Please explain what just happened.

I just finished the film and moved to Berlin. I have citizenship because my grandparents were German Jews that fled during WWII.

 

What is your earliest memory?

Being in the womb. What are all those bubbles mommy?

 

If you weren’t a filmmaker, what other profession would you choose?

Zoologist. Animals are a lot nicer to deal with than humans. When I was a kid I wanted to be a garbage man or junk man.

Please explain what just happened.

The sun went down.Breakfast time!

What is your earliest memory?

I remember watching The A-Team and CHiPs with my brother, singing Christmas songs with my folks, spilling milk.80’s stuff, ya know?It was a strange time before Viagra, X-Files and the invention of the McFlurry.How did we survive?

 

This piece originally appeared in Gastronomica, was reprinted in the Best Food Writing 2006 anthology (Avalon Publishing Group), and is excerpted from my book, BAROLO (University of Nebraska Press, 2010)

Fingernails stained purple, I walk the quiet, cobblestoned streets of Barolo, Italy. It is early evening. My day has been spent harvesting the Nebbiolo grape crop for Luciano and Luca Sandrone, brothers whose distinctive features – one’s red suspenders and the other’s bald head – will certainly plague my dreams. I’ve been working in the vineyard for a month as a way to stay in Italy, as a way to be less of a tourist. At the moment, I’m a little stunned by the day’s heat and hard physical labor. Stunned, relaxed, and suddenly very hungry.

I step toward the counter, the butcher hidden from view in the back room behind the meat case. I hear the sound of a handsaw. I look to the walls, mostly blank, save for a poster of a bikini-clad woman holding a porterhouse in the air. The poster is signed in silver ink by “Valentina,” and addressed to “Franco.” Next to Valentina, encased in a black frame, is a picture of Barolo’s castle with a man-shaped shadow clinging to its east wall. I step closer and see that the man, like a comic-book superhero, is adhered to the ancient orange stone at least fifty feet off the ground. The man is facing the camera, sun in his eyes. His head is enormous, too big for his body, as if he’s been pieced together by Barolo’s resident mad scientist. A thick black moustache, curving over the sides of his mouth, is spread nearly horizontal in the force of his grin. He’s dressed in rock-climbing gear, leg muscles bursting in effort, his hands gripping a strange and bulbous rope. I step even closer to the picture, my nose nearly pasted to the wall, my breath fogging the frame’s glass, and see that this man is rappelling down the façade of the Castello di Barolo on a fifty-foot string of salami.

Before I can laugh, before I can even exhale, I hear the sound of thick flesh behind me, spreading into a massive smile. I turn. It is, of course, the man in the picture, Franco the Butcher, his moustache crawling over his face like a caterpillar on steroids. He wears brown-framed glasses that stretch from his eyebrows to his upper lip, from his black sideburns to the bridge of his boxer’s nose. A billow of black hair shoots geyser-wise from his head, calling to the florescent lights. His hands, strong enough to lift me by the top of my head, are streaked with blood. And yet — I never thought I’d describe someone like this — Franco the Butcher is jolly.

“Ciao,” I say, “Franco?”

“Si, si, Franco,” he replies in a quiet, gentle voice, a voice as hairy as he is. He rubs his hands together as if compressing the air into a pancake.

“Queste carne,” I say, running my hand over the expanse of display case, “e bellisima.”

“Grazie,” Franco says, truly touched by the compliment to his meats.

I watch as he rounds the counter, kicking sawdust from his shoes, and joins the scales, knives, and cleavers on the back wall. I examine his wares, salamis of all kinds: white salamis, red ones, pink ones, purple; salamis that nearly stray to black; duck salami, donkey salami, Barolo salami, truffle; salami as long as my legs, salami as short as my thumb; and there, twisted into cylinders as thick as my forearm, salami di cinghiale. Wild boar. Wild boar salami. I repeat the word in my head like a cured and fatty mantra, “Salami, salami, salami, salami…” until I descend into a cow-pig meditation. I wonder which meat held him to the walls of Barolo’s castle. I wonder if he celebrated his climb by eating his equipment. I smile and he sees it, his hands now on his hips, his white apron smeared with blood and fat.

“Americano, no?” Franco slurs.

“Si, americano,” I say, “ma adesso, in questa macelleria, sono italiano.”

Franco laughs at my wish to be Italian, then sighs, turns abruptly left, waves to me and utters, “Viene, viene qua.”

He leads me away from the salami display, and I watch reluctantly over my shoulder as these lovely jeweled life-vests float further and further away. Franco stops in front of the fresh meats: tenderloin, strip, porterhouse, sausages, pork chop, whole chickens, whole ducks—feet intact and orange, webbed and clinical in the light; pigs’ feet, pigs’ ears, pigs’ blood, veal chops, veal scallops, headcheese, and sweetbreads. And tripe, beautiful white tripe spread wide in its container like a Chinese fan; trippa, resting in recline like the Aurora Borealis on its lunch break. Franco reaches for the tripe with an ungloved finger. It yields like a lover to his touch. The tripe, for lack of a better word, is kissable.

I feel my feet slowly spinning across that high-school dance floor, slowly building a tango confidence to ask the beckoning girl out for a cup of coffee.

“Ti piace trippa?” Franco asks.

I shrug. I’ve never had it before. But how can I not like tripe?

“Si,” I say.

“Ah,” Franco smiles, “serio.”

“Si,” I nod, “serio,” and I feel more substantial for saying so. I feel like I could knock down buildings with my bare hands. I feel like I could keep up with Franco the Butcher.

He lifts the tripe from its tray and, like delicate lingerie, it unravels in the air. I want to rub its texture between my fingers, I want to try it on for size. I imagine taking a few pieces home to Il Gioco dell’Oca’s kitchen, asking my friend Raffaella for preparation advice, and cooking a tripe dinner together: soup, casserole, napoleon, whichever. I watch as Franco cuts a small piece the size of a finger joint. He holds the white gem to the light like a coin.

“Ah, trippa,” he says, and hands me the piece.

Amazing, I think, Amazing that he sensed my desire to experience its texture.

The tripe coin is soft and perforated, rich and heady like a chunk of styrofoam soaked in black tea. I, like Franco, hold it to the light and can almost see through it. I think I’m seeing ghosts. I think I can see my family back in Chicago. They’re all sitting in rush-hour traffic, car radios blaring classic rock. I allow them all to return home safe, then lower the tripe to the counter to give it back to Franco.

“No, no,” he says, holding his bloody-but-innocent palms at me, “Prego.”

“Che?” I ask, not quite understanding.

“Si, si, prego,” he offers again.

I’m confused. I think he wants me to keep the tripe. I’m not sure what to do with such a small piece. I reach to put it into my pocket; possibly I’ll play with it like a rubber stress ball on the way back to Il Gioco.

“No, no,” Franco says, and I raise the tripe again from my pocket to the counter, “Prego.”

I look at him and shrug. I shake my head. Somewhere behind me, Valentina, in her golden bikini, is comfortably holding her porterhouse. Franco opens his mouth. For a second, I think he’s going to take a bite out of me. I lean back and he points to the tripe, then points to his mouth, and again says, “Prego.”

I get it now, but that doesn’t mean I believe it. He wants me to eat the tripe.

“Crudo?” I say.

“Si,” Franco says.

He wants me to eat the tripe raw.

