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!

16

That’s SoMG: The New Jersey Horse Meat Mafia

It all started with a pot of coffee.

Last week, on my way back to Madison, my dad and I were sitting at the rest stop on I-90 northbound in Belvidere, Illinois, having some Starbucks and gearing up for the final leg of the trip. My dad does not drink coffee anymore, but he did in high school. So, I asked him if Grandma drank coffee. He said that she always had a pot of coffee ready, and usually she and her step-niece Ida from down the street (all names hereinafter have been changed due to protect the privacy of the individuals, and also because it’s fun to make up names) would spend the afternoon in one of their kitchens, drinking coffee and talking for hours. I had never heard of Ida, so I asked the question that launched the story of the century.

“Ida who?”

“Your grandmother’s step-niece.”

“Yeah, Grandma had a step-niece, Aunt Susanne’s stepdaughter from her first marriage.”

“Aunt Susanne had a stepdaughter?”

“Yeah, from her first husband, Alfred, you know, the one who committed suicide.”

“…”

“You don’t know that story?”

“Well, obviously, no, I don’t.”

“Oh, goodness, it’s a long one. Once we’re back in the car, you drive, and I’ll tell you the story.”

<pause button>

That was the beginning of what turned out to be an interesting and very juicy family scandal that was too good to keep to myself. So now, I share it with you all in the first ever episode of…

That’s So Jacob presents:

That’s SoMG: Scandals, Secrets, and Shockers That Will Make You Slap Your Hand Over Your Mouth

Imagine, if you will, Are You Afraid Of the Dark? meets E! True Hollywood Story.

Now, onto the show.

<play button>

Episode 1: The New Jersey Horse Meat Mafia

Bavaria, Germany, 1898.

It all started in a tiny farm town where a young Jewish woman named Huldah was spending another summer helping out some local families. Huldah was from a farm town of about 1,000 people, but this town’s population was even smaller, barely in the triple-digits. Every summer since she was old enough, Huldah would go to the smaller town, stay with a family, and do various chores around the house and farm. Over the years, she came to know most of the people in the town, to the point where she felt comfortable just walking into someone’s house to say hello and ask if they needed some chores done. There were only a few girls her own age in the town, and one of them was unusually fat. This girl’s name has been lost to history, so we’ll just call her Fat Girl.

One day, Huldah was just walking around town, and she decided to call on Fat Girl. She goes to Fat Girl’s house, opens the door, and hears a bloodcurdling scream coming from the kitchen. She runs into the kitchen to find her friend giving birth on the kitchen floor. Apparently, Fat Girl’s weight had been sort of an advantage in the predicament she’d found herself in; she had slept with one of the non-Jewish farmhands, and was able to hide from everyone the fact that she was not just fat, but also pregnant. That afternoon, she gave birth to a fair-skinned little boy.

Well, once the baby came, she couldn’t keep the secret for much longer. As was the custom in those days, she and the baby disappeared for a little while, “to an aunt’s house,” until the storm blew over. By the time she returned home, a young Jewish bachelor had moved into town, and with much prodding from Fat Girl’s family and friends, the two were married, and soon had children of their own. After awhile, another child showed up at the house one day: a little blonde boy whom they called Ernest.

Now, back to Huldah. She got married and had a family of her own, giving birth to three children. The oldest was a girl called Susanne, then a boy, and the youngest was my grandmother.

In the early 1930s, Susanne came of marriageable age. Through the grapevine, Huldah found a young man called Alfred, and the two were married, and not long after, they welcomed a child of their own, a little girl they named Penny. Soon after Penny’s birth, Alfred went to visit an uncle he was quite close with who ran a furniture store in America, in Baltimore, Maryland. He stayed for a short while with him before returning home to Susanne and Oenny in Germany. Alfred and his uncle corresponded frequently via mail, and one day in 1933, Alfred gets a very short letter from his American uncle, saying:

“Alfred: Come back to America. Take your wife and your daughter and leave Germany at once.”

