0

Reading My Way Across America: Back to Bawlmer

After five months (finally!), I finished the book that I checked out of the library to fulfill the Reading My Way Across America challenge, stop #2 as determined by Siri: the 7th state to join the Union, my home state of Maryland.

Image result for maryland flag

The options were numerous, but I narrowed it down to two, one book about towns on the Chesapeake Bay, and one about Jewish Baltimore, which is also exactly where I grew up, as did both of my parents (in fact, I later found out that both of them had indeed read the book despite it being relatively recent). I read a book about Smith Island earlier this year, so I decided that the Western side of the bay deserved a shot, so Jewish Baltimore it is. It was quite the trip down memory lane and beyond, and interesting to learn about Jewish life in Baltimore before my family showed up in 1939.

On Middle Ground: A History of the Jews of Baltimore was written by Eric L. Goldstein and Deborah R. Weiner. It was published only last year, so it’s pretty up to date. My dad found it to be a little dense on history and less focused on narrative, to which I agree; the first half of the book was kind of a snoozefest with the occasional interesting tidbit or photograph thrown in. On the whole, the book talked about the different waves of Jewish migration and settlement in and around Baltimore, first downtown, then gradually toward East Baltimore and finally into suburban Baltimore County, where I grew up. The first Jewish settlers in the area were recorded as early as the 1770s, before Maryland even became a state, so it’s pretty clear that the Chosen People of Baltimore are truly among the OGs along with the Anglicans (Note: There were probably Native Americans in the area, but on the whole, the central part of Maryland has never had much of a Native American presence. Even today, Maryland is one of the few states without an Indian reservation or any recognized tribal groups.)

A lot of the book focused on the relationships that Jews had with their neighbors, both the white, Christian community, and the large (and historically, relatively affluent) African-American community of Baltimore. The theme of “middle ground” really hit home and reverberated the most when placing the Jewish community in between the other two. Maryland has historically been an even-Steven kind of place, neutral in the Civil War, geographically south of the Mason-Dixon line but culturally closer to the northern states. Baltimore was, for quite some time, host to both the Democratic and Republican national conventions. Interestingly enough, back in the 1920s, the Jews of Baltimore were more closely affiliated with the Republican party, as the Democratic side leaned more towards the “know-nothings” and white Christians who wanted nothing to do with the Jews. This prompted both the growth of independent Jewish institutions as substitutes for areas exclusively reserved for white Christians, as well as the community’s turn towards an alliance with the similarly disenfranchised black community.

Speaking of the connections between the Jewish and African-American communities, there were quite a few which surprised me ,beyond the obvious demise of The Buddy Deane Show post-integration as chronicled in John Waters’ Hairspray. In 1927, a Jewish female doctor opened Baltimore’s first birth control clinic, which led to the 1938 founding of Northwest Maternal Health Center, the first hospital in the nation where black and white doctors worked side by side. Hot off the heels of Brown vs. Board of Education, the large Jewish presence on the county school board pushed for and ultimately achieved public school desegregation, one of the first districts south of the Mason-Dixon line to do so. And a year later, in 1961, Sinai Hospital (where I was born) became the only hospital in Baltimore to accept African-American interns among its staff, aside from the all-black Provident Hospital.

Of course, the Jewish contributions to life in Baltimore did not go unnoticed. Jews founded Baltimore’s earliest department stores, and had a hand in cultural institutions from the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall to Center Stage to the Baltimore Museum of Art. On the religious side, Baltimore’s first bat mitzvah occurred in 1936, only a matter or months after the first ever bat mitzvah took place in New York City. By 1951, Park Heights Avenue was known as “Rue de la Shul” (plausible although I’ve never heard anyone call it that, but then again we also have the so-called ‘Gucci’ Giant, the history of which is beyond me), and yeah, it’s still full o’shuls. And Ner Israel, Baltimore’s notable yeshiva, was the first institute in America to offer a doctorate degree in Talmudic law.

