Month: August 2016

Almost Paradise: My “Perfect” Small Town Wasn’t So Perfect

When I was growing up in the 70s, the kids in my New Jersey suburb ran unfettered through interconnected yards and played until the fireflies came out. At dinnertime, some were called home by cowbell or whistle; my mother stood on our back porch and walloped an iron Japanese gong that reverberated through the neighborhood. I rode my bike with the gold-speckled banana seat and high handlebars to the town pool; we’d go there of our own volition, without parents to drive or supervise us. This was freedom: to take our dollar to the snack bar and sit on plastic chairs, dripping pool water, eating baskets full of French fries spattered in ketchup. To jump in the deep end and play Marco Polo until our fingers wrinkled. Our neighborhood was, in so many ways, idyllic. My one-block long street was unpaved until I was 10, and I remember the gooey, sharp tang of fresh asphalt when it was first laid down. We knew the neighbors that surrounded us on all sides, who settled in for …

As a Motherless Child, I Was Raised by My Neighborhood

I was a child of the 70s, negotiating an evolving place in society for both my gender and my race. I was born Negro, eventually deemed Black and eventually accepted the term African American. The small South Philadelphia enclave I landed in clung stubbornly to its past, trying against all odds to assure its particular brand of denizens that all would be ok. We were assured by listening to the same music, getting baptized in Grandma’s lifelong church or hanging on corners where doo-woppers harmonized. As a girl, I would sit on my front steps as the summer days were cooled by the constant release of fire hydrant water — human-made fountains of refreshment that streamed on screaming kids and grateful adults. Cold winters were made warm by pots of food from neighbors, followed by gossipy phone calls between friends. But I was born an outsider; a permanent visitor to my ‘hood. I felt different. My arrival into this world came during a tug of war between my estranged parents. My mother, long distrustful of a …

My Dog Became My Jersey Ambassador

When I first moved to my neighborhood in Jersey City, I knew it was something on the edge of “up-and-coming,” kind of like “slowly approaching” or “looking forward, sometimes.” But I figured with the stop before mine on the PATH train improving so quickly, it was just a matter of time. It turned out it would be a lot of time. I moved in as the housing bubble burst, and what had been transitional turned into a standstill. It wasn’t as bad as in unsafe, but it wasn’t good as in somewhere you wanted to explore, either. The only retail options have questionable inventory at best. I mean, these aren’t even dollar stores.These are like stores filled with crap typically found for sale on sidewalk blankets. An indoor yard sale. The dining options are equally lackluster. Technically, we have everything — McDonalds, Burger King, Blimpie, White Castle, Subway — everything you could want in fast food. If it isn’t represented within my ten-block radius, it must be on a lower, less-recognized rung of the value-meal …

Yes, You Can Be Creative in the Suburbs

Everybody knows the suburbs kill creativity. At eighteen when I was running away from them, I absolutely knew it to be the truth. When I first moved to the suburbs, I was twelve. For months, the whole family headed out after supper once or twice a week to watch a bare lot transform into a concrete basement, then a skeleton of wood, then a house with rooms and windows. It was built exactly like the model, only with all of my mother’s specifications. She chose dark green sculpted carpet and gold-threaded linoleum and green appliances, all the rage in the seventies. All through the spring, we peered through the windows, marveled at the shutters and the enormous, dead-empty backyard. The anticipation was nearly unbearable. We moved in June, right after school let out. In our old house, my sister and I shared a tiny room at the back of the house, barely large enough for our full-size bed and the dresser we shared. In the new house, I had a room of my own. My …

Nightmare On Dream Street: When Your House Falls Down

After 23 years of living on a street that I loved — and after swearing that I would never be frightened or intimidated into leaving — I fled my neighborhood in fear for my life and the life of my family. A month later, the house that was the focus of my fear collapsed in the middle of the night, trapping everyone on our end of the block in their homes as electric wires sparked over piles of splintered plywood. Nice job, city of Philadelphia. My story — essentially one of governmental ennui — begins about two and half years ago when a lovely young couple bought a property on our quiet, dead-end street in the center of the fifth largest city in the U.S. Honestly, you couldn’t find a better street in any town. We’re a half-block from Broad Street and some of the greatest cultural institutions in the world. We have five of Zagat’s top ten restaurants in Philly within a few blocks of our front door. We have great schools, great coffee …

Margit’s Note: Who Are the People in Your Neighborhood?

