Category Archives: Poverty

Over the Hills

One of my proposals was due in two days and things had gone seriously off piste. It may be that, because we are essentially a mental health organization, we have a way of working that is consultative in the extreme.  When people edit drafts of proposals they never comment, “This number should be 50.”  Instead they write, “I sort of think this number could be 50, but what does everyone else think?”  And then everyone piles on and adds comments until all the edits look like the Babylonian Talmud.

I often suggest that people jump on Skype and talk to each other and make decisions, but with time differences and poor internet and … well … Skype—the program we love to hate—that’s challenging.

A colleague had offered to incorporate everyone’s comments into the proposal.  I just had to give it a once-over to cut down the length and make sure it was clear and responded to the donor’s intent and requirements.  I was free to go with Lynn on an excursion the next day.

The next day.  An email from my colleague to the whole group, “I’m sick and there’s no way I can do these edits. I’m sorry!  I’m signing off now.”

Shit.  It was on me now.

“Will there be internet at the venue?” I asked Lynn.  She didn’t know; Richard Googled it and the website didn’t say anything about internet.

“But it’s an event venue,” Lynn reasoned.  “It has to have internet.”

“Agreed.  It has to have internet.”

Lynn is on the board of Grampian Women’s Aid, one member of a consortium of Scottish domestic abuse organizations.  The event was a celebration marking their 40 years of providing refuge for survivors and advocating for stronger laws to protect women and children.

It took us an hour to get to there.  Richard had hand-drawn a map for us; I held it and nervously called out the turns.  “Left before this bridge!”  “Right after the abandoned pub!”  We only got slightly lost once, which is amazing for Lynn and me.  Why didn’t we use a GPS?  I don’t recall, but we passed through one of the most wild, empty areas of Scotland.  An old-school GPS wouldn’t have known about the washed-out bridge; a smart phone-based app needs 3G, which was iffy in some areas.

I’m looking at a map of Aberdenshire now, trying to figure out where we were. I love the names but none of them sound familiar: Haugh of Glass.  Glenkindie Towie. Bellabeg Strathdon. Longmorn Fogwatt. We may have been in Cairngorns National Park.  I don’t know.

We passed this creepy gate.  I hope it was a joke.

I can’t recall the name of the venue, but it was lovely.  We met some of the other board members in the café to have lunch before the event, which was redundant because there was so much great food at the event.  More great food!  Here is my lunch.  A fresh fish fest!  I forgot all about my proposal.

But after lunch reality hit and while Lynn and her fellow volunteers were setting up, I tried to get an internet connection.  This was complicated by the fact that my laptop battery has been dead for five years so it has to be plugged in.  I walked around with it and finally got an off-on connection and an electric outlet in a back room.

People think everybody, everywhere, is online.  Well everybody isn’t, and doesn’t.  People in Ethiopia.  People in rural Scotland.  People in Nebraska.  Poor people.  Elderly people.  Me.

But I managed to just focus’til I got ‘er done then got enough of a connection to send it off.

The event was very moving.  About 100 women and men were in attendance, including one of the local lords and a woman politician.  This is artwork by children in refuge.

The most memorable speaker was a woman who had been involved from the start.

The food was fantastic and provided gratis by the caterer.

I felt grateful.  A former battered woman myself, I was now eating strawberry and cream tarts in Scotland to celebrate 40 years of aid to battered women.  There is so much good work being done in this world by so many.

Seeing, Really Seeing

Am I a bad, shallow person to enjoy places like Liberty so thoroughly?  Only the one percent can actually buy anything there, right?  True, although I did buy some nail varnish, as they call nail polish in Britain.  It cost £12 ($15)—the most expensive nail polish I’ve ever bought—but I love the color and it reminds me of my day there.

But no regular person can actually afford to buy a pair of pants at Harrods.  Isn’t that wrong?  Isn’t it criminal that people spend £1,500 on baby carriages made by Maserati?  Or £2,000 for jeweled clutch purses, or £200 for a canvas tote bag because it has the Liberty look and label?

Isn’t it outrageous that people spend £95 for a small plate with a Liberty design on it, when they won’t give £5 to the homeless person sitting on the pavement outside the store?

Yes, it is outrageous.  And I’m glad there are people designing, making, selling, and buying beautiful things in this world.

Maybe, if the contents of all the high-end department stores were liquidated and the proceeds given to homeless people, those folks would get new clothes, get jobs, find apartments, fall in love, and live happily ever after.

