Archive for Writing Portfolio

“Alpena, Americana, & the Great Cardboard Boat Race,” Found Michigan

Writing Portfolioon July 9th, 2012No Comments

Published in Found Michigan, July 5, 2012 [Read the story here]


It’s been years since I’ve lived in Alpena, but I still tell people I’m going home when I leave New York City and head back to Michigan. And this morning, for a few moments after I wake up in my childhood bedroom, I forget I’m not still 16. It takes me some time to remember that it’s 2011, that I now use the guest towels and that my bedroom is the office.

In the kitchen, my mom leans over the stove, humming as she adds cheese to a pan of scrambled eggs. Outside, against the backdrop of the Thunder Bay River, my dad guards strips of bacon as they crisp up on the grill. I smile at the unintentional embrace of traditional gender roles and reach for the coffeepot. Mom moves the pan off the heat and examines my outfit.

“Your headband is crooked,” she says, adjusting the red-white-and-blue-striped ribbon I’ve tied around my hair. “But your lipstick looks great.”

My friend Laura arrives then, and I tie matching ribbons to her wrists and thread them through her headband. Since high school, we’ve loved to dress up for holidays and random occasions. Now that we’re adults living on different coasts—her in Washington and me in New York City—I often find myself looking around the room at parties and realizing I’m the only one in costume.

We eat our American breakfast of animal products and coffee and rush to St. Bernard’s Church, where my parents were married more than 30 years ago. We’ve met there for the Fourth of July parade since I could remember, perching on the steps and on the curb to watch the floats and the tractors and the marching band. But now, the kids fighting for candy on the street are no longer me and my cousins, but my cousins’ kids, who are only a few years away from being too cool to scream about Bazooka. My family members stand on the lawn behind them, trading sarcastic quips and giant Midwestern bear hugs over the sirens of the approaching parade.

The next hour provides a patriotic display of modified tractors, handmade floats, antique cars and marching bands. A Jesus-themed float with grammar errors passes us, and I snicker for a moment before realizing my family won’t be amused. There’s a Statue of Liberty made from green garbage bags, which prompts my uncle to cheer and shout my name. An elderly couple on Rascal scooters whizzes past, a blur of American flags and barking poodles.

When I moved to Manhattan—the city of parades for every nationality and occasion—I was surprised to learn that our independence didn’t warrant one. I remember standing for a few seconds in the sweltering American heat and staring up at my beloved new city, with its skyscrapers and sewer smells and screeching subway cars, and feeling so far from home without this silly annual ritual. One year, I went to the Hudson River to watch the fireworks, which are said to be spectacular if you can get a view around all the buildings. Police herded us like cattle onto a pier, where we stood for hours in the sweaty crowd to wait for dusk. Now, as I join my family in the breezy Midwest on a perfect 80-degree day, I can’t believe that for a moment before I came home for this visit, I had been annoyed about missing the Fourth in New York.

America the Ironic

The boat is sinking—fast. The six crew members struggle furiously to paddle to shore, ignoring the puckering cardboard and the water rushing in through the folds of the box, but it’s of no use. They’re doomed. One sailor, a teenage boy wearing an orange life vest, refuses to go down without a fight. In the few moments before the box bursts open, he thrusts his paddle into the river and sends waves of water at the cardboard boat next to them.

Its passengers—four 20-somethings in a handmade boat designed to look like a case of Landshark Lager—ignore the splashing and continue paddling, leaving the failing vessel in their wake. Finally it goes under, sending the six crew members crashing into Thunder Bay. The crowd screams and cheers for the sunken boat, and they scream louder when the winner crosses the finish line. I cheer with them, even though my favorite didn’t win.

When the cardboard regatta ends, everyone slowly trickles back to the Maritime Festival, joking and laughing in their patriotic flag T-shirts. I hear the sounds of a band warming up and catch a faint whiff of popcorn. The few National Marine Sanctuary staffers look proud: the cardboard regatta’s first year was a success. Since 2001, the sanctuary has held the festival—which includes events like fur-trading re-creators, local bands, a hand-jive competition and a storyteller—but the cardboard boats are a new addition.

It’s so different from the past few summers, which I’ve spent sweating in the New York heat. It’s not the silly race or even the parade; I’d find all these elements in the other places I’ve called home: in New York City or Detroit or even East Lansing. I’d join my peers as they watched the fun through giant sunglasses, gripping onto cans of overpriced PBR with vague smirks on their faces. They’d have fun, but it would be the kind of fun acceptable to people my age, the kind punctuated by a wink that says, I know this is stupid, and that’s why it’s OK.

But as I look around today, there’s just a sense of fun. People are enjoying themselves, but they’re not looking around to make sure everyone else knows that they’re in on the joke. They don’t care. It’s sunny and there are hotdogs and ice cream, and later on there will be fireworks. And it’s America and today feels pretty damn American, in a good way that actually makes me feel a little proud.

