Sew and Vac

October 1, 2015 § 2 Comments

woman-vacuuming-smiling-portraitI almost ordered the vacuum bags online, but I had seen the sign of the store going out of business soon in the huge shopping complex off Route 1, and I thought maybe somehow I could help it out a little in the end. Maybe just to stick it to the big box stores surrounding it. Plus, it was right beside the regular grocery store, and we needed toilet paper, soap, things that are exotic and pricey at Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods.

The guy at the counter quizzed me on my vacuum model, but I had forgotten to look. “It’s the red one,” I said. How should I know what it’s called to the company? I call it the vacuum.

“Well, there’s a lot of red models,” he said. We finally took a good guess at what I needed–me and this young Jersey guy working in the Sew and Vac, and I wanted to ask him how he got there, but he asked me first. “Where are you from?” he said. “Well Kentucky first, but I moved here from North Carolina.”

To him, it was all the same South, never mind the huge distinctions in the places in my mind. The closest he’d been to either one was Ohio.

“Linda’s from North Carolina,” he said, pointing to a small woman, maybe in her sixties, at the front of the store, trying to sell a man on a Miele. Linda heard her name and perked up. She left the man to ponder the different models and came up to me. “Where in North Carolina?” she said, almost an accusation. She had a tinge of nasal mountain to her voice, and a raspiness that probably came from smoking for most of her life, but her o’s revealed her as a native of somewhere down east.

“I lived in Durham for fourteen years,” I said. “The second time I lived there.”

“Ok,” she said. I had passed some test. “I’m from Manteo. Most people, I just say I’m from the Outer Banks. They don’t know Manteo.

“I do,” I said. “Your accent sounds like home.”

“Do you like collards?” she asked. I confirmed that I did. “Well,” she said, “let me tell you about the flea market.” Linda described the delights I could get at the flea market, the fried chicken, the fresh collards, all the good bargains.

“Do you have any friends to go with? I doubt anybody in Princeton will go to the flea market,” she said. Before I could explain my situation, defend myself with the fact that I had only been here a month, or be ashamed at my lack of extroversion, she wrote down her phone number and told me she’d go to the flea market with me.

Then Linda and the young man at the counter showed me the worst traffic circle in New Jersey on Google maps, just so I’d know. It’s near Bordentown, just so you know. They took me behind the counter so I could see the computer screen better, and pointed out the shopping center they were moving to, just down the road from the traffic debacle. I know I’ll eventually go there.

Finally, the young man handed me my vacuum bags, Linda handed me her card, and she hugged me tight, as if to comfort me, as if I’d known her for a long time, and she’d missed me. I’d missed her too.

Freshman Year–Take 2

September 22, 2015 § 2 Comments


The mornings just got cool here, so, suddenly, the air conditioners we were desperate for a few weeks ago now sag like old gym socks out of the upstairs bedroom windows. Still, it seems premature to take them out. It’s September, cool and warm and changing all the time. The students have arrived too, and our once calm street rings with drunken laughter now and then in the middle of the night when the parties end, or when the train comes in from New York.

In the daytime, there’s a quiet drone of activity. It’s hard to bike through the maze of bodies on campus. Too loud music flows out of open arched windows, flyers are taped to the ground and wrapped around light poles: we are deep in the belly of the tiger.

There is the look in the eyes of the Freshmen that makes them instantly recognizable– part fear, part joy, and a whole lot of bewilderment. They look like they’ve just had their very first double shot of espresso and they can’t be-lieve they never tried it before. Have you tried this! This is their espresso, this beautiful gothic dream world. At times, especially when it’s cloudy, I feel like I’m in some European country, or a theme park version of it—lots of stone and gargoyles, people speaking all sorts of languages that I can’t shape with my own tongue, cathedral-like libraries—but then I hear a Jersey accent, or see someone clad in all orange and black and I remember where I have landed.

It’s good to be around these new students, to be, like them, bewildered at the number of authors I want to hear read, the classes I wish I could take, the food magically appearing at every meeting like a fresh crop of truffles, the existence of hoagie spread, and even the godforsaken jug handles.

I sense the freshmen’s homesickness and their need to travel in safe packs too. I travel with mine. I dragged Jeff to a fitness fair, where again, freshmen swarmed, this time toward upperclassmen, clad in the gear of their sport. I just wanted the half price yoga class tickets.

We recognized the different types of college people (they haven’t changed much)—mostly identified by clothing and hairstyle, and we saw ourselves, young and tender, years ago. It was a little like a time travel movie where you see things exactly how they were, but nobody can see you: now we are invisible to anyone under 30. We are so obviously, well, old, that they have to look away. That’s ok. It’s their espresso, so sweet and bitter, and eye-opening on the first cool mornings of September. I just want a sip.

