Gina Easley [our amazing staff photographer]: I have a rare phobia: leguminophobia—fear of beans. Like most people with leguminophobia, the sight of beans makes feel like I’m going to be sick and I try to avoid seeing or being near them as much as I’m able. Most people think this is weird and hilarious, and it is! But also very real.
Jennifer Munro: I once split my pants open while bowling. Brown corduroys. In college. This tells you a lot about me.
Jennifer Niesslein: I haven’t had business cards in many years. I once offered my contact information to the acclaimed cartoonist Roz Chast on the back of an old grocery list in my purse that almost certainly read something like, “Bananas, Beer, Tampons.”
And we’re out for 2016! Please leave your own in the comments—we could all use some levity.
I nose the rented mini-van onto the side of the narrow road, and Gram and I get out. It’s a lovely little grassy patch that slopes down to a sun-dappled creek. Or crick, as we call it.
“She had one arm raised above her head,” Gram says, “like someone dragged her there.”
When I think of western Pennsylvania fondly, it’s summer that I’m remembering: the greens of the trees and grass, the bursts of neon yellow from lightning bugs, the red tomatoes from the garden up on the window sill. But PA in the winter is, frankly, depressing—the grim black-and-white tableau—with the black mountains, the stark white snow, the clumps of gray frozenness along the turnpike. It’s a place where the coal mines have made their mark, and slate piles still stand.
When she died, on January 22, 1932, it was cold and the forecast had called for rain. It’s likely her body was found soaked, her long skirts muddied and bloodied. I imagine the creek’s waters rising toward that arm.
She’s my Gram’s grandmother, my great-great-grandmother. Growing up, I only knew three things about her: The legend was that her husband, a coal-miner like so many Polish immigrants, was in “frail health,” and as a result, she took up bootlegging—and was successful enough at it to own three houses. Her fourth child, her youngest, was rumored to be of mixed race. And she was murdered.
How could I resist mythologizing her? On these barest of bones, I pressed on flesh that reflected the fantasy of who I’d be if my back were to the wall. A bad-ass! A proto-feminist! An outlaw! A woman who landed on her feet when times got tough! Myths, of course, always represent the imagination of the myth-maker. I didn’t even know her first name or what she looked like, but I was eager to find a woman in my lineage who didn’t play by the sometimes arbitrary rules.
Mom told me that Gram didn’t like to talk about her, so when I was a kid, I didn’t dare broach the subject. She was a warm grandmother and doted on us, asking my sisters and me to sing songs on their breezy porch, teaching us Scrabble and Boggle, and rewarding us with small gifts. But there were unspoken rules to be followed, enforced by the time-honored code of passive aggression. We—especially as girls—were to appear “neat” (for some reason, that was and is a massive compliment in Gram’s eyes), not bicker, attend church regularly, and excel in school. Gram didn’t smoke or drink or swear. The most outrageous thing she did on a regular basis was to wiggle out of her bra while driving, twirl it on her index finger, then fling it onto the backseat of her Cadillac.
Sometime in my twenties, Gram and I became friends. She’d somewhat loosened up by then; she’d occasionally have a glass of pink wine when her son-in-law encouraged her, and she let my boyfriend and me sleep in the same bed when we visited. When I became a mother, we grew closer, swapping tales of motherhood, then and now. (If only for the accessibility of washing machines, now is better.) In recalling the hard times, Gram reverts to the second person.
In my thirties, I felt close enough to Gram the person to ask directly about her grandmother. What happened? We talked, and over the course of several years, I pieced together the memories and legends with possibly the only person alive who actually knew her.
I told Gram I’d do some research. “Be careful,” she warned me. “There are some people in the family you don’t want to talk to.”
This was code. Not every relative had become respectable.
When someone is a myth, it’s easy to forget that she was also a person.
Her name was Anna Dec Fisher. She and my great-great grandfather John emigrated from Poland. Her first name was sometimes “Annie” and their last name wasn’t really Fisher. According to census records, their true last name might have been Ezoeske, Jezorski, or Yozarski. They spoke Polish, and a few fragments of their language still run in my family. “Zamknij się” means “Shut your mouth.” “Jest zimno” means “It’s cold.” We, the descendants, have bastardized the foreign phrases to accommodate our American tongues.
