All Posts in Volume 66: Issue 2
Mary Terrier '10
Everything is exposed: the twitching limbs
of leafless Aspens, the glinting asphalt wound
around mountains, the succulents: armed,
defensive. Here, every street is named
for a saint, every church bell chimes at once,
but try finding the horizon—blocked out by the dark
charred shoulders of mountains—only visible
if you climb, and climb.
Forest Purnell '12
When trains were first introduced in the U.S., many people believed that moving at the obscene speeds involved would cause the blood to boil. Yet as thousands of Americans began fanning across the continent in the mid-19th century, blood no hotter than usual, the concern subsided.
The train was an alchemical re-purposing of energy and material, a bizarre thing had neither appetite nor breath nor capacity for fatigue, yet on its own seemed somehow to move. The question first posed by a people habituated to the wafting of reeds and panting of horses was, could this machine be safe? Could the flesh of a human being withstand its conditions without being blistered to death in its act of biological transcendence, of hubris?
One orange summer, below the aerosol shroud surrounding Shanghai Pu Dong International Airport, my father and I ran bag-strapped down a long, wide corridor. Our footsteps clacked on the shiny linoleum as we passed from the arrival terminal to the magnetic-levitation train station. The first operational high-speed railway of its kind in the world, the Shanghai Maglev Train had been running its one-way trip between the airport and downtown for three years by this time.
Magnetic levitation trains do not touch their rails. Instead, they float over an infinitesimal space held open by strong like-charged electromagnets. Because the only resistance that they meet is air resistance, maglev trains are among the fastest mass-transit ground vehicles. Today, only a handful exist worldwide.
Outside the glass wall of the causeway, we caught a last glimpse of endless crowds in a dusty world being siphoned off by bus and taxi. We arrived at the ticket kiosk and passed through spotless chrome turnstiles, finally settling into the nova-blue interior of the train while a few other passengers arrived.
Shortly after the doors slid shut, a whirring din rose as the train began to creep, first walking speed, then running, then faster than any human being. The digital tachometer over the baggage racks read 40 kilometers per hour as we pitched out of the station. Soon the number doubled, then doubled again. We were bolting over the sweltering landscape on elevated tracks raised by stilts a story above the ground. The distant skyline approached as we overtook car after car on the adjacent highway. Everything under the sky began to transform. People in the passing slums and construction sites became impressionistic figures then abstract blotches, then disappeared completely. As we approached 350 kilometers per hour the same began to happen for nearby buildings; the music of architecture began to unfreeze. Factories and farms transformed into tones and rhythms; it became possible to feel more than see them. The horizon flowed along at a creeping speed while a city engulfed us. At 400 kilometers per hour, my blood began to boil.
Toyo Ito is an architect known for designs that challenge conventional concepts about urban design, energy use, and the human body. "We posses one body as lived experience,” Ito says, “and another body which tries to burst through it." In the fact that a telephone booth is both a "physical space," connected to its immediate surroundings, and a "virtual space," connected to a multitude of other places, lies the fundamental distinction that Ito uses to describe the "duplex body." For Ito, the human body can be spoken of both in terms of physical form and the ideas latent in that form.
Many of Ito's buildings are designed to act as "media-suits" that extend the virtual body in the same way conventional architecture accommodates the physical body. Ito began exploring these ideas with his work on the Mediatheque, a multi-purpose public building in Sendai, Japan that allows patrons to access both traditional and new media.
What do the media devices Ito pays so much attention to have in common? They evoke elsewhere. The whole intent of cars, airplanes, trains, and other vehicles are on elsewhere. Yet these vehicles are more than objects; they are the buildings themselves.
Thus, architecture that moves has always been about elsewhere as well as here, virtual space as well as physical space. An airplane extends the physical body by moving it, but even as the body moves, it remains―from the reference of the airplane―static. The experience of flight is not an experience of movement, but rather a dream-like sequence of being still, waiting in lines, sitting in rows, drinking, using the toilet.
We look out the window and see our surroundings sliding by, but it is not movement in a physical, bodily sense; it is movement in the sense that we know intellectually that we are in motion. The world outside is like the world we could walk through, except if we did so it would not effectively be the same to our senses. We, as three-dimensional creatures, cannot envision a fourth dimension; neither can we experience the speed or the energy transfer involved in machine transport. The faster the maglev train goes, the less the world outside seems like a tangible reality until―at 400 kilometers per hour―it evokes a dazzling kind of cubism. Yet even at low speeds―10 kilometers per hour, 20 kilometers per hour―we are not actually experiencing the physical space the vehicle passes through as much as the interior the vehicle itself and the exterior imagery it generates.
While a static building's physical space is connected with that of its immediate environment, the moment a piece of architecture begins to move relative to its surroundings, a disconnection occurs. Once the speed of the structure exceeds a certain limit, human passengers can no longer experience physical space outside the vehicle. Thus, the surroundings of a piece of moving architecture become abstract. It has been the nature of machine transport, ever since the first passenger trains, to convert physical space into virtual space.
Isabel Marlens '12
Indian farmers have been growing Basmati rice for thousands of years. They cultivate it with knowledge accumulated over the course of generations. The seeds are saved from one summer to the next. The rice adapted over centuries to thrive in the ecosystems they call home. This uniquely aromatic rice is a staple of the Indian diet -- and possesses significant cultural importance as well. One strain is used to mark a wedding, another, a funeral, a third, the birth of a child.
