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On Something I Ate

The Candy Diaries

By Elizabeth Ward

Late May, 2007

Raleigh, NC
Circus Peanuts

Lately I can't seem to get Circus Peanuts off my mind: those suspiciously firm, yet moldable, chalky-orange, peanut-shaped… things. If you know the "candies" I am referring to, it is probably because the elderly couple on your block would hand them out on Halloween, along with Good n' Plenty, Bit-O-Honeys, and those orange and black things that no one has ever actually unwrapped, let alone eaten. It all started in the mall food court last week. Vinay, Cecelia, and I met for a quick lunch but then found ourselves stalling our returns to our respective offices by wandering the garishly purple aisles of the overly bright, deserted candy store at the end of the food court. After spotting candy cigarettes, button candy, and Bazooka gum, our thoughts turned to other candies with which all children seem to have a love-hate relationship. Within minutes, Circus Peanuts became our obsession: Where did they originate, and had they gone extinct? (We couldn't seem to find them in Popalop's Candy Shop.) What were they, really? And, most importantly, what on earth drove people to ingest them? Was it morbid curiosity, or was there a genuine affection for them in our society?

As we stood there pondering the supernatural phenomenon that is Circus Peanuts, a long-faced mall employee slowly slinked by, dragging behind him a heavy flatbed full of large, plastic display shelves. Our eyes met his for a brief moment—just long enough to transmit waves of silent commiseration. Nearly anywhere seemed like a better place to be than a crowded mall on a late spring Friday afternoon; well, anywhere but our offices. We could tell by the look on his face that this guy shared our distaste for all things work-and mall-related. He turned his attention back to his flatbed, shaking his shaggy brown hair out of his face. But it was too late; we had distracted him for one moment too long.

Before he could catch it, one of the plastic display shelves came crashing down to the tiled food court floor, cracking into pieces. The mall employee raised his eyes to the heavens (well, the hanging fluorescent lamps that lit the food court) and pounded his fists on the flatbed before turning to face the myriads of fast-food patrons, hatred seeping from his pores, and shrieking, "SON OF A BITCH!" Our eyes grew wide. "I HATE THIS PLACE!"

No. He didn't. He did! He had just done what each one of us wished we could do. (Instead, we were cowering in a mall candy store to avoid returning to the soul-crushing drudgery of under-employment that the three of us called "work".) He had admitted – yelled out for the world (well, the occupants of the food court) to hear – his devastating frustration with his situation. No longer was he going to be silent and let hatred simmer below the surface. I knew I could not look at Cecelia or Vinay, or I'd lose it. As soon as the angry mall worker left our line of sight, we doubled over with laughter. We laughed and laughed until tears were streaming down our faces.

We were still cracking up hours later, sitting at our desks, as we stared blankly at spreadsheets and emails and half-empty, cold cups of coffee. I was still chuckling that evening as I sat at an overcrowded gate at the airport, waiting for my very delayed flight to Chicago to begin boarding. It was unexplainable, what had amused us. Like Circus Peanuts, there was something appalling yet fascinating, repulsive yet appealing, something that we couldn't let go of, couldn't turn away from. If life is a candy store, give me the Circus Peanuts.

The next day, after spending the rainy Chicago Saturday afternoon drinking pints with my old friends Carma, Dan, Ted, and Jillian, I stumbled upon them in the Mexican grocery: Circus Peanuts, 99 cents. They accompanied us to Carma's apartment and were waiting for us faithfully on her countertop when we made our way back to her place at the end of the night. There they were, steady and true. Just like we all remembered… .we think. (Had we really tried them as kids, or had we just imagined that we had had the guts to actually open the package and sink our teeth into the pasty orange hardened bit of foam?)

