Author Archives: Amanda Lewis

Ghost Bikes

The informant (J) is a 22 year old college graduate who just started his first real job. He got into bicycling during the summer of 2012 when he was renting a room in Sunnyvale, California near his summer internship. Though he had had bikes prior to that summer, he began to rely on his bike exclusively for the 8 mile round-trip to his workplace from his rented room. He borrowed a bike from his mother’s friend but eventually bought his own once he got his first couple paychecks. He purchased a mid-end road bike and quickly got wrapped up in the biking communities on sites like reddit.com/r/bicycling. Though his commute was short, the threat of being hit by cars is always on the top of serious bicyclists’ minds, especially when cycling in the street. I first asked about his biking knowledge when I encountered a white bike chained to a pole near Union Station in Los Angeles, California. He learned about this from the people he talks to on the internet about biking, since none of his real-life friends like to ride in the same way he does. He had heard of the practice before he saw his first ghost bike. The following is a paraphrase of the information he gave me regarding the practice.

“The white bikes are called ghost bikes. They get put up when a cyclist dies on the road. They just find a bike and paint it white before chaining it to a pole or something near the spot the cyclist was killed. They usually get put up by the friends of the cyclists, if they know about the ghost bikes, but they can also be put up by random cyclists if they hear about the accident and are familiar with the idea. At first, there are usually pictures and candles and stuff along with the bike but the bike usually stays there longer than all that stuff. They do have to chain the bike to something or assholes will steal the bike even though it’s basically like one of those crosses they put on the side of the road when some dies in a car accident or a shooting or something like that. Luckily, I’ve never known anyone personally who died while cycling so I haven’t had to put one up, but I definitely notice when I see one. It’s a little weird to see one. It’s supposed to tell the drivers to be careful and watch the road”

The practice of putting up ghost bikes highlights the struggle felt between drivers and cyclists. There is tension between the two groups because a little tap won’t hurt a car, but can kill a cyclist easily, a fact that is often forgotten by those driving cars. Often, cars don’t even STOP when they hit a cyclist. The ghost bikes are a reminder that cyclists do get killed when drivers aren’t careful, both to the drivers and to the cyclists. It seems like a reminder to cyclists that even if they do everything “right,” things can still go very, very wrong. I think it unifies the cyclists under the pretense that they need to raise awareness so that other cyclists don’t suffer the same fate. The people who put these bikes up identify themselves as cyclists and the use of the bike to remember the death is representative of that. Though putting up a ghost bike is not something people want to have to do, it can serve to honor the life of the deceased by existing long after their death.

St. Clare of Assisi.

The informant (L) is a senior film major at California State University Los Angeles. L also nannies on the weekends. She grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma and attended Catholic schools before coming to Los Angeles for college. Though her interpretation of Catholicism is more modern than those of the previous generation, she still calls herself Catholic. I asked her if she had any religious folklore and she responded by telling me about the patron saint of television. She said that it was something her friends told each other and she had read in a book when she was about 10 years old. Below is the paraphrased story that she gave as the explanation as to how Saint Clare became the patron saint of television.

Saint Clare of Assisi was a nun in Italy many centuries ago. She was a very devoted nun and never missed a day of mass, ever. One day, however, she got sick and even though she wanted to go to mass, she just could not physically get her body to take her to mass. It was then, in her bedroom, that the Holy Spirit “projected the mass on the wall” of the bedroom so that she could still experience the mass without physically being at the mass. Because this is like what a television does, she was made into the patron saint of television even though she lived a long time before TVs even existed.

Though she had read this in a book, she did not know until later that it was “real” and that Pope Pius XII had actually made her the patron saint of television in the 1950’s. St. Clare is especially important to L because her school and future work life is entirely based on television and film.

It is important to note that L used the word “projected” to describe how St. Clare saw the mass, whereas the more religious sources (like http://saints.sqpn.com/saint-clare-of-assisi/) use other words like display and “able to see.” I think L’s choice of words connects St. Clare to the idea of television (as film etc. used to be projected on to a screen). Additionally, the fact that L skipped a lot of the other important things St. Clare did, like follow St. Francis and other religiously significant things, and got right to the part that mattered: how a saint became connected to television. This says a lot about the way L sees the story: it is a connection between her religion and the way she grew up and the life she is now leading. She feels connected to her religion through St. Clare.

