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Monday, July 6, 2020

A Life in Five Buicks

by Linda Boroff

Summertime, Hopkins, Minnesota: I toddle from the back door of the Elmo Park Apartments, skinny in suspendered blue corduroy pants. My dark, water-slicked hair is caught just above the right ear by a bobbypin.
          Suddenly, I stop short. Looming before me in the driveway is my father’s new, two-tone Buick Roadmaster, massively at rest on its tumescent whitewalls. The car, jade and loden green, fills my vision like a whale; as if its mighty grille of chrome baleen could suck up the road. Four incredible tunnels in its side, leading to God-knows-where, attest to its pedigree.
          The neighbors have flooded out to gawk, as amazed as if dad had taxied up in the B-24 Liberator he had flown in the South Pacific. The women, pregnant in cotton housedresses with bright scarves wound around their pincurls, stroke the monster’s bulging flanks. The men, beer bottles in hand, wear pleated pants into which white undershirts are tucked. They stride up and spank the Buick commandingly, nod at the engine statistics, call it “she.” 
          At my appearance, all turn with tolerant amusement to savor my response. I am gaping at the giant intruder, eyes smoky with suspicion. Attempts to pull me near for an introduction fail. To everyone’s delight, my confusion soon resolves itself into a drawn-out wail.
          Now it is evening, the air fragrant with the warm raspberries that grow wild behind the project where we live, and also with the faint, fetid odor of the swamp beyond, which will not to be drained until a toddler drowns in it later this summer.
          I stand outside the back door, gazing into the kitchen, where my father sits at a gray Formica dinette with an old Army Air Corps buddy. They are holding beer bottles and laughing as they celebrate new cars, peace, youth.
          The screen before me sags in its frame; insects aggregate on it, awaiting a chance to invade. Their brethren have struck up a summertime concert out beyond the Buick, poised on its concrete slab like some brooding god of highway thunder.
It reigns from the driveway of our new ranch-style home: a Buick Riviera, its blue as rich and deep as the stained glass of Chartres. Ensconced in its pale plush upholstery, I feel like Cinderella in her pumpkin chariot. Shiny windows reflect my outsize new teeth grinning from the passenger side. 
          My father’s remodeling business is booming, and he often invites me to “tag along” as he pitches attics and basements door-to-door. The housewives usually ask us in when they spot me on my hobbyhorse, Pal, a high-spirited thoroughbred of rich brown leatherette, with flaring crimson nostrils and a lush mane of white yarn. “Hi there, cowgirl, that’s a mighty fine horse you got there, you betcha.” And before they know it, they are talking knotty pine and dormers and linoleum.
          He is tall and handsome, my dad, with curly brown hair and a wicked sense of humor. I spend hours trying to emulate his jaunty pilot’s swagger. He has built us a beautiful corner house in a tony neighborhood near Lake Calhoun and given my mother a generous allowance to decorate: blond oak, raw silk, rose brocade, and a thick, cocoa brown carpet to roll around on. The house sits on three lots with one of them dedicated to a sandbox, a swing set, and a huge bountiful garden. People slow their cars to appreciate the landscaping.
          C’mon,” my father says mischievously one afternoon. “Let’s go blow out the carbon.” I know that under the hood of the Riviera chugs a magical nest of dark coils and shiny pans. Superheated and unimaginably powerful, they create and tame the explosions that propel us. 
          I imagine the car’s chrome innards clogged with soot, which we must now expel at ninety miles per hour in a tamponade of black smoke and red flames bursting from the tailpipe. The highway uncoils before us like a whip; farms are a green blur. I watch the speedometer quiver at ninety and then inch toward 100 as the Buick enters the realm of pure motion.
          Just outside Red Wing, he guides us back down to fifty, which will forever after feel like a standstill. Then, as if anything were needed to make the afternoon more perfect, he buys my eternal discretion with a salted nut roll on our way home. 
Roadmaster Again
It isn’t much of a recession, but, as Mercutio declares of his fatal wound, “marry, ‘tis enough.” My father’s business has dried up into a pile of debts; our brief, feverish glow of prosperity only a memory; our future dreams a mocking, retreating mirage that we will never reach.
          The bill collectors call around dinnertime, and my mother rises to answer, swallowing her food quickly: He just stepped out. A payment is on the way. Fights over money have become the white noise of my childhood. 
          My father’s latest Roadmaster is greeted by my mother not with delight, but with fury. Burnished bronze, this unwelcome intruder sits alone in falling snow, like a grounded eagle.
          “We can’t afford this. What’s the matter with you?” My father tries to look wise, as if he knows something she doesn’t, but her disillusionment is impenetrable, and she glares back coldly. Her eyes have narrowed, and a crease divides them now, even when she isn’t angry, which is seldom. How can she blame him for his business failure, I wonder, when it is the customers’ fault that they are now remodeling their own attics. “Do It Yourself” is the chant that accompanies our march to poverty. 
          Our home goes on the market just after my 12th birthday, bringing long, melancholy weekends filled with officious realtors and skeptical strangers who poke around in our kitchen and assay the carpeting, eyes narrow with arithmetic. Their children stare wordlessly at me and my younger sister. Nobody wants our house, and there is a lot more eking and borrowing before the foreclosure finally arrives, almost a relief.
          Homeless now, we drift to Los Angeles, where my father has family. Relatives grudgingly pony up small sums after collect calls from a phone booth. We rent a motel room with kitchenette in East Hollywood, the walls green and weary, veterans of a thousand familial disintegrations.  
          Daily, my parents look for work; by night, fights erupt, roaring and gusting like wildfires. We are warned by the motel management about the noise. Sometimes we go for swims in the stagnant pool. A thick orange moon hangs above us. We float like corpses in the tepid water.
          My mother finally finds work in a nearby children’s store, sweltering in outdated designer suits. My sister and I start school. My father lies on a black Naugahyde sofa all day, reading the want ads, sipping gin and devising dubious schemes to recoup his finances. Deals “fall through” he says—evoking for me an image of something hurtling earthward through a dense forest, hitting branches, landing broken and dying. His creditors soon find him again where he huddles; first one—and then many in a rush, persistent and abusive.

