The Bay

an essay by Emily Howell

 

The Brewster Building, in Chicago, is located on the corner of North Pine Grove Avenue and Diversey. Built in 1893, the building was declared a Chicago Landmark in 1982. If you stand in the lobby of the Brewster and tilt your head skyward, a web of bridge walkways with cast iron rails are layered 9 stories high until you reach the massive skylight in the ceiling. The walkways are made of paved glass blocks and when the sun shines through the skylight starlets of light and rainbow prisms ricochet around the cavernous room. And in the basement of this ornate, century-old building lives a hole in the wall dive bar—the Galway Bay.

A set of concrete stairs leads to the double glass door entrance of The Bay from the sidewalk on Diversey Avenue. The walls are a patchwork of stone bricks, roughly mortared together. The floors are wooden, scuffed and covered in a layer of enduring grime. There are two bars in The Bay, the front bar—a large rounded spot accessible on all sides by patrons—and a smaller bar in the back. Strings of Christmas lights are stapled to the cabinets above the bar—their shelves are crowded with empty cans and bottles of beer people have drank, most of them there, but some brought back from overseas as gifts for their Irish bartenders. Behind the bar a basket sits, full of things customers left behind. The coatrack by the door is always full, even in the summer.

There are only two full-length windows in The Bay and they are covered fully by Ireland’s flag and the Cubs Win flag. Even when the sun is shining brightly outside, the Bay relies on false light that makes the air look thick, hazy and amber as if it’s been saturated in beer.

On one side of the front bar, there’s an area with a couch and a large Lazy boy armchair where a flat screen is attached to an old-school play station. The wall it’s mounted on is made of shelves and on them there are 144 PlayStation games, ball caps that customers have lost and left, a large framed photo of the Titanic, and beaten up books, like The Third Fireside Book of Baseball, The Kings Way, and Five Star Recipes.

Right when you walk in the front door a Touch Tunes jukebox has been mounted to the wall—glaring, electronic, and alien compared to the old piano sitting nearby that no one ever plays. The top of the piano is used as a shelf for an old Royal typewriter, a red water pump, and a wooden James Buchanan Scotch box. Next to it, a grandfather clock towers, dusty with its ornate hands stuck on 3:11. Tabs are kept in spiral notebooks, the pages of which are filled with last names and tally marks.

The walls are covered with miscellaneous things: a framed copy of the Irish national anthem, a signed picture of the 1969 Cubs all star infield, framed rugby jerseys, vintage posters and tin signs advertising different beers and liquors, plaques with sentiments like “Irish Diplomacy: the ability to tell someone to go to hell so that they will look forward to the trip,” a lit up illustration of a sagging, bald old man being showered by a can of PBR, and an arrow labeled ‘fire extinguisher’ that points directly into the trashcan below.

Cockroaches have made their home among the empty cardboard beer boxes in the back room where the kegs are kept. Every time it rains or snows more than a few inches the bar floods, inevitably causing a temporary mold infestation and hours of extra work for the underpaid bar staff. The owner’s of the Galway Bay, Nolan and Jason, are middle-aged married men. Nolan, or Noly, moved to Chicago from Ireland over ten years ago and has two kids; he doesn’t wear a wedding ring and sleeps in the basement of his home. Both he and Jason rarely do anything that resembles work when it comes to the Bay, aside from stumbling in at late night hours with a throng of others and serving themselves from behind the bar. Most of the scheduling, ordering, and administrative work falls on Chris, the general manager and Nolan’s 28-year-old cousin, who’s been in Chicago for almost 3 years. Nolan, Jason and Chris all bartend in shifts, along with Bill, Tony, Arturo, Keoki, Besco, and Aldon.

Most of the regulars call Chris “Sparkles,” a stage name he drunkenly assigned himself one Sunday during the bar’s weekly karaoke night, but whenever I use the nickname, I shorten it to Sparky. I never considered myself a bar fly until my roommate pointed it out to me one day.

“What did you do today?” she asked, lying across my bed in our third floor gray stone apartment in Wrigleyville.

I sat cross-legged on the hardwood floor in front of my full-length mirror brushing shadow across my eyelids. “I went to The Bay.”

“Isn’t that where you’re going?”

“Yeah, I came home to eat dinner and change.”

“What did you do all day?”

“No one was in, so Sparky and I watched a movie, drank, and ordered Yakzie’s for lunch.”

“You’re turning into a bar fly,” she said.

I turned away from the mirror to look at her, the hand holding my mascara brush hanging in mid air, and raised my eyebrows.

“Think about it. You spend your days and nights there at least five times a week, usually more like six or seven, and all the people you’ve started hanging out with since you finished school you’ve met there.”

“That’s not true.”

“Uhhh. Greg, Rachel, Ryan, Jim, Colleen, Merry,” she lists. “And Chris.”

“Chris and I have been friends for almost two years.”

“Yeah, well, you didn’t always live in the bar he works at.”

“What the hell else am I supposed to do?” I snapped. “The rest of you are in classes and have homework. So what if I’m spending a lot of time at the bar.”

“I just wish I saw you more,” she said quietly.

“Then start going out.”

***

My sister and I called my dad’s father Grandpa Howell—I don’t think anything more endearing would have fit. I never heard anyone call him by his name, Ken. He was dad, grandpa, or the nickname given to him long before I was born—bighead. It fit; his head was massive along with the rest of his nearly 7-foot frame of thick muscle covered by calloused, sun-spotted skin. He lived in Prince George’s County, Maryland—a quick hour and change from where I grew up in Centreville, Virginia. There are only a few details I remember about his house—the contrast between dark wooden furniture/paneled walls and light carpet that was probably once white, a box set in the corner of his living room, the short back yard that ended in a drastically steep wooded ravine, and that the glass doors on a large wooden hutch in the kitchen as well as the exterior of the refrigerator were covered in cut out pictures of swim suit models—some yellowed and frayed with age, and others so fresh the scent of ink still lingered on their glossy surface. It was both cluttered and clean—the furthest thing from kid friendly—and I loved it.