Nah.

Some would, some wouldn’t. Some might use the money to start a small business, and build it into a business empire … like Harrods.  Some have such intractable problems that no amount of money or social service intervention can solve them.  Some poor people would be offended by the offer of cash and continue on their own path of working their way up.

No, it’s much more complicated. I’ve worked in nonprofit organizations almost my whole career and I know that rich people and businesses can be part of the solution.

I just searched the Liberty website for the terms “donations,” “charity,” “corporate social responsibility,” and “philanthropy” and came up empty handed.  It would be nice to think that they hired ex offenders or donated unsold shoes to charity auctions.

I would be happy to help them start a corporate philanthropy program if they would just allow me to work from that green velvet sofa.

For better or worse, I have an “eye” for color, composition, and all things beautiful, whether they’re manmade or natural.  You may be thinking, “Well everyone loves beautiful things!” but you would be wrong.  I have friends who have nothing on their walls.  Nothing.  No art, not even Art-in-a-Box from Target.

They come to my house, look around, and say, “Wow, you have so much stuff on your walls.  Interesting.”  As if it has never occurred to them that they could do the same, much less surround themselves with beautiful, interesting, uplifting objects.

I have been told that I notice things, in general.  The other day, I was in an old-timey grocery store in St. Paul and said to my friend, “Hey!  When was the last time you saw a grocery store with a ‘Grits’ aisle?”

She laughed and said, “You always notice things like that.”

Doesn’t everyone?  I guess not.

I asked my landlady, “What are those tracks?”

“What tracks?”

“The ones there—that look like a snake made them,” I pointed.

“Oh, those.  I’ve never noticed them.  Maybe a mouse?”

I am in a hyper-state of noticing when I’m traveling.  It was good to know I could see things—delightful, humorous things—right at home.  This new year, I’m going to try to pull it in even closer, and notice things in my house that I use or pass by—sightless—every day.

Back at Fortnum and Mason, Heidi and I worked our way slowly through the food hall.

I bought a box of Earl Grey tea for Lynn and a box of English Breakfast for myself.  I didn’t buy these exact containers but you get the idea of the packaging.

Yes, they cost more than a canister of PG Tips at Tesco.  They may not have been grown in a socially-responsibly, environmentally-sustainable manner.  But so what?  They’re beautiful, and six months later I am still dipping into my stash and enjoying the tea and the memory.

Despite

Life has been throwing a lot my way lately, or at least throwing a lot at people I love.  I debated whether to write about it, then remembered that the tagline of this blog is “Living well despite what life throws at you.”

It’s one thing to live large when everything is going well, it’s quite another to keep embracing life when things are not so great.

My life is fine, aside from the new upstairs neighbor, who I suspect of making wine late at night (stomp, stomp, stomp!). I have spoken to him and it is better, but I have to wear ear plugs a couple nights a week.  I worry that the people who are renting my condo while I’m in the UK/Europe/Ethiopia this summer will be bothered.

Work has been a pressure cooker; this week I submitted almost $5 million worth of funding applications for projects in Iraq and Ethiopia.  The teams were dispersed around the globe, from Kurdistan to The Gambia, which has only 14% Internet penetration. I do get a buzz out of pulling everything together to meet deadlines, and then I collapse in exhaustion.

On to the people I love: Vince broke up with his girlfriend, and for some reason it hit me hard.  I was so happy that Vince had, for a while, a fun relationship that didn’t involve drugs or alcohol.  But I realized my reaction was partly about me.  A few weeks after I turned 40, my serious boyfriend dumped me.  I wondered if that was it—I would never meet anyone again.  After all, I was 40!  Vince will be 39 this year.  I have no idea if he feels like it’s over—I hope not—but I did.

The thing that’s really thrown me is hearing from Son #2 after a four-year silence.

I wrote a series of seven posts about Vince’s brother, who I gave up for adoption. I’ve never written about how I found him after many attempts and despite Catholic Charities’ best efforts to thwart us both.

I hesitated to write about this, but then—catatonic on the couch after all my proposals were done—I caught an episode of Call the Midwife that had an adoption storyline and I was reminded that the silence and shame that surrounds adoption has got to be broken.

Vince and I met him once, over 15 years ago.  We met at a restaurant; I can’t remember exactly when or where because it was so surreal.