          One night, his suitcase clatters suddenly into the living room, and my mother stands above it, eyes dark with fury. He had borrowed five hundred dollars from a loan shark.
          “When I got off work, some little man threatened me,” she shouts. “I gave him my paycheck. How will we live? She grabs my sister and sinks her nails into the squirming girl’s shoulder. “What in the hell did you do with five hundred dollars while we were starving?”
          My father follows the suitcase, arms dripping with neckties. “I didn’t know he’d come to you.” He shakes his fist and the ties sway. “For eighteen years I worked for you. I broke my heart.”
          “He threatened me!”
          “I’ve got to get out of here. I’m dying.” My sister and I begin to cry, although we have been expecting this for a long time. 
          “Let him go,” screams my mother. “Him and his goddamn pills and his goddamn booze. There’s always money for that, isn’t there?”
          Outside, my father sits, jowly and misunderstood at the wheel of a rented Ford, curtained with suits and shirts. The car hums to life, coughs loose its emergency brake, and backs hesitantly out of the driveway. A quick shift and it is away. The night rings with sudden silence.

The mighty arches of the San Francisco Bay Bridge pass over my head like the ribs of a dinosaur. I think about those people unable to cross the bridge without counting them.
          “Tell me about your father,” says Cliff.
          “All I know is he called this afternoon wanting to get together. Apparently he traveled out here with some woman, and things fell apart and she took off in his car.”
          “When did you last see him?”
          “I have not seen my father,” I reply, “in eight years. I don’t know what he’ll be like.”
          “Well, you met my father,” Cliff says. His parents had visited from Bakersfield two weeks earlier, and his father had, as promised, displayed the physique and mentality of an Alabama State Trooper guarding a speed trap circa 1954. Packed tightly into a booth at the pancake house, he had polished off a platter of pork chops, cornbread and easyover eggs while declaiming loudly on hippie treason. Cliff’s mother, smelling strongly of mint, sat wordless, eating nothing, observing her husband with reddened blue eyes of pure Southron hatred. Cliff told me later that she had found and drunk about half a bottle of tequila while he and his father were out buying a lug wrench.
          Cliff’s blue eyes are flecked with amber; his thick brown hair brushes his collar. At twenty-one he is already a master of the amused deadpan, and he is a good bet to hurt me deeply one of these days. His parents have gifted him a new Camaro for graduation, and riding beside him makes me feel shiny, new, and well-maintained too.
          My father is staying in one of those hotels that appear at first hopeful glance to be only a little seedy, but is really extremely seedy. I spot him at once in the lobby, swaying slightly beneath the fluorescent lighting, arms stretched toward me. He is pudgier than I remember, his skin grayish and loose around the mouth. He shakes hands solemnly with Cliff, and shoots me a wondering glance.
          We have dinner and embark on a spree through San Francisco. At one bar, a drunk sits alone looking morose, and we invent a history for him, a reason he drinks. 
          “He tried hard all his life,” says my father about the drunk. “The bastards just wouldn’t let him live.”
          “He can’t do anything right,” comments Cliff. “He found himself alone....”     
          “He done her wrong,” I say.
          The pavement in front of my father’s hotel is slick now from the foggy drizzle that had begun around midnight. He climbs stiffly from the car.  
          “I’ll walk him in,” I tell Cliff. The lobby is not as deserted as it should be at 3 a.m. People are wandering about sleepless, smoking, unwilling to be alone in their rooms.
          “Goodbye Linny,” says my father.  
          I hug him and say “Goodnight, Daddy.” As I return to the car, I realize that Cliff and I have grown so close tonight that we will probably get married. He looks at me pensively, having figured that out himself. When I turn back, my father is still gazing after me from the lobby, hands hanging limp at his sides, head slightly cocked.

I am an advertising copywriter working in Palo Alto, divorced, with a nine-year-old daughter who looks like Cliff. I drive a 1986 Buick Century Custom, an impulsive purchase after my father died years before of a heart attack. Somehow, driving a Buick keeps him a little closer in spirit. 
          So I leave my office on a warm, sunny October afternoon for the commute south to Santa Cruz over Highway 17, a sinuous black python notorious for head-ons. I grip the steering wheel of my Buick, intent on survival, eyes darting about with primal alertness evolved over millions of years, called on now to dodge not leopard or lion, but Audi; not charging aurochs but careening Range Rover. 
          When the traffic stalls—as it often does—I look beyond the asphalt to the young redwoods, fernlike and primeval, and to the yellow poppies and blue lupine bobbing gamely in the hydrocarbon exhaust. Sometimes I murmur little prayers for the road kills, tarry, feathered clumps and featureless gray fur patties scattered on the shoulder.  
          As I approach the summit, hemmed in by other commuters, the Buick begins to jerk and shudder. Dammit a flat drifts into my mind seconds before the asphalt ahead rears up and rips asunder like a bar of licorice. I slam on my brakes at the lip of a widening gash as the side of the mountain to my right trembles like Jell-O and falls away with a roar, sliding and tumbling onto my car. Trees, their moorings scaled away, drop, still upright, straight down the mountain.
          The air turns white with dust, and the car shudders at the boulder that finally breaches its back door. Dirt pours in across the seat. I glimpse myself in the rearview mirror, perhaps for the last time, looking rather puzzled and nondescript.
          Then, as abruptly as it had started, the earth quiets and settles, though something keeps cracking like pistol shots. The dust clears, and I see to my left, the very top of the concrete center divider barely visible above the dirt. Covering the road now is everything that, seconds ago, had been a hundred feet above us.  
          It is October 17, 1989, 5:17 p.m. They call it the Loma Prieta Earthquake, and I have nearly been buried alive. My only thought now is to get to Santa Cruz, but the road ahead has ceased to exist. Boulders are still bouncing down the mountainside like ping pong balls.
          A couple of truckers make their way through the trembling debris to my driver’s side window: “You alive?” They wrench open my door and I clamber out with no dignity, my pencil-skirted business suit caked with dust. “Whole mountain’s gonna go inna minute,” one of them says, and I say, “Didn’t it go already?” But no, there is still plenty of geologic time poised above us. I consider running, but to where?
          “See if she’ll start.” A trucker climbs into the driver’s seat and turns the key, eliciting only a feeble cough. He tries again, and suddenly the Buick rises from the dead with the sound of a hundred lions competing for mating rights.
          Six men rock it loose from its crumbled matrix, which opens a car-sized hole in the debris. I get in, push on the gas with a shaking foot, and the Buick miraculously begins to limp forward, yawing like a drunk on its broken suspension. One by one, we creep down the mountainside, over the buckled, rock-strewn pavement. The roots of upended trees oddly resemble the configuration of a lightning flash, I note, and also the heart’s circulatory system illuminated by echocardiogram: fractals? I keep my foot on the accelerator, and the car keeps rolling, around the tree trunks, through the sand and the dirt. Somehow, it finds a way.
          Nearing Scotts Valley, we come down off the hill at last, and the highway re-emerges. I nurse the Buick past people who stop their stunned wandering to point at me and shake their heads. There must be sirens, but I am in a state of deaf, numb panic that recedes only when my daughter dashes toward me from the yard of her now lopsided school.
          Days later, an insurance adjuster lifts the Buick’s hood and gasps. The engine is buried under rocks and dirt. “I can’t believe this thing actually ran, he says, shaking his head.  
          “Ran pretty well,” I say, channeling my father. I open the trunk and get out the jumper cables and a notebook of ideas for a novel that I have been carrying around for several years. I take them to where my friend is waiting.