Annie and John immigrated in 1901, a time when the United States was still figuring out how to sort the new waves of immigrants into the racial categories it had constructed. Poles were technically white, placing them above some races, but not the right kind of white. Or maybe the right kind for certain interests. Bluntly put, Poles were considered by mainstream America as strong and hard-working—the perfect fit for manual labor—but stupid. Ralph Waldo Emerson, approvingly, wrote in 1852, “Our idea, certainly, of Poles & Hungarians is little better than of horses recently humanized.” (Oh, Ralphie, go shoot your eye out.) A U.S. Steel Corporation want ad from 1909 read, in part, “Syrians, Poles, and Romanians preferred.”
Annie wasn’t stupid. She was just new. It’s unclear if she and John landed in U.S. together, but they came from different parts of what was Poland. (Poland didn’t technically exist as a country in 1901.) John was from Galacia, the poorest region of Europe at the time, then in Austria-Poland. Annie claimed Russia-Poland. They started off their new lives together in Ohio, where their first child, Mary, was born, followed by Helen (my great-grandmother, Gram’s mom), and Walter. By 1910, they were in Walkertown, a small town in West Pike Run Township, Pennsylvania. John worked as a coal miner. It’s where their last child, Adam, would be born.
The first time I saw of picture of Annie was in an old photo that my distant cousin Nicole shared with me. (She’s Walter’s granddaughter.) It’s a family photo from before Adam was born. Annie is standing, one hand on her hip, the other holding Helen’s hand. Her hair’s styled in one of those froufy buns popular around the turn of the century. She wears a bow-tie in her puffy white shirt with a full-length skirt.
By the April 1920 census, they already owned their own home, free of a mortgage. In January that year, the government had enacted the eighteenth amendment, also known as Prohibition. At some point, Annie and John started breaking the new law.
I started finding more artifacts, and the myth of Annie started breaking down. A different picture of her emerged from the bath of historical documents and the context of her life. And that picture of Annie’s life and how she spent it would haunt my family all the way down to my own upraising.
“My dad said everyone did it,” Mom told me, referring to the Prohibition-era law.
“Yes,” I said. “But not everyone went to jail for it.”
Walkertown was small, and people talked. Adam was born in 1916 and was not yet five at the time of the 1920 census. The census-taker seemed to be confused. In the column for race, a Mu for mulatto is marked, then written over more strongly with a W for white.
It wasn’t just the census taker. There seemed to have been a non-governmental consensus that John wasn’t Adam’s father. Gram told me that when she was a kid, sometimes she’d go to the movie theater where Adam worked. He’d let her in for free. But neither would get too close because, you know, the rumors. Later, Adam would leave Walkertown, marry a white redhead, and join the military. Outside of Walkertown, as far as I know, no one questioned his whiteness.
Nicole is also the one who first showed me pictures of Adam. He was a handsome guy, although slightly darker than the other Fisher siblings. This doesn’t mean a lot to me; I have an uncle with a darker skin tone than his siblings, too. Genes pop up in the most peculiar ways.
This interracial brouhaha is so unremarkable now that I feel ridiculous bringing it up, but then I remember that sometimes my grandparents would explain their youths to me in ways that could only be seen as racist. Dating an Italian was almost as bad as dating a black. Meaning, in the poor white community, you lost status. You lost your advantage, which was the measure of respect that your skin color afforded you. The only thing that kept you from being at the very bottom of the American pecking order. Even the rumor of blackness was enough to awaken the racism of Walkertown.
I wonder sometimes if the people of Walkertown would have even questioned Adam’s race had there not been a man, labeled by the census as mulatto, living next door to Annie and John. Short of finding Adam’s descendants and convincing them to give me a quarter teaspoonful of their spit to send to an online DNA profiler, I’m not going to know. I don’t need to know; we’re judged on how we present, not who we are, anyway. Annie could well have had an affair with the guy next door. But she just as easily—more easily, actually—been friendly to her next-door neighbor. Or, easier still, she could have done nothing at all.