His name was the same as one of my brothers, but I will call him by the name I gave him, Isaac.  He looked a lot like Vince but with different coloring.  I asked if I could give him a hug and he said, “Of course!” and hugged me for a long time.  Several hours of talking passed like seconds.  We hugged goodbye and pledged to stay in touch.

It didn’t’ happen.  Isaac’s adoptive mother was opposed to him meeting me, and he was already going behind her back.  But he and Vince continued to meet up and developed a bond; Vince wrote about it here.  It wasn’t a happy ending, but there’s hope now that Vince is in recovery.

Isaac sent me an email out of the blue about five years ago, with photos of his wife and kids.  My grandchildren, who I’ve never met.  His wife has the same name as my mother.

He said he would like for me to meet them, but then he disappeared again.  I didn’t pursue it him because I didn’t want to be disappointed again.

Isaac wrote to me again last month.

His wife has Multiple Sclerosis.  Severe, aggressive MS that affects her vision, speech, and mobility. He and I have been writing for about a month now, and I am hopeful we can stay in touch this time, but it’s stirring up a lot of regret, resentment, love, and hope.

Belize Bound

When I was poor, many years ago, it used to really piss me off when people said things like, “Why don’t you just move to a better neighborhood?” when I told them I’d been burglarized and mugged in one week, that my neighbors kept me up all night with loud parties, and that I had found a used condom and needles in my front yard.

“I can’t afford to move,” I’d say, gritting my teeth so I wouldn’t launch into a rant about how clueless and insensitive they were.  And these were always liberals—I think liberals are often more out of touch with reality than conservatives.

I’m telling you this because some of you may not have the luxury of being able to buy plane tickets on a regular basis.  Your job may not allow you to work remotely or even offer paid holidays.  You may not own a condo you can rent out while you’re away.  I hope I don’t come off as clueless when I write about travel.  I’ve never claimed any of my adventures have been easy or cheap.  I hope some of my stories may inspire you to plan for something when you can afford it, or try something on a small scale if you can’t afford to do it in a big way.

I was driving down scenic Summit Avenue yesterday in my beloved Mini; spring was in the air and I was listening to Vivaldi.  I felt utter joy.

“Life is beautiful!” I exclaimed in my head.

That’s not a thought I ever had when I was in my 20s or 30s.  It’s not a thought many people in Syria are having right now.  It doesn’t do anyone any good for me to intentionally kill my joy because others are suffering, but it remembering them certainly intensifies my feelings of gratitude for how far I have come.

Back to January in Minnesota.  The holidays are over.  There will be nothing by three months of cold, dreary, short days without a holiday until the end of May.

And so I went to Belize.  It makes a difference, getting away somewhere warm, even if only a long weekend.

This would be an all-inclusive group trip operated by Wilderness Inquiry, a Minnesota-based nonprofit.  Their thing is “inclusive outdoor adventure travel.”  I totally missed that because I Googled “tours of Belize” and went straight to that trip page.  I looked at the color photos, glanced through the itinerary, checked the price, and booked it.

This was back in December, and I didn’t give it much thought until I got a call from the trip leader, Mark, in January.  I have been on group tours before, and it’s good practice to have a meeting ahead of time—if everyone is local—or to at least talk to someone to learn the expectations and ask questions.

Mark informed me about the Wilderness Inquiry mission of inclusion.  “I lead a lot of trips to the boundary waters, and this will be my first international trip,” he said, excitement in his voice.

“You mean, your first international trip ever?” I asked, a little alarmed.

“No, I went to Uruguay last year with my girlfriend.  Her family is from there.  So I’m ready.”

I wasn’t so sure about that.  The Gross Domestic Product of Uruguay is four times that of Belize. But the tour and my plane ticket were paid for, so it was too late to back out and he seemed very confident.  Everything would be fine, right?

The night before I left, I had dinner with Vince and met his girlfriend, Heather.  I liked her a lot, especially since she gave me a beautifully boxed birthday present—a sweater and Moleskin notebooks and pretty pens, which I used to take notes on the trip.  I looked forward to watching their relationship develop.

My birthday.  Vince picked me up at 5:00 am and took me to the airport.  He’s a morning person like me, but 5:00 was even a bit early for him, so it was a very nice effort on his part.  And it’s nice to hug a loved one good-bye, just in case something fatal happens.

TGI Thursdays

This is the story of how I accidentally wound up in a brothel in Dubai, part of a series that starts here.

The hostess at TGI Thursdays looked at me like I was an alien, then slowly led me to a table in the center of the restaurant and left me with a menu, which was all in English.