Probably the most interesting parts of the book were the details of Baltimore’s Jewish community during the civil rights movement, where private schools and even country clubs were restricted to white, Christian members only. A particularly interesting photograph of Meadowbrook Country Club’s sign warning against blacks and Jews intrigued me. Towards the end of the book, names of people and places became more and more familiar, and on page 223, there was even a picture taken in a classroom at my high school; obviously, a decade after I graduated, but still very recognizable and very…odd to see in a history book. And who knew about Jewish boxing? There could have been way more information about that in the book.

So anyway, upon finishing, I asked for a number 1-50 from Siri, and she picked 39, so North Dakota, here I come! I have already picked out a few books; hopefully it will not take me another five months to read and recap a book from that state.

3

Cell Ethics Tango

Hey look! I actually finished a book!

**Originally published 1/31, republished 2/5**

It managed to take me until this past weekend, but I actually finished 2 books this weekend, bringing my January total up to…five! The one I’m going to review here is the critically acclaimed The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.

This book, part scientific history and part family history, tells the story of the long-unknown Henrietta Lacks, whose immortal, biology-defying cells held the answers to treating and curing many diseases, and are still alive today, sixty years after her death.

The science-y part goes like this: In 1951, a woman called Henrietta Lacks, of Turner’s Station, South Baltimore, Maryland, passed away from a cancerous tumor. A procedure was done before her death by her doctor at Johns Hopkins Hospital, George Gey, to preserve some of the cells from the tumor, in hopes they could be kept alive after her death long enough to study them and use them for some lab testing. Gey was astonished to find that not only did the cells keep living, but they kept multiplying at an alarming rate, so much so that he couldn’t keep them all in his lab. Henrietta Lacks’s cells, known as HeLa, were soon distributed to labs around the country and beyond for further study and experiments, with a lab built in Alabama for the sole purpose of studying them. As far as what HeLa stood for, or who HeLa was, Gey and his assistant Mary Kubicek kept quiet, only revealing that HeLa was a woman, and not denying rumors that her name was “Helen Lane” or “Helen Larson,” but definitely not admitting that she was African-American; segregation and Jim Crow laws were still rampant, especially in the Southern United States, and views on African-Americans were not favorable. Even a hospital as renowned as Johns Hopkins kept people like Henrietta in a “colored” ward away from white patients. In time, HeLa became the strongest cell line in the world, contributing to cancer research, flying on NASA’s space shuttles, and all the while, passed around freely within the scientific community. And through it all, Henrietta’s surviving family members didn’t see a cent, and lived in poverty without health insurance despite their late mother’s pivotal contribution to modern science.

The family story part, in my opinion, is more interesting. Much like Henrietta’s cells, it’s divided into two parts: “Life” (pre-1950, during Henrietta’s life), and “Death” (in the 2000s, from the start of Rebecca Skloot’s research). In life, we learn what there is to learn about the hazy details of Henrietta’s short and sad life. Henrietta Lacks was born Loretta Pleasant in 1920 in Clover, Virginia. Her family was among the poorest of the poor in their community, and quite inbred, causing major health problems. Henrietta herself perpetuated that cycle by marrying and having children with her first cousin, David “Day” Lacks. Together, they had three sons – Lawrence, David Jr. “Sonny,” and Joseph “Zakariyya” – and two daughters, Elsie, who was born disabled and died in a Maryland mental institution as a teenager, and Deborah, who managed to break the cycle, receive some education, and eventually become the co-protagonist of Skloot’s book. After the birth of her fifth child, Joseph, she fell ill with cancer caused by a nasty bout of syphilis and, as mentioned in the previous paragraph, died in 1951. Fast forward fifty years to the “Death” chapter, where Washington-based writer Rebecca Skloot develops an interest in Lacks and attempts to contact the surviving family members. Eventually, she gets ahold of Deborah Lacks. Initially, Deborah is tickled at the idea of a book about her mother’s life, especially since she wants to know more about her, having few memories of her own, but eventually becomes suspicious of Rebecca and wary of the idea. Over a period of several years, Rebecca becomes acquainted and even friends with Deborah and the rest of the Lacks family, gaining their trust little by little and helping them go through the necessary steps to unravel the mystery of what happened to their mother/grandmother/sister/aunt, figure out what exactly her cells were capable of, and attempt to make peace with Johns Hopkins and the scientific community at large, who they find deceptive and distrustful, all because of a piece of paper the functionally illiterate Henrietta signed which gave the hospital all the rights to her cells. Some things end up getting resolved nicely, but there are still many question marks left in this continually evolving story.

