When the perfect job becomes a total nightmare

Some things shouldn’t change. My first job was one that did.

Last week, I posted this piece on Medium. I wrote it last semester for Advanced Creative Writing and have been holding onto it, waiting to be sure I wasn’t returning to my old job and wanting to be careful about where I shared it and how.

Names have been changed, but those who know me know the place and the people — all of which still mean a lot to me. Read and feel free to comment, keeping in mind that this story is close to my heart.

When the perfect job becomes a total nightmare: Some things shouldn’t change. My first job was one that did.

I miss the dragon kite. I miss the picnic table in the back parking lot, the neat stacks of Coca-Cola trays, the recyclables organized next to the green dumpster with April’s butcher paper note forbidding residents of the Ironclad Building from putting their trash in Benny’s dumpster. I miss the parmesan bread twists, the peanut butter chocolate chip cookies, and homemade Focaccia bread. I miss the muffin-offs, setting Brett’s strawberry cheesecake muffins against my blueberry lemon poppy. I miss the fresh produce: crisp and tart apples, blueberries the size of your thumbnail, peaches whose juice drips down your arm and off your elbow.

I miss Benny’s Market as I first knew it. I miss the Benny’s that was all of this.

I only know Benny’s from behind the counter. The first time I stepped inside, I was job-hunting with my best friend. I’d never been there before and our 90-second stop furnished me with only . . . READ MORE.

Pieced together: Products of Nate Katz’s obsessions

This is the final piece I wrote for my summer internship with the Smithy Center for the Arts, and probably my favorite piece from this summer.

Nate Katz, 23, leans over the table, a strip of Scotch tape stretched between his thumbs. He’s focused on a small stack of paper in front of him, an inventory of some kind with thumbnail images of movie covers in the top half and a list in 14-point font in the bottom half. He’s just updated the list, cut it to size, and now has it lined up with the thumbnails, ready to be made one by the power of Scotch.

Nate’s father, Jeff, stands at the side of the table, talking about Nate’s strip mall portraits which hang in clear glass frames on the surrounding walls. Some are long rows of stores from various Chicago-land suburbs. Others are just 8 1/2 by 11, on Nate’s standard—computer paper—featuring before-and-afters of Dunkin Donuts and Burger King renovations, with floor plans of restrooms sketched out below the colored pencil portraits.

“Is this one real, Nate?” Jeff asks, holding one of the before-and-afters. Through the clear glass of the frame, the back side of the portrait’s paper is visible. Two photos: one of a toilet, one of a sink.

“I don’t know,” Nate replies, glancing up as he tears another strip of tape. “It’s in my mind.”

Creativity—putting pen to paper or hand to keyboard—is one of Nate’s main ways of getting what’s in his mind out. At age three and a half, Nate was diagnosed with Hyperlexia, a form of autism characterized by early advanced reading abilities, excellent visual and auditory memories, but a slow learning of language. Because of this, Nate has a hard time communicating to others what’s going on inside of him.

What others tend to see of him are his obsessions: bathroom fixtures and setups (he puts together booklets titled “The Complete Fixtures of” various townships and maps out floor plans of public restrooms); in grade school, The Simpsons, until he decided no more, for reasons still unknown; and since moving to Cooperstown with his parents and younger brothers in 2003, strip malls from familiar Chicago suburbs that he misses.

These strip malls—drawn in pen, filled in with colored pencil, laminated with Scotch tape, and framed front-and-back in clear glass—currently stretch across the Smithy-Pioneer Gallery’s third floor walls. They are simple, in no way claiming to appear realistic. Yet, they are detailed. Look closely at the Dunkin Donut door handles and the KFC Colonel’s face in miniature. Each piece requires thought and precision, which Nate carefully provides.

Jeff now sets a three-dimensional open-topped cardboard house on the table. The second floor fits the first floor, the three sides of the front bay windows lining up perfectly. Nate made this. A scaled-down model of the Katz’s house in Illinois. The only thing missing is the addition made by the new owners. Nate’s seen it, but only from the outside. To do a proper model, he’d need to see it from the inside, so he could know the floor plan.

The detail on the house’s interior is better than any Lego model would allow: from door and window placement to the red, white, and blue stripes on Nate’s bedroom walls. He recently repainted his Cooperstown bedroom to match.

“There’s a true authenticity to what he’s doing,” Jeff says, as Nate presses the final piece of tape onto his inventory and leaves the room.

Jeff opens a cartoon cookbook that’s sitting on the table. Nate designed it from cover to cover and put it together, joining the pages on their left edges and making the cardboard cover. It’s themed around a cartoon character Nate likes. Nate made it because the cartooners hadn’t.

“He makes things he wishes come real,” Jeff explains, flipping through the pages.

The strip malls?

“They’re just something he loves and he wants drawn.”

Nate’s strip mall portraits are currently on display on the third floor of the Smithy-Pioneer Gallery at 55 Pioneer Street.

– Meredith Sell

When I made Art Spander a sandwich

One of the benefits of my summer job (working at Danny’s Main Street Market in Cooperstown, New York) are the random fascinating people who come buy sandwiches. There are conductors who work with the Glimmerglass Opera, construction workers and delivery men, Baseball Hall of Fame employees and interns, and today, Art Spander, an award-winning sports writer who’s covered everything from Wimbledon and the Masters to the Rose and Super Bowls.