What kind of culinary hazing is this? Why? Why? Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against the pig stomach, but the raw ingesting of such items sends my own organs into disarray; my once hungry stomach now closes in on itself like a fist. My mouth goes dry. I’m having trouble swallowing.

“Prego,” Franco says again, and I feel there’s no way around this.

My stomach recoils deeper into my ribs and I want to cry. I hold the tripe to the light again and it goes from beautiful to revolting in no time flat. Raw tripe, if about to be cooked, is one thing, but raw tripe that wants to stay raw is another.

I look at Franco. His eyes are wide, his cheeks are glowing red. Jolly never looked so evil. I stare at the tripe, wriggling in the toddler laughter of my little sister whenever I got into trouble with my parents. I look to Franco. I look for a way out. The fluorescents burn into me like a spotlight. The audience is waiting; there’s no turning back now. After all, I told Franco I was “serious.”

I close my eyes and bring my fingers to my mouth.

I smell it before it hits my tongue: dust, metal, morning saliva, bathroom tile, campfire. It squirms in my mouth like a goldfish fighting for its life, a mini skinned bronco bucking my teeth, surely stirring a cowboy-shaped splatter from my stomach.

Hold on, I think, as the taste of pure gut struggles to pass over my taste buds, Hold on. I don’t dare bite into it, don’t dare explode the taste of unmentionable pig over my tongue.

So I swallow it whole, think of oysters, hold my breath, and wait.

“Bravo,” Franco claps and laughs in descending octaves.

A sweat breaks from my forehead. I gag audibly, but keep it down.

Opening my mouth to exhale, I know I have passed a hideous test and am surprised to find that the taste, if not the memory, has already faded. I rode the bull and returned a little trampled, but ungored.

Franco pulls a necklace of wild boar salami from the wall and hands it to me as my reward, laughing all the way. I can’t believe I’m going to thank this man.

“Grazie,” I say.

All Franco does is laugh.

As I turn to leave the macelleria, paper bag shifting in my arms, Franco the Butcher raises a bloody, tight-fingered hand into the air and, smiling his biggest smile of the day, dangles another slice of tripe into the light.

“Domani,” he says, pointing to the horrendous thing.

I shake my head. I wave.

Tomorrow, I think, opening the door to the street, Tomorrow I’m not coming anywhere near this place.

Please explain what just happened.

Just got a text requesting an emergency band meeting tomorrow, probably concerning wardrobe coordination for the next show.

 

What is your earliest memory?

A red tricycle. That’s all I remember. Seeing it.

 

 

This morning I watched a bird fly into a car in front of me and fall to the asphalt below like a dirty sock that missed the hamper. The bird had been part of a pair, he and his other half swooping down from the trees in the park on the opposite side of the road, as myself and the driver in front of me zoomed by on our way to what was surely some tedious Wednesday destination, mine being work, for which I was already late.

As children, my sister and I would fight mercilessly for the dining room chair with the armrests. My parents had a mismatched set—2 chairs with them, two chairs without. One of the prized chairs went to my father, always. The other one remained up in the air. We had to devise our complaint plans carefully. If things escalated past a certain point of shrillness, or, heaven forbid, reached for tears, the up-for-grabs chair with the armrests would go to my mother.

“Settled!” she would yell, plopping herself down as my sister and I, defeated, scowled at each other and struggled throughout the meal with where to put our stupid little arms.

Here, in México Viejo, I feel like I’ve won for good, been granted the lifelong vindication with which I can now, via my penchant for self-satisfied teasing (a characteristic necessary to any successful older brother), torture, if only in some unspoken way, my sister back in Illinois. The armrests here are huge enough to house our old seven-year-old bodies comfortably, and I feel compelled to use the space, soak up the luxury, slide my arms from the inside edge to the outside and back again.

“Why are you doing that?” Louisa asks, “You look like some demented chicken.”

Through a screen of pickled nopal cactus salad with tomatillo, garlic, and cilantro, I muster my best, food-drunk, “Bok-bok-bokaaaaaahhhk!” to Louisa’s shaking head.

The cactus leaps in my mouth quite unlike any chicken-feed, food-drunk or otherwise, gives-in to my teeth like something vaguely marine, the soft interior organ-gum of some aphrodisiac crustacean, reached only through a sharp, poisonous shell. I soak the nopal salad’s skinny juice with the remains of the corn tortilla that once held my roasted chile rajas taco, crowned with paprika-crusted goat’s milk queso anejo and blackened mushrooms. The chilies and mushrooms held within them that clandestine cooking aqua vitae soaked up from the surface of the comal; the serum released from countless meats, oils, spices, vegetables who came to perfection on the hot griddle, leaving trickles of their best selves behind. With each bite, these juices stream into my mouth like some liquid encyclopedia of culinary history. Chapter One: Fuck, this is good. Chapter Two: Oooooohhhh…

Louisa and I work our way through, as if in competition, mounds of pickled pigs’ feet with onion, chile chilaca, and epazote; pink-rare tuna in tomato-jalapeño broth; miniature corn tortillas topped with red chile beans and cotija cheese… As we move from the bottom of the L-buffet to the table equivalent of the letter’s vertical pillar, we fill our plates further with chilaquiles en salsa verde, what the taco lady refers to as, the classic Mexican hangover breakfast—strips of fresh tortilla cooked in oil with tomato, onion, garlic, chiles and eggs. We heap the slow-roasted marrow-sticky blackness of barbacoa de borrego next to the chilaquiles—marinated pulled lamb shoulder packed with the vegetal density of its cooking accompaniments—carrot, celery, onion, poblano chile, garlic, tomato, cilantro—all enfolded into a banana leaf and cooked over low heat for ten hours.

Eating it, our lips bear a sheen that teeters on the verge of the sexually aroused and the sexually satisfied—right there in the middle, where all the good stuff is. I want to kiss marrow residue from my wife’s lips. Thank you, Mexico City! I stand, woozy, Louisa stares at me in disbelief.

“You can’t possibly be going back for more,” she says.

I respond in the only way I can, full to the point of stretch marks, intoxicated on chile spice and fruit vinegars, but determined to taste two more things, two more tacos: with a lisp.

“I can pothibly,” I muster, and make a beeline for the taco lady.

She must be about my mom’s age, but packed with a compact vitality. Everything about her is bright and small—her eyes like dimes, ears like dwarf Seckel pears, a nose I can swallow with nary a sip of water. She explains in a unicorn voice my options: lime-marinated chicken, carne asada… I choose this time one taco with chorizo and queso fresco, the other with flor de calabaza (pumpkin flower). As she prepares my tacos, a little cuerno pastry of a girl—she can’t be more than eight years old—approaches me from my blind side, taps me on the butt-cheek and sings, “I can speak a little English.”

My heart leaps. I look down and see her scalp first, her hair perfectly parted down the middle, held into place with yellow beaded tree-frog barrettes.

“I can speak a little Spanish,” I say, “Por ejemplo: pollo, carne asada, queso…”

She giggles, “You can only say food?”

I shrug and she asks where I am from.

“Los estados unidos,” I say, “La ciudad de Chicago.”

“I hear of Chicago,” she says, “It is very big?”

“No tan grande como aquí,” I say, indicating with my hands that Mexico City is bigger.

“Your Spanish is not very good,” she says, and takes her plate of tortillas and beans back to her table.