We’d visit a few times a year, usually on the way home from my mom’s brother’s house or after making a trip to College Park so my dad could have a fix of his favorite Ledo Pizza. I’d sit on the steps leading down to his basement and watch him and my dad play darts for hours—beer bottles and peanuts littering the small wooden bar—full of odd trinkets: a lamp in the shape of a portly man wearing a top hat with a red light bulb for a nose, multiple pipes, ashtrays and an assortment of flimsy coasters sporting different beer and liquor logos. Neither he nor my dad smoked, but the basement always seemed to take on that hazy after-hours feel of a bar at 4am, when your eyes are heavy, the lights are dim, and poor choices seem to snake along the surface of your skin.

***

I turned 21 the November I moved back to Chicago after spending a semester in Dublin, Ireland. That spring, I started going to The Bay. My friend, Laura, who’d lived in Ireland with me, had already been to the bar and couldn’t stop talking about the one Irish bartender, Sparky. We pre-gamed at my apartment; brilliantly, I drank a six-pack of Bud Light Platinum in half an hour, and by the time we walked into the dimly lit bar, it was spinning.

“Em!” my friend Evan’s voice slid into my ear, and he materialized next to me.

“Ev!” I threw my arms around him. It’d been over a month since I’d seen him last. He still lived in the South Loop, close to campus where we all had gone to undergrad together.

“This place is great! How long have you been coming here?”

“This is my first time. Laura’s been here before. I can’t believe you actually came up.”

“Yeah we haven’t been up here in a while so–”

“We?” I narrowed my eyes.

“Baby girl!” Jones’ voice yelled from across the bar. He had two drinks in hand as he walked over.

I glared at Evan, and he laughed and leaned into my ear to whisper, “What was I supposed to do, leave him home?” His roommate has been vying for my attention for months, which I probably could have dealt with if it weren’t for his array of obnoxious traits.

“I’ll be right back,” I said, before Jones could get any closer. Barging my way clumsily through the bar, I saw Laura in the back talking to a bearded man wearing a blue and green plaid flannel shirt. Tattoos cover his freckled skin. My ability to judge my speed was slightly off, and before I could stop myself, I stumbled into him, steadying myself by grabbing his shoulder. “Are you Sparky?”

“Aye,” he said, and I saw two of his sideways smile. I sucked in my breath and tried to lock onto his eyes.

“I’m Emily.” With that I spun around, walked into the bathroom and spent the rest of the night sitting on the floor. My feet straddling both sides of the toilet with my back propped up against the graffiti clad door.

The next night, when I walked in, Chris was behind the bar. I sat on a stool, and he looked up smiling. “What’s up fucker? Welcome to the Galway Bay…I figured you might not recognize it since you spent the whole night in the bathroom.”

He teases me about that night and how our friendship began by me literally stumbling into him. “You just barged right into my life and now you’re the best friend I’ve ever had.”

***

That fall, the last semester of my undergrad, I spent Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights at The Bay. All the bartenders knew me, so I rarely paid, and when I did it was always a $10 credit card charge and I’d leave a $10 tip. I fell in with the regulars. Chris and I would sit in the darkened bar after hours, our beers illuminated by stray passing headlight beams finding their way into the bar.

Some nights, Noly or Paddy Hammon would join us. Paddy was from Ireland too and he made his living playing gigs at all the Irish bars around the city. On the nights he came around I would sprawl on the couch and drift in and out of sleep, lulled by his soft Gaelic singing.

On others, always right around 3am, blue and red lights would bounce around the room and shut off before a banging at the door and a call of “Police, you fuckers!” Cassidy, the ginger-breaded cop would pound on the glass and embrace Chris, who always let him in followed by the newest set of busty women from out of town who were often southern and “tryin’ ta see the big city.” One would always sit and chat with us, while Cassidy led the other into the ‘office,’ always unbeknownst to his girlfriend, always out the door in time for the 4am patrol, when all the late night bars let out.

Most nights though, I’d help close up – wipe the bar down with a disinfectant drenched rag, pass pint glasses through the sink, and sweep up the popcorn pieces littering the floor while Chris counted out the cash register. Then we’d sit and talk, taking turns pouring shots until sunrise.

***

Growing up, whenever I was argumentative or stubborn (which was often), and I still refused to listen after a walloping with the wooden spoon, the beat red anger would drain from my mom’s face, and before walking away, she’d resign herself and say, “you’re such a Howell.” Any time we’d get together with my dad’s old childhood friends, upon seeing me, they’d all turn to my dad and say, “Jeez Mike, she looks like you” or tell my mom, “Oh Judy, she is all Howell.” The handful of relatives I’ve met on my dad’s side all call me Little Virginia, after my dad’s mom, who died before I was born. A painting of her hangs in my parent’s living room – auburn hair, fair skin, freckles, light eyes that are scrunched into a squint as she smiles – the resemblance is undeniable.

Looking back, I realize I didn’t only have the Howell looks. While my mom and sister scrapbooked, my dad and I threw the baseball in the yard. While they shopped at the mall, my dad and I sat on one of the benches and people-watched until they were done. Even though we were only a family of four, we’d often have both cars when we went out for dinner because my dad would meet us on his way home from work. As soon as the check was paid, I’d always rush to leave, “I’ll ride with Dad!” In his car, we blasted Conway, Waylon, and Merle, both of us singing along. But best of all: I was allowed to roll the windows down—a forbidden concept when riding in my mom’s AC chilled vehicle.

