ps I don't do blow off hookers' arses

Conversation between Geoff and Matty, written on paper plate.


Dancing with a gorilla

22 years ago I was dancing with a gorilla on the Empire State Building. My mom just sent me this photo, a record of my very first visit to the city. And it appears that someone is LOVING IT.

Favorite Esprit sweatshirt? Big ole honkin' smile? Check and check.

The nerdy glasses are another sign of upcoming years and personalities. Teenager voted most ambitious in the senior class. Adult set on living in New York. My own mix of hesitation and determination. Kind of fearless, kind of shy. Being quiet about it all until suddenly a gorilla asks me to dance.


Casey Lasso really needs to lighten up


One David Enright and Matthew Eisen in a Chicago bar.

A romantic gesture

On February 15 I woke up and saw a dark smudge on my hotel bed sheet.


Why can't I resist those king-sized Snickers? I must have fallen asleep in the middle of another minibar binge. I thought I'd been doing pretty well lately. I HAD polished off a tin of mixed salted nuts earlier that day but had rearranged the remaining tins in attempts to trick housekeeping into thinking they were all there, taking up space, no need to replace anything, people.

This is not to avoid paying for the old nuts, this is to avoid inhaling the new nuts.

I got out of bed and saw lots of dark smears on the carpet. I AM A PIG! Shame, chagrin, etc. I opened the curtain, ready to shed light on the mortifying scene, and turned around to discover that the smudges were actually ROSE PETALS.

Strewn across the bed, carpeting the floor with stains of red, were roses.

I remembered the night before when Sunny and Shane were in my room and saw the single rose stuck between pillows on my bed.

Romantics that they are, they were like, "What's that? That's gross."

And I explained that the flight attendant gave it to me for Valentine's Day and I thought it was a nice little gesture on his part. Dang.


Zapatistas, mariachis, Homies

Carl needs to see what his inspiration has inspired in others.

I'm speaking about the box of XL beige t-shirts with my 8-year-old face on them that he sent me anonymously last year. I don't know if Carl wanted to make me laugh or if he just wanted to freak me the hell out, but he did both.

My favorite thing about the shirts now is that a lot of people assume they're in homage to a child who's passed away. And in a way, she has. Though she's in me somewhere. Sometimes deep within, sometimes closer to the surface.

I just found out that Dennis and Matthew Eisen took a road trip to Chicago from Cincinnati in November and that Casey Lasso whipped out the shirt for them.

What I like about this is how it combines Casey's fixation on Homies with a mariachi. Plus a Zapatista is aiming his gun at my forehead. I'm still just as pleased and smiley as ever!

And, really, given my ribbons and puffed sleeves and early braces, what could I possibly have to worry about?

lasagna suitcase

I wanted to see how many New York experiences I could pull off in one 24-hour period so after I visited Jocardo's classroom in the Bronx and before I drank Heineken in Cathy's Flatbush apartment and before I sat five hours with someone in a Manhattan emergency room, I took the ferry to Staten Island with Matt.

Ray had invited us to have dinner at his restaurant and he planned to pick us up at 4:00. What he didn't plan on was the chaos of a few totally manageable-looking snowflakes. Certainly he didn't plan to lose control of his car and its locked brakes and slide down a hill through an intersection and two lanes of traffic before coming to a stop in a church parking lot.

Ray escaped without a scrape only because the two lanes of traffic he blitzed through were jammed by another accident down the road. A school bus had slid into a city bus and the entire neighborhood was at a standstill due to the sudden snowfall, spinning tires, and small pile ups.

Which makes me realize, again, how I shouldn't make fun of meteorological/physical phenomena that I just haven't figured out yet. Black ice, for one, which I used to think was an excuse of pussies who don't know how to drive. Before that, tsunamis.

Ten years ago, I giggled through an earthquake on the Ecuadorian beach and made a lot of noise of how extremely fun it had been. Pabel, annoyed, reminded me that it would not have been hilarious if the quake's center had been under the ocean floor and created a giant wave able to wipe out everything in sight.



Matt and I walked a path along the water until we got to the road where Ray was stopped. We called in an order for ribs and soup from the restaurant, parked the car, and walked up the hill to Ray and Maureen's home.