I can’t help but feel a bit embarrassed, and I turn back to the taco lady, who smiles at me, lips like a silkworm. She holds her hands toward me, fingers balancing the two finished plates. I take them from her, our hands brushing, and in our touch, something sparks; something in me, as if emulating her, reaches for smallness—not heart or appetite, but resolve, my already diminutive ability for restraint. I am a little afraid I will not stop eating.

As the chorizo’s allspice and apple vinegar run into my mouth, the corn tortilla heavy with its orange grease, Louisa holds my hand as if I am on a gurney, having a piece of me excised, sans anesthesia, with a scalpel.

“Whew…” I say, and finish the pumpkin flower, the delicate flavors of soil and sweet summer plant coating my tongue, stirring some childhood memory—the first taste of zucchini perhaps, or the happy winning of the armrest chair. I swallow and see long-dead constellations.

“You are done,” Louisa commands, a leaf of cilantro plastered to her front tooth.

I smile. I decide not to tell her.

“Yes,” I say, sputtering into my chalice of carrot juice.

We lean back in our chairs, arms reclining like spent suntanned lovers, watching the restaurant become more and more festive by the moment. Toward the rear of the place, a massive wedding table hugs the orange wall, and twenty people pound their fists on its surface, rattling the clay bowls of caldo de res beef stew and menudo tripe soup in red chile brew, as the bride, in her white gown and veil whips her napkin like the blades of a linen helicopter over her head, lifting the dress train to expose the full mahogany of her gartered thighs.

I started to jumble my words on the freeways heading into Chicago. Not truly badly, or to the point where I was nonsensical or in any way reminiscent of Steve Miller Band lyrics, but just enough that alarm bells started to ring.

So, while we were at McDonald’s, getting coffee, on the outskirts of town, Zara gently quizzed me.

‘Hey, what state is Hobart in?’

My mind was a foggy, cotton-wool blank.

‘Um… I know it’s not Western Australia, so maybe it’s… uh… fuck. I have no idea. Where is it?’

‘Tasmania,’ Zara said.

‘Oh! Yeah! Tasmania. That’s right. It’s the capital city of Tasmania. Well, I knew it wasn’t Western Australia.’

Even though there were only ten minutes to go to Gina Frangello’s house, it was unanimously decided at this point that Zara should take over the driving.

We’ve been on the sidewalk for five minutes and have moved about fifty feet. Pedestrian traffic on this main thoroughfare near Mexico City’s Zócalo is at its rush hour peak. We turn around, as if searching for a way out, some secret exit ramp, some side alley that will carry us like the matron saint of shortcuts, to a breakfast table and a bosomy pair of steaming mugs. Instead, over the tight parade of purposeful people, we see fat-handed Juan Pérez, beaming his biggest smile of the day, leaning against the doorway of the Rioja, watching our backs.

He sees us turn and raises his arms over his head about to take flight, or, flight-lazy, command the sky and its tenants—sun, moon, stars, Venus—to come to him, drop themselves into his ample palms and drive us walkers to some eternal fiery last meal. He shakes his arms, shuddering in their dress shirt sleeves, and Louisa and I do the same, nearly getting trampled in the process. We right ourselves, face forward again, and immediately miss the sight of our new friend, some good luck charm in concierge clothing.

On a lark—Skylark, Crested Lark, Calandra Lark, whichever species croons the most extravagant coffee-song—Louisa and I push a group of teenagers aside, hip-check their outermost member, and turn left from Avenida Cinco de Mayo onto the slightly less crowded Calle de Monte de Piedad. We read in some guidebook that there’s a restaurant near here that, when available, serves huitlacoche omelets.

We became obsessed with huitlacoche in the first few months of our relationship, having supped on it in Chicago two nights after Louisa met my family for the first time. We stole away to Frontera Grill, just the two of us, Chicago’s famed authentic Mexican restaurant, and were lifted into orbit by the plateful of the oil-black huitlacoche crepes with rich poblano crema. Seeking it out with obsessed fever since then in Mexican groceries throughout Chicago, we could only find it canned—still delicious, but leagues away from the explosiveness of the fresh stuff.

Huitlacoche, revered by many, reviled by many more, is also know as corn smut, dirty, evil, guilty pleasure of the fields, temptress blight, husked pornography… It is a greasy black fungus that results from maize disease, routinely cursed and trashed in American farming, but greeted with biblical gratitude in the fields of Mexico. Linguistically, as seems typical in Mexico, the gravity of such gratitude is coupled with an affirming observational humor; huitlacoche directly translates from Nahuatl into English as raven shit. Louisa and I know it as the truffle of Mexico.

We knew this would happen—that we would come here and spend many an hour, most of them likely fruitless, crisscrossing the city in search of fresh huitlacoche, affirming something ourselves: that after a year trapped in Chicago beneath the wet cloak of mother-disease, each action damped by death—driving, watching television, eating—we still have the ability to revise our priorities, to again shove taste upward, and climb, even if over a mountain of bones, to reclaim it.

And climb we do with protesting stomachs, lean headaches whistling for café con leche, along the shopfronts of Calle de Monte de Piedad—doorless convenience stores peddling magazines, thin-wrappered candies, cans of beer, middle-aged women with suckling infants strapped diagonally to their flanks with green scarves selling woven change-purses and belt buckles on the sidewalks in front.

Soon, the crowd clots like blood, the entire city wounded it seems, and it’s up to us, we melee-ensconced foot travelers, to see, with our body heat alone, that it doesn’t turn septic.

“Why have we stopped moving?” Louisa asks, her voice thick with desperation, all sustenance seeming further and further away now, as supernatural demands are placed upon us walkers to do the sustaining.

I wipe the sweat from my forehead and swear I can hear the stamping of combat boots, a massive collection of angry chants. I’m hungry, thirsty, tired, and panicked; I wish Juan Pérez were here to explain, to smooth the edges of this human blanket and turn everything placid again. I wish the people we loved would never get sick.

The crowd pushes together and soon, we’re in the middle of a street protest, bulldozed forward and to the right. I reach for Louisa’s hand before we can get separated and wonder if those feeding infants can make it through this, still cling fast to the breast. She catches my thumb and uses it to scale my arm. The line of people leading the protest pushes through in the street, carrying signs painted onto bedsheets, words that I can not read. They shout into their megaphones, and the following mob repeats their credo in deafening unison. Banners are tossed into the air, along with bottles and water balloons.

All side streets pour into this one, everyone interrupting their day to see what’s happening. Pedestrians—single, couple, family—stop along the sidewalks and curbs to watch. A father hoists his daughter onto his shoulders so she can see the throng simultaneously hoisting their fists into the air as if striking some invisible overhead drum. People stop and take their breakfasts standing up against the shopfronts, arrested, a multitude of tacos, enchiladas, tamales, held aloft, stopped short on the way from hand to mouth. The tiny women on the street corners freeze in front of their hot comals, their fresh rounds of masa dough only half-pressed into tortillas.

The call-and-response continues in rhythm, some of the marchers bearing angry faces, some excited smiles. And in between such extremes, the breaking of glass, and popping of balloon rubber, urgency and innocence commingle and take Louisa and me into their embrace. Our hearts are boiling and our mouths are confused—Scream? Smile?