Century Again
There are as many roads to penury as there are paupers to follow them. Today, I’m on my way to sign over the pink slip on “Moby Dick,” my white 2000 Buick Century, as security on a loan, so that I can pay my rent, three weeks late and counting in the wake of a layoff. My destination is a storefront in a bleak San Jose strip mall between a liquor mart and a shoe repair shop. A fuchsia neon sign beckons: “Fast Cash! Paycheck Advance! Auto Title Loans!” There, my signed pink slip will net me $1900, which I pledge to repay at an interest rate of about ninety-six percent. 
          I back out of my carport, find a jazz station playing rueful sax, and hit the road. The rain that threatened all morning arrives now in earnest, and the mist on my windshield quickly turns to tears, as if to make up for the ones I’m holding back. Somehow, my whole life seems prologue to this ordeal. It could be worse, I console myself, which only reminds me that it may indeed grow worse. The wipers begin beating time to the scold in my head: why didn’t you, why did you, why didn’t you, why did you?
          “It’ll be okay, mom,” says my daughter, guessing the reason for my silence. She sits beside me now, as she always has, and in a way nothing has changed—although her once downy head has grown into an avalanche of blonde-streaked waves, and the rattles and sippy cups have given way to a plastic box of eye shadow that she dabs on in the passenger mirror. I understand, without taking it personally, that to not follow in my footsteps is for her almost a career goal in itself. Financial turmoil has shaped her life since her father left us when she was three years old.
          I merge onto Highway 280 south; the road nearly empty on this Saturday morning. As the miles unreel, I cannot resist backtracking mentally over my own highway of choices that delivered me to this pass. How many wrong turns? How many dead ends, detours, directions unheeded? Or is the problem deeper still? The map is wrong. The destination does not exist. 
          Perhaps, as my father’s daughter, I am just genetically wired to be broke. My inborn character quirks always seemed to have veto power over good intentions and resolutions. By age seven, I was already displaying the traits that have cleft my life like a fault line: impatience with saving, impulsive overgenerosity, dislike of routine. Reading Aesop’s fable of the grasshopper and the ants, I quickly identified with my gangly orthopteral soul mate, shivering out in the cold with his inedible fiddle.
          South we hurtle from Palo Alto, where I had presumed to live so that my daughter could attend its top-ranked high school. And was that another wrong turn, I wonder, hearing her reel off anecdotes of snobbery, anorexia, and grade grubbing?
          After years of battling a commute so brutal it inspired articles in foreign magazines and enduring a manager who gnawed at me like a polar bear at a whale carcass, I have decided to work freelance.
          Fiction was calling me: story plots scratched on the message pad on my bedstand or scribbled on the back of parking stubs or the flap of an envelope as I drove. These potential novels existed now only as wads of lint at the bottom of my purse.  
          And what makes you so special, my roadside Greek chorus now chants. Do you think yours is the only quiet desperation, the only stifled ambition? You are a bundle of plastic twine floating on your daughter’s ocean, lying in wait as years pass to wrap yourself around her wings with your poverty, neediness, and irrational ambition. You… writer
          Last week, I had dusted off my interview suit and explained to a succession of loan officers that I was a “freelance technology writer” and needed only a little “bridge loan” to see me through to the next big project.
          What else could I have said? That I’m a perennially aspiring novelist whose short stories are probably read solely by other hopefuls? That I have spent the last eight years trying to shoehorn myself into Hollywood’s clenched consideration, resulting in one low-budget feature and four options simmering in a perpetual broth of revision? As a borrower, I am about as appealing as a glass of silicon wastewater.
          I walked out of the last bank and stand in the parking lot feeling sorry for myself. Then I looked at my Buick as if seeing it for the first time. Finally paid off after eight years, it has been through a lot. In 2005, it was repossessed in the rain at 3 a.m. by a couple of husky young men, who had it up on the tow truck by the time I emerged in a ratty bathrobe, holding my Lhasa Apso. “Put some shoes on,” one of them said.
          The Buick looked forlorn and reproachful and a little silly, its capacious rump elevated by a chain, its grille tipped into a puddle. When a copywriting windfall enabled me to redeem it a few days later from a dusty San Jose repo-yard, a friend said admiringly, “You always land on your feet.” But her metaphor was wrong. I had not yet landed. Today looks and feels more like a landing. And not on my feet.
          It takes two or three passes around the block in what is now a freezing deluge to find the auto loan storefront. We park, and my daughter, impatient with my umbrella, leaps out and makes a dash for the door which looks close, but is actually far enough away for her to get thoroughly soaked. I come up behind her, and she grins sheepishly, the rain bedewing her face and lashes, the damp tendrils of hair pasted to her fresh, unconquered skin. “Young Girl Caught in a Downpour,” I mentally title the artwork. We wrestle open the door, and a line of people turns at the cold, wet draft, one or two actually smiling in commiseration. They are mostly poor and minorities: young mothers with children hanging from every limb; gray-headed veterans in bill hats with numbers on the front. 
          The young woman at the window smiles too, although the line is long, the paperwork complex, and her computer capricious. She hands us a battered camera to photograph the Buick’s VIN number and its odometer. My daughter waves me to a chair and ducks outside—again without the umbrella—although the rain is now coming down in sheets from a truly biblical sky, occasionally riven by trees of lightning so close you could almost grab their molten trunks. Seconds later, massive thunderclaps trigger little screams from the women. The veterans flinch, their jaw muscles working. 
          When my daughter re-enters, I pull off her soaked outer sweater as though she is a kindergartner and help her on with my own.  
          “Thanks, Mom.” The people in line titter. I catch the eye of an elderly lady, and she beams at me, a universal smile of motherhood. And all at once, everything is all right. It’s more than all right. Why, the Buick is merely fulfilling another of the roles it was intended for. Like reindeer to the Inuit, it is both transportation and sustenance.  
          So we all watch the rain subside and a cold blue sky emerge amid turbulent clouds, a fresh wind whipping the treetops. The line slowly shortens, and at last, I am presented with a bale of papers on which I provide my signature in about forty places. The clerk counts out my money in small, used bills, and feeling far from dissatisfied—even a little rich—we get back into the Buick.