As Laura and I head toward the hotdog stand, I spot a woman wearing the wolf-and-moon T-shirt that Brooklyn’s ironic hipsters loved to sport a few years ago. (It’s out of ironic fashion now.) Unlike everyone I know, however, she’s wearing it because she likes the wolf and the moon,and because it was probably on sale at Walmart, which is one of three stores that sell clothing in Alpena. It suits her, actually, and I feel a bit embarrassed, but I don’t know why.

Almost Famous

We make our way toward Starlite Beach on the Lake Huron shore, where a sand-castle contest has been going on since dawn. When I was a teenager, my cousin Ryan won every year. I remember his sunburned Irish skin blazing against his masterpieces, which were enhanced with colored water and hours of planning. Now the sculptures seem less grand, less meticulous, than they did when I was younger. I want to ask him if he noticed it as well.

I pass another cousin, Mike, working on a surfing scene, and he grins and waves as he continues sculpting the wet sand. There’s the requisite shark scene, which is actually quite scary—there’s something about the way its eyes stare vacantly and the sand streams from its sharp teeth like blood—and an impressive John Deere tractor, which will be a crowd pleaser.

Laura points toward the end of the beach and begins to laugh. At the end of the sculptures and castles crouches a boy, about 11, who is intently burying his sister in the sand. He’s left her head, hands and feet exposed, and she grins at me through missing teeth. A pink flag waves next to them (they’re entry No. 2) and the boy drops his shovel as we approach.

I crouch down to take a photo and he laughs. “Am I going to be on the Internet? Will you make me famous?” He turns to his sister, who can only wiggle her toes and fingers. “Hey, I’m going to be famous!”

A few blocks away and a few hours later, the Eagles cover band 7 Bridges takes the stage at the band shell. Laura and I take our time getting there—it’s an Eagles cover band, after all—and when we arrive, fans on chairs and blankets dot the entire hill and the lawn surrounding it. People even crowd onto the sidewalks and spill into the marina hundreds of feet from the stage.

The band struts on stage, all big hair and machismo and muscle shirts, promoting their album and their T-shirts as if they’ve earned the fame they now have, and the crowd goes nuts. When they begin playing, people stand up and dance, mouthing the words and closing their eyes as if the real Eagles were rocking out. A man stands up in front of me, his pants low enough to provide a clear slice of crack, and I realize he’s wearing a World Trade Center T-shirt. A menacing font reads, “Never Forget.” Everything about this, everything about him, is so Alpena—small-town, nationalistic, vaguely threatening but strangely naive—that I roll my eyes. His girlfriend approaches, shaking her dyed-blond hair as her cleavage hangs out.

I turn to Laura with a snarky comment on my tongue but realize that she too is smiling and nodding her head to the music. She hates “Witchy Woman,” of course, but it doesn’t mean that she can’t enjoy the sunshine, the music and even the weird man dressed as a taco at the Taco Bell stand. And it’s not ironic. I’ve been in New York so long, I’ve forgotten I don’t always have to wink.

“Magic: Alpena, Mich., 1992,” Found Michigan

Writing Portfolioon November 26th, 20112 Comments
[See the article here]

The living room looks like a battlefield. A moaning cousin lays on every surface available: couches, recliners, carpeting, even the cool tiles of our hearth. We all breathe heavily in unison, as if expelling air will also ease the the pressure caused by one helping too many. I recline on the floor, watching the thick snowflakes dance outside the living room window. They taunt us to pull on our snow pants and join them, but even our love of snowball fights won’t make us move. If we did, we might die.

Thanksgiving is a magical holiday full of food and family and no responsibilities. I wake up to a fully cooked turkey in the oven, tables that sprouted in the basement overnight and the excitement of the New York parade on TV. I greet guests who suddenly appear at our door, bearing pots of mashed potatoes, plates of salads, trays of turkey and tins of pies. The house is always spotless on Thanksgiving — I’m pretty sure that’s also the holiday magic — even though I never saw anyone cleaning it. My mom smiles and laughs and drinks a lot of coffee.

I roll on my stomach and watch aunt after aunt carry trays of dirty dishes from our basement to the kitchen. My grandma mans her usual post at the sink despite her six daughters’ frequent clucks and demands that she sit down. She won’t rest until the work is finished, even if it means she’ll be sore for days. Occasionally, an aunt stops to survey the pile of lethargic kids, all rendered useless after that last bite of pumpkin pie (smothered with ice cream, whipped cream and candy corn, of course). She scans the room for signs of life, shakes her head and returns to the whirring kitchen.

Downstairs, my uncles grunt and thud as they fold and stack dozens of borrowed tables and chairs onto a dolly. The tables, usually used for business lunches and meetings, spend one day a year holding 65 heaping plates of food, 10 paper turkeys and 25 dishes of candy corn.