This book brings up so many emotions. You feel shame for the plight of this woman, the lack of care for her life and death, and the consequences her family faced. You feel anger at the scientific community, yet you feel proud in the fact that you’re learning all of these previously hidden facts and secrets that deserve to see the light. You cheer whenever Deborah has an epiphany – from learning that her mother has not, in fact, been cloned, to finding a photo of her sister Elsie,, to learning how to use the Internet – and get frustrated whenever Deborah relapses into her suspicious ways, or when Rebecca hits a wall in her research. The issues it brings up are myriad and essential – what are the biomedical ethics involved here? What type of responsibility did Gey, Kubicek, and Johns Hopkins Hospital have to the family? Would it have been different if Henrietta were a literate, well-off Caucasian woman? What improvements could be made for the deplorable quality of life for people like Henrietta and Deborah? And can the Lacks family ever truly find peace, be repaid, forgive and be forgiven – and how?

Even if non-fiction or science isn’t your thing, this book is incredibly worthwhile. It shows that inside every human body, there is a soul to discover, and around every human soul, there is a body that deserves to be given a chance.

In salad-related news, the blades on my Sharper Image vegetable chopper broke off. I’m glad I picked out all the metal from my salad before eating it. Oh well, back to the cutting board.

0

Jam-Packed Crazy Wedding Weekend!

So, Summer Odyssey 2.1: Spring Break Edition came to an end last night at midnight – about two hours after it was supposed to – and it proved to be just as epic, full, and crazy as the weekend before. I’ve been either completely tired or completely wired since Friday, but I need to commit to writing it all down before it’s lost to history and memory. At the moment though, it’s 11:18 PM and I’m on the tired side, and maybe I’ll get to sleep earlier than I have the past few nights, which has been no earlier than 2 AM.

Watch this space for an update soon, but until then, just letting y’all know that my cousin had a beautiful wedding, I spent way too much time dancing, I managed to outwit the universe, which did not want me to get home last night, although I did. But just barely.

And, of course, now it’s back to school – working, teaching, writing, lesson-planning, grading – and all the other commitments, including cleaning up the apartment which was dirtier than I thought I had left it. But for now, my eyes are starting to become irritated from staring at this bright, white computer screen.

0

Sometimes You Need an Unexciting Holiday

So, today was Purim, and for the first time in a few years, I didn’t overdo it.

Well, most of it was due to the fact that I was tired and loopy for most of the day, after the wretchedness that was yesterday, but after an appointment with the eye doctor, and lunch at Atwater’s (Baltimore cuisine for the win) I spent the afternoon grading, and then put on my monkey mask and headed out with Dad for megillah reading. I guess I’ve gotten used to lightning-fast Chabad megillah readers, but it seemed to take forever. Then, we had some hamantaschen and called it a night.

And now, to go back and edit my trip log post from Florida, and others if I have the energy.

4

Oh Say, Can You NVC?

Just realized that it has been five days since I’ve posted anything, and I’m already halfway through Leg 2 of my Summer Odyssey…well, completely through with the first part of this leg, but I guess I was just too busy having fun.

Anyway.

I’m posting this from my parents’ kitchen in Baltimore, Maryland, also the location of APO NVC 2015 (Baltimore, not my parents’ kitchen – we’d have to move the potted plants around a bit) facing two days of mostly sweet nothing before heading out to Montreal for ATHE.

But first…

Day 4 (July 22): Last full day in Utah (which seems like ages ago already even though it was only Wednesday). We all slept in and enjoyed a pajama breakfast/brunch and a day of general relaxation after two days of strenuous hiking and traveling. I got in some geocaching with Julie and Iris, and then went out for more geocaching, some Starbucks, and some food-shopping with Julie, who prepared a lovely dinner of tuna steaks. It was sad to say goodbye to everyone, but hopefully Julie will rally the troops together to get to next year’s ATHE, which will be in Chicago, a much more feasible road/plane trip. I arrived at the Salt Lake City Airport in plenty of time for my 11:55 PM flight to Philadelphia on US Airways. The last thing I experienced in the Beehive State was one of the loudest cheers I’d ever heard in my entire life for four Mormon missionaries returning from overseas. And…back to the East Coast I go!