In September 1997, the Texas company RiceTec took out U.S. patent No. 5,663,484 on Basmati rice. Soon after, the world's largest seed corporation, Monsanto, took out a similar patent (EP 0445929 B1) on a traditional strain of Indian wheat. Scientists from the U.S. and Europe then began to genetically modify these crops in ways they claimed would promote higher yields. In reality, they undid centuries of traditional breeding by Indian farmers. The GMOs (Gentically Modified Organisms), not adapted to the unique environmental conditions of the places they are grown, are no longer able to survive without chemical fertilizers and pesticides. They are subject to disease and blight. Some genetically modified seeds are even self-terminating -- meaning it is impossible to save them from one year to the next.
Genetically modified seeds infect and interbreed with crops of the same species planted in their vicinity. If farmers save seeds from their own crop -- as they have always done – the result is that they are almost certainly violating a patent. As food activist and physicist Dr. Vandana Shiva explains: "It's basically a system that criminalizes the small producer and processor." In order to plant legally, some farmers have no choice but to buy seeds from huge multinational corporations like RiceTec and Monsanto every year.
GMOs are expensive, and the seeds unreliable. These added costs, combined with new competition from foreign markets are a death knell for many small farmers trying to maintain their traditional way of life. They fall deeply in debt. Their land is taken away, and they are left with no choice but to migrate to urban slums. The desperation provoked by these corporate patents and the debt they lead to has driven 100,000 Indian farmers to suicide.
Everyone knows Italians love their cheese. Mozzarella di Bufula, Parmagiano Reggiano, Pecerino Romano. Each region of Italy has a unique culture, a unique cuisine, and at least one very unique cheese variety to its name. In Puglia, a dry but fertile southern region on the Adriatic, Caciocavallo Podolico del Gargano is the favorite. It is made from the milk of Podolico cows, a rare cattle variety that lives exclusively free-range, roaming the Lucanian Mountains to feed on rosehips, blueberries, hawthorne, and cornelian cherries. Caciocavallo translates to "cheese on horseback," which is thought to be a reference to the way the cheese is hung to age -- one ball of cheese on either end of a rope, held by a hook in the middle. But it could also stem from the days of the Roman Empire when traders and soldiers hung the cheese from their saddles as they rode the major trade route -- which runs through Puglia -- from Rome to Constantinople.
Either way, this cheese and those who produce it have a history that is lengthy and rich. Caciocavallo producers insist that the only way to age their cheese properly is to hang it for years in the caves of soft Tufo stone found in the Puglian countryside. Time spent in this cool dark environment is what gives the cheese its delicate flavor, its consistency. It’s also important that the cheese be made from raw milk. Caciocavallo producers take great pride in their history, in their product, and in their way of life. They insist that cheese made from pasteurized milk is simply not the same.
Recently, however, their caves have been scrutinized by European Union (EU) health regulators, who also argue that selling cheese made from raw milk is unsanitary and illegal. It is often prohibitively expensive for small farmers to pay for the sterile, industrial kitchen set-up the health standards require. Only corporate scale food producers can afford to compete causing a precious cheese, a precious understanding, and a precious way of life to vanish. As the "Manifesto in Defense of Raw Milk Cheese," published by Slow Food Italy, warns: "Be aware that once the knowledge, skills and commitment of this culture have been lost, they can never be regained."
For traditional farmers and food producers like those in India and Italy, growing food, cooking food, and sharing food have significant cultural value that has developed over hundreds or even thousands of years to fulfill social, spiritual, and ecological needs as well as the physical need to eat. Here in the United States, we have less depth to our cultural history. Since European colonization, our nation has been a cultural melting pot with few unified traditions. Today, however, a blossoming interest in gourmet cooking, a wide variety of ethnic influences, and the movement for organic, fresh, and local foods, are converging to sow the seeds of a vibrant food culture.
But for the past fifty years, the food market in the U.S. has been dominated by the same vast corporate interests now threatening rice-growers in India. These corporations have put up powerful structural opposition to movements made in the direction of localizing food economies. They have justified their dominance by presenting one argument after another for why their system benefits consumers.
Among these justifications is sanitation and health. Recently, health regulations, like those affecting the Caciocavallo makers, have been instituted all over the world in the name of public safety. While many of these regulations have a degree of validity, many more of them involve the purchase of equipment and facilities that bankrupt the small producer, while doing little to promote the health and safety of consumers. Only corporate scale operations have the capital required to follow the safety codes without falling into debt, and it is interesting to note that much of the research done in support of these new health regulations is conducted by organizations like the Stanford Center for Food and Health Research, which was founded with a three million dollar grant from corporate agricultural giant Cargill.
Much corporate enterprise has also taken place in the name of efficiency -- supported by the argument that only through industrial scale food production will we be able to feed the world's ever-increasing population of poverty-stricken hunger. The assertion is that large-scale production is by nature more efficient than small-scale production. But to corporate agribusiness, efficiency means reducing human labor to a minimum and substituting it with mechanized technology and chemical pesticides. This creates both unemployment and debt for farmers who feel they need to purchase ever more new technology in order to compete. In the United States, throughout the 20th century, much of the land once owned by small family farmers, planted with diverse edible crops, has been lost to agribusiness due to debt. It has been converted into monoculture -- space where tremendous amounts of cash crops like corn and soybeans are grown for export. Food and jobs were removed from local economies. Heavy machinery and chemical pesticides arrived in their stead. Those farmers who remained and chose to grow for agribusiness were more than ever vulnerable to global market swings and commodities price manipulation.
