Pamela Harris

Subways to Rockaway November 20, 2012

Rockaway is still devastated. People who live there have to get to work and the MTA trucked subway cars in on flatbeds to act as shuttle trains. Here's more information and some great photos.


Massachusetts Tuna 2002 November 19, 2012

For many years I traveled to Massachusetts for Thanksgiving at my mother's house. When she started wintering in Florida with my stepfather, Nachum, I stayed put in New York. We'd try to catch each other on the phone a day or two before the holiday, but when her tee times got early it got hard to connect. One morning at 6:48 a.m. I heard my answering machine pick up and beep, and a second later her voice filled my living room. "Put the tuna back, Nachum."

My mother's messages were an audio diary of whatever she was doing at that moment, since she never heard the beep. “No Nachum, we're meeting them later, not now.”

Nachum was in the early stages of Alzheimer's. He couldn't stand it -- he was a Holocaust survivor who came to America with nothing and eventually bought the leather factory he worked in. My mother couldn't stand it either; it was change and she liked her world just as it was.

I got out of bed and hurried to the living room. "Good morning," I said as I grabbed the phone.

"Hold on," she said. Nachum mumbled something and my mother sighed as he left the kitchen. “I can’t take this," she said. "Yesterday he disappeared for two hours and I found him roaming the streets with a can of tuna in his pocket.”

“Did you join that Alzheimer’s support group?”

“I have to find a place for him to go.”

“Find an Alzheimer's group to join. I can look one up for you if you need me to.” I adored my stepfather. He wasn't ready for a home.

“How’s the boyfriend?” she asked, suddenly hopeful.

I had been dating someone for three months and was about to end it. It was too early in the morning to get into it. “Okay,” I said.

“Do you think he’ll give you a ring over the holidays?”

“No.”

“You should move in together for three months, then call the caterer or call it quits.”

“I don’t want to marry him.”

“Then dump him. You’re not getting younger, you know.”

“Thank you."

We sat in silence for a moment, then she said, "Yesterday we met the Berkowitz's for dinner. You remember their son. He's very handsome."

"Not interested."

Her voice dropped. "We met them at this new little fish place. We pull into the parking lot - Nachum was driving - "

"- He shouldn’t be driving."

"He insists on it! What can I do? He pulls into a parking space at the edge of a large grassy area and instead of hitting the brake he hit the gas! We go up over the curb and suddenly we're barreling toward the hedges! I'm yelling, 'Stop the car! Stop the car!’ and he slams on the brake, throws open his door and dives behind a shrub. He thought the Nazis were chasing him!”

"Why are you letting him drive?" I had asked her that before but kept asking so she would have an excuse to vent. Nachum's descent had her scared and sad, but my mother wouldn't allow herself to complain, ever.

“Do you want to come up next weekend?” she asked. “We’ll be in Massachusetts for the Gold Bar Mitzvah.”

Before I could stop myself, guilt said, “Okay.” Two days later I had a great Thanksgiving with friends, then the next week, early Friday morning, I took a train to Boston.

Outside South Station I could see Nachum’s Lincoln idling at the curb. He was parked on a busy two-lane street and I prayed my mother was driving. Never mind the Alzheimer's -- at 5"4' Nachum can barely see over the steering wheel, and he has only two speeds when he drives: hit the gas and slam the brake.

I walk to the car and see my mother in the passenger seat. I kiss her hello and whisper, “Why aren’t you driving?”

“He wanted to. You look well, very thin. Hurry and get in dear.“

In the car I kiss Nachum hello. “Good to see you,” he says, then he turns the key in the ignition. There's a grinding screeeech – the engine is already running. He keeps trying to start it.

“The car is on,” my mother says.

“You don’t think I know that?” Nachum says. I buckle up quick. He puts the shift in gear and hits the gas. We shoot forward and ram the car in front of us. My glasses ricochet off the headrest in front of me.

“Honey, watch what you’re doing,” says my mother.

“What are you saying?” He throws it in reverse and slams into the car behind us.

“Watch what you’re doing!” she says then turns to me. “Jesus Christ.” She shakes her head, exasperated.

