Oct 272009

I went to a haunted house in Donora, PA last Saturday with my friend Cinn and her boyfriend Bill. I don’t get to see Cinn very often but she’s always been the big sister I never had, so when I do get to hang out with her, it never feels like a ton of time has passed. Every October reminds me of when we met in 1998, and we reminisced about that plenty in the car Saturday night (much to Bill’s chagrin, I’m sure, as he’s heard the story a thousand times by now).

Two years ago, I wrote an essay for a writing class about the event that solidified our friendship, and I guess because it shines a big, embarrassing spotlight on my softer, more sentimental side, I never posted it here.  But I don’t know, who cares. Here it is.


       “Stop, you’re making me choke on Skittle juice!” Cinn screamed from behind the steering wheel. A long ribbon of highway unraveled in front of us and I grimaced when Cinn said we had at least two hours left in our journey. I tickled our ennui by flirting with the driver of every vehicle that had the misfortune of passing us, only exciting the burly and unwashed-looking men manning the gigantic semis that made compact cars like Cinn’s sway perilously.         

       Two days earlier, I was meeting Cinn in person for the first time after several encounters in a gothic chat room called DarkChat. She arrived at my apartment, her shocking red locks were closely shorn to her pate and jutted out in spikes here and there, and we went off to buy our costumes for the upcoming Type O Negative show and Dracula’s Ball in Philadelphia. I knew nothing about her but that she was twenty-eight to my nineteen and lived only a short jaunt away from me. I didn’t even know she was married until that weekend, when I arrived at her house at the designated departure time, but somehow the particulars didn’t seem to apply to this friendship – we had somehow managed to connect based on something entirely more intrinsic than a/s/l.

       Agreeing to go on this trip was just what I needed, coming off the heels of a tumultuous summer filled with break-ins, having my wallet pilfered and car stolen (and then ever-so-thoughtfully returned hours later) by people I thought were friends.  It was a summer that started off strong, full of parties and crushes and a bounty of alcohol, but by the end, it had become a twirling tailspin of depression, loneliness and the stark reality that 99% of the people with whom I shared my apartment weren’t going to be there when I needed them. I had taken to living as a near-recluse, keeping my heavy curtains perpetually drawn, even on sunny-skied days. During this self-imprisonment was when I stumbled across the chat room. At first it was nothing more than a release for my pent up aggression, a place admittedly to flame and mock the suicidal Goth kids; but then I began noticing that there was interesting conversation scrolling past the screen, people gushing about bands that I liked. Before I realized what was happening, I was being sucked in to this strange realm of pale-faced misfits. And I fit in because I was a misfit too.


       Our dresses hung like black-laced shrouds from the garment hooks in the back of Cinn’s car. The plan was to check into a hotel when we arrived in Philadelphia, change into our off-the-Hot Topic-rack gowns and meet up with another DarkChat user, Your Druidess. I had never chatted with this lady before, but Cinn confidently assured me that she would be standing outside of the Trocadero with our free tickets to the Type O show. Here I was, recuperating from a summerful of broken trust, only to turn around and hand over what little left I was able to scrape up  to this strange woman who I essentially knew nothing about. However, I would be lying if I said I didn’t consider, at least once, that this woman with her Simon LeBon coif was a real vampire, luring me to a sinister abattoir for Internet chat room newbies under the guise of some gothic jamboree. Maybe I might have second guessed some of her innocent sidelong glances, seeing them instead as the shifty glance of a nervous Internet predator.  I would later learn that she was nervous – of what I was furiously scribbling in my vacation journal.

       Her real name was Allison, but she preferred to be called by her online moniker – Cinnamon Girl — and preferred to call me by my chat handle, too – Ruby. Conversation flowed easily between us, even though we had engaged in minimal chat room interaction, and I diligently noted in my journal that she kept count of every cemetery we passed, had an eye for spotting majestic trees, and churned out a myriad of cheesy one-liners, such as “Call me a bitch, but call me” and “Boobage is like mileage,” which I still don’t really understand even a decade later.

       My friends thought I was making a mistake by coming on this trip. Meeting people on the Internet is bad idea, some of them said, trying to deter me. This isn’t going to end well. You don’t even know her. Do you even like Type O Negative? Aside from a cover of “Summer Breeze,” I knew little about Type O Negative, but Cinn changed that with a nonstop Type O curriculum in the car. I’ve been a fan ever since, though it’s a wonder I didn’t wind up abhorring them.

         But that wasn’t the point. It could have been any band, it could have been Anal Cunt, and I still would have said yes. It was something that at nineteen years old, after the reality of the summer’s end had set in, I felt I really needed to do. It would be an experience, something to write about, a story to tell.  I wasn’t in college; I wasn’t living in a dorm and going to frat parties or spending semesters abroad. It may have been just a trip to Philly, but it was more than that to me.


       “We’re not going to have time to find a hotel,” Cinn said, exhaling a heavy sigh of defeat. We had finally reached the city only to be met with gridlocked traffic. “Start putting your makeup on.” She tossed me my bag from the back seat and I bedaubed my eyelids with a layer of glitter thick enough to make a drag queen proud and possibly get some change tossed at me if I stood on a corner.

       “Do I have to wear these fake eyelashes?” I groaned, tumbling the plastic package over in my palm, in search of instructions. I had already managed to squirt glue in my eye before she had a chance to say anything, but in my journal I wrote that she physically forced me to adhere them to my eyelids else I’d sleep on the streets that night.

       We squeezed into our slutty Morticia dresses in the tight confines of a dingy gas station bathroom. The fluorescent white track lighting made my normal complexion look legitimately sallow and I wished I could achieve that look at the ball. Cinn made that wish her own reality by heavily coating her entire face with white powder, a measure I was unwilling to take. Cinn accidentally dropped a ten dollar bill in the commode.


       Your Druidess never showed up.

       We stood dejectedly outside the Trocadero for an hour, watching hordes of Type O fans bustling into the sold out show, clutching onto hope so fleeting, it was like cocaine sifting through our fingers. I silently breathed a sign of relief though, because I wasn’t 100% on board with donning my ridiculous Goth uniform anywhere other than Dracula’s Ball. Cinn was openly weeping over this  imbroglio when a big-wheeled pick-up truck sped past, Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” blasting ironically at high volumes from the windows. I shot my fist into the air and saluted.