Today, this model is being exported to countries in Africa, Asia, South America, and traditional farmers everywhere are losing their land to agribusiness, to soybeans and corn. It has been said that by purchasing food imported from developing countries we are helping to prevent poverty and increase infrastructure. But as Vandana Shiva explains: "The idea that poverty reduction in the south relies on access to northern markets is a child of globalization. We (in India) have limited resources. There's limited land, there's limited water, there's limited energy. And if we have to use that limited land and water and energy to produce one extra lettuce head for a British household, we can be sure we are robbing Indian peasants of their rice and their wheat. We are robbing India of her water. We are in fact creating a situation where we are exporting, to the third world and the south, famine and drought."
One way in particular that globalized corporate agriculture defies efficiency is in its relation to resource use and the environment. As Zac Goldsmith, former editor of The Ecologist explains: "We often hear about efficiency of scale but the truth is we have developed a system that could not be more wasteful. We have tuna fish caught on the east coast of America, flown to Japan, processed, and flown back to America to be sold to consumers. We have English apples flown to South Africa to be waxed, then flown back again to be sold to consumers." Every year in the U.S. we import 365,350 tons of potatoes, and export 324,544 tons. In come 953,142 tons of beef, and out go 899,834. We buy 41,209 tons of coffee, and sell 42,277. Tremendous amounts of metals, plastics, and fossil fuels are required to make this system operate. It is often extolled as "free trade," the foundation of a new global community. But in reality, as Goldsmith goes on to point out, it is the farthest thing possible from free trade -- it could never exist without massive government subsidies.
As Helena Norburg-Hodge, founder of the International Society for Ecology and Culture explains: "Because of hidden subsidies and regulations, we have a situation where food from the other side of the world often costs less than food from a mile away." Those who run corporate agribusiness have enormous amounts of money at their disposal, and they use it to wield considerable political power through congressional lobbying, campaign contributions, and the placement of former agribusiness executives in key government posts. The end result is that the U.S. tax payer winds up subsidizing the giant corporations that grow the food, pump the oil, and manufacture the transport required to keep the industrial agricultural system running smoothly. With these government subsidies giving agribusiness an increasing competitive advantage, it grows ever harder for the small farmer to compete.
"We're living in a country and in an environment where we don't value food," says Barclay Daranyi, co-owner -- with her husband Tony -- of Indian Ridge Farm and Bakery, a small, diversified organic farm operation in Norwood, Colorado. "We're used to food being one of the cheaper things in our budgets. We're used to the high price of gas, we're used to the high price of energy -- there are even people who won't blink an eye when they pay five dollars for a latte. Yet, you consistently hear people complaining about the high cost of organic food. People go to the farmer's market and say this is ridiculous, it's so expensive -- but I think what they're looking at is the actual cost of what it takes to grow the food. People aren't used to paying that." Barclay Daranyi acknowledges that as a small farmer -- especially considering the expense of land, which is usually priced for development or industrial agriculture -- it can be difficult to make ends meet. But then she adds, laughing, "people don't usually go into organic farming because they are looking for a get-rich-quick scheme."
When asked why she did choose a farmer's life, Barclay says simply: "It seemed like the most direct form of action I could take … I think a lot of the world's ills stem from exploitation of our resources whether it be environmental resources, human labor, air, water, soil, the spirits of people. If you do something in a very sustainable and conscientious manner, you will be doing your small part to right some of those ills."
Barclay is one of many hoping to end the domination of agribusiness and rebuild a more sustainable food culture here in America.
She had the good fortune to grow up on the famous (in the organic farming world, at least) Caretaker Farm in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Her parents, Sam and Elizabeth Smith, were pioneers in the organic farming movement, and they ran one of the nation's first CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture programs). She began learning to run a farm from a very young age, and she acknowledges that this was a big help when starting one of her own. Yet, she did not always intend to be a farmer herself. Barclay attended Yale University, where she majored in art and thought of becoming a painter. Her husband Tony earned an MBA at Northwestern, and the two met in the small ski town of Telluride, CO. They bought their farm in nearby Norwood several years later. Some may express confusion that such well educated people with access to a world of opportunities would choose to spend their lives farming. But as Barclay says: "It's hard to separate out how much I farm because I think it's important, and how much I do it because it's my passion … It sustains me spiritually, physically."
The Daranyis are frustrated by the fact that farming is often painted as an undesirable occupation because it involves physical labor -- a notion prevalent in the U.S. and currently being spread to sustainable farmers all over the world, who, for the first time, are feeling ashamed of their traditional ways. This is explained by Eliana Espillico, founder of PRATEC, an organization which strives to maintain the ancient farming traditions of the native people in Peru. Native Peruvians have farmed sustainably for thousands of years, and, although they have very little money, their knowledge of the land allows them to enjoy a very high quality of life – certainly higher than that enjoyed by those who have lost their land and live in the slums of vast, third world cities. But now, Eliana explains: "Our children learn to reject their own culture in school.Why? Because the teachers tell them 'if you don't learn multiplication, you'll go feed the pigs. If you don't learn multiplication, you'll go farm like your father.' As if to farm would be an offense or a crime or something bad!"
Any time spent on a farm like the Daranyis' will likely convince one otherwise. At Indian Ridge, it is easy to see the beauty of living simply, sustainably, and the act of being in touch with one's surrounding environment. From the graceful comfort of the straw bale home they built themselves, to the soft clucking of the chickens and the garden rows stretched out beneath the bright mountain sun, it all feels somehow right. "I've always loved Little House on the Prairie," Barclay explains."I've been enamored with a more subsistence way of life. I don't see it as archaic or primitive. I see it as really interesting and fun."
