Join me at Island in the City

Hi! I have a new project that I’m trying to get the word out about. It’s a newsletter at the new publishing platform Substack called Island in the City.

To semi-quote myself in the About page of the newsletter, I started it for fun and community to cope with the continued social isolation. The newsletter will dive into topics that have preoccupied my mind during the long days and nights of the pandemic. Stuff like creativity & productivity, loneliness, favorite artists, places & people, aging & ageism, class & classism, storytelling, and the life and geography of big cities & tiny islands.

I already have my first post up, about the Chicago outsider artist Henry Darger. Please check it out. This is also a two-parter post–you can expect the second part to go up next week.

What makes this different from my website and the occasional posts here?

A few things. The newsletter will be bi-monthly at the most, monthly at the least. That’s much more frequent than my posting here on my personal site.

You can also subscribe to the newsletter and get an email whenever a new post goes up. There are links to subscribe in the newsletter at Substack, and you can also do it here.

You’ll notice there’s a payment option. For now, my posts will be free. Maybe they always will–this is brand new journey and I haven’t a clue what’s around the corner with this. For all I know, there are no corners. Anyway, Substack was created as a self-publishing platform like Medium, WordPress, and Blogger, but with more of an ability to earn income for your writing. If you’ve been paying attention to changes in media and publishing over the last 10-15 years, and certainly if you’ve worked in media, you’ll know how changes have set so many media professionals adrift, especially many of a certain generation (cough, Gen X, cough). Layoffs and scale staffs, newspaper foldings, media conglomeration, the rise of blogging, the glut of blogs, free media, social media, unpaid internships, the decline of print–all of this has turned publishing, journalism, and media careers upside down and affected many writers’ income. Substack, like Patreon and other “content monetization platforms” (ugh, what a phrase–but it is what it is), allow for writers to charge for their newsletters to give some of the power back to creators.

I’m under no illusion that anyone wants to pay for my ramblings. But since the option is there, if you’d like to show your support by paying, I’d of course feel grateful and encouraged. The subscription cost is $5 a month or $50 a year. Should I ever start charging for the newsletter, it will most likely be the model most other writers are using: some free posts that all subscribers and visitors to the site will get, mixed with some locked ones for paying subscribers only. There is also an option for me to “grandfather in” my original free subscribers so they continue to get the newsletter for free even if I start charging–a gift for the support of loyalty.

What can subscribers expect to read about?

Here are some topics that I plan on writing about beyond my first posts about Henry Darger:

  • Chicago outsider artists Vivian Maier and Lee Godie
  • the Chicago Riverwalk, its bridgehouses, and the Technicolor Man of downtown Chicago,
  • Jean-Baptiste DuSable, city segregation, and the sundown towns of Illinois
  • Tim Robinson and the Aran Islands
  • the islands of Chicago (Goose, Northerly, Stony, Blue)
  • learning a minority language (Irish) in America
  • the sand dunes of Indiana, the boy who fell inside one, and the Girl X case that broke Chicago’s heart
  • the Green Mill and Michael Mann’s/James Caan’s great film, Thief
  • the Pigeon Man of Lincoln Square
  • informal economies and the vanishing Chicago hot dog vendor
  • maybe more (Chicago graffiti art, Ronnie Woo-Woo, Jazz Record Mart (RIP), other Irish islands I have known, who knows?

How to subscribe and connect

To subscribe just go to Island in the City, click the Subscribe button, and add your email. You can also connect with me on Twitter. If you like a post, please share. And if you like the newsletter in general, please tell all your like-minded friends.

As a gift for reading this, here’s a deer pic for your enjoyment. And there’s more where that came from. 😉

Bakery Girl

I wrote this creative nonfiction piece a couple years ago and sent it around to some lit mags but couldn’t get it placed. So I’m sharing it here.

This is dedicated to Roger, Mrs. C., Maria, Vladimir, and Mariann.

The longest relationship of my adult life has been with a local bakery: a Polish mom and pop in a Chicago suburb where I’ve been employed on and off since the early ‘90s, a few weeks before I turned 21. At the time I’d been working minimum wage jobs since high school, with no college degree and not much sense of where I belonged in life. But for fun I liked to bake cookies or whip up some fancy French toast the odd weekend, so I got it in my head to go to cooking school and become a chef or baker. Something like that. The local bakery seemed like a good place to start.

There’s a “sick burn” quote from the third edition of David Thomson’s A Biographical Dictionary of Film (1994) about movie goddess Michelle Pfeiffer: “She still carries the rather stunned, obedient air of an ex-checkout girl at the El Toro Vons supermarket.” Personally, I never noted such an “air” about Pfeiffer nor any of her screen incarnations, not even when she played a deglamorized diner waitress in Frankie and Johnny. But back in the ‘90s, when I was knee deep in mandatory hairnets and the impossible promise of guaranteed customer satisfaction, Thomson’s comment seared into my brain.

