The following is a piece of fiction written many years ago.
Elizabeth, New Jersey
Population according to 1990 Census: 110,002.
It began when I was in fifth grade, and my brother, Michael, moved into a small apartment in Elizabeth after college. The apartment was in the Bayway section of town, caught between the refineries and the Turnpike. It was far enough from our parents’ house in Paterson for him to feel independent, but close enough that he debated every other week whether to bring his laundry home or to the laundromat. I visited him there during the summer on the way to a family gathering at Grandma’s. My mom and dad let me ride with my brother Kevin in his Chevy Nova to pick up Michael while they drove ahead with Bridget, the oldest in the family, and her husband in the station wagon. Kevin stayed in the car eating donuts and listening to the radio while I went upstairs to get Michael. The backs of my thighs sweated under my dress as I bounced on the corduroy couch urging him to hurry up. The windows were closed and he had no air-conditioning, just a rotating fan that barely pushed the smell of rotten eggs from one side of the room to the other.
“Why don’t you open some windows in here? It smells gross, and my legs are sticking together.”
He walked into the room, drying his wet hair with a towel. “Go ahead, open them. You’ll figure it out.”
I struggled with the first window. It had been painted over a long time ago, and no one had bothered to open it since. I managed to pry it open with the help of a flat head screwdriver. The stench that hit my face made me choke. Michael laughed and reached over my sputtering head to close the window. “The windows are keeping the smell out. That smell is my ticket to $117 a month rent. An industrial air-conditioner couldn’t clean that up.” He gently pulled me by my pigtail to the door. “Enough torture for now. Time to go to Grandma’s.” I petted the downstairs neighbor’s white husky on my way to the car. My hand came away black.
Main sources of employment: Service industries and manufacturing.
Michael stayed in Elizabeth for three years until the smells of the Turnpike and oil refineries and the sounds of the accidents on the nearby Bayway circle drove him away. From the highway that cuts through Elizabeth, you look out onto a modern prehistoric wasteland. The metal cranes cover the ground like the skeletons of dinosaurs killed while feeding. I used to wade in the creek near my parents’ house with my jeans rolled up to my knees, hunting for crayfish with a stick while being careful not to cut my feet up on rusty Bud cans. Michael laughed at me as I got my fingers nipped at by the crustaceans.
“Those are some fine astacidae samples you’ve got there, Frances.”
He took a picture of me holding a sherbet tub filled with my catch. He brought that picture with him when he went to college. He said that it showed that I had promise, because I looked so serious at the age of six.
Use of land according to the U.C. Department of Engineering and Planning: 1,944 acres of residential. 606 acres of industrial.
Michael married a woman who followed him home from college across 5 states. Lucy terrified him with her strength of will, her sense of purpose and her love. I had never seen him at a loss before, but in her presence his enormous mental capacity was reduced to monosyllabic utterances and sloppy professions of “lurv.” They enjoyed making me squirm with their pet names for each other and their endearments.
I was home for Christmas break during my sophomore year in college and claimed my spot in front of the television with a soda in one hand and the remote control in the other. The afternoon movie was on: “To Have and Have Not.” Michael and Lucy had arrived that morning and sat on the loveseat across the room. Michael and I talked for a little while before Lucy came into the room and then his focus completely shifted. I worked hard to give off an air of cool disinterest.
“You know how to whistle, don’t you?” Lauren Bacall looked coyly back at Humphrey Bogart.
“You know how to whistle, don’t you?” Lucy batted her eyelids at Michael.
“Sure.” Michael sprayed a mouth full of chips and onion dip on the front of Lucy’s sweater. I lost my battle to ignore them as Lucy picked globs of chewed up junk food off her sweater and threw them first at Michael and then at me. My mother just shook her head when she walked in on the three of us, covered in dip and laughing.
Partial list of toxins found in Elizabeth water samples: DDTs, PCBs, metals and derivatives.