 

Don’t be such a nudge!

The informant is a 22 year old college graduate that is now working at a software company in Madison, WI. He grew up in Upton, Massachusetts until he left Upton to go to college in Los Angeles, California. . Upton is a small (population 7,542) town about 45 minutes south-west of Boston. He grew up in a loosely Catholic household with both of his parents and two younger sisters (3 years younger and 7 years younger). His maternal grandmother alternated between living in Massachusetts and living in Florida throughout his childhood (and continues to do so now). She grew up in Massachusetts.

When the informant was a child, he often spent time with his maternal grandmother. He is not the oldest or the youngest of her grandchildren, but is outnumbered by girls 4 to 2 when he was growing up. When he was being obnoxious, his grandmother would call him a “nudge.” Though she was not malicious when saying this, the informant stated that she only said this when she was “trying not to be angry” at whatever small-child antics the informant was involved in. Though he cannot remember exactly when she started doing this, she only did so rarely.  She no longer seriously calls him this.

Though the informant has no children as of now, he sometimes teasingly calls his girlfriend a nudge when she asks for something that is particularly reminiscent of a child’s want, like a juice box or other similar rather un-adult food item like grilled cheese. I think his frame of mind is slightly different than when his grandmother was originally using the term, as he is rarely actually getting annoyed with the girlfriend when he calls her this. He does not call anyone but his girlfriend this, as it could come off as rude or strange to someone who does not know the story behind it.

Using somewhat silly names like nudge seem to diffuse tension. Small children, especially those with a somewhat stubborn streak like my informant, can be quite irritating to others and create tension within someone who is “supposed” to be nice and motherly towards a child, as a grandmother is. Using a silly but slightly negative name helps relieve this tension between having to be kind and being irritated out of one’s mind. This does not apply when the informant is using the term with his girlfriend. In that case, it is simply to tease her for wanting childish things by calling her a name that refers to a child.

Trot Trot to Boston

The informant is a 22 year old college graduate that is now working at a software company in Madison, WI. He grew up in Upton, Massachusetts until he left Upton to go to college in Los Angeles, California. . Upton is a small (population 7,542) town about 45 minutes south-west of Boston. He grew up in a loosely Catholic household with both of his parents and two younger sisters (3 years younger and 7 years younger).

I first heard this rhyming song before I thought to collect it, approximately 2 years ago when he jokingly performed the piece for me. I asked him to repeat the rhyme and asked him a few more questions about it on the date specified below. The song/rhyme is usually said by parents to their small children. He mainly remembers his father saying the rhyme to him and his younger sisters when they were small enough to easily fit on his lap but old enough to sit upright (i.e. they were not newborns).  The words are as follows:

Trot trot to Boston,

Trot trot to Lynn,

Watch out little baby,

Or you might fall in!

 

The rhyme is said while the child is on the adult’s lap. Overall, the rhythm of the rhyme is reminiscent of a horse’s gallop, which makes sense when you take the “trot trot” as referring to horses (not the child) trotting. As each syllable is said, the adult moves their legs by lifting their heels, creating a physical movement for the child that is very much like a what would be experienced during a horse ride. As the adult says the last two words (“fall in”), the adult moves their knees apart and lets the child drop slightly as if they are falling. The adult, of course, does not let the child actually fall and usually has their arms around the child to make sure this does not happen.

Both Boston and Lynn are cities in Massachusetts and are only ten miles apart, making a horse ride between them a feasible idea. The route between them is also near the coast, which may mean that “falling in” refers to falling in some sort of water or marshy land. The informant remembers his father saying this rhyme when they were being silly, so it is not an attempt to seriously scare the child by letting them think the adult would drop them. This plays with the feelings between of protection needed by children. By saying the child could fall, letting them fall a little bit but preventing them from completely falling to the ground, the parent is effectively saying “I’ve got you” without having to say those words.

There are several variations of this rhyme that use different cities in Massachusetts, some of which are published in a book called Trot-trot-to-Boston: Play Rhymes for Baby by Carol Ra. (the ISBN for the 1987 version is 9780688061906)

Though the informant does not have children or any nieces or nephews to tell this rhyme to, he does subject his girlfriend to the rhyme if he is in a particularly silly mood.