Linda Boroff graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in English and currently lives and works in Silicon Valley. Her suspense novel The Remnant has recently been accepted for publication. Her fiction and nonfiction appear in McSweeney’s, The Write Launch, All the Sins, Epoch, Cimarron Review, Parhelion, Crack the Spine, Writing Disorder, The Piltdown Review, Eclectica, 5:21 Magazine, Thoughtful Dog, The Satirist, and other publications.

Monday, June 8, 2020

Gardening with Mary: Rebirth of a Northside Garden

by Carolyn Bastick
                           Dedicated to my beloved sons, Adam and Harry

Mary was the previous owner of my new Minneapolis home. I learned she had died that autumn, only sixty-nine, taken quickly by cancer. She was a gardener. An Army photographer. Her photograph filing cases (disappointingly empty) were to be left in the basement, too heavy to move. I was happy to allow them to remain in my keeping.
My move to this new home in 2017 was not planned. I was not supposed to be in Minnesota. The daughter of a British Army officer accustomed to the upheaval of military life, back in 1981 I had barely given a thought to the consequences of marrying an American and moving to the Twin Cities. Yet for over thirty-five years, I held England close to my heart, waiting for the day I could return.
And finally, it was time. As I prepared for this long-awaited repatriation, the father of my children assured me he approved of my departure. His doctor had declared him to be a veritable poster child for chemotherapy, surely, the ultimate positive prognosis. “Go to England, I’m fine!” he told me.
So, I went. With his perceived blessing. I did not understand then that his words were the hubris of a dying man. I had trusted him in this weighty matter because I had no choice. For to doubt him would be to accept the unacceptable—that my children would be left fatherless. That I would no longer simply be a divorced mother, but a single parent, with sole proprietorship of our boys as they stood poised on the brink of adulthood. Even after the divorce, we had raised our children collaboratively, equally involved in their lives. I could not imagine taking on this great responsibility alone.
Now, less than twenty-four months later, his death had brought me back to Minnesota in a rush. Even with my training, two transatlantic moves in as many years was brutal. A decision that had been in the making for over three decades was undone in a heartbeat. I deserted my partner and my English family to be close to my grieving sons. Insecure and isolated in this unfamiliar single parent role, I would need to create yet another American home. I would have one more northern garden to nurture.
My first foray into gardening came decades before after we bought a very special bungalow in Minneapolis in which to raise our family; a neglected 1917 Sear's kit house charmingly called The Ashmore. Learning about its history and attempting to restore some of its grandeur rapidly became an obsession.
The Ashmore was built in the Craftsman style. It possessed an organic nature. Brown hues, low to the ground, a chimney and garage constructed of field stone. It sat nestled in its urban lot begging to be surrounded by beauty. I believe it was the blandness of The Ashmore’s landscaping that spurred me on to take the plunge. Move that hosta. Dig out the soulless rows of shrubs, eradicate the plastic edging and weed control mesh. Make inroads into the lawn. I never looked back.
Americans, in my experience, hold this charming belief that if you are English and you create a garden that is pleasing to the eye, it is due solely to your heritage that it grows as it does. As if gardening is in the English DNA. I wish it were so!
Everything I know about gardening I have learned in Minnesota. Through trial and error and an unhesitating approach to moving plants. During my brief tenure in England, finally in a climate where I could grow year-round, I struggled in every respect. The garden centers, replete with their expansive gift shops and tea rooms, displayed rows and rows of sumptuously eye-watering plants and shrubs. I recognized virtually none of them. The English universally use botanical plant names. Common names, when applied, are frequently entirely different than those used in the States.
It took me months to understand that there was a reason why local retailers only offered a few varieties of daylily (my favorite plant.) I discovered to my horror that without being able to depend upon extended periods of hot weather, they were unreliable bloomers. One of my greatest joys starting in early summer is to rise at first light and see which of my lovelies have opened overnight. I greet them like old friends, exclaim at their beauty, then deadhead their spent compadres. Extraordinarily therapeutic, I could hardly bear the idea that this ritual was not going to be available to me in my long-awaited English garden.
And while hosta love the English climate, so do slugs and snails. They would decimate complete plants overnight. Eventually, I just gave up on another of my once-dependable garden companions.
The old adage "the grass is always greener on the other side" could not have been more apt!
So, on a bitterly cold January day when I found myself viewing what was to become my next home, the garden not at all apparent under the snow and ice, my heavy heart was lifted by a single thought: I can once again garden like a Minnesotan!
Mine was the sole offer despite a strong seller’s market, the discounted asking price, and that the property sat directly across from Folwell Park. Observed from the right angle, you could believe the park was an extension of the garden. I found this irresistible. It was as if this place had been waiting just for me. Because I desperately needed somewhere to call my own. Because I could see beyond the achingly sad shabbiness of this 1925 bungalow. Because I am a gardener.
My new home was located in north Minneapolis. When I first moved to the Twin Cities, I learned to navigate this foreign land thusly: North was bad. Always. South was good. Always. West was affluent suburbia where I could ride horses. East was the direction of travel required to get to our twin, St. Paul.
I bucked the system early and moved into neighborhoods that alarmed everyone within my newly-acquired social circle. I made money every time I sold a house. Gentrification was my friend. You will hear gunshots every night said a young cop I consulted prior to making my latest home-buying decision. I went ahead with the purchase anyway; gunfire was no match for my track record.
He was right. Calling 911 has become integral to my lifestyle. In the beginning, I called often out of sheer disbelief at the crimes and various wrongs unfolding in front of my white privileged eyes. Now, I am more likely to call out of anger and outrage. I have developed a set of 911-worthy standards. If drug dealers are selling to adults, moving on quickly, I am inclined to give them a pass. But the guy terrifyingly tearing down the street on the illegal 4-wheeler turns me into a crazy woman, and on principle I pick up my phone.
I confess that, sometimes, I have left it to others to react when gunshots stutter out in the middle of the night. I worry that I will fall prey to the complacency and cynicism that infects many of my neighbors. Fear and distrust of local law enforcement is deeply rooted here on the Northside. I am almost relieved when another event triggers the now-familiar heady cocktail of fear, fury, and desire to right a wrong and I reach for that phone.
It was a wimpy winter by Minnesota standards. The snow was gone by March and the thaw revealed the true extent of the neglect that I had inherited. Like the Sear’s kit house, it was clear I was going to have to engage in a little digging and destruction to rejuvenate Mary’s little house. Yards and yards of odd little retaining walls, now tipping over in all directions, had to be removed. As did the business end of an ancient washing line that was serving as a bird feeder rack. A non-functioning Narnia light was randomly placed where I could envision a flower bed.
Then I waited.
Spring stampedes into Minnesota—a wonder to behold if you have lived through one of these winters. Even after gardening here for over two decades, I am amazed that anything survives the depth of the deep freeze. Yet once all danger of snow has passed, in a matter of weeks everything is covered in a haze of green. You become adept at identifying plants (and weeds) from the barest tuft of growth, the blessed relief and thrill when your beloved bits and pieces show signs of life.
