Jason does my laundry twice, by accident, and writes me a whole book to apologise.

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It felt like the hottest summer on record, but I was working in a laundromat , in the summer, with most of the dryers going full blast. Nobody ever put the dryer on a low setting. What was the point of that? No matter what, slow or fast, it cost a quarter for not much time. It said five minutes but it was really more like three. Nobody ever timed it. Most people put the dial up to one number below downright electrocution. There was a ton of static in the air. If you accidently touched someone shaking out a sheet fresh from the dryer you would both be shocked into a Bad Hair Year. And it would hurt enough to gasp, and to blame each other. Who is the shock giver and who is the shock-ee? Who knows? The person who pays the quarter? With all the dry static, my curls grew vertically, towards some sort of static electricity force field. It could have been a party trick, if I threw parties at the laundromat.

I did service washes. We used the cheapest laundry powder and strong smelling fabric conditioner, so our customers often came out in rashes but at least they smelled good. I was also there to give people change for the machines, begrudgingly. It was almost in the script. You have to look pissed off if people ask your for quarters because you need them yourself. There was no magic key to turn the machine on, just quarters like the normal people used. You had to make it like your were doing them a gigantic favour, giving them the quarters that you might have to use yourself.

If something went wrong with a machine, there was nothing we could actually do about it, except look at it in a studious way, as if we knew what we were looking for. We would look at the thing, maybe stuck mid cycle, still full of dirty clothes and water, and we would look at this bit that unfolded at the bottom, with wires, and look back at the person and say, “You used too much soap.” That was the reason for everything. The dryers never broke. They were designed to rip people off, so it made no sense for them to break.

The three attendants were me, Clare and Denise. Denise got the most shifts because she was a single mother and needed them, and she never minded doing the service wash from the old folk’s home on Bagnell st. You really never knew what you were going to get in that sack, but always bodily fluids and bad smells. It was never gonna be something simple like ring around the collar, or football pitch grass stains. Bagnell st contained the fluids of those in their death throes, even if they didn’t know it. The water had to be on the hottest setting I think it was called Hospital Wash, if only by us, but it may have said it on the dial. It was a long time ago. And it was hard not to gag when you stuffed the sheets into the machine. Denise had a stronger gag reflex, maybe anti gag reflex. She chain smoked outside the laundromat and in the back room, where the powder was, she would line up lines of coke, which was given to her by way of partial payment. Coke made her really good and fast at folding sheets, and kept her impossibly thin, even though we were only a block away from the temptations of Twin Donuts, and next door to a pizza place, which had the same owners as the laundry place.

My roommate got Clare the job first. She was staying with me that summer. Then Clare got me the job. I almost didn’t get it . The interview was held in a back room which served both the pizza place and the laundromat. The guy behind the desk had a rictus smile and a haircut we knew as The Dry look, a side parting, very stiff and fluffy and dry. He asked me a few basic questions, nothing deep, like, why did I want to do washing.

I had been asked a deep question on a MacDonald’s application and failed it. The question was, why did I want to work at MacDonald’s? And I didn’t want to put, to earn money, as it sounded shallow. So I put, “I want to feed people nutritious but affordable food and make the world a better place for you and me.” Clearly I had confused my notional Miss America speech with my job application. I never even got an interview. So when I went for the laundromat interview, I tried not to be deep. I would just answer every question with “to earn money.”

The guy asked me a few questions about what I did, what I was studying, that kind of thing, and then asked me what I liked doing in my spare time. Was it a trick question? Could I say, “I like to earn money in my spare time.” Or would that sound too pushy? I said I liked to listen to punk rock records, and to read. He perked up a bit at the reading thing. He asked what I liked to read , and warming to my theme, I said, “Oh, I like most books except that self help stuff, like How To Win Friends and Influence People because frankly if you read that stuff , you probably have no friends to influence.”

He kept grinning. It looked slightly more mechanical. Then he pulled out a book from his filing cabinet under the desk and it was How To Win Friends and Influence People. And I said, “Of course, not that I’ve read it. It’s probably incredibly useful, in the laundromat industry and by extension, in life itself.

He said, “Nobody likes a smart ass, but I need a girl, so you got the job.”

( to be continued)

Hopi gets pissed that her potential pop star lover, who is married, is having an affair with someone else

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Her name wasn’t really Hopi, which she liked because she learned that they were a peaceful Indian Tribe. Really, it was the key to her bullshit. Hopi. Her real name was Sharon or something like that. She felt she related to the Indians because in the time we were growing up, there was an advert on TV which showed an Indian all dressed up in tribal gear, walking through nature, and then pausing at a freeway and a big dump of trash. What had we done to his beautiful country, with our pollution? That was the message. This was before you had to say Native American. When Thanksgiving, in school, was when some kids dressed as Indians and some kids dressed as Pilgrims except hardly any dressed as Pilgrims cos they were boring and wore stupid hats. In recreating the first Thanksgiving feast, pretty much every single kid brought in a pumpkin pie with marshmallows melted on top. What was lost in historical accuracy, was gained in dentistry fees. To be an Indian was to be noble and oppressed, with excellent bone structure and a perma tan. Of course everyone wanted to look like them. Nobody wanted to look like a pilgrim, which was to look like a nun, only plainer.

