Jul/Aug 2020  •   Nonfiction

Yelps from the Brink

by Juliana Staveley-O'Carroll

Most of these reviews were written in real time and posted on yelp.com, though they have been edited and expanded on for clarity and narrative purposes. While reviews often place the action at a specific time and space, they may simply suggest where our narrator's thoughts wander. They are a map of the mind.


Charleston County Government
Public Services & Government
4045 Bridge View Drive, North Charleston, SC
1 Star, April 11th

The purview of our county government ranges from the Board of Elections & Voter Registration to the County Sheriff to the Coroner's Office, although that trajectory does sound bleak. I've worked here several months now—not in the Coroner's Office—and seeing from the inside out where our taxes go is almost enough to make me a Republican (But not: further investigation reveals there is more to the Republican Party than alleged fiscal responsibility). Isolated in the cursed nether regions of North Chuck, I've come to rely on the cafeteria, a lonely gray place that sells basic fodder at fair prices and lies beside a swamp and is, in a way, indistinguishable from said swamp, and to which I might adjourn at lunch, or in some pre- or post-lunch moments, to prop myself up with caffeine and pretend I'm awake to stalk the frigid halls of this tomb they call the Lonnie Hamilton Public Service Building. In fact, I'm not the only one to call it a tomb. I overheard some colleagues, and I concur.

One of my coworkers just asked me what kind of car I drive, because apparently someone left their car running, lights on and a baby inside, out in the parking lot... and he thinks it was me (for real—in all seriousness). Did he ask anyone else in the office? No. Why in God's name would he think I have a baby and would choose to leave it in my car with the engine running—while I'm at work all day?! First of all, do I look that stupid? Or rather, do I look like I have kids? I can barely get it together enough to make my own lunch, much less make babies and be a baby mama. What the f--k? Seriously, all I could do was stare... and slowly mouth the word "what?" All I can guess is maybe this non-observation is symptomatic of something larger: maybe this is my poor coworker's cry for help, his way of saying "I've had enough of the system, have lost all hope of rational thought—please, Juliana, please help me!" After all, it's a proven fact that fluorescent light kills brain cells (okay, it may as well be), and when your whole office is red tape personified, your perspective tends to jump off the deep end. Suddenly black is white and white is black, and 1+1 is 3. Sure, you started out with a purpose, brain cells even, but somewhere along the line, maybe when property taxes went up, something happened. Your happy little government burgeoned into a blistering, festering fungus that won't stop spreading. Wait, am I stuck in a horror film? Oh, sh-t. I may not make it out of this one...


Flavors Eatery
Pizza, Sandwiches
125 King Street, Saint Augustine, FL
5 Stars, April 17th
(This road trip took place a year ago, but what with the grave goal of looking busy at work, I've reviewed a number of businesses and why not this one.)

Flavors is nothing short of a godsend. If you have made the rash decision to venture down to Saint Augie to see your monomaniacal (or ascetic philosopher) relative who lives part of the year under a power line in a glorified lean-to with no running water and have spent your entire day with said relative (1) helping him and minions rig up a sawmill, (2) spending quality time with minions, (3) spending quality time with dog and puppies, (4) spending quality time with an NRA magazine circa 1996, (5) spending quality time with anything that is not said parent, and (6) following him around on his Much More Important Than You errands (hardware store, wally world aka Walmart, pawn shop, not to mention Pet Rescue, and the back of some strip mall in search of a mouser on the stupid assumption that the evening entertainment of shooting rats with one's luger might get old, when all you really want is to have a root beer float with him to sate the nostalgia that drove you down here in the first place, and that becomes your own monomaniacal goal of the day, your raison d'etre, the object of your obsession (that and not getting sunburned, obviously), then please, please do yourself a favor and find Flavors: a pristine, perfect café (the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, the rest at the end of the road, the heaven at life's end, probably your cue to leave—if you could've been wise enough to leave on a high note). At least you can be assured of accomplishing one goal, ensuring one highlight for your trip, that is, an Amazing Root Beer Float (a nostalgia borrowed from your older brother, who spent more time with your dad). They'll give you a chilled glass and everything, though they may try to ruin it with whipped cream, so beware; they also have amazing sandwiches and salads; plus, they have air conditioning—and running water! Drink, be refreshed, and be grateful for your trusty getaway car. Your trip has served a purpose.


Prometric Testing Facility
1954 Ashley River Road, Charleston, SC
1 Star, April 30th

This was my destination of choice Saturday Morning: the local office servicing all your standardized testing needs. It's true. I came here of my own volition. Take your GREs here, or don't, actually. If the questions appear to be getting more and more difficult, don't freak out: that means you're getting them right; or if you can't tell either way, when you hit a wall, you can choose not to finish the test, to just walk out, and there will be no score or any evidence you were ever here... and that's right, gods of the GRE: I was never here.