On weekends, when I was in college, and sometimes even still, my mom would call me on Saturday or Sunday morning, her voice laced with concerned probing about what I’d done the night before or if I had a hangover. Ever since she’d been diagnosed with a fatty liver she had a distaste for alcohol and had become notorious for slipping comments into conversation discouraging drinking in any capacity. The first time I went home to visit after I turned twenty-one, my dad picked me up at the airport. On the way home, he pulled into Eggspectations a local restaurant, so he could be ‘the first one’ to buy me a beer.

***

During the day, The Bay is fresh and cool. The windows are open and wind rolls off Lake Michigan and into the bar from a few blocks away. Sometimes, before hours, when Chris, Bill and Keoki are milling around, repairing things to no visual difference, plugging in tips, and ordering inventory, they’ll prop an empty keg in front of the double glass doors so the wind can run down the cement steps. It’s days like these, I sat hunched over on the wooden stool next to the door, holding whatever book I was reading at the time in my lap. An occasional passerby would walk down the stairs and peer into the bar. “Closed,” I’d say offhandedly, without looking up.

When I was there it before opened, Bill would usually sit and chat with me, every so often, taking off his baseball cap to scratch his buzzed, age-spotted scalp. Every time I see him he brings up when we drank all the champagne in The Bay, referring to the day of the Chicago Marathon. My friend and another regular, Rachel, had run and afterward a handful of us had come in to celebrate. Bill was stuck working because all the other staff was at Tony’s annual cook out and someone had to stay behind. We found him in a bitter mood and by the end of the day we’d finished off a garbage bag full of champagne and he was beaming and taking pictures with all of us to text to the rest of the bar staff gloating about his records sales.

 

“You know Bill is filthy rich?” Chris told me one day.

“You’re kidding?” I said, taking a frothy swallow of my freshly poured shandy. It was the beginning of summer, and they had just put my favorite Leinenkugel on tap for the season, per my request. “Why the hell does he work here?”

“Gives him something to do,” Chris shrugged. “He likes the regulars. Only way he has friends.”

***

I finished undergrad in December, a semester earlier than all of my friends, so I started spending more time at The Bay. Despite my 3.8 GPA, lengthy list of internships/accolades, and overachiever attitude, my BA in Photography had left me feeling useless. I didn’t have any responsibilities besides going to my sporadic part-time nanny job. I was biding my time—waiting until August, when I was supposed to move to Virginia for grad school. I was dreading it; I didn’t want to leave, and despite the fact that I realized logically I couldn’t spend the rest of my life drinking all night and day, I didn’t care. I was happy, busy, distracted, and mostly, I was never sober long enough to think about the future. Sometimes, for days straight, I wouldn’t see the light of day unless it was the red glow of the sunrise as I walked home at 7am. I’d pull my curtains shut and sleep, waking just in time to see the same glow setting and darkness blanketing the city. I’d shower and eat for the first time that day before setting out in darkness, back to The Bay.

The time I’d spent at Columbia had stamped out my desire to be a photographer—even the act of picking up my camera seemed daunting. I was burnt out, uninspired and broke. I’d decided I wanted to teach after working with the Museum of Contemporary Photography’s educational outreach program, but didn’t have the prerequisites (or funds) for a masters program in education. During undergrad I’d filled all of my electives with writing workshops—I’d enjoyed writing as long as I could remember, and one of my professors encouraged me to pursue it further. So, I’d applied to a handful of MFA programs for Creative Writing—hopeful that would at least be a baby step in the right direction.

***

I remember these things about my Grandpa Howell: he always bought my sister and me ‘boy’ toys (to which she turned up her nose and I relished); he carried around a pocket knife; he was relentless in his teasing because it was the only way he knew how to show affection; he was always drinking beer or liquor; he always told stories that captured the room; there was custom made sticker on the passenger side window of his champagne colored Lincoln Town car of his self-developed mantra ‘scart, say yer scart” (scared say you’re scared); he was loud, crass, and his hands always shook. He was a Howell.

Late morning, on October 2, 2002, he was mowing his lawn, and a neighbor noticed that the mechanical hum of the mower had been on the other side of the house for an abnormally long amount of time. She went to check on him and found him crumpled on the ground next to the puttering machine, his gold rim glasses resting in the grass a few inches from his face. He was dead, but the ambulance still came and took him to Fort Washington Hospital.

My dad called my mom to give her the news and left work to go to the hospital alone. I was in fifth grade, and I remember walking into the house with my younger sister after the bus dropped us off on the corner of our street. My mom was standing behind the counter, both her hands grasping the ledge, leaning against it. She asked us how our days were, and we took turns rambling as we dumped the contents of our backpacks on the kitchen table and sat down to do our homework.

“I have some bad news,” she said.

We both looked up.

“Grandpa Howell died today.”

She looked at me when she said it. My sister, who’s always been quick to emotion, ran to my mom and sobbed into her pant leg.

“Where’s dad?” I asked.

“He’ll be home later.”

That night, around eight, the three of us were sitting around the kitchen table when the rumble of the garage door opening cut into our conversation. We sat in silence as my dad shoved the key into the lock, turned it, and walked into the room. He stood with his brief case in one hand, his tie and jacket slung over his arm—his white shirt unbuttoned slightly and wrinkled. I stood up, “Is it true? Did he really die daddy? Is grandpa really gone?”