       Your Druidess is a stupid name, anyway.


       Refusing to let Your Druidess’s blunder ruin our trip (she was probably a fifty-year-old fisherman, anyway), we decided to make the best of it and seek out the Dracula’s Ball, which we had planned to attend after the show. Driving through Central City on Halloween night, past loading docks and alleys full of shadowed forms, I began to understand why the Fresh Prince’s mom made him move to Bel Air. It didn’t seem like we were in the right place and my old friend Panic began to rise again up my esophagus, like a recently ingested model’s salad. It burned.

       She’s going to stab me with her fake fangs and roll my body into the river. But before I let my paranoia get the best of me by hurling myself from the moving car, I spotted an undulating line of poorly dyed raven locks, billowing capes, and sparkling neck-bound crucifixes. We had found the Dracula’s Ball. In my head, I rejoiced with the Tabernacle Choir.


       This is high school all over again, I thought as I came precariously close to being engulfed by the obnoxiously large black velvet couch on which I sat, like a shell-shocked Alice at a tenebrous tea party, while Cinn was over at the bar getting refreshments. My feet dangled inches from the floor, the chair was that ludicrously oversized. Cinn came back with a beer, which I grabbed for desperately (and I don’t even like beer), but she handed me a glass of Coke instead, mouthing off some spiel about not contributing to minors.  And here I thought we were bros.     

       We were the first people to be let in, having been hand-picked in front of everyone by Malachi, Philadelphia’s Baron of Goth. I never did find out who he was supposed to be, but I know that girls swooned when he neared them and men shook his hand with great respect shining in their eyes. A top hat nestled stately upon the carefully tousled kohl hair framing an alabaster face; a tailed tuxedo suitable for Marilyn Manson to wear to the market and a cane imprisoned within the grip of a white-gloved hand finished off his meticulous look.  He could be a vampire. He could really be a vampire. When he approached us with an extended palm, every girl gasped in envy. Murmurs of our luck resounded around us as we advanced to the doors, leaving everyone to reapply their black eyeliner in disgust.

       It smelled like a clove and anise cocktail inside the Ball, with a slight trace of sweat and smoke coalescing to provide an acrid after-scent.  Black velvet and gossamer draped from rafters, chandeliers, and limbs, like gauze on an unraveling mummy.                                                                                                                   

       Tall, emaciated boys in high-collared shirts with frilly sleeves strutted to and fro, arms akimbo, feet stuffed into thick-soled black Creepers, while girls spiraled dream-like around the dance floor, giving off the illusion that they were floating above the ground as they skipped in staccato patterns, yet managed to retain their fluidity; cupping their hands into cordate offerings, they contorted their arms in hypnotic patterns which a friend would later tell me he dubbed “Passing the Ball of Energy.” Every third girl had some variation of fairy wings clipped to her back and none returned my smiles.

       You know those stares you get when you leave the house accidentally still wearing the skin-suit you fashioned from your last murder victim? It was like that.

       I tried to tell a girl I thought she danced beautifully and she all but hissed in my face while dripping gobs of glitter much like the molten blobs of wax that plop from tilted taper candles. And here I thought I had escaped the Prom two years before; this must have been Thomas Jefferson High School’s revenge. The girls could see right through my façade, sniffing the scent of my dress’s cheap threads and knowing that it wasn’t purchased in some Elizabethan boutique, branding me a poseur. The acceptance I once felt in the Goth chat room was all but shattered when I was forced to stare this culture in the face, without the shield of a computer monitor.

       Feeling safe with my roots in the wall, my aphasia and I remained sidelined for most of the evening.                                                    


       “What’s an egg cream?” I asked Cinn, scanning the menu at Silk City Diner.

It was 11:30PM and the diner was sprinkled with several other Ball escapees. Cinn said that we would see how we were feeling after we got some food in our stomachs, that we’d decide then if we were going to go back to the Ball. Under the table, I crossed my fingers for a vomitous outburst, an exploding appendix, an arm severing spontaneously.

       Minutes later, the waitress had convinced me that egg creams were quite possibly the most delicious refreshments one could ever want to flow down their gullet; I imagined Jesus ripping himself from the cross and striding purposefully into the nearest diner and ordering a tall glass of creamed eggs. “What’s the first thing you’ll do when you get down from that cross, Jesus?” “Get myself a nice cold egg cream, friend.” And how could Jesus be wrong?

       The waitress slid a tall glass of egg cream along the Formica table top. I should have known I couldn’t ever agree with Jesus. It was disgusting. A foaming cylinder of soda water and chocolate syrup, essentially. I didn’t know what eggs had to do with it, but there must have been a lot of courage infused into that vile libation, because I felt recharged and feisty, like the Erin I was before my generosity and effervesence had been wringed dry like an old ratty dish rag. Mounting the sparky-vinyl booth, I shouted, “Can I have your attention? We’re from Pittsburgh and I’d like to take your picture!”

        In a surprising twist, everyone graciously obliged. It was like an awakening for me, a reclaiming of that spark that had been robbed from me that summer, the lack of which had quickly shoved me into a shell. I felt rejuvenated from my moment of bravery and decided that I wanted to go back to the Ball.

        But first I had to wait for Cinn to emerge from under the table.



       She introduced me to the man with red irises, long and slick black hair, and two sets of fangs, saying his name was Tom and that she had met him earlier in the night, during her quest for beverage which should have taken five minutes, not thirty. Suddenly oblivious to my presence, they began making out and I had a feeling this wasn’t the first time their tongues met that evening. I rolled my eyes and wandered around the building, curious what I might find on the other floors.

       The basement was a crypt for kegs and an astringent aroma of cloves and mildew which made my nasal passages feel unwelcome. The second floor seemed dandy until I entered a room that was like walking into a bathroom at Studio 54. Sickly Goths lounged languidly around tables of blow. I had a feeling that probably wasn’t the best room for me to be loitering. I’m a very addiction-prone girl.

       Not really feeling comfortable anywhere inside (except Vendor Alley, where I threw down fifty dollars on a red leather bat choker with wings so salient they bore small holes into the skin of my throat while I wore it), I relocated to a stoop outside, taking solace in my pack of Camels and scribbled furiously in my journal. I began panicking about where I was going to sleep and how I was going to get home, because I realized I had no idea of Cinn’s intentions.  I felt threatened by this man Tom. Women get weird when men enter the picture. I hoped that I wasn’t about to get ditched, although it wouldn’t be the first time.