The family had been aware of the rise of the Nazi Party in their country, because, well, how could you not. Their lives were not as affected as others, and until this letter came, they had no idea of how dangerous the Nazis actually were. So, the whole extended family made plans to immigrate to Baltimore, leaving Europe for good. Through good planning, the first to make it out of Germany were Alfred, Susanne, and baby Penny, setting sail for Baltimore in 1934. Penny celebrated her first birthday at sea, becoming a minor news story once the family landed in Baltimore.

The whole family, being farmers, was familiar with the cattle business, so as the rest of them trickled over – my grandmother, her mother Huldah, and all the rest – Alfred decided to set up a meat processing center in Baltimore. Through friends and acquaintances, he found a business partner who had come from a nearby part of Germany and also knew the meat industry. His name?

Ernest.

By the time Huldah finally made it over in 1938 – the last one – Alfred and Ernest’s meat business was hugely successful, churning out sausages and bratwursts for the people of Baltimore every day. When her son mentioned his business partner’s name to his mother, her eyes lit up.

“Ernest, from the next town? The blonde one? His mother was my friend!”

Yes, after close to fifty years, the boy born on the kitchen floor, and the boy of the woman who helped bring him into the world, became business partners.

As stated before, the business was hugely successful. Ernest kept a relatively modest lifestyle, but Alfred showered his family with money and expensive things: a house, cars, clothing. Susanne didn’t have to work, but she owned and ran a small grocery store while she raised Penny.

The reason Alfred and Ernest’s business was so successful was because of the source of their meat. Unlike other local meat markets, they cast their net somewhat wider, finding a supplier in New Jersey who offered them meat for extremely low prices. Once in Baltimore, Alfred, who was more of the businessman of the two, marked up the price of the meat to align with the higher prices in Baltimore and earn them an incredibly large profit.

Meanwhile, a journalist sniffs out a news assignment based on whispers and rumors; that A & E weren’t getting their beef from local farmers, but from some place in New Jersey. Undercover, the journalist acquires the name and address of the New Jersey meat suppliers, and goes there to find two incredible, game-changing secrets.

One: the meat they are selling was not beef – rather, illegal horse meat.

Two: the whole operation was run by a New Jersey mafia family.

Needless to say, the news breaks in a grand fashion back in Baltimore. People, some of whom have become ill from the company’s meat, are outraged at this deception and demanded answers. The newspaper prints the offending meat packers’ names, and Alfred and Ernest were now on the front page. Of course, Alfred and Ernest hired a lawyer to handle their case, one of the best lawyers in the state of Maryland. He agreed to defend them in court, telling them the best possible result (a minor fine) and the worst (three to five years in prison). But the damage to their business and social reputations would be irreplaceable. Confident as ever, Alfred invested in the lawyer, and everything was going to turn out most likely in their favor, due to lack of concrete evidence other than newspaper reports.

The trial came closer, but it became too much for Alfred. As much as he maintained that he was going to win the case, he was growing increasingly paranoid and upset, and Susanne was starting to worry. However, as comforted as she was in her lifestyle, worrying was not something she did often. Alfred began staying home for longer and longer periods of time. On one of the days leading up to the trial, Alfred went to work. That afternoon, he was found dead, of a self-inflicted gunshot wound from a gun he’d purchased without Susanne’s knowledge and kept in his office.

Susanne and Penny were in shock.

The trial, however, went on without Alfred. As it turned out, Alfred was the one who communicated with the New Jersey supplier, and the details of that arrangement went with him to his grave. Ernest testified that he knew nothing about Alfred’s dealings, and got off with a minor fine, no jail time. His reputation and business suffered a bit, but ultimately, Ernest lived to see the daylight, daylight that Alfred would have most likely seen had he managed to stay alive for the trial.