What they don’t do, is chew, sip, kiss. But they will again, and will again soon. Yes: this is a place of gravity, gratitude, affirmation, humor, and faith. Faith that food will again fill us, coffee will keep us from sleeping on our feet. We will live today to change our socks, ascend the Rioja stairwell, this time as if from the penetralia of the earth.

The marchers pass, the megaphone sparkling now two blocks away. Louisa and I look to each other and don’t say a word. Somewhere above, a big black bird must be releasing into this world its holy shit, carrying with it the essential nature of division and protest, and we know, we just know, bedsheet-less and without bullhorn, still far below all plummeting excrement, that we will find our elusive huitlacoche. Looking up, we do with our mouths the only thing we can. We open them.

Not too long ago, Simon Smithson submitted a brief blog entry, seeking ideas about the best way to write about place.  I had nothing to say about it.  I was curious.  I wanted to know, too.  I waited.  No one had much to say.

Then I left my place to go to my cousin’s place in Chicago where I met Simon and Zara, who were not in their places, either.

I love Chicago.  Stormy, husky, brawling.  I fit in there well enough.  I’m comfortable there.

Most of the rules in Chicago are the same as here.  It’s a lovable, dirty old dog in a fancy coat–not glamorous, and not really trying to be.  Chicago is at home in its skin.  In that way, it’s similar to the Twin Cities.  Nevertheless, it’s not home, and in conversation with foreigners in a place to which I, too, was foreign, I became acutely aware of it. 

I am proud of Chicago like I’m proud of my sister’s kids.  They’re great.  I love them.  I marvel at them.  But they’re not mine.

Unlike most people from the Upper Midwest, I have never been in any particular hurry to leave.  I see no problem with it.  I can’t imagine what other people have that we don’t–at least in reasonable facsimile.  I like it.  Wherever you go, there you are.

Nevertheless, it’s particularly difficult to write about a place like Minnesota.  No matter how excellent I think it is, to most of the world, I’m talking up an ugly sister to a hapless friend in the hopes that her charming personality will win the day if I can just trick him into being in the same room with her.

It’s practically a con.

A siren song to the happy oblivious.

Never mind the crooked gait, the missing eye, the shoddy public transport, the Iron Range.  She’s a lamb.

So I’m going to try to be honest, here.  No tribal supremacy, no maudlin sentimentality.  I’m going to tell it like it is.

Technically speaking, it’s flyover country.  Home of nothing but lutefisk, mosquitoes, and fat farmers.  But we are a blue state, so as far as most people who live on either coast are concerned, we at least have that going for us.  We’re a strange hue of blue, having our own democratic party of a type found nowhere else in the nation.  I expect Canada to invade any day.  We’re the closest you can get (except maybe the UP) without actually passing through customs.  We’ve been sticking our nipple into Canada for over 150 years.

The running joke about MN politics is that any given person is probably a card-carrying member of both the NRA and the ACLU, and we are happy in our habits.  For nearly as long as I’ve been alive, our habit is to elect democratic presidents, republican governors, one each conservative and liberal national senators…

You get the idea.  We’re not sitting on the fence; we’re straddling it.  We deal with a political climate of extremes the same way we deal with our weather:  Use what’s available to make the situation as tolerable as possible.


For the most part, much of what the coastal supremacists say is true.  Our winter cold is at once hypodermic and searing.  It can, sometimes and if you’re not careful, freezer-burn the skin right off your face.

We do, indeed, have fat farmers.

Our summers are oppressively hot, stormy, and humid, too.  That’s what happens when 10,000 lakes get sucked into the dry Southwestern air that rides in on the jet stream.  Manic depressive weather.  The land of 10,000 natural extremes.

We have a lot of corn.  And livestock.  And water.  Water everywhere.  The water turns to ice, and we drive on it to get from igloo to igloo or state to state. Or just to whip shitties.

Our main defense against all of these accusations is, “Hey.  At least we’re not Wisconsin.”


But also in our defense, I know from experience that many major metropolitan areas smell like piss.  The Twin Cities do not.  We are a proud, clean people.  Little Mogadishu sometimes smells like curry and nag champa, but that’s just how they roll over there.  There is a store there that is the size of most Aldi supermarkets, and it specializes in batik and incense; it has been there for 50 years or something.  The smell is in the sidewalks.

On the West Bank, even the dirt smells like a foreign country.

If I wanted to attribute a sound to Minnesota, I would probably mention how it is possible to hear snow and ice melting (literally true; snow “breathes” and ice “sings”).


I’m not sure what Minnesota tastes like.  Probably like something on a stick.


We are Germans and Scandinavians primarily–traditionally, I should say.  This is changing.  We have some of the largest Hmong, Somali, Sierra Leonian, and Liberian immigrant demographics per capita in the nation.

As I said, we are a clean people.  We like  for things to be nice–not fancy or ostentatious, which would be rude.  Just nice.  Look nice, be nice; don’t make a scene.  That’s the state motto.

Actually, the motto is L’Etoile du Nord.   It is evidence that we once had French people hanging around here.   They were voyageurs and other unsavory, unwashed characters, no doubt.  We shooed them all into Canada and slammed the door.

We shooed them politely, though, I’m sure.  Minnesota Nice.


Minnesota Nice is not actually about BEING nice.  It’s about acting nice.  It’s about showing that you know how to do it.  It’s not unlike French politesse.  It has a lot to do with not imposing on others.  Not shouting, not invading others’ personal space (a Minnesotan’s personal space is half again as large as any other American’s), not invading their auditory or olfactory space, not turning up unannounced, not showing any emotion that may be disturbing to others, not invading ego space with braggadocio, returning calls and correspondence in a snappy fashion, saying “excuse me” when you sneeze…you know…in case you might have grossed someone out, and saying “bless you,” if someone else sneezes, so he or she knows you were not grossed out.

There is a lot of apologizing involved.

Pardon my reach, excuse me, thank you, I don’t want to impose, which floor would you like, I’m sorry, excuse me, my mistake, pardon me, I’m sorry it’s so late, I’m sorry it’s so early…

And if you’re doing nice right, no matter how evil you are in fact, no one will ever, ever know about it.  Some people find this off-putting or problematic or unpalatable.  I don’t see what the difference is between actually being nice and only being nice as far as anyone you ever encounter knows.

I mean, the net effect is the same.

We are adept at getting along.  Feel free to cuss someone out behind his back, but make nice in person.  Do not upset things.  No one wants to deal with that.  Don’t make a scene.

Immigrants from Africa, however, struggle with this aspect of northern culture.  Many come from more outspoken, straightforward speech cultures and are widely regarded as rude or aggressive by Minnesota natives.  Cultural confusion.  Conversely, many Asian immigrants who come from more reserved cultures assimilate fairly easily in this respect.

Our accent–or alleged accent–is legendary.  Most Minnesotans, especially those living in cosmopolitan areas of the state, will erupt in clenched-jaw, terse-lipped, low-voiced, and inappropriately (however reservedly) offended derisions if you tell them that they sound like Fargo.

And rightly so.  The accents represented in that film are caricatures and, even then, caricatures of some of the most extreme accents in the state.  Nevertheless, I discovered that some things just aren’t fit for denial.  “Ya shuur” escaped my lips at least three times in the roughly eight hours we spent with Simon and Zara that weekend in Chicago.  I’d repeat it every time.  To myself, near myself.  To punish myself for having said it.