She had an African accent and I didn’t hear enough of it to ID which country, but I’m pretty sure her real name wasn’t the one on her nametag—“Hi!  My name is Emily.”

She was about six feet tall, string-bean thin, and wore stiletto heels and a barely-there mini skirt.  I vaguely wondered if she changed into more modest clothes to get to and from work, but I didn’t really give it much thought.

I was hungry by now, so I was happy when the waiter appeared almost immediately.  He too looked at me strangely.  Whatever!  What was wrong with these people?  I ordered a club sandwich and a beer, then settled back and looked around.

Have you ever walked into a situation and thought nothing of it until it was too late to get out of it?

All the other women in the bar were either African or Asian, and none appeared to be older than 20.  They were all dressed like “Emily”—in high heels, mini skirts, and low-cut blouses.  They were literally hanging on the arms of fat, middle aged white men, many of whom were talking loudly, so I could hear their Australian, English, and American accents.  North American, that is—I’m sure most of them were Canadian, ha, ha.  These were oil workers, no doubt, and I was in a brothel.

The girls (I’ll call them girls because many appeared to be 17 or 18 years old) tittered and cooed at everything the men said, as if the men were the most fascinating, funny, and appealing male specimens ever.

“Ooh, Keef, you so funny!” a girl laughed near my table.  Keith was 50-something, ruddy faced, rotund, and very drunk.  He sat tilted as though he was about to keel over.

As all this sunk in, one of the few Arab patrons approached my table.  He was like a human cliche of an Arab man: wearing a kaffiyeh, sporting a Saddam Hussein-style black mustache, and smoking a cigarette in a short gold holder.  He leered at me as he circled my table several times.

I had the urge to bleat like a lamb.  Then he aggressively pulled out the chair opposite me and asked, “May I join you?”

“No!” I exclaimed, perhaps a bit too loudly.

A giant Sudanese bouncer sidled up to me and the Arab guy slinked away.

“Do you know where you are?” the bouncer asked in a low voice.

“Yeh-yes…” I replied, feeling sheepish (in the embarrassed sense, not in the about-to-be groped-or-worse sense).

“I will stand next to you while you enjoy your meal,” the bouncer said.

What could I say but, “Thank you?”

My club sandwich and beer arrived.  They were like any club sandwich and beer you would get anywhere else in the world.  I ate, drank, and did what I commonly do when I am dining alone; I wrote in my journal.  In this case, I took detailed notes, which is how I can write this narrative years later.

It’s not a very remarkable story.  I’m sorry if you’re disappointed that something more dramatic didn’t happen.  It was an eye opener for me.  I had seen adolescent girls in Jamaica with the proverbial obese middle-aged German men stuffed into Speedos.  I had read about human trafficking and sex workers in my master’s program.

But this was how the business actually worked.  Supply and demand.  I figured the maze I had walked through to get to the entrance was a means of shielding passersby from what was going on inside, and also of signaling to people like me who just wanted a sandwich and a beer, “This is something you should think twice about!”   Obviously I was too dense to get it.

To be continued …

Calling All Cons

Before I return to writing about my upcoming travel in Italy, Malta, and Spain, I’ll write a couple more posts about my other favorite topic: prison.

I was involved in two criminal justice reform evening events this week.  Normally I hate having commitments like these at night but these were commitments I chose to make.

The first was a phone bank event organized by the Restore the Vote Coalition.  It’s run by Take Action Minnesota and includes Jewish Community Action, a group I’ve written about being involved with.

Here’s why we were there: 47,000 ex prisoners in Minnesota cannot vote.  They’ve done their time but they’re still “on paper”—slang for probation or parole—and they can’t vote until they’re off paper.  Even though Vince has served his time, has been out for a year, has been sober for over two years, is working and paying taxes and rent, and taking his grandma to the grocery and doing all manner of other positive things, he’s not allowed to vote until 2018.

Our job was to call around 7,000 ex offenders who were probably off paper.  Since no sane person enjoys calling strangers—much less ex cons—the coalition tried to make it a fun by calling it a Restore the Vote Block Party.  They had blocked off their parking lot and had booths with a DJ and food, but it rained so we all huddled inside in their basement offices.

There were five or six speakers, including a rabbi and a young woman from Chicago whose father and uncles had been in prison as long as she’s been alive.  It was a very racially diverse group.  A couple guys lead a call and response to get us fired up, then we all dispersed to make calls or knock on doors.

