Recently been working on edits with my editor Nancy Sayre at
Golden Alley Press for my upcoming novel Cloud of Witnesses (FALL 2018). This
is one side of my brain.
Also been working on a hybrid poetry slash prose chapbook
about Art Week at Great Spruce Head Island. A project that has almost no future
as a niche work. BUT if you know someone who loves the New York School of Poets
and appreciates quotidian observations laced with melancholy let me know. I’m
looking for a reader/critiquer/breathing person to give feedback. Maybe @Eileen
Then there’s also You Are Here: A Flash Memoir—that’s
getting little to no traction. I produce enough work to keep a single critique
group in motion. Yet this has been the year where I struggle to find that
group. After several years of maintaining a circle of readers, I’ve suddenly been
floundering. There have been some nibbles and false starts, but so far nothing
Still waiting to hear if “Arriving at Night” advances to be
included in Pushcart anthology. I think I’ll hear more in April.
Finally, an acceptance! A small flash fiction-ish piece
called Celebration of Life in the Vassar
Review, to be included in an upcoming print edition. Whew!
In about 3 weeks I leave for the Festival of Faith & Writing in Betsy
DeVoss country (Sad!), but I look forward to meeting authors and being
introduced to some really fabulous literature. I lead a Festival
Circle on Flash Memoir.
When I first came to Chicago in early 1980s there was a
recession. The homeless I was used to seeing were single men and women down on
their luck. But the first summer I was in Chicago and working at a church mission
was when I was introduced to whole families being homeless. Often we discovered
they were living in their cars. One of my first jobs was driving around to pick
up ”donos”: donations, but also used to refer to doughnut donations. We’d pull
up in our station wagon and load in sacks of day-old doughnuts. By the time we
got back to the mission it had become one giant day-old doughnut. The glazed
had congealed together.
We were volunteers meaning we made no salary. We were
basically working for room and board, and the experience. Much like interns do
today—except we didn’t go into debt. We
had NO money. On days off we got as token to ride the train and went to the end
of the line. Up to Wilmette to the Bahá'í Temple or downtown. Since we had no
money we window shopped, meaning we tried the samples at the perfume counter.
In my neighborhood there was a Goldblatt’s around the
corner. I’d never seen so many bras. There was a was an entire floor given over
to bras. It was like a sea of lingerie.
In cold winter while I was waiting for spring I’d go to the
Woolworth’s where in the basement was the pet department. Along one wall were
cages of birds. I could hear them twittering before I even reached the bottom
step. For a few minutes my soul felt lighter. I knew it couldn’t be too much
longer and we’d have green. Until then I hung out with the tropical-colored parakeets
and yellow canaries, dreaming.
I remember, growing up in Centerville, Ohio, near Dayton, going
to department stores. You could spend the day shopping at Rike’s, then have
lunch in their restaurant and get your hair done at the store salon.
Elder-Berman was possibly one step down, but a notch up from J.C. Penny.
Unbelievably places where you placed orders and had the products delivered was
not considered as classy as actually shopping. I still have a fancy
hand-painted hairclip manufactured in France that I bought at Rikes one day on
Rike’s have now gone the way of Field’s, consolidated into a
Macy’s. Which will probably go the way of all things. One day there will just
To shop local we went to the hardware store. The hardware
store was where we bought most of our stuff. I was reminded of this when
someone wanted to know where they could buy some ice skates. I bought my Huffy bicycle
and ice skates at PK Hardware where my mother worked as a cashier and, thus, we
got a store discount. My mother purchased patio furniture there as well as
replaced our shower curtain.
Even today, the first place I think of going when I need something is the hardware store.
I’ve done a lot of crazy things for money. Collected bottles
and cans for cash, There was the usual: babysitting, mowing grass, cleaning the
kitty litter, and shoveling snow. I got up at 4 in the morning to deliver
newspapers. One summer me and the neighborhood kids built an amusement park in
the backyard and charged admission. We sold Zagnut and Zero bars at our
The weirdest thing I’ve ever done was answer an ad looking
for someone to dress up in a broccoli costume and walk around the mall offering
samples of raw vegetables. It seemed surreal—probably because I was sleep
deprived. It was my final semester of college, I needed a few extra bucks. But
surreal in the sense that I, a vegetable, was asking people to eat me, to eat
my fellow vegetables. It felt cannibalistic. Obviously, I was overthinking the
Whenever I see broccoli on the salad bar line I’m reminded
of that time in my life—and usually skip it.
I recently got a chance to
hear Stuart Dybek (The Coast of Chicago) talk at OCWW, Off Campus Writers
Workshop, the oldest continuing writer’s workshop in the US. The topic of
discussion was re-visioning our revisions. I know, not sexy.
It was incredible to look at
a marked-up copy of “Pet Milk”, The New Yorker, August 13, 1984. Can you
imagine the highs and lows. A story accepted by The New Yorker! They need a few
clarifications and copy edits, no problem! Only what Dybek gets back in the
mail looks like algebra. Oh my God, he thinks—is it this bad. The copy he hands
out to us is insightful—the editor asked Dybek to go deeper, re-imagining his
I’ve written here in a much
earlier post about “Pet Milk” and how it is a story launched from a flash
memory. Dybek more than substantiated that theory in the class. Of course it
was and wasn’t him, more who he wished he were. “The author thinks back to a
time when he was sixteen . . . .” We can imagine ourselves on that EL platform
witnessing first love in its youthful formation, the sudden embrace of a couple
on a passing CTA train. I live in Chicago and see all kinds of stuff on the
When I first read “Pet Milk”
I fell in love with that story and the image of the couple has stayed with me
to this day.
I got a chance to chat with
Dybek after the class. I told him I’d also always love the short short “Lights”,
a 125-word gem. Stuart’s face lit up.
That’s the story I was talking about how we know when something is done. I read
it over the radio and when I heard it aloud I knew it was done. That’s all
there was to it.
LIGHTS by Stuart Dybek
In summer, waiting for night,
we’d pose against the afterglow on corners, watching traffic cruise through the
neighborhood. Sometimes, a car would go by without its headlights on and we’d
all yell, “Lights!”
“Lights!” we’d keep yelling
until the beams flashed on. It was usually immediate—the driver honking back
thanks, or flinching embarrassed behind the steering wheel, or gunning past,
and we’d see his red taillights blink on.
But there were times—who
knows why?—when drunk or high, stubborn, or simply lost in that glide to
somewhere else, the driver just kept driving in the dark, and all down the
block we’d hear yelling from doorways and storefronts, front steps, and other
corners, voices winking on like fireflies: “Lights! Your lights! Hey, lights!”
Stuart Dybek, raised in Chicago’s Little Village and Pilsen neighborhoods in the 1950s and early 1960s.