But even as you are welcoming the return of your garden, Mother Nature is whispering in your ear ... Hurry, hurry! Waste not a minute. Come November, the snow will fly. All you hope to achieve must be accomplished in Minnesota’s short-lived growing season. Gardening in the Upper Midwest is an intense experience. For me, a powerful driving force.
That first spring, I confess I was especially excited as I waited to see Mary's garden. Mary was a gardener. Everyone told me so. In the meantime, I found some of her treasures scattered throughout the beds, stored in the garage and basement, many of them not to my taste. In the past, I would have rehoused these items. Yet now I did not. A pink Dollar Store kneeler has proved to be invaluable. A cracked garbage can is perfect for weeding as it tips neatly inside the requisite paper lawn bags. And buried deep under layers of decaying leaves I came across a stepping stone, orange and black koi swimming around its edges. It lives next to a newly-dug pond, much safer than the real thing who would almost certainly become midnight snacks for marauding raccoons.
This was the start of a fresh approach to making a garden. There were budgeting constraints. What could I recycle, re-purpose? To re-use Mary's leftovers in unexpected ways seemed both practical and respectful. It gave me permission to be more relaxed as I set about building something livable and lovely. My world had been turned upside down, the perfect time to break through those self-imposed creative barriers.
By May, I had a better feel for the garden itself. Frankly, I was disappointed.
There was much evidence that no-one had been picking up the litter that is endemic to the north side of Minneapolis. The primary bed was not full of whimsical plantings as the jaunty brick edging might suggest. Just some very ordinary hosta and phlox, a wire Easter egg basket thrown in for good measure. And a carpet of weeds and saplings from the street maples. The allium, though plentiful and most welcome in the spring, were jammed up against the back wall, their early-season impact lost in the shadow of the building. The "nice hedge" (so described by the uninspired Realtor selling the house) was pruned to within an inch of its life. In contrast, the one mature tree, a messy ash, was gasping for a trim, more dead than alive.
In front, a lonely hydrangea was parked in full sun on the edge of the inexplicably lumpy lawn, where it would attract the attention of local dogs and be bumped and bruised by pedestrians rounding the corner. I didn't understand how it could still be alive given its harsh positioning.
I tend to focus my attention on my more private back yard. But it was here, at the intersection of two less-than-desirable streets in North Minneapolis, that I unearthed where Mary had created her pièce de résistance. A single bed. A bed that would accumulate snow, salt and sand delivered by the City plows. That would suffer the most from accidental foot traffic. That would collect the worst of Folwell's trash. That would from time to time be driven over by cars under the influence of their reckless or impaired owners.
Nothing made sense. I could see the love that Mary had put into this one bed, but I struggled at first to comprehend why she might have selected this particular space for what appeared to be her primary gardening effort. Where was the work of the great gardener?
But then I reminded myself that Mary was sick. Perhaps she was too tired to tend to more than this small plot. Could this also have been a mark of defiance on her part? To demonstrate that you can create and sustain beauty anywhere? Even at a crossroad that far too often bears witness to human drama and chaos. Frequently loud. Occasionally violent.
Did she choose to cultivate here because, near the end, it took her out into the world and provided an opportunity to greet her neighbors? Have a natter. Observe the action on the street, good and bad. And hear how passersby appreciated her endeavors. "I love your flowers!" A beep of the horn, a smile and thumbs up from a total stranger. Because, I've learned, this is what happens when you are tending Mary's garden.
I have come to view this garden as a miracle of sorts. It has yielded many beautiful surprises and helped me become deeply connected with this sometime challenging neighborhood. Has sustained me through another difficult adjustment as an expat. It is our curse to forever be leaving precious people. This part never gets any easier. My gardens have always eased the pain. Have enabled me to create a sense of place when I was starting again.
It has been while tending Mary's flower bed that I have experienced the most uplifting of encounters. The most humbling, like the freely-given hugs from the little girls that catch the bus on my corner or the young boy who has blessed me with his inquisitive friendship, somehow rising above the mayhem of his cramped and noisy household where a man was shot and killed shortly before I arrived. For months, I naively assumed the deflated balloons hanging sadly from the tree on the curb were left over from a kid’s birthday celebration. Another neighbor unexpectedly pulled up his shirt to show me the tattooed landscape of his back: tigers, eagles, and flowers. Another nature lover. Our mutual love of the natural world couldn’t stop the jolt I felt when I spied the .44 Magnum tucked into his waist band. I marvel at the way a flower or visiting butterfly ensnares complete strangers in conversation about the wonders of our planet.
Something that seems unique to Northside living is how on the bleakest of days, when life on this street seems unutterably hard, someone will express gratitude for the beauty of my garden, and instantly the world is put to rights.
There is much need in this community, and I have been graced with many random opportunities to give to others. I have developed a reputation. I have scoured the ground for spent shells outside my window in the wake of gun-wielding truant teenagers fleeing from an unidentified assailant. I bullied the City into installing a four-way stop sign at my corner and shamed the Park Board into giving our neglected park the love it had so long deserved. This place has provided me with a job when I thought I had none.
I had been absolutely determined to transplant the poorly-placed hydrangea that first year, quite prepared to take the risk that it wouldn't live through such a move. But thankfully I ran out of time and energy. Because it is a stunner. Starting to bloom in June, it goes on and on, the blossoms spectacular and deliciously fragrant.
The hardy hydrangea is not alone in thriving where it should not. Hosta have been treated likewise, planted in full sun in thin soil, and in their resilience, they have spread through chinks in the brick edging, lending a delightfully haphazard effect to the planting.
I have never had a garden that attracts so many birds. The garden grows, seemingly, unbidden. Even the hosta self-seed. The allium planted under the overhangs of the roof get virtually no moisture. Yet when I dig them up, they reappear. A mystery rose has popped up in the same barren spot. Diminutive balloon flowers appear hither and thither in a stone-dry bed where I was sure nothing could flourish. It was here also that I found what I at first believed to be some sickly daylilies of the 'Stella de Oro' variety. I am not a fan of the color or the ever-blooming concept and dumped them unceremoniously in Mary's boulevard. This daylily is in fact a gorgeous creamy yellow. And tiny. Like the balloon flowers. Another near miss!
Mary's planting decisions seemed to defy gardening logic. There can be no other explanation: these plants bloom for Mary.
I have of course put my own stamp on the most recent of my northern gardens. I have planted many trees, some donated by public schemes seeking to reforest North Minneapolis following the devastation of the 2011 tornado. I have switched things up and further developed Mary’s riotous color scheme, just as I have made use of many of Mary's curiosities.
I gladly accept donations from friends and neighbors with which to fill my growing garden and am thankful for these living gifts. This is a marked departure from my former strict gardening self that would have turned down the likes of the previously-scorned Stella de Oro and the near-neon orange lilium, beautifully brash, that now brighten Mary's bed. These were a contribution from the .44 Magnum owner. These plants are tough, easy keepers, perfect for that dangerous boulevard.