Take a stroll around your block (or your subdivision, or your farm). Or drive. What do you see? Whether you’ve chosen to live here — or your environment chose you — your neighborhood is a key piece of who you are. And you are an integral part of shaping its ecosystem. Like when my neighbor spilled white paint on our sidewalk the other day. Yeegads. Now think about the neighborhood you grew up in. I’d reckon that few of us live there anymore — and even if you do, time has left its mark. They changed a street name, they put in a Starbucks, but, ok, the kid who used to eat glue still lives next door, now with his four kids. A neighborhood is not just an assemblage of houses, streets and cul de sacs, it’s people and relationships. There are legendary lives that existed before you lived there, and there will be lives after. Your neighborhood is an organic, dynamic thing and, paradoxically, a memory. It is a place fixed in time and …

How I Came to Love Shipping (and the Hot UPS Guy)

I was fifteen years old, answering phones in the main office of my high school. “Good afternoon, Park Ridge High School, how may I direct your call?” I’d look up the extension on the printed sheet and punch the square plastic buttons for HOLD and TRANSFER. My best friend had a work-study job in the guidance office, and I put in a few hours a week at my floating desk in the front office. One day, I was answering phones and a tall, handsome woman in a pantsuit pushed open the glass door. She introduced herself as a small business owner from down the street, and said she wanted to post a help wanted notice. “I need someone to work in my business, doing office work after school hours.” I took the index card from her and read the typed requirements. Typing, filing, something about shipping. “I’d like to apply,” I said. I put the card in my pocket, as if to say, I’m not posting this on any bulletin board. “All right,” she said. …

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Being Black at School: A Teacher Creates a Better Classroom

I was born in Chicago, raised on the south side and Hyde Park, and finished high school in the south suburbs. My upbringing was so diverse that there didn’t appear to be a dominant culture. It wasn’t until we went to the suburbs that I asked my white mother, “Where did all these white people come from?” My dad is Black, and all our friends were a blend of countless cultures. In that very white environment, I found myself searching for any kind of color and I also began to hear, for the first time, about how proud the people were for being colorblind. It’s funny that I’ve only ever heard this expression from white people who use it as a way to let others know how great they are for not considering color. It’s even funnier that they never notice the absence of color when they’re surrounded by homogenous populations. After graduation, I continued south to college and then again to start my career as a high school teacher. My first professional job came …

The Boss of Me

He was the editor of a well-known men’s magazine. A short man. Not an attractive man. After I interviewed with him I said to my boyfriend at the time, “Why he looks just as much like a turtle as a man can look.” This was the 1980s. This was my first media job, although we called it publishing back then. I interviewed in a navy linen suit from Bonwit Teller, nude pantyhose and navy pumps trimmed with flat grosgrain ribbons. I was a 22-year-old from Iowa and I thought the look I should be going for was “appropriate.” Inexplicably, I was hired. And I realized within the first hour of my first day that I had it all wrong. “Cool” was the style that prevailed among the girls on staff. A girl called Muney wore a pink tutu and black motorcycle jacket like Cyndi Lauper. A girl called April, who was whippet thin and wore lank bangs in her eyes, rimmed all around in kohl, wore leather jeans, the first I’d ever seen. Let’s just say …

I Learned Everything I Needed to Know at a Vegas Cosmetic Counter

In the summer of 1989, I got myself gussied up and stepped onto a gleaming marble sales floor ready to beautify the world, or at least those fortunate enough to pass my counter. A 21-year old small-town girl with retail stars in my eyes, I had confidently parlayed my limited (and decidedly unsophisticated) local-mall sales experience and a few freelance makeovers into credentials for this glamorous new gig, but I was unprepared for the insane, international and immensely delightful cast of characters who would teach me everything they knew about selling and survival—whether they meant to or not. Why and how I came to be in the cosmetics department at Saks Fifth Avenue in Las Vegas is a story for another time, but suffice to say it had to do with a car breaking down in the desert and someone’s uncle’s girlfriend knowing a manicurist who knew someone in human resources. Long story short, Saks—and later Neiman Marcus—empires of elegance, service and style, served as my first salt mines. Livelier and more luxurious than any …

