Aug. 19, 2013

American Cheese

by Jim Daniels

At department parties, I eat cheeses
my parents never heard of—gooey
pale cheeses speaking garbled tongues.
I have acquired a taste, yes, and that's
okay, I tell myself. I grew up in a house
shaded by the factory's clank and clamor.
A house built like a square of sixty-four
American Singles, the ones my mother made lunches
With—for the hungry man who disappeared
into that factory, and five hungry kids.
American Singles. Yellow mustard. Day-old
Wonder Bread. Not even Swiss, with its mysterious
holes. We were sparrows and starlings
still learning how the blue jay stole our eggs,
our nest eggs. Sixty-four Singles wrapped in wax—
dig your nails in to separate them.

When I come home, I crave—more than any home
cooking—those thin slices in the fridge. I fold
one in half, drop it in my mouth. My mother
can't understand. Doesn't remember me
being a cheese eater, plain like that.

"American Cheese" by Jim Daniels, from In Line for the Exterminator. © Wayne State University Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of humorist poet Ogden Nash (books by this author), born in Rye, New York, in 1902.

And it's also the birthday of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, born in El Paso, Texas (1921),

And the birthday of former president Bill Clinton (books by this author), born William Jefferson Blythe III in Hope, Arkansas (1946).

It's the birthday of Frank McCourt (books by this author), born in Brooklyn, New York (1930). He was the first of seven children born to two Irish immigrants. He lived for a few years in New York City, as his father struggled to hold onto a job, but after his younger sister died, the family decided to return to Ireland, and they settled in the town of Limerick.

McCourt later wrote of Limerick: "The rain dampened the city from the Feast of the Circumcision to New Year's Eve. It created a cacophony of hacking coughs, bronchial rattles, asthmatic wheezes, consumptive croaks. It turned noses into fountains, lungs into bacterial sponges. ... From October to April, the walls of Limerick glistened with the damp. Clothes never dried: tweed and woolen coats housed living things, sometimes sprouted mysterious vegetations. In pubs, steam rose from damp bodies and garments to be inhaled with cigarette and pipe smoke laced with the stale fumes of spilled stout and whiskey ..."

McCourt's father was an alcoholic, and managed to spend all of his meager income at the pub. McCourt grew up wearing tattered clothing and shoes that had been resoled with scraps of old tires. His family's home had neither a bathroom nor electricity. He and his siblings slept every night in bed with their parents on a flea infested mattress. For most meals, all they had to eat was tea and bread. McCourt's mother said that tea and bread was a balanced meal, because it contained a liquid and a solid.

When McCourt was 10 years old, he caught typhoid fever. He had to spend a week in the hospital, and he was shocked to find that the hospital was a kind of paradise. It was the first time he could remember that he got three square meals a day, the first time he had slept between real bedsheets, and it was also the first time that he had free access to books. He read Shakespeare and fell in love with literature. From that day forward, he would borrow books wherever he could find them, and since his house had no electricity, he would read at night on the street, standing under a streetlamp.

By the time he was 13, he had quit school to support the family with a job delivering telegrams. He eventually saved enough money to buy a ticket on a boat to New York City, where he supported himself as a hotel employee and a meat packer, until his service in the Korean War won him a GI Bill to attend college. After that, he became a high school English teacher, and taught in the New York City public schools for 18 years.

For years, he tried to write about his experiences growing up in Ireland, but he kept throwing away the results. Every time he tried to write about his life, he found he was too angry to write anything worth reading.

McCourt had retired from teaching, and he was spending most of his time babysitting his granddaughter. One day, he was listening to the way his granddaughter used language, and he suddenly realized that the key to writing his book would be to write it in the voice of a child. A few days later, McCourt opened up a notebook and wrote the words, "I'm in a playground on Classon Avenue in Brooklyn with my brother, Malachy. He's two, I'm three. We're on the seesaw." It was his earliest memory, and it became one of the first scenes in what would become his memoir Angela's Ashes.

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