All three of the African-American speakers said something along the lines of, “This is a problem that mostly affects black people.”  While it’s true that African Americans are disproportionately represented in prison compared to their percentage of the overall population, 56% of adult prisoners in Minnesota are white.  As of September 30, that’s 5,228 men and women, not counting juveniles or people in county jails.  I don’t think we do the cause any favors by making it all about race.  Race is a factor for sure, but so are class, poverty, abuse, education level, disabilities, chemical dependency, and many other issues.

There was an elaborate script probably written by a graduate student who’d never been near a prison, which went out the window the moment we started dialing.  We used a really cool online system.  I logged in and immediately a guy’s name came up with his age and phone number and the names of other people in his household.  I said to the leader, “I’d be really creeped out if stranger called me who knew I’d been in prison.”  I was assured that this was public information and that ex cons knew it.

I dialed 72 numbers in an hour and a half and spoke to exactly two ex cons.  About 80% of the numbers were disconnected, busy, wrong numbers, or no one answered.  The two guys I spoke with were opposites.  The first one, who was 28, had researched whether he was eligible to vote, was registered, and was committed to showing up at the polls.  The other guy, who was 56, said, “I ain’t never voted in my life and I ain’t gonna start now.”

I noted their names as I scrolled through the data base—Frank, Damarius, Jason, Katherine, Moua, John, Orville, Krystal, Matt, Jose, Abdi—all typical Minnesota names, all over the state, all ages, all races.  I reached quite a few mothers, which tugged at my heart strings.  They sounded care worn.  A couple said, “I don’t know where he is.”  Ugh.  I’ve been there.  One father told me, “He’s not here,” then, sadly, “He’s in the ground.”  What do you say to that?

“I’m so sorry,” I muttered.  “I’m sorry to have bothered you.  Have a nice night.”

I only reached two guys, but as our group of 80 volunteer callers got pledges to vote from 122 ex offenders.

It may not sound like much, but we did something.

Cooper versus Cruiser

This is the latest in a series of posts about a road trip to New Orleans that starts here.

Finally, I will shut up about my car, I promise.  I got to the garage, met Tracy, who was a woman, and after I paid the bill she flagged down a guy to lead me to my car.

“Honey,” she called out to him, “Will ya’ll show this here Miss Anne where her PT Cruiser is?”

PT Cruiser!?

Thankfully the guy got it.  “Ya’ll got a Mini Cooper, right? Ya’ll insulted she called it a PT Cruiser?” he laughed.

“I’ve never been so insulted!”

In my opinion, PT Cruisers are novelty cars for retired people who really want a Sports Utility Vehicle (SUV) but can’t admit it.  The PT Cruiser allows them to drive a giant gas-guzzling vehicle and pretend they’re quirky and eccentric.  Despite the fact that I was getting all-new spark plugs, I still affirm that the Mini is a finely-engineered vehicle.  And mine was nine years old, after all.

PT Cruiser

I raced back to the B&B, parked the car in front, and parked myself in the courtyard under the Kumquat tree with a book and a glass of wine. Molly texted to ask if I wanted them to come  join me.  “no enjoy yourselves and take your time.”  If there was something called a “sub-text,” I would have typed, “No!  Stay away!  I need to be alone!”

Courtyard-Bench-sm

This is how you know if you’re an introvert or an extrovert.  It’s not about whether you like people or parties or crowds, or have a lot of friends.  It’s about what you do to recharge when you’re drained. I’m an introvert, because as much as I love my friends and parties and crowds, I just want to be alone when I’ve been through a stressful experience.

So I sat under the Kumquat tree for hours.  I was reading Memoirs of a Geisha, and I hadn’t expected it to be so fascinating.  How accurate was it, I wondered? I would never dream of asking my sister-in-law Akiko, who has a PhD.  I think she would be horrified that I would think she knew anything about geishas.

-f-g-memoirs-of-a-geisha-31766513-500-233

Hours later, Lynn, Christine, and Molly strolled in and I was happy to see them.

“Why was I so stressed about a stupid car?” I wondered out loud.

“Because you didn’t know if you’d get here,” Christine said.

“You’re emotionally attached to it,” said Lynn. “I had a Mazda Miata convertible that was my baby.  When we moved to Scotland I finally sold her because I could only drive her once a year.  When they took her away I cried!”

“It was five hundred and fifty bucks!” Molly chimed in.