All the rumors mean is that Annie was the kind of woman that her white peers thought capable of crossing the line between proper and improper. Whether Adam was John’s son or not, they were right. Annie was woman who crossed lines.
By the summer of 1929, if Annie hadn’t earned respect through piety and birthright, she was grabbing it in the real American way: money.
Two of Annie’s children had married and had had children of their own. According to the family, Annie owned three houses by then. Her oldest, Mary, lived with her family in one. Helen lived with her family in the multi-unit house next to Annie, John, Walter, and Adam.
Annie was bootlegging. She was good at it. I believe she was the brains of the couple, able to read and write while John couldn’t. Gram remembers the yard filled with cars. She was young, just five when her grandmother died, too young to understand that these were probably the cars of paying customers visiting her grandparents.
On July 29, 1929, police raided Annie and John’s house. According to police reports, Helen yelled, “Beat it! The law is coming!”
I imagine customers scrambled into those parked cars and beat it with a quickness.
Next, Helen dumped out a pitcher of liquor that was on the back porch and told the cops, “Go ahead and search. The evidence is gone.”
The evidence wasn’t gone. They found sixteen quarts of beer, two barrels of wine, and a quarter gallon of moonshine in a gallon jug.
Annie, John, and Helen were arrested.
I questioned the documents that I received from Washington County. Did the woman I knew as Grandma Crawford, the permed lady with the puffy pink toilet seat and yappy dog named Duchess, really call out, “Beat it!”?
But then I remember how notoriously blunt and mouthy she was. When I was a kid, she accused me of cheating at 500 Rum and made me cry. When her daughter-in-law and her son-in-law left her children for each other, her remark was, “Why would he leave one fat one”—her daughter—“for another fat one?” When my parents separated, she cut to the chase—no I’m sorry, honey—and offered Mom money if she could live with us. (We didn’t have anywhere to put her.)
And looking at photos of her when she was a teenager, with her bobbed hair and defiant face, I could believe it.
But I also believe that the arrest changed something in Helen.
The next morning, John was charged with manufacturing and possession. Annie and Helen were charged with sale and possession. The bail was $1000 for Annie, and $500 each for John and Helen. None of them could make bail, so they sat in the Washington County jail.
They sat there for a while.
(This was news to Gram. When I told her, she immediately asked, “Where was I?”
She would have been not quite three years old when the arrest happened. My breath caught, realizing that this isn’t some historical curiosity, that I can’t stand on my middle-class perch and think that my research doesn’t have real-life ramifications, just as current-day journalism doesn’t have ramifications for the subjects, especially ones whose names show up in the crime section, not the society section, of the newspaper. My voice softened. “Your dad’s mom Amanda lived with you then, Gram. I bet she took good care of you.”)
On August 21, 1929, the testimonies of the law enforcement officers were entered into the record. On September 9, 1929, John, Annie, and Helen went before a judge. John and Annie pled guilty at some point—perhaps that day—but Helen did not. On October 1, 1929, the district attorney filed a motion with the court for a nolle prosequi (meaning that the state acknowledges it doesn’t have enough evidence against the defendant to prosecute) for Helen. He noted that Helen’s parents were now serving their sentences. I don’t know what those sentences were, but they’ve become irrelevant in the story of my family. I spoke to a friend with a legal degree, and she suspected that Annie and John’s plea deal included the stipulation that Helen go home. She’d already been in jail for over two months.
Helen had missed Gram’s third birthday during her time there; her son was five years old, her second daughter, just an infant. Her breasts must have ached terribly, lumpy and swollen with milk. I think of her there, now a twenty-three-year-old married mother, in an iron and steel facility once called “a modern day Bastille.” I can’t imagine the shame that must have plagued her, the dignity robbed. I can imagine, though, that the experience strengthened her already-entrenched resolve: Become respectable.
I was well into adulthood before I heard of respectability politics, and I only learned of them in the context of African-American history. In a nutshell, it means when a group outside of the mainstream tries to assimilate in order to become accepted. The opposite is when a group outside of the mainstream fights against what the mainstream insists is The Right Way of Living.
In terms of race, only white people can win the respectability game because we don’t carry any visible markers that we’re different. We can dress like the respected people; we can adopt their mannerisms, their biases, their way of speaking.
