We’re the Arnett Gang of Rochester, and if you have money, buy me a fur.

I grew up in the middle of the city, in a 3 bedroom house with 11 brothers and sisters, and about 16 neighborhood kids my age that lived close enough that I could still hear my dinner bell from their yards. Our lives were ruled by two horrible things: that dinner bell and the street lights. Both signaled the immediate end of all fun.

I can picture us all happily running around the designated kickball backyard, and hearing the clang from that cowbell. It always seemed like our dinner was ready before everyone else’s was and this made me very irritable. My brother and I would pretend that we didn’t hear it. But the other kids just wouldn’t let it slide. “You better go home. That’s your dinner bell.” Whose side were they on? Everything, at that moment, becomes stupid, including my stupid friends who have just pointed out the obvious stupid bell to us. Don’t take this lightly, ‘stupid’ was the absolute worst insult one could dole out to something. “Stupid’ was the biggest gun we had back then; the closest thing we had to a swear word. But the kickball game was totally at a stand-still, everyone staring at us in disbelief that we were still there and the bell had been rung! Our faces turn into the mixed emotion of anger and destitution, our shoulders sag heavily toward our hips, and our little heads of unbrushed hair swiftly drop downward to the ground, as if pressed on by the weight of the world.   My brother and I would kick the ground and slowly, angrily, shuffle our filthy little bodies all the way home, 4 houses away, heartbroken, as if headed to a punishment, instead of a plate of hot spaghetti. This happened every night.arnett 002

The homes on Arnett Blvd. were nestled up next to one another, with thin driveways in-between, each family with one solitary tree out front. Denise’s was the only one worth climbing. I can still picture the two giant branches that were low enough to grasp onto and big enough to sit on. That was Denise’s claim to fame; her tree. The Keller’s had the kickball yard. Our front sidewalk was usually the hotbox field.  The Schramm’s had the hide-and-go-seek front porch, which we used for all variations of the game, including sardines and our version of ‘ghost in the graveyard’, which we called ‘bloody murder’. That one was a favorite for us kids because we could run around the yards screaming ‘Bloody Murder!!’.  We never got in trouble for that game and never were told to stop playing.  This still baffles me.

‘Wilderness’, in my city neighborhood, was what we called a 10×5 ft. patch of dirt behind my family’s garage.  There was a sense of deviancy back there; a feeling of risk and adventure, even though we were barely out of earshot of our parents.  Back there, behind the garage, we were wild and free.  This is where the big kids went to be bad, we knew this. We could do anything we wanted.   But we were still made of sticks and stones; sugar and spice. We didn’t exactly know what to do to be rebellious in the emptiness. Sometimes we just stood back there doing nothing, yet feeling proud and strong, like pirates who had successfully stolen a treasure. But usually, when I was deep in that tiny wilderness, I would get a broom and sweep the dirt.  Somehow, this was the logical thing to do for me: sweep.

People like to say how life was simple back then. Not us. Life was complicated. There was not enough time in the day to eat or sleep, so avoiding those things was a very high priority.  It was also vitally important to race. We could be walking to the bathroom, to the phone, even to the dreaded dinner table, and we would have to race. I don’t remember winning any races, ever. Mostly because a classic race usually involved some degree of technical wrestling skill. If the other runner advanced an inch ahead of you, it was imperative to grab one of his limbs- ideally, the leg, but if necessary, or the leg is unreachable, an arm could be sufficient. While these are the standard rules, mostly what we did was grab the back collar of the t-shirt and yank, which really wiped a winning grin right off of their face. I cried a lot. And my brother Danny’s t-shirts had very overstretched collars.arnett 001

Danny had the proud distinction of the “y” sound at the end of his name, which most of the kids in the neighborhood had.  I was one of the few who did not, but I did have an official Mr. Schramm nickname, which made me feel like I WAS somebody.  Even when he would use that nickname to tell me to join his kids in doing some chores around their house, like cleaning up after the the dog, Black Jack.  But because I was ‘Tina the Ballerina’, I could handle a little dog poop.  This wasn’t strange to us to have to do chores at other people’s houses.  And if you happened to be at the Keller’s, you might even get a cold hotdog for all your hard work.  Mr. Keller worked at the hotdog company and I always felt like their entire fridge was loaded with them, like a cold shrine of deliciousness.