I fell down a hole recently. It's all a blank. All I know is, I forgot what was important. All the important things in life, like boozin', poolin', and of course the yelphood, were banished from their rightful places on my list of priorities for some two-bit highfalutin self-important standardized test that doesn't know its ass from its elbow. Clearly, I was insane.

I was Alice, chasing frantically after that impertinent rabbit, not sure why (grad school, I guess?), just chasing the bastard, and it wasn't at all interesting. I had to find this lone hollow in the wilds of West Ashley that goes by that prosaic moniker "Prometric" and pretend it was dignified, even as worthy of a visit as AC's (my local). What the f--k? I had to deal with incompetents who almost wouldn't let me take the test because there was a problem with my name (there always is), ruining my unstressed / speeding / reckless driving / "Sweetness" by Yes? yes! high. Ah, the name bullshit... My name suffers under the brunt of every nincompoop who thinks he can read. Just because some people don't know what to do with a hyphen or, say, a baby apostrophe, I have to deal with it. My dad gave me his hyphenated last name, and after a life of torment, with another three names piled on for good measure, I finally decided I like my name. I do. It may be longwinded, but it's beautiful, damn it. Too bad it's constantly being butchered. If my name appears in print for any reason, an entirely different name will be assigned to me. Hell, my boss doesn't know my name, and she hired me. The damn thing is attached to my desk (not by choice), and she wouldn't know it if it hit her in the face. You'd think since it's Irish, and therefore American-friendly, people could read it, but never underestimate the slack-jawed Southerner: he will find new and creative ways to screw up your name. When people remember my name, I hug them.

If you, too, have dropped off the planet in pursuit of some standardized test or something equally insipid, remember your priorities. Standardized tests are just another masochistic game you have to learn to play—and then forget entirely before they infect you. Beware those vipers.

UPDATE (not long after posting a draft of the preceding review in real time)

Fellow yelpling: what is your name, if I may ask?

I told him and then, later, regretted it. Anonymity allows me to say whatever I want on this fledgling site, still unknown in these parts. If my cover's blown, I'd have to give up my yelping habit.

Am consumed with the idea I might have to censor myself on Yelp.


Local Flavor, Mass Media (no addresses listed for locations I'm not currently visiting)
1 Star, April 30th (not long after the preceding review)

(Still consumed with the idea I might have to censor myself on Yelp.)

Yelp has managed to give me asthma. Have... never... had... a problem with... shortness of breath... 'til now... In fact, I made fun of those defective weaklings (my half-brother included, though he swears it was only a passing fancy in his childhood and not a serious habit by any means... and I'm sure he'd want me to clarify that "passing fancy" is not a term he would use—I summarize), but here I am, having just finished a goddamn review, and for some reason my lungs are telling me to go fuck myself (the only true words at this moment are profanity)... Is this what they call hyperventilating? Did I finally develop an allergy to Yelp? I could just blame the swamp air; seriously, everyone's allergic to a city built on marsh. (Did you know Water Street used to be water?) Wondering how long I'll be wheezing like this... lightheadedness is only a temporarily acceptable high... and of course The Dears are mocking me. ("I was short of breath... lalalalala...") ("The Second Part," by The Dears was playing) Haha, assholes... The latest Yelp accessory? a paper bag. You too can breathe in style... Am such a trendsetter... Seriously, this paper bag needs to cooperate... don't have brain cells to waste... Haha! What do I care? Am high as a kite!... Try asthma—I mean yelping. It works!... Must go and enjoy this...


Mount Pleasant Seafood
Wholesale Stores, Seafood
1 Seafood Drive, Mount Pleasant, SC
3 Stars, May 1st

Have been operating with an estimated 75% lung capacity for almost 24 hours now, and I have to say, the high's pretty nice. Here are the various responses:

Me: >wheezing< I'm having a hard time breathing...

My sister: okay. I have to go meet MM (her boyfriend) for brekkie (breakfast?). See ya!

(To be fair, this conversation is via Gmail Chat, as she is halfway around the world. I paraphrase.) When I told my mom I was having a hard time breathing, she lit a cigarette and offered me a Claritin and wine cocktail. (That was actually very helpful. Thanks, Mom!) While at work, on my way to go paper bag-breathe in the file-room, I spotted a coworker with that precious of all objects, an inhaler.

Me: I've never had asthma before... and I just suddenly started having a hard time breathing... can I use your inhaler?

Coworker: you know, I never had asthma until I got pregnant. Maybe you're pregnant.

Me: ...

What is up with my work and babies? They only have one thing on their minds: babies. What in God's name is wrong with these people? Oh, and bitch didn't let me use her inhaler. Again, what the fuck?

Finally, one of my best friends gave me the best advice: Juliana, I think you should go to a smoky bar and play pool.
Me: yea, I'm doing that tomorrow.

We'll see how this pans out... did score a free dinner of softshell crab. (You can get them fresh for $5 each from Mount Pleasant Seafood on Shem Creek.) That was the best thing I've ever eaten. Guess now I can die happy! That was a joke.


