Category Archives: Nonfiction

Shoes, or What Not To Do When People Call You Names

As the bus doors opened, a tall man planted his feet wide in the threshold and stretched his long arms to the top corners of the jamb. He wore jean shorts and an old concert tee, and he had what looked like a cold sore on his lower lip. Our eyes locked as he leaned out toward me and my partner standing at the bus stop. A smirk pulled at his mouth, and he mumbled as he stepped onto the sidewalk and elbowed past me.

A minute later my partner asked if I’d heard what the guy said. I had. Despite the racket of the idling bus I’d heard him clearly. He said, in an almost genial tone, “How’s it going, faggot?”

 

The first time I remember hearing that word I was in church. Some dude wearing a cardigan was pulling felt characters of Jesus and sheep and wise men out of a Ziploc baggie, preparing for class. I remember street lights were on in the parking lot outside, which means I wasn’t in Sunday school but at Awana, what the Baptists called a youth group but was really just Sunday school on Wednesday nights with a game of dodgeball and a juice box thrown in.

I was sitting in a half-circle of school desks with the other young Christian boys aged 9 to 11. The classrooms in our church basement smelled musty year-round, but especially so in the humidity of that early September night in Michigan. To this day, a dank room reminds me of rubbery pancakes and eternal salvation.

The kid next to me told everyone to look at how I was sitting. Hands on desk, left ankle on right knee. He said, “Why are you sitting like a girl, faggot?”

The Cardigan stopped unpacking.

“I’m not,” I said. “My dad sits like this all the time.”

“Haha! Nathan’s daddy’s a queer!”

“That’s enough. Let’s get started. Nathan, both feet on the floor, please,” the Cardigan said, and then he launched into his lesson, probably the one about turning the other cheek. I spent the rest of that class studying my teacher and classmates, watching how they sat, staring at the floor because, for some reason, I thought their shoes would show me what unified them and set me apart.

 

Just like in the church basement, the moment with the tall man on the bus happened in a flash. He was smirking and then he was gone and then I was sitting in the back of the bus kicking myself for not confronting him.

I could have adopted my most winsome Southern drawl, slid an index finger down his sternum and said Why, honey, you interested? Or I could have unleashed a wild grin—each tooth a separate act of defiance—and quipped I’m great, asshole, how ’bout you?  I could have called him the epithet that popped into my head when I saw the scab on his lip. I could have punched him in his willfully-exposed torso or tripped him as he stepped past me or I could have simply said “Fuck off.”

But I didn’t.

Thirty-some years after I put my feet on the floor, after the tribulations of reconciling my sexuality with my religious upbringing, after the lonely years post-college believing the ridiculous notion that all gay men ended up sad and alone, after the exhilaration of meeting my partner, after almost 15 years of enjoying a happy loving relationship, a stranger called me a faggot and I looked down at his shoes.

 

 

Are you looking for kind and honest feedback on your writing? Do you like writing prompts and cash prizes? Then check this out:

The yeah write super challenge is a six week, three-round competition that will help you stretch your muscles as a writer and storyteller. Each participant will walk away with detailed feedback on their entries, and the winners will walk away with sweet prizes. The more people who enter, the bigger the prizes – so invite your friends!

Great, you’re saying to yourself, but what’s yeah write? Well, yeah write is an online writing community that hosts several weekly writing challenges. I’ve been involved in the group for over 2 years now, both as a contributor and an editor. Submitting to the challenges has provided me with weekly writing inspiration, a solid deadline to meet, and a supportive group of writers who have never let me feel like I was sending my thoughts into the digital ether. Because of the support of this group, I have submitted my writing to contests, magazines, and web sites! And I very much credit yeah write for my successes, so I’m really excited to tell you about the latest way to get involved! 

For our first super challenge, we’re calling for nonfiction entries of up to 1,000 words (fictioneers, you’re up next!) written to our specific writing prompt. For those without a blog, don’t worry! Submissions will be accepted via email so no personal website is required. The process is simple: we give you a prompt, and you give us* your best short essay and mostly-true story. The early entry fee is $20 USD until 11:59 pm on June 30, 2016. That means you have one day to sign up for the cheaper rate! From July 1 to 11:59 pm on July 6, the entry fee will be $25 USD. Entry fees go to prizes for winners and maintenance of the yeah write blog site.

We’ve collected more details for you here. Check it out, read the official rules, and start warming up those typing fingers. The yeah write super challenge starts on July 8, and registration is open now!