Since sit-down meals were such a hassle, snacks were of utmost importance.  We could rate eachother’s homes by its choice of snacks.  While the cold hotdogs were obviously pretty tough to beat, the Case’s were hands-down the most luxurious snack distributors on the entire block.  They were the first to get fruit roll-ups, and unlike at our house, they weren’t specifically allocated to school lunches, and certainly weren’t the generic kind.   They were authentic, name brand Roll-ups, which were surpassed only by the other treat that really sealed the crown for the Case’s: Doritos.  Truthfully, I may have only had these treats once, but even so, the Case’s climbed the golden ladder of snackdom so high that no other family could even get close.  It also gave me the impression that they were filthy rich, which was a bonus for me, because I got all of Julie’s hand-me-downs.

Lost and Found

I did not feel like a total idiot.  But there I was, halfway up a mountain in a Kodiak Bear Preserve, bloody and exhausted, clutching what little remained in the one small water bottle I brought on the trail-less hike.

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Six of us had started out together, but after an hour of hiking, the tangled masses of brushwood and the incessant bee stings became too much for three to handle.  They left claiming pain and possible allergies.  Wimps.

Boredom brought us here, into this rugged and relentless mountainside.  The cannery had no fish which meant no work.  We were stuck in a town that wasn’t even a town.  There was no main street.  There wasn’t even a road leading to somewhere else.  Coming and going was by plane, by boat, or by foot.  We had feet.

I was sitting on the rickety steps leading to my dorm, reading a letter from home that morning when someone asked if I wanted to go for a hike.  “Sure”, I said.  I put the letter in my bag and left.  One person pointed to the mountaintop, as if asking a question, and we all shrugged an indifferent agreement and headed up.  It was all very nonchalant.

But getting to the top took hours and by then our entire bodies were a mess of bleeding welts.  Our arms, our legs, and even our faces were shredded like we had been swimming through barbed wire. We cheered for ourselves for making it, but the victory was not wholehearted.   We each knew the peak was only a half-way point.  I wondered what those wimps were doing back at the Cannery.  I was envious of all of them.  This hike was a disaster.

I grew up in a city.  My family never camped.  ‘Wilderness’ in my neighborhood was what we called the 10×5 foot patch of dirt behind our garage.  We played there and felt untamed and free.  But I vividly remember sweeping the dirt.  Somehow, it was part of the game of wilderness for me; sweeping.  I had no business in this Alaskan forest.

Each new type of land had been a milestone to cross- getting through the bushes that were well over our heads, reaching the shrubs that hit our knees, and then arriving on the grassy top of the mountain.  We looked to the next obstacle to pass as we sat on that peak.  There were two options: attempt to go back down approximately the same way we came up with the barbed wire, the bees, and the immense piles of fresh grizzly scat or go down the other side of the mountain toward the ocean.  The latter headed even further away from the Cannery, but appeared to have less brush to wrestle through.  We stared down from the peak at the sheer, rock-covered cliff that we would have to descend.

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One by one, we slid down the gravely rocks until the first row of trees got in the way of our tumbling. From here, we couldn’t see the small beach that we would eventually get to, but we knew it was waiting for our beat-up bodies.  Once there, we would walk all the way around the mountain along the shore to get to our starting point; our boring and now very appealing home.

The patch of brush on the way down was equally as treacherous and sharp as the way up, but this time we didn’t make a sound as the edges ripped through our skin; we didn’t even try to stop the bleeding.  We just kept pushing our way downward focused on that beach.  But when we finally barreled through the last wall of razorblades, our precious little beach had disappeared.  Tides had stolen it.  Instead of the idyllic walk along the beach, we faced a new challenge: rock climbing.

I had just scrambled over the eighth shaky rock wall and I was perched on top of it looking down at the base of the ninth.  The ocean was crashing into the sides of it, frightening me.  It was a climb or drown scenario.  And I just stopped.   I felt like there was nothing left under my skin; my muscles were gone, my blood was dried up, nothing hurt anymore.  The appropriate reaction would be to cry or scream, but I didn’t even have the energy for emotion.  I just stared down at the rocks; empty.

