Friday, November 4, 2011

Cotton Rushing By

I get the Rumpus emails from Stephen Elliott who wrote The Adderall Diaries. It's a favorite book of mine. I love those emails from Mr. E. as you're about to see if I can pull off imitation with any glimmer of success.

Stephen's from Chicago and the time period he writes about is when we lived just off of Warren Park. Stephen tells a story about his friend who busted the window of Devon Bank. I remember seeing that broken window all boarded up. My husband and I used to park next to that bank and walk the block to our apartment.

It's a neighborhood with several big pre-war three floor apartment buildings and some three-flats. Parking is a challenge. You circle the block a couple of times before finding a spot and when you come to an open spot on that first block, you take it. I wrote this paragraph in the past tense and then changed it to the present because I'll bet not much has changed.

It was a Jewish neighborhood. Then, I think, the Greeks moved in and the Jews moved to Buffalo Grove and Northbrook. By the time we lived there, it was full of Russian and Eastern European immigrants, Indians, Syrians and Pakistanis. Devon Avenue was a collection of electronic shops, Indian restaurants and stores with saris like sunbursts and peacocks in the windows. The Woolworth's was still there with its wood floors, that five and dime smell, and the goldfish and parakeets. I used to like to go there and kill time because I was newly married, new to the city, didn't have any friends and my husband worked all the time at his job managing an electronics chain store on Western Avenue.

At the end of our block was a tiny Indian restaurant called Shital. I could never force myself to eat there. The name was bad enough, but the fact that they never bothered to wipe the greasy handprints off the front window sealed it. Call me crazy - I love greasy food, not greasy handprints. There was also a Russian restaurant on Devon. I can't remember its name anymore, but I had a dream that we went there and on the menu was a dish called Beef, Brains and Borscht.

I may have been newly pregnant with Chloe when I had that dream. I got sick after eating fried chicken I'd made myself and we couldn't cook meat in the apartment for the next eight weeks or so. When my appetite returned, I craved McDonald's cheeseburgers. That was swell. The building across the alley had its roof retarred and I thought I was going to have to move back to Indiana to escape the petroleum smell.

My mom told us how when she lived in France and was newly pregnant with my sister, she would put Chanel No. 5 on a hankie and hold it over her nose when she took the bus because the very natural and human scent of people who didn't see the point of deodorant made her morning sickness worse.

As I dashed into the bathroom to return the Kellogg's something or other I'd just eaten, I totally got what my mother was talking about.

When I took the bus to the Loyola station where I'd get the train downtown to my job in the old Polish Consulate building on Lake Shore Drive, I would watch the mouths of the people who spoke Russian and the other languages from the crumbling Soviet Bloc. No vowels. I swear, no vowels. I was fascinated by their clenched jaws and the women with their bleached blond hair, flashy clothes and manicures. I tried not to stare as I listened to the 10,000 Maniacs on my Walkman and pretended to read whatever F.Scott Fitzgerald book happened to be in my hand. I read all his work in those days. Even the Pat Hobby Stories which I quite liked, if I recall.

I've been picking random books off the shelves and looking at tense. Past tense or present? First person,  third or something else? My manuscript is inching along, but not enough to suit me because the rent is late and that creates a special kind of pressure. Every day is a mental wrestling match. Work on something that has no guaranteed payoff, spend all day looking for a job and bloody my head on that wall, drive up to the adult superstore on I75 and see if I can make a few dollars in the parking lot. I might opt for the adult superstore idea, but there's no guaranteed payoff there either. It would cost me so much in gas money to get there and who knows how many other young, hot women and men have already staked out the territory. Times are tough for a lot of people, yo.

I'd fumble the whole thing anyway trying to keep things neat and tidy. I'd be fussing at fellas to pick up their used condoms and dispose of them according to appropriate medical waste procedures and suggesting that people watch their aim. If we don't make a mess in the first place......

Old habits die hard.

And then there's the possibility that I'd end up having to entertain one of these anti-government lunatics who seem to gravitate toward Georgia. I'll bet they're shitty tippers, too.

Oh the hell with that idea. I'll stick to getting exciting that a big box store is going to move its call center back from India to Georgia. Maybe my fortune will lie there in a job with a cubicle and a headset.  It's all about customer service in the end, isn't it?