Please feel free to spread the word if you think anyone you know would be interested in our very first super challenge. We are so excited to get this started! Less than two weeks to go!

 

*Full disclosure: I’m not a judge in this round. But I will be judging the fiction super challenge coming up in a few months.

The Songs We Sing

Sometime in the middle of May, in the blinking daylight hours between rolling fog and thunderstorms, the buildings along Lincoln Avenue inhale. The restaurant workers in their white aprons have thrown open the large, floor-to-ceiling windows that line the fronts of their buildings. You have to fight against the draw of their breath as you walk by them, and the gift shop, and that store on the corner that sells running shoes, because the sidewalk could pull you inside to a waiting wood-trimmed bar or cash register. But it doesn’t. Instead it pushes you farther up the street past a Bierstube (once upon a time your neighborhood was German Town) where a young man stops talking to his date long enough to appreciate a tendril of her hair blowing onto his wrist.

And you feel an unfolding inside you.

The doors of the gift shop are propped open with heavy chairs. The greeting cards in the spinning racks at the front of the store whistle as the wind vibrates between them. They are reed instruments accompanying the bass of traffic noise rising from the busy street. They play a tune you find yourself wanting to sing.

A gaggle—or is it called a Fitbit?—of joggers stand outside the shoe store. They stretch, popping one foot up on the free-newspaper racks and light posts. Or they lunge, the hems of their matching yellow shorts almost make contact with the pockmarked sidewalk. The runners silently form a rank and piston their way down the avenue. Your shoulders square as you watch them. Your spine straightens. Intersection after intersection, they stop traffic with their presence until they turn left and vanish.

You walk the four blocks to Lincoln Square. Las Lagunitas, a new cantina, is raucous with 20-somethings. Its patrons spill neatly out onto the grid of tables formed on the patio. Chartreuse margaritas beckon from every table. On the other side of the patio gate, couples sit on benches gripping the handle of a baby stroller the size of a Humvee in one hand and a paper cup the size of a golf ball in the other. Inside the cups, mini-glaciers of coconut, chocolate mousse, and roasted-banana gelato peek at you over the rim. The parents chastise their sons and daughters to sit still, then they dip the tiniest shovels you’ve ever seen into their cups. You smile as they take their first bite.

The Fitbit of joggers thunder past you. You join their most informal of parades. They breathe loudly and rhythmically, and you match them. It is not a surprise that they take you back to the shoe store and assume their scissor and jackknife positions up and down the sidewalk. It is not a surprise to you because this ritual takes place every year: the birdsong, the echoes of laughter coming from inside the pub, the guitar riffs only audible when the School of Folk Music door swings open. None of it is a surprise. You breathe, you swing your arms, you glide up the back steps of your apartment ready to begin again.

 

Evidence

Those glazed over eyes.

You know what I mean: that moment at a party when you realize you can’t remember how long you’ve been talking, and everyone that was listening is now either staring at hors d’oeuvres or smiling politely while internally wording their tweets about that boring guy who droned on for half an hour about the pros and cons of various genealogy tv shows.

It’s not happening to me as often lately, because I’ve taken genealogy off my list of topics to discuss with mixed company.

I know what you’re thinking: Screw that! Talk about what you want to talk about, and if they don’t like it, then they can just walk away.

Yes. But looking at it from the listener’s perspective, I get it. I remember history class, all those arbitrary dates and names. As someone who is not into sports, I have often found myself concentrating on suppressing a yawn at the back of my throat as some person I just met goes on and on about batting averages and World Series and I don’t even know what else.

I’ve realized that me and Sports Person were both making a mistake in presentation. We were trying to engage people with the particulars of our passions and not giving them any inkling as to what’s fueling it. Getting people interested in potentially eye-glazing subjects is all about the packaging:

“Hey, Sports Person, what is it about watching sports that interests you so much?”

“I guess I just really love seeing evidence of what people can do when they pull together for a common goal. I love following the stories of the individual players, knowing where they came from and how they found a place on a team, many of them having to travel to other countries in order to do so. Plus I connect to people when I see them doing something they’re passionate about.”

“Oh. I can completely get behind that. That’s exactly why I like genealogy. Tell me more about this sportsball thing.”

Yeah, that conversation would never happen around an hors d’oeuvres table…or anywhere else for that matter. That’s why I’m choosing to keep the subject in my back pocket except when I’m around other family historians. When I do mention it at parties, I try to keep it short and not bury the lede. But, since I have you here, let me tell you what I have decided to say:

My father didn’t know his parents. I started researching my family to find out more about them. I discovered stories and pictures and documents that filled in the holes of my family’s story. One photo I found was of my father as a little boy, a phase in his life that I’d never seen evidence of before.