So, what has already happened, what has already been said, who has already been here?

James Wright, John Berryman, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Patricia Hampl, Ray Gonzales, Winona Ryder, Judy Garland, Steve Zahn, That-Guy-Who-Played-Hellboy, Bob Dylan, Soul Asylum, the Replacements, The Suburbs, Husker Du, The Jayhawks, Bob Mould, Semisonic, The Hold Steady, Atmosphere, and The Artist Known, Then Not Known, and Now Known Again, as Prince.

These people all have formidable Minnesota connections.  I’m sure I’m forgetting some.

John Berryman died less than 2,000 feet from my cubicle at work.

No.  He did not die of boredom.  And not of polar bears, either.

F. Scott Fitzgerald lived in my hometown briefly.

A reporter in the 19th century once said St. Paul, our capital city, was “another Siberia, unfit for human habitation.”  So we threw a street party and a parade in the dead of winter–and continue to, annually, without fail.

Fame and respect outside of Minnesota are hard to come by while you’re in Minnesota, but that’s changing somewhat.  The Twin Cities’ arts scene (performing, visual, and literary), which Minnesotans have been shouting about for decades, is formidable–in many ways ridiculous–relative to our population.  It continues to grow, maybe from the realization that, being where we are, talking funny like we do, we have to work twice as hard to  be considered even half as good.

Minnesota has a tradition of sharing its collections of stuff, be it art or animals, free of charge.

The animals.  The wildlife.  We have wildlife.

But in exchange for cursing us with the coldest major metropolitan area in the nation, The Guy has seen fit to grant us a few boons.

A major one is that Minnesota is 99.9% free of poisonous things.  It’s too cold here for poison.

We do have wolves, bear, puma, moose, and an inexplicably robust (suddenly resurgent) wild turkey population.  I don’t know if you know this, but wild turkeys are mean as fuck.

And stupid.  So stupid.  I wouldn’t normally shoot a living thing, but I might shoot a turkey if properly armed and even mildly provoked.

Come to think of it, our birds are pretty mean in general.  Bald Eagles and Red-Tailed Hawks, especially, may abscond with your Pomeranian or preemie if you don’t keep an eye on it.  Death from above.  For real.

A raptor ate your baby.

Okay.  They don’t take babies.  Please don’t go to your urban condo coastal dinner parties and make wide eyes at people over your martini, telling everyone you heard that the hillbilly Minnesotans sacrifice babies to the national bird.

It’s the June Bugs that take babies.

Another boon and, really, the bottom line:  Unlike our turkeys, our people are smart.  We are among the best-educated states in the country.


Suck on that, coasters.  Take that to your dinner party.

Our winter comes and goes, but your stupid is forever.


Er. I mean.  Um.  Sorry.

Pardon my braggadocio.

What I meant to say was:

  • Wi nøt trei a høliday in [Minnesota] this yër?
  • See the løveli lakes
  • The wøndërful telephøne system
  • And mäni interesting furry animals...
  • Including the majestik møøse
  • A Møøse once bit my sister...
  • No realli! She was Karving her initials on the møøse
    with the sharpened end of an interspace tøøthbrush given
    her by Svenge - her brother-in-law - an Oslo dentist and
    star of many Norwegian møvies: "The Høt Hands of an Oslo
    Dentist", "Fillings of Passion", "The Huge Mølars of Horst
    Nordfink"...[credit]


Anyway.







When I was three, maybe four, my parents moved from a basement apartment in Skokie, Illinois into their first house, built just for us, in Buffalo Grove. My sister was just over a year old. In the apartment, we shared a bedroom, crib-to-crib on the yellow shag carpeting, and I remember peering up from the mattress to the ceiling-high windows. The sidewalk bisected the pane, and I would watch the meditative parade of winter-booted feet stamp the snow dirty, the orange of the streetlight pooling like the color of memory itself.

I remember listening to my sister sleep, breathe, as orange coins fell from the unseen sky, landed on the sidewalk, and called themselves snow. Perhaps, still in close proximity to the womb, this age and this scene rested, and still rests, in some escaped safety, the kind we spend the rest of our lives, in vain and occasional depression, in more than occasional delusion, chasing.

We left that apartment with my mom one morning, leaving the tiny kitchen where our toys were kept on the shelf that most people would have used for spices; where my parents stored only four glasses, one for each of us, mine a plastic yellow cup, my sister’s a plastic green; where, in the living room, on that same shag carpeting, I lay on my stomach watching Sesame Street, and pissing myself. My mom, when recounting this story, overused the word engrossed.

She had long, straight, middle-parted brown hair, a high forehead, coffee-coaster glasses tinted rose like wine, and wore wool, button-down sweater jackets, sewn with orange and blue diamonds. My father had then peaked at 240 pounds, his curly nest of brown hair and full beard that ran from bottom lip to Adam’s apple, underlining his role as sleepless podiatry student. Everything about his appearance exemplified the words internship, residency… and perhaps, as I later learned, prescription drugs. Together they looked like a 1970s-era Diane Keaton and her sasquatch lover leaving the Skokie apartment landlorded by the Papiers, an elderly Polish couple who survived the Holocaust, and who would sing opera together upstairs, my mom holding me by the armpits up to the radiator vent to hear.

My mom drove northwest with my sister and me to check out the Buffalo Grove house in its skeletal stage, a two-story raised ranch, done in what my mom referred to as “mock-Tudor style.” I confess I don’t know what mock-Tudor style means. Either it’s Tudor style or it’s not. I also confess that I frequently imagined a series of hecklers pointing and laughing as Henry Tudor fought the War of the Roses. This was only after I learned to read though.

With my mom, my sister and I tramped along the floors and stairs—still in their plywood stage—of what would be, and still is, my parents’ home. During the first couple years of home ownership, strapped for cash, my parents took in a boarder. She was beautiful, in an elfish sort of way—large mahogany eyes, large ears, and large hoop earrings through which I would snake my four year old fingers, pulling just gently enough to watch her lobes droop, then snap back into place. I remember she had a freckle on one earlobe, left or right I can’t be sure. And I remember raking my pointer over it, marveling at the way it would catch then release the fingernail like some small speed bump of the body. She must have been in her early twenties and wore her brown hair short and bobbed, down to her ear-tops, and bangs that sometimes ran into her eyes. She would blow them out again with her breath, her bottom lip extended, pink and a little frightening. I remember her without a name, though it could have been Susan, and with a received sensuality that I couldn’t have possibly felt at four, could I?

But I remember lying with her in her room—the room that my father would later turn into a tribute to exercise, with a dumbbell rack, rowing machine, treadmill, weight bench, where he overzealously designed and lorded over my sister’s and my workout regimen, which began at age five. But before this strange childhood horror, I would lie with the boarder on the high bed that my parents supplied her, with frilly-edged sheets and blankets and pillowcases of the same orange and blue of my mom’s sweater jacket. We would lie on that bed of petticoats and talk and touch each other’s skin, before my mom would call me upstairs for dinner. She seemed then my touchstone, my point of entry into the world. She stayed with us for about six months, I think, and then was gone. I don’t remember saying goodbye to her. One day she was there, and the next, she was not, the bed empty, soon to be sold at some garage sale.