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Working in a Magnet Factory and the Lessons That Stuck

I have always understood about working for a living. In fact, I got my first job at age five. My dad ran a magnet factory. Yes, you read that right. A magnet factory. I hear business is picking up! (yuk yuk yuk) What an attractive business! Drawn in to the magnetic field. You know, opposites attract. Yes, I’ve heard them all. My dad hired me when I was still in kindergarten. My job? To stamp manila envelopes. Small ones. Coin envelope size. Inside each was a sheet of magnutties — a sheet of scored magnetic rubber that you could break apart into 50 (or was it 100?) teeny rubber magnets. All I had to do was ink the stamper and stamp the envelopes. I distinctly remember staring at huge piles of envelopes. [pullquote]I filled in where I was needed. I busted my ass. It was hot and fast and fun. We were a team.[/pullquote] I’m not saying it was hard, but you know what it’s like — sometimes the stamp isn’t straight, sometimes some words …

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My #FirstSevenJobs… and the Shitty Lessons Learned

While everyone’s sharing their #firstsevenjobs on Facebook and Twitter, I’ve gone a step further to talk about the bonuses at each — and the shitty lessons learned. 1. The Job: Underpaid neighborhood babysitter at a rate of fifty cents to a dollar per hour Bonus: Getting to watch MTV since we never had cable at my house, plus junk food. Shitty Lesson: Childcare doesn’t pay well, and it’s even more stressful than watching your three younger siblings try to kill each other at home. And that world premiere Bon Jovi video wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. 2. The Job: JCPenney sales associate at minimum wage, $3.35 per hour Bonus: With commission during the Christmas rush, this could soar to a dizzying $9 per hour, my first taste of the American Dream and the perfect occasion to learn applied math. Shitty Lesson: When I took the job in 1986, the dress code stipulated women could only wear skirts, not pants, and the skirts needed to fall below the knee. So men apparently like …

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Margit’s Note: Career Criminal

Our first jobs teach us the value of a dollar and the crap we have to put up with to earn that dollar. Punch a time card. Be nice. Don’t steal the candy. We start to amass data about what we do and don’t want to do when we grow up. Watching the world share their #FirstSevenJobs has been thoroughly entertaining and enlightening — so many VPs were once babysitters, waiters and paper kids. By and large, my first jobs were menial — meant to show me the value of hard work, a way to afford my Tiger Beat addiction and often, stamp-lickingly dull. As I counted, I realized all of them occurred before I’d even left college. There was no rhyme or reason to the mix of gigs, but they probably influenced me in ways I still don’t fully understand. The things I recall about my #FirstSevenJobs have little to do with the job itself and more about the ways I avoided those jobs and/or found little deviant distractions in a strange new adult …

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Judging Amy, By Amy

Yesterday, I saw of picture of myself in a sleeveless outfit and realized that my triceps are a disappointment to me. My upper arms look like hotdog buns. As for the outfit – a silky black jumpsuit – I liked it in the store. The saleswoman, fresh out of college, assured me I looked fabulous. But here’s the thing: If you are in your fifties and want to feel chic and slim, do not hang around with women in their twenties. Because no matter how great that jumpsuit looked in the dressing room, it’s no match for an impeccable midriff or the fashion fearlessness that comes with knowing you can throw on a mini dress with a pair of white Adidas and look effortlessly sexy. This was apparent when we hosted a 25th birthday weekend for my son’s girlfriend. Over the course of a day, she and her pals moved through duffel bags full of cute clothes, from clingy yoga pants at breakfast to teeny bikinis at lunch to wispy slip dresses by cocktail time. …