AC's Bar & Grill
Dive Bars, Pool Halls
1035 Johnnie Dodds Boulevard, Mount Pleasant, SC
4 Stars, August 16th

This is where I met you (a really cool dude).

Starting to realize this constant lump in my throat is not allergies or asthma, is actually anxiety, is actually psychosomatic, a fun word that doesn't, however, make it go away—but alcohol does.

I'm starting a support group for the breathing-impaired. They have been ignored far too long, and it's time someone addressed the problem. We will meet nightly at AC's and Saturday afternoons at The Windjammer (because everybody breathes easier in a smoky bar). There are some basic guidelines for the meetings: members are allowed to speak only when a ciggie is in hand and after first buying a round of key lime pie shots (key lime pie shots, like ciggies, are nourishment for the lungs). There will be a support group for alcoholics following, and the only rule for those meetings is you have to have a beer in hand to talk (otherwise how would we know you're an alcoholic?) and prior to addressing the group (i.e. taking shots) you must say, "I'm so-and-so, and I'm an alcoholic." The last rule is: you must make moves like Michael Jackson and always wear a hat.

Welcome to the ether.


3 Stars, September 10th

Time is not your friend. Time wants you to stop speeding, worry about traffic cops, screw your head on straight, get a job. Time will make you late. Ignore time. People will tell you why time is important and what is important, but don't listen to them. They are listening to the seconds pass, and that's all they can hear. My favorite people are the ones I only manage to talk to when I'm asleep or they're asleep or we're both asleep (because, as everyone knows, time is a heavy sleeper).

Me (answering phone while asleep): hello?

Really Cool Dude: hey, it's [really cool dude]. I thought you were trying to rally some people.

Me: what?... what about rattlesnake people?

RCD: blahblahblah

Me: yea, but what did you say about rattlesnake people?

Obviously the better parts of this conversation fell off the bed and slipped back into the ether. In case you don't know, the rattlesnake people were an ancient African tribe, originally linked to the Bedouin, who used gris-gris and other variants of black magic to still the spirits. Legend has it they outwitted time long ago and now live in the dream world. Sometimes they sneak into conversation just to keep it real. They're big fans of Lauryn Hill. They also promote the idea that if everyone fell asleep at work, there'd be no war. They were very wise, far wiser than I, half asleep me, who has been ruminating on Really Cool Dude for the last week, since another time I was almost asleep, when something almost happened, I having escaped the after-party outside to collapse face down and he following my scent, asking to be allowed to stay, sitting at the end of my bed and wondering at all the books and the boots still on my feet.

"You're in your head a lot aren't you." His is the voice of a hypnotist... "This just looks wrong. Juliana? Let me take these off of you." I let him. The fan's purring against my skin, but my blanket's in the laundry, and I can't muster the care to get up and turn it off. He's still holding one of my feet in its thin red sock, and his hands could heal a hurt animal. I lie safely prone, pasty legs exposed, enclosed in my cocoon, sleep's soft glass, waiting like Snow White for what I don't know. Despite all waking hours to the contrary, my throat feels fine, normal even, as angels and alcohol—and now his hands—transport me to somewhere more beautiful than sleep.

His voice reassures me, flatters me, confides that his ex was also at the wedding earlier, we don't know each other, and he wonders if she saw us together. My body responds to his touch, not his words.

Then: "I think you're a shapeshifter." Now I'm awake (still thankfully clothed).

"What's a shapeshifter?" I turn to face him. He covers himself quickly in political words, though we have never talked politics. The angels are gone. I close my eyes again and wait for him to leave.


Jane Austen Society of North America
Literary Society
3 Stars, September 17th

RCD: Juliana, you need a translator.

Me: God, I know. So much for my degree in English. Apparently I still can't speak it.

Then I continued committing egregious acts of vandalism (so egregious Yeats was involved), balancing my phone, and sipping a red-headed slut. I may be incapable of communicating in my native tongue, but I can multitask.

The problem is, don't we all speak in riddles? They say a gentleman says what he means and means what he says, but how do these alleged gentlemen talk? They tell stories. Stories are riddles. Wait. "Gentlemen"? Thank you, Jane Austen, for keeping that myth alive. By the way, the appeal of her most famous hero, Mr. Darcy, was what, exactly? He takes care of things (translation: the boy's got bank). But if even this model gentleman suffers miscommunication after miscommunication, hell, a series of missed connections (because that's Jane Austen, the Craigslist of the Regency), then what hope do the rest of us have? It's time to banish words and reason, time to get back to the source, something instinctive, symbolic, from whence we came... spades, clubs, diamonds, hearts (please, please don't actually attempt to read Tarot), flowers, rainbows, whatever you scrawl on perfectly innocent paper... develop theories based solely on your own reflections, on the absolutely fascinating conversations in your head, and then claim you can read that guy like a book... as though by doing so you weren't creating a distance, as if there weren't something keeping you from him, a whirlwind, a web, a wall of words keeping you safe.


