This essay was originally presented at the season finale of the second season, or volume, of Amsterdam's live literary journal, VERSO /.
Some 7000 kilometers from here, on an overgrown hill of kamperfolie, I mean honeysuckle, and mock orange and grapevine and walnut, cut back enough for a little house and a narrow driveway, I, at maybe 9 or 10, planted myself on the red soil below my treehouse and began to clean pennies.
I subscribed to a science magazine and had read that morning about how, with vinegar and salt, you can return a penny to its original radiance. About ¼ of a cup of vinegar to a teaspoon of salt, stir it up in a glass bowl, let the penny soak for about 10 seconds, and there it is. Shine.
This, I decided, was the new lemonade stand. No one ever trekked up our hill for lemonade, much less Halloween candy. We were secluded up there, among the ruins of my grandfather’s old farmland, and sometimes in winter, with heavy snow or ice, we couldn’t even make it up the hill ourselves. My father would have to plow a path between the trees to avoid the slip of the concrete driveway, shift our Toyota Tercel into 4-wheel drive, and pray our way up. Winter or summer, UPS usually parked at the bottom and walked.
But this, my penny cleaning stand, this would bring people up the hill. Pennies were still worth something back then, and who wouldn’t want them to shine? I found an old slab of wood from my father’s workshop, painted my trade and my rate, dragged my sign down the hill, and propped it against the mailbox. Here we go.
The day was slow and reeked of vinegar. My only customers, of course, were my parents and my grandma who lived next door and who I’m sure was called in for reinforcement. No doubt that my parents felt sorry for me and were worried that I faced a life ahead of failed and useless businesses.
It’s hard to know what I was thinking. We weren’t well off, my mom a teacher and my dad an activist. We had what we needed but not much more than that. Our vacations were spent in tents at state parks. I loved every minute of my childhood but I wasn’t interested in being rich, so the significance of the penny to me, and of having it clean, is kind of baffling.
Unless I admit two things: one, I was a nerd and two, I was lonely.
That high hill had my entire life built into it, even friends, who were first my cousins, and my social life, the weekly Sundays and Wednesdays we spent next door at my grandma’s. As I grew older, I realized I had to find ways to bring people from the outside up my hill—or make my way beyond it. But I didn’t know how, and I was terrified.
And here I could draw it out, the metaphor, you’re probably waiting for it, where the literary evening is like that penny cleaning stand, a useless act of radiance, I mean unprofitable, a moment when our lonely lines of careful verse set up on some kind of hill and spend some time.
But what I really want to say is that I am still that kid waiting for you. Still kind of nerdy and kind of lonely, experimenting with ways to connect to the wide world. Not sure how to leave the hill. Versal, VERSO /, they’re my penny cleaning stands. And when you make the trek up, I am in awe.
What I’m learning, what I realize right now, is that maybe we are all on that hill, waiting. And maybe we’re all, also, walking up. So much happens on this stage but it is you who make VERSO /. Because a literary journal is more than a stage and pages, lines and margins, submissions and sales numbers. It’s a community. It’s right here. It’s you, me, on a hill, in a space together. Reading, writing, thinking, scared and sharing, beautiful and radiant. Conducting an experiment with copper, vinegar and salt.