What can I say about Circus Peanuts? When you tear open the cheap plastic packaging, their strange, pungent aroma instantly floods the room. And, although they are orange in color, they are not orange in flavor. At first, the odor and 'fruit' flavor were hard to pinpoint. Carma guessed cantaloupe. Ted suspected tangerine. Dan declared coconut. Jillian detected mango. My friends were all dead wrong. Despite their misleading faded orange hue, the candies, according to Wikipedia, are actually banana-flavored. This mismatch only adds to the paradox that is Circus Peanuts: they are orange, yet banana; stale, yet moist; hard, yet soft; synthetic yet real; hated, yet sought after.

We pinched them and pulled them; we microwaved them and molded them. After all was said and done, I only ate about 1/3 of a Circus Peanut. I'm sure among the five of us, we consumed no more than three total Circus Peanuts that night. My teeth actually cringed as I chewed the sugary, yet Styrofoam-like morsel. My stomach cramped up immediately, and that night, I tossed and turned. The next morning, the entire bag of Circus Peanuts was gone. Although we all noticed, no one dared to speak of it. Had one of us been harboring a secret affection for Circus Peanuts and been unable to resist the temptation to devour them in the cover of the night? Or had someone, like me, been plagued with troubled sleep, haunted by the orange lumps lurking in the kitchen – reminiscent of a circus gone bad, a chemical experiment gone wrong – and been unable to resist the temptation to throw them into the garbage? Or toss them out the window? Or flush them down the toilet?

I do not feel compelled to buy another bag, nor will I probably ever feel compelled to eat Circus Peanuts again. But my short-lived romance with the Circus Peanut was worth all 99 cents. There is something so terribly alluring about those things in life that inspire a heartfelt, 'WTF?!?!'

Mid June, 2007
Raleigh, NC
Candy Wax Sticks

The yellow corn syrup flooded my mouth, stung my tongue, and vanished, leaving behind only the warm, sticky bit of wax that I had tucked between my teeth and gum. Since there was nothing else to do, I chewed on it for a moment, wondering what chemicals I was ingesting as I broke down this tiny, flavorless glob of petroleum. If I could resist the temptation to analyze not only the existence of candy wax sticks, but also the fact that they are still mass-produced (and therefore mass-consumed), I could almost remember why I thought they were cool as a child. There was something so alluring about liquid candy.

I was sitting on a wooden palette in BJ's, the North Carolina equivalent of Costco. Paula, my boss, had hastily announced to the office that we had an errand to do, grabbed my wrist, and shuffled me off to her red minivan moments earlier when I had appeared at her office doorway in tears. I was grateful that she had gotten me out of the office, but after living overseas where the people, their houses, and the products they consume seem much smaller and more sensible than those in America, places like BJ's disturb me. They are the epitome of American Excess, and every time I set foot in one, I think of the village where I lived as a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco, where most people wore the same clothing day after day, slept in one room with their entire extended family, and possessed what they needed, but no more. Looking around BJ's, I was amazed that people's homes even had the kind of storage space required to house all of the gigantic bulk products they were quickly piling up in their enormous metal carts. I felt like I was in some kind of twisted Alice in Wonderland storybook (although BJ's is not my idea of a Wonderland) where the main character takes a pill that makes her shrink, and the rest of the world suddenly appears ridiculously huge.

I selected an orange wax stick from the package, remembering that, as a child, orange had been my favorite. Now, being an objective adult, it was time to find out whether there was truly a difference in flavor among these small, colorful 'treats'. I held the narrow, translucent, three-inch wax tube between my thumb and middle finger for a moment, shaking up the orange liquid. Then I squished the tip of the tube between my molars, biting off the top, but at the same time accidentally resealing the wax tube. I had forgotten about this irritating phenomenon. I rotated the stick slightly, bit lightly, and the orange syrup flowed over my tongue. Again, the tangy sweetness stung a little. Was this slight pain an indication of an orange, citrus sensation, or just nature's warning that this was not a substance humans were meant to ingest? I had a sneaking suspicion that each stick was the same and that this would be the last package of wax sticks I bought for a very long time.

