6 min read

Tootsie Rolls

Tootsie Rolls


March 17, 2019

Tootsie Rolls are disgusting.

Pick any size (there are seven??! plus something called a “Count Good Bag”) and, no matter what, a tootsie roll still tastes like someone accidentally spilled half a teaspoon of cocoa powder into into a mold filled with dense corn syrup, forgot about it for a few weeks, and returned later with some wax paper to try and monetize the result.

For about a decade while I was growing up, Mom carried Tootsie Rolls everywhere with her, usually about four or five of them nearly melted together in a small ziplock bag that was always within easy reach inside her purse. On road trips and especially after finishing popcorn at the movies, she diligently unrolled these candies. She’d always offer to share, reaching backwards form the front passenger seat while Dad ignored us and kept his eyes on the road, drifting off in his own world. Or I’d feel her gently bumping my hand with the ziplock in the darkness of the theater, waiting patiently to see if I’d partake.

Back then, I usually accepted her offer. I had a fearsome sweet tooth from age one until about five years ago—so even vaguely chocolate molar cement was better than no treats at all. But recently, my taste for dessert has tapered off and anything that’s sugar-first is a last resort. I don’t miss it.

I hadn’t even thought about Tootsie Rolls for years. Even as a kid, though Mom always kept a supply in the house to refill her ziplock, I thought of them as pillowcase filler—the type of candy that slowly tumbled down to the bottom of the bag as the rest of a Halloween haul got picked over.

Then 10 days ago, I grabbed a rather large rectangle Tootsie out of a candy bowl and bit in against my palette’s better judgment. It was even tougher than I’d remembered. And while trying to muscle my front teeth into the first segment, I started to dread the rest of the experience. At the time, however, it felt like my only hope.

A flop sweat that had been pouring down my wrists three minutes earlier had just started to abate. I had stopped hyperventilating. And my right forearm was bruised, battered, bleeding, while radiating a low-level flame that could start a campfire. Tara said the sugar helped when people felt light-headed. My heartbeat was returning to normal.

I swallowed the remnants of the first square, bit into the second, and laid back down on the long black massage table. I placed my arm mindlessly back on the additional rest where it’d lain already for about 105 minutes and let Tara get back to work with the black ink and, now, the bigger gauge of needle.

For the next 15 minutes, I savored each hint of a calorie the remaining bland, brown squares had to offer. I focused my attention on the time-consuming act of sucking on a tootsie roll without having it glom onto one of my back teeth like a more viscous nontoxic (?) version of superglue. Meanwhile, Tara was hard at work with the larger needle. It made the process move faster, but it fucking hurt.

I met Tara a year and a half ago during a rainy late-November week in 2017. I walked into her Capitol Hill shop, Osprey Tattoo, and it was freezing. The space heater wasn’t enough to warm the small place hidden away just south of Pike and Pine. In less than half the time it took for her to complete my most recent tattoo, she tossed off two sanderlings—one on Mom’s shoulder blade (she bravely went first, at age 66 having never liked needles) and one on my forearm.

This time, it was warmer out. The shop curtains were open and while I tried not to cry from the prolonged buzzing in my forearm, Tara and I were singing 90s alt-rock hits while she carefully inked an aerial snapshot of Northampton, Hadley, and the Connecticut River into my arm. We were the only two people left as Tara buzzed through the river’s twists and turns, working her way from the Oxbow sitting the shadow of Mt. Tom to the long and lazy bends to the north just before the river reaches Deerfield.

I think about Northampton every day now. Sometimes I wish I didn’t.

Though my hometown is filled with people that love and support me (and have now extended that love to Michelle and our marriage), it’s taken a hard pivot in the last three years. It’s become a place of amplified emotion—grief and joy, with the former making a strong play to outweigh the latter. It’s been 27 months since Dad died comfortably in our house on Massasoit, 18 months since Michelle and I were married in the foothills of the Berkshires, and about three months (next week) since Mom died at Hospice of the Fisher Home in Amherst. Just a couple of months before we lost Dad, one of my best friends lost his younger brother.

That’s a lot of life thrusting itself between me and the idyllic memories of growing up in such a wonderful, beautiful valley in western Massachusetts. The kind of stuff that—when I take a few deep breaths and run my hands through my hair—leaves me speechless.

The trick is understanding that these recent events only add to Northampton’s importance in my life. Though sometimes I want to turn and run form the sadness and responsibility that come with closing the chapter of my life that included my parents, I know that to do so would result in serious regret. I’d be refusing to acknowledge the many deep loving relationships forged with my chosen family who are still there—many of whom are reading these words. I’d be shirking my many happy memories and the opportunity to make more on return.

So I won’t give up on Northampton any time soon.

I always want to remember the valley. And now I’ll take it with me wherever I go. I’ll let someone else haul around a bag of Tootsie Rolls.

This Week


Alec Macgillis chronicled Baltimore’s recent, heart-wrenching descent back into violence since the uprising in 2015. I didn’t get to read much longform this week, but I made time for this.

Anne Helen Petersen, Lyz Lenz, and Mallory Priddy are writing a series together called What To Wear When You Don’t Want People To Hate You. Lenz went first this past week and it was an excellent read. Petersen’s entry is out today. Read these brilliant women and their thoughts about how to dress.


I went back to Michelle Obama’s Becoming and finished it this while we shared a cabin with some friends on a river in Gold Bar, WA. This is a memoir better than many memoirs, much more about family and connection than it is about politics. This the kind of book that can reel in genre skeptics and move them, too. Read it.

I’m two chapters into Richard Hugo’s collection of essays on writing and poetry, The Triggering Town. It’s delightful so far, a look inside the mind that wrote the poem for which this newsletter is named.


It was a noise rock and post-punk kind of week. I spent a few days with “Nearly Lost You” by Screaming Trees blaring in my headphones. On Thursday I took a break and dove back into Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation. Shoutout to Jack Kavanaugh (who’s running for an at-large seat on Buffalo City’s Board of Education!) for recommending The The and their 1983 record Soul Mining.

I can already tell you that I’ll still be listening to a lot of Dinosaur Jr. this upcoming week. (How could I not? They’re from Amherst!)

A Note

Back when I read The Last Good Kiss (James Crumley’s novel named for a line in Hugo’s poem “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg”), I mailed Edgar a copy and implored him to read it. In turn he recommended The Triggering Town. But I put it off in favor of a collection of Hugo’s poems.

Then, last week, Anne Helen Petersen emailed me to tell me someone had forwarded her my newsletter. While my admiration for her work consumed my ability to write clearly, I somehow managed to exchange emails and she also recommended The Triggering Town. So, that was it. I couldn’t ignore recommendations from two tremendous talents.

Care to share?

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