We can, but not all of us do. The people who don’t are the people who Gram spoke of, the ones I shouldn’t want to know, like the relatives who came to my grandfather’s viewing and were caught rifling through the pockets of the mourners’ coats. As now-respectable white people, we don’t know what to do with them, even as we know their personal histories and how much they’d have to overcome to have a shot at mainstream lives. They’re not the rebels we mythologize. They’re problems to be avoided because they’ve proven they will fuck us over in real time.
I see our family’s striving for respectability in an artifact. There’s a photo of John and two friends, the Novak brothers*, in my grandmother’s box of old photos. Written on the photo is, “The Drunks.” I recognize the handwriting. I’ve seen it once a year for half of my life on birthday cards that arrived with a five-dollar bill tucked inside and signed “Love, Great Grandma Crawford.”
Actually, I don’t know for sure if the Novaks were Annie and John’s friends. They seemed to have been, although God knows I’ve taken drunken photos with people who were little more than acquaintances.
On the year Annie would turn fifty-two years old, though, she went over to help Pete and Agnes Novak render lard from a recently slaughtered pig. One version of the story has her doing it out of the goodness of her heart and maybe some portion of the lard. Another version has her working as hired help. In any case, by that time, John wasn’t working; his lungs were severely compromised due to his time in the mines.
Annie didn’t come home the night of January 22, 1932. Her body was found by the creek the next morning.
I came to the story of Annie originally believing that I could Nancy Drew this sucker open and find out what really happened. Was she murdered? Was it some sort of cover-up? Were the Novaks ever implicated?
What I found out was that I’m so far removed from the underclass—by my own foremothers’ design—that I took for granted that her suspicious death would warrant the kind of investigation that mine would.
On January 25, 1932, Annie made the news in a non-criminal way for the first time. The Charleroi Mail (a newspaper from a town not far away) reported the headline, “Find Lifeless Body of Woman on Road; Heart Attack Victim”:
The lifeless body of Mrs. Anna Fisher, 52, of Walkertown, was discovered yesterday morning by John Hans, lying beside the road between Walkertown and Daisytown, near California [Pennsylvania].
Deputy Coroner J.F. Timko, of California, stated that the woman had been dead about twelve hours when discovered. Mrs. Fisher had left the home of Pete [Novak] for her own home shortly after dark Friday evening. Members of her family were not alarmed over her absence because her husband was away from home. Death was due to a heart attack.
She leaves her husband John Fisher, and four children: Walker and Andrew Fisher, at home, and Mrs. Helen Crawford and Mrs. Mary Smolley, both of Walkertown.
This wasn’t journalism’s finest moment. They got the date wrong, the spot wrong, and Walter’s and Adam’s names wrong. They probably even got her cause of death wrong.
Her death certificate lists her cause of death as “acute gastritis and enteritis” and states her death occurred around eleven at night.
Believing that the Novaks were her friends, I formed a story in my head in which Annie, who was likely a pretty hearty drinker, went to help the Novaks with the pig. While she was there, she died of natural causes. The Novaks—who didn’t have such a clean record with law enforcement themselves, both with arrest records on alcohol-related charges—panicked and put her body by the creek.
I messaged Nicole about it, and she wasn’t buying it.
“Did they do an autopsy?” she asked me.
I looked at the paper in front of me. “It’s blank. So I guess not.”
“Then how do they know?”
Later, with the help of a friend with medical knowledge, I looked into whether one can die of gastritis and enteritis. Turns out, people have actually died of it—but the real cause of death is dehydration as a result of prolonged vomiting and diarrhea. It certainly doesn’t seem like something that would cause you to keel over while walking home after rendering lard.
Nicole was right. We’re never going to know.
When Gram and I visited, all of Annie’s houses were still standing, although the movie theater wasn’t there anymore and the general store was boarded up. Gram’s knees were bothering her, but I held her hand—so much like mine, long-fingered and slim—and we made our way to Mary’s former house where a picture of Gram was taken so many years ago. That solemn, round face, those straight bangs and pageboy haircut. We knocked, but no one answered.
Annie’s house was now painted a mustard yellow. Gram’s childhood home was still white. As we stood there, a woman came out of one of its units. She didn’t know any of the history, and besides, she was on her way to second shift.
