Narrative nonfiction

From 2010 – 2017 my blog The ZsaZsa Balza Column hosted my nonfiction essays. Access the archives here, and read selected posts below.

Cemeteries and Dairy Queens

My family raised me to be a unique kid. By the time I tried to mainstream it with the Girl Scouts, I was already listing my favorite film as Harold and Maud. Guess who didn’t make that movie night suggestion on her own? To this day I still haven’t seen the classic 80’s kids movies like The Goonies. But I’ve seen the PBS documentary about the Donner Party more times than I can remember.

 

Death was always present in my childhood but not in a bad way. Trips to the cemetery were something to look forward to because we always stopped by the Dairy Queen on the way home. And stuffing your kids with chemical ice cream-like substances is one normal American tradition my family embraced.

I’ve been to a lot of cemeteries. But the one where I’ve racked up the most frequent visits is the Charleroi Cemetery.

 

Charleroi, Pennsylvania is the town outside of Pittsburgh where my mom’s family is from. Its nickname is The Magic City, and it’s about as fitting of a title as Baltimore’s Charm City mantle.

 

But it is, in my mind, the quintessential American town. I’m sure kids growing up in California or Alaska have their own version of what a quintessential American town looks like. However, all my relatives own real estate in Pennsylvania cemeteries (trust me, I’ve been there) and that’s helped form my image of America.

 

When my great-grandparents, immigrants from Ireland and Germany, were living in the area, the town was filled with glass factories and coal mines. My grandparents spent their free time in drinking establishments celebrating the melting pot culture with simple names like the Belgium Club or the French Club. If they got tired of those, they could work their way over to places with more clever names, like The Four Aces, or my favorite, Sit n’ Bull.

 

I can’t tell you if Sit n’ Bull has anything to do with the notable Native American leader Sitting Bull, but I can tell you that no one ever had to explain to me that bull shitting was another term for hanging out and talking. I heard the term enough that my young mind just absorbed it without question.

 

Sometimes adults would abbreviate it to B.S.’ing, but that was done mostly to shorten the length of the word, and had nothing to do with protecting children’s ears. I remember standing on a chair to answer the rotary dial phone in my grandma’s kitchen when her sister, who lived up the hill in the house where they were all born, would call asking what she was up to that day. I would scream the question to my grandma watching soap operas in the other room (it would be years before my civilized friends trained me not to do that anymore). She would reply, “Just B. S.’ing with Norma,” and cute little me dressed in candy colored corduroys would parrot it back over the phone and that would be the end of the call.

 

Norma’s full name was Norma Jean, but having stayed in one town her whole life, she had no need to change her name to Marilyn, like that other Norma Jean, Ms. Monroe.

 

Norma’s probably up in the Charleroi Cemetery now, too, just like the rest of the town.

You call this gentrification?

The chain stores crowding Manhattan make the city folks shutter. New York’s supposed to be unlike any other city in America. Yet lower Broadway is pretty much an open air mall oozing Sephora, Victoria’s Secret and H&M between the pigeons and hot dog carts. Midtown, too.

 

But don’t worry, because if you look close enough inside those chain stores, you’ll see New York. You’ll smell it, too. Aside from the charming deli’s, vibrant street life and whatever else people like about this place, one undeniable characteristic of this city is inappropriate urination. Leaked by humans, animals, whomever, New York always smells like piss.

 

Which is why when I was in Kmart, and a woman peed in the dressing room I thought, “Fucking New York.” It’s not like I was blaming the city, but I don’t really come across that stuff in other towns.

 

Anyway, I like to go to Kmart sometimes because it reminds me of growing up in the suburbs. It’s comforting. So I’m waiting in line for the dressing room and listening to the conversation between a few young girls working there and an older cleaning man who they called in. Eventually the story emerges that a woman went into the dressing room, peed on the floor then ran out of the store before anyone could catch her. Oh, and she left her underwear behind in the puddle of pee, because, why not?

 

At this point I’m still waiting in line because the girls aren’t letting anyone in until the janitor is done. I guess I start making a face because one of the girls says to me, “You look surprised.”

 

First of all, it is totally acceptable to look surprised when you are standing in line at the Kmart listening to stories about customers peeing in the dressing room. I’m sorry that I’m not a jaded, minimum wage employee so used to scrubbing down the dressing room that this is just another day, another golden afternoon.

 

Secondly, if this type of incident is so common, maybe they should train employees on the proper way to handle it. These are some of the things the current employees were doing that I would suggest future employees not do: laugh so loudly when telling this story that you draw attention to yourself, pointing out other areas in the store where people have defecated, and (especially) saying it’s not that bad considering how often they find guys shitting in the men’s dressing room.

 

Up until this point, the main action was out of site. I could see the janitor go in and out of the offending dressing room, but I couldn’t see the mess he was cleaning up. Then he comes out gently holding a clear plastic bag containing the left behind underwear. (Another training tip: when something looks gross, don’t cover it in a see-through material.) There’s a quick banter between one of the girls and the janitor.

 

“You’re gonna drop it.”

 

“No, I’m not.”

 

“It’s gonna fall.”

 

“I’ve got it right here.”

 

Then right on cue, the soggy underwear falls out of the bag and in front of the line of waiting customers.

The people in line groan, the girls giggle and say “Eww” and the janitor says, “I thought I had it.” But we all still stay there. In a different universe maybe the janitor would have been working alone, efficiently blocking off the chaining rooms, emptying the stalls of customers and alerting the young staff when the clean-up was done.

 

But this is New York. If we can handle the gentrification, we can handle this, too.

© 2018 By Emily Berry
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