Just like Ma and Pa Ingalls, the Daranyis have taken care to insure that they run a diversified operation which can satisfy a significant percentage of their basic needs. They grow many varieties of organic vegetables and raise pastured poultry for eggs and meat, goats for milk and cheese, and pigs for meat as well. They bake and sell organic bread, pizza crusts, and granola. This is done in part to insure that, should one area of their operation suddenly fail -- say due to a drought, or a disease affecting chickens -- they would still be able to rely on the others for income. In addition, a diversified farm, unlike a farm planted in monoculture, functions in some ways like a diverse natural ecosystem. Certain plants and animals, when kept in balance with one another, play beneficial roles by maintaining soil nutrients, keeping pests away, and regulating disease. This lessens the need for fertilizers and pesticides, and leads to healthier plants, animals, and human beings.
The sense of community is also important to the health of humans, which is something Americans often have difficulty finding. The Daranyis feel that this problem is one that CSAs are able to address. Barclay explains: "Running a CSA really connects me with a community-- the people I feed off my farm. Families with children will come, they bring their grandparents. We have harvest days and members volunteer. Their kids come and pick flowers, and maybe ride the pony. People have connections to each other and to the places they live, and these connections are strengthened through food, and sharing food."
CSAs are also crucial to the survival of small farmers like the Daranyis says Barclay: "There are many variables in farming that are out of your control. There is weather, and if you are a commercial farmer, markets, price fluctuations. Your own health is a big variable too." CSA members give a degree of security to farmers by paying at the start of the growing season, accepting that some years they may receive more produce for their money than others as Barclay says, "A CSA is a close relationship between a consumer and a farmer -- it's the consumer saying, God forbid you have a terrible year, I'm going to support you. We will support you as our farmer because we want you to be around next year and the year after that and the year after that."
The Daranyis are just one example of a worldwide movement toward living and eating in a more sustainable fashion. Organizations like Slow Food (originally founded in Italy, now global) and Terra Madre, which strive to protect the unique and varied food traditions of cultures all over the world, are gaining victories against the forces of corporate agriculture. Basmati rice is no longer under a U.S. patent and, after presenting their manifesto signed by 20,000 thousand traditional cheese producers, Slow Food has convinced the EU to legalize the sale of raw milk cheese. The living heirs of these ancient food traditions see them as something worth fighting for.
Those of us attempting to build a new food culture here in the New World melting pot may not have ancient traditions to inspire us, but we do have one valuable example to follow. In 1990, when the Soviet Union collapsed, the economy of Cuba and its industrialized agricultural system threatened to collapse as well. With the U.S. determined to maintain its embargo, Cuban oil imports were cut by more than half, food imports by more than eighty percent. But the Cubans, relying on the traditional knowledge of the nation's older generation, were able to work together to save their people from starving. They stopped growing for the export economy and converted all the land once used for industrial agriculture into land that would produce food for local consumption, for example American housewives planted Victory Gardens during WWII (gardens planted in vacant city lots and on the rooftops of apartment buildings). Communities worked together to find a way to live local and sustainable lives that did not require fossil fuels -- and to rebuild a healthier culture surrounding food. Which is what people like the Daranyis are trying to do.
One lesson Barclay Daranyi says she learned from her parents is this: It is the responsibility of small farm operations like Indian Ridge to be classrooms for the farmers of tomorrow. "I think farming is one of those professions where you truly, truly have to learn by doing it," Barclay explains. She says she sees increasing numbers of young people becoming interested in learning to farm --in returning to a simpler, more rooted way of life. Many schools throughout the U.S. and the world are incorporating garden education into their curricula and placing added focus on sustainability, community, and the creation of a local food culture. Professor Keibo Oiwa of Japan, author of the book Slow is Beautiful, says of the young people he teaches: "They are desperately looking for contact with nature. It's important to learn traditional farming, but at the same time just being in the mud, having fun, working like this, they are learning what it means to live."
Allie Simmons '10
a parchment from which writing has
whispered those adjectives immediately yours (capable,
understated, the smile – I know) and
nudged what is left to uncover,
to pull from sea sand, to blow with salt breath, to discover
with new-comer’s worshipful hands, find
the part other long-haired girls
like me have touched and tampered
until it has
been partially erased to make room for another text
a person who deals
the tarot knows the order of things, the
syntax of coincidence. you and I met
without foretelling – between the entries on
‘astrology’ and ‘astronomy’ – and
we have been spangled with stardust
from three dollar vials, with salt
from upset shakers,
with things lacking importance
the use of extreme
happiness must be guarded. a story
with a happy ending, you say,
will not tell truths. all of us – in our
secret rib-shadowed cores, dark
and wet and sweet – want
contrasts of light and dark
made a lover of me. my passion is barefoot
red; yours, baby-blue soft. where
I see you do not, where you feel I am
tasting. but we agree the magnolias
were bruise-white; we both nod
with respect to green
spine or axis of
tiny tender things
slim as nettles and needles
and easy to put beneath skin.