After Annie died, the story goes that Mary didn’t pay the taxes on the houses (why she was the one in charge, I have no idea), and that they were taken by the government. Helen’s family wound up in Daisytown, around the bend, in company housing.
We stopped there, too, but we didn’t get out. I have no poker face, and I didn’t cover how appalled I was fast enough. I think my expression showed the gulf between my life and hers. The houses were exactly as Gram had described them: one room that was the kitchen and everything else, two smaller rooms that served as bedrooms, no matter how many children your family had. The reality—the poverty—of it didn’t hit me until then. People still lived there. “That one was ours,” Gram said. “At least we had an end one.”
“I used to visit my grandfather when I was a kid,” she said later. “We’d walk from Daisytown to Walkertown.” I told her that the census reported that he didn’t speak English, only Polish. She laughed. “He spoke English. I remember him as kind. He was gentle with us. He and Adam lived in a house that was half-burned down, but he loved when we visited him.”
With Annie transformed from a myth into a woman, I’ve had to face the myths that I built about myself.
When I was a kid, my family went though a serious rough patch, and it made a mark on me. Even before the steel industry imploded, we weren’t financially stable, but once my dad got laid off, we were forced, for a time, to go on food stamps. I ate government cheese. We relocated to a different state and eventually gave our Pennsylvania home back to the bank. Those aren’t the things that made the mark. It was the knowledge, even then, of the difference between someone’s compassion for us and someone’s pity—which is somehow worse than scorn. You can meet scorn with scorn; you can only meet pity with shame.
It’s been more than three decades since I’ve been in that place, but I still think of myself as the underdog. I’m not. My own descendants—including my son, who (despite my fears) did not become an entitled little shit—will find that I’m a relatively rich woman, and any problems I’ve had with respectability are only visible if you know what to look for. But I’ve clung to the underdog myth because part of me believes that I’d be incapable of showing compassion—not condescending pity, not scorn—to marginalized people if I hadn’t, on some level, experienced it myself. I still grapple with the idea that compassion springs from who you are, not who you come from.
Try as I might, I can’t let go of my own myth. Go ahead and search. The evidence isn’t gone. It’s just trace amounts at this point.
JENNIFER NIESSLEIN is the founder and editor of Full Grown People. She’s changed the “Novak” family’s name out of respect for their descendants.
Make sure the elastic waistband leggings are clean for Thursday.
Pick six essays to nominate for the Pushcart Prize.
The second task is insanely hard. The Pushcart folks ask small-press editors (and past winners) to nominate six pieces, and the editors of the annual Pushcart anthology choose from those works of nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. Six pieces, people. My long list is really long.
Penny Guisinger: Postcards from Here is a capturing of community, a harsh and beautiful place, a family, and the internal experience of its author in the form of micro-essays. It tells stories that are both intensely personal and entirely communal, and create a portrait of one person’s attempt to do a good job at this business of being human.
Catherine Newman: Catastrophic Happiness is a book about being crazy in love, and also just kind of crazy, while your kids are that weird, long age between toddlers and teenagers. The mundane heartbreak of it.
Seema Reza: When the World Breaks Open is a non-linear narrative memoir that traces Seema Reza’s journey from being a suburban mom to using her own lessons to build a unique writing and art program in military hospitals. Reza exposes her triumphs and fears and regret through the dissolution of a dysfunctional marriage, and investigates her own experiences and societal attitudes towards loss, love, motherhood and community, undermining the idea that strength requires silence.
I wish I could bring all of us together for a holiday party. The last time I got together with some FGP people, some things that you just can’t through reading and emailing. For instance, I learned that Kim Kankiewiczonce gave a voice lesson to Emily Kinney, the actress who played Beth in The Walking Dead—you know, the character known for her singing!
It’s why I love parties, but until I become a deranged millionaire, it can’t happen. Instead, welcome to the virtual one, where you bring your own everything, yet still can attend any time and wherever you are. No dress code whatsoever!
But here’s where we’ll divulge fun facts that you don’t know about Full Grown People’s contributors. Our chit-chat, if you will. Add your own to join the pah-tay!
