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A boy named Jesse

10 Nov

A boy named Jesse

Yesterday I went looking for the Man in Black. I was at the Country Music Hall of Fame, anticipating mountains of Cash memorabilia. In the end, I found only a spotless black suit, nothing else. I thought of Jesse Morris, and how I’d have to tell him about it.

Today, while flying home from Nashville, I heard the sad news that Jesse had died. I didn’t know him very well, yet he was one of my favorite people in San Francisco. He’d been busking since his teenage years, tossing in Fear and Black Flag covers along with the Johnny Cash covers that made him famous around here. The first time I heard his voice in the 24th Street BART station, I was convinced that someone was playing a rare Cash record on excellent speakers. Instead, I rounded the corner to find an inked-up, baby-faced punk belting out “Folsom Prison Blues.”

I tossed a few dollars into his guitar case, and over the year or two that followed, we developed a friendly rapport. He was a truly nice guy, funny and opinionated — and talented, too. I bought his CDs and gave them to my brother and the Southern Gentleman; I pitched him as a profile for This American Life. I was often late to work because Jesse and I’d start talking about 999 and Fear, moving on into discussions of love and joy and sadness and living, and before you knew it, 20 minutes had passed. He told me that he was engaged — or at least he’d officially be so when his lady finally accepted his many proposals — and he was clearly in love. We talked about his attempts to stay clean, his ongoing struggle against illness, and how music helped him cope.

We talked about depression, too, which is eventually what led to his death. He and I had commiserated about well-meaning folks who don’t understand despair, who tell others to smile their way out of crushing sadness. We talked about our fear that even when things were good, depression would always be hiding behind a corner, ready to pounce on any contentment we could find. I remember feeling corny, because I touched his arm and felt like a mama bird when I said I believed he deserved happiness.

Embarrassed, he tried to toss my sentiment aside. I remember touching his elbow and making him look at me as I told him: You bring joy to so many people and you don’t even know it. He smiled then, a broad and bright smile. And for the first and last time, I saw a glimpse of the little boy he’d once been.

The news

7 Aug

The news

I called Betty last week. “Mom,” I interrupted. “I have news.”

“Oh, let me guess,” she squealed. “You and the Southern Gentleman went to CITY HALL!”

The older I get, the more it pains me to disappoint my mother by being a childless singleton. I can tell how happy she would be if I were married. Which I’m not. “No, Mom,” I said. “We did not go to City Hall and get married.”

Betty backpedaled. “Well, who’s talking about MARRIAGE? People go to City Hall for lots of reasons!”

“Uh-huh,” I said.

“Well, maybe you and the Southern Gentleman were getting a permit for a yard sale,” Betty argued. “I didn’t say anything about marrrrrrriage.”

Technically, this is true, but no mother becomes breathless over her daughter potentially having a yard sale. Besides, the idea of a City Hall wedding was probably more exciting to my mom than an actual engagement announcement would have been. Why? A rushed, shotgun wedding would mean that I was pregnant with SG’s offspring, which would make my mother extremely happy. (On the subject of babies that don’t exist: SG and I both have prominent noses, which means that any child we had would probably be 80% schnoz.)

Midwestern nice

26 Jul

Midwestern nice

This is one of the things I really love about Chicago and the Midwest in general: the land is enormous, but the sense of community makes big cities seem like overgrown small towns. I’ve been in San Francisco for four years, and do you know how often I run into someone I know here? Maybe once every two weeks. Maybe. But we go back to Chicago, and within the first day, there’s Christopher in Millennium Park, and John and his family at Lula. We go to Detroit for BBQ (at a place owned by a former Annie crush) and who works there but Zach? I miss this sort of coincidence, and Midwestern Nice, a lot.

I also find that when I’m home, I’m a much nicer person. Obviously, a lot of that has to do with not juggling 12 tasks at once while at work, but it’s also a reflection of the people around you. SG and I continued our tradition of renting bicycles far too small for him, and the woman who rented them didn’t even ask for a credit card. And sure, we were mean mugged (I forgot about that phrase!) in Detroit a few times, but we were also greeted warmly there. My point is, it’s easier to be more Betty than Veronica back home.

No trespassing

27 Jun

No trespassing

Soon I will be going home for a bit. Of course, home is never exactly the home it once was. My mother has lived without my father in the house for long enough for it to feel normal on a day-to-day basis, I’d imagine. For me, though, because I don’t go home all that often, his absence still hangs over the house. For instance: The Southern Gentleman is planning to grill some sort of carnivorous delight, and somehow this is feels like a strange handing-down of barbecue tongs from my late father to him. As though now, SG holds a solemn duty as keeper of the grill. Nobody has used that grill in years, and I don’t know why I am putting so much weight on a grill, but do you see what I mean? A stupid grill reminds me of my father. Now imagine a whole house full of tiny reminders like that.

I honestly don’t mean to turn this into a “My Dad Died And I’m Clearly Having A Very Hard Time With It” site, but he’s usually what comes to mind when I have time to write about things other than perfume and what kind of glassware is used at Restaurant X (for the princely sum of four cents a word! My burgeoning travel writing career is proving lucrative already).

My whole point was this. Going back to Michigan is a little strange now, because it isn’t the same Michigan I knew. Places change, people change. Landmarks I know well are a little (or a lot) different. I’m stunned by the sort of unremarkable thing that seems noteworthy only when you haven’t been somewhere in years. “My god, there’s a Taco Bell in South Haven now,” I’ll say with great wonder in my voice, as though this is a discovery akin to the holy grail. Speaking of which, the video store where we rented Monty Python for the soccer team is no more, or maybe it just has a different name. Whatever it is, it’s strange to remember a place as it was ten or fifteen years ago, then come across its new state of being. It kick-starts reflection on time and change to the visitor, while it’s banal to the locals who got over Taco Bell’s grand opening years ago. While you’re busy dramatically contemplating the distance of youth, they just want a chalupa.

One of the things that brings me genuine joy, though, happens when teenagers in South Haven toss disdainful glances my way. To understand this, you have to know that to the teenage townie, tourists are subhuman snobs. They’ll see the Illinois plates on my car rental, correctly gauge my age to be twice theirs (ancient!), and — if I’m lucky — make a snide comment just loud enough for me to hear. You’d think this would annoy me, but in all honesty, these teenagers make me so happy. Their adolescence is behind and yet parallel to mine, because some of what they do on a hot and boring Saturday night is exactly what I did on a hot and boring Saturday night.

Say ja to Island

30 May

Say ja to Island

DATELINE: REYKJAVIK

I don’t know what the hell time it is, and do you know why? Well, first off, I don’t wear a watch. Secondly, and more interestingly, it’s because the sun isn’t going to set tonight, at least not here. I have returned to the island in search of puffins. Iceland has literally millions of them, according to the guidebook that maybe I should have brought on this trip.

Lately I’ve been sorta down, listless, overwhelmed by a sense that something isn’t quite right. Not that it’s wrong. It’s just — in high school I played soccer, and sometimes I’d be so engaged in what I was doing that everything felt like it was effortlessly synchronized. I don’t feel that lately, but I want to.

Anyway, I have realized that I like two things very much, and these things make me feel that way. The first is travel. The second is this: cute animals. I’m pretty much a five-year-old when it comes to furry creatures (and the occasional iguana), and Iceland has puffins. So, as part of a crazy traveling month, I decided to go to Iceland to find and adore puffins.

I feel most alive when I am traveling or around animals, which means that my dream job would involve going around the world with a tv crew, introducing viewers to adorable animals. It is only a matter of time until a producer comes a-knocking, I’m sure. Anyway, bless for now.