From their seats, my mom and sister started crying but my dad held my gaze. He walked over to me and steadied his shaking hand on my shoulder, “Yes, it’s true.”

Then, we all cried.

***

Most of the days and nights I spent at The Bay blur together in my mind, but July third stands out. It was around 11am, and I was feeling particularly sorry for myself. I’d been consistently drunk or drinking for the past week. The next day, Rachel, Greg, Ryan, Blair and I were going to the Dave Matthews concert to celebrate the fourth, and the following morning, I was supposed to fly to Virginia before driving to the Outer Banks with my family for a week. I didn’t want to go, and I’d been bitching to my mom each time she called about how I didn’t want to spend an entire week of my last month in Chicago not in Chicago.

I sat lounging with my arms dangling off the rounded back of one wooden barstool and my feet propped up on another. Chris sat across the bar writing down inventory, a bud light open next to him. Without moving my arms I leaned toward the bar and sucked down the remains of my rum and coke before sliding back into my lazy lounge. I let my head fall backwards and my eyes registered the ceiling for the first time. How had I never looked at the ceiling before? It reminded me of a high school classroom, made of the same flimsy plaster panels. Cracks webbed between the beams, there were large chunks missing in places—openings to black cavernous spaces I could only assume were home to all kinds of dust and cockroach carcasses. “Jesus,” I said to Chris, lazily motioning toward the ceiling with a brief twitch of my wrist. “This place is falling apart.”

“You’re fucking telling me.”

***

The morning after the Dave Matthews concert, I woke up 45 minutes before my 7:45am flight. Wearing the same clothes as the night before, I grabbed my half-packed suitcase off the floor, ordered an Uber, and ran down the three flights of stairs to the street while all the alcohol from the night before pounded against my head. Somehow, we made it to Midway airport in 20 minutes, and after throwing a convincing fake-panic attack on the phone, allowing me to skip straight to the front of the security line, I ran to my gate.

“Oh good!” the flight attendant said cheerily, “We were just about to call your name over the loudspeaker. Glad you made it.”

I puked three times on the flight to Dulles, thankfully I had an aisle seat near the bathroom. When my mom pulled up to curb at the airport, she got out and put my bag in the trunk, squeezing me into a hug before I slunk into the passenger seat. As soon as we pulled away she said, “Rough night?”

“You could say that,” I said, grinning at her.

She didn’t smile. “You reek.”

“Well, I didn’t exactly have time to shower this morning.”

“I mean you reek of alcohol. It’s coming out of your pores.” It’s coming out of your pores. That was her favorite line. She said the same thing to my dad every time he came back from a weekend golf trip or grabbed a few beers at the club on his way home from work.

“I’ll shower when we get home.”

“You better watch it,” she pushed. “You’re going to become an alcoholic. You know it runs in your dad’s side.”

“I’m not an alcoholic, Mom.” I rolled my eyes.

“Thank God you’re starting grad school soon. I can’t wait to get you out of Chicago.”

My stomach dropped. I turned and stared out the window at the dull Virginia landscape and began to count the seconds until that week was over. I clenched my hands shaking hands together in my lap.

***

From above, Lake Michigan looks like crinkled contact paper with air bubbles trapped beneath the surface. Occasionally, a white cap appears—a slip of motion at the heart of so much stillness. I press my forehead against the oval window squinting in an attempt to see the skyline I know will appear any second. My foot hammers against the floor of the airplane and I twist the claddagh ring on my right ring finger—proof of my paternal Irish heritage. When I see it, the outline of Chicago at dusk, deep black with pinholes of light standing starkly against the surrounding deep blue, I feel the familiar tingling at the back of my scalp. Pressure builds behind my eyes and I breath out slowly through pursed lips—when I first moved I had traveled back every two months, but it’s been seven since my last trip.

I go to The Bay every time I’m back in the city. I organize a dinner with Greg, Laura, Rachel, Ryan, Jim, Colleen, Merry and Chris at the sushi place up the street where we can BYOB and afterward we all walk to the bar, playing rounds of pool for hours and drinking more than most of us have in months. Greg and Rachel have both started new jobs and rarely make it out anymore, Jim and Colleen moved in together and spend most nights at home on the couch, Ryan steers clear of the basement bar and the unrequited love he has for one of the bartender’s girlfriends, and Merry now works at a bar down town where she brings in a grand a night – on a bad day.

I watch all of us, laughing and happy, it looks the same as it did before I left—it even feels the same—but it’s different. None of us can drink like we used to and we’ll wake up in the morning hung over, we’ll spend the day recuperating and then we’ll go back to our routines and responsibilities. For a few weeks after I leave and go back to Virginia we’ll be good about staying in touch, but it will peter out—until the next visit. We’ve all moved on, except Chris, who tells me over and over that he’s sick of working there, that he’s going to quit—but every day he continues to descend the gray concrete stairs and push through the grim-covered glass doors into The Bay.

 


Emily Howell is a writer, photographer, traveler and taco enthusiast. She earned her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Old Dominion University and BA in Photography and Teaching Artistry from Columbia College Chicago.