William Bradley: On the first day of school, I told my first grade teacher that I had been practicing becoming invisible, so she shouldn’t be alarmed if I seemed to disappear. My mom learned of this when it was written up in the weekly newsletter the school sent to all of the parents.
Sue Sanders: When I was a kid and lived in Jakarta, I met Muhammad Ali. He (lightly) punched my arm. It kinda hurt.
Meredith Fein Lichtenberg: When I was pregnant with my younger kid, a friend who is a producer needed ultrasound footage for a movie she was making, so she called me to the set and I had the ultrasound they used in the film. (In the film, you see Helen Hunt getting the wand on her belly, but the fetus on the screen is my daughter.) And the OB was played by Salman Rushdie, and we rode in the van together to the set and I could not come up with anything clever to say to him.
Deesha Philyaw: I was born with six fingers—an extra pinky—on my right hand. They lopped it off by wrapping a horsehair stitch tightly around it. I still have a little wart-sized thing where the finger used to be. So I was a polydactyl—not to be confused with pteradactyl.
Sonya Huber: I punched my best friend in the face in first grade as we were standing by our coat hooks, for no reason I can remember, and gave her a nosebleed. I said something that must have been out of a western movie like, “I’ll give you five reasons!” and held up my fingers and then curled them into a fist. Wtf? And sorry, Sarah, I love you!
Rae Pagliarulo: In high school I was suspended (and asked to consult with the school’s head priest privately) after my Religion teacher found me rewriting all the most popular Christmas songs so they featured satanic details. Aka: Here comes Lucifer, here comes Lucifer, right down 666 Lane….
Dina Strasser: I performed as a stand up comic in London in 1993.
Reyna Eisenstark: When I worked as a producer on a public radio show in NYC in, like, 1995, the amazing gay Spanish director Pedro Almodovar was one of the guests. As he was talking to me he could not take his eyes off my boobs. Literally talked to them. Of course I found this hilarious.
Carolyn Edgar: A hotel bellman once tried to pimp me out to Shaquille O’Neal. I was in Chicago on a business trip. Shaq’s team was in town to play the Bulls and they were staying at the same hotel as me. The bellman told me Shaq had asked him to be on the lookout for pretty girls in the hotel. Apparently I fit the bill, so the bellman offered to take me up to Shaq’s room. I had dinner plans that evening, plus I’m nearly two feet shorter than Shaq, so I declined. But sometimes, when I’m trying to read my fellow grad student workshop pieces plus write plus make sure my son is doing his homework plus do a little work for my day job, all before bedtime, I wonder…
Karen Dempsey: As a kid, I wrote a fan letter to OJ SImpson. He didn’t write back.
Kris Guay: I put thousands of dollars on a credit card in my twenties to fly to California to do Werner Erhard’s EST six day course.
Amy Robillard: My second job was at a pretzel place in the middle of the mall, where I would uncurl the frozen pretzels and reshape them into the first letters of my friends’ names. Literacy pretzels, I called them.
Randy Osborne: Rick Bass once let me use his computer to send a freelance piece to my editor from Bass’s home in Yak Valley, Idaho. This was in the days of those plastic mini-disks with the sliding metal piece. Well, when I pulled the disk out of his computer, the metal thing came off and stayed inside! I feared I had ruined his computer. We spent the afternoon on the floor, dismantling it and tweezing out the obstruction. One way to get to know somebody. (Still remember his shocked face when I told him, and the first thing he said: “You didn’t lose your work, did you?”)
Barbara Allen Clarke: I met Fidel Castro in Cuba—almost—since his bodyguard stood between us, but I shook his hand. He said “thank you” for bringing two freighters full of hospital supplies to the people.
Jacob Margolies: I worked one summer selling ice cream as a Good Humor man.
Kristin Wagner: I have synesthesia, where I see numbers as colors. I was angry doing multiplication tables in school because I couldn’t remember 7×4 was 28. I kept thinking, “Green times orange does not equal yellow-blue!”