He came at a quiet time in the late afternoon, somewhere between 4:30 and 5, and ordered a sandwich on gluten-free bread from my co-worker, Mikey, an 18-year-old high school graduate with a knack for getting people talking. (I need to study this kid’s technique. He learns interesting things about literally every customer he waits on.)

I overheard Spander telling Mikey about his recent travels for his sports-writing career (he’s 75 years old and currently a columnist for the San Francisco Examiner and RealClearSports.com), so I nudged myself into the conversation and asked him where he’s written for. He shared the basic information that makes up the second paragraph on his web site’s About page:

Spander began his career as a news writer for United Press International in Los Angeles in 1960, and started writing sports full time in 1963 for the Santa Monica Outlook where he was the beat writer for the Los Angeles Rams and Los Angeles Dodgers. In 1965 he moved to the San Francisco Chronicle, where he covered golf, football, baseball and basketball. Spander became the lead sports columnist for the San Francisco Examiner in 1979.

Then he joked a bit:

You’re making my sandwich while you’re standing here talking to me, aren’t you?

I laughed a little, went to the back where I pulled the gluten-free bread out of the oven, whipped up his sandwich, brought it to the front, poured his iced tea, and rang him out. Then, Mikey and I left him alone with his sandwich, tea, and smartphone (I’m guessing he was checking Twitter).

He got a dry cappuccino before he left — all foam, no milk — and I rang him out again.

“I have to ask you, ’cause I’m a writing major,” I said, finally steeling up the courage to make use of my question-asking skills. “Do you have any tips for those starting out?”

Then, I listened again.

Art Spander gave me two pieces of advice.

1. Learn the English language. Dependent and independent clauses. Where the commas belong. Misplaced modifiers. Know it all — better than the back of your hand. That way, you can edit and make real corrections, not guess-it-goes-this-way changes. I ran, and I fell needs a comma. I ran and fell does not.

2. Read as much as possible about as much as possible. You may only be interested in writing about one topic, but you need to know what’s going on in the world, in order to understand the topic in its broader context. “Plus,” he said, “you never know what you’re gonna have to write.”

“This was never hard for me, because I’ve always had a lot of interests,” Spander said.

Me too.

I’ve been home this summer. Making sandwiches, slicing meats, interviewing people every once in a while with a recorder that catches more fuzz than an FM radio. What am I doing? Where am I going? How am I gonna get anywhere? These two tips were the pieces of affirmation I needed.

Know the language: Commas have always eluded me, but I feel very fluent in this language some call English and I prefer to call American. I know what a misplaced modifier is. I know the difference between independent and dependent clauses.

Read as much as you can about everything: I’m interested in everything, so this is easy. In fact, I’ve been doing it this summer. I’ve learned about how astronauts exercise at the International Space Station. I’ve learned about a man who, permanently damaged by an accident as a child, found some more of himself through running. I’ve learned about sex trafficking and the ways traffickers force their victims into submission. I’ve learned about addiction and am currently learning about the process of rehabilitation. I’ve learned about a fascinating documentary project and made moves to learn more from the creators themselves.

I’ve been making sandwiches. I’ve been slicing countless pounds of Boar’s Head meats. But I’ve been doing a lot more than you might guess from the amount of time I spend behind the counter in my Danny’s hat.

Today, I made Art Spander a sandwich, and I reaped two lessons for the young writer.

“That’s free,” Spander said, as he took his cappuccino from the counter and returned to his booth.

Thanks. I appreciate it.

Artists love me and I love trail runs, or Why Sunday is already my favorite day of this week

Yesterday was summer done right. Pushing 80 degrees — hot (for upstate New York). Humid — all the joints were greased with sweat. Sunny — only fluffy white clouds in sight.

Sundays aren’t often my favorite day of the week, but yesterday was an exception from beginning to end. Here’s why.

The sermon was on friendship, meaning I got something out of the message. As a pastor’s kid, it’s tough to find my dad’s sermons helpful. Hearing his voice from the pulpit when I hear it on a daily basis can be like beating on sore ears. But friendship has been on my mind a lot lately, and the passages he pointed out (Proverbs 17:17; 18:24; 27:6,17) hit home. I’ll be writing on friendship later this week.

This was my writing/transcribing space at the Smithy
Who wouldn’t feel motivated with that much natural light and a horsehead staring you down? I finished my piece for the Smithy and started transcribing my CrossFit interviews right away.

An artist (62) called me adorable, and said I reminded her of herself at my age. By her description: brown eyes, light brown hair, tall and — believe it or not — thin.” I’d like to point out that I noticed her brown eyes immediately on meeting her. They’re basically the best.

I drove my little siblings home with Gospel music in their ears.
Four of my little siblings, ages 6, 8, 10, and 12, to the voices of Isaac Caree, James Fortune & Fiya, and Marvin Sapp. Need I explain further?

Went to Gilbert Lake, the lesser-known state park because Cooperstown’s Glimmerglass gets all the attention. I actually prefer Gilbert because it’s smaller and more isolated — less tourists, more woods.

Ran the trail around the lake in 10:52.53. I like trail running. It’s a nice change from pavement and grass. More interesting, slightly scary for the ankles, and a fuller workout for my legs. I usually walk part of it, but this time I pushed myself to run the whole thing. Afterward, I rinsed off in the lake, swam a bit with my siblings, tossed a frisbee, and roasted marshmallows.

What’s been your favorite day so far?