At their house, we discovered the HEATED FLOOR of the kitchen, thereby giving me a new lifetime goal: 1. Visit Asia 2. Have a heated floor. Matt and I laid down flat on the tiles, exposing as much of our body surface to direct heat as possible while Ray mixed drinks.

After eating and sitting by the fire, Ray went into the kitchen to heat up the lasagna he was bringing back to our hotel where he was doing the overnight security shift for our tour group.

The lasagna was a gift for the other security people and there was a lot of it: TWENTY-TWO-AND-A-HALF POUNDS to be exact. It was in a large tin catering dish, the kind used to serve banquets and buffets, and Ray thought he'd get it across the ferry by pulling it in Maureen's suitcase.

Maureen was skeptical. About leakage. And Maureen had a point. I wouldn't want to show up on my Caribbean vacation smelling like lasagna, either. I suggested garbage bags and Maureen seconded my motion but Ray was unmoved.

And it WAS leaking by the time we left the house. Still, I was pleased to have the chance to witness someone trudging through the snow in Battery Park holding a suitcase of lasagna on his head.


tattoos hurt a lot but they sure are fun

Oh, and mom, dad, guess what?

This is me on Friday, also known as three days ago:

I've had tattoos on my stomach for ten years and people have always asked, 'But what if you have kids? Won't that mess your tattoo up?' and I always feel a strong sense of DUNNO mixed with DON'T CARE.

For whatever reason, it's never bothered me.

Maybe I'll make it into a new tattoo. Maybe I'll leave it f'ed up and think it's funny. Maybe the glory and joy of new life will make it not matter. Maybe I won't have kids.

I will say that when our friend here with the needle attached to a drill was dragging it through the flesh on my side, I thought: THIS IS THE BEST BIRTH CONTROL EVER. Knowing this pain kind of makes me think I don't need to know THAT pain. I unclenched and breathed when he dipped the needle in ink between lines and flashbacked to my year as a childbirth assistant in Seattle, when I coached ladies in the delivery room.

Since I worked for a Latino clinic and doubled as a translator, I found myself on Friday telling myself to breath: Respira. Respira.

I will also say that just as women who have birthed and say that they will NEVER GO THROUGH THAT AGAIN take one look at their precious bundle of baby drool and immediately forget how recently their head spun backwards go: ooh, baby, I want more....

I'm already planning what to ink from my stomach down my leg.


Screw rent

New York has always been a place of extremes for me, difficult to balance. This, of course, makes it equally inspiring and tiring.

The first times I visited New York as an adult, I stayed with a friend on the Upper West Side. We spent a minimum of time in his studio where one small space tripled as bedroom, living room and kitchenette.

Those weekends were spent taking trains, catching cabs, talking to strangers in lofts, dancing in clubs and I never knew where I was. The only geographical marker I had was the breakfast place on Broadway around the corner from his apartment, where I bought bagels with veggie cream cheese. Before going out at night, we'd put a hundred dollar bill in one pocket, ID in another and go. The rest was a blur.

When I moved from Seattle to  New York, I lived the first few months in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. My "room" had been carved out of the middle of the apartment. If I was asleep or not in the mood for traffic, my roommate could only get to the kitchen by going through the public stairwell and reentering through another door. I decided it was a dump and began looking around for something else. Also, the hipster scene on the main drag in Williamsburg, Bedford Avenue reminded me too much of Seattle. I hadn't moved to New York to feel like I was was in Seattle. I wanted to step out of my front door and be smacked in the face with OH MY GOD, NEW YORK.

I answered an ad in the Village Voice for a room in a four-bedroom apartment in the East Village and began the interview process. A girl was exiting the front door when I arrived for my roommate interview-audition and we eyed each other: competition. "This must be what it's like to rush a sorority," I thought.

The place was beautiful: separate bedrooms with everything else open-plan. Hardwood floors, dark red velvet curtains, exposed brick, a kitchen island, artwork on the walls and a line of large French windows, one of which opened as a door into a patio. The only strange detail was the living room furniture. There was a high-backed wooden throne next to a couch and outdoor chairs that belonged at a barbecue. I perched uncomfortably on the lawn furniture and acted like the wrought iron wasn't cutting into my legs.