Though I didn’t speak of the boarder again for many years, until I was probably about her age, twenty-six and poised to marry Louisa, I recalled her fondly, breezily at intervals throughout my life, in some hazy and delicious sense of loss, so sweet it hurt, some engine driving perhaps, the wanderlust that led me from place after place after place to my wife. When I brought her up aloud, Louisa and I were having dinner at a steakhouse with my parents, my sister and her fiancé, my mom beginning to feel the stirrings of illness that were for so long misdiagnosed as polymyalgia or “general malaise.” Perhaps it was this upsweep of togetherness, of having arrived as a family at some sort of initial platform of…well…arrival, of love, of partnership, of complicity, of medium-rare ribeyes and loaded baked potatoes the size of footballs, of rocks glasses filled with whiskey and vodka, of blue cheese-stuffed olives and the silverware din that releases the mystery endorphin responsible for over-indulgence, but I asked at that table, if my parents knew what became of my beloved boarder and her elastic earlobes. I imagined her happily married to a lucky, lucky man.

A little drunk, my parents laughed and wrinkled their foreheads, confused, my mom’s eyes snapping open and looking healthy for the first time in months. Swallowing, they told me they never took in a boarder at all. That I had imagined the whole thing. It became a joke at the holidays, during Louisa’s and my once-a-year trip into Chicago. Have you talked to the boarder lately?

I can’t explain this. Whoever or whatever she was, she ignited something in me, some sugared longing that Mexico helps put into context. Here, wandering the middle of the night streets of Mexico City, full of food and aphrodisiac elixirs, out of sorts with the love of my life, the world seems full of ghosts. They are almost pedestrian here, not one of them dominating another, and all we can do is submit to their distant sirens, flashing Zócalo lights, legless beggars, orange stone churches, silent bells, Aztec sun gods perched at the dark rooftops.

I take Louisa’s hand and we walk back to the cavernous Rioja. I wonder what is real and what isn’t. I wonder what Louisa sees, strokes, says goodbye to, that I can’t. At a certain age, the world’s radiator vents close themselves, climb too high, and we’re far too heavy to be lifted by the armpits. I wonder what I’m looking for up there anyway, or down there in that inscrutable bedroom; where, in this life, I have yet to board. A wild energy runs into my legs and Louisa must feel it too, thick as crude, because we simultaneously quicken our pace, rush like erogenous ghosts back to our room of echoes. We pass two ancient Aztec women, hunched and tiny. They whisper secret operas to each other, hiding their answers, and perhaps ours too, in the thick black of their braids.

The night sky smells of rain, but there’s no rain, there is to be no rain tonight, and this makes me think of ghosts and their smells, ghosts and meteorology, which of course stirs me to think of lightning; how one’s hair must smell after being struck in someone else’s country, long after the street-food stalls have closed, and options are limited, and there’s too much sulfur in your blood. I’m hungry and irrational, and after we dump our suitcases in the room, Louisa takes my hand, leads me to the marble stairs and we go down, down, down to find food.

Blood sugar dropping like sycamore leaves in a hurricane, I begin babbling about lightning, smells of rain. Louisa has gotten used to this. Back in Chicago, with its chemotherapies and countless scans, with its bald-mother heads and deflated fathers, I was like this most of the time.

“You know, men are struck by lightning four times more often than women,” I say, our footsteps booming in the after-hours hotel, the old eagle reincarnate thumbing through a magazine behind the front desk. Even though he wears reading glasses, his nose is nearly pressed to the page. I resist the temptation to make some “eagle-eye, my ass” joke, and stick, perhaps irrationally, to lightning.

“Do men spend more time outdoors?” I ask, “holding lightning rod-like things, like golf clubs? Or is lightning drawn to testosterone?”

“Weather must be a woman,” Louisa confirms, and I know, I just know she resists her own temptation to say something about the penis as antenna.

“Well, I’m fucked,” I say.

Louisa pulls me past the old man at the front desk—she knows my compulsion to strike up a conversation, show off my shattered Spanish, will outweigh even my lust for food right now, to my blood sugar’s detriment. Soon, we’re on the street, surprisingly quiet for a metropolitan area of nearly 21 million people. It is, I suppose, a Tuesday night in December—Wednesday morning really. Graffiti slithers along the buildings’ bases, day-glo snakes rushing for their holes—eyeballs commingling with lowercase Gs, whose tails extend like tongues. Either this graffiti is unusually erotic, or my need for food is approaching desperate, critical. Only hospital designations will do…

We choose the first open restaurant we see, a small beacon of muted yellow light a couple blocks from the Rioja. It’s Potzolcalli, and we’re among the last two tables of their night. In their overblown laminated menus, and table tents advertising fluorescent drink specials, the place strikes me as the Friday’s of Mexico, a bit cookie cutter. I’m not surprised to later learn the place has 18 outlets throughout Mexico City, but am immediately sated not only by the proximity to food, the smell of roasting corn driving the phantom-rain back into the atmosphere’s afterlife, but by the decor, rife with big-eyed clay animals, half burnt candles dripping their red wax down the yellow walls, giant wooden chairs with armrests wide enough for our legs, carved Metapec life trees capturing, in pottery, the seductive árbol from which Adam and Eve biblically suckled.

In situations like this, I typically order what I don’t know, welcoming the surprise, even if it is less than tasty. This had led, of course, to many a food-borne illness. But perhaps the same chemical that makes me vulnerable to lightning can successfully fight gustatory bacteria, allowing me always to eat and eat and eat another day.

I order a mysterious elixir called Garañona, which, the skinny twenty-something waiter assures me, his cheekbones poking from his face like chicks too weak to break the membrane egg, contains about a dozen herbs and barks, lots of sugar, and serious aphrodisiac properties. He transfers this last description across language by pumping his fist horizontally through the air, surely coupling with the windblown dust mites.

“Oh, great,” Louisa protests, “That’s just what you need.”

Our eyes narrow with exhaustion and, in this light, we feel airborne ourselves, and microscopic, dizzy with the first eight years of our marriage, uncovering the world with each other, and in each other, excavating with our tiny brushes the small truths in small sanctuaries, wherein all we can do is consume together, two cannibals against the world, all food the border we must balance upon between civility and the civil right to voraciousness; to eat and to eat each other. Our eyes narrow, and I think we realize all this, wordlessly in travel-and-hunger dementia, love ardor, and that smell of roasting corn. This, even before we leash our bodies to the weather of tonight, the next eight years, and the Garañona, and cerveza Bohemia and strawberry milkshake and tacos with carne asada, tinga, pollo con mole poblano, cerdo con mole verde, chicharron, epazote and sweet pickled onion…

Fires

By Matthew Gavin Frank

Travel

The fire-eaters, fire-dancers, and fire-spitters decorate the street corners. Beneath each traffic light: hordes of vendors peddling scratch-off lottery tickets, caramel candies, paper flowers. Louisa and I watch from the taxicab windows as the heart of Mexico City, even at midnight, beats as if riddled with morning coffee. Pockets of deafening horn-driven music ignite then die as we push slowly through the crowd toward Hotel Rioja. The city seems to glow as if with silver foil, peeled back just enough to reveal this contained and somehow irreverent human vitality, left to thrive on its own beneath Mexico City’s infamous ceiling of pollution. When we are hidden from the stars, we’re safe to engage what obsesses us, and here, shooting from a side street into the ballooning Zócalo square, what obsesses us seems to be essentially good.