 

Brandon Benevento: Back at the DuPont Plaza Hotel (essay)

Back at the DuPont Plaza Hotel

The hotel looms. Over the beach, it hangs brute uniformity over tourists and staff, people playing volleyball, lounging on chaise, bringing drinks, raising umbrellas, calling to children in the water, and here I sit picturing my mother on this same spot of sand picturing her children burning— have they got in an elevator? she has told me she was thinking, have they passed out from smoke? And the hotel is literally on the beach, like sprung from the sand, sand right up against it. How can these things not lean like Pisa after so much time? Twenty-one stories—no, there’s no thirteen, so twenty—and I count and it’s just tall enough for that disorienting thing where you lose count somehow even though you’re looking straight on; twenty stories plus that pillbox sign-cum-A/C-unit thing on top which made landing helicopters so difficult, almost thirty years ago. This is when it looms from for me, though with what we know about memory, the refraction of this moment though VHS in the form of an episode of William Shatner’s Rescue 911, plus my family’s retold stories, and newspaper clippings saved in a box marked FIRE, not to mention my way-too-many attempts to write about it (the best from first grade, when I drew myself behind the grid of the hotel, flames at the base, helicopters in the air, with a brief descriptive paragraph below)—all this seems active in the loom effect as well. But it’s the physical loom of this bulking box I’m struck by, lounging—a bit tensely, it turns out—under it on the beach. The Marriot, previously the DuPont Plaza, seems too big, while all the space around it feels sucked away, making everything tight and close and charged with energy, the insects in the air and voices against an inconsistent meter of surf.

So it looms, this hotel. Large in rectiline mid-century mod—why, I wonder, did the era of square buildings overlap the age of such frivolous, baubbly cars? And really, how great a Batwing Impala must have looked parked out front, or down at the still gorgeous Caribbe Hilton, disposing suitcases from a huge trunk and a nuclear family in Bermuda shorts, waited on, as we are still, by uniformed people probably wishing they were somewhere else, or that we were. I think of the woman cleaning my room, maybe at this very moment I hunch writing on the mesh of a not-new lounge chair, waiting for a waiter to bring me my second Presidente. The era the hotel looms from, originally, when conceived and raised from the rich port sand, is gone, leaving leisure ideals spaced out all along the Candado, and just shit tons of poverty. This mid-century idyll is not the moment the hotel looms from for me, though as a story of connectivity, the middle of the last century can’t really be over-emphasized here as background for first my parents’ and now my own luxie dreams. I would frankly love to pull some rented big-finned gas-guzzler up to the deco fluorescence of cool, like in the picture.

Anyway, the fucker looms, and, under it, I think of my mom on the beach, letting her children run on up to the room for cartoons 28 years ago. Perhaps a few moments of peace, with John at the casino and a New Years Evening ahead, a few minutes of sun… and then a smell she thinks, at first, is barbeque. I never heard an explosion, she said, just things starting to be not right, the tones of voices altering, a very different moment emerging from where she’d been, facing that blue water. So she turned and God smoke had surrounded the bulk, the bottom half gone, and her children gone, and the top sticking out, looking like it might be carried off, out to that very blue sea. This is the moment from which it looms for me. But I’m struck, just shocked, at this moment writing on the beach, by the material loom of the thing. It doesn’t pretend, like newer buildings with curves and glass, that inside it isn’t all steel, straight and unyeilding, infallible apparently, as that very steel met flame hot enough to bring Joey Cal flying down with Bob and Al’s dental records, and seems to have not sagged an inch. It is now painted the color of sand as envisioned by Florida mall-designers, a bit pinker and more orange than real sand ever is. The balcony rails—from which actual people actually dropped tied-together sheets with big cartoon knots—are a color or teal reminiscent of 1993. In 1986, the year of the fire, they were black, against which the previous white of the then-DuPont seems so classy compared to the current scheme, a color-combo admitting, I think, the not-first-rate status of the now-a-Marriot, though my father in a New Haven Register interview remembers it even at the time of the fire as not quite on par with the other destinations of his poker group’s junkets, which for the first time that year had decided to allow families. It was kind of an older hotel, he says from the past, in the black ink of newsprint. The picture of its opening in ’64, as a Sheridan—it’s like a cat, this hotel—show a horseshoe-shaped entry flanked on each side by an arc of flags, frozen in diplomatic snap, a residue of steamship luxury-liner pomp; this entry would keep San Juan’s hook-and- ladders from getting close enough to bring people out, and is, far as I could tell this morning, standing on the street, holding the picture on my phone up to the hotel, still here, though the flags are gone. Other tourists were also holding their phones up to the structure, presumably not comparing it to old photos from before the fire, so I looked, I guess, to be capturing the present like the rest, which I suppose I am. Anyway, the hotel is now Pink-Orange and Teal, which makes the loom more repulsive, like a dictator in Mickey shades.

What have I come here for? My wife told me my mother said I hope he finds what he’s looking for, which is exactly what the towel kid said this morning—as we stood where I’m fairly sure my father landed after jumping from the casino—after he asked, quite politely, why we were taking pictures of windows and patio pavers. I hope you find what you’re looking for. Which is extremely annoying, but as yet he’s the only one even remotely interested in my story, which I’ve been introducing with something like: the last time I was here this place was on fire, which is also extremely annoying. The best response by far came last night from the baseball trophy sellers’ convention guy at the bar, who said Hell-Yeah! When we first started coming this place was on Fire!… Now it sucks. The towel kid pointed out, when I asked what he knew about the fire, that he’d not been born in 1986. He, my wife, and I, standing by the pool, surrounded by palms lit in midmorning sunlight, looked up at the underside of the big spiral staircase, leading down from the lobby. On my phone, I have a grainy newsprint image of two men walking on these stairs the day after the fire, between them a sheeted body on a stretcher; seeing the staircase was the moment I realized how little had changed. I’ve been watching people flip-flop up and down it with books and beach gear, and have avoided using it. The hotel has no plaque to memorialize the 98 people who died here, which I hadn’t expected, but which gets weirder as it becomes clear this really is the same place; I pretend the stairs are a memorial, and when I do take them, I take them slow. After checking-in yesterday I asked the concierge—definitely born by 1986—about the fire, and if anyone who worked here then might still. No, she said, pissed off behind her desk, a few feet from the window I think my dad jumped from, it’s a completely different hotel. These words set me comparing old pictures with current structure, and the only major change I’ve seen is the casino now occupies a larger windowless side area, no longer overlooking the water of pool and sea. The window’s same Cartesian frame can be seen in another picture I can’t stop looking at, stored in the phone next to me on the lounge: a cindered body behind the aluminum bars, cinder legs hung over the ledge; it appears he or she almost made it out.