       I returned the raucous salutations of inebriated passers-by, declined offers of rides and wild nights, and accepted a stamp pad which I promptly tossed to the side, afraid it might be laced with acid or whatever hallucinogenic was popular on the streets of Philly. A homeless man sang in my face until I silenced him with a crumpled dollar.

       As I lit my fifth cigarette with cold-shook hands, I heard a shrill voice reverberating down the sidewalk on a wave of the pulsating beat of Electric Hellfire Club.


       Every October, I feel nostalgic for that music. I fill my autumns with a rotation of goth-rock bands like Sisters of Mercy and Christian Death; I remember the way those people danced and looked so free, and still wish I could fit in with them. But instead, I listen to this music alone, this time in the warmth of my house, and not from a curb outside of a club, on a cold hemorrhoid-incubating slab of city concrete. Not only am I fake Goth, but a seasonal one at that.


       “Jesus Christ, I’ve been looking all over for you! I thought you had been stolen, and I was so scared. And then I kept thinking about your damn journal and all the made-up stuff you were writing about me, and what would the cops think—-” She roughly pulled me into her, hugging me tight and petting my hair. It was a scene straight out of a crowded department store at Christmastime, except that I wasn’t a crying child silently thanking Santa for helping her Mommy find her, but a nineteen year old girl with rogue specks of glitter scraping her eyes and a sleep-deprived surliness.

       Tom was still saddled protectively to her side.



       “Are you sure you’re not hungry? We can stop there,” Carl said, jabbing a finger out the car window at some fast food chain. “Or there.” It was the third time he suggested this supposed good intentioned pit stop. I was seated awkwardly in the passenger seat of his truck, my dread-filled eyes staring straight ahead, glued to the back of Cinn’s car.

       Tom had invited us back to his apartment and devised a brilliant plan which put him in the driver’s seat of Cinn’s car, while I was pawned off on his friend Carl, who appeared to be an amalgamation of Ozzy Osbourne’s and Michael Bolton’s genetic markers. Translating this to mean that Tom and Cinn wanted to spend time alone, I acquiesced – but not without a loud, throat-scraping exhale, the kind that every teenager perfects, to illustrate my annoyance — and joined the lascivious Carl, who was desperate for an excuse to stall our reunion with the others.

       “No, really. I’m not hungry. I just ate two hours ago. A lot. I ate a lot. Four courses, at least.”  My gaze remained indestructible, refusing to let Cinn’s car out of my sight.  “Maybe even eight,” I mumbled in an undertone. I’m going to be so pissed off if I get raped tonight, I thought bitterly.


       Tom’s apartment was what you’d expect for a man convinced he was a vampire: no matter where you placed your ass, an animal print of some sort was promised to be underneath; black pillar candles occupied every free surface area; Egyptian relics and religious tchotschkes gave the room a very underground Pier 1 ambiance.

       I was trapped on Tom’s couch for three hours, during which I suffered through a painfully awful vampire movie (Vampire Journals), and even worse, Tom’s lame attempt at humorous commentary; a photo op for Carl, in which I appeared to be shrinking back inside of myself while Carl ravenously leered over my shoulder (a photograph I treasure to this day); and Tom’s guided tour through the technological wonderments of WebTV.


       While Tom was searching for a better ankh image to embed in his email signature, I slipped out to Cinn’s car where I proceeded to collapse into frustrated tears in the passenger seat. It was 6AM and I wanted to sleep, but not in Tom’s perverse lair. Cinn came after me, and I sobbed about not knowing what Tom keeps under his floorboards and not wanting to sleep in the same room, building, state as Carl, and I complained of the searing pain I was feeling in my eyebrow. I had just had a new ring put in days before, by a husky goliath in a piercing parlor who looked like he could have just shimmied down Jack’s beanstalk. The gauge was all wrong, but he forced the purple hoop through the miniscule holes in my brow. When I awoke, I was supine and groggy on a couch, and he showed me the paper towel drenched with my blood.

        “I need to wash my face,” I wailed, hiccupping on tears. “This glitter is really making my piercing hurt.”

         Probably scared of what fabricated tale I was bound to weave inside the purple cover of my vacation journal, Cinn placed her hands on my shoulders and promised we would leave right then. She was true to her word. She drove all morning, stopping near Hershey to feed me a nutritious breakfast of raspberry Danish and strawberry muffin.


        After that weekend, Cinn and I forged a sisterly relationship, which isn’t always a good thing, but I know that she would save my life if she could. We’ll go for months, sometimes years, without speaking, but underneath it all, it was like we survived a train wreck together, a Gothic train wreck of spider-webbed carnage and fish netted limbs, anise smoke and novelty fangs, and that alone bounds us together, no matter our differences or penchants for running off with mysterious strangers. I still haven’t found my place in life, an accepted membership into some snobby subculture, but I’m OK with that. I like being the girl with a cover no one can judge.


              The night after I returned home found me in the emergency room, with a doctor surgically extracting my eye brow ring, barely visible amongst the swollen patch of eyelid that caused people to mistake me for a mongoloid.  “Look at all the puss that came out!” he lectured me, while two nurses vowed to never let their daughters get pierced.

                       I still have a scar.

Dec 182008

Oh shit. I found a bunch of old junk I wrote in high school, for random writing classes, and they are painful. Because I get off on looking lame, I am going to share this one piece of feces I actually had the audacity to turn in. AND IF YOU LIKE THAT, THERE IS A WHOLE FOLDER WHERE THAT ONE CAME FROM!


“Put that back. You know your brother doesn’t like Capn’ Crunch,” Val ordered as I loaded up the cart at Giant Eagle with unwanted food. [Ed.Note: I like how I didn’t even bother to call her “mom” when writing things for school.]

“But I like it!” I whined. It wasn’t fair how the world revolved around my brother. [Ed.Note. This tiny line of dialogue makes me realize that I haven’t changed. This could have come from a trip to the grocery store with Henry just last week.]

“So many brands of cereal. But you know what? We’ve discovered that generic brands taste just as good. Plus, you get a whole hell of a lot more.”