Good Luck Candles

The informant is a 23-year-old undergraduate at the University of Southern California. She moved a lot when she was younger, but spent her high school years but spent her high school years in Colorado, and still returns there to visit her dad on occasion. Her family is Mexican (though only partially) and Catholic, but her grandmother is Spanish (though her family has been in America for several centuries) and is a lot more Catholic than the rest of her family. I asked the informant about anything related to luck and she told me about the closet of candles her grandmother has.

Her grandmother has a closet full of the “Mexican candles” that are unscented candles in tall glass jars that usually have some sort of religious figure, like Jesus or a saint, printed on the outside. (These are also called “novena candles”). The informant says that she cannot remember a time where her grandmother did not have these candles. Her grandmother would keep at least one lit at all times, even when the grandmother is out of the house and, as the informant put it, “created a fire hazard.” Though the informant and other members of her generation (siblings, cousins, etc.) would tease the grandmother for being so obsessive over these candles, they would help her make sure that one was lit when they were around her house. Her grandmother believes that if she keeps these candles lit, it signals God to watch over her family.
There was one instance where the informant and her cousins decided to blow the candle out as a joke. Her grandmother did not find this entertaining, and was very upset that the candle that she thought was connected to God had been blown out, meaning God was no longer looking over her family. Shortly after the candle was blown out, the informant’s grandfather called  and explained that on their way to Idaho, their car had almost flipped and crashed, which had been, unbeknownst to him, the time period that the candle had been blown out. This reinforced the grandmother’s belief that the candles actually did something, and the children were discouraged from blowing out the candles ever again.

The candles physically symbolize the connection to God that is sometimes not easily felt. By using the flame of a candle to signify this connection, a simple glance at the candle can reaffirm the connection if the feeling itself is not there. This can also show the connection to others without having to actively discuss it.

Chuchupate Cures Everything

The informant is an 18-year-old biomedical engineering student at the University of Southern California. She is currently a freshman and grew up in Shafter, California. Shafter is about 2 hours away from Los Angeles by car. She is not particularly religious but described herself as spiritual. She was born in America, but some of the older members of her family were not.

I asked the informant if she had any remedies for aches or pains. She immediately told me of a remedy that her grandmother uses. Her grandmother is Mexican. The informant says that her grandmother uses a liquid called chuchupate to cure everything “like Windex in the My Big Fat Greek Wedding movie.” She gave several examples of when her grandmother would use chuchupate, including bruises and sprained ankles. Her father had broken his arm when he was younger and applying chuchupate apparently sped up the healing process. Unlike Windex in the movie, chuchupate is made to cure things and does not have another primary use, at least in the eyes of her family. The informant did not seem entirely convinced that the chuchupate actually did anything, but she did not think it did any harm and was subject to her grandmother applying it several times throughout her life. I inquired as to where the chuchupate was acquired and she said that her grandmother goes to Mexico to have the chuchupate liquid made for her at a medicine shop. I asked if she could get it in the United States but just chose to go to Mexico to get it, but my informant says that the compound is not available in the United States.

A quick Google search after I talked to the informant revealed that chuchupate has several other common names, including osha and bear root. In addition to the treatment of injuries as listed by the informant, the root is apparently used for curing viral and bacterial issues like sore throats and bronchitis, though not by Western doctors. I believe some of the healing power of chuchupate is in the belief that it will help. I found it interesting that my informant only listed chuchupate as beneficial to injuries, while the first few search results focused almost entirely on its use for various types of infections.  Additionally, chuchupate grows readily in the United States so theoretically it is available in the US, but perhaps just not in a suitable form made in a medicine shop.

Run, it’s Mr. Tolstoy!

The informant grew up in Alta Loma, California before moving to Boring, Oregon to live with her father during her high school years. While in Alta Loma, her family owned horse property and owned horses throughout her life that she would often ride for fun as she grew up. She was allowed to ride around her neighborhood and the surrounding area without adult supervision. Because the area was not as developed as it is today, there were many more trails that horses were allowed on than there are today.