A film buff and bookworm, I spotted his book at the library, checked it out, and bulldozed through Thomson’s hundreds of acerbically funny and perceptive entries on Hollywood’s luminaries. Like the movies, Thomson’s wit was a welcome escape. But his entry on Pfeiffer unnerved me. Not because I was a fan of hers, but because it confirmed my fears that as far as the cultured people of the world are concerned, you can take the girl out of the working class but you can’t take the working class out of the girl. Or, in the case of any woman who’s worked a service job, that “smile and say ‘Have a nice day’ or you’re fired” reek of subservience. I mean, if the stunning — not “stunned” — Michelle Pfeiffer couldn’t convince someone she was born for better things than bagging groceries, even with all the transformative power of Hollywood’s dream factory backing her, what chance had someone like me, a Midwestern bakery girl of no special talents, looks, or connections?

Bakery girl. When I started cooking school (really, an associate’s in culinary arts program at a community college), I may have aspired to the title of chef or baker, but my domain at the bakery was always the store, not the bake shop in the back. And my title was “store girl.” That’s what the owners called all of us who set up the store starting 5 a.m., sliced and bagged the bread, boxed the donuts, weighed the butter cookies, stocked the shelves, rang up the purchases, made the coffee, carried out the cakes, answered the phones, took orders, wiped down the counters and tables, and swept and scraped (the latter on our hands and knees) the store floors before closing every night.

Store girl. Never mind that our ages ranged from 15 to early 70s.

There were no store boys, not in the 1990s. All the males worked in the back, meaning they did all the baking (and dishwashing and wholesale delivering). It sort of made sense, given all the heavy lifting and industrial equipment involved. The huge mixers, the lead-like buckets filled with custard and buttercream icing, and a wide-mouthed, revolving, floor-to-ceiling oven that warned away kitchen newbies with its perpetual fiery glow. It was heavy-duty baking, and heavy-duty baking apparently was no job for a girl. The only back of the house jobs any women did were packaging for wholesale, strawberry hulling (an endless job, fresh strawberries being the most popular choice of cake filling), and cake and pastry decorating.

The crew in the back wore bakery whites and heavy black shoes. We store girls wore a pink and beige smock with a matching hair scarf, white pants, and white thick-soled sneakers. The touch of pink was vital, underlining the distinction between us girls and the macho bakeshop crew.

We barely ever sat down — even on break, when there was a long enough lull to take one. My first day I brought a novel with me to read, imagining there’d be an official breakroom, like at the library job I’d had when I was 18, or somewhere private, like the popcorn room at the movie theater job I’d had when I was 17. But at the bakery there was no breakroom. Just a side room where baking tins and racks of fresh butter cookies were kept, plus some empty buckets you could pull out for a few minutes’ rest and a quick cup of coffee or instant soup. Never a donut though. You got sick of them fast. “I could never work here. I’d eat everything and gain a hundred pounds,” customers were always telling us. They didn’t seem to consider the concept of too much of a good thing, that even the smell of so much sweetness day after day put you off it all by the end of your first week.

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Old school bakery with bakery girl wearing uniform. Photo by DESIGNECOLOGIST on Unsplash

Not long after I started I changed my goal from baker to cake decorator. Partly because it was the decorators who impressed me the most. They were like wizards — creative, inventive, fast. They made it look so easy. Carving geometric shapes, faces, and household objects out of soft blocks of cake, squirting elegant calligraphy out of parchment pastry bags, molding the tiniest, most detailed features out of marzipan and rolled fondant, blending colors and fruits and flavors like alchemists mixing elements to make gold. And they were almost all women.

In his book Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain expressed his admiration for “studly women” who could “hang tough” in the high-testosterone world of professional kitchens. When the book came out, I had friends in the industry recommend it. By then I was a couple years away from the bakery, finishing up a bachelor’s degree in English at a state university and working in a mall department store. I’d applied for both, the mall job and college, telling myself I was done with food service work — and hopefully, soon, service jobs of any kind. I thought I might want to teach. Or work in an office. Somewhere I could sit down, somewhere I wouldn’t have to wear a name tag, somewhere I could nurture the bookish side of me I’d been hiding for off-hours, somewhere my confidence could grow.

But out of curiosity I tried a couple chapters of Bourdain’s book. His macho tone turned me off, his implication that women don’t belong in the restaurant industry unless they act like men.

It would be years before I’d see in Bourdain what others idolized. Like the way he championed food service people whether they worked at a famous five-star restaurant or a Waffle House. And Bourdain, to his credit, eventually owned up to some of the problematic elements of his first book, writing an essay near the end of his life expressing regret for the machismo he’d once (perhaps unwittingly) celebrated, finally calling out food service sexism for what it is: “meathead culture.”