Day 5 (July 23), or the 22 hours I had of it since I crossed two time zones, began with a flight to Philadelphia which was actually not as bad as I thought it would be. Probably the worst part was being in a middle seat between a grumpy-looking but silent Hispanic girl and a chatty Mormon guy. The guy was actually pretty nice, and thanks to him, I got to watch the second half of Little Miss Sunshine with my own iPhone as soundtrack; thankfully, I’d seen it before. He also tried to give me his self-recorded album, to which I politely said no thank you, because for some reason it’s a gut reaction when a Mormon offers me a gift. I’m still not entirely convinced it wasn’t actually a Book of Mormon on a CD in a case with his likeness on the cover wearing angel wings. We arrived in Philly about 30 minutes early, making it only about 3 and a half hours of actual flying time, which was much more palatable than last summer’s Phoenix-Charlotte slog.

Even though we got in early, I still hustled over to my next gate. I had to take a bus to the next terminal for that one, which kind of sucked because it took forever to find a place to get coffee and food. Oh, did I mention that they didn’t even give us water on that CROSS-COUNTRY flight? Anyway, next up was my second and final flight of the day, a whopping 20 minute flight to Baltimore. The plane was about the size of my apartment, and I ended up in seat 1C, so I got plenty of legroom but had to gate-check everything. I actually managed to close my eyes for a few moments. This flight seemed longer than the previous one, maybe because I was just so ready to be home.

And then…Baltimore, at 8:30 AM local time, 6:30 AM body clock time. Dad picked me up and took me home, where I laundered what I’d worn since leaving Madison (remember that place?), took an inadvertent several hour nap, and wound up at the hotel just in time to pick up my registration information for APO NVC, aka Alpha Phi Omega National Volunteer Conference, the reason why I came back to Baltimore in the first place.

To get you in the know, APO NVC is an every-other-year summer opportunity for alumni, advisors, and staffers of the fraternity to get together for some brotherly bonding, workshops, seminars, and listening to the national board members make jokes about each other in speeches. Even though I’ve been in the fraternity for 9 years and attended 2 national conventions, this was my first NVC, and hopefully not my last. It’s like a microcosm of Nationals; basically, around 200 people, all college graduates, with interests in helping others and sharing stories of doing so, without any of the drama of college students. I can’t even begin to tell you how many people I had happy reunions with, some of whom I haven’t gotten the chance to catch up with in person since Nationals in Boston in 2008! But that first night, at least, I went to dinner with Kate and my fellow Region IX-ers whom I got to know very well, our region director Ding from Minnesota, and section chair Eden, also from Minnesota. After, I went up for the night to room 732, where I was surprised to have no roommate, and just as I was about to celebrate this fact at 11 PM by taking off my clothes and going to bed, the door clicks and in walks my roommate for the conference: David, all the way from Quincy, Illinois. He had actually come from New York City on the Megabus, though, after visiting friends, so he’d been traveling almost as long as I had. Though initially we were just going to go right to sleep, of course we stayed up talking and getting to know each other until 2 in the morning. We both set alarms but agreed to let the other sleep if the occasion merited it.

Day 6 (July 24): Up and at ’em at about 8 AM. David stayed in the room, but I went downstairs and liberally doused myself in coffee and pastries from the buffet, sitting alongside, Kate, Eden, and Ding. After a fun speed-dating activity, it was time for the first slate of workshops. I am glad that I took tons of notes in my little yellow notebook, because at the moment I’m blanking on details of most of time, but suffice it to say, they were informative. (Side note: I skipped the morning lecture to meet and catch up with a few other people, and had a fantastic lunch with members of Region I). There were five concurrent sessions offered at each time slot, and I’m proud to say that out of the 7 slots, 4 on this day and 3 on the next day, I managed to make it to 6, only skipping one on the 24th because I was engaged in conversation with a fantastic brother from Pennsylvania called Jessica. My three sessions of this day were Essentials of Advising, National Policies and Paperwork (an EXTREMELY informative session led by Ping and mrn, aka Region 1 and Region 10 directors), and after a break, Developing Leaders and Mentoring, a new session led by the conference’s chair.