So I sit and soak the sun, a tourist on vacation, thinking of my mother, here, looking up at this same structure, knowing her kids are in it, her husband nearby, having been dragged off the patio, placed on a lounge chair, bones broken, disks slipped, just besides himself she has said, just beside himself, in pain and fear for my sister and I, refusing to go to a hospital, screaming God, Please don’t take my children, God, please don’t take my children, which He didn’t, which we reconstruct as both luck and love of God—as in: we were so lucky and as in God was looking out for us—not accounting for the 98 people who were, by logical extension, both unlucky and un-looked-out-for by God, let alone of course the just endless numbers of people subject to the hotel’s now fifty-years of labor and resource expropriation—a group that includes the men who started the fire, who never meant to kill, who were angry at management—people I see all around me, here, at home, everywhere, always close to wealth, the Bridgeport-in-Fairfield County effect we always think is an accident—people making my bed and worse; here, I sit and write where helicopters landed the groups of tourists my mother kept looking for us among, but no children, who would have come first, she knew, as that afternoon wore into darkness—the children would have come down first—and then no more people coming out, despair unlike anything I’ve known, so unlike this other moment, this so-called “now” with my wife next to me on a lounge chair, and all of it, suddenly, poised to slip away as well (and I think, God, please don’t take my wife) even though life and death seem so absent as I wait for a dark-skinned person to bring me beer #3; here where despair illuminated in helicopter spotlights scouring the grid finally, after four hours, yielded the happy resolution she narrates from the taped past, posed by Rescue 911 producers against the floral print of one of her many terrible sofas: when I just had no other places to turn, I thought I saw some movement up in the balconies and as I got a little closer, I could see that someone was carrying someone, a little closer still and that person was a little person, and then the dark hair and then I saw that it was Brandon, who was me.

 


Brandon Benevento works as a PhD student in UConn’s English Department. His dissertation project is titled “Upkeep: The Celebration and Erasure of Maintenance in Twentieth-Century American Literature.” In his spare time he cares lovingly for an aging strip mall in the New Haven area, a job in which he excels at picking up lots of trash. He lives with his wife, Amy, and daughter, Hypatia, in Branford, CT.

A Liberal Arts Degree at Work

So, here you are, fresh faced out of the old cap and gown, back-floating on chasms of debt. A steady stream of e-mails from Great Lakes Borrower Services tells you to start paying off your loan interest and currents of envelopes rush in from banks, offering credit card after credit card because credit is all your broke ass has.

Welcome back home, young one, because all the independence you thought you secured in your four years away from home were just a vacation. There is nothing wrong with moving back home; you are very fortunate if you can do so. You save tons of money and catch up on family bonding so you can remind them why they missed you so much while you were at school. But its quite a heady feeling when you realize time travel is very real and possible as you wake up every morning to a childhood bedroom, perhaps confronting the cartoon puppy border that never got taken off the edges of your powder blue painted walls or the piles of Jonas Brothers shirt lying in the corner you still haven’t sold on E-Bay.

Instead of focusing on the inevitable stress of paying off student loans, I began focusing on the struggle of getting off the couch–an equally harrowing task. So, as most do in similarly trying situations, I began the clingiest relationship I have ever had: the job search.

Indeed.com is now the emotionally unavailable boy I always pined after in high school. Attractive and full of promise on the outside, but he was playing me; I was not the only unemployed college graduate that was seeing him. I withstood rejection after rejection and swore I could do better, but I always ended up going back. I started to get desperate, checking my e-mail multiple times a day. Why haven’t they called? I thought they would call. Is it me? Why do I care so MUCH?!

Then, I found it. The one. Just like they say, you always find them when you aren’t really looking. For me, I actually wasn’t looking anywhere because I was fast asleep when I got the phone call. Fate was calling. Naturally, I perked right on up and spoke to the woman from the temp agency as if I was a person that regularly woke up before noon on a weekday not next to an empty bag of Doritos.

Now, here I am, employed as a copywriter. A college success story. A liberal arts degree at work. The American dream in the making. The agency didn’t even try to make me watch the clerical safety video or take the online test to prove I know how to use a computer before giving me the job because, in the agent’s words, I’m “college educated.” Its what I’ve been told all my life in practice; having a college education really does put you ahead in the job market. A degrees almost like a get-out-of-menial-tasks-free card.

Everyday, I sit behind a computer pumping out product information and photo manipulation like a first class white-collar sweatshop. I battle rage in 9-to-5 commuter traffic like the rest of the snails out there on the road. As a temp worker, I have about zero interaction with other humans. I spend my lunch breaks eating egg and cheese sandwiches that are half ice because I don’t bother wasting more of my free time on them being in the microwave, but I get to eat outside. Its not as glamorous as the jobs other people I know, who immediately went from the loins of college to living the life in young cities like Boston, to the height of trend and hipster-hood in Brooklyn, those that got hired by corporations which then paid for them to take more college business classes. But its easy work, I get paid, I come home to see my dogs everyday, and they think I’m doing a great job. There have been weirder shaped stepping stones, and I’m getting paid. Just look at me now, Ma. (I mean, I’ll see you at dinner anyways.)