Hopi was black so she was halfway there anyway. Except, this was the late 70s and she was a black punk. Black punks hardly ever happened. You got some skater kid crossovers but that was about it. You hardly ever saw a black person at a proper punk gig, but all that is by the by cos Hopi was a black punk rocker and also into weird sex magazines. I first met her when she was flicking through a weird sex magazine and saying, in a fake English accent, which I found immensely attractive cos my mum had a real one and I had a halfway there also fake one…”Wow, this is so beautiful” and this was in a second hand record shop in Boston and the pictures were of penises with like, nails and shit nailed through them. I was in there to buy a Television record, and some earrings, cos they sold those as well. I think I had a date that night, in Chinatown, and wanted to impress my date with my Television knowledge and second hand earrings. The date ended in going back to his place and dancing to New Order’s Temptation all night. It was chaste. Plus he had food poisoning. I still had a terrible crush on him, vomiting at intervals and everything. New Order songs were very long. You could go vomit for like five minutes and still be in the same remix. He’d come back and I would say, “Are you feeling better?”and he would nod grimly, and then five minutes would pass and he would sprint to the toilet again. Maybe it wasn’t food poisoning. Maybe I made him vomit with my disgusting looks. This is what I told myself at the time, though I was 21 and kind of pretty. Not very pretty, just kinda.

Hopi, when I met her, was flicking through the strange penis magazine and going “beautiful” and I looked at what she was looking at and said, “Wow, that’s gross, that’s painful” and she said I didn’t get it, and told me to listen to Genesis. And I was like what, that fucked up mainstream boring band? And she was all like no, Genesis Porridge. Oh right. Another guy with weird shit nailed to his dick.

Anyway, she was breathtakingly beautiful. If she were a lezza and I was, I so would. But we were not, so we became pals, very fast. I asked her, cos she looked like she KNEW, where I could get Valium. She said she did know, and took me on an little recce that involved Vietnamese boat people drug dealers and guns and sadly, fake drugs for too much money. Addiction is a fucker. But at the time, it felt dangerous and fun, running round The Projects with this girl with a Mohican , wearing a tutu and bovver boots. Her not me. I was wearing stuff I found underneath the Salvation Army bin near the Dunkin Donuts, where I worked on weekends. I smelled of rayon and cinnamon and sweat, all weekend. On weekdays I scrubbed my skin raw in the bath, and then doused myself with Patchouli, a comforting smell that reminded me of the early 70s, when I had no responsibilities.

After the Projects drug run, which did not end well, we started to hang out from time to time. I felt unworthy, for the most part. She literally lived out of a suitcase, with all her tutus and ripped fishnets in there in one tangled mess. She was in demand. Everyone wanted to hang out with her, or fuck her, or both. I was like, the boring sidekick, which is why I didn’t hang out with her all that much.

We drifted. She found artistic success. I became a school teacher, then a journalist, then a bunch of other things, none of which made me rich. She didn’t get rich either, as fame is fickle and in her case, short lived.

About 25 years after we first met, we met again, in another country entirely. In a homewares shop. She looked the same but sounded more American. I have a sort of face blindness and think I know everyone, and usually get it wrong, but I was staring at her in the wood laminates aisle and just KNEW it was her. I went up to her and said, “Sorry, but is your name Hopi and did you ever live in Boston, as a punk?” The question was so specific I knew I would get a straight yes or no answer. It WAS her, and we did that bullshit girl reunion thing of shrieking and hugging and going OMYGOD every two seconds. Except, it was real. I was truly happy to see her. I wanted to know what had happened in the intervening years.

We met up, and turned out we had kids about the same age. Her kids, like her , were off the scale beautiful. Also she still had it going on, she still was, arresting, to look at. We started to hang out in a more grown up way, with out kids, for like , curry evenings, and picnics. She confessed that she had nearly had a thing with a pop star, back in the day, but it never quite happened. But you could tell, she really still had it bad for this guy, who had been married forever. I told her to forget about it, about him. She could get anyone, she didn’t have to have a married guy.

Then there was some thing, some event, in some other, nicer country than the one we were living in, with our wood laminate supermarkets of despair. She went there, with her kids, and I couldn’t figure out how she could do it cos she was on the dole, but still, she got there. And the pop star who was married forever, was there, at this thing. She said it was great, they talked about old times. Her son fell asleep and the pop star carried her son to his bed. Now , unless you are a single mum, you have no idea how sexy this is. How manly and gentlemanly and what a turn on it is, for a guy to carry your kid to your kid’s bed. It never happened to me, and my kids are too old to be carried anywhere, and I am too old for a boyfriend, but still, it’s a nice fantasy. But they talked about the ins and outs so to speak of consummating the long ago lust driven… whatever it was. Lust. And they decided against it. He said that he would get obsessed and it would ruin his marriage. She respected this. She had certain moral codes, but I could tell she could have dealt with the hot shame of the morning after, better than she was dealing with the regret of the non consummation. I felt sorry for her, if only by imagining myself in the same situation. The promise of the unknown. It’s very sexy. And there is so much to talk about afterwards, with your girlfriends!

So a year or so went by…. and we were hanging out less and less. She was fractious, unpredictable, and a times a downright pain in the arse. She had gone all right wing, kind of homophobic as well. It just didn’t fit with the free spirit with the pictures of nailed penises, that I used to know.

Then, boom, all over the newspapers, the pop star had left his wife for some identikit of his wife except 25 years younger. Something like that. Something so fucking predictable. And of course I had to ring Hopi to gossip about it, and she was distraught . Her main line of thinking being, if he was going to cheat on his wife, why didn’t he cheat on her, with me? Even though she was dead against cheating. Except in her case, she would have made the exception.

