Powered by Junk in Trunk

I’m built like a mullet. Business in the front, party in the back.

What is it about an awkward ten-or-eleven-year-old that screams, “please call attention to my body?” That was the time when my body started developing; my family fretted that I might be  swaybacked and admonished me to stand up straight. At dances, the deejays urged me (over the microphone) to move out into the center of the dance floor to show off my body. I tried on the clothes my peers wore — tight leggings and Day-Glo biker shorts (shut up, it was the late 80s) but the image reflected back at me was distorted. The other girls didn’t get cat-called walking up Market Street.

The strangest thing about what was, in retrospect, an entirely reasonable discomfort with moving directly from little-girlhood to sexual objectification is that I came of age during the glory days of what can only be called The Butt Song.

Sure, songs about a particular body part were nothing new; sure, that Queen song exists; sure, the blues could certainly get plenty, well, blue after the kids went to bed. But the beauty of the blues is raunchy innuendo. There is nothing subtle about the frank statement that opens Baby Got Back:

I like big butts and I can not lie.

— Sir Mix-a-Lot

The posterior-themed hits of EU (1988), LL Cool J (1989), Wreckx-N-Effect (1992) and Mix-a-Lot (also 1992!) overlapped my sixth- through tenth-grade years. (By comparison, Fat Bottomed Girls was released the year I was born.) They targeted my body type, and they were performed by Black men about Black women. I didn’t need a deejay to point out these songs were about me.

But the songs didn’t make me feel any better. A lot of ink and webspace is expended complaining about how women of color don’t get held up as standards of beauty. Over and over, when confronted about their controversial songs and videos, the aforementioned rappers insisted, and still insist, that their songs do celebrate Black female beauty. Let’s be real: we all know these songs are not about shoring up the self-esteem of Black teenaged girls, but about dividing the world into two camps: women worth having sex with, and the rest. I found — and find — my membership in the first camp a dubious honor.

Times changed, rap became hip hop and moved on to discussing even less appropriate body parts, and the rest of my body caught up with my  rear end; still, I remained uncomfortable with the space it took up. I thought of it like that guy rummaging through my recycling bin on trash day: What is it doing back there? Should I say something? Will it go away if I ignore it? Cleavage is one thing; it can be trashy, but it can also be classy, as any opera diva will tell you. Not so for bottoms. Kim Kardashian and Jennifer Lopez both have celebrated rear ends, and, in both cases, have found their bodies used as well-worn punchlines.

Then I started running, and I learned the word glute.

Your backside is just a bunch of fat covering giant muscles. If you have big glutes — the muscles crossing the entire back end all the way around to the hips — then you have a secret hill weapon. Like me. Regardless of how in- or out-of-shape I’m in, every time I return to running, I attack hills like an elevation monster. A few weeks ago, a physical therapist showed me that if my glutes got even stronger, they’d protect my knees from further injury, and I could run pain-free.

Yesterday morning, midway through 5.5 miles, I experimented with my stride, and, suddenly, there they were. Glutes! I stopped shuffling, and my knees were pumping, and I ran the fastest consistent miles I’ve run outside a race, with less effort.

It turns out  my body doesn’t exist merely to be looked at or covered up, and that I have a body built, in its own way, for running in San Francisco. And it only took me a third of a century to figure it out, just in time to have a pre-teen of my own. Hopefully, she’ll weather the transition better than I did; hopefully, all the years of girls-only sports and feminist girls’ magazines will bear fruit at exactly the right moment, inoculating her with an emergency dose of self-esteem. Alternately, maybe she’ll have to come to terms with her own body in her own time, just as I did with mine.

Hearing the Silence

My grandmother’s mother, Mary Salter, is a mysterious fruit on our family tree, not quite shaded in. We know very little about her; she died around 1930, leaving two little girls under four who would torture themselves, for the rest of their lives, trying to remember her face.

Family lore suggests that Mary was a street musician, playing the guitar and singing on street corners for coins. No one knows what songs she sang, when she was born, or what killed her, only that her life was brief and hard. We don’t know how she felt about that. We can only wonder what she would have said, if someone had asked her.

Vowing to “give the voiceless a voice” has become a cliché, and it’s not surprising. Any given member of a historically silenced group, given a forum to do so, feels an almost oppressive responsibility to air the grievances and suffering of those who could not or cannot. There are many hidden ellipses in the history books, places where the marginalized were glossed over or ignored. The more you read, the more you see them.

I recently read an interesting book (African Queen) about Sarah Baartman, a woman you might better know by her stage name, Hottentot Venus. Brought to Europe from South Africa in the early nineteenth century, she was exhibited to confirm intellectuals’ assumptions about deviant African sexuality and physiology; her body – too exposed, too voluptuous, too alien – became a legal and political battleground. Despite Sarah’s celebrity, despite all that was written about her, none of her own words remain: we can choose between interpretations and translations of her court testimony or a few contemporary newspaper articles with their own agendas.