Ralph Robert James206278_10150167032337612_6034898_n

I was surprised to find out I actually looked quite a bit like him (a fact that wasn’t obvious when I was a kid and he was a brown-haired and bearded adult).

Then I got a photo of my dad’s mother.

Mary Lou

I saw where my father and I got our blue eyes, and the way we set our jaw when we smile. I was dumbfounded by how obvious the connection was. I realized that the features I see in the mirror are hand-me-downs; they are not mine at all.

I learned that my grandmother lived in southern Missouri, and I read her account of living in the Dustbowl during the Great Depression. It made real those seemingly arbitrary dates and events I studied in high school: My family was there; they lived through it. I wish I’d listened better to those lessons in class, because they very much shaped my father’s upbringing.

That’s what I would say.

Or I might just tell the story of what happened to me last night. I received my paternal grandfather’s Social Security Application in the mail. The information it provides is fairly innocuous, but it is the first document I’ve uncovered that is written in his own hand. His signature ends the form like a period. The distinctive capital R, the serpentine curls of the e and s at the end of our shared last name.

It is my own handwriting.

The man passed away 2 years before I was born, and my father did not grow up in his house. But there it was plain as day: undeniable evidence of my connection to him.

To think that the chemicals in our cells can determine even the smallest details about our lives, like how we write our names. It’s just baffling to me. And these reminders that who I am is not completely in my control are comforting. Destiny, and all that. Making more of those connections inspires me to keep searching through my own history and to listen to the histories of other people’s families.

Telling Strangers Your Life Story, or Why Not to Go Whole Hog on Census Records

Genealogists are magicians. Don’t believe me? Watch as I make my Aunt Barbara disappear before your eyes!

In my ongoing search to learn about my grandfather, Ralph James‘s life, I came across a newspaper article that stated the date of his first marriage to Gladys Hooker. With the discovery of that date came an intriguing story problem:

If Gladys and Ralph married in 1931 and, according to the 1940 census, their first born daughter was born in 1928, then was [their first child] Barbara born out of wedlock or was she some other man’s baby girl?

First let’s all run back to that census record excerpt:

Screen shot 2014-09-15 at 3.54.32 PM

Thanks to the Interwebz, I discovered my answerBarbara Schmidt announcement quickly AND gained another source on Gladys’s family. It seems Gladys had been married before, and that my Aunt Barbara’s last name wasn’t really James. She was no relation to me. (Presto! The author takes a bow.) Why the discrepancy? Well, think of it from Ralph’s perspective:

A stranger knocks on your door. He takes off his fedora as you greet him; he carries a clipboard. You think you are in for a sales pitch on the benefits of owning encyclopedias, but you let him in and offer him a cup of coffee anyway. He explains he’s a census taker and must ask you personal questions about your family and your life. It is all for the sake of government data at a time when the world is at war, so you oblige.

One of his questions is “What are the names of each person who regularly resides here?” You begin with facts about yourself, then your wife. You say your step-daughter’s name. You see the census taker write down your last name as hers. Do you explain? Before you decide, he’s already asking you other questions. He probably has many other households to get through today, and besides, Barbara’s father isn’t in the picture. She may as well have your last name. You leave it alone.

It’s understandable, yes?

But now I don’t completely trust what’s on the census record. How do I know little Geraldine is truly RA Daughter - Jerry Jamesalph’s daughter? I continue looking in the newspaper archives until I find it, my half-aunt’s birth announcement on February 12, 1932. There’s still the ordering of the birth certificate to deal with, but chances are it’s true.

That is, until I find this record:
first divorce announcement

Story problem #2: A newspaper article and a census record support the fact that Geraldine James was born February 11, 1932. Another article claims that her parents were married 8 months before little Jerry arrived. A third article (see last week’s post) claims her parents were married 11 months before. The articles also disagree on the location of Gladys and Ralph’s nuptials. So, which date and place are right, and is Ralph Jerry’s father?

Read the next installment of this story.

 

Confused? Start at the beginning of this series.

All sources for the documents mentioned can be found here.

Looking for a more formal biography of my ancestors? Whoo hoo! I thought of that, too.

 

 

Baby-daddy

Last week, I told a story about how a little circled X in the 1940 Iowa Census led me to a big discovery about my grandfather, Ralph James‘s life. I found out that in January of that year he’d resigned his position as Council Bluffs Assistant County Engineer during a meeting where the board was approving raises for him and his coworkers.

