My youth was filled with warnings. “Just Say No,” “This is Your Brain on Drugs,” and “No Means No” pervaded the cultural ether in the early ’90s. The advice came from our teachers, police officers who came to our classrooms, and my parents. My mother was particularly good at training me to recognize and avoid stranger danger. As a kindergartner, I learned adults never ask for help from children (which now as an adult myself, I can confirm; they are useless at directions). If a stranger attempted to pick me up, I was to yell “NOT MY PARENT” as I melted into dead weight, rendering me nearly impossible to transport into a vehicle. And if a family friend came to pick me up from school, my parents and I had a secret code to ensure they were legit messengers vetted and verified (PocahontasDaisy, if I recall correctly). As far as I can tell, no attempts were ever made, but I was (and continue to be) on the lookout for shenanigans. My friends have similar stories regarding the ways in which they were warned against becoming victims — with similar threads — stranger dangers, candy vans, and codes. Our parents clearly survived their youths in order to pass down these lessons, which made it all the stranger that they were so afraid we wouldn’t survive ours.
By my birth in 1985, there had been two world wars that affected generations of our families. Men came home traumatized, women shifted their priorities, children adjusted until they inevitably feared Russians and nuclear war. As if Charles Manson’s destruction of the ’60s had been a battle cry, the 1970s and ’80s saw the proliferation of high-profile serial killers like John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy, Robert Hansen, Richard Ramirez, and the Zodiac Killer (and that’s just a handful) invading the public’s conscience. They were the “everyman” who lived in any town next to any person. Bundy was a charmer who volunteered at suicide hotlines. Gacy and Hansen were pillars of their community. And the nameless — like Zodiac — were so adept at blending in they were never caught. More… “Girl Afraid”
How Fast Can You Run is the first novel from poet Harriet Levin Millan. Though a novel, it is based on a real person, Michael Majok Kuch. Kuch became a child refugee, one of the Sudanese Lost Boys, when his village was destroyed during the country’s civil war. But How Fast Can You Run is more than a survival story; it also preserves memories of Kuch’s early village life continuing onto his experiences getting his education in the United States. We spoke to Millan and Kuch about their collaboration on the book at Millan’s office at Drexel University where she teaches. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
My Atta Joann bought her house in Skokie, Illinois the same year that I was born. My parents had been living in Michigan for quite some time after moving from Chicago, but even with a toddler and a full-time job, my mother would still come with the same frequency as if she were still a bachelorette on Devon Avenue to see her sister for baklava and a cup of black tea.
I grow up at my aunt’s breakfast nook, always the weary traveler. I come as a tired kid from Ann Arbor who drinks tea only if it is steeped in milk and drowned in sugar. I see family and friends — lines blurred between who was who — nearly always cramped in the small kitchen, shouting over one another in neo-Aramaic as my aunt elegantly sweeps through with a tray of teacups for the table, already full of cheese, eggs, and bread for those who end up there. More… “Home Sweet Hummus”
Nohra Murad was born in an Assyrian community in Michigan before being moved to an even larger Assyrian community in Phoenix. She then moved to Philadelphia to study biomedical engineering at Drexel University. She still brews strong black tea from Ashtar’s Market in Chicago in her tiny Powelton Village kitchen.
I became a fool for horses rather late in life. In my early 30s I got a job as a counselor in a horseback program for juvenile delinquents. Except for a few pony rides as a kid — one at a circus and another offered by a classmate who had a crush on me — I had no experience with horses and learned along with my charges. The majority of the teenage girls with whom I worked were African-Americans, and the program honored the Buffalo Soldiers. (The Buffalo Soldiers — ninth and tenth Cavalry and 24th and 25th Infantry Regiments — were the first all-black units the U.S. military established and instrumental in campaigns against the Comanches and Apaches.) Together, we went through all the original drills, countless injuries and embarrassments, and about once a month, to a reenactment. Our battlefields were eastern, and the McClellan saddles and tack English-inspired, but our horses had been bred on desert and prairie soils: hardy Texas and Arizona ponies, some of them bearing white freeze brands on their necks that marked them as mustangs captured and auctioned off by the Bureau of Land Management.