As I dig and change, I have uncovered 20th century trash: Broken bottles, china shards, hardware, a tiny Cinderella slipper. I cherish this glimpse into the generations that called this corner home before my time. Before Mary's time. I save the best pieces and wonder about their owners. And when the day comes that I must leave here, they will accompany me on my travels. In memoriam.
I continue to hear that Mary was quite the gardener. She was very kind, generous, trusting. Maybe too trusting it has been suggested. Sometimes Mary was a little, well, eccentric: compulsively mowing the lumpy lawn, trimming that hedge. I am always grateful for these insights into the woman whose passing made my Northside life possible. And very often those who knew her ask the question: where is Mary now? I have to explain that Mary is gone. This has been an altogether unexpected responsibility. I observe their faces, see the shock and sadness, the little expressions of discomfort that they should have known. Mary was their neighbor.
How can this happen? Because this is Minnesota. The first frost drives us into a frenzy of preparation for the long cold months ahead. Then we hunker down for the winter. Children are conceived. People marry. Move away. Get sick. And die. In the spring, we venture outside and catch up. Quickly. For in just a few short months, the snow will fly.


I have recently looked up Mary's obituary. I had resisted taking this step for fear that I would learn something that wouldn't mesh with how I understood her. Instead, I discovered a deeper connection. Mary was the sister of a man that I had worked alongside for a number of years. My former co-workers had attended Mary's funeral.
Importantly, I learned that my sense of Mary was not misplaced. She was a volunteer teacher’s assistant, loved children, was passionate about the arts. She was pretty.
I have come to feel an affinity and an affection for Mary. There is much we have shared beyond the plants that survived her. Ours is a story of two gardeners. And their Northside garden.

"There is something magical in sophisticating the elements into something livable, something human. It is as if you are building your own heart."
 –Harry Jensen, December 2018

Carolyn Bastick, British by birth and a naturalized American, was born in Hong Kong into a British Army generational family, survived the eccentricities and lack-luster education provided by the English boarding school system (a memoir she fully intends to write one day), and spent much of her adult life as an ex pat living in the States, raising a family, and working in the compliance world. She is a lapsed horsewoman and passionate self-taught gardener and has recently re-repatriated to England, where she is happily self-isolating with her fiancé in their large and unruly garden—finally learning how to be an English gardener.