We weren’t even really friends, the three of us.  We worked different shifts, maybe said hello to one another, but weren’t close.  I’m paralyzed on top of a rock cliff, they are ahead of me scaling the next pile, skirting around the narrow edges, about to fade out of view.  And I don’t care.  They call my name and I don’t respond.  They call again, encouraging me to keep moving.  The encouragement became begging, and then became screaming, “Stand up and Go, Tina!”

Alaskan summer nights are bright.  It was 10pm.  We had started our hike in the morning.  There was four hours before a true darkness set in.  The boys understood this.  Maybe they didn’t sweep a ‘wilderness’ in their backyard growing up.  They came back to me, still screaming, then begging, and then encouraging.  And with one ahead of me and one behind me, they herded me like a sick animal through the last hours of the climb.

When the rocks ended we were in a meadow of wildflowers.  It may have been the garbage dump or the plane runway, but I remember it as a meadow.  The sun was just fading when we arrived back at the barracks of the cannery.  I was still clutching my now-empty water bottle and had my arms around the shoulders of my two best friends.

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Saving Private Nippleton

We could only assume that the mosquito bite had caused Sarah’s face to fall off.  That, or the fact that she burned the shit out of herself.  “Ecuador”, she says these days, wiser now,  “is still on the equator, even on a cloudy day.”  When she woke up that morning her face was a patchwork of nine different colors, like a big camouflage pattern of the United Colors of Benetton, like a pride parade left its confetti entrails on her.  Her eye, the location of the bite, had swollen into a small potato then shrunk back to flat, causing ruined areas of peeling, dryness, and, well, grossness.

We were in the teeny, dirt-road town of Puerto Lopez, living like queens.  We stayed in the nicest room in the nicest hotel there.  But with our leper friend at our side, all we could think about was fixing her face.

‘Smiley’ was the happiest groundskeeper on earth.  He was probably at least 70, nearly toothless, and was more than a few inches under five feet tall.  Yeah, he was adorable.   And he had this sweet, kind grin that we all fell in love with- hence the brilliant nickname we gave him.

“Go ask him if there’s a witch doctor in town that can help me”, Sarah pleaded.  Since I spoke Spanish, I asked.  But instead of an answer, he shuffled inside and returned with a five gallon bucket full of steaming hot water and herbs.  I don’t know how that little guy lugged it out to us, but he did, with a smile.  He explained that she should soak a washcloth in the water, wring it out, put the cloth on her face, and repeat.  We did exactly as the doctor ordered.  I could smell the pungent aroma of the herbs.  It was something very familiar, maybe even delicious- like pizza.

“Oh my God, you guys!!”, Sarah, never a subtle alarm clock, shouted the next morning.  Her decrepit face was healed.  Oregano, I realized, is the cure for Camouflage-Face-Eroding Syndrome.  We all felt better and much less embarrassed by her.  We returned to our lives of luxury, sipping beers and lounging by the hotel pool.

I was probably doing handstands in the water or practicing my diving when I spotted our wee miracle worker.  I jumped out of the pool and ran over to thank him.

I explained that we did exactly as he told us to- and look!  She’s better!  Its amazing!  Was that oregano?  Hows your day?  Whats the weather forecast?  Do you have family?  Let me tell you my life story…In spite of a slight language barrier, compounded by his lack of teeth, we had a really wonderful conversation.  He seemed very pleased for all of us.

I waved goodbye as he turned to continue sweeping up the bird shit.  I, on the other hand, returned to the edge of the pool, preparing for yet another Olympic-worthy dive.  But then I noticed my three friends, huddled on the other side of the pool all choking, tripping on acid, and having seizures.  It took me a moment to realize that they were just laughing- really, really hard.  So hard, that they were all beet-red and silently convulsing.  “What’s so funny?”, I asked, hating to miss out on a joke, especially one as good as this must have been.  No answer, just the shaking fits. “What is it?!”; I asked, exasperated; tell me the fucking joke already.

Sarah, still weak and unable to speak, just starts pointing furiously behind me.  I turn to look; nothing funny.  She shakes her head no and points to her chest, then to me, then her chest, then to me. “Your…”, she finally gets out in words, “your…boob.”

I glance down and sure enough, my right boob had flopped completely out of my bathing suit and was just hanging sadly like a fat, drunk man who has fallen out of his hammock.