I have paid for it from others, have
asked for the needles to bear ink
to my body’s seams but
every coupling is to me a tattoo
and the permanent acts scareme
more than the ethereal
body; in order I feel:
a feather; the spinal chord
a small one-seeded
body: thick-skinned, weak-hearted, tired
of perennial blooming. you want me to
plant with you, to grow new
things in the muscle’s dark
soil but my seasalt
has made me too thirsty to bear
fruit or naked seed of plant
becoming sour; souring;
reversing the colors of skin; giving
new adjectives to old sounds. I tell you
my nouns are my own; you answer
in the infinitive
and your clauses grow duller
as the color
of my vocabulary
turning of milk
the delirious fumbling with
the texts I have consulted
on the subject of you: you
do not like loud yellow; you touch
without purpose; you heal
slowly, with time and blood thinners. also
your fingers are slow to relax
when you’ve been tugging too hard and what
will I do with these lessons?
they were taught from you to me, so they will not
do for other
bed clothes in fever
a humid southerly wind
is all I need; that is what I really learned.
a callused hand
with a mis-healed thumb would be just
nice enough, a dark
stubble would hurt
in the proper amounts, but the wind
is all that is needed, just enough to whisper
the lichens in the tangled oaks and make
the salty ocean breath come calling across
accompanied by rain
Chelsea Harlan '11
I hear the hinge whine, the screen shake,
count footsteps on fingers and meet you
past one. You’ve promised me icebergs.
I dream them and they’re there. Chandeliers
of sea cerulean splint our sheets together,
we wait and lie and thaw. Above arctic:
Saturn, all opal-bashful and stunning,
winks when we see her. I hesitate,
I have no fate in space but want it and you
fascinate me, pull me in fast and sinking.
This is Saturn’s own summer. Beneath her
I think now I am getting to know you,
knowing to get you, the starlings caw.
It’s not far to where the hay hills are
so we will go soon by beeline, humming
heads tucked between knees. New me.
Honey tea teeth and I can’t stop touching,
I here, you there, wading in from the sea.
Emmet Penney '11
--As sung by Greg Puciato
Broad-chested, teach my
Bare breast a new breath
To match your heaving hips.
Lock your veined arms
Around my skull. Swirl our sweat
On the pavement. Unholster me,
Show me what trigger fingers
Were made for. Beg you bite
My bottom lip. Let the bruises
Bloom where they may. Pray
You stubble rub me raw. Hold me
Sara Judy '11
You saw him first, trying
to cross the highway.
You swerved to miss
hitting his curved shell,
woke me up and kept me
that way—talking about fissures
and dark wet spots.
You told me newborns
would come out of the pond
near your house. In your
sixth year the older boys
stamped them out. The one,
still moving, that you picked up
dyed your hands, oil dark.
When I drove home
two days later, I stopped
to call and say there was
no stain. The next July you
came home, hands sticky
with urine and salt. You saved
him from the road, you say,
recognized the shape of his back.
I hope he loved you
how I do when we walk
and your hand, on my curved hip,
guides me away from the road's edge.
W. A. Kirby '10
Tuesday was just one of them days where by five a.m. you’re already behind. I was more’n halfway to the bus stop when I noticed my nametag wasn’t in my purse, and Chuck’d already yelled at me twice this month about not wearin’ it, so I jogged the best I could back to the house to get it. I’d rather risk bein’ yelled at about bein’ late than about my nametag again. Chuck doesn’t like havin’ to repeat himself.
That might seem strange, I guess, but not to me. See, I been here my whole life. I was born only about a half mile from where I live now, down round the knee-bend on River road. Still don’t know why they call it that—Maybe the crick used to be a river, but not since I been alive. Reason I mention it’s cause most people might think it worse bein’ late than not havin’ a bit of plastic with your name on it, but that’s not how we live ‘round here. Here, you can wave off bein’ late by sayin’ the dog got through the screen door again or the bus was late, and that don’t matter. It’s the littler things that get to Chuck. He always says, “Meg, I tell you, Meg, you got to look perfessional when you’re helping the customers.” I tried to tell him that the nametag don’t matter s’long as the food’s good, but he don’t think so, just yells “perfessional” and wipes his nose with the back of his hand and spits in the grease bucket under the grill.
That’s why I wasn’t too worried on the bus. When we got on the highway by the Piggly Wiggly I was actually feeling good about the day. The sun’s comin’ up earlier than usual, and it broke through the clouds somethin’ beautiful. Like how they talk about God’s grace in church on Sunday. I hollered to the bus driver when it was time for me to get off, and I walked from mile marker four down the exit ramp to Chuck’s Stop. You wouldn’t think it’d get business, since it’s about ten miles off the interstate, but for the hauler who knows these parts, our highway is a neat little shortcut round the city, save you twenty or thirty minutes; just enough to get an extra meal in between breakfast and lunch. That’s what they used to call it when I started workin’ here, Shortcut, I mean. That was before Chuck though, before nametags.
When I walked in the back door of the place Chuck was sittin’ on a big pot mixing up the potato salad. He looked up as the door slammed shut, bounced, and slammed again.
“You’re late,” he said.
“Dog got out the screen door again,” I said, and he nodded and stuck his arm back in the potato salad. New girls always ask why he does it that way and not with a big spoon, and he’ll laugh and I’ll laugh and then they have to come in early and mix the salad for the next week. By Thursday, sometimes quicker, they got their arm in the bucket, elbow deep in mayonnaise and celery—it’s just easier that way.
Today was our day, me and Chuck. Most other days there’d be another girl sides me who’d come in early, help get the place ready, but Tuesdays it was just the two of us, me and him. Sometimes they were good days, we’d laugh a little and each have a cup of coffee before the first customer came in, but most times, these days were the worst. There’s a lotta work that needs to be done, and four hands just ain’t enough to do it.