Employment Agencies
3 Stars, November 18th

When writing your resumé, don't bother with an "interests" section, no matter how much your sister assures you it's not cheesy, and definitely don't put that your interests are "massage" or "the perfect sandwich." These will not get you a job. They will not impress anyone. They are only your interests. (Also, the fact that you enjoy getting a massage doesn't really need to be advertised.) In fact, when writing your resumé, just get someone else to do it: you don't have time for bureaucratic bullshit. You make a terrible bureaucratic bullshitter. Stick to something you're good at.

No, don't try breathing. Make yourself useful: make someone a sandwich. Beer could be involved... or you could invent the vodka sandwich, to be made on a cold night when the power goes out, your whole family is destitute, and you suddenly get arrested and sent to Siberia. Beets could be involved! It already sounds exquisite. Or you could invent the HMO sandwich, to be eaten under fluorescent lights while waiting in line at a doctor's office, naively trusting your insurance company to pay what they promised to pay... or maybe the street corner a couple years later when you're broke and homeless. It's as healthy as can be: hearty bread, hummus, fresh lettuce, cucumber, avocado. Oh wait. Unfortunately you can't eat it because you're sick and nauseous. Good luck with that. You really expected to eat the HMO sandwich? You say you want to get well? I'm sorry, but you'll have to pay up first. This is America. It's every man for himself (and every woman in line for breast implants).

I'll be expatriating in Canada, if you need me.


Dr. Deborah Milling, MD
1012 Anna Knapp Extension, Mount Pleasant, SC
5 Stars, November 21st

Most people have to pay someone to listen to them, while others inflict their rants on unwitting friends like me (obviously a mistake. I'm not a good listener, unless you don't mind if I leave the phone, get a little shuteye, and come back. You haven't noticed: you're still blathering on about your ex (you are no longer really cool). I also pass on generous pearls of wisdom like: don't call me), but smart people figure out how to get paid just to talk. Obviously, I'm not that smart. Some of us prefer to just throw our unsolicited advice and opinions through that invisible trap-door, this portal hidden in the ether that exists nowhere and everywhere at the same time, you know, the internets. (Some of us are also self-indulgent blowhards. Apologies.)

Most of us aren't even supposed to be here. Life's a mistake, a miracle, a mishap; the door wasn't open, wasn't even cracked; actually, it was bolted shut, but we jimmied it and slipped inside to see what we could and steal what wasn't nailed down. This collection of thieves, snipers, and night wanderers land on their feet: some make up for lost time, others wonder why the hell they bothered, but my favorites try to leave something behind. The only thing more dangerous than this strange crew are those complacent cats who believe they were destined for their happy lot. They just smile proudly and continue wasting the world. To them the only thing precious is themselves. These are the people I want to see in therapy, maybe looking around, developing a healthy dose of curiosity, and to that aim, if you have the dough, I've heard Dr. Milling is very good. After all, shouldn't we all try to better ourselves?

I do my part by baking gingerbread. Someone has to do it.


Gooseberry Natural Foods
Health Markets
1037 Main Road, Westport, MA
5 Stars, December 27th

All your needs will be met here, that is, your vitamin and bubble bath needs.

It might just happen, when you're busy showing someone exactly how hopelessly crazy and degenerate you really are (reckless driving and difficulty breathing—maybe vitamins will help) that for some unknown reason, some secret enigma, they become convinced of the very opposite. What are you to do with such fools?

You could travel to the North Pole like me, on business entirely unrelated (family, holidays, etc.), another naive trip, another rigged compass, nothing golden but the stars, where you might just find tea that tastes like blueberries, and you might wrap yourself up in borrowed cashmere, let the blind guard take over (or just your estranged dad), and rest your weary head. Draw a chamomile bath and watch the snow melt. Shit. You might even start believing the fools.


Sullivan's Island
Sullivan's Island, SC, Part II
1 Star, January 16th

Christmas Morning you gave me the best present: your voice over the phone wanting to be with me, wanting us to be something, but I couldn't accept it. You talk about your ex constantly (see reviews for Timex & Dr. Deborah Milling, MD). By now I've stopped asking you to stop talking about her.

But we talk all the time and a couple weeks later, the day I arrive back in town, I bring all my useful things to your new studio on Sullivan's Island, things I don't need at my sublet and you do: flatware, a stereo, a small statue of St Francis given to me by my aunt who received it from my granddad, just a thing I think you'll find interesting, the finest sushi; I gather these offerings from across town, nervous because not much has happened between us since you called me a shapeshifter.

Your hands aren't patient or kind. I can't breathe. I stare at the uneaten sushi you've slathered with sriracha.

The next time I talk to you will be later the next day, when you tell me you have a new girlfriend. A snake slithered into your studio that morning and you blame me because you think I'm a witch. Seriously. You throw away my granddad's statue because you think it's some kind of voodoo. I don't know it yet, but I won't get back any of those things.

The worst part is this is not enough to stop me from loving you.