My mom emerges from the staircase and hands me my Amy Grant CD, which my cousin Erin and I had used for a pre-dinner dance performance that will haunt us for years. “Put this in your room,” Mom instructs, giving me the you should be helping look. I ignore her and roll over, groaning at the effort.

After an hour, my tryptophan haze gives way to a clean house, an empty dishwasher and a table-free basement, all without our having to lift a finger. My cousins and I — now clear-eyed and excited — hatch a plan to see Aladdin in the theater, and we roll our eyes when our parents say they need a nap first.

Adults are always tired.


Elissa Englund grew up in Northern Michigan and lives in New York City, where she works as a copy editor for Time magazine. She is a founder of the online literary magazine A Tale of Four Cities and has a blog called Too Many Commas. She’s co-hosting her first Thanksgiving today — without any magic.

“The Graffiti Grammarian,”
A Tale of Four Cities

Writing Portfolioon November 11th, 2011Comments Off

James Pellingham III pulled a can of spray paint from his back pocket, glanced around the street and leaned forward, frowning slightly. If any of his teachers had happened to be this far uptown on a Monday afternoon, they’d recognize this signature look of concentration as James’ math-problem face. But James wasn’t doing math.

James uncapped the paint can and shook it gently, enjoying the familiar feel of cool metal between his fingers. He released a spray of paint onto the fence, leaving steady red lines and confident swirls over the rough wood, feeling his tension ease with each push of the nozzle. Within 15 minutes, the red slashes, swirls and words wove around the old graffiti, sometimes eclipsing it but always leaving enough for his message to be clear. James surveyed his work, then flicked his wrist and tagged the wall with his small identifying signature: “Gramz.”

He knelt down and shoved the can into his backpack, jerking upright as a security guard rounded the corner. The guard eyed James suspiciously, but after taking in the teenager’s prep-school uniform and neatly combed blond hair, he shrugged his shoulders and ambled past, whistling the final notes of a Lady Gaga song and reaching into his shirt pocket for a cigarette. James looked back at his wall and breathed deeply.

Later that night, after James had left the anonymity of Spanish Harlem for the monotony of his family’s Upper West Side condo, he found himself transfixed by the pale brown slime slowly congealing on his stir-fried vegetables. Every few moments, he looked up, blushed and looked down again. After 10 minutes, Anya, the waifish new au pair, nudged him gently.

“James,” she whispered in a way James liked to think was intimate. “Your parents won’t be happy if you don’t take these.” She placed four small pills on the corner of his plate. James blushed again.

He shoved the pills in his mouth, pretended to swallow and excused himself to his room, locking the door and blaring music that was sure to make the neighbors complain. The front door slammed as his parents came home, and James heard his father’s stumbling and his mother’s laughter. He turned his music two notches louder.

Much farther downtown, in an Avenue D studio apartment above an inexpensively delicious pizza parlor, 37-year-old Carl Brandon logged onto his Google Reader. Carl, a chemistry teacher by day and imagined rebel by night, regularly followed 472 blogs, mostly related to graffiti and hip-hop. He also maintained his own website under the handle — and his graffiti tag, the one time he attempted this feat — of Bi-83, in honor of his favorite element, Bismuth. (When he selected his handle, Carl didn’t realize that years later, it would still attract a certain kind of commenter who thought he was a bisexual girl born in 1983 instead of a middle-aged chemistry enthusiast. But it was too late now.)

Carl scrolled through a few street-art websites and was happy to discover that none of them had spotted his newest find. He opened his briefcase and managed to grab his digital camera only moments before Argon hopped inside. Carl laughed and let him stay, deciding that the effort to move the obese tomcat from his favorite perch was simply too great. Carl uploaded the photos to his computer, scrolling through image after image of steady red lines and confident swirls, and composed a quick blog post describing his find.

I wandered East Harlem today in search of Target and instead came across this gem: another tag by mysterious street legend Gramz, who is known throughout the city as the Graffiti Grammarian. Famous for both great artistic style and a quick wit, Gramz “corrects” other taggers’ offensive spelling errors with a flourish akin to Picasso wielding an editor’s red pen. Both beautiful and humorous, being “Gramzed” has become the highest form of compliment a street artist can earn. These photos, taken on 123rd Street, show the tag “Kill the Skank’s” covered by Gramz’s artistic corrections. If you look closely, the graffiti was definitely done by Gramz — not by one of his ubiquitous copycats — and uses his signature advanced strokes, shading and scribbling. Seeing a Gramz original is an exciting find, especially since I never located the damn Target. –Bi-83.