Bourdain didn’t lie. In the service industry jobs I’ve had over the years, this culture took the form of male co-workers who’d freely talk about “the price of hookers” and joke about the smell of female genitalia in earshot of women workers. There were guys who wouldn’t allow a female co-worker to do anything that required too much physical exertion — they meant well but their thinking was that all women were weak. And there were guys who’d ignore you if you did ask for help — their thinking being that you wanted to work in this job didn’t you, so do it yourself like a man supposedly would. Then there was the young, hot-shot and hot-headed chef I worked with who once threatened “She’s in danger of becoming a battered woman someday” about a teenage waitress he said asked too many questions, was too mouthy. (Later he said he was just joking. Hahaha.)

This was just the back of the house sexism. Out front there were male customers who’d hound you for your number or stalk you by waiting for your table or turn at the counter or calling the store or restaurant, convinced your friendly customer service was really flirting. Which was probably the worst part of the job, much more than being on your feet all day or scraping up crumbs. You had to smile through it all. Even while being leered at by a man “just reading” the name tag on your breast. Or being called “sweetie” by a well-manicured woman pretending you have no name at all.

Machismo is only one flavor of sexism, only one style of disrespect. Women, in their own way, can be just as guilty. From the young, self-described “foodie” bride-to-be who left a thousand-word bad review of the bakery on every online ratings site because her wedding cake samples came in plastic cups, to the middle-aged professional who threw a fudge-iced éclair at a store girl because she didn’t like the way it’d been handed to her. (The iced side hit my co-worker right below her collar, just above her name tag, leaving an oblong-shaped brown spot the rest of her shift. After getting the manager to fill the rest of her order, the customer walked over to the store girl on her way out the door and jeered, “Have a nice day, hon.”)

Or maybe rude customer behavior has nothing to do with sexism. Maybe there’s another ism to blame — classism, capitalism, narcissism. Or maybe some people have impossible expectations. Maybe some people are just jerks.

Maybe Bourdain, while wrong, was also right.

Deep down, Kitchen Confidential riled me because I’d come to believe I wasn’t cut out for professional kitchen work. I was too intimidated to a fault. I didn’t have the cockiness or confidence for chef’s work, baker’s work, industry work. I didn’t know how to hang tough. I was a store girl, extra, out of her element.

David Thomson and Anthony Bourdain exposed a truth, or at least a perception, about women like me that hurt to face up to, much less confront. When I went back to school, it was in a core lit class that I finally saw some representation of the life I’d known, the same life I was trying to get away from, but this time it was cloaked in comfort.

In an American lit course we were assigned a Raymond Carver story, “A Small, Good Thing.” The story is about a middle-class couple whose young son dies on his birthday after a hit-and-run incident. Bookending the story, however, are two visits to a bakery. In the first visit, the mother orders a cake for her son’s birthday. In the second visit, the couple go to finally pick up the cake, three days late. Actually, they go to confront the baker, who’s been prank calling them about the forgotten cake over the three agonizing days since the boy was hit by the car and left lingering in a coma. The story ends with the baker hearing about the child’s death, apologizing for his cruelty, offering stories about the supposed lonely life of a baker, and feeding the couple some of his freshly baked rolls. “You have to eat and keep going,” he tells them. “Eating is a small, good thing in a time like this.”

I liked a lot of the stories I was assigned in my lit classes, but this one I actually appreciated. I read it more than once — not for study purposes, but to decide what I really thought about it, how authentic it was based on my experience. I couldn’t wait to talk about it in class.

I remember wanting to talk about some of the more contrived aspects of the story. Like why didn’t the baker, someone who’d clearly been in the business awhile, make the mother pay for the cake upfront, at least put down a deposit? Like we did at the Polish bakery. And why didn’t he just mention the cake in any of his phone calls to the couple? Or just say, “This is the bakery calling.” Again, like we store girls did at the end of the day with any orders still waiting pick-up.

But we never got to the story in class discussion. I never got to talk about it with anyone. It just became one of those stories of the American canon that I was supposed to file away and make sense of — its perfection, its meaning, its influence — on my own, like an interrupted dream or a lost ambition.

I decided it was good. What I liked was how dynamic the baker character is, how much he becomes the emotional heart of the story, evolving from the unyielding front he shows the mother at the story’s beginning, to cruelty and self-pity in its middle, to remorse and compassion by the end. To giving.

I decided his prank calling of the couple, unlikely in real life, was his assertion of his own value, of his worth as a worker and human being. He took the time to take this woman’s order, to make the cake just like she wanted, to put in the time and labor for a family he didn’t know and a child not his own. Never mind his “I’m just a baker” apology to the couple. He’s the only character in the story with something to offer the mourning parents beyond condolences or platitudes, something they can hold in their hands, smell and eat, nourish and comfort themselves with. Even their son’s doctors couldn’t give as much.

