Carlos

Carlos would make personal lists every day: To-do lists, grocery lists, lists of movies to watch on Netflix. When Carlos would do most things, he would listen to his iPod. When Carlos would go to the grocery store, he would whistle his favorite songs from his favorite playlists. When Carlos would watch movies on Netflix, he would check his Gmail inbox and Facebook feed.

When Carlos would play poker in Koreatown, he would make lists. One time when Carlos was making a list at his favorite spot, 747, Ms. Park (the owner) noticed him scrawling words in Spanglish. She quickly approached him and immediately slapped his right hand with her dog Ponderosa’s long, wet chew rope and firmly expressed, “No more lists!”

A few weeks later, Carlos was back at 747, making lists again. Ms. Park sidled up to him and she slowly stamped her lit Camel Light onto the backside of his right hand and shrieked, “What did I say about lists?!” Carlos shook the ashes off his flesh and patted melting tequila ice onto his fresh sore and watched her strut away; her weathered Birkenstocks, slightly too large for her hobbit feet, loosely and clumsily shuffling one after the other.

The following afternoon, Carlos and Ms. Park were standing in line for coffee at Starbucks and Carlos saw Ms. Park playing Scrabble on her iPhone. Carlos said hi to her, but she had her headphones in her ears. Carlos tapped her on her left shoulder and his right hand quickly heated up.

The following week, Carlos had his first appointment with his new therapist, Karla. She advised him to stop gambling and to start writing journal entries instead of lists. She also told him she thought it would be a good idea to maybe start watching television series instead of films, and to actually pay attention to them. She added, “You need some focus in your life.”

That same evening, Carlos watched the entire first season of Orange is the New Black. His first journal entry read: “I don’t think I like this show about lesbians in jail and I don’t think I would like jail in real life either.” Around 2 am, he showed up at 747. When he sat down at his usual table, he noticed a sign above the bathroom door that read: “NO LISTS, NO PROBLEMS.” Carlos stood up, pulled out his iPhone, and took a picture of it. When he slid his iPhone back into his front left jeans pocket and sat back down at the table, he noticed Ms. Park sitting to the left of him. She looked him in the eyes and said, “No pictures either.” Then she stabbed him in the ribcage with a lemon knife from the bar and walked away.

Carlos died a few hours later. His Netflix subscription expired a few months after that, right around Christmastime. Karla read a brief eulogy at his funeral: “Carlos was a nice young man. I’m glad to know he didn’t end up in prison.” Ms. Park was the only person in attendance, aside from the priest, Mr. Kwak. She shook her head up and down and silently mouthed to Karla, “Yes."

Faggot

Faggot started hopping trains when he was sixteen-years-old. Everyone gets their license when they’re 16, but Faggot started hopping trains. Some of his friends had cars; most just biked. Faggot biked. He skated, too.

Faggot got his name when he was in the sixth grade. He refused to play sports. He would become irrationally anxious around girls. So the boys started calling him Faggot. It caught on. The girls started calling him Faggot, as well. At first, Faggot hated this nickname. But when he was thirteen, he caught a ride to see the punk band, Fifteen, at this crusty house in Raleigh called The Frenemy, and he finally accepted it.

He showed up and was immediately handed a Beast Ice from the fridge. This one dude, Das Burt, asked him for his name and he forgot. He legitimately forgot his birth name. He started coughing and clearing his throat, then took a sip of the Beast in his hand, and said, “Faggot…?” Every single person in the kitchen laughed and one of the dudes who lived at the house, Frenchman, said, “Fucking shit, man. I love you!” and kissed him on the lips. From that moment on, everyone else in the Raleigh punk scene seemed to love him, too.

When he was fifteen, Faggot started dating this girl, Louise. He met her at a show at this other punk house called The Lot. It was a squatter spot—a bombed-out Victorian house with no electricity, where they would have acoustic shows in the backyard. The crowds would extend well into the driveway and spill out into the front yard. Only those near the musicians could hear the songs. If you were in the driveway, you could hear the singer screaming. If you were in the front yard, you were probably snorting heroin. The neighbors didn’t care as long as they didn’t see needles.

Louise was a sophomore at Duke. Faggot was a sophomore in high school. He started visiting her on the weekends. Faggot became drinking buddies with all her friends because they thought he was cute and funny and he liked free beer. However, he once got beaten up at a Duke party because a lacrosse player thought he was actually gay. After that, when Faggot would visit Durham, he would mainly spend time at noise shows at this house called Chapel Hill. Louise refused to go to Chapel Hill because she liked “real music and real Duke fans.” Eventually, Louise broke up with Faggot.

Faggot started spending more time at Raleigh punk shows again. One night, Faggot was at an Aus Rotten show at The Frenemy and Das Burt approached him. He said, “Dude, I heard you been hanging out with those assholes at Chapel Hill.”