Shopping in Pajamas

August 27, 2015 § 4 Comments


I have taught approximately 950 students in the past 4.5 years. Some are repeats, but still. That means, when you live in the same place you teach, you can’t go anywhere without being recognized. I have some talents, but they are limited. I can, for example, remember 120 students’ names each semester, provided they sit in the same spot for the first two weeks of class. It’s a visual/situational memory thing. Unless they have made an impression on me in some other way by the end of the semester, however, I unconsciously delete the names to make room for the new batch. But I always remember faces. Jeff did not teach as many students, but he got to know his students well over the years. In North Carolina, there was nowhere we could go within a 15-mile radius where we wouldn’t be recognized by somebody: no coffee shop, restaurant, or grocery store, at least. On my last day in Durham, we went to the Whole Foods, sweaty and disheveled from packing, and I ran into a student I hadn’t seen in a year or so. I remembered his face. I was grateful for his nametag. He remembered me. I smoothed my hair to try to look closer to my work self. He told me I’d made him like English, which may have been a fib, just because Jeff was standing there, but still, when you are leaving a place you didn’t plan to ever leave, you love everything about it, especially students who say kind things.

Now, that is gone. I could be anybody, just another one of the millions of people in the Northeast from around the whole world. Predictably, I miss being recognized as “Ms. Whetstone.” I knew who that was, what I was expected to say, even if I was embarrassed that a former student was scanning my tampons or cheap wine.

I am anonymous here for at least a few more weeks. on the upside, I could wear pajamas to the grocery with no shame if I wanted. Hell, slippers even. (Apparently, this is a thing. See the photo I found on the Internet.) I don’t have to make eye contact, much less conversation, with anyone in retail. Still, I must admit, I felt slighted when the guy who checked me out at Ross the other day told me the total due and turned away as he gave me my receipt, as if I was already gone– as if I was nobody. Not even a nod.

Jeff says he likes this, the anonymity of a new place. We haven’t even run into anyone in NYC—doesn’t that always randomly happen? We are individuals at the tail end of a liminal space—stepping off from the unknown to the barely known.

A week ago, I was on the way to meet a friend of a friend for the first time, and I heard someone call out, “Stephanie!” There are a lot of people with my name, so I just kept going on my bike, then I heard it again. I stopped and turned around. It was the one friend I already know in this town. It actually was my name being called, a great and wonderous surprise.

My invisibility cloak is slipping. Then again, maybe the thing never fully covered me anyway. Today, in the phone store, the young guy waiting on us observed, “Your accent is different than his (meaning Jeff). When he talks to me, his changes a little, like he’s travelled for business. Yours is stronger.”

“Where do you think I’m from?” I ask. I think I sound like I’m from Kentucky/North Carolina, but I’ve been placed anywhere from Mississippi to England.

“The South,” the guy says.

“You have a good ear,” I say.

I guess I never was totally anonymous. I’m just not sitting in the same spot.

Model Home

July 16, 2015 § 3 Comments


In the spring, when we finally know for sure that Jeff got the job in New Jersey, we hire some realtors. We’ve lived in this house for 13 years, longer than I’ve lived in any other house, my kids’ whole childhood, and it seems strange to think that anyone else could live here. We claimed it as ours long ago with holes in the walls, worn floors, an aging paint job, an un-remodeled kitchen. “I don’t want to move,” Jack Henry says. “Me neither,” I say.

The realtors tell us we should re-finish the floors, paint the walls, install something called a vapor barrier under the house, lay carpet upstairs, “update” the kitchen, and spruce up the yard. Okay! We say, envisioning the bidding war which will surely come, the money we will use to move to a much more expensive area of the country. Piece of cake, right? Wrong. Very, very wrong. The painter, a sweet man named Leonardo (I kid you not) begins to dig though the work. He is punctual, methodical, dignified, and silent. Furniture must be moved, rooms must be cleared. We rush around, each night before Leonardo hits a room, rearranging and moving, removing the evidence of our lives. We rent a storage space because the floor guy, an Eastern European who has no time for humor, needs an empty house to do his work. We move everything out, including the dog, and move into a hotel. Floor guy is appalled to find that we will be moving back in after his masterpiece is finished. It is a masterpiece, by the way. The floors give off their own otherworldly golden light. Still, we can’t afford to stay in the hotel forever. I make everyone take off their shoes when they come in to see the improvements. We move a few mattresses back in, but not much else. Our lives move forward with work and school, but the house is in the way, or we are in its way. “Mom, I just need a surface to write on,” Jack Henry says. I tell him to use the kitchen counter until Elvis (again, his real name) and his crew show up to fix the kitchen. When they arrive the next day, they tear out the counters, so now, there are no surfaces for homework or cooking, and for one harrowing day when they change the sink, there is no water.