So Carver’s baker isn’t, in my experience, a perfect, authentic representation of bakery life. Maybe nothing is other than the life itself. But in terms of working-class respect, Carver’s story certainly beats Thomson’s quip. Carver himself grew up working-class, his father a millworker, his mother a sometime waitress and retail clerk. She could’ve been a woman I worked with. She could’ve been me.

(This past year of pandemic, like people the world over I’ve had a lot of sleepless nights. Nights of worrying and fear. Nights that lead your mind to the past, because the future is so uncertain. My mind would sometimes stray to cooking school, to my first days at the bakery, to Carver’s baker… Could I have been Mrs. Carver’s son? Or Bourdain, with more ambition and talent, more confidence and dark sorrow? How about the dead boy’s mother in “A Small, Good Thing”? What contrivances or curveballs would have to be written into a story or a life to make Carver’s lonely baker turn out a worldly legend like Bourdain? Or to make Bourdain turn out like Carver’s baker — lonesome but surviving, overlooked but still alive?

Or to make me a baker, any baker, instead of the girl who rings up the baker’s orders?

How about Michelle Pfeiffer? In the ’90s she seemed straight on the Oscar path. Decades later she’s yet to get there, nevermind her knockout looks or knockout performances. Was it something on her resumé? That supposed miscasting as the diner waitress in Frankie and Johnny? Or maybe the time she played, for real, a supermarket checkout girl. As Thomson said, maybe she played that role too well, too obediently. Unlike lonely bakers, who can find their way back to human connection, working girls can’t expect to live their common beginnings down, not without an enduring confidence or a long fight.)

Two things life teaches you is that plans barely ever pan out and rescues almost never lead you to the promised land.

After college I got the office job I thought would rescue me from service work for life. It was a bargain cookbook publishing job, and surprisingly, I was told they were more interested in my community college culinary arts degree than my brand new university B.A.

I didn’t adjust well. There were no windows in the part of the building where my cubicle was marooned. There were days when I had maybe ten minutes of work to occupy an 8-hour day. And it turned out offices have their own brand of hell situations to survive, from gossip and cliques to the farce of performance reviews, to back-stabbing. None of the working-class camaraderie I’d known in every service job I’d had, the got-your-back bonding that transcended even the sexism and male chauvinism when it came to surviving especially brutal busy days of churning out high-volume orders and facing throngs of customers.

There were nice breakrooms though, that was a plus. But also self-described “foodies” who’d hunt me down in those breakrooms. Offices, I learned, are filled with foodies. People who’ve never worked in a restaurant or professional kitchen a day in their life, but who watch lots of cooking shows, or read lots of gourmet magazines or restaurant reviews, or spend lots of time in the aisles of specialty grocery stores. Not that there’s anything wrong with all that. You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t enjoy the satisfaction of a good meal or the thrill of a cut-throat cook-off. But foodies are people who like to show off what they think they know. And the minute they hear you’ve worked in the industry or gone to cooking school, they want you to prove it. Which means, in the spirit of office passive-aggressiveness, they want to compete with you. Which means being hunted down anywhere in the office for recipe secrets or arcane ingredient advice or the low-down on local hot restaurants I couldn’t afford to eat in or chefs I didn’t know — then being challenged or negged on any experience or opinion you do share.

My first office job, I lasted less than a year before bolting for a full-time job in the deli and kitchen of a Whole Foods. It set a pattern for years to come. Ping-ponging between offices and kitchens, between jobs with health insurance and jobs with surprise health inspections, between higher-status “real jobs” and lower-status jobs that the world really can’t do without.

At some point, after a few years, I went back to visit the Polish bakery. It was during the Christmas season. I’d been working in publishing, but for not as much pay as I expected I’d be making back when I thought an office job was the answer. The bakery staff said they’d welcome any extra help to handle the holiday crowds. So I worked a few shifts, including Christmas Eve day.

It was just like old times, easy to get back in the groove of boxing donuts and slicing bread.

Yet things had changed. One of the brothers who owned the bakery had died. The other brother’s kids had grown up, were being groomed to take over. Prices had gone up. Almost no one wrote checks anymore — everything was put on debit cards. And all those cooking and baking shows that had flooded cable TV in recent years meant customers coming in with more elaborate orders, show-stopper cake designs, foodie-fed dreams of over-the-top sweet tables and multi-tiered cupcake trees and gourmet donut buffets. God knows what Carver’s baker would’ve made of such demands.

And there were store boys. Mostly high school kids. They wore paper caps and aprons. The store girls wore aprons now too. The pink long scrapped for maroon. The bakeshop foreman I’d known in the ‘90s was also long gone — he’d left to start his own business. There’d been a series of male, classically trained, high-end hotel pastry chefs who’d been chewed up and spit out by the bakery’s heavy-duty production rate. Now, in their place, was a Greek woman and a familiar face, one of the lady pastry wizards who had dazzled me back in the day. She wasn’t studly, she didn’t hang tough or make gross jokes about female anatomy. She was a mom and a new grandma.