I say, “Nachum, uh, maybe – “

“-- I can’t get the car out. I have to get the car out.”

He turns the steering wheel hand over hand as far as he can – it’s like watching the grim reaper polish his sickle. I say, “You might want – “ and Nachum throws the shift into drive but overshoots it into second. “Thuughhh” is all I can get out as he jumps on the gas and we jerk sideways into the street. Horns blare, a truck skids toward us and we stall. We glide across the second lane, ram the curb and bounce onto the median strip. The front end sinks to its knees. My mother throws up her hands in the air. Nachum does too.

“See what you made me do?” he says to her.

I say, “I think a tire got knocked off a rim. Let me look” Nachum opens his door. I beg “Please stay in the car,” and he slams his door and starts the car. “Thuuugghhh!” I throw my seat belt on. Sparks fly as the car jerks backward and our bare rim bounces onto the road. We clang back into the parking space we just smashed our way out of and Nathan crosses his arms and stews.

“Did you take the spare in for repair?” my mother asks. It seems this has happened before. Nachum ignores her. I wonder when the next train to New York is.

I take out my cell phone. “I’ll call an auto repair place,” I say. “Do you know the name of the street we’re on?”

She turns to Nachum. “Where’s the Triple A card?”

“What?” he asks then stews some more.

She looks in the glove compartment then rummages through her wallet.

“What’s this street so I can call directory assistance?” I ask again.

“It’s so expensive to call directory assistance,” she says. “Plus, those minutes. Do you have a whachacallit – a plan?” My teeth are going to break I’m clenching them so hard and she says, “Oh wait – here’s the card.”

I dial the number, give them our info and hang up. “It’s going to be an hour’s wait.” I don't drive and had begged them to let me take a cab. As I turn to the window a tow truck goes by. I leap out of the car and wave my arms. Luck is with us – he’s part of the Triple A network and he can fix our spare. Within half an hour we’re on the road.

Saturday at 6:00 a.m. I get woken by my mother rummaging through the closet in the room I’m staying in. I sit up. “Did I wake you?” she asks. “I need to find my, uh…”

“Do you need to find it right now?”

“I made a fruit plate for Nachum. Want some fruit?”

“Can we talk later?”

“Here it is.” She holds up a brown purse covered in fake jewels. It looks like whoever shit it out didn’t digest their peas or corn. ”I got it at the flea market in Florida,” she says as she swats a fly with it. “You get everything at those markets. Isn’t it great?”

“Later?”

“Okay,” she sings, then reminds me a fruit plate is waiting downstairs.

My mother was a compulsive shopper who loved getting a bargain. Getting one was often more important than what she was buying – she'd drive twenty miles to save three cents on toilet paper. It wasn't cheapness, it was frugality. She and Nachum traveled well, but flew coach to get there. She drove a nice car but only after years of trading in and up. She loved to wear designer, but would only buy it discounted. If you want to play, you have to pay.

Later that day we went shopping at Loehmann’s, where she dashed around the Back Room. “How about this for you?” She held up something that was bejeweled, bedazzled and bescary.

“That’s okay,” I said and pulled an Yves St. Laurent blouse off a rack.

“This?” She waved something that had a horn attached to it. “Oh, this is nicer.” She exchanged the horn for pants. Ruffles went across the crotch.

“How about I shop for me and you shop for you?”

“Okay. This?” This looked flammable.

“Ma, I’m heading to shoes.” I bought shoes, she bought a coat and when we got home at three she poured herself a cold martini, her afternoon ritual. I poured myself a glass of water and said, "Tomorrow, Nachum isn't driving me into Boston. I'm calling a cab."

"You're such a worrier. We'll get up, we'll have some fruit - this new market in Salem has wonderful fruit." I got out the Yellow Pages to look up taxis. She took a long sip off her drink and smiled, content. She then looked at me with pure innocence. And pure determination: there was no way her neighbors were going to see a cab pull into her driveway. She said, "I'll drive you tomorrow."

"Thank you."

"After we have fruit."