I walked out into the front of the restaurant and flipped on the lights. Same as I left you, I thought and I slipped off my coat and slid it and my purse under the register. I went through my usual, gettin an apron off the shelf in back, puttin the coffee on, takin the till out of the old tobacco can and countin it before puttin it in the register. I mixed bleach and water in the buckets and set some rags to soak, made sure the toaster was plugged in and the muffins were good-side forward. By then it was almost 6:30, and even though I’d come in late I was about five minutes ahead. I looked around to make sure I wasn’t foolin myself, then I poked my head through the swinging doors to the kitchen.
“Hey, Chuck,” I said. He turned half around from what he was doin. “Do me a favor?”
“What is it?” he said, wiping his hands on his apron.
“My legs hurt somethin awful from runnin to catch the dog this morning. Would you do the ice for me?”
There was a second where it looked like he was just gonna ignore me, but he didn’t, instead he said awright and leaned back before taking off his apron. “You gonna come with me?”
I nodded. Nobody likes to get the ice anymore since our ice machine broke about a year back. Since then, every morning we gotta walk a quarter mile up the road to the pump station and buy us about six bags of ice. Most mornings I do it in two trips and it takes me the last half hour before we open, but on good days—today was a good day—Chuck’ll help, or even do it for me.
We weren’t but ten foot out the door before Chuck spoke up. “Since I’m doing you a favor, you got a cigarette for me?”
I nodded and reached into my shirt pocket for my pack. It was more’n half empty but I gave him one and he stuck it between his lips and reached for a lighter before he spat it out and stepped on it. “What the fuck is this?” he said.
I went immediately for the cigarette, but his boot and the gravel had ruined it. “What do you mean what’s this? It’s a cigarette.” I said, “If you didn’t want it, why’d you ask for it in the first place?”
“You know I don’t smoke menthol, dammit.”
“Well I do, and I aint got no other cigarettes sides these.”
He stared at me for a moment and shrugged. “Get your own damned ice.” And before I could say anything he was back inside. My legs did hurt, and it took me an extra trip get the ice. We opened twenty minutes late because of it. Just one a those days.
When I did flip on the open sign and unlock the door, I was surprised to see a man already waitin in the parking lot. He was heavy, but so were most of the men who came through, except for the occasional bean-pole who was probably skinny cause of his metabolism or drugs and not cause he cared. What was surprising about this’n was he was driving a silver sedan, not a truck or a pickup.
When he opened the door and set the bells to jinglin, I said, “Mornin, hon, sit wherever. You want coffee?”
He grunted and sat down at a corner booth. I went back to polishing the counter while he looked at the menu and out the window. After five minutes, when he set the menu down, I grabbed an order pad and walked over.
“How you doin this morning?” I asked in my tip-voice. I know I do it, every girl who works a table or a pole’s got one.
“Eggs, bacon. No toast.”
“How you want the eggs?”
He shrugged. I took his shortness in stride, writing egg, bcn, no tst on my order slip. “Anything to drink?”
“Do you serve beer?”
I shook my head. “Coffee?” I offered.
“I’ll just have a glass of water.”
“Sounds good, I’ll have that for you in a minute.”
I walked back towards the kitchen and stuck my head through the door, “Hey Chuck, got an order. Eggs, bacon. Scramble em.” I laid the order slip down on the shelf between the kitchen and the front of the restaurant and went back to the counter, attacking the smudges with my bleach rag, trying to get the fine scratches out of the Formica and chrome. It used to shine, back when I first started here. It would catch the morning sun, everything in the place would. The silverware, the register, the counter—it was bright, and more people came through then. People from the town and the city instead of just the truckers. The truckers and this guy who sat, staring out the window at his own car, checking his watch.
When Chuck rang the order bell I took the man his plate, a glass of water and some silverware. I set them down, asked him if that would be all. He didn’t say nothin, so I turned around to see what needed doing.
“You fifty?” he said.
I turned to him. “Excuse me?”
“Are you fifty? You look like you could be fifty.”
He paused, but not long enough for me to talk back at him.
“I’m fifty. Today, actually. It’s my birthday.”
I knew what to say to that. “Happy birthday,” I said.
“My dad died when he was fifty.”
I stared at him for a minute cause I didn’t know what to do with what he’d said. He hadn’t said much, but his eyes were talkin to me, sayin somethin more’n just the words, and I still wanted a tip, so I nodded and said, “I’ll get your food,” like I understood what he was really tryin to say.
He opened his mouth, but the bell on the door jangled a new customer in and I excused myself before he could talk. He sat there another hour, but I didn’t go near his table again, and when I finally got up the courage, he was gone. Slipped out when I wasn’t lookin. All the same, I couldn’t get his voice out of my head. You fifty? Might as well be, guess I look it.
He didn’t leave a tip.
That means I been workin at Chuck’s for thirty-one years. When I got the job I was eighteen, and it was just a way to make money for going to see a movie and for Momma’s pills and the rent. I liked the work but I was so sure I was gonna make it outta here. I had a boyfriend I loved, then a husband I didn’t, and then he died. By then the thought of bein anywhere but here was too far gone, and I just stuck. After he died, I moved back in with Momma, and things were good again, real good for a bit.
Then Chuck came along, and he was a good cook, and I liked him and he said I was pretty. He said it so that even though I knew it wasn’t true I believed him. Even when he said it to all the girls, I believed him. He was sweet to me, and he was sweet to my Momma when I brought him home for dinner, even brought her flowers once. That night was the first time we slept in the same bed, and in the mornin I told him to be quiet so he wouldn’t wake Momma goin out the screen door. Pretty soon after that I moved out from with Momma and in with Chuck. We were happy, and he asked me if I wanted him to ask to marry me, and I said no. I wasn’t gonna do that again.