Faggot shrugged, “I mean, yeah. It’s chill there. And I was spending a lot of time with Louise, you know.”

Das Burt aggressed, “But you ain’t with Louise anymore, are you?”

Faggot muttered, “Well, naw…”

And so Das Burt asked, “So then you’re just into that fake punk shit now? You some kind of phony twat now?”

Faggot was like, “I mean, I don’t know? Have you ever heard any power electronics?”

Das Burt asked, “What the fuck are you even talking about?” Then he answered himself, “Never mind. Dude, just go clown out with those other faggots.”

Frenchman chimed in, “Dude, I love you. But you gotta go.”

Faggot didn’t understand why Das Burt and Frenchman were so upset. Faggot never understood politics. This was just like high school. He wondered if everything in life would be like high school. He wanted to leave high school and never have to go back. He had planned to at least wait it out until graduation, but the next two years seemed bleak.

He swiped a pack of Winstons from the living room coffee table and walked outside. He lit a cig and started walking towards the nearest bus station and decided he would just bus it back to his folks’ place and sleep things off. If he woke up and still felt shitty, he would leave home and never come back. If he felt better, he would try to at least finish out the school year.

As he was sitting at the station, smoking his second cigarette, he realized he had to take a piss. “Shit,” he thought, “this is the one well-lit street for miles and it’s still too early to pull out my dick on these residential side streets.” So he walked to the 7-11 a block away and walked in, asking if he could use the restroom.

The cashier looked him straight in the eyes and said, “Toilet’s for customers only, faggot.”

Faggot asked, “How’d you know my name?”

The cashier looked mystified and asked, “Huh?”

Faggot said, “Never mind. Let me take a piss and I swear I’ll buy something when I get out.”

The cashier responded with reinforcement, “Buy first, piss later.”

Faggot said, “Goddamn, motherfucker. Okay. I’ll get a small coffee.”

The cashier said, “K. Buck flat.”

Faggot asked, “One dollar even? What year is this?”

The cashier responded, “You gonna piss or what?”

Faggot groaned and walked away. He pissed for a minute flat, came back out, and saw Das Burt and Frenchman picking up a thirty-rack of Beast Ice. He said under his breath, “Goddamn, motherfucker. Okay. I’ll get out of here.”

Faggot took a bus in the opposite direction to the rail yard where his buddies, Dale and Earl, would practice tagging. He sat in an empty boxcar, smoking Winstons until he started moving with the rest of the train. He lied down on his side, looking out of a crack in the steel slat. He thought to himself, “Man, I really hope I never have to go back to school.”

Geena

Saturday, June 7, 2008:

Geena began abusing her Xanax prescription. No refills. No problems.

Saturday, August 28, 2010:

Geena drove a little over an hour with her sister, Teena, on I-10 E to Baton Rouge. She received a cheerleading scholarship at Louisiana State University. No tuition. No questions. Her parents were proud.

Saturday, November 13, 2010:

Geena woke up at Oschner Medical Center. The night before was Homecoming. She swallowed 1 milligram of Xanax after kickoff, another milligram after halftime, and two more after the fans swallowed the field. The Tigers blew out the Warhawks of Monroe, 51-0.

Saturday, January 1, 2011:

Geena enrolled in the pre-med program at Tulane. Within three semesters, she had a 3.7 GPA, receiving only B’s in theater and some other “bullshit classes.” She had locked up an internship with a local veterinarian. Her dad had a German Pinscher named Matlock. Her mom had a Chartreux named Fierce. Her parents were proud.

Saturday, July 12, 2012:

Geena woke up at Jefferson Parish Police Department. The night before was her best friend Sheena’s “Post-Post-Independence Party” where everyone allegedly made a pact to “find dependence.” At 4:08 am, Geena was found in possession of two-dozen Xanax prescriptions. Officer Lefebvre told her she was free to go after 24 hours.

Saturday, December 29, 2012:

Geena began her first shift at the L’Auberge Casino. She handed cocktails to mainly men for about six hours and then did cocaine with District Councilman Lefebvre and District Attorney Tomasson for another six hours. She left with $1,200. $100 per hour, on the clock or off.

Saturday, October 12, 2013:

Geena arrived at the Days Inn Barstow. She had driven two days on the 10-W with Sheena and couldn’t drive any longer. They ate at Red Baron Pizza down the road earlier that night. They sell Red Barons at grocery stores in Louisiana. Sheena said to Geena, “I mean, isn’t life just funny?” Geena said, “No.”