You never really know some people, til stuff like this happens.

Marla’s Apartment Goes on Fire

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Marla’s family lived on the fifth floor and we were elevator friends. We met in the elevator when I was going down to the laundry room and she would have to go down one and then up to her floor, which weirdly always smelled like soup. Marla didn’t smell like soup. She smelled like Juicy Fruit and Tea Rose, the hot new scent at the perfume stall at the Queens mall. I don’t think I ever went up to her apartment apart from the time her apartment went on fire while her parents were out.

But I must have been up to the fifth floor to know it smelled like soup. I must have had a baby sitting gig up there.

These small details I can’t remember, why I went to the fifth floor, but you have to believe me about the fire. A few weeks before the fire I was going down to do my laundry and there was Marla in the elevator. She was coming down from the fifth floor and I got in on the first floor, where I thought she would get out. Marla’s jeans clung to her long shapely legs and her lip gloss smelled like tangerines. She didn’t have a hair out of place. She looked nothing like her parents, who looked thyroidy and inactive. She had the Jordache Look. Which was a bit like Brooke Shields.

Marla was the cutest girl our age in the building. We were sixteen. I could tell she loved Olivia Newton John and probably had a poster of her in her bedroom. You just KNEW these Olivia Newton John girls. They looked and smelled and dressed like Marla. This meant she could never be more than an elevator friend to me. I had discovered The Ramones that year, and there was no going back. But we could pack in a lot of conversation in the elevator.

She said, “I hear you are going out with Mark.”

This was not entirely true. Mark was the cute science school kid from around the corner. Smart, good looking, and apparently a catch. He asked me out to go see a jazz band at his school, and then we would go to Little Italy for cannoli and coffee. It seemed so sophisticated and grown up, and I had never had a date before, not really, so I said yes. My sister tried to prepare me by blow drying my hair and putting make up on me, but I didn’t look like me so I washed the curls back into my hair and took up all the make up with baby oil, which left an oily sheen on my face that made me look like I had a condition of some sort. My sister despaired and kind of said “Whatever” before it was something people said all the time.

The subway ride to his school took forever, and I got a panic attack and necked a few Valium on the F train. When we got to the auditorium, we sat in the middle of a row and then the Jazz came on. Mark went into this weird jazz reverie, like, nodding and syncopating and jerking and really, really getting into it. I was trying to remember if I liked cannoli, or coffee. I wanted this bit to be over , to get to the Little Italy bit. After about four thousand years, the jazz was over, and I knew I was expected to say something intelligent about it. I said, “That was…difficult.” And this was the RIGHT thing to say cos he said, “Oh I KNEW you would get it” but what I meant was that it was difficult to sit in the middle of the row, cos the Valium was wearing off.

We went to Little Italy and I discovered I loved the little doll sized cups of black coffee, but hated the cannoli. Mark talked so earnestly about the jazz, how jazz was life, jazz was everything, jazz was the opposite of science but sort of like it as well. I went from blind panic to rigid boredom in no time. We took the long subway ride back to Queens and he walked me home, right to my front door, where he leaned over, he was tall and gangly and all angles and hair, kind of like Joey Ramone, and kissed me. He put his tongue in my mouth which was a strange and new sensation. I wasn’t sure I liked it. At one stage I opened my eyes and he was just too close up to look cute anymore, just a big nose and fiercely closed eyes. Clearly he couldn’t stand the sight of me.

After that date he asked me on another, more jazz, and I said no. Instead he took my friend Susan, who had sex with him. Susan “put out” and was very popular with the boys. So that was that. So no, I was not going out with Mark. But that’s not what I told Marla in the elevator.

I said, “Yeah, sort of. We’re sort of going out.”

She looked incredulous. “But Mark is really cute!” The implication being, I was punching above my weight.

Then I said that the relationship was not that serious and that he was also going out with Susan who put out, so , you know, hey, whatever.

It sounded better when my sister said it.

Then I didn’t see her for months. And then one day there was smoke pouring out of the building and fire engines all clogging up the block with their noise and hoses and redness, it was wild. There’d never been a fire in our building before. And I guess it wasn’t a BIG fire because they were sort of taking their time. They put out the fire in an unhurried fashion. It was on some higher floor. It was less of a big deal than I thought a fire would be.

Then the door buzzed. I said “Who is it?” and I heard a little frightened voice say, “It’s Marla.”

I let her in and she was covered in soot and coughing and crying. She was discombobulated, not herself. She wasn’t even wearing lip gloss. She was almost a mess, apart from her Jordache jeans which clung to her perfect legs, still.

“Oh my God, the fire was in your apartment?”

“Yeah, I gotta get my stuff out. My parents are going to kill me.”

“No, no, they won’t. They’ll be happy that you survived. They’ll probably be so happy they’ll take you for a vacation. Don’t worry. Do you need a Valium?”

She looked puzzled. I could tell she didn’t even know what Valium was.

I made her tea, instead, and gave her an aspirin. If you were in a fire, you had to take SOME drug, it stood to reason. Then we went up to her apartment together to try to rescue her stuff.