Maybe seeing how a mom and pop bakery could change planted a seed in me that I could change too. That maybe class isn’t destiny — at the very least, not identity.

Working in cubicles, I did a lot of daydreaming. About being my own boss, maybe starting a business of my own. Back in the ’90s I used to work extra shifts to earn money to travel. In cooking school, I spent a few summers working abroad in Ireland in hotels and cafes. I hit on a travel business idea — specializing in group tours for women. I was thinking of women who didn’t feel like they fit in on family tours or couples tours. Or maybe women who just didn’t feel they fit in period and wanted to get away for a bit, to stretch their sense of adventure, to test their confidence. I intended to turn my back on office life and the rescue and dream that it never was forever.

As I researched the travel biz, became a certified tour manager, set up a business and website, started organizing tours, all along the bakery was there for me. Three years on, when the business failed, the bakery was still there. I felt like a failure, again, but my bakery colleagues waved that off. “You tried,” the store girls said, without a trace of snark, as we stood at the counter folding boxes. “That took courage, starting a business,” one of the older women said.

There were more changes anyway — the kind that kept you from dwelling too much on failure even as they broke the bakery family’s heart piece by piece. One of the wizard decorators, who started at 16 as a store girl, opened a competing bake shop. A fire burned down the restaurant next door and left us working out of a temporary facility for months. The matriarch of the family who owned the bakery died. A young man who worked in the back and a dear friend to all of us was murdered. And one November, two days before Thanksgiving, a longtime store manager said goodbye to us one night at closing: “OK, I’ll see you tomorrow, girls.” She never came back.

She’d been with the bakery since it opened doors in the 1970s. Truly, the original store girl. My first day, back when I was 20, she’d been the one to take me around the bakery and explain every single pastry to me, every flavor and filling, every shape of roll, every kind of bread.

That day before Thanksgiving, when she didn’t show up to work for the first time in decades, we still had to serve the crush of customers. We were stunned, obediently quiet to the news of death. But we store girls and store boys still had to smile, still had to say, “Have a happy Thanksgiving,” over and over and over again. We took turns going in the back to cry. So many of us had never known a Thanksgiving at the bakery without Mariann.

The crew in the back set up a buffet on one of the workbenches. Some had brought tacos. The owner roasted a turkey in the revolving oven. His daughter sliced a loaf of buttercrust white and one of seeded rye. Somebody added cans of cold pop, a bag of chips, salsa, a slab of butter, some butterflake rolls. Front of the house and back of the house took shifts eating from paper plates, standing up at the workbenches and back counters, sitting on empty buckets.

The bakery would be closed the next day for the holiday, but the store would be packed with customers ’til closing time, waiting for their pies and breads, waiting for us. They were counting on us. So we ate to keep going, to endure.

Ancestral Hunger Pangs

This is the last editor’s note/essay I wrote for Tiny Donkey. As I wrote in a previous post, Tiny Donkey was a digital journal devoted to short nonfiction about fairy tales and folkore and associated with Fairy Tale Review. It was shut down in 2017, and its site was recently taken down from the internet completely. I’ve been rescuing all the essays and interviews I contributed here. This one was my favorite of all.


My mother’s kitchen cupboards are stocked with ancestral memories; crammed with what may look like ordinary jars and cans, boxes and bottles—but I know better. These are her hunger ghosts, I think to myself every time I open the cupboards, doppelgangers of old wounds and inherited hurts.

The same goes for the freezer and fridge, the fruit bowl, even the jar for cat treats. My mother hoards food. She consistently buys too much, as if she’s still cooking for a household of eight or preparing for a food shortage or a spell of famine. She overcooks too, long used to making large casseroles that needed to stretch into a couple days’ worth of leftovers. My father and I have tried talking to her, telling her to scale back, that we cannot possibly eat everything before it spoils and it’s a sin to waste food.

But I think she really is preparing for a famine, or reckoning with the haunting of one. My mother descends from the Famine Irish, the generation that left Ireland in the mid-19th century for their lives, escaping starvation and fever, mass death, and the devastation of centuries of British colonialism. Hunger is the reason she’s here, in America, and half the reason I’m here too, along with my brothers, sisters, and all my maternal cousins.

In Irish folk belief there’s a type of grass called an féar gortach, the hungry grass. Some say it’s a different shade than the green that famously carpets Ireland, more silver in color, or patchy and withered. Others say it looks like any other grass, and you only know you’ve stepped on it too late, when a great hunger suddenly comes upon you and nothing can cure it save a bite of some bread tucked away in your pockets (if you had the forethought) or a bit of your own shoelace (if you’re really stuck). It’s said hungry grass grows wherever a corpse has been laid down or someone has died. The belief predates An Gorta Mór of the 1840s, the Great Hunger. But an féar gortach took on a new, ghastly meaning then, in an era when famine victims were found in fields and on roadsides, a ring of green around their open, lifeless mouths after a last, desperate meal of grass.