Val and I turned around and saw a woman who – if I was pressed to guess-  was in her late forties, leaning on her cart behind us. Her scraggly black hair lounged on top of her head. She looked tired and overly stressed, as if she had spent the last couple of  nights trying to catch up on her soap operas. [Ed.Note: Here is where, if this was written now, I probably would have guessed she had been out all night working the pole and thrusting her pelt in the faces of bearded truckers. Oh, to have that youthful innocence back.]

“You know, I might have some coupons for some of the junk you’re buying.” The woman reached into her bulging purse.

“Oh,  no thank you. Don’t bother. I’ve never been much of an avid coupon user.” Val gave me the ‘hurry-let’s-get-outta-here-before-I-get-stuck-talking-to-this-freak-forever’ look. Once we attempted to walk away, the woman started talking again, as if trying to lasso us back with her unwarranted conversation.

“When I said ‘we’ earlier, I was referring to my husband and myself.” Her face grew dark as she filled with staged sorrow. “Now I’m in a big legal battle with him.” Val knew that she was in for a long chat. “He wants to keep the dog! Can you believe that? My beloved Mitzy! I was the one who brought that dog home; I fed her, I bathed her, I played with her. Not John! No, all he did was neglect her.”

“That’s a shame. Look, I really should be on my way. It’s getting late and I have a baby at home—” Val started nudging me along.

“My lawyer, Mark? He says that he’ll handle the whole mess and that I shouldn’t worry.” I used this woman’s plight as a distraction to toss my box of Capn’ Crunch in the cart.

“I’m sure things will be fine,” Val looked at me, silently pleading for me to help her get away from this strange character, but I’m loving every second of it.

“My husband has gone so far as to lock the shed! How am I supposed to finish my garden with all of my tools locked away in the shed?” A nervous tug on a twisted strand of hair follows.

“Well, I’m sure you’ll get things straightened out. Erin, you about ready to go? My frozen foods are melting.” Val started coaxing me away from the cereals, just as the woman started to open her purse.

The first thing that ran through my mind was GUN GUN OH MY GOD GUN and that this neurotic woman had found her victims. Val, obviously sharing my same sneaking suspicions, backed away in panic.

The woman’s hand started to retreat from the depths of her bag when a voice suddenly boomed from the ceiling.

“Clean up in aisle five.”  The clerk’s voice was like a knife slicing through the tension, and it caused us to momentarily break our gaze from the mad woman. When we turned back around, she held out her hand and showed off a shiny…bottle of pills?

“Check out these pills. These are my anti-depressants. Dr. Hutchinson prescribed them to me so that  my  mood swings can be controlled.” The woman, holding her bottle of happy pills, rambled on and on about her missing son, her kleptomaniac maid, her car that needed new brakes.

It would seem as though Val was offering an unadvertised, pro bono shrink session.

After an eternity had passed, and probably the box of popcicles I hid under the loaf of bread had melted, Val finally spoke up.

“Well…look. I wish you all the best, and I hope that you find your son soon, but I really need to get home.”

“Oh, my. Didn’t you say something about that earlier? I just go off on these tangents sometimes.” She rummaged through her purse and pulled out a piece of scrap paper. “Here’s my number,” she said, clicking a pen. “Why don’t you call me sometime and we can have tea? I’d love to hear your stories someday! I live across from the high school.”

“Yeah, sure. Sure, I’ll do that. Sure.” Val stuffed the number in her pocket and quickly shoved me down the aisle. “Thanks for all the help back there,” she hissed, pinching me under the arm. [Ed.Note: MY MOM ABUSED ME.]

“What? You mean you didn’t think she was lovely?” I dead-panned.

“Listen!” Val stood stock-still. The mad woman’s voice trailed from the neighboring aisle.

“Oh, you shouldn’t buy those diapers! I used Luvs for my baby. Im in a custody battle with  my husband, by the way.  He wants to  take my daughter away from me!”

Turning back toward me, Val said, “Well, I’m ready to go. How about you?”

“Yeah, now that Supermarket Schizo has a new victim.” [Ed.Note: Wow, I sure was witty.]

Sep 052008

       (Written 10-07 for Creative Non-Fiction, it was the most fun I ever had in a church. Well, besides the time I did lines of coke off a crucifix with an altar boy.)





        “It smells so good! Doesn’t it smell so good? I can’t wait for tonight. I’m so hungry!”  She closes her eyes and takes another long drag of the aroma wafting toward her from the adjacent kitchen, where caterers are bustling around in preparation for the Women’s Conference being held in the gymnasium later that evening. The lobby of the Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints church where we sit is small, but cozy.  Sister McRae casually leans forward across from me on a mauve-cushioned chair. “People just don’t understand what we’re here for; they don’t understand what we’re coming to share because they think we’re selling something, but anything we do is completely for free – videos about Jesus Christ and free videos about families – and people just don’t understand. It doesn’t make sense to them that we would come out here and be so happy and have something to share; they say they have enough and don’t want anymore. I don’t even have enough!” Sister McRae gestures a lot with her hands when she speaks, throwing them up in the air and curving her fingers into air quotes; the sunlight streaming in from the front doors makes the two chunky silver rings on her fingers sparkle and the highlights in her long brown hair glow.   

                  Her companion Sister Mordue and I share the cushy tapestry couch. I try not to be too distracted by the larger-than-life portrait of Jesus emerging from his tomb, which adorns the wall to the right of Sister McRae while she tells me that Sister Mordue was just assigned four days prior as her new companion. I’m slightly surprised, what with the way she playfully slaps Sister Mordue’s thigh every time she ends a sentence with, “am I right?” I assumed they had known each other for awhile. Sister Mordue is the perfect portrait of what a stereotypical missionary should look like: frumpy, quiet, and squeezed into a celery-colored button-down blouse.

                 But Sister McRae only looks like this from the waist down. She has little need for makeup, close-set eyes (but not freakishly so) and a narrow chin with a slight cleft; she’s the kind of girl you expect to hate in high school – upbeat, popular, and pretty without trying — but then they shock you by offering you the seat next to them in the cafeteria. Her long brown hair has a bit of wave to it, and is equipped with just the right amount of scrunch. A small front section is clipped back, creating a cute bouffant. Her speech is peppered with “like” and “you know.” She’s wearing a wide-striped navy blue and green fitted polo shirt with sleeves that stop just below her elbows. But below the waist, her attire becomes more pious. Her legs are swathed in what appears to be an entire bolster of wool, stopping just short enough to skim her ankles, and her black thick-heeled clodhoppers look more suited for a femme Frankenstein. Other girls her age might still be home, sleeping off Friday night benders and recharging for another night of whirlwind barhopping and random hook-ups, but Sister McRae doesn’t let bars and current fashion tempt her. When she turned twenty-one last November, it was a no-brainer for her to trade in her life in Highland, Utah in favor of becoming a Mormon missionary.