After that, we were on our own for dinner. I spent a little while catching up with Fulori, who was probably the only person there who I knew from Texas, then went back up to the room. While reorganizing my bag, I decided to call my dad, who suggested that I could come home for dinner via train.

And you know what?

I did.

Once I got down to the lobby, I found out that the airport shuttle at the hotel was free and ran every five minutes, and once at BWI, I could just hop on the Light Rail and be home in under an hour. As I never like to travel alone at APO events, I managed to convince a group of six brothers who were indecisive about where to go to dinner to take the train into Baltimore with me, so we did. It turned out that out of those six, 3 were from Maryland schools (2 from College Park and 1 from Towson) and 1 was a New Yorker working in Baltimore for the summer. The other two came from Virginia and New York; not too far, but they hadn’t been to Baltimore before. I probably made way too many suggestions about what they should do (they wanted to see the Inner Harbor), but I set them loose at University of Baltimore/Mount Royal station, telling them to walk down to Mount Vernon for dinner at XS and hoping they’d make it back to the hotel okay. After a seeming eternity, I got off at Mount Washington station where Dad was waiting for me. We had a quick dinner and then Mom drove me back to the hotel.

Day 7 (July 25 – Wow, this post is getting really long. Halfway done, I promise): Decided to sleep in, since I brought some breakfast from home and I’d had a big day the day before, and it didn’t seem like there was much going on in the morning. In the obverse of yesterday, David got up really early for breakfast. At about 11:30 AM, I got myself together for lunch just as David was returning to the room with a large bag from CVS; poor guy had an ear infection. I headed down to lunch, which was a delicious buffet.

Three afternoon workshops were in store for me: Working Directly with Chapters/What Would You Do? (basically, a worst-case-scenario thing), Recruitment and Retention of Volunteers (something I probably could have skipped in favor of another session), and finally, Dealing with Difficult People (which was led by this incredible, kick-ass, take-no-prisoners presenter who really told it like it was).

In the meantime, I had caught up with Adrienne and David, two of the six brothers whom I’d sent off to Baltimore the night before and had thankfully gotten back. It turns out they didn’t end up taking the newbies to the Harbor, which was probably filled with tourists anyway, they ate at XS and stayed there for two hours, walked back around Mount Vernon to the Light Rail, and went back to the hotel. Their only complaint was that I didn’t join them (aw, shucks) but at least I made great new friends and they had a good time. Oh, and I’m also in debt to Adrienne for saving me by looking up my phone number on Facebook and calling me after I left my credit card at the crappy coffee kiosk in the lobby, so thank you Adrienne!

The final event of the evening was the big dinner banquet, at which I said my goodbyes to everyone until next time. Even though the conference didn’t end until the next day, after having dinner on Friday with my parents, I realized that if I stayed until the next day (the events were only until 11 AM), I’d only have about two and a half days with my family and three short nights in my own bed. It’s always that weird thing, do you leave early on a high note with a lot of goodbyes in a short amount of time, or stay longer, and say an entire cascade of goodbyes over the course of the afternoon? This time I chose the former (and it’s getting super late as I type this, so I’ll be brief) but it was probably one of my favorite APO banquets ever. First, I got mentioned in the speech; the program director picked a person from each of the 11 regions to highlight, and Region IX was me, so that was pretty sweet, and I ended up sitting with Jessica from Pennsylvania on one side, and on the other side, Arturo and Crystal from Puerto Rico who got mentioned for their region’s highlight, so it was definitely a cool kids’ table. And then, wouldn’t you know it but the 2015 Region Cup, having something to do with chapters in good standing, went to…Region IX! I was so proud when Ding went up to accept the trophy. The rest of the evening was a blur of pictures (both Blondie AND Lillian from Region I made sure I was pulled into the giant Region I picture despite not having been in Region I since 2009) and probably the funniest and most poignant Maggie Katz soapbox talk ever. It made me wish I could stay and sing the toast song, but I guess that will have to wait until the next Nationals, which will be in Pittsburgh, PA in December 2016. Mom came and picked me up around 11:00 PM and it was just nice to have a little bit of an extended stay in my own bed.