It smelled so bad, like burnt plastic and just burnt everything. The kitchen was the worst so it must have started there. Her room was smoky but nothing in it was burnt, just sooty. Her bed had these white drawers underneath it, and she pulled out one of them to reveal about 40 pairs of jeans, all designer, all untouched by the fire. This seemed to bring on a fresh bout of tears. And yeah, she did have a poster of Olivia Newton John on the wall, but, as she was practically a burns victim, I couldn’t hold it against her.

I said, “Marla, Marla, it’s OK, your jeans are fine. You are fine. Your jeans are fine and you are fine and really, what else matters?” I sounded so deep, to myself. I felt so wise.

She sniffed up a long rivulet of snot and looked at me with these big baby doe eyes, cos she was one of those girls who still looked pretty when they cried, and she went “Really?” And I said, “Yes, really.”

And I thought in that moment of depth, we had bonded. Her glamour and bad taste in music would no longer be a barrier to our now certain, everlasting friendship.

Except I never really saw her again, except in the elevator.

There goes Queens

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In the summer of 77 in New York City, we were all going to hell in a handcart, but it seemed like it might be fun, and there was nowhere more exciting to be. Most of the things I think were exciting, now, actually sucked when they were happening. Hottest summer ever, the entire city smelled like dog piss, sewage, and on the subways, Charlie perfume, kind of cool, kind of wow, Charlie. Think Cybil Shepard was in the advert, being sassy and stealing apples. It was a billion degrees every day. We didn’t know about skin cancer, so we fried ourselves on tar beach, that was the roof of the building. We used Baby Oil and those gateway fold metal reflectors, to fry more deeply, while drinking Tab, unless it had been discontinued at that point, for cyclamates, and listening to Cousin Brucie on WABC. Diet soda and Cousin Brucie. Shit soda, shit music.

We kept trying to get to Liverpool. We had free air travel because my father was killed and he worked for the airlines. Not that it was their fault, they just felt guilty and obliged. Liverpool was our other home. It’s not exactly like, oh I have two homes, one in mid town and one in Palm Springs. I have one shit flat in Queens, one cold, but loving house, in Liverpool. The shit flat in Queens was spacious and rent controlled , so actually not shit at all. Except only one room with air con, not mine.

I had it in my mind to be a candy striper girl. There were the cheerful, usually blonde girls who brought sick people in hospital, true crime magazines and a bit of leg. Except I could not stand sick people. All those bodily fluids. I just liked the candy striper uniform. So I had a preliminary interview at a local hospital for candy striper girls, and they asked me why I wanted to be a candy striper girl, and I said I liked true crime magazines and I really liked the uniform, which was a striped dress and a tight belt. I had a fine waist. Except I didn’t have blonde hair and could not cope with bodily fluids, not even my own. So the candy striper thing did not work, so instead I started to hang out in Washington Square Park , where the last of the hippies and yippies were. Not the corner where they sold loose joints made of oregano. More near the fountain, which was a bit cool, when it was on. I made some hippie friends and we played guitar and sang hippie songs. It made me feel grown up, and alive.

Now 77 was a perfect shitstorm of musical clashing. The hippies and new punks hated the disco. The disco hated the punks and the hippies. Then there were two more things. One was that it was so frigging hot. Anyone who was there, that summer, will testify. The other was we had a serial killer, Son of Sam. He scared the shit out of all the women with short brown hair, cos those were the women he serially killed. Because his neighbour’s dog told him to. It was so fucked up. Oh wait, we had a third thing, a blackout. Everyone who had air con, not us, put it up full blast, and the city lights went out, borough by borough, and and suddenly it was like “Fuck where did Queens go? It was here, a minute a go. Zap. It just went black.”

Then, as soon as it went dark, people started stealing stuff, just busting into shops and stealing everything. Musical equipment and fans, USELESS stuff to steal at that moment as there was no leccy to plug it into. But those who stole had ambition, for the electric to start up, so they could turn on the fans and blast the music. I can’t remember anything except the heat, and running a cold bath and sitting in the bath with my polyester nightgown, hoping to cool down, by evaporating. I must not have evaporated entirely, because I am still here, writing this. But I do remember thinking, where the fuck did Queens go, it was here a minute ago. And it is still there.

I won a prize for the last book I wrote so I am writing another. It will be about this time. This shit summer, which looks so good, from afar.

Amy makes a horror film

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First time I met her was about 1978, in a walk up apartment over a bar on Avenue C. I was dating her brother. The family had no phone so if I wanted to call him I had to call the bar, and the barmaid would go outside and holler up to the open window that he was wanted on the phone. In the beginning she used to sound pissed off, but as I became a regular caller, she softened, and would sometimes even ask me how I was doin, what was the weather like in Queens, as if it were a different country, which it almost was, compared the the Lower East Side.  Back then it was where you lived if you didn’t have much money. Where I lived, it was a combination of enormous houses and small apartments, the latter mainly for airline staff, because it wasn’t too far from the airport. We lived in one of the small apartments, my father, when he lived, which was not for that long,  rented a two bedroom apartment near the end of the E and F train lines. Better than Jamaica, which was the end of the line, but not as nice as Forest Hills. After he was killed we just stayed there. It seemed the least disruptive thing, to not move, after our lives had changed awfully,  quickly, enormously, after he was killed. Because the neighborhood was designed for transients, people catching a plane from one place to another, the only cinema we had was a triple X porno one. So if I wanted to see a movie that let kids in, I had to go to Forest Hills, or beyond.