              “My dad wasn’t a Mormon and you know, in Utah there’s a ton of members, but my mom didn’t want to nag him and tell him to go to church. She was like, ‘Let’s just be a good example.’ So after being a good example, well, my parents were married for twenty-five years and then he knew that it was true and he decided to join the church. Twenty-five years later! Watching that happen, it was so amazing to see and I wanted to go out and share that with other people, and be able to show that families can be together forever.”

              I want to not like her. She’s one of these people who cement themselves to my front porch, waving Christ pamphlets at me through the screen door. They catch me when I’m in the middle of changing my baby’s diaper and they catch my boyfriend lounging in his boxers. You say “I love Satan” and they say they say “I love you.” You call them names and they still come back. But Sister McRae’s sweet and has a slight naiveté about her that makes her charming. She likes Magic Eight Balls and Hershey Kisses and she takes pride in the fact that she’s never wrecked her car; she complains of Pittsburgh’s signature humid summers and she grew up watching the same television shows as I did: “Family Matters,” “Full House,” and “Step-By-Step.” I start to think that she’s an awful lot like the girls I used to be friends with — in middle school.

               She carries a tan messenger bag with her, bounteous with copies of the Book of Mormons and pamphlets on Tithing and Chastity. Her voice – peppy, confident and sweet – becomes just the slightest bit robotic and artificial when she talks of the Church. At first I think this might be an opportunity to expose her as a fair-weathered Mormon, to corrupt her with my atheist influences, but then I realize that she still believes in what she’s preaching; she’s just so used to saying it over and over that it’s essentially been turned into that loathed spiel that gets front doors slammed in faces.

                 Mormons pay for their missions on their own, and Sister McRae is no exception. Back in Utah, she went to cosmetology school and got a good job as a hair stylist in order to save up the money to come to Pittsburgh for an eighteen-month long mission. (I’m always glad to see a hair stylist with nice hair. It reassures me.) Once here, Sister McRae relinquished all contact with her family back home, save for a phone call on Christmas and Mother’s Day.

                  After piling a mound of pamphlets and a Jesus DVD on my lap, Sister McRae asks, “You are coming back for dinner, I hope?” After sitting with the food’s personal street team for thirty minutes, how could I say no? She has me convinced that it really does smell like the spread of Utopian delicacies.

                  When I return to the church two hours later for the Women’s Conference, Sister McRae is sitting at a yellow clothed table in the back of the gym, and she’s still referencing how delicious the yet-to-be-served food smells. Branches, dried flowers and a ceramic bird candle holder serve as the centerpiece of each table, with cherry cordial Hershey Kisses strewn about. Since many of the women don’t know each other, everyone is assigned to “birthday tables.” This separates Sister Mordue from us, but she’s close enough for Sister McRae to tap on the back repeatedly – her signal that she wants all of the candy Sister Mordue can wrangle from her own table. “I just love candy. I could eat it for breakfast,” she chirps as she concentrates on disrobing a Kiss. “I’m healthy like that.”

                      There are only fourteen female missionaries in the Pittsburgh area, and most of the women here tonight are just regular parishioners so the room isn’t suffocating under yards of wool like I had expected. Non-missionaries are dressed casually in pants and blouses, and I’m shocked to see one woman wearing a denim skirt which put a lot of exposed leg on display. However, one woman in a black jumper stands up at about 6’5” and looks out of place without a plow to follow and another is the spitting image of Chloe Sevigny from “Big Love,” so much so that I give her a good triple-take. She has long blonde hair, the sides of which are pulled back tautly and secured with a metal clip; an ankle-length denim skirt keeps her legs hidden from Satan’s eyes, and the rest of her body is kept chaste and pure by a white, high-collared blouse with short and puffy sleeves. I’m satisfied that at least two women confirm my preconceived notions of what I’d find at this Mormon dinner fest. (I consistently confuse Mormons with Amish, and expected to walk into an oil lamp-lighted corn husking circle.)

                     Before dinner, one of the church women queues up a video for everyone to watch. It’s a Pixar short, something to do with birds, but the TV is small and positioned at an angle that make my eyes throw up their hands in defeat. The rest of the room is enrapt, though; they laugh and sigh in unison and at all the right moments. Sister McRae, however, is not one to forgo conversation for television, so she continues to hold court at our table, speaking in hushed tones.  Mostly, she reminds us all of how hungry she is, and snatches more Kisses from the center of the table. She pops one in her mouth and her lips curve into a devilish smile. Glancing down at her stockpile of sweets, she reconsiders and slams down two next to me.

                        The video lasts only a few minutes, after which we’re given the green light to rush the buffet. Sister McRae gives her hands a childlike clap when the woman in charge suggests that the tables in the back go first. As we rise together, I’m enveloped in the familiar notes of Sister McRae’s perfume. I don’t know what she wears, but I distinctly remember it from the time I first met her last spring, when the sight of my child in the doorway lured her from the sidewalk to my porch – she said seeing his face was a sign that she had to come talk to me. The aroma reminds me of youth and Sunday school and scented plastic baby dolls. My inquiry is on the tip of my tongue, but I stop myself. I prefer to retain my blissful ignorance by thinking that it’s the scent of some divine marriage between the skin of baby angels and a bouquet plucked from the Garden of Eden, not something that the likes of Lindsay Lohan can walk into a store and purchase.

                       Even though she’s carried on for hours about the severity of her hunger, Sister McRae pauses and lets the occupants of Sister Mordue’s table and our own go ahead of her. I watch from further up in the buffet line as she socializes and doles out hugs to the women she knows. And if she sees someone she doesn’t know? She stops to meet them. I feel like she’s the Prom Queen of the congregation; or at the very least, student body president.