MathMan thinks I'm chasing my tail in trying to perfect this manuscript before I send out queries. Uh huh. This coming from a man who spends the hours from 7pm until 11pm doing lesson plans so his students will have the best possible chance for success. He's right, of course. At some point I am going to have to say that this book is good enough and move on, but I know that it's not baked yet. I feel kind of guilty for handing it off to beta readers as it is. And they've been wonderful. I'm so grateful for their feedback. There's nothing like seeing something you've created from another person's perspective.

When all else fails to settle down the magpie brain, I read. And take pictures when I'm driving. Here's what mornings look like here.

As a Midwestern transplant to the South, I marvel at the cotton fields no matter how long I live here.




  1. Because Shital probably tasted like all shit. I HATE indian food. That's why they have the oddest complexion on the planet.

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  3. You always have the best stories, but then again, you are one of those weirdo writers who can magically suck in detail.

    Murkans ain't smelling so pretty either, especially post-winter when it's 50° and they're jamming their limbs into sweat-soaking winter coats and outside is cold rain, inside the heat of forty humans, and holy fuck, does it s-m-e-l-l.

  4. Those fields are beautiful.

    When I was pregnant the smell of dirt bothered me more than anything. Isn't it funny what smells can bother us during pregnancy?

  5. Oh, those cotton fields in that foggy light are amazing. And the bridge... Wow.

    Somehow, the only way I see you with headset in a call center is for fodder. Okay, and the pay check never hurts.

    I relate to the MathMan scene. Mine's a science teacher. Same. And his parting words to me each morning at 6 when he's out the door: Don't spend too much time in front of the screen today. Ha! Sometimes I think I should pop by his classroom mid day and announce that standing all day will give him vericosities, and suggest he leave for a few hours.

  6. I lurve the middle photo with just the rising sun and the tree.

  7. "I'd be fussing at fellas to pick up their used condoms and dispose of them according to appropriate medical waste procedures and suggesting that people watch their aim. If we don't make a mess in the first place......"

    Dammit, woman. You can make me laugh at the wrong time (it involves coffee and a laptop). I know, I know, I should've followed appropriate procedures."

  8. I love your narrative. As always. You make me want to laugh, cry, hug and bitch all at the same time. I think the term I'm looking for is writer.

  9. I've an acquaintance, a published author, who scribbles notes, quotes, paragraphs on random pieces of paper ... then jams the lot into a shoe box and sends it to his publisher's editor. The editor then organizes the mess.

    Me, I polished my text so perfectly the editor had little to do.

    Whatever works.

  10. You will know when your cotton pickin' manuscript is ready.
    If anything you gain 1 hour this weekend to either work on it, or sleep in. You decide.

  11. Wow, those photos are beautiful.

    I had a fried chicken thing happen to me too, during pregnancy. I was living in Columbus, GA at the time, and we'd always go out for buttermilk fried chicken. Delish, until I upchucked it alone with some coleslaw and a honey-covered biscuit. It's been 18 years, and I still can't bear the smell.

  12. What's with restaurants and greasy windows? That's like shooting yourself in the leg right before you go out on the runway. I don't get it.

    I'm with Deb. You've got a kick ass narrative going on.

  13. I really saw that neighborhood and feel the morning sickness too. Hmm.. I changed tenses in one sentence.

    You do tell the best stories.

  14. i'm sorta stuck on that first comment by this nixabn!
    anyway, lisa h...well written - as usual. continue...

  15. Hi Lisa, I can't tell you how I struggled over tense with my book. I have whole versions I did one way and then the other and finally, I hate to say it, it got stuck somewhere in between. I realized that some scenes had to be in present tense because they really were meant to be happening in front of the reader and others were meant to be more narrated by me, the obviously older writer. But like you I also agonized like crazy over when the book was "done." finally a friend made me make a commitment to her that I'd conclude my editing and approve the final proof at a set time that evening, and I did it. There will always be something you'll wish was somewhat different later, it's just keeping that to a minimum!

  16. Love the foggy landscape photos, especially of the bridge.

    Can't wait to see your book in the B&N. Get your autograph on my copy. Read it and smile. Keep at it, sister.

    And no eating at the local Shital. No telling how long you might spend in the john.

  17. Lisa,

    I really hope you catch a break soon. You are such an amazing writer and I wish all good things for you and your family.

    "Past tense or present? First person,  third or something else? My manuscript is inching along, but not enough to suit me because…Every day is a mental wrestling match."

    I totally GET THAT. I am going through something similar while working on my novel. And it's driving me insane.

  18. It's all about customer service in the end ...

    Thanks for that.


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