Henry

Every time I had visited Lincoln Park over the past few years, I would see a slightly weathered man named Henry chain-smoking cigars and drinking rosé like a familial couple struggling with a co-dependent hangover. As he would sit alone on his picnic bench, surrounded by chicken wire fencing, he would always ask me: "Sup, ese?"

This man had worked on my car many times, and every time, he would try to engage me in lengthy conversations, namely about his fantasy football league. I had told him repeatedly that I could not support corrupt organizations in good conscience. Henry would always say, "Me neither, mi amigo. I love mi madre, I love mi hermanas, I love my grass, and I love me some gambling," then he would ash his stogie, sip on his wine, and massage his unibrow.

Henry is not Hispanic. Henry is not Texan. And I cannot help but feel completely confounded by his small sampling of Spanish vocabulary words. But then I came to just imagining a young Sammy Hagar playing Clark Griswold in the Vacation movie series (instead of Chevy Chase), and that had helped me overcome the confusion surrounding this character.

The last time I saw Henry, he told me he was in first place in his league. I asked him what else he did for fun. He said, "Well, it sure as shit ain't fixing your goddamn car, you nosy little mierda."

Since that day, every time I would walk past Henry's picnic table, there would be a new chicken roaming about. But there was never any trace of Henry. One day, I walked by and saw a new man sitting at the table, slowly puffing on Capri cigarettes and doing whiskey shots, midday. A chicken sat atop his lap as he was piecing together a puzzle that was to depict the Challenger explosion.

I said hi. He said hi back to me. I introduced myself. He petted the chicken. I asked for his name. He told me his name was Hank. I asked him if he knew where Henry went. He said, "Ain't no Henry here, hombre" and dragged his skinny cig like a Dynasty-era drag queen in Dallas. I asked him if he knew who shot J.R. He took another shot of what I could at that point tell was Old Grandad bourbon and said, "Niño, unless you want half a dozen of these cocks to come peck at your shins like you're their perra, you better say hasta la vista."

I never made my way back to Lincoln Park. Eventually, though, I ran into Henry at a Clippers game. He was wearing a jean skirt, a Blake Griffin jersey, and those Nikes with platform heels that you often see Puerto Rican women in New York wearing on the subway. I approached him and said, "Hey Henry! It's been a while! How have you been? Catch me up..."

Henry took a sip of his India Pale Ale and muttered, "Excuse me...who are you?"

I responded, "Hank?"

He took another, much longer, sip of his IPA and exclaimed, "The name's Henrietta, puta!" Then Henrietta walked towards the ladies room.

The Clippers won that game, but I don't remember anything else from that night.

József

József arrived in Pittsburgh in 1957. He was four-years-old. He traveled across Europe by train and the Atlantic by ship. It was him, his mother, his older brother, and a few bags. His father died in the Hungarian Revolution the previous year. His father was thirty-four-years-old.

When József was 10, the kids on his baseball team began calling him Joe. When Joe was 12, he began working at Janowski Pierogi on Liberty Avenue. When Joe was 14, he enrolled at Central Catholic with financial aid from his employer, Bart Janowski. When Joe was 16, his mother began dating Bart. When Joe was 18, he was offered a scholarship to attend DePaul University. At some point in high school, he became known as Polish Joe.

After two years in Chicago, Joe decided to come back to Pittsburgh. He told his mother he realized he wasn’t Catholic and the Poles realized he wasn’t Polish. The school didn’t want him; neither did the city. Two years later, Bart died of diabetes. In his will, he stated that Janowski Pierogi was to go to Joe. After a few years, the restaurant became known as “Polish Joe’s,” although the awning still read: Janowski Pierogi.

By 1980, word had spread about Polish Joe’s. It was a notorious spot, for families and drunks alike. Joe’s specialty dish, the Big Strap, which was a hybridization of halušky and bigos, rivaled other regional delicacies such as the Garbage Plate of Rochester or the Coney Island Dog of Detroit. Everybody in town (or from out of town) adored Joe for his filthy sense of humor, genuine generosity, and manic jukebox.

In 1984, Reagan was re-elected. Yuppies started trying to turn Polish Joe’s into a chain. Punks started squatting nearby. His brother was now addicted to heroin and his mother was more homesick than ever. Joe’s mellow vibes were quickly being suppressed by the harrowing stresses of the trickle-down effect.

One day in 1987, Joe pulled up to work and there was a car in his parking spot out front. Ever since he had taken over the restaurant, he had parked in the same spot every day. Every night after he locked up, he would place the same folding chair—with the letters “J-O-E” painted onto the seatback—in the same spot.

Day one, Joe found a different parking spot. Day two, Joe tried to find the perpetrator. Day three, Joe applied for a handicapped parking spot with the city, which he claimed was for his mother who was now spending more and more time at the restaurant to avoid her loneliness and to curb her depression.