So that's how this was playing. We were bartering her fruit for my life. The next morning I shared a large plate of cut apples, oranges, pears, cantaloupe and grapes with Nachum, and when he was sufficiently fruit sedated my mother stuffed him into the passenger seat. I spied a can of tuna hidden in the waistband of his pants, which he was stealthily guarding. I buckled myself into the back seat and the three of us headed to Boston, each triumphant in getting what we wanted.


My Personal Dictionary November 14, 2012

Every so often I dig through the settings on my phone to get to my personal dictionary. This dictionary saves 'my' words - words I text, email or use to search - that aren't in the established dictionary. It saves misspells, too, which is why I go in now and then to clean it out.

I'm always surprised by how revealing the word list is. This week was a self-portrait: Amex, because I got hacked; Abeille is a restaurant where Dawn and I recently had breakfast; Addidas because I need new sneakers; blunch because we couldn't decide on breakfast or lunch and split the difference.

Scrolling down the list, ass is followed by asshat and I can't wait to get to shituation because I'll have to pass pooblem, a dictionary favorite. These etched their way in when I was struggling with something I was working on and texted Brian, a fellow writer:

Me: 'I have a pooblem.'

Brian: 'A shituation?'

Me: 'Deficately'

Brian: 'Ass me anything'

Me: 'I tip my shat to you'

I'm elegantly redeemed by Nauman, Guggenheim, Didion and DiSuvero, but barely, since suddenly there's fuckle. There's also Falafart, farted, Farticle, farting, Fartis and Harrfart. Stuck in the middle of this, next to Frankenstein, is Fluffyllis. I don't know what a Fluffyllis is, but I'm keeping it.

Chemo is still there from when my mom was still alive.

Dupchik is from THIRD ROCK FROM THE SUN, LoM is for the American TV version of LIFE ON MARS, there's NUMB3RS and FREAKS - egad we watch a lot of TV. And we eat: avocado, Babbo, Citerella, cockles, cupcake, donut, edamame, greenmarket, hummus, lychees - I hit rigatoni and still, the food keeps coming.

CAA, WME, Miranda, ProdCo and FTVS let me feel optimistic workwise, as does shortlisted. Musicality makes me feel smart, but then there's narraring. Prunes makes me wonder how old I am, but craption tells me it'll all be okay. It's a curated document of a life, this dictionary. It says I like to eat, work, watch TV, read, look at art, make up words that celebrate bodily functions, and spend time with my beau and friends. That's pretty much right on the truth.


Running The Books November 12, 2012

In September 2011 I got offered a three-month freelance gig at Random House Books. I make my living as a writer and artist and my income has highs and lows. I was in the thick of a low when this gig came from nowhere, a true gift from above.

I hadn't worked for anyone in 20 years and had never worked in book publishing. My last job had been at Business Week Magazine as an assistant art director, a job I made part time then no time once I started exhibiting. This job was in the cookbook division, working on a new networking site centered around cooking. The website was in the test phase and I would be comparing print cookbooks to their digital versions. Any error, whether font or image or style or a 1/4 teaspoon that should be a 1/2, I would submit to be fixed.

My first week there I barely looked up. There were 8 freelancers and we were divvied between Mac and Microsoft to make sure the domain worked on both platforms. I got Microsoft, a foreign territory, and this mixed with publishing language, style sheets and the website itself made my focus absolute.

My second week there I was starting to get comfortable and while pondering lunch a fellow freelancer came in, wild eyed, carrying piles of books. She dropped the books on her desk and whispered, "They're free." Free? Heat started working its way up my face. She nodded. "5 floors are moving. Editors are cleaning out their offices and whatever they don't want go in red bookcases." My dignity and cool -- free books! -- chucked their dignity and cool and I quickly stood. I was going on a book run.

We hurried out of our office, then immediately slowed as we walked past offices, cubicles, conference rooms. I had a nonchalant smile pasted on, casual, calm, hello I live with ease. On the elevator my co-worker hit the button for 17 and our ID's got us through electronic doors. We entered the massive floor and my heart started hammering - there were red bookshelves everywhere. I took a second to case the floor and headed toward the back.