Later, after I'd sailed through call-backs, beat my competition and moved in, I appreciated the one piece of friendly furniture: the red chaise lounge, perfect for morning reading. I remained intrigued by the "fireplace" with its fake log. Hiding behind fake log were little metal canisters of chemicals that you lit like candles to produce real flames that thankfully emit no odor yet gave off absolutely no heat, either. One of the more confusing objects I've encountered. Visually, it offered comfort and coziness. Yet if you stretched out on the rug in front of fake log/real flames and tried to be wintry and dozey, you got NOTHING. One hundred percent image, zero substance.

A few years later, I'd had it with the apartment's drama and revolving door of roommates. I'd also had it with my job's drama and revolving door of employees so I quit both. I was starting not to like people. I was stressed, my stomach hurt all the time, and I was depressed. I moved in with Melissa and Coco, a married couple in the Bronx.

Melissa and Coco's place wasn't fancy but it was perfect. It was calm and sweet and safe, just where I needed to be in order to figure out where I was going. I worked as a freelance book publicist in my pajamas from the couch. I walked through dirty streets to the nearby botanical gardens and went for trail runs. At the end of the Bx29 bus line, I discovered Pelham Bay Park and City Island, a bedroom community of sailboats and seafood shacks.

After working as a runner for a few local concerts, I met the people who hired me for American Idol and I left New York to be a towel girl, thinking what a great joke this new job was. I fully expected to return to the city; I had a job lined up as a research assistant for a author who'd just signed a book deal. Touring was just a temporary chance to save money with a story to tell.

A few weeks into the Idol tour, however, I was pushed out of the research position and was too far away to do anything about it. Crushed, I drank Maker's Mark until I passed out on the bus and refused to get out of my bunk. After recovering from my hangover approximately a week later, I decided I was done with the city.


Starbucks is annoying

I'm in Toronto and apparently it's been awhile since I've patronized Starbucks. This morning I woke up and skidded my way down the icy sidewalk to the nearest epicenter of world domination and asked for a large coffee.

"What size would you like?" the barista asked me redundantly.

"Large please," I said again.

Then - and this is where I started getting annoyed - she looked at me and pointed to the largest cup on display and said, "You'd like a VENTI?"

And I swear to god what I should have said is, "Bitch. Your mom knows what I like."

But what came out was, "Yes please."

And the thing is, I wasn't even trying to be be difficult. It's just that a large is a large. It is THE LARGEST SIZE OFFERED. Period. Regardless of whatever clever Italian branding is slapped on it by some genius in Seattle.

God, it pissed me off. For like four minutes.


Self-knowledge newsflash

Last week my dad told me that Mema was dying. I went to the Manchester cathedral and wrote her name on a stone and then flew back to the States and home to Cincinnati.

I hadn't been home since last March, a long time. When I knew I was going to Ohio, I emailed Matthew Eisen and asked if he was still there. I hadn't seen Matt in a few years, since he'd visited me in Guatemala. Before that, we'd seen each other in New York and in El Salvador, where he lives.

I met Matthew and his brother, Dennis, for coffee at a roastery downtown, not far from the building where we'd been roommates almost fifteen years ago. A man we'd worked with in the neighborhood came in and Matt shook his hand and reintroduced us to each other.

"Jessica Roncker!" The man laughed, "I wouldn't have recognized you."

"I was just out of high school the last time you saw me," I said.

We called Andy, another former roommate, and he stopped by to sit with us for a few minutes during his lunch break.

"This is fun," we said, "Who else can we call?"

"Nick DiNardo please," I said into the phone.

"This is Nick."

"Hi Nick, this is Jess Roncker."

We lured Nick away from his law office and he called his wife, Anne, to come join our impromptu reunion.

I was standing near the cafe door when I spotted Larry, who's lived across the street from my family my entire life. We said hello and he introduced the man with him as Mr. Abel, who used to live down our street, too, before moving away when I was still a child. It was between then and going out that night to meet Dennis, Matthew, and Nick for Guinness and pool that a very simple idea occurred to me.

Part of the reason that I'm able to comfortably travel, live out of suitcases, change addresses, and inhabit new worlds is that I have such stable roots. I maintain relationships from every point between childhood to now and when I'm back in the 'Nati, my history is woven into almost every exchange. I know where I can always return to.

Does that mean that I'm ALWAYS comfortable with my choices? No. But is anyone? Don't we all question our motives sometimes? Wonder about other possibilities?