I blame Martha Stewart and HGTV for this torture. When we bought our first house, before Cole was born, there was no such thing as “staging.” It was clear that you bought a house to live in. There might be toiletries in the bathroom when you looked at a house. A kid might have left his socks on the floor. That was the good old days.

We are instructed to stay out of our house as much as possible. It won’t take long to sell, everyone tells us. We hear of houses that sold in hours, not days. We certainly do not expect weeks. Everyone is wrong. As soon as the house goes on the market, a heat wave hits. It is above 95 degrees for about two weeks straight. Maybe that is why it doesn’t sell in a day. No one can say. We dutifully eat out, make our beds first thing in the morning, wipe the sinks down every time we brush our teeth. Our 12-year-old dog, Annie, spends more time in the car than she ever has. As I drive around with my clothes in the trunk of my car and Annie in the back seat, head hanging out the window, I wonder what it is like to really have no place to go, not even a car. I vow to work with the homeless. I begin to fantasize about living in a messy house again.

My sister, Katie, comes to visit. “Your house used to have so much soul,” she says. Now, it is beautiful, but sterile, in a Southern Living photo shoot sort of way. We are at each other’s throats over things like leaving a cup in the sink. It is a model home, meant to help people imagine a perfect life, not meant to actually live in.

We visit New Jersey, and the house we have decided to rent. It is empty, but wonderfully wonky. It is not perfectly polished or staged. I can imagine my kids’ socks on the floor, an occasional glob of toothpaste in the sink. I can imagine making a messy meal in the kitchen and gathering with friends (at least my imaginary new friends) to enjoy it. By now we are aching to get to a place where we can relax, spread out, maybe even (gasp!) leave the dishes until morning. I guess we are selling the house our kids grew up in in all its glowing floor glory, but we are taking our messy lives with us. That, Martha, is a good thing.


February 14, 2015 § Leave a comment

I heard it on the news, and on Facebook, which is faster than the news. Then, I heard, maybe it was one of the women’s husbands, a domestic dispute, not because she was Muslim. Somehow, I don’t know how, that seemed more comprehensible than a hate crime on a very low scale of horrible to worse—a different kind of hate—which in itself says plenty about what we get used to accepting, moving on from. When I got to school, the first person I ran into was Ama. She had emigrated with her husband, but he was shot at the convenience store he owned in Raleigh a long time ago, and she had been on her own for many years. She had taken my English 111 class. She was diligent in every way. She had seen a lot, raised four children. She was Muslim. We said how terrible the triple murder was. I told her the husband theory. No! She said. That’s propaganda. She was 21. My son knew her. Her husband and sister were killed too–a beautiful family!

I went on to teach class, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” He said so many indelible things, like: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” I explained that to the class, but they knew what it meant. And then this: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” The truth of this echoed. A few students had claimed at the beginning of class that the reading was boring. I asked them to listen to the power of the words, still resonating after 52 years. The idea that we live in an inescapable network of mutuality has yet to hit home with many.

A few years before, I had had a fantastic student, a woman who wore colorful hijabs to match her outfit. She was planning to be a respiratory therapist. When we read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” that semester, she told me she took it home and made her kids read it. We talked a lot in that class about tolerance, justice, and action. It wasn’t until the end of that semester that I found out her husband is in jail, charged as a terrorist. I had thought I knew what that meant. I found pictures of her on the Internet proclaiming his innocence, face covered, all but her eyes. I knew her eyes though: warm, kind, thoughtful. I didn’t know how to reconcile what she’d told me with what the papers said. I just knew that I was tied to her too.

After class this week, I found out that the man who murdered the young family in Chapel Hill was a student at this very school. My school. The administration sent an email. Part time student, they said, trying to limit the ties, but still. He could have been in one of my classes. They were required for his program. I wondered which of my colleagues had pulled that short straw. Though, when he had been in class, semesters before, would they have known? Would it have made a difference if he had read Dr. King? If he had pondered “networks of mutuality?” I was secretly glad that I had never met him, and wouldn’t have to second guess every word I had ever said in his class.

Like everybody in my community, I can’t make sense of  these murders, this terrorism. Over parking? As if that’s understandable, as if it’s not about hate? I wonder if I ever took this man’s spot in the parking lot outside my building. It would have been legal for him to have a gun in his car. Would he have shot me, my hair a wild mess, uncovered?