On the first red bookshelf I found PRIDE AND PREJUDICE by Jane Austin and PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES by Seth Grahame-Smith. Pluck pluck, my pile started. I added BRINGING OUT THE DEAD by Joe Connelly and SPARTINA by John Casey. OLIVE KITTERIDGE by Elizabeth Strout and A GATE AT THE STAIRS by Lorrie Moore. I love my job! TELL-ALL by Chuck Palahniuk, LAY THE FAVORITE by Beth Raymer, ROBOPOCALYPSE by Daniel H. Wilson, Claire Messud's THE EMPEROR'S CHILDREN - these were hard cover first editions! Kate Christensen and Jonathan Tropper were piled on Tim O'Brien who was sitting on SUNDAY SUPPERS AT LUCQUES by Suzane Goin.

I looked around at empty boxes, but knew they were for editors. Living with spiritual principles means no stealing so I grabbed my load, told my co-worker I was heading back - she had a Picasso book by John Richardson! How did I miss that?! Oh my God was there another?! - and took the stairs down. My office had walls of empty bookshelves and I dumped my load then headed for the elevator. It was lunch time. I was on lunch.

A week later I had filled 12 bookshelves. The free books sitting idly 10 floors above had become an obsession, one I was coming in early for, leaving late for, not taking lunch for. And then I heard that Judith Jones, the editor for Julia Child, Madhur Jaffery, John Updike - the woman who wrote MY LIFE IN FOOD and had discovered THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK - had emptied her office, and my eyes rolled back and a full book seizure hit: I had to get up there. Right now.

I love to read and I love to cook and it means something to have THE BREAKFAST BOOK by Marion Cunningham with what might be Judith Jones's 'what the - ?' notes and corrections sprinkled throughout. I wasn't just grabbing to grab, but knew I was heading toward the shitter when one afternoon - by this point I was taking the stairs since I couldn't wait for the elevator - I got stuck in a stairwell, unable to enter a door I had gone through the day before. The move had begun and, panic rising, it took 15 floors of trying doors before I was able to enter a floor. Despite this, my fix was only brought under control when the move finished and the red bookcases disappeared.

Post move I wandered to the new floors and discovered that each floor had a shelf, sometimes a bookcase, that held free books. By now I was out of shelf space at home and roamed mostly to step away from the computer and clear my head. When the freelance job ended I was glad to be back home, though I would still twitch for those red shelves. When I get the itch now I glance over at THE DIVE FROM CLAUSEN'S PIER by Ann Packer, THE PESTHOUSE by Jim Crace, READING LOLITA IN TEHRAN by Azar Nafisi and THE COOKBOOK COLLECTOR by Allegra Goodman. They're books I've yet to read and they take the twitch away. Just for today.




First Job November 8, 2012

I came to New York a week after graduating from art school. Wearing a suit, bag and shoes my mother bought me I landed a job as an assistant to the owner of a by-appointment-only fashion salon. It was a glorified maid's job, but it was cash under the table. Plus, I could buy clothes at wholesale and I needed them.

The chain-smoking owner was a chic, fifty-something ex-Radio City Rockette. She ran her business illegally out of her posh twenty-fifth floor Lincoln Center pied-a-tierre, which she moved into after divorcing herself from her Long Island life as a doctor's wife. The two of us, plus Cocoa, her miniature poodle, made up her business.

My job consisted of offering tea to her semi-famous clients, vacuuming, discreetly retrieving and hanging up clothes as they were flung about, and feeding and walking Cocoa. Within two weeks I learned all there was to know about how not to run a business, and how to do it with Scarlet O'Hara pluck. The Rockette was at the tail end of her transformation from a suburban country clubber who nibbled lunch at the Nineteenth Hole to a cultured businesswoman with an urbane and exciting life. A dozen silly bill collectors weren't about to bust her fantasy, fiddle-de-dee.

Cocoa was as regal as the Rockette. When I'd run her out to do her business she'd glare if I tried to rush her, then she’d take her time choosing a perfect patch of grass that gave her lots of privacy.