I discovered what a strong profile Michael had when they shaved his head down after the first round of chemo. He looked a little like Lenin, sort of regal and dignified in spite of the cheap paper pajamas and the plastic bands around his wrists listing his allergies: strawberries, penicillin, shellfish, nuts. I wondered what kind of meal that would make. When someone gets sick who runs every morning for an hour and a half, doesn’t eat red meat and thinks two beers is a wild night on the town, you start to ask questions. I wanted to know what kind of god would take away the father of three boys and husband of ten years while letting the wanna-be dilettante sister live. I smoked. I drank. I ate veal. I owned a mink coat (secondhand). I hadn’t had a boyfriend worth mentioning for years, but I didn’t always sleep alone. If those weren’t reasons enough to have chosen me, I didn’t know what were.
Elizabeth, New Jersey was in the top three percentile in reported violations of drinking water standards in the United States during 1993 and 1994.
Michael went to the doctor with a backache. The backache turned into a need for more tests, more tests turned into the first signs of cancer, the cancer progressed in a series of jumps and leaps to course through his body in a mad race to claim uncharted territory in just a few weeks. We barely had time to understand the diagnosis when other words were thrown about: chemotherapy, radiation, metastasis, hospice.
A competition arose between Kevin, Bridget, and me as to who could find the most atrocious wig. We entered his hospital room two weeks into the chemotherapy, bearing our offerings in front of us like trophies. Lucy applauded from her chair next to the bed as each was presented with a flourish. Kevin made his pitch first:
“What every fashionable cancer patient is wearing this season, the Bride of Frankenstein wig. Simple, yet elegant. Give the doctors a little scare.”
Michael smiled weakly from the bed.
I stepped up to present my selection, a powdered wig a la Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
“The classic wig for the classy gentleman. What every man wants to be seen in while eating lime jello bedside. It says ‘I am genius, hear me roar.’”
Michael groaned. We turned to him, startled, but he just shook his head and laughed.
“Very, very bad, Frances.”
Bridget held up a red yarn Raggedy Andy wig.
“I just thought it was kind of cute?”
“We have a winner! I have been feeling a bit like a rag doll.” Kevin and I were getting ready to demand a recount when Michael started coughing. The pajamas gapped to show a growth on his shoulder where no flesh belonged.
We stared down at the wigs in our hands.
“If you could leave those other wigs, I’d appreciate it. I don’t want all the other chemo patients to see them and get jealous.”
I placed the wig on a side table, hugged him, and left the room, avoiding eye contact with Lucy, Kevin, and Bridget. Michael wore the Raggedy Andy wig for short periods of time, usually to entertain his boys, but even that effort exhausted him. The muscles built up in his legs from years of running disappeared in just one month. The skin on his hands was translucent.
39 of the potential 148 hazardous air pollutants designated by the Environmental Protection Agency can be found in Elizabeth air samples. A partial list includes: acetylaldehyde, 1,3-butadiene, polycyclic organic compounds, and vinyl chloride.
Michael and I had drifted apart when he and Lucy got married and I moved to Manhattan. It wasn’t a conscious choice on either of our parts, he was my champion in arguing why a seventeen year old should be allowed to move to New York and I loved that Lucy so naturally fit into the family. When they started having children of their own, I watched Michael shape his sons, teaching each in turn the basic rules of quantum theory at the ripe age of four.
“What is the world?”
“Why is that?”
What was hard then, was learning about Michael while he lay passed out in a morphine coma next to me. His boss, coworkers, friends from college and neighbors stopped by the hospice to visit and I heard stories of Michael’s grown up life, his life after he left New Jersey. They loaded compliments on me for talents I was discovering for the first time, as if I could take credit for my brother’s abilities. I was meeting my brother again, but everyone was already speaking in past tense.
103 Elizabeth companies were fined for on-site contamination in the year 1997.
My brother and sister had their significant others to grieve with. They tried to lure me to the suburbs with promises of meatloaf and sympathy. I knew they meant well and that they were trying to protect me, the baby of the family, but their offers of comfort only made me feel more isolated. I terrorized downtown Manhattan with my grief. My neighbors learned more about me through the thin walls of my tenement studio than through conversation. One night, a month after Michael died, I was washing my face after a Tom Waits induced crying jag. A voice floated down through the vent above the shower.
“I am so sorry.”
I was sharing my grief with six floors of strangers.