Raise Your Hand If You Think You’re Cool

If charged with the task to assess, based on a scale of one to 10, how cool people think I am, I’d say I’m a 6.25. I’m neither un-cool nor super-cool. In fact, I’m barely cool-adjacent. On the first day of ninth grade, I took the liberty assigning a (moderate) coolness quotient to myself. My own self-ranking put me modestly above the kids who scavenged for recognition and markedly below the ones who seemed to always hover in the uppermost echelons of the lunchroom pecking order. Suffice to say that when I was in high school, I never once sat at the cool kids’ table. I didn’t even deign to sit at the table next to the cool kids’ table. No, I made a beeline for the table next to the table next to the cool kid’s table. Granted, my faulty memory could be inaccurately reporting my cafeteria habits of yore. And if so, then I’m sure that one of my Facebook friends from The Graduating Class of 1995 at Manheim Township will swiftly post a correction on …

My War Against Mommy Frump

In six weeks of pre-adoption training, no one ever mentioned that I would lose the fight against becoming a frumpy mother. While I was prepared for the mental, emotional and physical exhaustion of dealing with social workers, birth families, teachers and cultural judgments, I had no inkling that my sense of style would crash and burn. Having skipped the required change in wardrobe demanded by pregnancy and with no post-baby weight to lose, my dress code was never supposed to change. I would remain sexy, current and not look like an 8-pound bowling ball had been dragged from my loins. My breasts would sag from maturity, not a tour of duty in the hands and mouths of babes, and lace would trim my dainty panty sets. Yes, sets, because that’s how one purchases undergarments, not piecemeal when panties get stretched out and bra padding goes limp from being machine-washed with Tide, rather than Woolite. In my new parenting days, I wore skinny jeans, willing to suffer through the squeeze marks left on my abdomen. I …

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Are Journalists Allowed to Be Fans?

When I was starting out my career in the ’90s working as a business journalist, the rule was always be in the background of (and not part of) the story. The first-person voice-y thing was for the columnists — and if you were doing that and weren’t one, you were clearly a novice reporter in her first weeks on the job. Worse, if you were a fan of a subject’s work or their mission, showing your hand beyond a detached view of why their company might be good for society — or, really, shareholders — was a nonstarter. This went double if you were a person in her ’20s covering complex topics. Note that this was before the ubiquity of blogging and disruption. The old order reigned, and it didn’t exactly revere lack of years of experience and naïve exuberance. In turn, neither did I. #Judgy This worldview of mine took a little time to coalesce. One incident that helped it along happened when I returned from a reporting trip where I was trailing an entrepreneur who …

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Improv and Ageism is No Laughing Matter

I’m a lifetime comedy nerd. The kind of middle school girl who knew every line to Steve Martin albums and the 2,000-year-old man routines, adored Robin Williams and had a subscription to Mad magazine. As an adult, I worship professionally funny people, especially women. Sometimes, even I’m funny. For years I’d been pondering the idea of an improv class. I wanted to do something separate from the routine of my real life of being a mom, being a wife, having a full-time job and working monthly shifts at the Park Slope Food Coop. I started investigating classes, in particular the eight-week Improv 101 at the legendary Upright Citizens Brigade training center. Some of my favorite comedians had honed their craft there — not to mention that Amy Poehler is one of the founders. Initially, I only shared my desire with the least judgmental person I know, my therapist. She was very encouraging and helped me finally work up the courage to tell my husband and a select group of friends.  I imagined a range of negative reactions that included …

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Margit’s Note: The Summer of Side-Eye

I see you there. You and the mini casualties you’re creating on Facebook. Judging the way she parents, the guy she’s dating, the purple pants he’s wearing, the politics she espouses. You’re judging me right now aren’t you… Or wait, is that me? Am I doing the judging? Being judgy is dirty. It’s mostly wrong, casting stones and such. (Wait, did I just judge there?) But it’s as easy as a raised brow, and we all do it. Maybe it’s, unfortunately, part of being human. Is judging ever a good thing? Sure, in life we have to assign values to things, gather data so that we can carefully to select the right path to take — it helps us create intuition. “Use good judgment!” my dad has told me since the day I could open a can of beer. But judgy is more about the lack of data and personal bias. The world works the way I see it. Period. It’s a “should” on steroids. It’s not open-minded, and it doesn’t listen. AT ALL. And …