Day 8 (July 26, finally, as the clock on my computer rolls around to July 27): HOME! I forgot what it was like to be in “home mode,” as I call it; sleeping in and generally being lazy, with my parents close at hand to hug or bug, whichever the case may be. We had brunch at the club, after which Mom swam while I was going to exercise at the gym but took a nap on a comfortable chaise instead, followed by watching a movie and having dinner back at the house. Tomorrow: NOTHING, except for a few errands, and hopefully becoming at peace with my ATHE presentation, and maybe writing a few posts to make up for my near-week of non-posting.

And that brings me to an hour later, still in the kitchen when I could be in bed. Good night everyone!

9

I Am From Baltimore

My name is Jacob, and I am from Baltimore, Maryland.

There, I said it.

Even though I was born in Baltimore City and lived in Baltimore County for the first 17 years of my life, my connection to my hometown has always been strained, at best. I don’t eat crabs, drink Natty Boh, or watch The Wire. People tend to think what they want about Baltimore; that it’s dangerous, that it’s ghetto, but to me, it’s my childhood and adolescence. It’s the little suburb where I grew up and couldn’t wait to leave, yet now look back at it with affection; true, it was stifling, but it was also sheltering. I had a stable home life, which helped, but I also had a stable community life. I resent the school I attended from 1st grade through 12th grade for not preparing me for the real world, a world with Christians, drug addicts, sex, and gangs, none of which existed in that little bubble, but on the other hand, I’m grateful that I never had to make the tough choices that other kids must have had to make in high school and the dangers that they faced both in and out of school. I had no clue that my city had as much crime and terror that it did, and how, as a Jewish and Caucasian person, how much of a minority I was in my own hometown. My Baltimore is Formstone and identical houses, nasal consonants and snowballs. My Baltimore is a nest. My Baltimore is a vortex. Most of all, my Baltimore is boring, banal, blah. And I’ve tried to distance myself from it.

I haven’t called Baltimore home for more than a few months at a time in the past ten years, and I haven’t thought of myself as being from there. When I moved to Israel, I was from Amherst, Massachusetts; when I moved to Houston, I was from Israel; when I moved here, I introduced myself as coming from Houston – which is not a lie, because I did drive up from Houston and spent more time there in the past two years than I did in Baltimore. But the past few days have changed things for so many, including me.

Baltimore has always been ghettoized. North of Northern Parkway, it’s all Jewish; south, it’s all black. In the city, it’s even more ghettoized. Racial violence and murder are nothing new; rarely does a day go by without a lengthy police blotter in the Baltimore Sun.

But for every negative story, there’s a positive one.

Baltimore is just not like that. It’s my home.

My beloved Baltimore.

15

Money, Honey

I’ve had my mind on my money and money on my mind recently, due to some surprising new developments in my life (only good things, don’t worry). But that did remind me of something.

The other night, Alec and I went to the Steepery Tea Bar on State Street after a particularly taxing Latin dance class. I was in the mood for some green tea with honey. I could almost taste it.

And then, when I got to the counter, and perused the list of flavors.

Almond…

Apple…

Blackberry…

and then…

next to the word Honey, a sticker: $.25 extra.

I don’t know the ins and outs of economics like I know the ins and outs of Fiddler on the Roof, but why, honey, why? Was there some sort of honey shortage? A worldwide bee strike? Why, whenever it is that I want you, or anything else, the price automatically goes up?

Or the product gets discontinued (India Hicks Island Night body lotion)?

Or becomes unavailable for consumers (Altoona Hills Red Wine)?

Or is only sold in Puerto Rico (Luna di Luna Moscato)?

Or is dropped completely (Whole Foods Vitamin Club punch cards, AKA the prime example of “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it)?

Why, why, why does this always happen to me?

I don’t know where it ends, but I know where it started: Bibelot.