As Ireland’s potato crop failed and its people starved, its other crops were harvested and exported by the shipload to serve on British dinner tables and fill British bellies. At least a million Irish died during the Famine, their bodies buried in mass graves wherever their lives gave out. In a sense, all Ireland’s green countryside turned to hungry grass, a landscape of want and loss, of lasting trauma and emptied beauty. At least another million emigrated, became refugees, exiles, Irish-Americans, Irish-Canadians, Irish-Australians, hyphenated people, diasporic, hungry.

Growing up, Mom spoke often of her family’s history, sang and played us Irish folk songs, explained to us the Famine, dressed us in green on St. Patrick’s Day. Maybe it seems a stretch to suggest my mother’s food compulsions have anything to do with an event in another country her ancestors left fadó fadó. But some events are simply too large, too traumatic not to eat into the blood, the DNA, the collective cultural memory of a people.

Mother’s ancestral memories transferred to all her children, but might have absorbed most deeply into me, her last-born child and the only one to go live in Ireland years later. I am the child who’s never married, never had children. Who’s struggled with her weight, eats when she’s not hungry, and bakes when she’s sad or simply bored. Who collects cats, books, and passport stamps like they’ll fill up some loss, some second-hand but deep-rooted want and need. The famished one, always looking for some patch of grass where the hunger finally makes sense.

Mom in Ireland, 1969.

Lady Folk

As mentioned in a previous post, I’m sharing pieces I wrote for a digital journal called Tiny Donkey, which was shut down in 2017 and whose site has more recently been taken down from the internet.

This is the first piece I wrote for Tiny Donkey, before I served as a volunteer editor. The journal hosted a “Once Upon a Cartographer” short essay contest, and this is what I submitted. It’s about two Irish women: Lady Gregory, the Anglo-Irish playwright, folklore collector, and cofounder (with Yeats et al) of the Abbey Theatre; and Biddy Early, the Irish-speaking purported witch/wise woman. This one 2nd place in the contest.

—–

Biddy Early peered down a bottle’s neck to see the future. One wonders if she ever saw Lady Gregory coming decades down the road, gossiping with Biddy’s old neighbors, collecting astonishing tales about this wise healer woman of western Ireland. Biddy Early was already legendary before she died—accused of witchcraft once, eternally at odds with the local priests, married four times over. She didn’t need Lady Gregory to make her famous-slash-infamous, or whatever the liminal space is where wise women dwell.

But Gregory needed Biddy. Her name lent authenticity to the cast of banshees, blacksmiths, and other characters in Gregory’s folklore collection Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland (1920). And her neighbors’ trusting chattiness about their own peasant practices and beliefs eased Gregory’s aristocratic guilt.

Both women were western Irish—Biddy born Bridget Connors in County Clare in 1798, Gregory born Isabella Augusta Persse in County Galway in 1852. Biddy was born the year of an uprising in Ireland against British rule—a fitting start for a figure of female rebellion. Gregory came into the world at the end of the Great Potato Famine, a time when 1 million Irish died by fever or starvation. She grew up only 25 miles from Biddy’s humble cottage, but she was a member of the gentry, an Anglo-Irish Protestant not only protected from the ravages of the Famine but a benefactor. The man she married, Sir William Gregory, was a member of Parliament with a Galway estate called Coole Park—a place of lakes, limestone, woods and wild swans. At the height of the Famine, Sir William drafted a clause in the Poor Relief Laws that led to the eviction of thousands of peasants in the west. These were among Ireland’s poorest population, the ones who suffered the Famine’s worst destitution, the most deaths. And the strongest bearers of the old Gaelic folkways and language. Biddy’s people. With their decimation, would Ireland’s folk culture follow?

Biddy survived the Famine, dying around 1872 with a priest’s blessing in exchange for breaking her magic bottle. Lady Gregory was widowed in 1892. Within a year she was immersing herself in the Irish language and folk culture and soon professing Irish nationalism. She sometimes paid her peasant storytellers small tokens for their memories—but never stopped collecting their rents.

Maybe Biddy’s chatty neighbors did trust Lady Gregory. Or maybe they were simply squaring another uneven exchange with a landholder—embellishing their barter by telling tall tales. Perhaps Biddy Early also managed to square an uneven barter. Maybe those glass shards beside the blessed deathbed belonged to a decoy bottle.


Ruins of Lady Gregory’s estate (Coole Park) in County Galway
Woods at Coole Park

Modern-Day Mike Finks

As mentioned in a previous post, a digital literary journal that I contributed to and served as volunteer editor for a few years ago has gone offline. It was called Tiny Donkey, and it was an offshoot of the Fairy Tale Review dedicated to very short non-fiction pieces about folklore and fairy tales. The journal shut down in 2017, but was still available to read online up until recently. With its disappearance went all the writing of its contributors, including some essays I wrote and commissioned and interviews with other writers and artists. I decided to share a few of my own pieces here over the next few weeks.