The Battery
South Battery, Charleston, SC
4 Stars, January 19th

I make excuses for him, distractions for myself.

Charleston is for the rich. Even in her outlying areas—once safe haven for pirates and poets—a working man doesn't have a leg to stand on. Hell, he can barely afford to stay warm. (Oil is for the rich, too.) So honest men who do honest work can't live here anymore, but there are no ghosts left here, either. They've been rounded up, catalogued, and commercialized. The street lamps are blinding, and there's nowhere to hide. (A cop turns the corner like a shark.) Now through a break in the trees, the moon spies you. She wants to be entertained, and you're the only one out (except two wise fishermen, too wise to waste time with the moon), so you'll have to do... although really you're not at all interesting without a lover. You could tell a joke, but the moon says you are a joke (and of course she's right, so stop taking yourself so damn seriously. That moon. She sure can shoot the shit). Besides, there's nothing else here to hear, nothing in these skimpy shadows, not even crickets, nothing but a lone radiator howling at the moon, so you'll have to do, because for a night, ancient history has deserted us. Maybe we deserted it. This town was packaged and sold, and now there's no room for the weary, not in a rich man's park, not at any overpriced inn. (The weary weren't part of the deal.) So make mincemeat of the poor, because Charleston is for the rich.


Paige's Okra Grill
Southern, Seafood, Breakfast & Brunch
794 Coleman Boulevard, Mount Pleasant, SC
1 Star, January 29th

Okra aren't like artichokes: they don't have hearts, just slimy insides, sometimes devastatingly sad insides.

My dad and stepmother seem happy to see me when I meet them for lunch on their way through town. I know I am, joyous even, because a moment like this is beautiful and rare. I'm wearing the earrings they gave me for Christmas, wearing them almost every day; my stepmother compliments my scarf, passes along some sage words, and I forget about the rest of my life. We eat, laugh, and hug our goodbyes.

A few days later I receive a message from my granddad in Ireland. By the time I reach him on the phone, he's frantic. "What's wrong, Granddad?"

I'm shocked to learn he's gravely concerned about me—because my dad has told him I'm anorexic.


Alex's Diner
Restaurant, Diner
302 Coleman Boulevard, Mount Pleasant, SC
1 Star, Roughly 12.5 Years Earlier

I can't tell you my dad's story. It's his, and I wouldn't do it justice, what little I know of it anyway. All I can try to tell is my own.

So I'll tell you how someone can hurt you even when he doesn't particularly mean to (I think). Maybe he doesn't realize you're a child and take everything at face value, that you desperately want something from him because he's your dad, is so out of touch he doesn't even realize you'll take offense, in fact, might be trying in his distorted headspace to show he cares for you, is concerned about you, whereas you, for many, many years hear his words very differently. And many, many years later, you might wonder: why?

This is the first time my dad found something wrong with my body. I'm 14 years old, sitting across from him at a diner. I haven't seen him in a while, maybe half a year, which is fine with me because when I do see him, all I feel is judgment, if he takes an interest in me at all. I'm one of three from his first batch and now one of six. In the next year or so he'll start his tirades against my mom, how she's never loved me as much as my siblings, or some other hurtful nonsense he's concocted that makes him the "good" parent, the one who cares about me. This even though they've been divorced for well over a decade, for almost as long as I can remember. I'll realize later he was convinced our mom had "turned us against him"—ironically, since he'd managed that all on his own. She had never spoken ill of him. He was at war with someone who had no idea there was a war on.

Today, however, I know all I have to do is sit back and listen, and when he gives me a chance to speak, I'll tell him that, actually, I made the honor roll again. But his next tack will leave me speechless, which is a pity, because it looks like he's slowing down, so I might've had a chance to get a word in. He's been watching me mow down a stack of pancakes when he tells me: "You're anorexic."

"What?! No I'm not!" Is he blind? Sure, I'm skinny (so is he!), but I have a very healthy appetite and, again, is he blind? We're in public. My face is hot. I stare at my almost empty plate, willing it to defend me. I know words like "delusional," "paranoid," even "mania," but they won't occur to me 'til much later. I don't know it yet, but this will be something he tells people about me for over a decade, even though it's never true, I've never had an eating disorder, and every time I hear it, I'll look at my unloved body, too ashamed to let it be loved. In the next few years, when my skin breaks out, the few times I see him that will be another topic for public consumption, even into adulthood. I'll do everything in my power to be attractive, inside and out, but no matter what kind mirrors I'll linger before or how radiant my skin becomes or what compliments I receive, starting here I'll hear again and again: my father thinks I'm ugly.


Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
Federal Public Health Agency
4 Stars, January 30th

Always remember that family time is like arsenic (and by "family" I mean my father). In small doses, you can develop an immunity to it and lead a healthy, even successful life, but never forget: that shit is lethal.


Flor & Son
Jewelry Shop
5 Stars, February 1st

I think back to a place my stepmother brought me in kindness over Christmas. I talk myself out of pain.