My stint at this program still is the only time I ever set foot east of the Rockies. Our camp simmered in subtropical humidity near Florida’s Yeehaw Junction, a wretched crossroads 30 miles north of Lake Okeechobee. It was primitive: wall tents with cots for the kids, a mess tent, fenced pasture, and unfurnished trailers for staff, everything plunked into a clearing hacked from saw palmetto thickets — the unwanted rounded up in an unwanted place. More… “Here’s to the Horses”
Rudolfo Botelho must have been about 65, perhaps younger, though of course to a 15 year old he appeared ancient. His white moustache bristled on an otherwise mild beige-skinned face. You didn’t much notice his small size; it was always the moustache you saw. And the twinkle — there was the twinkle. I lived in Shanghai, 15 years old in 1948, a Eurasian child of an Italian-Dutch-Indonesian father and Chinese mother. My parents knew him back in the golden days of Shanghai’s roaring ‘20s like those in America. I met him when he became the accompanist for the choir at St. Columban’s, a church run by Irish priests. More… “Bottles & Me”
Lucille Bellucci grew up in Shanghai with an Italian-Dutch-Indonesian father and Chinese mother. After exile from China, the family sailed to Italy, where they lived five years before immigrating to the United States. Lucille has also lived 15 years in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
She has five novels and has won many awards for her short stories and essays.
In June, West Berlin, NJ, became the home to the country’s first construction theme park, Diggerland. When I first saw the billboard on I-95, I was skeptical, but intrigued. The whole thing seemed like a showcase for JCB construction equipment and a tool to encourage children over 36 inches tall – the height requirement for all the rides – to get interested in a career of labor. But as a photographer, the visual possibilities of the visual possibilities of spinning carnival rides built from big yellow construction equipment seemed endless. So, I bought my tickets.
During late summers, I become almost fruitarian. Sometimes, nearing the dinner hour, I suddenly realize that the only things I’ve eaten all day have been fresh melon, berries, nectarines, and plums.
The root of this fruity love affair is clearly my childhood summers, which I spent at my family’s open-air, roadside produce stand in southern New Jersey. My cousins and I sold fruit and vegetables in a makeshift wooden structure with hand-written signs at the edge of property owned by my father and uncle’s packing house. I worked there pretty much from the first grade, when I had a little corner where I sold little containers of bruised and overripe “seconds” under a sign that read “Bargain Table. Everything 50 cents.”
By the time I was about 12, I awoke before sunrise and — before eating breakfast — pedaled my bike a few miles over to the packing house, where… More…
Or, to be more correct, I rediscovered it. Between the ages of five and 12, candy was all I thought about. I couldn’t walk into a drugstore or a supermarket without being attacked by longing. The game Candy Land had a visceral attraction for me: just looking at the board would make me dizzy with desire. I was enamored of the word “gumdrop.” It had an enticing ring that helped me, later, understand the idea of Platonic forms: No actual gumdrop ever approximated the sublime delight the word evoked.
Despite such intense associations, candy reigned for less than a decade in my life. Fearful of acne and obesity, I trained myself to wait for dessert, that more mannered way of delivering sugar by being confined to the end of a meal. Learning to like the attenuated sweetness of dessert was the brand of civilization and propriety, a tarte tatin being… More…
When I was about seven years old, I ran away from home. Today, the word “runaway” conjures images of pre-teens and teenagers going to the city, falling prey to pimps, sexual exploitation, and destructive drugs. I was just a chubby little girl with ribbons in her pigtails.
For some years I’ve tried to tease apart the strands of what I myself remember about my leaving and what I was told in family stories. At the end of Katherine Anne Porter’s “Old Mortality,” the protagonist muses, “At least I can know the truth about what happens to me, she assured herself silently, making a promise to herself, in her hopefulness, her ignorance.” Checking the text to write this, I found that I’d misremembered it. My version was, “At least I can know the truth about myself…” It’s a crucial difference, self-knowledge compared with knowledge about experience that acts on the self…. More…
When I was a little girl, my mother would put a teaspoon of sugar, maybe two, in my glass of orange juice. I loved the taste of the sugar slurry at the bottom of the glass. I’d get as much of it as I could, having drained the juice.
I never got much of the sugar in the glass, but I’d drink all she gave me, and as I drank the juice I enjoyed the promise of unalloyed sweetness. I think that’s what she intended.
We never drank frozen orange juice or juice from a carton. My mother used a clear glass juicer, which collected the juice, pulp, and seeds. Then she strained the juice for me so that I never had to contend with floating seeds. Only later when I squeezed my own juice — or hers… More…