Wait. During the meeting? Who would resign from their job while their salary was being negotiated? Personally, I like to hear the cha-ching before I decide to quit a job. It didn’t make sense, so I dug a little more.

My first find told me my grandfather was competent at his job. In September 1937, Ralph and his crew were loading sand when the mound collapsed on them like some backwards quicksand pit. Two men were hospitalized and later released; thirteen others were unharmed because my grandfather, the foreman, gave warning.

The next article I found was Ralph's replacementpublished in March of the same year. It introduced my grandfather’s replacement and explained that he was actually fired. I know from discussions with my dad that Ralph blamed for his job loss the Work Progress/Projects Administration (WPA)—a government program during and after the Great Depression that hired unemployed men to improve the nation’s infrastructure. But his dismissal and the relatively fast replacement make me think there must have been other factors involved.

Oh, Ralph, what did you do?

That 1940 census I mentioned before was taken in April. It listed him with his wife Gladys (my step-grandmother), and his children Barbara, 12, and Geraldine, 8.

In October 1940, the Council Bluffs newspaper published the fourth installment of draft numbers. The list of local men started with No. 1,861; Ralph was No. 1,951. I know he never fought in WWII, but having that number loom over him must have added more pressure to an already shaky situation. Drafts are fascinating and mind-boggling to me, knowing that the government could trump any plans I have for my own future. I suppose that makes me naive. . . and lucky to never have experienced it.
Petition for divorce
The next article I found confirmed that my grandfather’s life continued to fall apart. It was an announcement that Gladys petitioned for a divorce in August 1941. It gave the date and location of their marriage, new information to me. But I noticed that it introduced a story problem you’d hopefully never find in a junior high math book:

If Gladys and Ralph married in 1931 and, according to the 1940 census, their first born daughter was born in 1928, then was Barbara born out of wedlock or was she some other man’s baby girl?

I had another mystery to solve. But I have answers. Read the next installment.

Sources for the documents mentioned in this post can be found here.

Ralph James is the second man on the left in the featured photo. His sister Eva is behind him. His brother, Bill, is the other man in the picture. The women in between are Bill’s wife and daughter.

The Smallest of Clues

Screen shot 2014-09-15 at 3.54.32 PM

This snippet from the 1940 Federal Census looks pretty innocent, just another happy little family snuggled between neighbors on a page. Ralph, my paternal grandfather, worked for the government; Gladys, my step-grandmother, ran a beauty salon; the two little girls no doubt held hands as they skipped to school together.

But see the circled X after Ralph’s name? That’s the census taker’s way of indicating the person in the household that was interviewed. If you looked at the rest of this page you’d notice that all of the other circled Xs punctuate the ends of the wives’ names. It’s strange, isn’t it? It shouldn’t be (it wouldn’t be strange now), but imagine if Ward from Leave It To Beaver were home accepting house guests while June was at the office. What’s a county engineer doing at home on a Wednesday afternoon in early spring (the census was dated April 2)? Aren’t there potholes to fill and levies to strengthen along the Missouri River in anticipation of flooding?

That little circled X was my first clue that things were off in my grandfather’s household.

Here’s a few more columns of that same census record:

1940 Census employment columns

The “75” in Gladys’s row indicates the number of hours she worked in the salon the week before the census was taken. Whew! She’s working hard. The “Yes” in the row above, in Ralph’s row, is the answer to the census taker’s question “Are you currently seeking work?”

Oh. Well, ok then. That makes sense. Poor guy is looking for work. The listing of his previous career made me think his job loss was recent, so I went hunting in the local newspaper and found the following little side note in a rather lengthy front page article entitled: “BOARD RAISES SALARIES OF SIX PERSONS”:

Ralph James resigns

Why would my grandfather resign from a position he held for over 10 years on the very day the county board was deciding on all of his coworkers’ salaries? It just doesn’t add up…

but I have answers. Here’s the next installment, Baby-daddy.

 

For sources on the documents mentioned in this post, click here.

This post’s featured image shows Ralph James, my grandfather, on the right with his brother and sister.

A Case of Bigamy

 

MRS. LOUIS CLAYTON JAMES

She Has a Grievance Which She Has Brought All the Way From Lincoln County, Nebraska And now She Airs It for the Readers of “The Nonpareil.”