Once upon a time, when I was young and still begging my parents for contact lenses, was a Baltimore-based bookstore chain by the name of Bibelot. They started out with a small store on Reisterstown Road in Pikesville, which ended up getting bigger, then expanded to three more locations: one in Timonium, one in Cross Keys, and one on Boston Street, Canton in downtown Baltimore. They each had a unique look, a funky vibe that was cool for kids, teens, and adults, and a quaint cafe at each location. Most of all, they had an eclectic selection of books. Rather than featuring the latest movie tie-ins, the storefront was usually shelves of local authors, from Baltimore and the rest of Maryland. They also hosted cultural events like open mic nights; now that I think about it, I remember singing there with my choir one afternoon with shoppers browsing around us.

As my bar mitzvah came around, so did the gifts. A safe bet was a gift certificate to Bibelot; they had all the best books and music for the best prices. It was always exciting to open the Bibelot envelope, and see which store the person had been to by the pastel marble background of the gift certificate. Pikesville, the most common, issued them in light pink, Timonium did so in yellow, Cross Keys’ were a pale seafoam green, and the Boston Street store had them in a bright blue. When all was said and done, after my bar mitzvah, I had a rainbow of gift certificates, with enough money to buy whatever I wanted from the store for a good long while.

And then, one day, it happened.

Not long after my bar mitzvah, I was sitting on the toilet one Sunday morning (I am not making this up) when my mom knocked on the door.

“I’m in here,” I responded.

“Jacob, did you hear the news?”

“What?”

“Bibelot is closing. All of its stores.”

The sound that came out of my mouth was akin to a dying vacuum cleaner. “Nuuuuuuhooooooooooo.”

It was true, and all over the news. The company was folding. Rumors were flying everywhere, and the biggest one was that all those lovely gift certificates would soon be worthless pieces of colored paper, since some stores were no longer accepting them, cash or credit only. It happened really suddenly, and all four stores went under simultaneously. I was resigned to the fact that I would probably never get to spend them, until my nosy cousin called, telling us something that was actually beneficial to the situation: the store in Cross Keys was going to stay open all night tonight, and would honor gift certificates.

So, armed with more gift certificates than Deutschmarks at an East German flea market, my dad and I headed over to Cross Keys as soon as we could. However, the rumor, which turned out to be true, spread (I blame my cousin) and the parking lot was full of cars, stuffed with parents, teens, and kids. Quite a number of them had also recently had bar/bat mitzvahs, all of them speeding towards the door.

Inside, it was insane.

Books were flying off of shelves. CD racks were being emptied.

And, for the first time in my life, I had no idea what I wanted to buy at the bookstore.

It was a very scary feeling.

I don’t even remember most of what I bought that night, I just knew that I had to pick out several hundred dollars’ worth of stuff, and fast. I bought a completely random selection of books whose titles I have long forgot. I bought CDs for about 12 different musicals that I could download today for free. I bought some magazines, and a cool poster that’s still in my parents’ kitchen. I bought a cookbook, for reasons I do not know. And after much struggle with different cashiers who kept saying different things like “we can’t give change for partially-unused certificates,” “we’re only accepting green Cross Keys certificates,” and “all sales are final.”

It was probably the worst shopping spree ever.

Hours earlier, I had several hundred dollars’ worth of gift certificates. Now, I had a bunch of random shit and no money left.

Eventually, the store in Pikesville became a Barnes and Noble (of course), and the one in Cross Keys became offices, but Donna’s, the cafe, remained open. I’m not sure what happened to the ones in Canton and Timonium, but suffice it to say, they were all victims of corporate America, and the “as soon as you’re into it, let’s take it away from you” consumer conspiracy.

Anyway.

Opted for a green apple slushy instead.

And now, exhausted me is going to attempt to sneak into bed. I didn’t get the kitchen completely clean, but I vacuumed the living room and also had my first six-continent day in a while, so hello to North America (Canada and USA), South America (Brazil), Europe (UK, Liechtenstein, Ukraine, Spain and Georgia), Africa (Zambia), Asia (Pakistan and Philippines) and Oceania (Australia). Yay!