The phone on my desk had rung at 11:38 am. Rich, my fiancé, didn't know how to tell me the news, so he just said it quickly. It had happened last Friday. He did not have the details yet but would let me know as soon as he knew more. I couldn't control my voice as I let out a shrill, 'WHAT?' I couldn't hold my tears in, and I couldn't keep my hands from shaking.

Sitting there in BJ's, I kept replaying one scene in my head: I had seen my friend Harrison walking down the street exactly one week ago. I had gone downtown to take photos of a building for work, and as I turned onto Hargett Street on my way back to the office, there she was. My first instinct was to pull the car over and jump out to say hello, as I hadn't seen her in a couple of months. But I needed to get back to work, and there was no such thing as brief small talk with Harrison. Every time we'd get together, we'd end up ranting for hours about the state of the planet over coffee or gimlets, and I'd leave feeling buzzed, fired up, and ready to change the world. That morning, she had a determined and somber look on her face as she strode down the sidewalk. Twenty years my senior, Harrison was not only a friend but also a role model. A fiery, passionate, and intelligent woman, she was always eager to take on a fight against some injustice or another; she never failed to support her words with action. As I drove past her that morning, I assumed she was marching down to City Hall to right a wrong, or heading to a city council meeting as part of her effort to keep open government alive. I don't know where Harrison was going that day, though, because I did not feel I had time to stop and find out. The next afternoon, she put a gun to her head and pulled the trigger.

When I was a child, green was sometimes tied with orange for my favorite flavor. But today as I bit open the green stick, I was nearly sickened by the cleaning fluid-like smell. Maybe there was a difference in the flavors of these wax sticks after all. I had bitten off the top while holding the stick upright so I could drink the mysterious synthetic potion at my leisure. I looked up, however, and saw Paula pushing the giant cart, overfilled with large boxes of bulk products, slowly toward me. Suddenly I felt silly holding this random package of wax candy sticks, and I tossed the green liquid down my throat like a shot. It burned like one, but lacked the pleasant, warm, numbing effect that a shot of liquor so graciously grants its consumer. I had bought the candy in a failed attempt to distract myself with something silly, to comfort myself with a small piece of childhood innocence. But it is rare that anything lives up to one's childhood memory of it.

As Paula wheeled the oversized cart up to me, I sheepishly offered her a wax candy stick, which she politely declined. We paid for our items, rode back to the office saying little, and methodically unpacked the bulk snacks and office supplies. Later at my desk, I couldn't resist biting into one more piece of wax candy. The warm, sticky, red liquid gushed into my mouth. But I couldn't see my childhood; all I could see was the gun in Harrison's delicate, shaking hand; and her unassuming husband stopping to smell the gardenias in their garden before walking through the door that evening. It's not that I wonder whether I could have saved Harrison had I stopped my car upon seeing her last week – I've been told those thoughts are useless. It's more that I missed my last moment with her; it had dissolved like the syrup that passed over my lips and left a sweet, stinging residue in my mouth.

Late July, 2007
New York, NY
Candy Coated Fennel Seeds

The pennycandystore beyond the El
is where I first
fell in love
with unreality
Jellybeans glowed in the semi-gloom
of that september afternoon
A cat upon the counter moved among
the licorice sticks
and tootsie rolls
and Oh Boy Gum

Outside the leaves were falling as they died
A wind had blown away the sun
A girl ran in
Her hair was rainy
Her breasts were breathless in the little room

Outside the leaves were falling

and they cried
Too soon! too soon!

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, A Coney Island of the Mind

It was 3:00 on Coney Island. The sun was beating down mercilessly, but my mango-on-a-stick was sweet and cool and juicy enough to distract me from the triple digit temperatures. There was not a tree in sight, nor was there an overhang of any kind to provide us relief from the white heat of summer in New York City. Although I peered down every side street between the el and the park entrance, I did not see Ferlinghetti's pennycandystore anywhere. A mango would have to do.