This disappointed me. After all, I’d picked up the book to discover Sarah’s story from Sarah’s perspective. The number of times the author suggested we imagine “what Sarah must have felt” eventually depressed me, once I realized we would never know. It wasn’t the author’s fault: the words aren’t there. At the center of the controversy over Sarah’s brief life and swift death, even over the repatriation, hundreds of years later, of her very bones, is a silent Sarah.

I can’t stop thinking about Sarah and Mary, this week. After a year or so’s hiatus, I’m reading up on “the feminist blogosphere” (another cliché) and the same argument that was going on when I left is still raging. Feminists from traditionally silenced backgrounds — in this week’s case, the editor of an academic work about redefining feminism to include the silenced — are still feeling marginalized and ignored, and other, more “mainstream” feminists are still feeling put-upon, still coming up with responses that scream Why do they get upset when it even looks like they’re being silenced? Don’t they know how much work we all have to do?

There is a very simple answer to all these questions. We all know our history; we all know about the ellipses and the gaps. Stories get left out. Our stories. And, here’s the thing: history is being written right now. Every time a new book doesn’t get written about, every time a discussion refuses to acknowledge the diversity of female experience, there’s another gap, another silence. One day, future generations – the little girls all around us, steadily growing up — will look back at what we wrote, looking for all the stories. What will we tell them?

Thelonious Monk, Trinkle Tinkle (1971)

I’m walking into the kitchen at my grandfather’s house, and my uncle Charles is there, watching TV on the little color set on the tiled counter. He’s watching the new Ken Burns documentary, and I’m preparing to slowly edge out of the room, because The Civil War (Parts 1-199) nearly robbed me of my will to live.

“Marcie!” he says, excited. Charles is the only person on earth who is permitted to call me Marcie, and his excitement is so contagious that I forget to run away before I get sucked into whatever he is so excited about.

“Listen to this cat,” he says, just as the image of a bespectacled piano player (who looks oddly like my uncle Jewel) pops up. “He’s a genius.”

It’s Thelonious Monk. The name sticks with me, even after I completely forget about our exchange in the kitchen.

Years later, I’m walking through the Borders at Stonestown Mall and I see a listening station, and one of the choices is Thelonious Monk’s London Collection. I remember that cat’s name, so I press the relevant number and Trinkle, Tinkle begins to play and before I know what is happening I have played the track three times, standing dumbfounded with my enormous grad-school backpack still on.

Before, “jazz” was Ella and Ellington, smooth and silky. But now, it’s like I have installed a jazz upgrade. From Monk I move to Coltrane, and from Coltrane to amazing crazy Miles Davis. My world expands to include new sounds and tempos.

But my world contracts, too, and we lose my uncle Charles, who loved KBLX, who was our best dancer and could calypso better than anybody, who gave me Monday, Monday by the Mamas and the Papas and gave me bebop and Getz and Monk, Thelonious Monk cornering a melody and making it his own.

Louis Armstrong, West End Blues (1928)

Once, I spent my weekends in a tiny, cramped, cluttered apartment in Cal’s married student housing. A certain Phd student in rhetoric, Mark  — who, implausibly, had custody of three little girls from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon — made a point of opening our My-Little-Pony-addled minds to culture. On Saturday morning, we’d wake to the sounds of Duke Ellington, Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, and Count Basie. Early morning sun, coming through bamboo shades, glinted off of framed prints: a Romare Bearden collage, an iconic James Van Der Zee photograph.

James Van Der Zee, Couple Wearing Raccoon Coats (1932)

Mark adored the Harlem Renaissance, adored New York, adored jazz music. He was the first food snob I ever met. As the oldest daughter, I had the privilege of hand-grinding coffee beans  with a wall-mounted grinder, while sausages fried in a seasoned cast-iron skillet that Mark had surreptitiously lifted from my grandfather. He baked fresh chocolate chip cookies or popped buttered popcorn on the stove, either of which we would pack into a big paper sack and tuck away into his grad student messenger bag, so we could sneak food into the Grand Lake Theater, where some classic Disney movie would be playing for the Saturday matinee.

Alternately, we might pile into the yellow Volvo and visit the Lawrence Hall of Science, or hike back and forth across Wildcat Creek in Tilden Park. In the early evening, we might play Chinese checkers or Othello or, best of all, Scrabble. He was a rhetorician — he knew all the words — but sometimes I could pull off a surprise victory.