 

Stories in the Sky

Starry summer nights are fantastic. Grab some blankets, beers and friends (heck, you don’t even need friends!) and post up beneath the canopy of stars. You could sit there for hours, especially with a meteor shower going on.

I usually take those moments to start blabbering about the Big Dipper and Cassiopeia, and OH! how you can use them to find the North Star. If I’m with a cute guy or girl, I’ll then use my smooth tactic of making up a constellation and telling a story about it. It usually ends in some romantic hint that I’d like to make out with them. “How do you KNOW all this, Therese?” they ask, moving closer, totally falling for my ploy. We both know it’s because I’m a boss. But I share a simple sentiment:

“It’s not that difficult!” (then, cue the make-out session)

If you want to know how to find the constellations, check Google. I went to the local library and read about it. I’ll draw you a star chart right now.

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See? The Big Dipper!

That’s not the point of constellations. Adrastus didn’t turn to Despoine in 1300 b.c and say, “Hey, look at this cool shape of dots I saw in the sky,” just to look smart or get laid, because he could have gotten his way in that regard without the help of the stars. The ancient Greeks and other civilizations used the stars to tell stories, chart movement, and make scientific discoveries.

And that’s what you should be doing with your sky – telling stories, being imaginative, sharing history.

Now you might look up and say, “Hey wait a second. That looks nothing like a dragon!” Ok, Nancy, sit down and let me tell you something: we’re projecting the human imagination onto something that previously existed. By saying that it doesn’t look perfect you are choosing not to have any fun, and that’s simply not my problem.

Go outside tonight, sit yourself down beneath those stars and look up. It’s ok if you feel intimidated. What you need to remember is that you’re safe – no one is going to make fun of you. The heavens have painted a big canvas for you to explore. Use it as an opportunity. Let your mind wander, especially if it hasn’t in a while. Now go on and tell a story. Make one up if you must! Find shapes and explain how they got there. It might be dirty and raw at first! How beautiful.

Now don’t hold back simply because there are previously established constellations up there, because there are TONS of benefits to storytelling. It activates your imagination and strengthens your memory to name a few. Don’t let anyone stop you. Learn the old constellations if you want! Remember, you’re growing. You don’t need to know everything or anything for sure.

 

The sky was never about showing off how much you know – it’s about what you can find with it.

Maybe it’s a treasure map, and there are dangers along the way: cages, traps, lions, birds. But there are also ways to fight back, with boats and swords and castles. Or maybe it’s simple, like the Great Lawn Chair constellation. See? It looks like this.

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I lounge on it all the time.

Do not cower beneath the sky. Use it to tell your story. There’s no knowing what wonders you can find within yourself or your world after storytelling. You’re just as imaginative as those who named the constellations in the first place.

Plus, it’s a great excuse to make out with someone.

Lynn Z. Bloom: Quality Time

Quality Time

an essay

 

How to write about happy times when other writers—and critical readers—are suspicious of them. Do editors prefer works devoted to what I tell my students are the five D’s—disease, dysfunction, divorce, disability, death—to which we could add more—distrust, disfigurement, disturbance, degeneration, destruction—the list is endless. Overcoming great obstacles seems more credible even when they’re fictionalized; and attract publishers, applause, sympathy. I was, for instance, greatly moved by Kathryn Rhett’s Near Breathing: A Memoir of a Difficult Birth; especially by the tough part—the delivery and the tense two days afterward when the baby had aspirated meconium and was near death. The book covers 10 days; in my view the writing is better at the beginning and gets slacker and less appealing as the crisis wanes.
But would there be a market for a lyrical account of a normal birth and happy delivery to a two-parent family that wanted the baby? Why not? What’s wrong with celebrating the ideal?
Tie this in with the contrast–my own birth; the dead twin, the incubator burn leaving a searing scar on my now never-perfect knee—1 3/8 inches would have been all the way across the knee. The fact that my parents altered my birth certificate to erase the twinhood and never discussed it but named my sister Linda Kay, born seven years later, after the dead twin, a complement to my own name, Lynn Marie.
Maybe I’ve solved the problem—the significance of the happy times is understandable in contrast to the unhappy, the not so happy, the frustrating times in one’s own life or in lives of others we know about. The Grace of God factor. I do not think my childhood friend who has been unable to walk for the past 38 years is pitiable because she does not pity herself; indeed she is very tough as well as resilient. For years she headed a national church related disability rights movement, articulate, active and vigilant. But I think often of her being in constant pain from an incurable bone affliction and thus unable to walk, run, dance, or drive. That said, she pilots a speedy wheelchair, she travels, she is sustained by a powerful faith, her own determination, and a devoted daughter. She was widowed far too young when her devoted husband died of a malignant brain tumor—which also precipitated family estrangement that has lasted to this day. I am glad I can walk with ease and don’t have to think about putting one foot in front of the other, for the fact that my husband is alive and happy, and that our family, with—yes—negotiation, gets along well. That every day is a gift may be a cliché, but it’s welcome, and it’s true.

Lynn Z Bloom, University of Connecticut Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor Emerita, held the Aetna Chair of Writing 1988-2015. She learned the essentials of writing from Dr. Seuss, fun; Dr. Strunk and E.B. White, elegant simplicity; University of Michigan professor Art Eastman, nitpicking revision; and Benjamin Spock, during interviews for Doctor Spock: Biography of a Conservative Radical (1972), “If you don’t write clearly, someone could die.” These precepts inform the heart, soul, and human voice of her teaching and writing, including Writers Without Borders and The Seven Deadly Virtues and Other Lively Essays (both 2008), and her current work on creative nonfiction—memoir, essays, writing about food, travel, medicine—that people love to read—and write, also the subjects of her 2013 Fulbright in New Zealand.