Gina Easley, our amazing photographer!: I got to meet and hang out with Jeff Buckley a few times in San Francisco. One of those times I asked if I could get a picture with him. My (then) boyfriend took the picture but he was having trouble with the camera, so it took a while to get the shot. The whole time, as we waited for our picture to be taken, Jeff was rubbing my back seductively, without my boyfriend or anyone knowing. I was having trouble containing myself—ha! I told my Boyfriend afterward and he got angry and jealous, but years later I thought it made for a good story.
Nikki Schulak: I used to handle alligators and pull pythons out of pillow cases in the name of environmental education.
Jody Mace: I was thrown off the junior high newspaper staff because I wrote satire when I wasn’t supposed to, which was bullshit. Also, I’m the co-inventor on two patents.
Cindy Price: I drank beers with Jimmy (and Rosalynn) Carter in a remote Florida panhandle town while discussing boiled peanuts. At length.
Sarah Einstein: I’m an actual princess, because my husband, Dominik, is a bona fide prince (from the Shaumburg line).
Cathy Bell: My great-grandparents ran the animal shelter in Canon City, Colorado, when my dad was a boy (and up until I was two). One day Johnny Cash came in looking to adopt a dog. My grandma asked Johnny to wait until my dad got home from school so he could meet him. My dad says Johnny’s parting words were, “Never get into the music business, son.” (And I know this isn’t really about me, so here’s one. I hate my ears. They stick out. I’ve heard every joke, so I keep them hidden if possible. Ha.)
Jena Schwartz: My first boyfriend was Eric Mabius, of “L-Word” fame. We went out for three weeks when I was in ninth grade and he was a junior. (Ironically, it would be close to twenty-five years before I came out!)
Kate Haas: During Christmas breaks from college, I used to work at Lord and Taylor’s at the Garden State Plaza in New Jersey. Alone in a dingy little back room, I would box up gifts people had bought to have shipped and get them ready to mail out. It was extremely boring. So I would write little notes to the giftees and slip them in the box, like: “I bet Jane Austen would have loved this nightgown!” or “Red red wine makes you feel so fine…” Never got caught.
Antonia Malchik: I have minor prosopagnosia (face-blindness). If someone’s face is really distinctive, I can recognize them years after I last saw them, but for most people I can’t recognize them from one day to the next if I see them out of context and often not even in context. This manifests depressingly often at my kids’ preschool, when I panic and try to remember everyone’s names and stories/families in the morning. These are people I’ve known for years.
Joelle Renstrom: I had a pint of Guinness with Seamus Heaney in a pub in Dublin. Totally starstruck. Also, I’m afraid of clowns. And spiders.
Tamiko Nimura: I’m half Japanese American, half-Filipina, with a Scottish middle name after a character in a Broadway musical.
Renee Simms: On a flight to San Francisco I once sat next to singer and bassist Meshell Ndegeocello. “I have every album you’ve ever made,” I blurted as my creepy introduction. We talked about books and writers the entire flight.
Sarah Buttenwieser: I was on Oprah with my mother; we were a mother and daughter against parental consent for abortion—because I’d had an abortion at seventeen. What the audience did not know was that I was twenty-three or twenty-four and an abortion counselor and my mother ran a pro-choice social service agency. The next day, back at work, I counseled a teenager the cllinic with her parents—and they recognized me from Oprah!
Zahie El Kouri: I once cooked dinner for the bassist of Radiohead in George Plimpton ‘s apartment.
Lisa Romeo: I once hired a nobody comedian named Ray Romano to entertain at a New Jersey charity dinner, cost: $300. Circa 1990.
Anjali Enjeti: When I was in my mid-twenties, I was a guest on Oprah’s Book Club, you know, one of the five other people who talk with Oprah and the author. The book was Melinda Haynes’s Mother of Pearl. I had gone through this really rigorous phone interview process with the producers, was picked, flown to Chicago, put up in a hotel, taken to the studio in a limo. Of the other women selected, I was the only person who had mixed feelings about the book. During the conversation with Oprah and the author, when I finally got an opportunity to speak, Oprah interrupted me and changed the subject. That’s pretty much all you see in the episode, me, having spent weeks carefully formulating opinions, only to be shut out. So much for my fifteen minutes of fame!