Children don’t understand divorce or blended families, not really. How do you explain to the kids in your regular life that you spend weekends with your ex-stepfather having adventures and listening to old records? (“It’s Complicated” doesn’t work on eight-year-olds.)  You don’t. My weekdays were full of  homework, Cabbage Patch Kids, and Ramona books, shuttling between my mom’s and my grandparents’. During the week, jazz, hikes, and the smell of hand-ground coffee vanished, leaving me unnerved.

So, sometimes, I would call the first phone number I ever memorized and leave a message on the answering machine. When the machine picked up, the first notes of Louis Armstrong’s immortal West End Blues trumpet solo played, and I felt better.

Mark finally graduated and was offered a position at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the summer before fifth grade. Still a broke student, he couldn’t afford to take most of his belongings, so he told me to come pick through what was left after he was gone. My grandfather drove me across the bridge.

It was surreal, coming to that apartment with my other Daddy. I could have taken anything. I wish I had taken the prints, or our special cocoa mugs, but, even then, I sensed that what I really wanted couldn’t be carted away in a trash bag. All I remember picking up, through my tears, was the set of measuring spoons we had used to measure vanilla and salt into the chocolate chip cookies.

Mark left behind the answering machine. For a while after he left, I used to call it so I could hear the greeting, Armstrong’s trumpet inventing the jazz solo. Just as the  trumpet, clarinet, and trombone sang their first melancholy chord, Mark’s voice would come in, uncharacteristically glum. I think his weeks were as lonely as mine. I wish I could ask him. After a time, the number was disconnected, the connection lost.

Leaving Home

Apartment Building, Stanyan St, SF


It was unseasonably hot.

That must have been the reason my grandmother walked down the aging basement stairs and out of the open garage door and traveled a block to the corner store, holding my three-year-old hand in hers. The giddy excitement of the moment still stays with me; the black night sky, like a stage backdrop, the garage brightly lit and curiously empty, and — most amazing — my grandmother walking, out of doors, all alone, with me.

My grandmother was an inside person. Rare it was, on the sunniest of days, to find her anywhere other than the square footage of her Cole Valley four-bedroom; my sister and I were in her care, so we stayed inside with her, all summer break, other than the rare occasions when she permitted us to explore the overgrown backyard. We played fervently, imagining we were orphans running our own farm. We harvested sour grass and thought mosquito larvae were tadpoles. At the very best moment in any game, she would call us indoors and we would not go out again for weeks.

The house was hers; the house was her. She could protect us, inside, so we rollerskated down the hall, bumping on the tattered green carpet and stopping with our hands against the heavy oak front door, climbing from coffee table to velvet couch when the green carpet was hot lava, sliding down the fifteen stairs from the upstairs hall, each rug-burned drop, from step to step, a tooth-jarring earthquake. The house was our world; she was our world, and she knew it, warm, and soft, her pillowy lap a place to lay a drowsy head, her soft heavy arms carrying a pot of spaghetti and dumping it, steaming, into a green plastic colander.

I remember, dimly, being awakened in the night to take a dose of bitter-sweet cough syrup. Her bedroom was next to mine. She must have heard me coughing in my sleep, and walked downstairs in the middle of the night to fetch the medicine from the kitchen. The little light over the stove stayed on all night against the dark. Each room in that house holds the ghosts of a hundred loving gestures, performed as naturally as breathing.

Outdoors was my grandfather’s world, a world of hard men and backbreaking work, spat insults and bitter choices, where money was grasped and held by the man with the strongest fist. Even the backyard was his, the kettledrum barbeque dominating the concrete deck under the hopelessly overburdened yellow plum tree. They would barbeque, on the 4th and on Labor Day, and our big uncles and little cousins and the smell of roasting meat filled the house. My grandparents marinated the meat in beer and lemon juice and soy sauce in a huge enameled washpan; she would hand the raw meat to him through the basement door, both slippered feet firmly in the house, as if the doorframe was the border of a friendly but alien country.

The house, it bears repeating, was hers, and my grandfather knew it, deferring to her when he deferred to no one else.

Why, then, would she walk outside, when she never did? And at night? Why would she leave her sanctuary on a whim, when walking was so hard for her? Did I fantasize that we went for an improbable jaunt in the heat of Indian summer? Why wouldn’t I imagine her, then, at my school’s yearly Grandparents’ Day, or on a field trip to the museum — places where my gregarious grandfather always represented them both – instead of a five-minute walk uphill and around the corner?

I believe it happened. It is clearly an early childhood memory, more light and sound than action, the astonishing feeling of traveling into the outside world with its endless black sky while still being surrounded by my grandmother’s protection. I am far from home, now – home being the place where my grandmother washed dishes at the sink or sat on the couch watching her stories – and I can never go back again. Even if the situation was strange, even if the whole thing was a dream, who would not treasure the memory of exactly what it felt like to be loved?