When asked if she had any contemporary legend to share, she immediately launched into a description of one of these horse paths. There was a one-way street in front of house that someone named Mr. Tolstoy lived in. She would ride by this part of the neighborhood frequently as she lived nearby. Her friends and her had heard that Mr. Tolstoy would shoot at kids as they rode by on their horses. While she does not remember exactly when she heard this, but she was in elementary school in the 1970’s while she had these horses. There was never an event where she actually saw or heard Mr. Tolstoy shooting at someone, but she would canter more quickly by his house every time she went by. Additionally, she never heard of an actual case of this occurring even after she was adult either. Though her friends and her all believed in the danger presented by Mr. Tolstoy, she has seen other people mention this in a Facebook group that is centered around living in Rancho Cucamonga, which includes Alta Loma. While she does not necessarily believe the legend regarding Mr. Tolstoy, she does reference it every once and a while to her children and sister.

This local urban legend capitalizes on the fear of strangers that is often instilled in children, whether it was created by the adults or the children. In addition, the continuance of this theme hints at the annoyance of older people with the younger generation. The reason this legend was scary to my informant when she was a child was because it was possible that an adult disliked children so much that he would risk being arrested to scare them off of a public street in front of his property.

Cherokee Yam Cakes

The informant (D) is a married father of two now adult children. D grew up in various parts of southern California, but spent his high school years in Chino, California, in the same house that his mother now lives. He and his wife shared the cooking responsibility about 50/50 while their children were still in the house but now that they have both gone off to college, he has taken over more of the responsibility. D’s father came from Oklahoma many decades ago, before my father was born, and claimed to be “part Cherokee,” though that was never formally proven. I asked D about the so-called “Cherokee yam cakes” that he makes every Thanksgiving. Cherokee yam cakes are best described as yam stir-n-roll (non-flaky) biscuits. He emailed me the recipe when I asked about the cakes.

The recipe is (copied from email):

“2 cups flour
2 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 1/2 T. sugar
1 1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup oil
1/2 cup milk
1 cup mashed yams

Mix oil, milk, & yams.
Add to sifted dry ingredients.
Mix lightly until it holds together.
Knead gently (about 12 times) until smooth
Roll out 1/2″ thick.
Cut into circles.
Bake on greased sheet, 425 F, 10-12 min.

I have always used whole wheat flour, my mom used all purpose flour.
I usually make a double batch.”

I also asked him several questions about the yam cakes. The interview below is verbatim via email.

Me: Where and when did you learn the recipe?
D: When I moved out of my mom’s house, I asked to copy the recipe. I moved out in 1983, back in in ’85, and back out in 1990 when [my wife and I] got married. I may not have got the recipe until 1990 but I don’t remember.
Me: Do you know where she got the recipe?
D: I never asked where she got the recipe. I assumed it was from my dad, but never asked [my mom] about that.  I know it was the one “add-on” to a Thanksgiving menu we had every year:

Rock Cornish game hens
Wild Rice dressing
asparagus
mashed potatoes and gravy
He got the menu from Playboy magazine!
Me: For what occasions do you make the yam cakes now?

D: Thanksgiving, though I made some also around Christmas last year, for the first time ever.  I think we missed Thanksgiving actually too for the first time but made some later, [my son] asked for them. I like to make a large batch so I can keep eating them for a few days.

Me: Why do you continue to make these yam cakes instead of something else for those occasions?

D: I don’t know of anything else like them- they’re so mellow and satisfying. They seem to settle your stomach if you overindulge in rich foods. Will and I used to credit them with making it possible to eat more after you thought you were full.

Me: What do the yam cakes mean to you?
D: Makes me remember my family  and family holidays when I was a kid, makes me proud of my unconfirmed  (1/32?) Cherokee heritage, makes me proud to have a good yummy recipe that nobody else makes and everyone always seems to like. Plus I think they’re pretty healthy and they’re easy to digest.
The fact that D calls them “Cherokee” yam cakes instead of just “yam cakes” tells me that small detail really does mean a lot. I have known D literally since I was born and do not remember him ever NOT saying “Cherokee yam cakes” when he was talking about them. As he mentions, the Cherokee ancestry has not been verified. I think this remains to be so important because being Native American (even a teeny bit) would connect him to the earth in a different way than the rest of his immigrant ancestry does (his mother is from Friesland, a Dutch province). The yam cakes really are unique and do settle an over-full stomach and are good hot or cold. It seems that though the naming is highly symbolic, the practical reasons to eat them are also important.
Additionally, the nostalgia factors into the importance of these cakes, both for D and his children.