Want to Write Better? Notice Pockets.

It might sound crazy, but my obsession with pockets has made me a better writer.

It might sound crazy, but I think my obsession with pockets has helped in my struggle to improve my writing. Let me explain.

As part of the generation reared alongside a certain boy wizard, the memories of reading Harry Potter books the day they came to my door on hot summer mornings left an indelible mark on me. After the series ended, and I got older, I realized that I was consistently drawn back to the initial book in the series, and to many of the more mundane facts about this strange world. Chief among the objects of my fascination was Rubeus Hagrid’s moleskin coat. According to the Harry Potter Wikia, and supported by different passages in the book, the contents of this coat’s pockets were as follows:

  • a pink umbrella
  • a slightly squashed chocolate cake
  • a copper kettle
  • a packet of sausages
  • a fire poker
  • a teapot
  • several chipped mugs
  • a bottle of “some amber liquid” (I see you, Hagrid, I see you)
  • a live owl
  • a long quill
  • a roll of parchment
  • a dirty, spotted handkerchief, which might actually just be a tablecloth
  • a couple of dormice
  • bunches of keys
  • slug pellets
  • balls of string
  • mint humbugs (British impersonations of candy)
  • teabags
  • wizard money
  • moldy dog biscuits
  • Harry’s vault key

Finding this passage again, I thought “This must be how it started.” You see, since I was a kid, I have always needed to have as many pockets on my person as possible, and if you were to stop me on the street and demand I empty them, you would find them all full. Hagrid’s coat was a kind of holy grail. Who would ever need to carry a bag if they had a coat where they could stuff an owl? Every pair of jeans I own has five pockets, every jacket has at least two outer and one inside pocket, and I usually wear button-downs with one or two breast pockets. Those who know me well might remember me jokingly challenging friends to “the pocket game,” where whoever has the most stuffed in each of their pockets wins. This was, of course, unfair, and you can probably tell that I was very popular. Yeeeeppp.

Anyway, “How does this relate to writing,” you might ask, if you were rude and enjoyed interrupting people. But you’d also be right in asking, because it does sound ridiculous. Here’s the thing: writing is all about practice. There’s that famous quote from Hemingway that “Ninety percent of writing is showing up,” and while that’s true, some percent of that is cultivating a mind that notices things, that seeks to tell the story of everything that the eye sees.

Do you have pockets? What’s in them? Where did it come from? Who made it? Would you give it to someone? What’s it for?

Do you not have pockets? What would you put in them if you did have them? What are you aching to tell the pocket-havers, and what can you share when you have nothing?

So yes, this is a strange and circuitous way of saying practice, damnit. But not just in sitting down to write. Practice thinking, noticing, and seeing behind what’s in front of you. Pockets are simple. Almost everyone has them, but you notice when they aren’t there. On the other hand, if you’re like many of the women I know, maybe you notice when they are, and especially when they’re fully functional. What else don’t you notice as much? Go out and write it. As an artist, you don’t have time off. While that might sound oppressive, it’s actually incredibly freeing. You might remember, if you’re like me, posting on author’s websites, writing in forums, or even (god help me) writing a letter asking for advice on how to get a book published when you haven’t written anything. I was eleven. It was to Christopher Paolini. I hope he never got it. Anyway, I’ve always been preoccupied with what I was going to do in the future. But when you take yourself seriously as an artist, really get into the habit of noticing things, it forces you to live in and appreciate the present moment. Get obsessed with life, with everything around you. And pay attention to the things that you are most caught up in. Chances are you’ve already noticed something about those that no one else has. So don’t freak out. Just sit back and watch, listen, and write.

Photo Essay: How to Not Make a Cup

When starting a project, it’s important to make sure you have all the proper supplies. Pictured here is our forge, crucible, some gloves and junk,  and I guess some lighter fluid.

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Oh, and it looks like he’s got some charcoal. I wonder what he’s going to do with it.

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Oh, he’s putting it in the forge, that makes sense. I’m gonna be real, I was day-drinking while Tom was doing all of this, so it’s all little fuzzy.

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It might look like he’s making a mold, but really he’s practicing making sand castles. It takes dedication to the craft to really create something beautiful, something that seems, for a moment at least, like it will withstand the harshness of the waves. But time destroys all, and he knows this.

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And now we see the cup used to make the mold. We can also see his scowl as he hands me the glass. Does he think he’s better than me?

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Focused, intense, he turns on the fan. Proper airflow is important as you bring aluminum to its melting point.

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This doesn’t look that impressive. I bet I could light that better than Tom. This is why airflow is important, Tom.

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Oh damn, that’s pretty cool.

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Fresh out of its crucible, the aluminum is smooth and beautiful. I stare into its surface, overwhelmed, and it reflects back at me.

Tom tells me that aluminum is dangerous because it doesn’t glow red as it heats up, just stays the same. Me too, aluminum, me too.

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After carefully removing the hardened metal from its earthen grave, Tom surveys his handiwork. His look is the same he gave to me earlier. Disappointed. Dissatisfied. Disgusted.

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Air was trapped in the mold, with no channels dug in to let it out. Imagine all of that air, crushed down slowly under boiling metal, its only victory in foiling the attempts of man. This cup cannot be used. It only serves as a reminder of our own imperfections, our own weakness.

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The bottom looks pretty nice though! A+

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by Carleton Whaley