So first time I met Amy she was on an overpopulated bed, full of other little girls ( she would have been about nine or ten) one who was her true sister, the others, her nabe sisters, kids from the block, the other blocks nearby.  She had five true siblings and about five or six kids who just seemed to live there anyway. The bed was full of little girls, cats and kittens. In an apartment that was overcrowded, not in the best shape, the basslines from the disco jukebox in the bar downstairs throbbing up through the floorboards, there was this little paradise girl’s room, which smelled of talcum powder and some very strong scented shampoo from the 70s, maybe Gee Your Hair Smells Terrific, or Herbal Essence, and  cats.  I said hi, and they chorused back a friendly hello, and I just wanted to dive into the bed with all the little girls, and we would brush each other’s hair and play with the cats.  I was 17, new to dating, and I found this familiar girl and cat world far more comfortable than the uncharted waters of dating, of blossoming sexuality, of figuring out the exact point you stopped being just good friends and started being boyfriend and girlfriend. It was desperately exciting, and yet still I craved the familiarity of the girly sleepover. That shit , I knew.

Amy reminded me of my younger self. All flesh and bone, never really finding clothes that didn’t fall off a little. Except she was prettier, as was her sister and all her siblings. They were blessed with photograph friendly bone structure, little grown up faces on wiry bodies.

The Lower East Side was not gentrified in those days. As you walked down the number avenues and got to the letters, it got seedier and seedier. Every doorway had some guy or a group of guys drinking beer or spirits covered in brown paper bags. The garbage men were on strike a lot. There was always more garbage than there should be, rats as big as cats darting over the rubble of the buildings that had burned down or had just been bust up.  So it was nice to go from these mean , scary streets and enter this little girl heaven, kittens and shampoo and lots of laughter. To a girl of  certain age, almost everything is funny, all humour is infectious. One starts to laugh and everyone joins in.

There was so much love in this family. There was  a boy’s room. They would nod politely but they were always busy doing their boy stuff.  There was a dog, with chronically infected ears. There were boys from the block as well, hard to tell who was blood and who was of the hood, but it really didn’t matter. The mom had enough love to go around them all. She worked her socks off, crazy hours, and everything she had , she gave to those kids, her own ones and her sort of own ones.

Within a few months dating, I was falling in love not only with Amy’s brother but his whole family. They were exotic, and there were just so many of them. There was always a child or animal to cuddle.

But despite this happiness, this new love, I was plagued by some unknown terror. It would grip me in the stomach, and it would come on swiftly, and suddenly, and where ever I was,  I would have to leave. Cabs were affordable then, so I always had cab fare, and Valium, should these unknown vapours attack me.  At times, necking my pills, watching the meter of the taxi go up by ten or twenty cents every few minutes, I kind of knew I was in no real danger.  But it didn’t matter. The terror was real, and felt much more scary than walking through bad neighbourhoods at midnight or beyond, depending on how liberal my mother was feeling.

These attacks never happened in Amy’s girl world. Everything there was safe and familiar.

Eventually her brother and I split up. I was bereft, but I could see it coming. The anxiety was getting in the way of everything.  I guess Amy grew up and had to do whatever it was to survive out of the girlworld of sleepovers and kittens. She moved far away, they all did, at some point.  And they all grew up into fine, talented, super smart and kind human beings.  Amy and some of her siblings moved somewhere that looked like paradise when she sent me photos. Long beaches. Blue water. Two little girls of her own, looking quite like her, but also, not her.

Now I keep in touch, mainly with the backbone of this wonderful family, on facebook and the like.  And Amy, I read about, sometimes in magazines, sometimes on newsfeeds. She makes movies. Just today, I found out she’s made a horror film. The kitten girl, making a movie about, who knows, an ax murderer with a old grudge and a sharp ax.  Something that will scare seven shades of shit out of this fraidy cat, I am sure. It’s weird to think this girl , who had many real dangers in her real life, has found solace in making a proper scary movie. Me, I still get the horrors, but I struggle on without the pills, which were bringing their own horrors, eventually.  One day soon, Amy will be walking down a red carpet, waving, smiling, and go into a star studded cinema, and they will roll the horror film, and everyone will be scared in all the right places. Me, I still get scared in all the wrong places. But my love for her, for her family, remains constant. The Lower East Side has been unrecognizable for years.  I don’t miss it. I miss the girls, who have grown up to be women, and the kittens, who grew up to be cats, and now must be dead.

Being trapped in an en suite bathroom in New Jersey during Live Aid

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The day of Live Aid,  even though I didn’t really like telly, it just seemed like one of those things you had to watch, so you could tell people, years later, that you watched the whole thing.  A momentous pop occasion, like Woodstock, without the mud and bad acid.  Actually maybe less like Woodstock, more like Eurovision, without a winner as such, apart from, if it worked, the starving people the concert was meant to save from starvation.It was just one of those things you had to watch with other people, and eat snacks, and at some point, give them some of your fookin money.

I rang my best buddy first thing I woke up. She was living in New Jersey with her boyfriend. I was living in Brooklyn, having just finished a pretty awful year as an assistant schoolteacher in a progressive school. This meant this kids progressed at their own rate. So some, by the end of the year, were still playing with He men action men, and building perilous towers of wooden bricks, and others were starting to form alphabet letters. They were only six. Sometimes I google their names now. They are children of big telly stars, or magazine editors. I worry myself when I do this. It’s a bit serial killerish, a bit stalkerish. I am just pathologically curious, if this so called education did them any good, or harm.