So this is community college. This is community. The single garment of destiny: Muslim, Christian, Jew, Atheist. All in the same place, walking through the same halls. “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” How do we make sense of senseless violence? of hate? How do we reconcile this in one small building, one small state, one world?

Tone and Burn

February 9, 2015 § Leave a comment


I’m taking a fitness class called C-Fit “Tone and Burn.” I thought it might be a good way to start the year— you know, out with the old and in with the new, trading muscle for fat. I wanted to see a difference. Each Monday, I lift weights and run and jump and lift weights again. The first night after the class, I woke up with my chest burning at three am. I was also starving, but I knew better than to eat in the middle of the night. The muscles (who knew they were under there?) were calling out for some kind of relief, but when you can’t even really say where that pain begins, just that it is filling your chest and calling you from sleep, how can you fix it? You breathe until you go back to sleep.

My kids are buff, especially the younger one who does karate. In our dining room, at night, he flexes without a shirt on, admiring his physique in the reflection of the bright light on the windowpanes, the night outside a black velvet backdrop. Jeff and I are in awe of him too. His muscle is the result of years of discipline and dedication at karate class. He has special push ups named after him. It is this confidence I’m going for, more than the actual muscle and fat loss. I want to feel strong.

I haven’t been writing this blog, or much of anything in the past several weeks. It looks like 2015 is bringing a lot of changes to my life—new people, new places, hopefully new work—and I had to sit with all that for a while. Now, I’m ready to build all kinds of muscle, to make something new.

I asked my son what he thought about maybe being in a new place. He thought, then got practical: “I’m smart, kind of good looking, and I play sports. I’m good at making friends,” he said. “I’ll be fine.” I am trying to borrow his confidence in redefining himself. I want to have his honesty, to own what I’ve come this far to get. It goes against my upbringing, against the culture for that matter, but I can recall Jack Handy if I need to. I guess teenagers have to do that everyday. There’s more excitement to it than fear—more thrill at admiring newly developed muscles.

I am now able to tone and burn without waking in the middle of the night starving and in pain. Well, maybe with just a little pain and hunger. Change must be felt, I guess.Pretty soon, I’ll be ready to flex in the dining room window.

Late Night Grocery

October 27, 2014 § 1 Comment


My mom visits me in strange ways. For no reason, out of the blue sometimes, she’s with me, watching, wanting to be in my life. She always liked to direct, rather than act. Sure, it’s psychological, but I feel her. In remembering her, somehow, I conjure her. Last week, in the grocery store, she was riding shotgun in the cart. I’m a practical person. I make a list, then I forget to bring the list, but it’s in my head. That night, my mom was making decisions. I let her have free rein.

First: In the produce aisle, we are not interested in actual vegetables—they’re so, well, green, but we want champagne dressing. My mom, you see, was an expert in condiments and was never very interested in vegetables, except the occasional artichoke with lots of melted butter, and maybe some Romaine. I tasted champagne dressing way before I ever tasted champagne. Bottles of mustard often fell out of her refrigerator in crazy defiance because they had been so confined in the side of her refrigerator door. I make Mom skip the horseradish mustard this time.

We want chocolate, of course, but that is both of us. She wants the one with chili in it. Nothing could be spicy enough. She wants to feel it. We skip the meat section. She always thought it was strange that I went vegetarian in high school, but I rarely saw her eat anything but a carb. We hit the chips and crackers because that’s dinner.

Ooh! The bargain basket! Here we find all kinds of treasures. It’s not that she wants the bargain–that’s me. But she points out the purple eye shadow for $1.99 and the bacon bowls. Yes. A bacon bowl is what you think it is, and it comes in a box. That’s why it’s in the bargain basket. I don’t even eat real bacon. But she wants it. Just to see. I pick it up, consider its comic value, then toss it back into the basket.

The wine aisle? She always had a special fondness for Stag’s Leap, or maybe it was Frog’s Leap—I can’t remember—doesn’t matter, I guess. She really wants the pricier one.

In the bread aisle, we see a man with a prosthetic leg, wearing shorts. I look away, but Mom pulls me back to look. There is a color photo printed on the plastic calf of the leg: a little girl with blonde curls, smiling. I can’t stop looking at it, even though I know this is rude. My mom would go talk to him, ask if the girl was his granddaughter. Why would he have a photo on it, if he didn’t want you to look?  she says. I walk past him, but now I can’t look away from the leg photo. I don’t ask the questions she’s prompting me to ask, I just get a loaf of whole wheat and leave the man to choose his bagels.

By the checkout, I really feel that Mom is there in the lonely late night Kroger. We unashamedly look at the gossip mags, consider the candy, buy a pumpkin on the way out the door. When I get to the car, though, she slips away into the night, no doubt on a hunt for wasabi mustard.


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