One afternoon the Rockette was modeling clothes for her biggest client, a second tier TV talk show host. "Do you see how this blouse defines my bust?" the Rockette said, cupping her bosom to exaggerate her point. As she did, Cocoa began to heave. The Rockette snapped her fingers at me. "Pammy, please don't let Cocoa wretch on the rug." I scooped Cocoa up, grabbed her leash and ran for the elevator.

Outside, I gently put Cocoa down. She caught her breath as her heaving subsided, though her little body still jerked with each heartbeat. When she arched her back I saw she wasn't sick -- she had to poop. Cocoa looked around and she had to go so badly she could barely walk. There was no grass in sight but a tree had just been planted in front of a new, upscale restaurant. I carried Cocoa to the tree and she assumed the position.

A few seconds passed and she was still hunched over. A half-minute passed and she hadn't straightened up. I glanced down and found her big eyes pleading into mine. I had put her in full view of the restaurant! I blocked the diner's view, but Cocoa's expression didn't change. I stared at her, confused, then hesitantly glanced behind her. There, hanging out of her bum, was a three-inch hank of green yarn. People in the restaurant began to point, so I bent down, tilted her back until the string was on the ground, and placed my toe on the yarn. Ever so gently I stood, pulling her with me as I went. That yarn was over fifteen inches long and once Cocoa was relieved of it she wanted a cigarette as badly as I did. As I smoked, we couldn't look at each other.

I took Cocoa for a walk around the block to help her recover and she held her head high. If I just took the equivalent of a yarn dump in front of forty people, would I? Cocoa knew who she was and what she deserved and I wanted that. I wanted the expectation that I had a right to claim something for mine. That I could have this right was an epiphany. When the bill collectors came two months later the Rockette lost her business. She couldn't afford to pay me any severance so instead gave me a $1000 hand-made beaded belt. "Better you than the IRS, right Cocoa?" she said as she gave her little poodle a squeeze, then quickly dropped her on the bed and began to furiously pilfer her own stock. I gave Cocoa a little green sweater which she refused to try on, and as I left I saw Cocoa casually stroll onto a discarded $3000 cashmere jacket, hunch her little body up, and, ever faithful to her owner, take a massive crap on it.


Storm Week November 7, 2012

(photo above by Pam Sommers)

My good friend Pam took the picture of the storm-damaged dumpling sign above and knew I'd love it. Not much is better than a nice dump.

Joe and I lost power, heat and hot water from Monday to Saturday. We have a gas stove and were able to cook, but by Wednesday we had to toss what hadn't been eaten since the fridge got warm. He had to go to Queens (he rode his bike) and I walked 40 blocks uptown to Pam's - she hadn't lost power - for a cup of coffee and a break from the cold. On my way back down I passed the Old Homestead restaurant and saw the staff grilling all kinds of meat out front. They were giving away steak sandwiches to anyone who wanted one since the meat had gotten to the 'eat it or chuck it' stage. It was nice to see that kind of generosity.



Midtown Billboard October 28, 2012

I moved to NYC over twenty years ago and immediately noticed all the hand-painted billboards. A lot of artists used to earn a living painting them and for a nanosecond it was my fantasy job. Custom billboards are now a rarity, but I noticed this one on my way to a meeting midtown.


Aunt Charlotte's House October 28, 2012

My auntie lives in a midtown highrise, on a high floor that overlooks the Hudson and lower Manhattan. She works in the theater and whenever there are fireworks Joe and I watch them with her and a few of her great theater friends. We cook, my aunt cooks and I try to bring Brownies Cockaigne from the Joy of Cooking:

Preheat the oven to 350. Grease a 13 x 9 inch baking pan. Melt in a saucepan:

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter

4 ounces unsweetened chocolate

Let cool. Beat until light in color:

4 large eggs

1/4 teaspoon salt

Gradually add and continue beating until thick:

2 cups sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

With a few swift strokes stir in the cooled chocolate/butter until just combined. With a wooden spoon stir in until just combined:

1 cup all-purpose flour

I like to gently mix in:

1 cup chopped pecans

Scrape batter into pan and bake about 25 minutes. Cool completely in pan on rack. Try not to eat the whole pan at one sitting.