After confronting my mother’s mortality head-on in Chicago, Louisa and I are more receptive to things like caramels and paper flowers—the small beauties that allow us our small joys, which are, after all, the stitches that hold us together, keep our blood inside us. We’re receptive to things like the Christmas light sculptures and façades that decorate the Zócalo’s Catedral Metropolitana de la Asunción de María cathedral, the Aztec Templo Mayor, the National Palace with it’s mansion-sized Mexican flag. The flag’s emblem, as dictated by Aztec legend, was a gift from the gods. The gods told the Aztecs to found their city on the land where they were to spot a chimerical eagle, clinging to a prickly pear tree, gorging itself on a snake. It was here, in this same square where a skinny mother and her toddler son now peddle oranges from a green blanket to the midnight citrus snackers, that the Aztecs fulfilled the vision. This is the square where Moctezuma II had his houses, and in these garish light decorations, we can sense the ancient Aztec belief that this was, indeed the center of the universe. I reach for Louisa’s hand, wondering, in the Aztec scheme of things, which animal we are; which one my mom is.

And steering us through it, as celestial as the night scene itself, is an old bald man pointing with cigar-stub fingers to each building, each lamppost, each greening sculpture and muttering explanations as mysterious as wormholes in lisping Spanish, spittle adorning his words like gold tinsel. I lean forward to hear him, a series of pathetic fireworks explode their white light as benign as camera flashes to our left, and can only make out the muffled, but reverently spoken word, “Zócalo.” His mouth squashes the word like a cucaracha and it sounds, in this tiny cab as if pressed through the static of a shortwave radio.

Louisa touches the window as if attempting to get closer to the action. Tiny women in impossibly blue kerchiefs carry obese bundles of rolled bathmats on their backs. Children swordfight with pink glowsticks. The old man circles the square twice for us, making sure we take it all in, which, of course, is hopeless. We’re weary and hungry, and sinking into that wonderful hot-tub of travel, snapped out of our comfort zones, and light-headed. It’s unwise to keep our hearts beneath the surface of the water for too long. We might just die dazed and elated.

We turn onto one of the many dendritic side streets that extend like cephalopod arms into the roaring night-ocean of Ciudad de México. Hernán Cortés once described these roads as having the width of jousting lances. Surely, just by driving it, we cave in the chest armor of some benevolent ghost. Soon, we are parked in front of the Hotel Rioja—an old whore of a place, skin peeling, watermarked, skeleton pressing from beneath, but bearing a defunct regality, operating from the tender misconception that lipstick masks all age. I want to hug this hotel, deserving of both our generosity and respect.

Around its hip-corner, I will soon buy my Leon Cervesa Negra for about thirty cents. But first: dinner. And before that: shaking hands with the cabbie who sandwiches my fingers in his palms, stands on his tiptoes to kiss my wife on her cheek. We roll our suitcases over marble and step into the scarred belly of the whore, where even our breath echoes, and another short old man in a white dress shirt steps from behind the front desk, beaming like some reincarnated eagle.

I don’t know if Mark was the Paul to my John or if maybe I was the Keith to his Mick.  We got along far better than Glenn Frey and Don Henley, dressed more casually than Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious, and didn’t carry handguns like Dr. Dre and Ice Cube.  We were just a couple guys on Chicago’s North Side that loved rock and roll.

Mark and I had known each other for some time before we discovered our shared passion for rock.  But when the day came that we finally got around to discussing music, two things were revealed: 1) we loved The Rolling Stones; and 2) our favorite hobby was playing guitar.   You may reasonably assume that the reason we each viewed playing our instruments as a hobby rather than a career was largely a function of our musical abilities.

As we loaf near midnight in our first bed in Mexico City, Louisa’s kiss cooling on my lips, the red scrolled metal of the bed frame screeching like so many rodents each time we move to scratch, drink, caress, I hear through the skinny walls the laughter of the nighttime desk crew. It’s not a laughter I’m used to, not one I’d typically hear from the many nighttime desk crews I’ve encountered on my many car-bound U.S. crossings. It’s not a laughter that gels with the Motel 6s and sub-Motel 6s that have borne witness to much of my sleep.

This room has no TV, but has beautiful wooden nightstands. Over mine, the sole wall decoration hangs—a calendar boasting Diciembre, the Virgen de Guadalupe looking down upon the meager squares, doing their best (and failing) to represent our days here, her eyes deflating as gold rays shoot from behind her like the kitschiest sun in the galaxy. She must know what it takes to laugh like this. She must have the ability to describe it in a way that doesn’t point from a distance and exoticize. But I don’t. I am an otherer. And this laughter is other, and exotic as hell. It’s as simple as a pink balloon. This laughter is the toddler joy of dragging one’s fingers over balloon skin, eliciting from the thin rubber, that dribbling, speed-bump frictive joy. Simple as a light-stick. A set of iridescent jacks.

I try to commune with it, stick my tongue between my lips and blow. I haven’t done this in years, and the vibration is exhilarating. Louisa looks up from her book, Obama’s “Dreams from My Father,” and smacks me on the shoulder. This is the first time my South African wife is traveling as a U.S. citizen, a status we jointly pursued throughout seven years of marriage and thousands of dollars and now, here, in this cheap, ornate, cavernous Hotel Rioja just off the main Zócalo square in the Centro Histórico, each laugh-echo from the courtyard serves as our payoff.

Beneath the orange and green wool blanket, she brings her knees to her chest and asks, “Are you spitting at me?”

How do I begin to answer this? I’m exhausted from traveling all day, too exhausted to sleep. How to I go about telling Louisa of my stupid attempt to commune with this new laughter? That spitting like a toddler at a teacher is my only touchstone. The only way I know how…

“I’m must be tired,” I say, and I’m happy I do because she leans in and kisses me warm again. Behind us, on the wall, the Virgen doubtlessly gives us her garish blessing. Louisa goes back to Barack, I go back to jotting a few innocuous lines into my notebook, cracking, with a low hiss the can of Leon Cervesa Negra I picked up for about thirty cents at the convenience store on Avenida Cinco de Mayo. The beer is lukewarm, tinny and just what the doctor ordered. To be sure, it’s my only hope for sleep. Soon, the laughter dissipates, but the construction of Hotel Rioja amplifies the most meager of actions. I can hear the old hunched desk clerk click his pen open three floors beneath us. Our room is on the indoor courtyard; if we dared step from our cracked wooden door, we could peer over the railing down to the nucleus of the place, meditate on the smooth bald head of the desk clerk whose small coughs sound in this place like the roars of Armageddon. The traffic outside could be under our bed.

Louisa and I need this—our first time overseas after spending a year in Chicago nursing my mother back from cancer, a year confronting the demons of my childhood bedroom, a room I hadn’t regularly slept in for fourteen years; a room bearing the obsessions of my youth, a past I only thought I had moved beyond; a room far more forbidding than any Motel 6; a room that signified, in it’s Alyssa Milano-circa-Who’s the Boss pin-ups and autographed pictures of Walter Payton, the loss of our marital sanctuary.

We need this. A room with walls that lets Mexico in, that allow our remembered lives, remembered selves to seep through its pores, where we can collect them into this bed, this can of beer, these quiet swallows between kisses. Above us, another couple, having found sleep, snore a telenovela through our ceiling.