By this point in time, Penny had grown up and moved out of the house, and down to northern Virginia. She blamed her mother Susanne for her father’s death and all that went along with it, and they maintained very little contact over the years. Though Penny retained friends from childhood through high school and frequently came to visit them in Baltimore, she rarely visited my grandmother, who helped raise her, nor her own widowed mother, who married Irving, a neighbor and widower himself (his wife, whom Susanne had known, had died of cancer at a relatively young age) living with three children of his own. Penny never accepted her stepfather and step-siblings, who came to appreciate Susanne and eventually, regard her as their own mother. Though Irving was a decent husband and father, he also led a flashy lifestyle, financing it through his new wife’s money; money that was not going towards Penny herself.

Through the years, my father and his sister kept in touch with their first cousin Penny, but from a distance. She married a man called Woody, who was not particularly religious and also not a particularly…well, let me put it this way. Ernest, her late father’s business partner, remained in business but never offered Woody a job, as he had to other family members. Eventually, upon Ernest’s death, the business and the money stayed in his family. Her father’s uncle, the man with the furniture store, hired Woody as a salesman, but Woody did so poorly that he had to fire him. So, they kind of did their own thing, now living in the Washington DC area. My father and the others in the family remained in contact with Cousin Penny and her husband Woody, but they never quite found out how they got their money; Penny didn’t work, and Woody only gave vague answers about “business,” saying “it was fine.”

The final chapter of the story commences one hundred and one years after it began, in 1999. My aunt, now a mother herself, became a grandmother for the fifth time, to my little cousin Emily, that January. By this time, communication with Cousin Penny had slowed to a trickle; interaction happened only at a select few “state occasions,” weddings and bar/bat mitzvahs. No letters, phone calls, or emails, otherwise. The new baby’s parents – my cousin Hillary and her husband – live in Washington, DC, not too far from the suburb where Cousin Penny resided. As a gesture of good faith, Hillary picked up the phone and invited Penny to a baby naming party they were holding for Emily, in May of that same year. Penny said she couldn’t come, her husband was sick.

Well, sometime later that year or in early 2000, Woody died. My aunt, father, and grandmother did not hear about this until many months later, around the time my father was preparing the family invite list for the Event of the Century – okay, it was for my bar mitzvah, that November. The three of them sent Penny a sympathy card, and received not a thank-you note, but a very long and nasty letter, accusing my grandmother and aunt of abandoning her in her time of need (this is the woman who abandoned her own mother), not visiting Woody when he was sick, not bothering to attend his funeral (which no one on our side of the family knew about, since no one had even told us how sick he was, or when he died), and other things that were apparently so rude that the three of them came to a decision to unceremoniously declare Cousin Penny and her children persona non grata.

I didn’t know it at the time, but my father quietly deleted Penny from the invite list, and my bar mitzvah was the first major family event that Penny was not formally invited to.

They have not attempted to contact her again.

Growing up, I knew of Penny’s existence and the fact that she was Aunt Susanne’s daughter, but nothing else. After Aunt Susanne died in the 1980s, we gradually lost contact with anyone associated with her, including my grandmother’s close friend and step-niece Ida, who was somewhat younger than her. My grandmother would have been 103 last year, so it is quite possible that Ida is still alive somewhere, in her nineties. Over the years, some of my father’s cousins have had brief contact with Ida’s children, but not for many years now. Their many afternoons of coffee and conversation are now lost to memory.

By the time Dad finished telling the story, we had driven over an hour from Belvidere to Madison, and were only a few blocks away from my apartment.

So there’s that.


Now that it’s inordinately late, off to bed for me. Once again, only a five continent day for me (no South America) but let me acknowledge those that did check in today from North America (Canada, USA, Mexico, Guadeloupe [first time, welcome!], and Puerto Rico); Europe (France, UK, Germany, Switzerland, Liechtenstein [first time, welcome!], Italy, Norway, Sweden and Spain); Africa (Mayotte); Asia (India, Vietnam, and the Philippines) and Oceania (Australia).