Wendy Wisner: My first memory is when John Lennon died (I was two, almost three). When I was little, we lived on Martha’s Vineyard and I used to play with Carly Simon’s kids. I went to Wavy Gravy’s hippie camp. My husband was born in a barn, and lived in a teepee when he was a baby. Bottom line: raised by hippies and married one.
McKel Jensen: I gag at wet paper towels or tissue. I also can’t stand the feeling of raw wood (like on a #2 pencil or a popsicle stick). It’s like nails on a chalkboard.
Jennifer D. Munro: In one day, I sold the world’s known supply of organic miso and umeboshi paste to a heavily armed, end-of the-world cult. I had to give them a guarantee it would last forever. “Sure,” I assured my contact, who disappeared soon after. “Of course it does!” What are they gonna do, climb out of their underground cement bunkers after the apocalypse to hunt me down when they find mold in their 55-gallon drums of fermented beans and pickled, unripe prunes (seriously, how would they even know it had gone bad, especially with the flavor enhancer of nuclear fallout)? I like miso and ume as much as the next person, but I hope they packed some chocolate, too.
Jennifer Richardson: I once bummed a cigarette off of Johnny Rotten then proceeded to smoke with him outside a Santa Monica record store. I had no idea who he was. British husband put me up to it.
Susan McCulley: I played in the scrum of a couple of women’s rugby teams.
Sara Bir: I just joined the local roller derby team.
Linda Crowe: I once nailed my own hand to a tree by accident. On the darker side, a cousin of mine was executed on Virginia’s death row.
Abbie Gascho Landis: I spent a summer in college farming with nuns. Milked cows by hand. Made hay. Transported a llama to the vet in a VW van with Mother Hildegard driving in full habit (on a ferry between the San Juan Islands).
Melissa Ballard: My grandpa was a dog warden, and when I visited my grandparents during summer vacations, I went to work with him. I love dogs, but have a healthy respect for the ones I don’t know!
Sara Marchant: My paternal grandmother tattooed my shoulder when I was six weeks old (without my mother’s knowledge) knowing I was going to be raised away from my biological father’s family. When I was growing up I was told it was a “birthmark.” I’ve never covered it up because it is all I have of my father.
Jane Hammons: I’ve had really bad migraines for most of my life. When I was in second grade I discovered that putting a wire hanger on my head (hook at the back) somehow made them better. I boarded the school bus wearing this self-styled headgear, and no one said a word, which should have been my first clue. Not until my teacher asked me to take it off, did anyone make a comment. When I refused, I was sent to the office where my mother picked me up and I explained about the headaches. She said it was okay to wear at home but not to school. The next day when I got on the bus without the hanger, kids started calling me hanger head. All was back to normal.
Catherine Newman: I have two, unrelated, both from when I was sixteen: I shoplifted a Minnie Mouse ring from Disneyland, and it is the only material object I have ever stolen. That same year, my family was eating dinner at a cafe in NYC, and we watched Madonna and Sean Penn have a huge fight outside the window. They were both shorter than we’d imagined.
Joyce Tomlinson: My grandfather was the illegitimate grandson of Queen Victoria.
Shuly Cawood: I have double-first cousins. And yes, we look like we are siblings.
Brooke Ferguson: I have a fear of fruit that borders on a phobia. With some work it’s gotten better over the last five years or so — I can eat fruits like apples and oranges, but super squishy things, like berries or bananas, are out of the question. I can’t eat them without thinking that I am eating something alive.
Terry Barr: Saw Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson at a phone booth on a New York street once. Laurie smiled at me, and Lou looked wise as always.
Andrea Jarrell: My grandparents were rodeo riders. I didn’t meet my dad until I was seventeen but watched him on TV throughout my childhood on shows like Charlie’s Angels and Rockford Files. When I did meet him, he regaled me with stories of sleeping on Sammy Davis, Jr.’s couch and partying with the Beatles. In Paris, while studying abroad, goody-goody me ditched all my classes to teach aerobics in the Marais and I had to make up every class senior year.
Allison Green: I’ve never been a mother, but I have thirteen grandchildren. My wife had three children, and they have all had children. My own mother, who has no grandchildren (I’ve tried to invite her to see mine as hers; she doesn’t), thinks this is profoundly unfair.