Monday, June 1, 2020

Eye of the Beholder

by David Raney

Call me male-ish. According to cultural assumptions, men are supposed to like guns, but I’m not really a gun guy. As a boy I wheedled a BB gun for Christmas with the solemn vow not to shoot birds, which I did at the first opportunity. “You’ll shoot your eye out” runs the refrain from the movie Christmas Story, and at least I didn’t do that. But I shot out a bird’s. Stalking the wild sparrow in our back yard, I missed innumerable times before chance brought down a luckless thing from our birch tree, a bead of blood vividly welling where its eye had been. I stood over it dumbfounded until a rap at the picture window startled me and I saw my brother pointing in the dramatic full-body pose we now refer to as J’Accuse! before running off to find my mother and bring down justice. It didn’t surprise me when I later read that the last wild passenger pigeon, out of billions darkening pre-1900 American skies, was killed in Ohio by a boy with a BB gun.

Men are fascinated by cars, too, I’m told, and football and fixing things, and we’re competitive sexbots, comparing conquests and notching headboards. I don’t really qualify as “manly” on those counts either, though I can be adolescently competitive in the sports I care about. But testosterone levels aside, here’s my question: Is it possible to connect with people first as humans, and only afterward as men and women? Unless we’ve taken monastic vows, we interact with each other all day, at work and play and school, shopping, dating. But sometimes it seems less interacting than circling: shy, cocky, avid, wary, desperate for attention, wishing we were invisible.

I’ve been interested in this terra incognita for the better part of my life, as we all have, but lately I’ve been thinking about a certain backwater of the territory that used to be called wolf whistling or catcalling, and now in our less poetic times is referred to as “street harassment.” Consigned by cliché to certain neighborhoods, particularly to wharves and construction sites, it’s been treated for generations as a behavioral imperative issued with the sailor suit and hardhat.

Is it a behavioral imperative though? Whether sexual attitudes and behavior owe more to biology or culture, a debate that’s far from over, this isn’t 1965 after all. Surely gross misogyny is on the wane, like smoking, if only from the pressure of broad social disapproval. Even the word “catcalling” sounds like a Mad Men plot point. But it hasn’t gone away, of course, as half-open eyes and ears will tell you.

I react to women, and if I were homosexual, I’d react to men. That’s a biological imperative, not a behavioral one. No one, I think, wants us to stop noticing each other. I just don’t react like the wolf in Red Hot Riding Hood. I’ve never offered a public assessment of a woman’s body or suggested to a stranger what a fool she’d be not to avail herself of my outsized charms. This makes me a paragon of nothing, as I don’t imagine my friends do it either. I know my father didn’t. In any case, who does it is less interesting to me than why, and what it feels like. So I started asking women.

The problem was how to approach someone at a bus stop or coffee shop without sounding like the saddest pickup artist ever. (“’Scuse me, just wondering, do guys hit on you all the time?”) But I wanted to hear from more than friends or the internet — where, as you’d expect, treatments range from intellectual to comic to incendiary — so at the risk of being slapped or simply ignored, I ask.

What works best, after establishing that I’m a writer, is to ask women if they’ve lived somewhere else and noticed any differences in catcalling. I realize this begs the question, but no one has ever corrected me. Precisely zero women said they’d never been whistled at or otherwise harassed in public. My unscientific survey suggests it happens nearly everywhere, to pretty much all women, regardless of age, attire or weather.

Researchers have done some work in this field, though I was surprised to find how little of that research occurred until recently. The CDC reported in 2010 that worldwide seventy to ninety-nine percent of women experienced “non-contact unwanted sexual experiences.” In a 2008 study by, nearly ninety percent of women said they’d experienced harassment by age nineteen, almost a quarter by age twelve. Twelve. Americans, incidentally, have no special claim on this ugly street theater: in one study more than eighty percent of women in both Egypt and Canada reported harassment, and in Yemen, where women typically go about modestly dressed or veiled, the figure is over ninety percent.

The women who have been kind enough to talk to me about their own experiences confirm these findings, as well as the appalling range of misbehavior that can accompany the hooting, whistling, and verbal vivisection. One woman was biking along a country road between grocery store and home when a man pulled up next to her, masturbating, then turned around and drove past again, clearly enjoying her fear. The women with whom I’ve spoken say this sort of thing started when they were eleven, twelve, fourteen, describing plenty of “Hey babys” and all manner of unwanted advances. One woman wrote, “It’s hard to explain how invasive it feels. I’ve had my entire house robbed twice, and it doesn’t even approach that hit-and-run feeling. It makes you wary; you shut down.”

Men, none of this will be news to your friend, girlfriend, daughter, sister, wife. But it was to me, and the more I listened, the more troubling it got. “Strangely enough,” one woman told me, “the college towns I grew up in were the worst, whereas during five years in Philadelphia, I can only recall one stray comment yelled from a car.” Others spoke differently of Philly, Atlanta, Chicago and every other city I heard about, with two women saying the opposite about college towns.

I’ve spent a good part of my life in university settings, and I think the reason I haven’t seen much of the cat or wolf isn’t that everyone’s so proper; I just haven’t seen it. I’m not the recipient, for one thing, but apparently, I’m also oblivious. As I spoke with women, I was shocked at how ubiquitous such harassment is on campuses where I’ve worked. One woman told me she was repeatedly harassed by a university security guard; another filed a report on campus workers for leering at undergraduates. And it isn’t only nineteen-year-olds in shorts; a middle-aged woman told me she’d been catcalled near the school while walking in the rain in a bulky raincoat, oversized hat, and umbrella: “I might as well have been wearing a tent.” And then there’s frat-boy behavior, an example being the section of Brown’s campus that a woman told me she avoided because it was known for rows of guys holding score cards, like Olympic judges, as women walked by.

I’m not alone in my density. The discussion “How common is catcalling?” on the site Democratic Underground begins with a woman’s six-month diary of strangers leering, making passes, and offering offensive comments regardless of weather or dress. A sympathetic reader commented, “Being male, this is not in the realm of my experience—neither as a receiver or a perp. Though I have witnessed catcalling of women on the street, it's not all that common in my neighborhood.” Possibly, but I’m willing to bet it’s more common than his experience would suggest.