To the dragons, hoarding their gold, to make much of time:
Take your trinkets and go, because the soul is as fragile as a bubble but as sturdy as stone and as precious as gold filigree but free as anything can be. Don't be fooled by what they say. So your people don't know you from Adam's housecat. They think they do, which means some time ago, they wanted to, and sometimes that's enough. You may, in your blindness, be convinced no matter what you say or do, the fools will still have a low opinion of you, but remember they, too, in all their lovely enlightenment (or self-righteousness) are still fools. That's their wise and esteemed prerogative. You have the prerogative to call them shit for brains. A nod is as good as a wink to a blind horse, so save your breath, leave that shit on the road, for we're all a blind crew, but if we couldn't see that, we'd be even blinder. Besides, we're still fool enough to give our souls for the asking, so if we're fools, at least we're free.


The Old Jail
Landmarks & Historical Buildings
21 Magazine Street, Charleston, SC
1 Star, February 8

I've lived in this town most of my life, but I'd never seen the jail. Sure, I've bailed my brother out before, but not here (the charge was "hosting a party," by the way—clearly a dangerous crime). I've driven down Coming a million times and Rutledge even more, down Beaufain and up Queen, but here, in this little square of public housing and poverty, is the jail. People are born and die here, but no one sees. Everyone drives by with blinders on, in their own unwitting prisons. I only caught a glimpse because I went searching, but there it is: a dungeon in the heart of the city, a stain in our makeup, a blemish under the rouge, an unseen loophole in our plans. My granddad writes many stories, often exorcising the lies he's seen, and like a lie, that jail is there if you look for it, just sitting, ready for the exorcism.

The first lie they'll tell you is who you are, who your family is, how much you're worth, if you're stupid or smart, weak or strong, ugly or pretty, and if you are pretty, you better stay that way: bleach it, Botox it, dye it, diet it, but do what you have to do to keep it. O, the lies we live in can be a burden, the slaves we are to making sense of insanity, to keeping the old world upright and afloat. So pass the jail on your right and wind your way down until you find a dead-end and dogleg to the right, to a quiet rambling plot of solace, the graveyard of the Unitarian Church. They keep this place locked, but if you're like one of my friends, you just wait 'til it's late and climb over the gate. It's beautiful inside, away from the madding crowd, protected from without. You might find even bars can be beneficent.


Palmetto Lowcountry Behavioral Health
Psychiatric Hospital
2777 Speissegger Drive, North Charleston, SC
2 Stars, February 14th

(the asylum where they make you insane)

Hell, dear yelplings, is a place we invented and built on this earth. In your head it's called ego: every fear and unloved lie you've ever been told, and on earth it's a place of lost souls, a clockwork orange, a machine gone awry, that empty-eyed juggernaut wrapped in red tape and strangled by paperwork. Maybe you too have been to hell and come back to tell the tale, saw the grisly workings of the system, its diseased entrails, and escaped before it crushed you too. Maybe you met the witch and saw what made her that way, the lies she believes that consume her body and ravage her soul. The people in charge are slaves to paperwork, rules for the sake of rules, fluorescent light because it's cheap, locked doors and lots of drugs because them's the rules. Open your eyes in Unit 5: Addiction, where they'll get you addicted to hardcore meds. (Is this a nurse or a Lexapro salesperson?) Oh, my mistake. Unit 5 is the Crisis Ward, where everything's a crisis. When you're sufficiently doped up, they'll cart you over to Unit 2: Depression, which is mostly a bunch of white people sitting around being depressed. But the poor employees are stuck in the Depressing Unit endlessly, or that other fluorescent box, the one that calls itself a Crisis. They're just trying to keep it all running, trying to keep themselves running. At least the patients can have patience and one day be released, debt, drugs, and all, but the staff can never leave. The windows, if you can find one that's not boarded up, don't open. Fear spreads like a fungus here.


Paley Park
5 Stars, February 20th

I can't escape rejection. Paley Park is a sanctuary off Fifth Avenue, and when the leaves are all crimson and gold when the light is changing to night, it's the only place I want to be. When you can't clear your name or set things to rights, you may have to come here, if only in your mind, and do your time. Does time heal? Could it hurry up and try? Do all idiots wear their hearts on their sleeves and shout it from the rafters? They've been hunted down like dogs and hijacked, but they'll come here, be quiet, and rest awhile.


Life Healing Center
Mental Health Service
25 Vista Point Rd, Santa Fe, NM 87508
4 Stars, March 1st

Bills come to me in my dreams. I could be holed up in a mountain lodge somewhere, hibernating with the crows, and they'd still find me like Santa Claus. When you escape with your life, which we too often do, the world is before you... until the bills start coming and you have to escape with your life again. In my life, bills are the herald before it all goes to hell. I'm sure Carl Jung would agree; also, bills might mean I need to pay someone. But meanwhile, on this mountain we take ourselves very seriously. I know this because the stern chef frowns when I accost him with my presence, and then very seriously gets back to grooming his 'stache, which everyone knows is the optimal accompaniment to the perfectly coifed ponytail. I suspect some people here haven't laughed in over a decade, so when I accost them with my stand-up routine, they just stare at me blankly and wonder if they can leave. Someone told me I was "unique." It sounded like an insult, so I insisted everyone's unique, like fingerprints and sweet little snowflakes and other greeting card promises. Okay, smoke another ciggie in the freezing cold and be tortured by yourself, but I'm going to go find some rules to break, and I'll find something to laugh at along the way, anything, because laughter makes my throat feel free. Besides, aren't new ideas born like a baby laughing?