I don’t remember if I caught wind of it through Facebook or Twitter, in an email or if I just stumbled across a headline on the web, but when I heard that author Stephen Elliott was sending around a limited amount of advance copies of his new book, The Adderall Diaries, for free, I kept the information to myself and emailed him immediately.

He calls it the Lending Library.

Asks that people read his book in a week and then send it along. Just pay for the first-class postage and don’t mistreat the book for the next person.

I got my free copy on a Saturday, finished it the following Saturday, and am sending it on its way to the next cheapskate, er, reader on Monday.


The Adderall Diaries is the story of how Elliott battles writer’s block and an Adderall addiction in San Francisco until hearing that an old acquaintance from his S&M community has confessed to killing eight or nine people and won’t say who they are. The acquaintance is also the best friend of a man who is about to stand trial in a high-profile case, a guy accused of killing the mother of his two children, a Russian woman he met through a bride service. It’s framed by the complicated relationship between Elliott and his father who killed a man right before Elliott was born, or didn’t. But probably.

It’s a fast and brilliant read; it’s New Journalism-y where the writer sets out to report on an event but writes just as much, or more, on himself and his role in the event. It’s a true-crime memoir. It’s written on drugs, like On the Road and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The speed that Elliott is swallowing and snorting gives the book a jumpy feel, but the chronology doesn’t suffer. Unlike the author at times.

The book is brutally honest.

The book is immediately current, it’s eye-opening into the world of sado-masochism sex play (unless you’ve already read some of Elliott’s best work), and it invites you to investigate the lives of your parents before they were your parents.

And the book is, if you sign up before it’s too late, totally free (save for the postage).


Stephen and I emailed back and forth:

The Nervous Breakdown: The idea behind the Lending Library reminds me of a site I used to participate in, PaperBackSwap.com, where you list some used books on your shelf that you were totally done with, and if someone wanted it, the owner paid the shipping. Which was cool because I had too many copies of The Great Gatsby and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and I wanted to collect all the books in the Fletch series. But here you are sending out your book that hasn’t been on anyone’s shelf yet. For free. Could you tell me how this came about, if this was your idea or something Graywolf Press was looking to do with the right writer? And how did the second party react to the first party’s proposal?

Stephen Elliott: The idea was mine. I was having a “marketing” conversation with Graywolf and they were talking about getting galleys into the hands of bloggers. They had sent me a bunch of galleys to give to reviewers and people in the literary world. And that’s when I had this idea of just sending the book to anyone who requests it, but requiring they forward the book within a week.

The impression I got was that Graywolf had mixed feelings about the idea, but they didn’t say no, and they had already sent me the galleys. And I think they’re glad I’ve been doing it. I mean, I’ve always believed that you don’t make money selling books to your friends, you make money selling books to your friends’ friends. (not that I’ve ever made any money) This is an extension of that idea.

But also, you know, I just want people to read my book. I don’t frankly care if they buy it.

TNB: I can definitely see how this could pay off, especially if you already had all the galley copies: People read The Adderall Diaries for free, dig it, and spread the good news via word-of-mouth or through social media sites (if they’re able to take a break from updating everyone about their latest pedicure or what they just ate). Do you find that you’re getting more press this time around because of the Lending Library idea, more than when Happy Baby (Picador, 2004) was about to be released?




SE: I’m getting tons more press than when Happy Baby was released. I think that’s partly because of the Lending Library. But you have to understand, Happy Baby didn’t get any press. It was edited and designed by McSweeney’s and published/distributed by MacAdam/Cage, and in the middle there was this disconnect. Because McSweeney’s had designed and edited the book, there was no-one at MacAdam/Cage who had any ownership of the book, and so it fell between the cracks. Initially there were only maybe four reviews of the book. You couldn’t even order it at Borders. Happy Baby ended up doing really well and made a lot of best of the year lists, which gave me a lot of faith in the system, that if you wrote a really good book it would find its audience. But there was no attention paid to that book when it came out.

By that way, I’m not blaming anyone. I’m perfectly happy with what happened with Happy Baby. If Dave Eggers hadn’t of edited that book it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as good.

This time everything’s different. This is really my first major book in five years. My Girlfriend Comes To The City and Beats Me Up was just a collection of short, erotic vignettes, a minor book, I think. So now I have this book coming out, and since Happy Baby I’ve done all this political organizing around literary events, along with politically inspired anthologies. The truth is, I know tons of people in the literary world now, and in 2004 I didn’t. Plus, I’ve maybe built up a little fan base from my previous work.

But you know, in the end, you live and die by the work. If a literary book isn’t really good, (and this is still a literary book, even if it’s non-fiction) then nothing you can do is going to make the book succeed. You might sell a bunch of copies initially, but if a book is going to stick around it’s going to be because of the writing. I think people think too much about marketing, and not enough about writing good books.

TNB: Speaking of marketing, it’s funny that one of the things I got the most fired up about in your book was learning that your father would actively try to sabotage your writing career, calling reporters who interviewed you to say you were lying about your hard childhood, writing harsh Amazon reviews for your books. How did you first react to these things, particularly when he wrote those anonymous shitty reviews? Did you contact him? And did you begin to wonder if your memories were correct, although it’s obvious that they were pretty sharp in your mind?

SE: Well yeah. That’s what a lot of the book is about. I definitely questioned my memories, which is a pretty healthy thing to do. We all remember things differently. It’s possible for my memories and interpretations, and my father’s, to co-exist, even though they contradict each other.

The bad reviews my father left of my books (which he’s still doing) are never anonymous. I mean, he always says something so that I know it’s him. I’ve contacted him about it in the past, but I don’t contact him about it anymore. He should say whatever he wants, whatever makes him feel better.

TNB: Your father was a writer and author of a couple books. Have you ever critiqued his work? Is there anything of his you would suggest reading?

SE: I don’t know if it would be appropriate for me to critique my father’s work, but my favorite book by him is My Years With Capone.

TNB: You’ve been published in Esquire, the New York Times, GQ, Salon.com, The Believer (which is where I first read your work), and in some great collections including Best American Non-Required Reading and Best Sex Writing. You also started your own culture site, The Rumpus. What drove your to start your own publication and was it easier or harder than you thought it was going to be?

SE: I don’t remember what I thought The Rumpus was going to be. I look at creating The Rumpus like writing a novel. You just start, you don’t know what it’s going to become. The trick is focusing on creating something good. Don’t worry about what other people want to read, write the book that you want to read. Same with an online publication. I created the website I wanted to spend time on.

I was driven to do it after I finished The Adderall Diaries. It’s my seventh book, and I wasn’t ready to start another book right away. So this was a creative project I could get under while I figure out what to do with the rest of my life.

TNB: Well, hopefully when you start your next book you continue on with The Rumpus. I just discovered it a few months ago. You going to continue to head the site up from San Francisco or will you ever make your way back to Chicago?

SE: I don’t think I’ll make my way back to Chicago. I love Chicago, but San Francisco is my home now. It was an accident. I was driving around with no plan in mind. I was a ski bum, then I coasted into Moab. I ran out of money and gas in San Francisco eleven years ago. I kept meaning to leave, but I never did.

You can buy The Adderall Diaries in September 2009 from Graywolf Press, or you can borrow it now.

Keep up with Stephen Elliott until then on The Rumpus.