A few weeks later, he had a blue curb, a blue sign, and a blue permit. A few days later, he had another perp parked in his spot, which was now obviously designated as handicapped. Joe noticed the windows of this Baby Blue Buick Regal were wound down. He walked into his restaurant and grabbed the wooden baseball bat from under the register, opened the driver’s side door, and waited in the driver’s seat for the perp to return.

When the perp made his way back to his Buick, Joe exited it from the left side of the vehicle and began swinging at the front and back windshields. When the police showed up to the scene, they didn’t recognize Joe in this unusual raging fit and threw him down on the shattered glass that had spread across the street. When Joe’s mother hobbled out of the restaurant to see her tall, slender son in handcuffs, she quivered, “Joe?” He said nothing at all.

József died of a heart attack. He was thirty-four-years-old.

Ruby

Growing up in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Ruby was the only black girl at her elementary school, her middle school, and her high school. Most adults in town labeled her as ‘colored,’ but most of her friends, coaches, and teachers referred to her as ‘African American.’

Ruby usually described Portsmouth as vanilla, which was also her default choice when selecting an ice cream flavor. She didn’t exactly like vanilla. She didn’t like boring conservatives either. Nor did she care much for the delusional libertarians of New Hampshire or the impractical liberals of Vermont. So she didn’t bother with the classic Hershey’s flavors from back home or Ben and Jerry’s wacky flavors from across the state border. Vanilla was her form of teenage civil disobedience.

When she left home for Wesleyan University, she decided to become an African American Studies major. Immediately following graduation, she moved to Boston to work towards her PhD in Comparative Literature at Boston College. Her father grew up Methodist; her mother grew up Southern Baptist. She grew up apathetic. Attending a Catholic institution for grad school seemed no more ridiculous of an uncomfortable social situation than she had ever been placed in previously.

While in graduate school, she volunteered as a junior varsity girls basketball coach in South Boston. In Southie, she was once again the only black girl. But she considered herself African American ever since her first day in Middletown. The girls on the team called Ruby “White Chocolate” because her ball-handling skills reminded them of the YouTube videos they’d watch of point guard phenomenon / cult sport hero, Jason Williams; their parents called her “Scary Spice,” because they were racist. But none of their daughters knew who the Spice Girls were. Ruby would play “Good Vibrations” by Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch at the end of each practice as an ironic reminder to the girls that arguably the most successful individual to come out of their hood had a history of racism and violence.

After receiving her PhD, Ruby was offered a job as a high school English teacher in Portland, Maine. Many of her students were African refugees, primarily from the Sudan and particularly young women. These young women—and their mothers, sisters, aunts, and cousins—had been beaten, raped, and ignored. The young men who had come from similar backgrounds were either shockingly timid or uncontrollably aggressive. After a few months of teaching The Bell Jar, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Catcher in the Rye to this specific sector of teenagers, she decided she no longer considered herself African American. She was a Black American. These kids were African Americans, and she wanted to try to actually understand them, to actually relate to them.

One day, a few days before her second Thanksgiving break as a teacher, Ruby’s African American students asked her what country she was from. She replied, “The United States of America.”

One boy, Ezekiel—most of the refugees had Biblical names—volleyed, “Yes. Here you are now. But from where were you before?”

Ruby repeated and elaborated, “The United States of America. I was born in New Haven, Connecticut. I was raised in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. As I am sure you all know, these are cities and states in the Northeast region of America often referred to as New England.”

Rebecca jumped in, “Okay. So you were born in the United States? But where were your parents born?”

Ruby said, “Well, my father was born in Detroit, Michigan. And my mother was born in Atlanta, Georgia. They met in New Haven.”

Saul followed up, “Okay, and what about their parents?”

Ruby said, “My father’s mother was from St. Louis, Missouri and his father was from Chicago, Illinois. They moved to Detroit together for my grandfather’s job. My mother’s mother was from Columbus, Georgia. Her father was from Marietta, Georgia. They both ended up in Atlanta for work and met at a concert.”

Then Peter spoke: “Where do your family come from though? Before American cities, where were they?”

Despite spending four years as an African American Studies major, Ruby never thought to research her family’s African history. She only focused on her family as far back as she could trace them in America. She studied slavery. She studied civil rights. She studied urban planning. She studied urban rioting. She studied white flight. She studied her surroundings. Most of her surroundings were white.

Ruby wondered if it would even be possible to find out from where in Africa her family came. Then she looked out at a crowd of mainly black faces. Mary-Marie asked her, “Are we the only Africans you know?”

Ruby paused and said, “No,” which was true, as she had met multiple Africans during her time at Wesleyan and Boston College. She even remained in contact with some of them through e-mail. She paused again and then said, “No. You’re the only African Americans I know,” which was true, too.