There is a woman in Council Bluffs who has a story. Her name is Mrs. Louis Clayton James, and besides her story she has four small children. She came here Sunday from Lincoln county, Neb., and is living with her divorced husband’s mother at the corner of Tenth street and Avenue H. Mrs. James, the mother, has a number of children, and the two families are living in a two room hovel. Mrs. Louis Clayton James is very bitter against her husband-who-was. She declares that she will have him arrested to-day for securing a divorce from her by false testimony. She consulted an attorney yesterday and if the story she told a Nonpareil man last night is true, Mr. Louis Clayton James had better elope at once. Her story is rather difficult to follow, because Mother James was present during the interview and chimed in so often in defense of her “darling boy” that at times the air was a bedlam of confused prattle. Here’s what the reporter heard:

“Mrs. James is my name an’ my husband’s name’s Lou James.”

“Taint so,” remarked Mother James, “my son’s name aint ‘Lou’ James; It’s Louis Clayton James an’ I want it put in th’ paper that away.”

“Mother, I wish you–”

“I aint your mother,” said Mother James in frigid tones, “an’ I don’t want t’ hear no more of your motherin’ me.”

. . . Miss Louis Clayton James continued:
“Me an’ my husband we went to Nebraska three years ago an’ we took up a claim in Lincoln county. Not quite a year gone he told me he was tired o’ me an’ he left me, so he did, an’ him [come] back t’ Council Bluffs. I didn’t hear no more from him an’ only twiced he sent me money. He sent me $1.50 onced an’ $2 ‘nother time, an’–”

“No look ahere,” protested Mother James, “that’s a lie. He sent you $2 th’ first time an’–”

“He didn’t nuther, he–”

“He did, I say–”

The reporter called time and Mrs. Louis Clayton James proceeded:

“Last month I sent my little darter t’ Council Bluffs t’ visit an’ she [sent] him back t’ me in Nebraska all beaton an’ bruised an’ my husband, he–”

“No he didn’t nuther,” screamed Mother James, “he didn’t do nothin’ o’ th’ sort. He never beat the child, an’ I can swear he didn’t.”

“Well that’s nuther here nor there,” said Mrs. Louis Clayton James, “so I’ll drop it.”

“Your’d better drop it,” chimed in the aggrieved Mother James, and the woman went on with her story.

“I didn’t know just how I was fixed wi’ my husband so I pulled up an’ [come] back t’ Council Bluffs an’ now I find he’s got a divorce from me an’ is married again t’ a Kissell woman, who is janitor o’ the’ Hall school. He got th’ divorce on th’ grounds that I ‘aint a good woman an’ I am told by neighbors that he married th’ Kissell woman afore he got th’ divorce from me, an’ if that’s so I–”

“I know better’n that,” said Mother James. “He didn’t marry Miss Kissell afore he got his divorce from you. I know this because we went down t’th’ court house one evenin’ an’ paid $10 for the divorce an’ then he went an’ got married;”

“I don’t care nothin’ ’bout what you say. That’s what th’ neighbors tell me,” continued Mrs. James. “An’ then I’m told that he paid a man t’ swear I was a bad woman, an’ when I find out th’ name o’ th’ man I’ll make him dance. I went down t’ th’ court house an’ looked at th’ records, and they only show that he was given a divorce; they don’t say what for. I’ve seen Lawyer Boulton, I have, an’ I’m go’n’t make it hot for that man. I’ve seen th’ chief o’ police too, an’ I’m goin’ t’ have James arrested too. He just wanted t’ get rid o’ me an’ I’m goin’ t’ get even with him an’ that huzzy he married.”

Mrs. Louis Clayton James and Mother James commenced another round and the reporter sneaked off, leaving them to fight it out.

 

Olivia James
Olivia James outside her “hovel” around 1910

Despite the journalists’ sensationalism and his attempts to make my ancestors sound like bumpkins, I was pretty excited to find this article and even more excited to prove that these two are my ancestors. The shady Louis is my great-granduncle, and “Mother James” is my 2nd great grandmother, Olivia. I feel like this gives me an idea of who she was: fiercely loyal to her children and able to speak her mind. She was the kind of woman who told the journalist exactly how her son’s name should appear in the newspaper and the journalist listened. As for how this situation resolved, here’s one more document:

41913_0007-00095

Transcript:
Line 5267
Name: L C James
Sex: Male
Birth year: 1849
Age: 42
Occupation: Carpenter
Birth state: Ohio
County of Residence: Pottawattamie
Date of incarceration: 26 Mar 1891
Term of sentence: 2 yrs
Charge: Bigamy

(Click for genealogical sources)