                        I’ve already begun eating by the time she weaves and winds her way back to the table. “Did everyone get something to drink?” she calls out to the two back tables, waving a bottle of water in the air. Not everyone did, so she sets down her food and returns to the buffet table. When she returns for the second time, she makes it as far as sitting down and forking in a few small bites of her salad before finding herself on a new quest after a harried middle-aged woman at our table makes the mistake of trying to share her own plate with her two-year-old son and muses aloud that she should have gotten him his own. Without needing to be asked, Sister McRae and her long wool skirt swish their way back up the buffet table. She comes back with a plate and a married missionary in her sixties. “Look who I just met!” she exclaims, before introducing Sister Mortenson to our table. She’s not from the area and doesn’t know anyone; I’m not surprised that Sister McRae took her under her wing.

                      Throughout the meal, Sister McRae pauses with her fork mid-air to act as the self-appointed go-fer girl and facilitate conversation (I have a sneaking suspicion that the soundtrack of our table would have been the song of needling crickets if it wasn’t for Sister McRae and her melodious voice). When she asks everyone around us if they’re enjoying their meals, it’s as though she cooked it herself from her very own recipe – she really needs the answer to be positive. She’s able to polish off most of her chicken, but the salad in the small Styrofoam bowl has gone limp under the weight of the dressing, and her potatoes have drowned in a sebaceous pool of congealed butter. But there’s still dessert for her to anticipate.

                        I keep waiting for the women I’m sitting amongst to converge upon my blackened soul with their Books of Mormon and Joseph Smith sound bites, but they mainly talk about normal things, like computers and Halloween costumes. I tell everyone of the pageantry-level abuse I endured  as a child from my mom, who insisted on crafting elaborate costumes for me from cardboard boxes, such as a Monopoly game board and a Hamburger Helper box. Sister McRae erupts in giggles and leans forward against the table. “That’s hilarious!” She says this genuinely, and often, to everyone, even when the punch line is only marginally funny; but they believe her, I believe her. She tells us she was always girly things, like princesses. I’m glad, because I can’t imagine her as a hooker or vampire.  

                          She doesn’t know what a blog is, so I, along with several other diners at our table, explain the concept. She shakes her head and her eyes are wide. “I just can’t imagine doing something like that, for any one in the world to see!” But she is current with burning CDs, enough to teach her mother how to do it, also. “Now my mom burns me copies of CDs, which is just so nice. I really appreciate it.” She goes on to explain that as a missionary, secular music is out of the question. “I can only listen to church music,” she says as her nose crinkles.

                       Sister McRae has a plan for life after her missionary work: get a job at a salon and go back to college for Spanish and maybe to brush up on her sign language skills. She’s never seen the show “Big Love,” and doesn’t even flinch while reapplying her lip gloss when I ask her about it. I imagine she has to deflect that question a lot while soliciting. “That’s a different branch of Mormonism,” she calmly explains. “We don’t believe in polygamy. It’s illegal.” I think to myself that I wish it wasn’t.

                        In the center of the room, she spots her friend Sister Tsunoda and rushes to greet her, nearly tackling her with a hug. They talk animatedly to each other and I feel like I’m watching two Sorority sisters, not Mormon sisters. A few minutes later, Sister McRae smuggles Sister Tsunoda back to our table and another of their friends, Sister Davis, gravitates over too.

                      The room gets quiet as the Mormon with the dangerously short skirt announces that they’re going to be scrap-booking before it’s time to watch the national broadcast of the Prophet. Sisters McRae and Davis pantomime exaggerated and over-the-top motions to each other from across the table while the woman is speaking. They roll their eyes and throw back their heads in a silent show of theatrical laughter.  It was an entertaining display, but if this was a high school cafeteria, I’d worry that they were talking about me. And they were, but only because Sister Davis was trying to ask her who the hell the sinner was.

                       “I’m really goofy, I know,” Sister McRae says to me through laughter when we are able to talk again. She has just finished showing Sister Davis the sign for ‘bored,’ which involves her grinding a finger into the side of her nose. Sister Davis opens her mouth and simulates an expression of incredulity, reminding me of a mother interacting with a baby. “That is not the sign for ‘bored’!” she screams. “You’re so making that up!” But Sister McRae insists that it really is the sign, and Sister Davis cracks up and says, “I can’t believe that’s real! It’s so you!”

                      “You sure picked the liveliest one of us to write a paper on,” Sister Davis later laughs. “Did she even tell you her name?” I toss Sister McRae a sidelong glance and admit that I wasn’t sure I was allowed to know. All of the missionaries refer to each other as ‘sister’ without falter, as though it’s a credo bestowed unto them by Jesus himself.

                      “Well, we’re really not supposed to use our real names,” Sister McRae stalls. But as I gather my purse to leave (the broadcast is about to begin, and that’s my cue to bolt), she stops me and says, “It’s Hayley.” Maybe she felt she owed it to me for warning her of the unhinged man who lives down the street from me (“Don’t knock on 3017’s door. I’m pretty sure the man inside is featured in several Psychology text books.”), but in my own little way, I feel accepted.

Jun 262008

 (Final version of a dumb essay I wrote for my Creative Non-Fiction class last fall, and never posted because I forgot.)

You might not know it, but North Versailles, a town once thriving during the height of the steel mill boom, is the home of a veritable Valhalla for thrifters, crafters, and peddlers. Residing in the old Loews Theater — forced into bankruptcy in June of 2001 by an over-zealous eruption in the multi-plex industry — Rossi’s Pop-Up Market Place is a glorified flea market for the twenty-first century. It’s a place where one could find an entire table lined with quilted purses, looking foreign outside of the Bingo hall; no less than two tables selling staplers amidst collectible spoons and cookbooks; cardboard boxes brimming with broken toys and stuffed animals; and racks of black-and-gold feathered boas. Situated on thirteen acres of paved land, vendors come from all over to set up booths and tables inside the vacated theater and all along the once-desolate back parking lot.

The weather was dreary on the day I visited, with showers bullying the outside vendors in sporadic episodes. Even with only a third of the back lot being utilized and the omnipresent threat of rain, the hardcore flea marketers were not deterred, as evidenced by the number of times my boyfriend was forced to circle the main lot in search of an empty parking space.