I called my bud and said, “Can I watch Live Aid with you? My telly has bad reception. I can stop off at West Fourth Street and get deli stuff. We can have a picnic in the bedroom.” It didn’t occur to me that as we were tucking into cream cheese bagels and coleslaw, across the screen there would be scenes of emaciated and dying children in long queues. Too tired and dehydrated to swot flies from their eyelids. Cut to sunburnt girl in Philly, on boyfriends shoulders, singing along to a pop star and raising her arms in the universal gesture of girls on boyfriends shoulders at arena gigs.

I got on the train at Carroll Gardens and stopped off at West Fourth, and found a deli that wrapped everything in about three lots of paper and containers, so my t shirt would not get oily.

I got on the Path to New Jersey, the smell of my heavily mayonaised feast cutting through the great unwashed smell of the subway.

When I got to the house, my friends were sitting on top of the bed, half reading the papers, half watching huge crowds of fans and then huge crowds of starving people. Everything felt enormously wrong. I felt as if I had invited myself, because I had. I laid out the greasy feast in the living room and then joined them on the bed. We all had coffee from their Mr. Coffee filter machine, and watched in awe and horror, the well fed crowds at the gigs, the starving crowds who were meant to benefit from the gigs.

None of us felt hungry enough to tuck into the deli feast.  We just kept drinking more coffee. When nature called, I could see the bathroom was off their bedroom, and there was no way to get in or out of the bathroom except to walk through the bedroom. I hopped off the bed and went into the bathroom. I had a pee and looked in the medicine cabinet for interesting drugs, knowing it would be a very long shot if they had any. Apart from the odd joint and cans of beer, they were pretty clean living.

I had been in there five minutes when I heard ruffled, muffled sounds coming from the bedroom. I knew these sounds. They were the sounds of a couple about to make love.

What to do. I said, “Um, it doesn’t feel right to come out of the bathroom right now, unless I close my eyes and run past.”

They both uttered with urgency, “No, not now.”

I thought, maybe I should ask them to turn the tv up. In a way, how life affirming, to make love in front of footage of starving and sick children. Or how wrong. I could not decide.  There again, maybe they turned the tv off, or the volume down, as I heard the sounds of building passion rise , then fall, as if one had his or her hand over the other one’s mouth.

I will say this. They did not hurry things up in order for me to leave the bathroom. I ran the taps and flushed the loo a few times, to pretend that I was still there for a reason other than not butting in to their love making. When I heard the final stifled cries of pleasure, I decided to wait for about a three minute cooling off period. I found floss on the sink ,and flossed each tooth with the utmost care.

When I felt it was safe to go back into the room, they were both propped up again, drinking cold coffee and watching Live Aid again. I noticed my gal pal had a red rash going from her clavicle right up her neck. I know that rash, it is post coital. It signifies pleasure was had.

There was not much to say after that. There was a lot of shouting from Bob Geldof. I got his point, but it was irritating. I don’t recall him saying fucking money, but the tone was , hectoring  Fair play, if you are going to hector people for money, this is a good cause.  I wasn’t even sure I had enough  subway fare to get back to Brooklyn. But I did, and I got back on the PATH, back on the F, with the cleanest teeth I had had all summer.

Cookery lessons, with Shingles

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It’s hard to get interested in the methods of making white stock when you are recovering too slowly from Shingles. Shingles is a Christmas-y jolly name for a horrible Biblical plague type of illness, with sores or blisters all down one neural pathway of your body, in theory, confined to one side, but in my case, bi-lateral. Pain and itching are your main symptoms, with lethargy, bouts of light- headedness and a profound loss of appetite, bordering on nausea, ever present, even after the bit when you look like a Dickensian poverty stricken orphan, in a hoodie and trainers and joggers baggy enough to stick your hand down and have a mighty scratch. If you were sat next to me on a train, you’d move your seat.

So I’ve already winged a cookery in the community lesson, mainly by standing still as much as I could, smiling wanly and offering to do the least arduous tasks, such as washing up.

Today, I had to go to cooking school, or I would get an incomplete. Yesterday my doctor asked me how I was feeling, and instead of saying I want to scratch myself til I draw serious blood, I said, oh, ok, I guess, I have my moments of “mercy me, I am well, I am cured” swiftly followed by moments of “I need to take to my bed, lest I perish” So he wrote me this sort of part time fit to work note,” and this morning I got up very early, slathered myself in anti itch cream, took the last dose of anti virals and lined up my knives and chef whites.

I got on the overground, got on the tube and made it there 15 minutes early, enough time to change into my whites and get a good scratch in beforehand. Chef saw me standing at my locker, confused in the general “I’ve been mainly in bed for six days, now I am confronting a locker in Victoria and don’t know what I do next, do I put my stuff in first, or the lock on, or what?” He is the jolly, rotund German ( favourite food, he tells us rather regularly, is chopped raw beef with a raw egg in it, which makes you think, why COOK? Why cook if raw is your thing?) who calls everyone banana , those who are late , or cut their vegetable dice in uneven pieces. I like him. He’s on our side.