When Ed died—Ed owned the diner—he left the place to Chuck, said that he deserved it, that Chuck was the best employee he’d ever had. That changed everything. Chuck changed. He fired a couple people he didn’t like and he hired on some new girls and they left pretty quick and he got angry and fired some more people and hired some new girls and they left too, and when I found out why the girls were leaving I threatened to leave and I did for a couple months. I went back to my Momma, but I couldn’t find work, and she had to spend all her money on her pills, so I asked for my job back and Chuck said okay. I didn’t know any better. I guess I don’t need to say it, but it was never the same again. For a while it was just him and me and he changed the name to Chuck’s Stop and he cooked and I served and it worked out all right and we didn’t talk about how it used to be. He even came to the funeral when my Momma died, and said some real nice things about her even though he didn’t know her that good. Things were okay after that, and he hired on another cook and another girl and he behaved himself a bit better and they stayed longer.
Now it’s me and him and a few girls from the town and another boy from town who cooks. His name’s Jason and he shows up at about noon for the lunch rush. He’s got greasy black hair, the kind where you can’t tell if it’s on purpose or cause he just don’t shower much. He talks big, talks with his arms and hands, and he likes to whistle and flirt with the girls, even me. He says I’m pretty. Reminds me of Chuck sometimes.
When I heard Jason come in the back, I was fixin to brew a new pot of coffee. That’s when the day started going really wrong. I could hear him whistlin and then I heard Chuck tell him to shut up, and then there was a crash. I went in the back and I could see why Chuck was mad. When Chuck cooks he likes to keep a bowl full a eggs next to the grill. Says they’re easier to get to if he don’t have to take em out of the carton every two minutes. Jason musta hit it with his elbow, or maybe Chuck did when he turned around to say hello and tell him to shut up, and now Jason was on the floor trying to scoop yolks back into their shells, and Chuck was just standin there, not swearin, just fumin. Then Chuck saw me.
“Meg, did you leave the front unattended?”
“I just came back here to see what that crash was.”
“How many times do I have to tell you not to le—fuckin stop it Jason, it ain’t no good, the eggs are broken, just clean em up and get your damned apron on—how many times do I have to tell you not to leave the front unattended?”
“Sorry Chuck, I just wanted to see what—”
“I don’t care what you just wanted to do, you get your fat ass back to the front and deal with the customers. That’s what I pay you to do. Dammit Jason I said clean up the fuckin eggs! Do not make me repeat myself or I will shove this spatula so far up your ass I could use it to flip your eyeballs.”
I started movin for the door, but I wasn’t goin fast enough I guess, and Chuck put his hand on my back and shoved me, just sayin, “buncha goddamn amateurs. You gotta be perfessional.”
Now Chuck’s a big guy. Not real strong big, but more like kitchen big, if you know what that means, and when he shoved me, I went. I bust right through the swingin doors and tripped myself up a little, and I put out my hand, and that coffee pot I had been gettin ready to fill was just sittin there on the edge of the counter, right in my way. I hit it and it slid. Fell. Shattered. Then everything was quiet. That was the real problem, right there. See, like Chuck just said, he don’t like to repeat himself, and I, well I had done just exactly what had just happened, what had pissed Chuck off in the first place.
In that quiet—me almost on the floor, the glass everywhere—in that quiet everything stopped. Then two things happened at once: I went to my knees to get the glass before it hurt somebody, and Chuck burst through the kitchen door and grabbed me by the collar and pulled me through the back and out into the parkin lot.
“Stop it stop it stop it,” I was shouting, smacking at his hands, but he was stronger than me. He let me go and I fell down and I don’t know what he said cause I was just saying I’m sorry over and over again.
“Get up,” he half shouted, and I got up. “What the fuck were you thinking breaking the fuckin coffee pot like that, shit, how stupid are you Meg? How goddam stupid? Buncha fuckin amateurs.”
And I just said I’m sorry that I wasn’t thinking, I was startled and I was sorry, and it wasn’t my fault, if he was gonna hit someone it should be Jason because Jason made him mad first. But then Jason was there too, and he helped pick me up off the ground and brushed the gravel off my knees. “You okay?” he asked, and I felt bad for sayin that Chuck should hit him. Chuck was smoking a cigarette and looked calmer.
“Shit,” he said. “Go make sure the customers pay before they leave.” I got up and hurried to the door and he yelled to clean up the coffee.
When I got back to the front, no one would meet my eye. I cleaned up the mess, and then I went to the bathroom, looked in the mirror, and I did not cry.
By three the lunch rush was over, and Chuck and Jason were in the back cleaning the grill, feuding and not talkin about it. I’d done my best to keep my nose out of the kitchen. When Chuck gets angry he gets real angry. A few years back he popped a girl in the eye cause she was mouthin off at him. She told her momma and her momma told the police, and the police told a judge who made Chuck go to meetings every week for two months. They said he had an anger problem. Now I’ve known Chuck for longer than anyone a those people, and seems to me that if someone has an anger problem like Chuck does, the last thing you’d wanna do is tell him that he’s got an anger problem—it’ll just make him angry. But Chuck musta knowed how serious it was, because he behaved himself and went to the meetings and even called up the girl and her momma to say he was sorry, I heard him do it. After six weeks of his “sessions” they said he was cured. But I know Chuck, and he was angrier than ever. That’s why today, I was keepin out of it.