The Ohashi Institute
(Ohashi developed his own healing techniques based on manipulation of meridian energy and shiatsu.)
Healing Center
5 stars, March 24th

Coming to kiss her lips, (such grace I found)
Me seemed I smelled a garden of sweet flowers:
That dainty odors from them threw around
For damsels fit to deck their lovers' bowers.
Her lips did smell like unto Gilly flowers,
Her ruddy cheeks like unto Roses red:
Her snowy brows like budded Bellamoures,
Her lovely eyes like Pinks but newly spread.
Her goodly bosom like a Strawberry bed,
Her neck like to a bunch of Collambines:
Her brest like lillies, ere their leaves be shed,
Her nipples like young blossomed Jessamines.
Such fragrant flowers doe give most odorous smell
But her sweet odor did them all excell.
—Edmund Spencer, Amoretti, Sonnet #64, 1594

I was working in a fluorescent gray cubicle like every other drone on the line when I looked up one day to discover I'd surrounded myself in green: from my desktop to my purse to my jacket to my wintergreen Altoids. Even the words I was writing were a refreshing forest green. Some things you can't help. They just are. For example, I'm cursed with an excellent memory (a perilous mind), even a catalog of my life (regrets), that's just entertaining enough to read and I'm just unwise enough to keep (the least I can do is not read it). The year of the rat reared its ugly head some time ago, and now there's nothing to be done. Times are strange; moon's MIA; kind men are cruel; hearts beat with no blood; lungs breathe with no air; dogs talk. You'll be baptized in a cold sweat, vertigo'd in a smoke ring, anchored in a dream, but the angels are laughing. So shut the fuck up. Even in that fluorescent gray lion's den, I found a grove of trees, just thirsty for thaumaturgy, or what the Irish call a faerie fort. Fuck it. I made my own. After all, everywhere you go, whatever ramshackle apartment you call home, you'll spread your things out like an altar and make the place beautiful. Choose to see a garden where there isn't any.


The Health Care Lobby
Health & Medical
1 star, June 19th

I want to like doctors; I have a few friends who are doctors; there are several doctors in my family; once I even seriously considered becoming a doctor (until I realized I really just liked watching Grey's Anatomy), but after a long, breathless year of business with doctors (because going to the doctor is a business... and it's sponsored by Lexapro. Just look up. There's a Lexapro clock), I discovered the only help I get from doctors is help clearing out my bank account.

As far as I can tell, the (no) health (no) care system works like this: you're really sick, so you go to a bill collector.

Suddenly the business of being well is a very precarious precipice, and going to the doctor when something goes wrong is a habit you just can't afford. You're courting an avalanche. Even if you think you have that sly misnomer of a devil they call "insurance," you will soon be buried in bills. I did everything I could to stay away from doctors, but the unfortunate (i.e. lucrative) part is, at some point, you have no choice. You have to go. Just don't make the mistake of going back. Sure, doctors are good for prescriptions, if I wanted to experiment with drugs, but all I want is a whole breath of air, and that's a scarce commodity in this stress-infested system. After all, if your problem's anxiety, dealing with doctors and their bills and whatever cracked-out drugs they're pushing will only give you more anxiety.


Endo Pharmaceuticals
Pain Pills
4 Stars, June 25th

Actually there won't be any pain when I wake, only numbness. I don't know that yet—sitting here in this floral waiting room, someone's idea of luxury, with flowers that never fade—nor do I care. I'm filling out this form until one of the questions makes me stop. Have I attempted suicide in the past six months?

If I answer honestly, I'm afraid I won't be allowed to have this procedure. I pause, and then I lie.

A year ago, when I discovered a friend had breast implants, I was angry. Wasn't it bad enough that men have such unrealistic expectations of women? From cartoon superheroes to whatever Hollywood feeds us, aren't the standards we're held to unfair, impossible? She betrayed the sisterhood or, more specifically, me, who could not compete with a perfect body, who actively tried to hide my body, no matter what confidence I faked. I was jealous.