The seven air toxins found in Elizabeth air samples and their potential health hazards according to the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services: benzene (causes effects on the bone marrow, anemia and leukemia), carbon tetrachloride (liver, kidneys and nervous system), chloroform (liver and kidneys), ethylene dibromide (brain, skin and sperm), ethylene dichloride (central nervous system, heart, liver, kidneys and lungs), formaldehyde (nose, throat and lungs), and methyl chloride (intense burning and skin irritation).
I started drinking in the local dives by myself. My friends were willing to accompany me, but I thought I might actually want to keep some of them and didn’t see how I would succeed in my present state. Woe to the man who tried to pick me up at this time.
I smelled his cologne before I saw his hands on the back of the empty stool next to me.
“Can I sit here?”
He read my silence as approval.
“So, what brings you to this dump all by yourself?”
I was on my third gin and tonic, three being the magic number that allowed me to pass out dreamless at night without crossing the boundary that caused me to tell the bartender and unwitting patrons Michael’s life story. I kept a bottle of gin in my freezer for the nights when the clothes that hung on my closet door spoke back to me.
“Do you live around here?”
“You’re very mysterious. I bet you’re really not that interesting, but by staying silent you keep the boys guessing.”
“What, no laugh? Not even a chuckle? A smile? You probably have a pretty smile.”
I set my glass on the bar.
“My brother died. He was thirty-six. His baby boy took his first steps two days after he died.”
I hated myself for giving that much away. I left the bar. I didn’t stop the man when he followed me out and I didn’t stop him when he followed me home. When I woke him up and handed him a cup of coffee in a take out cup, he got the hint and left.
The Elizabeth River has been described as “chronically polluted over its entire length” by the Environmental Protection Agency.
What do you do with an enemy? You studiously ignore it, you spend too much time plotting revenge tactics, you try to get on with your life, but you always know it’s out there. At least mine was stationary. Elizabeth consumed my life. My job as personal assistant to an event planner had me in front of a computer eight hours a day. I couldn’t see the point in doing comparative pricing of blini platters and continental breakfasts anymore. I spent more and more of my time searching Environmental Protection Agency sites and studying maps from the atlas of cancer mortality. My boss looked the other way as long as I got my work done. My first scheme was to build a monument to the people who had died in the area from cancer, along the lines of the Vietnam Veterans memorial in D.C. Something told me the city wouldn’t cooperate. My next plan involved running for public office until landing the job of mayor of Elizabeth. I would then secede from the United States and move the city to a deserted island. I got as far as having 500 campaign buttons with the slogan “Elizabeth Kills” made before the technicalities, such as needing to be a resident of the town, stopped that brainchild. In the end, I wrote letters. To the Mayor, to the Governor, to Representatives, to the President. I wouldn’t tell strangers in a bar Michael’s life story, but politicians across the country got an earful. I got a few stock condolences with reports attached showing how hard Elizabeth was working to meet EPA standards.
“Dear Ms. (name of grieving constituent),
We regret the loss of your loved one, (name of person taken suddenly ill in slightly suspicious manner.) While we appreciate your concern and understand your suffering, we feel there is no connection between (name of person who was otherwise perfectly healthy but then died)’s death and the alleged reports of environmental infractions in the town of (name of city or town with a large amount of industrial build-up). In the last years, (name of city or town with bad environmental record) has worked hard to clean up blah blah blah….”
I felt bad for the guys collecting my paper recyclables.
In 1997, the Clinton Administration chose Elizabeth, New Jersey for a Brownfields Initiative grant. The city received a $200,000 check to facilitate the productive reuse of old industrial properties where redevelopment is complicated by real or perceived environmental contamination. The initiative was seen as being “good for the environment and good for the economy.” The IKEA mega-store is one result of the initiative. It is the chains’ best performing store.
It’s said that time heals all wounds. They never mention the scars. Two years have passed and I still can’t drink a glass of water without pause. I now know there are things in there the naked eye cannot see. Mr. Schiferelli, I owe you an apology for ignoring the squiggly life on the slides under the microscope in fifth grade. I took the bus to work today and watched as a man with two broken legs in a wheelchair was lifted into the bus. I remembered how Michael had broken both of his legs trying to jump a hurdle during a track meet in high school. He rode around in a wheelchair for months after.