At three thirty, Susan’s momma dropped her off so she could help me close. She was a skinny girl with ratty bangs and shoes that used to be white. I saw her in the parkin lot, her momma parked where the silver sedan had been this mornin. Susan’s momma was yellin at her, and she was ignoring it, walkin away with her head high. She came in through the front, still wearin a backpack, and chewing gum with a snap and pop and a casual “Hey” as she tossed her things under the counter next to my purse. She went in the back to grab an apron and I knelt down to pick up her books that had spilled out when she threw her bag on the floor. I looked at them one by one, Chemistry, Geometry, somethin called The Old Man and the Sea. I turned them around in my hands, flipping the pages before put them into her pack. I didn’t know what they were about.
“What the hell do you think you’re doin goin through my things?” I turned around and Susan was standin there tying her apron with a scowl on her face.
“I was just puttin your books back, they spilled and I didn’t want them to be ruined.”
She rolled her eyes and muttered somethin under her breath before she skipped off to help a man sitting in a booth. I stood up slowly and brushed my knees. I watched Susan’s smile as she wrote the man’s order, and watched him watch her as she skipped away. She gave me a grin that said she knew he was lookin, and what was I gonna do about it, then she called the order back to Jason. There was somethin in that girl that hated me.
Chuck hired Susan a few months back when her momma brought her in and said she needed to be workin so she would stay outta trouble. Chuck looked her up and down, asked how old she was, and handed her an apron. I spent a week tryin to teach the girl how to use the register and how to grind the coffee, that you need to shut the door and lock it at night and to count the till before it goes back in the can. She never really listened, but would slouch back on a stool and draw on her shoes. Once, when I was showin her that she had to wipe down the tables between customers after someone had complained, I heard her call me a bitch, and I grabbed her by the ear and marched her right back into the kitchen before I told her she needed to shape up or I was gonna tell her momma. But she told her momma first, and her momma told Chuck, and Chuck told me to keep my fat ass outta where it didn’t belong. So I shut up and did my work and tried not to worry about Susan. Chuck liked Susan, said he liked her for two reasons. “She’s easy on the eyes,” he said, “and easy on the customers’ eyes. Real perfessional. Always wears her nametag. She brings ‘em back for more.” When Susan heard that she’d just giggle and pop her gum and skip away. She was always skippin.
I wanted so bad to hate her and her dirty fingernails and her pretty young face. I wanted her gone all the time, and I know she felt the same way about me. Some days I’d see her scream at her momma and slam the car door and I’d wonder if I ever acted like that to my Momma. Other times she’d come in quiet as a lamb, walk straight into the bathroom and come out smellin like cheap gin, and spend the rest of the day with one eye half closed. She’d come in with boys who would sit in a booth all afternoon, never orderin more’n one cup a coffee, or she’d tell Chuck she was sick, and I’d watch her get in a car with some friends, then give me the finger as they sped out the parkin lot. But as much as I wanted to hate her, as much as I wanted to be rid of her, I couldn’t.
I couldn’t because, every so often, when her friends were sittin in a booth and the afternoon was slow, I’d hear her talk about college, and New York City. They’d be loud, makin a mess of salt and pepper, drinkin creamers like shots, and laughin at me, and I’d look over and see in her eyes somethin familiar, somethin that I used to see in the mirror before I went to bed. Somethin desperate, somethin far away and over the horizon, like the sun but bigger and brighter. Then she’d catch me starin and make a face and the look would disappear, and she’d laugh and her friends would laugh, and I’d go back to work.
This was not one of those afternoons, and all that I could see in her eyes was meanness. When I started closing down at five, we hadn’t had a customer in over an hour. Chuck was in the back takin inventory, and Susan had disappeared somewhere, probably down to the pump station or in back to smoke a cigarette before her momma came around to get her at six. I undid all the things I’d done in the morning, and felt again that I might as well just leave them done instead of do them and undo them every day.
I swept up and dumped the bleach buckets and took the decaf coffee pot, which I was usin instead of the one I broke earlier, in back to wash it out. I swilled what was left of the coffee around and dumped it down the drain, waiting for the tap water to warm up. I washed it and I turned around, but musta turned too fast or something caught my foot, it don’t matter, what does is I almost fell and when I reached out to catch myself on the counter, I dropped the coffee pot for the second time, and it cracked and splinters of glass skittered across the floor. I looked up and Chuck was standing right there, and I opened my mouth to tell him not to yell and before I got my words out he smacked me. With the back of his hand, twice. He didn’t yell, just stood over me while I sobbed on the floor. “Clean this shit up. If you don’t bring new ones tomorrow so help me God I hope it’s cause you’re dead.” Then he was gone. I looked around for Jason or for Susan, for anyone, I didn’t care who. I tasted blood, my lip had been split by his middle knuckle.
I rushed myself into the front of the restaurant, past the counter and into the bathroom. I pushed the door open and there was Susan, bent over the sink, her skirt around her waist and Jason’s pants around his ankles. I stared blankly and she screamed get out and I did. I ran out the door to the parking lot and didn’t stop until I couldn’t breathe and my heart felt like exploding. My legs hurt.
I wanted to go back, to walk right into Chuck’s Stop, into that bathroom, to grab Susan and shake her till she listened. I wanted to smack Jason in the mouth, and pull Susan by her ear back to her momma. I wanted to scream and shout and cry till my throat wouldn’t talk. I wanted to say get out get out get out. Don’t be here thirty years workin at Jason’s Stop, taking the bus and dying a day at a time worryin about nametags and a dog you don’t own. I wanted to say this to her, but I wanted even more to call back to another girl, call in a voice no bigger than a whisper, get out.