            It was still relatively early on a Sunday morning, yet the parking lot was already a-bustle with shoppers darting in and out of traffic on their way back to their vehicles, arms pregnant with loot. I was at once awash in a sea of fanny-packs and spandex-sausaged torsos, Steelers jerseys and trucker caps, high-waisted seersucker trousers and Hawaiian-printed shirts; they scurried in erratic patterns like locusts during a Biblical plague. Two of the locusts — a visored elderly couple, one of whom toted an old lamp in grotesque shades of the Seventies — crossed in front of a line of moving vehicles, with little regard. If this is any indication of the pedestrian carelessness in flea market land worldwide, I’m not surprised that a young boy was killed in the nineties when a truck backed into him when this market used to be located down the street at the now-demolished Eastland Mall. In its previous carnation, the flea market was called the Superflea and with the local mall now in ruins, the people of North Versailles basically had only Wal-Mart to rely on for their Olympic-shopping needs. But in 2005, the denizens of the defunct Superflea were invited to utilize the empty space of the Loews Theater by the building’s owner, Jim Aiello. What did the Superflea vendors do during the interim of Eastland’s demolition and Aiello’s metaphorical handing over of the golden key? Thank God for eBay, I guess.

The inside of the converted theater harbors the booths and tables for the more high-brow set: Racks of clothing that haven’t been worn before, handmade crafts, baked goods — generally nothing that has been previously worn or used. I decided to tackle the back grounds first, so we quickly bypassed the frustrating stop-and-go traffic flow of bargain hunters determined to scrutinize every last piece of price-tagged merchandise.

Posted to the back door was a typed and laminated sign that insisted “No heelies to be worn inside or outside.” My boyfriend obsessed over the meaning of “heelies” for most of our visit (wheeled shoes, you dumb ass), but I had more important issues vexing my mind: I needed to know who Rossi was.

Upon exiting the back doors, I was immediately barraged by a goulash of dueling aromas: teriyaki chicken and soul food duked it out to my right, while the best of Poland’s delicacies sparred to my left with the hot sausage sandwich heavy weight over at Mike’s Neighborhood Grill (also notable for his award-winning Philly cheese steak). Two food trailers competed with the controversial spelling of kielbasa. (Or is it kolbassa?) At nine o’clock in the morning, haluski and fried chicken were not the most nasally pleasing scents. If it was afternoon, and, you know – I ate meat, I’d have been in my glory.  Interspersed between so many savory selections were trailers shilling funnel cake, and the Slushie King was doling out sno-cones to children who displayed such a caricature of excitement that I wondered if they had never delighted in frozen sweets before. It was like Rossi’s very own carnival midway.

In spite of this festival of food, the rest of the parking lot gave off the vibe of a ghost town. If tumbleweed had blown past my ankles, it would have been suiting. There were tables lined up, but the hearts of the people manning them just weren’t in it. No one yelled things like, “Two dollars! Two for three!” or “Are you looking at that weed whacker?! It works! It really works! You can see for yourself, FOR TEN DOLLARS!” Walking past a table stacked with old issues of Woman’s World and a paltry selection of VHS dramas (Steel Magnolias was a steal of a deal for a buck), two middle-aged women sat slouched over in lawn chairs. Staring straight ahead with glazed-over eyes, the one whose mouth had yet to become mummified by boredom’s glue mumbled, “I can’t believe we have two more hours of this shit.” It never occurred to me before that these people are taking chances when they rent out lots. If the weather, so notoriously unpredictable, is sketchy that day, the vendors could potentially lose out on a lot of money, breaking even if they’re lucky.

The weather hadn’t managed to put a damper on everyone’s day, though. I walked past one woman, fresh from purchasing a VHS chockfull of show tunes. As she trotted back to her group of fellow flea marketers, I heard her squeal, “And it has ‘Luck Be a Lady’ on it too so we can all sing together tonight in the living room after dinner!” A small part of me hoped she was being facetious, but mostly I derived a perverse pleasure in imagining that some families do functional things like after dinner sing-alongs, maybe while wearing bonnets, and then I imagine myself watching from behind a bush, laughing and taking video to post on You Tube.

I was making my way down the third aisle of tables and still hadn’t found a single item that was worth parting ways with the crumpled dollar bill stuffed into the pocket of my jeans. In the past, a lone dollar bill had gained me a nudie mug, a chipped metal bangle bracelet that leaves a bruised band around my wrist, and a 1940’s 8×10 school portrait of one of the table vendors. That was my favorite flea market find, I think. I made up an elaborate back story about how he was my vampiric Uncle Otis who was haunted by chimeras of his ex-lover; I couldn’t imagine why my friends didn’t believe me.

Oh, I had seen such sights on this day though, like an entire table piled with hats of all styles and varying degrees of camouflage. Some of the hats went a step beyond and boasted embroidered John Deere patches and one had a real knee-slapper of a slogan draped across it: “Remington: Size Matters!” Had I been there alone, I’d have gladly set up camp and waited all day just on the off-chance that I’d get to spy the lucky person to score that gem.

Other tables are decorated with children’s books that look suspiciously five-fingered from the library, like “Why Am I Going to the Hospital?”,  and yellow-paged mystery novels by Dean Koontz and Nora Roberts and I know without getting too close that they come complete with the musty stench of a grandmother’s basement. Laid out on ratty and frayed bath towels are a downtrodden array of rusted shovels, hoes, hedge clippers and spades — a serial killer’s wet dream. Or a gardening fetisher’s. An entire table was devoted to glassware that must have looked really good when it was used on the set of “Mama’s Family.”

A woman hawked jewelry draped along the hood of her maroon Alero while next door, a burly man sporting a sleeveless American Legend shirt and a rustic beard stood cross-armed over his collection of tools and Harley Davidson bric-a-brac. I definitely wasn’t interested in any biker memorabilia.

Every few minutes, the oldies tunes – the elevator music of flea markets — blasting from outdoor speakers would cut out and a booming voice bubbling over with a showman’s enthusiasm would remind us shoppers to stop by Teresa’s Treasures, formerly known as Frick and Frack, for some fresh baked goods; or he would promote the aforementioned Mike’s Neighborhood Grill, who must have slipped the MC a Hamilton because there was a real urgency to his voice every time he would tap on the mic and remind us that hey, Mike’s still over there in the red and white trailer frying up some of that award-winning grub of his. OK, we get it: Mike rules.

Intrigued by this bodiless voice, I abandoned the garage sale fare of the outdoors for the more glamorous vendibles inside. Also, that’s where the bathroom was.