Yodels October 28, 2012

My sister always had a mouth on her. It blossomed along with her raging hormones when she turned fifteen and I was twelve. Our mother, then thirty-seven, also developed a mouth of her own.

"Fuck you," Shelley would say.

Our mother would respond, "You know what? Fuck you too."

"Go fuck yourself!"

"You know what? Go fuck yourself."

"I fucking hate this house!"

"There’s a suitcase. Pack."

I tried to stay out of it, but one afternoon they were in the kitchen –

"You suck!"

"You know what? You suck too."

-- and I got stuck between them. All I wanted was a Yodel and an exit, and as I tried to navigate their stand off my sister sneered at me.

"Aren't you a fucking goody-goody." She looked at our mother and pointed at my Yodel. "You're gonna let her eat that before dinner? You never let me eat one."

“She’s thin.” My mother turned to me to avoid Shelley’s glare. "Put the Yodel back." I tightened my grip on it. It wasn't going back.

Shelley stared at her, shocked. “Do you see your fat ass?” Our mother was thinner than Shelley, but Shelley held her arms open as wide as she could.

My mother looked at me, angry yet pleading. "Put it back please. Don't be so sensitive.”

Could she be on my side once? I looked away and my eyes got warm. My sister shoved her face in mine. "Are you gonna cry now?" My lower lip trembled. I was going to cry, but not in front of them. I clutched the Yodel to my chest and as my eyes filled I bolted through the kitchen. I ran blindly down the hall then took the stairs two by two. I anxiously looked over my shoulder to see if I was being chased - I wasn't - then ran into my room. I slammed the door and stood there, seething.

The clock read 4:20 and in two hours my father would be home. I couldn't wait. When my mother and sister fought, he and I would go to his workroom in the basement or to the end of the driveway and loiter while he smoked. As I looked at my trolls and stuffed animals I heard Shelley's boyfriend's motorcycle crest the hill and pull into our driveway. Moments later a door slammed and I heard Shelley and Bruce rumble off.

A stuffed tiger my father bought me caught my eye and I suddenly remembered my father wasn't coming home. It had been two weeks since he had been banished from the house. We had spoken but I hadn't seen him; my mother was too busy to take me there and I don't think he was allowed to come get me. I suddenly wanted to smoke - I was brand new to smoking and was getting quite good at inhaling the Newports or Marlboros my friends could scrounge off their siblings or grandmother.

I looked at the smashed Yodel and knew I couldn’t take it anymore. I grabbed my suitcase and packed, then brought it downstairs. ‘Dulcinea’ from ‘Man of La Mancha’ was playing loudly in the kitchen and my mother sang along as she poured herself a drink. I slammed the suitcase on the kitchen table and she stopped singing. She turned. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“I want to visit dad.”

“I have things to do.”

“I want to visit dad!”

She raised her eyebrow. “Don’t you yell at me.”

“Tomorrow is Saturday.” I started whining and didn’t care. “If I don’t see him this weekend I’ll have to wait a whole other week.”

“I’m sorry, but I have things to do tomorrow.”

I started to cry. She pointed at the hall. “Out. Right now.”

“But I – “

“NOW!” She stepped toward me, threatening.

I ran into the hall, then slowed and sniffled my way up the stairs. I went into my room, slammed the door and cried. That night I stole a cigarette from her pack – I was getting bold – and she didn’t notice. The next morning I came downstairs and sat at the table and sulked. She was making a Jell-o mold for a golf luncheon.

“When you finish what you have to do, will you take me then?”

She ignored me as she moved the mold into the fridge.

“Will you take me now?” I whimpered.

She still ignored me.

“Do you think that maybe when you finish golf or whatever we can go?“

She wiped the counter, silent.

“Maybe later when –“

She started to laugh, both angered and amused. “Jesus Christ you’re a pain in the ass. Get your suitcase.”

I ran to get my suitcase as she clutched the phone and dialed. She barked into it, hung up and grabbed her cigarettes. She left the house and I ran after her, thrilled.