That wasn't the main feeling, of course: it was one you've hopefully never felt, that gnawing sense I'll do anything to be "normal," risk anything to not feel ashamed, ashamed of what I can't help, of the very body I live in, a body that's become a straitjacket, that feels like it's being judged constantly, convincing myself it's not, pretending it's not, I'm not. I've blended in, rant only on a website no one reads, am always agreeable, even when I'm hurt, especially when I'm hurt. When I hear it many years later, maybe by then it'll just be a word—desperation—but for now it hangs around my neck like a noose. What is it to be loved by a man? Or to just not be rejected, even by someone who's all wrong for me anyway, who always talks about other girls? All I hear is a voice on the phone, a voice I've made into a man he's not. I can't see that now. I'm too busy molding myself into what I think will be loved, the goldest gold, to be smart, kind, funny, pretty above of all, worthy of love.

But I've tried for a very long time, too long, so with the provision I'm probably not long for this world anyway, I go under the knife.


Tattooed Mom
Dive Bars
530 South Street, Philadelphia, PA 19147
4 Stars, August 13th

Somewhere on the rough seas of South Street, shipwrecked like the rest of us, in an underwater den in an underwater town, you'll find an odd assortment of castaways that make up Mama's Tats. (Mama's Tats may be sold to you as a dive, a pool hall, or a lounge for arts and crafts, but we know better.) A very pale stranger will approach you to talk about vampires (which is really fucking freaky... and yet good conversation); there's a whorehouse madam at the pool table and a septuagenarian in his cups; a few lost souls watching clusters of clocks popping up, breathing in bubbles; Mama's got a lotta tats. So drink up, forget home if you can, and never, ever, trust a sailor on dry land.


Philadelphia, PA
5 Stars, August 20th

In my dream, my sister and I are rafting down a river: there are alligators ahead, and my side is sinking, but she's at the helm, pushing us through to safe waters.

When I wake, I'm lying on her bed in her studio in Philadelphia. She now lives in New York, but her sub-letter moved out a month early, so she called me, even though I haven't talked to her since February, even though we're not on speaking terms, and here I am. I left my heart in Charleston, my brain too, which is just a broken record of cherry-picked words from this really (un)cool dude who calls me occasionally when he needs a therapist. I'm the therapist. Shocking, I know. I don't know how I ended up here.


Rittenhouse Square
18th and Walnut, Philadelphia, PA
5 Stars, September 25th

Here, in the garden, guarded by urns, my heart is laid to rest.


Sullivan's Island
Sullivan's Island, SC, Part I
4 Stars, 24 Years Earlier

We called him "Dadoo." He lifted this rambling old beach house up off the ground and put it on stilts. He and our mom filled it with music. Here, in the kitchen, my dad is patiently showing me how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I can't be more than three. And here we are in his white pickup truck on the causeway across the marsh, waiting for the bridge to open to Sullivan's Island, on our way home, the light muddled after a storm, a rainbow beside us, magic everywhere.

Our bare legs stick to the blue leather seats in the heat. A small square sticker of a pizza is perfectly balanced between the front and rear passenger windows, perched like an angel on the interior wall over my brother. It's his sticker, along for the ride, and he's dad's copilot, along for more adventures than my sister and me in the back seat, but the three of us will kill never-ending time together while dad talks on a payphone somewhere, anywhere with a payphone, for hours. Years go by beside payphones. The smell of ocean, flannel, diesel, then too much wind in my face as we fly down the highway to Nine Hundred Thousand Tons of Steel, Made to Roll (the Grateful Dead), and for all I know this truck is 900,000 tons of steel. In a few years I'll tell you my dad speaks every language. I'll say he's nine feet tall. That seems like the right number.


Rittenhouse Square Neighborhood
Philadelphia, PA
4 Stars, September 25th

The world will sneak up on you when you least expect it. First you'll hear whispers behind you, maybe just the rain outside, maybe a neighbor's radio. Maybe it's too hot to think. Then, when it's late at night and everyone is asleep, the world will come back to you and lay at your feet. You won't have to do a thing.


Trident Technical College
66 Columbus Street, Charleston, SC
4 Stars, Two Years Later, September 3rd

I've discovered that despite all the words floating around my brain and washing up on paper, despite every messy missive sent to distant shores via however the firing synapses of interwebs work, this anxiety is anchored in my throat: the seat of self-expression. There are any number of ways we express ourselves—in the way we move, the music we make, the way we hold our bodies and the words we let out, all with the same goal: to feel free. I'm studying massage, to be less in my head and more in the moment, uninhibited, learning an art with my hands, my arms, my entire body, of making muscle tissue release, let go. To let go, to blow a kiss to my critics, to begin to make music again.


Pilot Pen Corporation
Office Equipment
Three Years Earlier, July 10th

(Mired in the gray cubicle)

Here's to you, Pilot Pen. God knows where you came from or where you've been, what fate life has dealt you or what exquisite joys have been yours (it's pretty obvious you've seen better days), but I commend you for your loyalty. Here: the Purple Heart for bravery in the face of all conspiring forces (like phone, that cumbersome death star, and clock the conniving traitor). Don't let them turn your black ink cold, dear friend, for you are, as you proclaim, "extra fine." Be strong. Let your rolling ball skip lightly on the face of many pages. May your pinfeather dreams be sweet.