I had had a bad five-year-old day that day, was beaten too many times in checkers or hadn’t had my sandwich cut in the proper four-triangle arrangement. I sat pouting on the curb in front of our house. He wheeled up and bumped me with the cast on his left foot.
“But mom said I couldn’t touch…”
“Hop on. Just don’t use my legs as grappling hooks.”
We wheeled around the neighborhood for an hour. It was better than any big wheel ride. He was the captain and I was his first mate, navigating the wilds of New Jersey.
Ladies and gentlemen, I never thought the day would come when I would write these words, but the day has arrived.
I am sick of bacon.
Don’t want to cook it in a pan on top of the stove.
Don’t want to wrap it around cheese-stuffed dates.
Don’t want to put it into brittle with peanuts.
Don’t want to wash it out of my hair.
Don’t want to sleep in bacon scented sheets.
There have been a few bacon themed dessert items coming out of my kitchen in the last few months, all gifts, all items that are passed on, but the smell, oh, the smell she lingers. A three month moratorium might be in order before I can have that smell in my home again, but if it is something you need in your life, I offer you the following:
Maple-Bacon Ice Cream
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
5 egg yolks
3/4 cup grade B maple syrup
1/4 cup lardons, cubed, cooked till done but not burnt and drained of grease
- Combine the milk and cream in a small pot and bring to a simmer.
- While the dairy is warming, add the maple syrup to the egg yolks in a bowl and mix thoroughly to incorporate.
- When the dairy has heated, add a small ladle full to the egg/syrup mixture, mixing all the time to incorporate and to stop the eggs from cooking. Add two more ladles, stirring all the while and then add the egg yolk mixture to the dairy still in the pot. Return the pot to a simmer and warm until registering 170° on a thermometer or till the custard coats the back of a spoon. Strain through a fine meshed sieve into a bowl and allow to cool before refrigerating for 8 hours or overnight.
- Make the ice cream according to your ice cream manufacturer’s directions, adding the lardons five minutes before the ice cream churning finishes. Allow to set in the freezer for two or more hours before serving. Eat. Confuse your tastebuds. Question if anything is sacred in this world.
If I were to make this again in the far, far off future, I would most likely add a small amount of maple extract to balance out the baconny goodness a little bit more without upping the sweet factor. And maybe crumble some bacon peanut brittle on top. Because when you’re eating bacon ice cream, there is no pretense of self control.
Today is the day in 1964 that a Congressional resolution declared bourbon a “distinctive product of the United States” recognizing its unique position as a distillate of the native corn.
Bourbons’ rise in popularity is indirectly attributed to the federal excise tax levied against whiskey in 1791 which resulted in a series of riots and attacks on tax agents, Pittsburgh being one of the scenes of unrest. The Whiskey Rebellion resulted in the first use of militia by the federal government against a state. The unhappy farmers were offered 60 acres of land in Kentucky as an incentive to move if they built a permanent structure and raised our ‘native corn’ in exchange. What to do with 60 acres of corn before the advent of high fructose corn syrup?
It’s like a celebration of our country every time we have a glass. Or at least that’s what I like to tell myself.
2 oz. bourbon
1/2 oz. sweet vermouth
1/2 oz. dry vermouth
2 dashes bitters
Stir the liquid ingredients with ice and strain into a chilled glass. Garnish with cherries. God Bless America.
It’s your birthday, random guy on the street talking on his cell phone. Happy Birthday to you! Because your birthday falls on May 4th, you are a Taurus, making your symbol the Bull, your element Earth and your ruling planet Venus. Maybe you are celebrating your birthday by smoking some scented tobacco as the people in the courtyard of the restaurant below are doing, in which case, Mazeltov! Hope the munchies don’t kick in too hard in 15 minutes.
While we all know that Valentine’s Day is just another ploy by The Man (in this case, Mr. Hallmark and Mr. Whitman’s Sampler and Mr. Cheap Red Roses) to move a little product during a down retail time, it, like its fellow Hallmark holidays Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, can serve to remind us of what is good in our lives and for what we should be thankful.
So in the spirit of the day I would like to spread the love to you, the readers of my silly little blog. Post a comment below or drop me an email by midnight EST, February 15th, and I will send you some love in the mail in the next couple of weeks.