I spent the last few years craving stability. I didn't really DO much to be less mobile, I just kind of THOUGHT about it. I wanted to balance touring and travel with something: maybe a relationship or a couch or something else big and heavy that I couldn't fit in a storage space or the back of a car. Something that signified that I had a place, a physical space, to come home to no matter where I'd been. Safety.

At Mema's reception, my uncle asked me about California. I told him that I didn't know, since I don't really live there anymore, or anywhere. I broke up with Frank, I said, and my stuff is in storage.

"So you're alone again?"

I paused for a minute, surprised, "Yep."

But I knew that wasn't true. I just didn't want to explain right then; it didn't feel appropriate. His question stung momentarily, until I had another big simple realization.

You want to know when I REALLY was alone? When I was out in California, trying to fit someone else's mold of something, someone else's idea of a relationship that didn't make sense to me. I hadn't bought a couch yet, but I'd bought a bed and chairs and - sit down - was considering buying a car. I was trying, I was really, really trying. But I was stranded.

So what does that mean? Not that I'm anti-relationship. I'm only anti- relationships that shut me down instead of opening me up. It means that I've learned more about myself. I won't go for anyone else's standard of normality if it doesn't feel good. I won't cram myself into an uncomfortable space.

My ideal relationship might not look like a lot of others. And that's great. If I can create a unique kind of relationship with someone, fantastic, but even if/when that happens I'll still want to live creatively and intuitively with a lot of improvisation. Maybe something in the future will inspire me to buy furniture or maybe there will be someone who isn't that into furniture either. Maybe one day I'll buy a house. Just not now.

I don't need a mortgage to feel safe or a husband to feel loved. I don't need a leather couch. I don't even really need a room at the moment. Things may change - of course they may - but how good does it feel not to measure myself up to other people and to let go of that secret, nagging feeling that had been making me wonder if I'm missing something?

Really good.

I would kind of like a folding bike. And maybe that hot new mac that weighs, like, nothing because that'll be awesome for traveling.

Do they wear cable-knit in heaven?

I stood the aisle of St. Anthony Church with my cousins Mary Beth, Lauren, and Jeremy. Our family had said goodbye to Mema and we were waiting for the service to begin.

Mema's face was beautiful in life and death but in the casket I had to search her features for recognition. One of the church workers likened human death to a cicada molting: The shell is there but without the spirit, it's empty. It looks different.

When I saw Mema's hands, however, I knew it was her and I could hear her voice, "Well, hello, Jessica Ann."

"Meems..." I said aloud and Mary Beth and Lauren answered back softly in unison, "Meems and Peeps..."

We all started laughing. When did we start calling Mema and Papa MEEMS AND PEEPS? We didn't call them that directly, just to each other. And we laughed more because Peeps sounds so street. Papa was many things: Erudite, philosophical, spiritual, stern, playful, but he wasn't hip-hop.

Mema told her children that she didn't want to be eulogized and that if she were, she would come back to haunt them. They respected that. Praise for Mema snuck out in her obituary, though: Gentle. Inspiring. Great sense of humor.

I'm so different than Mema on the surface. Our lives bear wildly different paths. By the time Mema was my age she'd already had a hundred, I mean, five or six kids and was working her way up to eleven. I'm ambivalent. It might be wonderful to have a family but I keep finding other things to do. Mema was a lady, never coarse, maybe a little wicked in her laughter, never rude. She had a cleaner mouth than I, for sure.

But if I inherited a fraction of Mema's grace, if I can meet people with openness, if my generosity is genuine and my integrity something to be counted on, then I've learned something from my family and I'm fortunate.

I imagine Mema now in her cable-knit sweater and jean skirt, tinkling laughter intact, surrounded by love, just as in life.


By Jane Kenyon

Let the light of late afternoon
shine through the chinks in the barn, moving
up the bales as the sun moves down.

Let the cricket take up chafing
as a woman takes up her needles
and her yarn. Let evening come.

Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned
in long grass. Let the stars appear
and the moon disclose her silver horn.

Let the fox go back to its sandy den.
Let the wind die down. Let the shed
go black inside. Let evening come.

To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop
in the oats, to air in the lung
let evening come.

Let it come, as it will, and don't
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.

Mary Rita Gallagher Foy, my mema
1921 - 2008