Today we are making stocks. Chicken stock, fish stock and Dasheen, generic Chinese-y stock that involves the nicest smelling stuff, like lemongrass, dried  kafir limes and coriander, as well as less nice smelling stuff, Bonito, which smells like fish food.  The key to a good stock, he keeps saying, is to watch it and don’t let it boil and skim off the scum. Scum. Is there not a better word? And I’m like all wow, that’s like a metaphor for life, don’t get all boiled off, and skim off the scum at regular intervals. The ordering people “Bananas!” have not ordered enough fish, so we don’t actually each have to gut and fillet a fish, as he showed us, leaving the head on, but pinging out the eyeballs, the roe sac, the beardy bits, the skin, the collagen, which we can sell to beauty colleges to inject into people’s lips ( not really). We stand there, watching him surgically remove all these disgusting things, and I think don’t let me faint, it’s only a dead fish, it’s only Shingles, you will survive.

I don’t faint. We go about the business of making chicken stock, and I stand over it, watching my pot boil, because a watched pot does indeed boil, sometimes boils over.  The kitchen smells briny, salty, fishy, chicken-y, nauseating, the bile coursing up and down my gullet with the frequency of say, the Victoria Line, one of the more reliable tube lines, the one that got me here.

At a certain point, owing to lack of fish, we make one large pot of fish stock, to which jolly chef adds cream , and we line up, Oliver style, with our bowls, and he ladles out the creamy stock over our previously pan fried fillets of Plaice.  As we are in uniform, I keep thinking, this is like Oliver, please sir, can I have some more? Except its please sir, can I have less, in fact , none of it?

It looks high falutin, with its garnish of smoked salmon, and bits of white fish poking out of the velvety soup.  Everybody eats with relish. I take pictures of mine, for the portfolio, and quietly tip it into the bin.

We finish early, and I can’t wait to get out of my whites to get into a ladies’ cubicle and scratch to my heart’s content. Never before has a girl asked for more.

Cookery lessons

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Jing says I can remember his name like this:”Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way..” or I can just call him Neil. Neil is Chinese, but not his Chinese name, which is Jing. Jing is  a bit hung up on what he calls passion. He has studied auditing for five years and can be a really good , well paid audit guy. He does not feel a passion for this. He can put people out of business and call it restructuring, but hold his head high cos someone has to be the bad guy.  But he’s also done two years of medical school and has to choose a specialty, and he’s thinking pediatrics but could not stand the thought of being very tired and killing a child by accident. I say, “I think that’s part of the thing, the doctor thing. People will die. Some will be young. It does not mean you killed them, maybe their appendix burst, or cancer spread rapidly, or blood poisoning kicked in with savage swiftness after the menengitis rash came up under the glass.” But he remains unconvinced, it’s a doctor’s job to save lives. So ( we are whispering, we are in the college library, looking up recipes involving boiling bones, there is a circularity here) he is buying some thinking time and added a third skill into the mix, which will be cookery. He likes food. He spent 200 quid at a pop up. He took photographs of a heritge tomato salad he had in a Mark Hix restaurant. I didn’t want to tell him I polished glasses and cutlery in a Mark Hix restaurant for a very long time, because I felt it was all I was fit to do. It’s hard to say that to someone as multi talented as Jing. I go Jing, I wish I had your problems, that I had two things I was really good at and one thing I was getting good at.  He seems unconvinced. He tells me the starting salary for the audit jobs are way better than the starting salaries for NHS. You make more money saving money or getting jobs lost, than saving lives. In this fucked up world, that makes all kind of sense.

We stare at the cookery lesson screen and sigh. Stocks are a long way off. Today we have made beautiful salads, and salad is one of my favourite foods, but we’ve gone and 70s the lot of them by heaping globs of home made mayo over all of them and dotting them with carved heritage tomatoes.  I hate mayo to near phobic proportions.  And yet my first culinarly lesson is a sea of yellowish emulsion, inolving such rapid and frenezied whisking I feel this is task best suited to prositutes or guys who wank a lot.

All my cheffing gear arrived in a box big enough to climb into and send myself parcel post to somewhere warmer and mayo-less.  I have knives and whites galore. A recipe book full of sauces and things suspended in gelatine. Cruise ship cookery.  The first day I have my stuff, I play with all my knives and cut every edible thing in the house into tiny cubes of not entirely even sizes. Even sizes are important so everything cooks at the same time.

Do I have a passion for food? Nah, not really. But I like colour and fresh ingredients but most of all, I really love knives. Which is unfortunate because I am also slightly subclinically dsypraxic and given to lobbing off bits of my hands with stuff that is too sharp, you only feel the pain when you’ve bled all over the beetroot and realize it’s not beetjuice but your Type O.

My world is changing.  But I will julienne my way through bags of fat carrots while I am deciding my next move, or my next move decides it for me.

 

In the days of luncheon vouchers

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When I wrote for a sort of living it was on a freelance basis so I never got luncheon vouchers. But I do remember going with the LV crowd to our favourite Italian family run caff in Holborn.  I was living on next to nothing and so ordered the same thing, which was more or less the cheapest thing, every day. This was an egg and salad sandwich and a frothy coffee, before we knew what cappuccino was  and it was all done by Kenco. The sarnie comprised: two slices of bread ( brown or white, they really didn’t taste any different) spread with marg, a wilted slice of a very floppy lettuce, I can’t remember the type,  maybe Cos, not iceberg or romaine, just something that was on its last green legs, the lettuce version of Greta Garbo in Camille. Half a very cold tomato, two slices of cucumber and some sliced hard cooked egg, the yolk covered in a greyish pallor which put me off egg yolks for life.