Primate Joke

The informant (B) is a professor at the Keck School of Medicine. He teaches gross anatomy to the medical students but his research focuses mainly on primates, both extant and extinct. He has been studying or teaching biological anthropology since he started his undergraduate education in 1995 at the University of Chicago. He got his Masters and PhD at Stony Brook University and has had a lot of interaction with other biological anthropologists and anatomists. Biological anthropology is a field that is hard to explain to others at times, so there are lots of jokes that only make sense if you know a lot about primates. I asked B for one such joke and he told me the following:

Q: What do ayes-ayes and celebrities have in common when there are paparazzi around?

A: They like to show off their middle fingers!

Ayes-ayes (pronounced eye-eyes) are relatively small, nocturnal primates that have an elongated middle finger that they use to tap trees and extract little bugs to eat (See attached picture). They pretty much look like drowned rats and used to be classified as rodents, even though we now know that they are actually primates. This joke is “funny” because their middle fingers make it look like they are flipping off the camera, just as some celebrities do to paparazzi. A lot of the humor in this joke comes from comparing aye-ayes, which are pretty strange looking, to celebrities, who are usually very attractive. Other than flipping off the camera, aye-ayes and celebrities have nothing else in common.

While this joke is somewhat funny, even B acknowledges it is pretty bad. The usual reaction is a cringe face because the joke is so bad yet entertaining to think about. This joke will not make sense to anyone who does not know the basic features that aye-ayes have, and the joke is not funny enough to bother explaining to anyone who doesn’t already know about their middle fingers, so this joke is pretty much only told to other academics who focus on primates.

The picture attached was found on arkive.org. (Zoos don’t usually have aye ayes, so I do not have any of my own pictures and neither did B) Clicking on the picture will link to the arkive.org page on aye ayes.

The middle finger is longer than the rest

La Llorona: Kid Killer

The informant is a 18-year-old freshman studying biomedical engineering at the University of Southern California. She grew up in Shafter, CA but is now living on campus at USC. She grew up in a family of Mexican descent. I asked her if she had any urban legends she would like to share and she told me her version of La Llorona.

La Llorona was a story used to scare her and the younger members of her family to not go out at night when they were still children. La Llorona means the crying lady. The story behind it is that there was a lady in Mexico, a housewife, with two children and a husband. The husband worked a lot at an unspecified job. My informant had heard versions of the story where the lady was crazy and versions where the lady was just extremely jealous of the attention her kids received from her husband but leaned towards the lady being very jealous of the attention her children received. When either her insanity or her jealousy overwhelmed her, she drowned her children either in the bath or in a river. After she realized what she had done, she killed herself in the same manner. Her ghost/spirit now wanders around wailing for her children and attempting to find other children who happen to be outside. When I asked why she needed to be avoided, the informant said that La Llorona would kill the kids she did find while she was wandering, even though the story was being told in Shafter, CA and was removed geographically from the story’s origin.

This story was first told to her when she was around 6 or 7 years old, when she was old enough to understand the story. Though she did not seem entirely convinced that the tale was true now that she is 18 years old, she was very much scare by it when she was a young child. Though she does not regularly tell the entire legend, she does make references to the story and understand what people are referring to when they mention it. The story places an emphasis on the struggle between loving your children and having to share the love from your husband with them. This type of jealousy is taboo as mothers are “supposed” to give up everything for their children, including the affections of their husbands if need be. Though the children this is meant to scare probably do not immediately pick out this theme, it is certainly understood by the mothers telling the story.

La Llorona is the subject of many authored works, including a 2007 movie called The Cry (directed by Bernadine Santistevan). There is a lot of variation between different versions of La Llorona, but the general idea of a woman drowning children and stealing children that are not their own is pretty consistent throughout the different versions, including both the version I collected from my informant and the version presented in The Cry.