She dropped me in an apartment complex modeled after King Arthur's Court that was just over the border in New Hampshire. Every unit had fake turrets, a drawbridge that led to the front door and a large plastic coat of arms. My dad lived in the model apartment, a dark first floor one bedroom. It was filled with model furniture that abandoned the medieval motif for a K-Mart version of minimalism. He was thrilled to see me, hopeful to see my mother, but she drove off without looking back. I followed him down his shadowy entrance hall, through the sour smelling kitchen into the living room. Blue, green and white tubular furniture was stained in various brown hues and my father had strategically placed pillows to cover the worst ones. Though well swept and dust free, the model apartment was more crack addict street ho than Vogue cover. Seeing my dad in those surroundings and seeing how worn and sad he looked made me want to take care of him. I wanted to make it better, to fix what had happened, even though I didn't know what that was.

He smiled his warm, weary smile and we sat. He lit a cigarette and I watched him take a deep drag.

"Can I have a puff?"

He shook his head. "It'll stunt your growth."

"Just a puff. One puff."

He shook his head again and said, "You don't want to smoke."

I picked up his lighter, a gold plated Dunhill he recently got in London, and flipped the top open. I awkwardly spun three bars on the side and a flame shot out of the top. London had been a big deal for my parents, their first overseas vacation. This gold lighter was a fancy reminder for a man who had grown up in a slum.

"Just a puff?"

He plucked the lighter out of my hand and put it in his pocket. He exhaled and said, "Want to play miniature golf?" I leapt to my feet. Miniature golf was my game. Instead of tapping the ball under a dinosaur or rotating windmill I'd aim two holes away and whack it as hard as I could. My mother would scream, but he was my accomplice. My father would make sure no one was in the way and he'd send balls flying too.

We drove to the miniature golf course and it was perfect; a watery moat ran under a fake forest. I slammed the ball over the forest then my father gave me his ball so I could tee off into the parking lot. It started to rain so we went to the White Horse for burgers. I ate the bun and the pickle then bit the lettuce into a perfect square. My father picked around his plate. After he picked some more I put my square of lettuce down. "When are you coming home?" I asked.

"As soon as your mother lets me."

I looked into his eyes. He loved her more than anything and even then I sensed it wasn't enough. Why, I didn't know. "Did something happen?" I asked.

He shook his head, a blend of not knowing and not wanting to think about it. That night we watched TV then he slept on the ugly couch and gave me his bed. He drove me home the next morning and instead of dropping me off he came into the house. When my mother came downstairs and saw him she sent me upstairs to unpack. I sat at the top of the stairs and listened.

“…Actually happy…don’t care…he wanted…” my mother said, indifferent.

“…We’ve known them…you left...she’s not…” he pleaded.

Their voices dropped and I could only make out a word here and there. It sounded like one of them had cheated. No matter how hard I listened I couldn't tell who did it. They began whispering and when I couldn't hear anymore I went into my bedroom and closed the door. In my sock was a Marlboro I stole from my dad, plus matches I snitched from his kitchen drawer. I went to the corner of my room and opened the window. As I lit that cigarette it struck me how perfect smoking was for thinking about complicated things. It took the edge off, made everything easier. I instantly wanted my own pack.

I dumped out my piggy bank and slipped my sneakers on. My parents were no longer downstairs as I hurried out the back door. I ran through the woods and down the old railroad tracks until I came to the corner store, the place where I got my Mad Magazines and Betty and Veronica comics. The counter man, Mr. Cahill, was curious when I walked past the magazine rack to him.

"I need a pack of Marlboros, please."

"Hard day at the office?" I shook my head no, eager to get our business over with. He glanced outside to see if someone was waiting for me. "I hear they're selling Connors Farm. Gonna put up condos."

I quickly nodded. "Marlboro cigarettes please. And matches." I dumped my pile of dimes, nickels and pennies all over the counter and he stared, suspicious. I stared back and a funny feeling came over me. It was a craving, my first.

"Who are these for?"

"My dad. He needs matches, too."

He reluctantly handed me a pack with matches. "Next time have your dad come in." I nodded and skipped on out of there. When I got back on the railroad tracks I put the pack in my front pocket. That bulge felt like a square of security – my first very own pack. I held my head high and headed home.