This one is the first editor’s note (but not essay) I wrote for Tiny Donkey, about the American pioneer folklore anti-hero Mike Fink. I wrote and published this literally days before the 2016 election that saw Trump rise to power.

As a personal note, I once got some feedback about this piece by someone who called it “weak.” Usually I welcome feedback or editing suggestions, but this was one time when I think the reader misunderstood the tone. It’s written in an intentionally understated, matter-of-fact tone, to match the speaking tone and verbal style of the people in the part of the country where Mike Fink lore comes from, for better or worse–Midwestern people, Mississippi River people, people like my family, like my many Iowa and Illinois relatives, and like me. So here it is: “Modern-Day Mike Finks.”

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Once I tried reading a 900-page book called A Treasury of American Folklore, by the folklorist B.A. Botkin. But I only got 60 pages in before dumping the “treasure” at a book swap.

It was the stories of Mike Fink that did it, a Mississippi River boatman of the post-American Revolution era celebrated for his outrageous boasts and pranks. His boasts were of the variety that he could “outrun, outjump, outshoot, outdrink, and lick any man in the country.” And his pranks? Well, he had a curious sense of fun, this Mike Fink, and a suspiciously specific kind of targets. Like the time he shot an African-American boy walking by in the heel just because he didn’t like its shape, and the time he shot the scalp-lock off a Cherokee man’s head for acting too proud, or the time he made his wife lie in a pile of leaves and set them on fire, letting her go just after her hair and clothes started burning, all for looking at another man.

Botkin labels Fink a “pseudo bad man” without explaining what that means. Along with many other folklorists who’ve written about Fink, he tries to assure us modern folks that Fink wasn’t real, or at least, his pranks weren’t. They couldn’t be, could they?

Though I’d never heard of Mike Fink before this, I don’t need any academic or historical investigation to know he was real. That he is real. I’ve known him. Maybe you have too. Maybe like me, you see him every day on the news, in life, in the memory of personal experience. Sometimes he wears a badge, sometimes a suit. Sometimes he’s followed me on the street or leered at me on the train. When I was young I sometimes encountered him on the playground or in the school hallway, trying to lift up my skirt or grab some part of me. More than once I’ve loved him and forgiven him. Sometimes he’s the picture of everything all good and charming. Oftentimes he’s put in charge of things, more than just riverboats, like committees, laws—and bodies, usually black, brown, and female.

I think now, this election year, he’s too close for comfort to being put in charge of the whole country.

I dumped that treasury of American folklore because I was too angry and ashamed to see what else was in the folk history of the United States, what further ugliness my country’s mythology had to reveal. The book confirmed what I’ve always known about my country, and my place as a woman in it, but don’t often like to face. I can’t afford to ignore the truth and cost of such “treasure” anymore. Mike Fink is deserving of dumping. America needs the coinage of a new, transformative folklore.

Island Luck

This little essay was published a few years ago at the Aran Islands Info website. Their blog seems to be down these days, so I’ve reposted the story here. Enjoy.

“Fish, fish, fish,” says Tomas, as he dangles a fishing line over the side of his small, white boat and into the Atlantic Sea. He gives the line a wiggle, throws a wink to me sitting up at the bow, and repeats the magic charm. Me and my friend Angela, balanced on the edge of the boat at the stern, wait in silence and watch the line.

Nothing. Not even the mirage of a tug. “Sometimes it works,” says Tomas with a sheepish smile. But today the fish aren’t buying any Irish charms.

Angela and I are lucky, even if we have been out on the water half an hour without catching anything. Not only are we getting a private tour with a local around Inis Oirr—the smallest of the three Aran Islands that lurk off the west coast of Ireland—we’re also getting a lesson in fishing superstitions of the islanders.

Angela and I are working for the summer in Inis Oirr’s only hotel—a small, family-run place with 15 rooms, but no Room 13. Instead, the numbering goes 11, 12A, 12B, 14…. On a day off we’ve finally managed to nag Tomas, a local fisherman and friend, into taking us out in his boat. It’s an adventure I’ve been after since working here the summer before, but with little luck—and luck is just the problem. Western Ireland abounds with superstitions about red-headed women, an unfortunate club to which I belong. Sure enough, the fishermen of Inis Oirr think no good can come from bringing a ginger woman out in the boat. I’ve already been blamed for one fishing mishap. A couple weeks ago two brothers took me out in their boat for a short spin one morning to check their nets, only to find their motor broken down later that same day. “Can’t figure out what’s wrong with it,” one of the brothers said to me, his eyes taking on a glint of suspicion as they drifted off my face to my strawberry blonde locks. “It was working fine when we took you out a few hours ago.”