Although we had been drawn to Coney Island by the Siren Festival (who could resist a free indie music fest?), we only made it through one Detroit Cobras song before grabbing hands and pushing through the crowd toward the water. The boardwalk, like the hipster-addled festival, was swarming with people, but the proximity of the deep blue water and the slight breeze made the crowded boardwalk bearable. Jessica, Fiona, and I sat on an aging wooden bench under fierce blue skies watching the chaotic interaction of seagulls, tourists, locals, and amusement park rides, happily eating our mangos. Peeled and carved into flower shapes, they reminded me of the giant orange tissue-paper roses my grandparents had bought for my sister and me at Six Flags when we were kids.

As I soaked in the summer, the city, the presence of my girlfriends, and the retro magic of Coney Island, I secretly wished I had a copy of Ferlinghetti's poetry collection, A Coney Island of the Mind, in my pocket. I loved that book like I loved this day. Red and blue tilt-a-whirls squealed and twirled as green and gold bumper cars banged and clashed in the distance. The seagulls were bright white against the deep blue sky, indie rockers bounced up and down as they rocked in the distance, and all the world was carefree.

That was Saturday. Sunday Jessica, Fiona, and I attended another hot, sunny music festival in Brooklyn at McCarren Park Pool. We danced to Band of Horses as hipsters milled around the old park in their brightly colored plastic sunglasses and vintage bathing suits. We hungrily devoured spicy Indian food after the show, and, not wanting the weekend to end, we decided to stop for a glass of red wine on the way home. Scooping up a handful of candy-coated fennel seeds on our way out of the restaurant, we strolled through the East Village one last time, deep in conversation and happily crunching on the sugary seeds.

Content and oblivious, we walked into the café on 1st Avenue and requested outdoor seating. Minutes later as I glanced up from the wine menu at our sidewalk table, I noticed a well-dressed man about our age several feet away, lying on the curb, his face contorted, his eyes closed, his arms folded behind his head. I alerted Fi and Jess, and we wondered, troubled, how we had walked right by him moments earlier without noticing. It was dusk and the light was bad, but not that bad. We strained our eyes in the faint light to see if he was breathing. I was unable make sense of the shape of his face from the angle at which I sat. Something, I sensed, was very wrong.

Seconds later, police cars and ambulances began filling the street, red and white lights flashing. The paramedics ran up to the man, lifted him onto a stretcher, and put him in the back of an ambulance. I subtly dropped the remainder of my candied fennel seeds on the sidewalk; to sit there and munch on them would feel terrible – like we were at a movie. We observed, as we sipped our organic wine, that neither the police nor the ambulances were leaving the scene. The waiter, dressed in black, finally walked over to the ambulance and spoke with a policeman, turning toward us a moment later and slicing his hand across his neck. Before getting into his car and driving away, one cop stopped by our table to tell us that it was a medley of drugs that had killed the man by causing his brain swell past the point of recovery. That, I realized, was why his facial features had been difficult to distinguish.

Eventually, Sunday dusk gave way to Sunday night, the cops and the ambulances drove away without lights or sirens, and Fi, Jess, and I finished our wine, subdued. As I watched the sky darken, I attempted in vain to recall how many people lying on the streets, throughout my years of city living and world travel, I had walked past without much thought, assuming they were just 'sleeping it off.' Two? Twenty? I wondered how long it would have taken Fi, Jess, and I to call 911 earlier if the ambulances hadn't shown up when they did.

We drained our glasses, paid our bill, and walked the few blocks back to Fiona's apartment. It was stuffy inside, difficult to breathe, so we climbed out Fiona's bedroom window and sat three in a row on the narrow fire escape, watching the streets four stories below for quite a long time, before finally feeling sleepy enough to climb back inside and close our eyes.

