91-Word Memoir Contest—2014

The Inspiration: This annual contest celebrates longtime Gotham student and writer Norma Crosier who died a few days short of her 91st birthday.

The Challenge: Tell a story from your life in 91 words or fewer.


Truck-Stop Gift Shop

When I was six, I stood in a truck-stop gift shop staring at Land of Lincoln ashtrays. Waylon Jennings crackled from an AM radio, and I smelled biscuits baking. The door abruptly opened, and the shop filled with diesel fumes and cigarette smoke trailed by one of the men that my mother considered a gentleman caller, 70s trucker-style. She would disappear into the darkness with him, and I would stare at collectible spoons with handles in the shape of Illinois.

Virginia Catalano
New York, New York


We forget

2/26/93. Cold, gray, NYC day. In my windowless office in the core of one of the glass WTC twin towers.

BOOM! The building shook, swayed. Smoke.

To stairwells. Muted panic. Thousands descend inexorably slowly, shoulder to shoulder, nose to nape, into thicker smoke, then blackness.

So sad that Id die young, confused, choking smoke in a packed stairwell. Then, tears later, oh so happy to reach clean crisp air outside on solid ground.

A man on the curb, smoking a cigarette. After inhaling the equivalent of 10000 cartons.

Mendel Ciment
Brooklyn, New York

A Hillbillys Blessing for a Crown Heights Hipster

Billboard blasting an ad for a 74-ounce soda looms in the distance. I snap photos for friends in Brooklyn who wont believe this otherwise. Home in Kentucky for my grandmothers funeral, Im between worlds. Granddaughter of the Appalachians who found a second home in Crown Heights. Mostly, my worlds see each other in caricature, missing beautiful nuances. My Methodist grandma eloped with my Catholic grandpa, facing attitudes that shaped their worldview. She gave the okay for me to marry my Muslim boyfriend. Not the blessing one expects from a supposed hillbilly.

Jennifer Mayfield
Brooklyn, New York


The fake tan was buried at the back of the bathroom vanity, amongst spare conditioners and toilet paper. I was ten. And I was pale.

I slunk into the bathroom one night and slapped it on haphazardly, not yet armed with years of womens magazines telling me how to prep, prime, buff and shine.

The next day it felt like my life had switched into technicolour. Legs the colour of bark. Palms brown and streaked.

My mother looked down at my knees in the car. I denied it all.

Sophie Lambert
Woollahra, New South Wales

The First Time We Were Called Niggers

My sister and I, 1968. Mulattoes with wavy hair and golden skin. Young skinny mules with smooth faces and long colt legs, walking from the Dairy Queen. We pass a black man on the sidewalk. He looks up and down, and smiles. We smile back, naive to the ways of black men but grateful to see one in our cottony white neighborhood.

He yells it. Niggers.

Reminds us of what we are.

Frightened. Stunned. It wasnt the last time we were called that name.

Robin Lovelace
Plainfield, Indiana

Scar on My Knee

People ask me about it a lot, especially in the summer days of short shorts and skirts and dresses with high hems. I was run over by a bike, I say. Maybe run-over is an exaggeration. I was hit. The biker came flying out from that blind spot on the corner of Sheridan. Gave me this scar, and ruined my favorite pair of jeans, too.

Unbelievable! they sometimes say. But they always believe it.

I never tell them about the fence I jumped, or the drunk boy, or the truth.

Julie Lunde
Evanston, Illinois

Mines a Rewind

Some nights when Im kissing my elderly mother goodnight, she whispers, Did you know your brother is gay? Then she cries softly, whimpering that her darling boy is sick, and hes going to hell, and she swears me to secrecy so no one can ever know. I rub her back until she sleeps, then make myself a drink to blur my sadness about this uneasy reprise. Thankfully, Mom always wakes up with no memory of her angst from the night before. Dementia, the trickster, spills secrets, but He keeps them, too.

Rose Jakubaszek
Jersey City, New Jersey


As a girl, I couldnt ask for directions or read the note pinned to my shirt: My name is Meirav Devash. I dont speak English. If lost, return me to Mrs. Sesteros classroom.

Soon I was fluent. Not perfect. I enunciated like a newscaster. I became an editor, smugly correcting natives.

In Israel, 25 years later, I was lost again. But Carmit understood why I didn't ask directions: Youre too shy to speak Hebrew because youre perfect in English. You want to stay this wayperfect.

Meirav Devash
New York, New York

The Trade Off

Everyone who could, came to the train station that freezing day. A flask of vodka, produced from a coat pocket brought a strained cheer. A jar of pickles from another pocket produced a louder cheerthis time with genuine laughter. This was a final farewell, and almost everyone knew it. My aunt ran along the platform.

Be a good person!

And then, somehow, we found ourselves in the land of chewing gum, and liquid soap, and opportunity, and ceaseless longing for those faces left behind on the platform that freezing day.

Alex Waldman
New York, New York