The frothy coffee was over-boiled milk whipped up into a frenzy, with a small bit of coffee sort of stuff at the bottom. This filled me up til dinner, which was sometimes nothing at all, sometimes a tin of soup and Jamaican water crackers, the appetite dulled by a ten quid wrap of sulphate, or something purporting to be sulphate but you never knew until your nose felt Vimmed and you weren’t really feeling up to staying up all night.

I write this now firmly on the other side of the caff counter. Firmly on the other side of drugs. I make food , I make lunch, often the high point of the day for  some desk-bound, boss hating, uni grad saddled with bills, both present rents and old uni fees. I haven’t been to work in a while so I forget that anticipatory smile of “Hey, mediocre lookin, whacha got cookin” that sort of gladdens my heart and has me reciting our menu like an Our Father… This is serious shit. Lunch may be the last time this person feels OK until it’s time to clock off.

I think that caff in Holborn is still there. The sandwiches are now American style, way too big to get your gob around without making a mess. And my mind is cast back to one of my series of very shit jobs after a spell in, let’s just call it a facility.  I was at a big restaurant. My main job was washing and polishing glasses which had been full of stuff I could never drink again, but did, still, sometimes anyway.  And then I thought, let me have a go at the kitchen, maybe this is where my talent lies, if I have any left. And I was working with this pregnant lady, and she was jaw droppingly  beautiful. And she had been to a really good catering school. My job, funnily enough, was washing and spin drying all the lettuce. I say funnily enough because I was sent recently, by mistake, eleven heads of lettuce. I like lettuce, but really not that much , not eleven heads of it.

So there I was with beautiful pregnant lady, sticking all this lettuce into a gigantic sink and after that, a gigantic salad spinner. It really took rather a lot of arm power to spin all that lettuce.

I asked the beauty, “How do you know like, what size chunks to rip the lettuce into, what is too small , what is too big, what is clearly, I’m doing this in a big hurry and don’t give a shit?”

She said, imagine you are on a date, and you order a salad ( the salad in this restaurant was just lettuce and dressing, none of your cukes or strange leaves or cabbage or radishes, just lettuce, and dressing) and you are trying to eat the lettuce but still be ladylike, and to be ladylike you don’t want this big piece of lettuce hanging from your mouth. You want to get a forkful in there and chew and swallow without the guy thinking “Oh my God, look at her, with that lettuce hanging out of her mouth.”

And I said to her, you know, I would never have thought of that. But I would have thought, why are we eating here? All they serve is steak and chicken and some strange patty thing for vegetarians, whom they clearly hold in contempt.  And so the chef will hate me, for ordering cheaply, and the date, if I ever have one again ( which I did, and we went on a boat and heard music so lettuce did not come into it) will be thinking, look at this lady with this green stuff hanging out of her mouth. That’s disgusting. And I’d be thinking, look at this guy, eating a bloody steak, served not even on a normal plate but like a wooden board, with all the blood seeping into the wood.

And then maybe I’d stab him. I would say look you bloody meat eating guy with blood drippin out of your mouth, who’s gonna be able to tell if that’s your blood or the cow’s blood. It’s the perfect crime.

Only I don’t believe in violence so that would never happen. We’d probably make small talk and we’d split the bill and I’d never see him again.

I liked the people in that job. I didn’t like the job so much. Now I hardly ever eat out except with my son, who likes Nandos.  At home if I cook for my boyfriend I make five different vegetables and something with protein in it.  I have a very small salad spinner. I buy bottled dressing.  I wish my salad spinner made some sort of musical noise. Then my dining life would be almost perfect.

 

 

 

Learning new things

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Watching an Irish lady giving youtube tutorials on how to play the Anglo concertina, one of which was pulled out from under my sofa. There is all sorts of crap under my sofa, most of it broken, but with the hope or half arsed promise of getting fixed. Truth is, none of this stuff will be fixed, not the turntable, not the stained beyond anyone’s idea of disgusting duvet cover,  not the , wow, I don’t even know what this next thing is, it might be something you use in the kitchen or bedroom. It’s so fucked up and broken I have no idea. It has dead batteries in it.

So nice Irish lady tells you where to put your  fingers to play a D. Most rousing Irish music she tells us is played in key of D. She goes on to play rousing Irish music. I am mildly roused. I put the kettle on and say Irish lady this is too hard, I need you here  in my front room , physically placing my fingers on the buttons so I can play When the Saints Go Marching In , the obligatory starter song for any new instrument. I fucking hate that song. What saints? Aren’t they all dead? Would that not be gruesome, were they to come, zombie like, into my flat. I’d be all like oi saints, take your putrid bodies but pure spirits somewhere else. I’ll carry on going to St Chads, which smells like joss stick and builder’s tea.

And I am trying, trying to understand why the note sounds different when you push the bellows in to when you push em out. There is a metaphor in here but I can’t find it. Story of my life. It always sounds different on the way in than on the way out.

I have been more or less flat bound for most of the summer, due to an operation on a congenital deformity that was causing me great pain and sleepless nights. The operation itself was nothing. Once the drugs wore off, as has often been the case in my life, everything totally sucked. The pain was off the scale, and all I wanted to do was sleep.

Now I am in the halfway house of nearly better but not better enough to work, so I try to teach myself the concertina, and find even this designed for morons lesson rather taxing.  All I seem to do these days is wait. Wait for the council to help me out. Wait for the foot to stop swelling to the size of a very large and ugly foot/cankle by midday. Wait for the agent to read my book. Wait for a burst of energy.  Wait for the saints to come marching in.