The main difference I observed inside was that each table has its own niche. Unlike the tables in the parking lot, the merchandise here was new and laid out in a neat and eye-catching array with glitter-painted signs that yelled, “Hey look Real Stillers shirts here! Tags still on!” and “Ninetento [sic] tapes $5-$8!” Above the storefronts of the indoor vendors hang wooden signs with their store’s name burned into it. Coincidentally, the maker of those very signs had his own booth set up, with a TV – squatting in the midst of charred wood signs — airing a running loop of his workshop. I paused to watch it, but became bored after three seconds. I’m sad to see that Eileen’s Crafts & Whatever: Home of the Special Angels is closed, because maybe I might have wanted to buy a special angel, or a ‘whatever.’

Later that day, after lamenting the fact that I couldn’t even find one single coral necklace or macramé pot holder amongst the knoll of orphaned junk to bring home, I dwelled once again on Rossi. At this point, I didn’t even care about meeting him. A tiny blurb on a website would have sufficed. Or perhaps a MySpace profile.

Google searches for Rossi’s identity only bring up individual websites of several of the vendors, such as Deanna’s Mountain T-Shirts. She is very excited to announce via her webpage that you can find her brand-new Betty Boop and race car shirts at Rossi’s every Saturday and Sunday! When she’s not slinging those and her new and gently worn jewelry, she designs websites. I hope they’re as visually pleasing as her website, with all of its seizure-inducing emoticons and gifs. I mean, if I’m paying for a professional website, I better get a blinding background and lots of waving American flags, and maybe a cheery midi file droning on as the page loads.

Determined to find answers, I revisited Rossi’s a week later. The sun was shining bright and the temperature was September’s signature crisp and clear; in other words, the venders were easily excitable and rearin’ to go.

Admittedly, I wanted to catch a glimpse of this elusive announcer, too. My boyfriend laughed and said, “Um, you walked right past him and his podium last week when you went to the bathroom.” I wasn’t sure if I completely believed my boyfriend that the MC’s voice was not really the product of a tape playing in a loop. I wished for a twist ending where I would tug back a heavy velvet curtain or at the very least a moth-eaten sheet of burlap, to find that Rossi and the announcer were one and the same.

I had to employ the Cardinal rule of flea markets: do not make eye contact with sellers if you’re not trying to waste money. They’re like puppies in a pound – you toss them the tiniest bone of a glance, and you’re taking their shit home with you.

Sometimes this doesn’t work, usually when you end up idling past a seller who is overly-anxious to be rid of his cache. A mustachioed man, noticing my small child in the stroller, spastically lunged into his pile of corroded tapes and waved a Barney video at me. “Barney video, one dollar!” he barked. I smiled and kept walking. I’m sure it was full of titillating moral tales, and my child will obviously grow up into a puppy-kicking plane hijacker without the guidance of a purple dinosaur in his life, but no thanks. He wouldn’t give up. “Barney tape, for free!”

Not one to pass up free swag, my internal dialogue was a’swirl.

                       It’s free!

                      But it’s Barney!

                      But it’s free!

“Oh, thank you, but I don’t have a VCR,” I quickly stuttered, shifting my eyes. He was still blurting out offers when I nervously jogged to another table, far away, that wasn’t shilling free children’s tapes. Why don’t the elderly ladies shilling fantastically kitschy costume jewelry make such offers? Further down, another man looking as though he were visiting from the mountains of Appalachia, caught me pointing to his luxurious collection of dented, rustic oil cans and asking the boyfriend what the hell they were.

 “Are you looking at my fan? Two dollars! And it works!” I recoiled slightly at the sight of his mouth rot.

No, I was looking at your shitty rust receptacles, but thanks.

As I was toeing the line between boredom and frustration, unable to give a shit about tattered cook books with coffee rings and cheap sunglasses framed in fluorescent shades, the sky parted, golden rays of second hand angel dust rained upon our heads, and the voice of the announcer reverberated through the lot.

 “Wayne and Ellie Jackson, there is a situation at your vehicle that requires immediate attention.”

Wayne and Ellie’s vehicle could have been taken over by pygmies playing horse shoes and on a normal day, I’d have been the first one on the scene to get the 411, but I could not shake my preoccupation with the MCs voice. So instead of rubber-necking out in the lot, I made my way past stacks of ugly abstract art, discount candy, and unripe produce, until I was inside the market place, boyfriend and baby trailing behind. I thought I heard my child whining, but my pace didn’t falter; sorry son, but Mama’s on a mission.

Once inside, it was all a blur. I hurried past the lady manning a table of bread and gloves (although I did slow down a bit to see if the gloves were the kinds with the rubber nubbies on them as I have a slight fetish); I bumped into a man looking at baseball cards and vaguely recall him grunting a reply to my rudeness; I paused briefly to demolish a sample of apricot pastry. Always pause for pastries.

As I rounded a corner, my boyfriend pointed. “There he is right there. MC Rich K.”

Standing behind a podium, all wrapped up in a snug leather jacket, loomed the body behind the voice. I had every intention of talking to him, asking him about this supposed Rossi character, but my voice was caught. I had built him up so much in my head, maybe as much as Rossi by that point, that he had become my own Wizard of Oz, and now he was standing there before me, yelling into his cell phone like some hot shot Wall Street power broker.

 “I just gave you an ad! Didn’t you hear it?” he shouted disgustedly.

This was the body of the voice coated with Santa-caliber merriment? If I were a vendor, I’d invest in a bullhorn and do my own publicity before relying on that asshole.

Intimidated, I instead grabbed a brochure from the information kiosk next to MC Rich K, playing it off like that was why I had come barreling toward him, and then I went home. I guess I wasn’t too determined after all.

The brochure ended up being a poorly edited odyssey down comic sans lane, and of course any information regarding the enigmatic Rossi, now fabled in my mind, was furtively omitted. Maybe Rossi isn’t even a person. Maybe Rossi is the dead childhood goldfish of property owner Jim Aiello and it’s a tribute in the same vein of Snickers, the candy bar named after a family horse. Food Network taught me that.

Or maybe I should just take a nap and wake up with a new futile obsession.

Regardless, even though my pressing questions about the flea market’s namesake went unanswered, I’ll be sure to go back the next time I’m in the market for a purse with sequins so big, it could solar power an entire house on its own.