But Tomas either has more confidence in me or less in the power of superstitions. Perhaps it’s because he and another fisherman took me out on the sea on a previous occasion, with some actual success. Or maybe it’s because he’s heard I’m really a brunette who colors her hair. In any case he agreed to meet Angela and I at the slip by the beach this afternoon, and now for the first time we’re really fishing—and not just along for the ride.

He’s steered the boat to places on the sea where the seagulls have been circling overhead and floating along with the waves. “Look for the birds. That’s where the fish are,” he tells us. Once he stops the motor, he takes up the oars and rows us out a little farther and then lets Angela and I have a go at the fish. We use a long line with a small weight at one end and several bait hooks. More than once I get excited when I think I feel a tug on the line, only to have Tomas take the line and tell me it’s got caught in the rocks underwater. Angela, meanwhile, becomes more interested in steering than fishing. Tomas restarts the motor and lets her guide us where the sea is deeper, where there’s less chance of our line getting caught up in rocks, and where we can see puffins bobbing on the water. There’s a large colony of them living amongst the cracks and crags of the mighty, moss-covered Cliffs of Moher, just a few miles from Inis Oirr on the mainland. Today is a classic Irish summer’s day—some sunshine, some clouds, some gray skies, some blue—but the wall of the cliffs is so massive that even the gray moments can’t dull the bright green of the cliffs. From the edge of Inis Oirr the cliffs look like a giant green flag, rippled by the wind.

When Angela stops the boat, Tomas pulls out another Irish charm for fishing. “Has anyone been to mass lately?” he asks us. Angela hasn’t been in ages. I’m a hit-or-miss mass-goer myself, but I did make it out of bed to the island’s one small church a couple Sundays ago. “I’d say we’ll have some luck so,” says Tomas and hands the line over to me.

Sure enough, in a few minutes I’m feeling a tug—the real deal. Tomas helps me pull up the line, where a pollock has met its fate. I snap a picture of Tomas holding up my prize. Angela takes the line then for a short while and lands a tiny baby of a fish, not much longer than a cigarette. Before throwing the baby back into the sea, Tomas shouts, “Photo! Photo! Get the camera!” “Well I caught one anyway,” says Angela, not able to hold back a proud smile.

Tomas lets Angela console herself by taking over the steering again. We end up going for a trip around the whole island, only 4 square miles and nearly all limestone, just a big floating chunk of the stuff. The day brightens as we pass around the coast of the island where, across from the Cliffs of Moher, an old, hulking wrecked freighter rests—The Plassey, stuck there since a bad storm in 1960. We go on past a lighthouse and the uninhabited back of the island, where the sea has pounded and eaten away Inis Oirr’s limestone into large, step-like columns and slabs fit for a giant’s tread.

Three-quarters around now, the island’s coast is all tumbled-down boulders. I spot a small, rusted vessel marooned on the rocks. Tomas says it’s a boat that drifted up onto the island during World War II. Inside was the body of an American soldier, never identified. His grave is a little farther inland from where his boat landed. The islanders buried him there, not far from a holy well, or natural spring, dedicated to the Aran Islands’ patron saint, Enda. “Why didn’t the islanders bury him in the cemetery?” I ask. All of Inis Oirr’s other dead lie in a graveyard built around the remains of an old church on a high dune off the beach. Tomas explains that since the islanders didn’t know who he was, they had no way of knowing whether he was Catholic or even Christian and didn’t want to risk burying a “heathen soul” in consecrated ground.

When we get around to the front of the island, Tomas takes over the steering and guides the boat past the pier and up to the beach. He gets out of the boat—his feet protected from the waves running up to shore by a pair of wellies—and pulls it up onto the sand. Angela, in bare feet, leaps from the boat onto the shore. I’m more hesitant, worried about getting my shoes and socks soaked. Tomas notices, tells me to wait where I am, and wades over to lift me out and carry me farther up shore where I’m safe from getting wet. He then takes our big haul of one pollock, guts it for us, and washes it clean in the sea. Even with that head start it will take Angela and I, city girls both, a Dubliner and a Chicagoan, well over half an hour to figure out how to further dress the fish for dinner.

In the evening, after a feast of fresh pollock, potatoes, and carrots, Angela and I meet Tomas in the hotel pub to hear the locals play traditional music. Tomas has beaten us to the chase for rounds and already bought us each a drink. But once that round is nearly done, I run up to the bar to buy a pint for Tomas. “That’s for carrying me out of the boat today,” I tell him, setting the pint down in front of him. For a moment he looks politely modest and surprised. Then he reaches behind his back and fakes a look of agony. “How about paying the doctor’s bill for me broken back?” He beats us to laughing at his own joke. Then the music starts up and drowns out any more jokes and laughs. It’s been a lucky day.