The flashbacks started.  They came in slow-mo: my long talk with Smiley, running over to him, furiously waving goodbye.  Little Smiley was so short, his eyes were exactly at naked-boob level.  You know how you can always tell if one strand of hair is doing an alfalfa or you have spinach in your teeth- because anyone speaking to you will continually glance at it?  Our pint-size doctor didn’t.  Never once did he break eye contact; not even once.

Smiley was the coolest dude ever.  And my friends are a bunch of bitches.

Monet Waits

He was Italian, she Slovakian. Stuffed backpacks sit on the ground beside them. I see the guidebook. The entire US of A squished onto the pages of a book the size of a brick. I have held so many of them in my hands, but never, not once, was it my country.   I’m shamefully over-excited by them, or more accurately, by that brick-book they have. They hand it to me and I eagerly flip to the page where My City will be rightfully glorified in words.

“Halfway between Syracuse and Buffalo,” it reads, “sits Rochester, NY.” Then, to put it mildly, it tells you to continue on your merry way because everything worthy of seeing is certainly not here.   I’m hurt.

I’ve quit my job to travel nine times.   But I always return home, to this not-even-a-paragraph-worthy-city in the US.   Travel is always an unleashing of sorts. It is not intended to do this, but then we are there and it happens and we return. We leave for a month and we have been away for decades. And everyone else is still, still pushing something heavy up a hill. Only in coming home do we realize the depth of the journey.

“Go to the museum, go to the steakhouse”, I robotically direct the European duo. It’s a pathetic, soul-less suggestion, and I know it. My city has flesh and I had handed them bones. I want to take it back. I want to re-write that sentence in the book.

My hotel is clean and crisp and immediately I itch to get out of there. Dutifully, as a “tourist”, I head to the museum. Yes, to the one I sent Mr. Italy and Miss Slovakia to, but had never once set foot in. I’m one block away from Monet, next to the railroad-track-dump when I see it, a portrait of feet on the side of a building. It is just two feet, but precisely and intensely a person; going somewhere. It startles me.   I get lost in the immobility of it, the story of it.   There’s a fleeing in them. There’s also a freedom. Then I continue walking, right past the museum.

He’s short, stocky, bald, and smiling and he’s waiting for the same bus as I am. I point over to the feet that blew my mind and he says, “Well, our pockets is ripped out, but we still have hands, right?” He was a Rochestarian, I knew by his ‘a’s. We draw the sound out of our ‘a’’s with a whiny long swagger. The statistics say my city is poorer than I. This frightens me in the way that my mom must have felt when I travelled alone far away. But I was never hurt, bothered, or even cursed in those muggy cities.   I walked next to them and they walked next to me.   But my pockets are still firmly intact. “We still have hayaands”, he said. We have hope and strength beyond substance. I smiled tightly and slowly nodded sideways like a “no”, which is to say, “ain’t that the truth, though, ain’t that the truth?”

I don’t get on the bus.   I just keep walking. I continue past the cascading river and duck in to grab a local blue collar beer. It’s cold and bubbly and tastes like beer, so I have another. There’s a crowd here, listening to music on a Tuesday night. “Roch-ster” people that all seem to want some meatloaf, some spicy hot sauce poured on sausages, and some cold, unpretentious beer. The band plays jazz. These are men with last names like Hochstein, O’Malley, Douglass, and Gonzales. These are men whose great-grandfathers built the railroad and the canal, men with day jobs and neckties, men whose kids draw murals of feet on hidden buildings.

The beat gets stuck in my mind and it becomes my eye-opening soundtrack back to the hotel. Past the old subway stop, past the immense library, past the community garden my mom helped plant, past the mansions and the slums, past all the things I used to just drive by. The bravest thing we can do is to re-examine who we are and where we are and why. Sometimes it takes distance to accomplish this. Sometimes it does not.

I collapse in my foreign bed in my cozy hometown and I have a journal that seems too small to hold all my words. Right here, halfway between Syracuse and Buffalo, in the enchanted land of graffiti-meatloaf-jazz, some flesh got on some bones. I dissolve into my dreams. And a decade passes.

About the Author: Tina Murty is a waitress who saves all her money to travel and never wants to retire. Her journals are her most prized, but most easily burned, possession.

(This story was my first submission ever to a writing contest and won First Place.  http://wesaidgotravel.com/winners-independence-writing-contest-2014/ )