Early August, 2007
San Juan, Puerto Rico
Pineapple Gummy

An Asian Mart – perfect. It was the first unlocked door Rich and I encountered as we darted down Ashford Avenue in Condado in our attempt to get as far away as possible from the parking garage whose deafening security alarm we had accidentally set off seconds earlier. I remembered as we slipped through the smudged glass door our first day in Japan three years earlier – how the two of us had walked the streets of our new town for miles in the relentless humidity of late summer, partly because we wanted to explore as much of the town as possible and partly because we would not have known what to do or say if we had actually ventured into any of the shops or restaurants we passed. We spent a year in Japan, though, and in that time, we learned to speak and read the language, to bike gracefully to the train station while holding a Hello Kitty umbrella in typhoon winds, to navigate the narrow streets and extensive public transportation system. Eventually, life became comfortable and easy.

Now, as we tried (thus far unsuccessfully) to navigate the streets of San Juan on the first day of what was supposed to be a carefree, romantic getaway, this Asian Mart seemed like it could be a good home base. Or at least a decent temporary hideout. We slunk into the small, dingy shop, which smelled strongly of ginseng, and tried to hide ourselves among the low shelves, half-realizing how silly we were to think that 'the authorities' would come after us. As I looked around, I began to justify my inability to speak Spanish, which was probably the reason we were in this mess, with the fact that I could read the labels of all of the Japanese products on the shelf: Boss Coffee, Pocky for Men, Lychee Gummy.

'WHOOO-oooo. WHOOO-oooo. WHOOO-oooo.' The alarm wailed on and on and on. Why wasn't someone shutting it off? Over and over, it repeated its shrill declaration to all of Puerto Rico that the clueless tourists had arrived from the Mainland to disrupt the natural flow of things. 'WHOOO-oooo.' The middle-aged Chinese woman narrowed her eyes at me from across the small store. She knew.

We had simply followed the exit sign out of the 3rd level of the garage, through the door, and down the stairway. Arriving at a cement landing, we had nowhere to go but through the gray metal door. Neither of us had seen any kind of emergency exit sign, yet as Rich pushed the heavy door open, the wail of the siren pierced our ears. Startled, we stumbled out into the bright sunlight and looked around helplessly. A group of four or five guys sat on the sidewalk playing cards near the main parking garage entrance about a block down. When they saw us standing there, riddled with awkward uncertainty, they waved us on sympathetically (although I wondered if they were laughing on the inside), as if to say, 'Get out of here while you can!' We had been Peace Corps volunteers, dammit! We were the good kind of travelers, the sensitive ones, the ones who did not commit travel faux pas such as this! 'WHOOO-oooo. WHOOO-oooo. WHOOO-oooo.'

Or were we?

We paced the aisles of the Asian Mart, nervously biding our time. We did not dare venture out onto the bright sidewalk until the alarm was silenced. After what seemed like an eternity, some merciful soul finally cut it off. I breathed a little sigh of relief. As we were the only patrons in the store and had spent considerable time wandering the aisles, I felt compelled to buy at least a little something. My eyes fell on the bright yellow packet of Pineapple Gummies.

'The gorgeous taste of fully ripened pineapple, imposing as a southern island king crowned in glory, is yours to enjoy in every soft and juicy Kasugai Pineapple Gummy.'

I didn't see how I could pass it up. I scooped up the bag, paid the shopkeeper, who eyed us without saying a word as she took my money, and we stepped out into the hot Puerto Rican sun. A cautious glance up and down the street revealed that, not only was no one angrily pursuing us, no one even seemed to realize that we had been the perpetrators who had disturbed the peace in Condado that afternoon.

It was a five-minute walk from the Asian Mart to the ocean. I kicked off my sandals, stripped down to my new black and white bikini, tore open the bag of Japanese candy, and popped a pineapple gummy into my mouth. It was a little stiff, not quite as gummy as I had expected, but the sweet and sour bite of pineapple spread throughout my mouth, its yellow intensity matching that of the summer sun. I grabbed another candy and ran through the surf and into the eighty-degree turquoise water, diving under the surface so that the pineapple mixed with saltwater in my mouth, and the taste was quite pleasurable. I surfaced as Rich dove in, and we let the gentle waves carry us out to a place where our feet no longer touched the bottom.

Now we were on vacation.

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