What we dismiss in our density is the recognition that such behavior fosters fear in women. Not only are catcalls demeaning, reducing the individual and complete woman to a fraction of herself as a sexual object, when men leer and make suggestive comments, they see women only through male eyes. Few men have experienced how frequently unwanted advances escalate. Women are rightfully afraid of being pawed, stalked, or attacked, however innocuous men might find the leer or whistle. “Almost all women have a defensive strategy for walking alone,” writes Jamie Golden in “Why Just Telling Men No Doesn’t Necessarily Work,” but “almost no men do.” This seems to be true across cultures. “A young woman likes to feel attractive,” one woman told me, “but I think women of all ages feel that implicit threat of physical peril, always.”

Many men, I’m sure, would regard the fear induced by unwanted advances as ludicrous. Most women, I’m equally sure, would find it commonplace. Two women in a single week of October 2015 were murdered after refusing to talk or give their phone number to a man. One was in Detroit, at a funeral of all things, the other on a street in Queens. Margaret Atwood writes that she once asked a male friend why men feel threatened by women. He told her, “They’re afraid women will laugh at them.” She asked a group of women the same question and they said, “We’re afraid of being killed.”

The wolf’s defense is typically to claim that a whistle or call is a compliment. Deep down women like it; why the fuss? Innumerable articles and blog posts argue against this, their titles sufficient: “No, Dudes, It’s Not Flattering”; “Your Catcalls Are Not a Compliment. Ever.” Even Playboy weighed in with a flowchart called “Dudes, It’s Not Flattering”, which concludes that precisely two circumstances make catcalling acceptable: “1) You’ve consensually agreed to shout sexually suggestive comments to each other in public; 2) She is literally a cat.”

Yet in 2014 New York Post writer Doree Lewak caused a stir with an article titled “Hey ladies! Catcalls are flattering! Deal with it” in which she maintains that she loves all the attention from construction crews: "I’ll never forget my first time… I was over the moon…. The mystique and machismo of manly construction workers have always made my heart beat a little faster—and made my sashay a little saucier. It’s as primal as it gets."

Never mind that, as Lauren Bans noted in GQ, Lewak’s editorial “reads like a drunk Carrie Bradshaw after a partial lobotomy.” The point Lewak chooses to ignore is that she’s decided to be pleased by a situation that might turn to violence, and frequently does. It’s not everyone’s option to disregard that fact, nor her place to instruct them how to feel.

This is why when male celebrities complain of being objectified (Robert Redford: “People have been so busy relating to how I look, it's a miracle I didn't become a self-conscious blob of protoplasm”), it’s possible to think they’re sincere without accepting that they really know what they’re talking about. Any fear they associate with the experience involves being professionally trivialized, not made to hate half of humanity for the rest of your life.

It’s why I’ll never really know what I’m talking about, either. In my only example of trading perspectives, I was biking one day and stopped for a water break. A van of teenagers rolled by, and one girl leaned out the window and whooped something about my butt in bike shorts, pretending to be enthused for the benefit of the guy driving and, I’m sure, for her own amusement. It wasn’t about me—any male fifteen to fifty would have served—and there was no physical threat. But it didn’t feel great, because that’s what objectification is: being rendered interchangeable, a category.

The other reflexive defense of this behavior is that it’s timeless, ineradicable, it’s in our DNA. You hear this from men interviewed in the street, including one who let this drop (along with my jaw) in a video: “I understand, you know—I have five sisters. But it’s just, like, a societal thing. It’s the way things roll.” To appeal to someone’s mother or sister might seem a foolproof way to humanize the encounter. (Would you want someone to talk to your daughter that way?) But isn’t that also objectifying, to say a woman is worthy of respect because she’s somebody’s something?

The behavior is certainly old, so I guess the excuses have to be. References to whistling at women date to at least 200 B.C., when the Roman playwright Plautus mentions a young woman who, "when she passes through the streets, all the men would look at her, leer, nod and wink and whistle." He has a father say this to his son, creepily enough, about a slave girl they both covet. But old isn’t the same as natural—and what does that matter anyway? We tamp down or prohibit all kinds of things that are arguably natural. Evolutionarily speaking, indiscriminate rape is an efficient way to spread one’s genes. Civilized people don’t practice it. And there’s the slippery slope problem: assaults and rape are worse than whistling, but are they categorically different or just on a continuum? If whistling is hard-wired, as some would have it, and thus a cousin of “real” violence, wouldn’t rape be just as hard to eradicate, just as exempt from the attempt?

I hope not, because I enjoy connecting with people, not objects or opposites. Maybe I’m fooling myself and a sexual agenda lurks under all our veneers. But maybe not. I like giving directions to strangers, though I’m awful at it, and I even like seeing other people do it—both looking the same direction, arms outstretched like an invitation to dance. And I like eyes. While I can’t look at the world through someone else’s, I can look into them, and what I see there often saddens me.

Girls are taught early not to talk to strange men, not to make eye contact. That’s what I see in women’s eyes when they’re alone. Asked what she does to protect herself from street harassment, a woman in Jessica Williams’s Late Show segment on catcalling replies, “My normal response is to put on my bitch face.” The other women nod. I pass them on the sidewalk, morning and evening, walking and running, in suits and dresses and gym clothes. Their eyes say I’ve heard it beforeasshole, or Go ahead and look—I’m not even here

Those expressions aren’t haughty, just defensive or middle-distance vacant, born of long practice deflecting all the muttered invitations and “Damn, girls.” Instead of thinking about the spring air or a project at work or a drink with friends, she's spending mental energy sorting men into a box (guys, jerks) like the one she's been in since middle school (tits, ass). Wouldn’t it be nice to imagine a brighter world to breathe in, one where our fleeting chance of connection didn’t come so freighted with fear?

I’ll never know exactly what another person thinks or feels. I’m not even sure how well I understand myself. But half a life later, I know what that sparrow saw.

David Raney is a writer and editor in Atlanta. His pieces have appeared in several dozen journals, books and newspapers. The latest good fortune was being listed in Best American Essays 2018 and 2019.