Carl Brandon looked at the cat. “You get 30 more seconds, fatty,” he said, scratching Argon behind his ears. He flipped his website to the analytics page, waiting to see how long it would take before someone saw his post. Yep, pure gold. Posting anything about Gramz, especially original content, boosted his site’s performance almost instantly. Within seconds, he’d gotten 24 views. By morning, he’d have thousands of hits. He lifted Argon, closed his briefcase and turned off his laptop, yawning as he carried the cat into the bedroom.

In-Depth Article,
The State News

Writing Portfolioon September 9th, 2010Comments Off

Five-year-old Damonta runs giggling to his mother and throws his arms around her neck, spilling her drink on her lap and the floor of a homeless shelter.

“Damonta!” screams his mother, Davonna Davis, laughing. “I just washed these clothes.”

Damonta grins and runs to join a friend near the toy box as his father, Willie Davis, retreats to the kitchen for a mop.

“I wonder if they even realize what’s going on,” Willie says as he watches his son. Davonna and Willie moved their three children, Breanna, Stephawn and Damonta, from their Chicago public housing apartment to the Lansing area last August.

But they struggled to find decent affordable housing within their low-income rent range, and months after they moved to town, the family still lives at Haven House, a family-oriented homeless shelter in East Lansing.

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“Good Grammar Gets the Girl,”
Essay in Anthology

Writing Portfolioon September 9th, 2010Comments Off

Published in America Now: Short Readings From Recent Periodicals, edited by Robert Atwan

In the few weeks that I’ve been a member of an online dating service, I’ve had an interesting range of people contact me. Meet Craig (not his real name). He’s a 28-year-old Virgo seeking a lady who is “fun to be around.” He says he finished college and is employed full time. All in all, he seems like a pretty together guy.

Until you read his message.

“Hi! I love to have fun weather it at work or hang out with friends,” wrote Craig in his introductory conversation, which I’ve left with the original grammar. “I’m an optimistic because like is to short too be a pessimistic.”

In our second conversation, he informed me, “I don’t like it when people play games and our dishonest. I have been burned to many times.”

Sorry, Craig. you seem a little “to dumb” to date.

I’m sure Craig is actually very smart. I’m sure he’s very sweet. But in the online dating world, that just won’t cut it, babe.

Our society has reverted to the written word as one of the initial means of conversation. Although these love letters generally aren’t written on parchment with quill pens, many first impressions are based solely on how you express yourself through the English language.

With the explosion of the Internet, many couples have exchanged their first flirting words through instant messages, e-mail, and online dating services. Grammar isn’t just a subject taught in seventh grade or a thing you worry about when writing a cover letter any longer. If you can’t spell, use grammar, or express yourself through writing, you’re going to be in trouble with the ladies.

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“Night Crawler” Column,
Times Herald-Record

Writing Portfolioon September 8th, 2010Comments Off

I’m a sucker for the stereotypical American diner at night — there’s something almost spiritual in watching a big slice of a city’s insomniacs gather to gorge on unhealthy food and too much caffeine.

So, a few weeks after moving to Middletown, I’m delighted to discover the Colonial Diner, just a few blocks from my house.

With fake leather seats and flowered upholstery, wood paneling, a bar that snakes around the kitchen and a paper Jesus watching over the cash register, it fits all my expectations.

But it goes above and beyond with Betty O’Rourke.

Five nights a week, from 8 p.m. until 6 a.m., the tiny 63-year-old is there, serving up the diner’s infamous cheese fries and gravy.

Without a smile.

In fact, during 13 years of working at the diner, Betty’s become something of a legend, a fact that seems to make her proud.

“I have a reputation,” she says simply as she wipes the counter during a lull in the early hours of a Wednesday morning. “I’m that mean old lady in the diner.”

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“The Buzz” Features Article,
Times Herald-Record

Writing Portfolioon September 8th, 2010Comments Off
Published in the Times Herald-Record

Is your baby suffering from low self-esteem as a result of early pattern baldness? Does he weep when he looks in a mirror and glimpses his shiny, bald head? Do you find yourself compelled to cover your child’s baldness with cute little bonnets and hats?

Well, fear not, parents.

Baby toupees are here to save your child from the humiliation and trauma of life sans hair. In four glorious styles that mimic the popular celebrity hairdos of the day — Donald Trump, Lil’ Kim, Samuel L. Jackson and Bob Marley –  your child will not only have luxurious locks but also will be the coolest baby in the playpen.

Not only that, but your child might learn a thing or two from these masters of finance, music and the silver screen. Never underestimate the power of osmosis.

Take Hayden Carlock, 14 months old, who was sporting a trendy Donald Trump comb-over at the Galleria at Crystal Run last month.

If he had spoken, his words might have been “You’re fired!”

But he only grinned and ripped off the toupee.

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Advertising Copy,
Mario & Tony Painting

Writing Portfolioon September 3rd, 2010Comments Off

I wrote the promotional copy for a New York-based painting company, which was used in a brochure and on the company’s website.

Download Brochure