When I was in my 20s and 30s, an unplanned $550 expense would have been a disaster.  I would have had to borrow money from my mother, or put it on a credit card.  I would have had to cut back on some other essential item, like food or cigarettes or beer.

Slowly, slowly, I’ve worked my way out of debt and into financial safety.  If I had worked for Wells Fargo this would have gone a lot faster, but I’ve always worked for charities.  Like I’ve written before, you can work for a nonprofit and have a good life, if you’re very, very careful about your spending.  Saving, even small amounts, is super important too, because the interest eventually piles on and one day you look at your balance and think, “Whoa!  How did it get so big!”  Of course it can go down, too, if you’re invested in the stock market, so don’t look at it when the market’s down, and whatever you do, don’t sell at the bottom.

Sorry, I go off on tangents, I know.

You may be wondering if New Orleans is an expensive destination, and I think the answer is no, if you can find reasonably-priced accommodation.  They’re still rebuilding since Hurricane Katrina, so there’s a housing shortage.  Plan way ahead, especially if you’re going during a festival.  If you can gather a group of friends together and split the cost four ways, it’s very affordable.  And more fun.

Then and Now

This continues a series of posts about a road trip to New Orleans that starts here.

We pulled out of Memphis and began our third 400-mile drive.

This was the most scenic part of the trip.  The rolling hills continued, one long ascent followed by a long descent, followed by another and another and another.  There were woods on both sides punctuated by blooming Magnolias and occasionally something that appeared to be bougainvillea blanketing a full-grown tree.  That was spectacular.  Most of the drive was through Mississippi, which does not have a motto.  It does have a coat of arms which includes the phrase Virtute et Armis (by valor and arms).

And here I must correct what I wrote about Minnesota.  “Land of 10,000 Lakes” is what’s on our license plates, but our official motto is L’étoile du Nord (Star of the North, or in Latin, “I long to see what is beyond.”)

That could explain a lot about me.

Once again, Lynn and I postulated about what could be wrong with the car.

“Maybe it’s overheated,” she said.

“But why?” I asked.  “We’ve only driven 50 miles.”

I had driven many cars that were in much more alarming shape than this one.  When Vince was a baby I had a Buick LeSabre that was so old it didn’t have seat belts.  I would stick Vince in a banana box and put him on the back seat.

Lesabre

There was the 1964 Chrysler Imperial with push button gears on the dashboard.  Now it’s a very cool collector’s car, but in 1978 it was just a “winter beater,” as we called cars that were expected to just barely get us through the winter.

1950s-gear-shift-g

There was the car whose driver’s side door had to be held shut by…my arm.  There was one that never ran.  Never even started.  I bought it from a neighbor for $125.  He pushed it down the alley into my backyard after assuring me that all it needed was a carburetor.

I went to a junkyard and bought a carburetor out of wrecked car for $50.  My brother and his friend Hans came over to install it.  The result was Hans running down the alley with his hair on fire, waving his arms trying to put it out.  My brother tackled him and rolled him in the dirt before any serious harm was done beyond a temporary bald spot.  I had to pay $75 to have the car towed to the same junkyard where I’d bought the carburetor.

So why was I so worried now?

But then a second, bigger engine light came on with a loud DING DING.  I pulled off in the nearest town, Canton, Mississippi, and parked in front of a liquor store, where I called AAA while Lynn read the manual.  I had forgotten there was a manual.

The AAA representative had such a heavy southern accent I was forced to admit, “I’m sorry, but I can’t understand what you’re saying.”  She repeated herself slowly.  “We can come and tow your car, and you’ll have to find a motel in Canton for the night.”

Just then a monster truck roared into the parking lot. An enormous black man got out and came storming toward us—Lynn literally leaned away from him as he loomed into her window, while I fumbled to lock the doors.

“Ya’ll okay?” he asked.  “Ah didn’t mean ta scare ya!  Ah seen yur car and it don’t look ya’ll from ‘round here and ah thought ya might need help.”

Lynn and I laughed with relief and assured him we were fine.  When he was out of earshot, we analyzed our reaction and agreed we’d been scared because he was a huge, aggressive man and we were in a strange town, not because he was black.

Lynn read from the manual, “If the engine light is red, you should pull over immediately and call for help.  If it’s orange, you may continue driving but have the car looked at your earliest opportunity.”

The lights were orange.  Surely, another 200 miles couldn’t do any harm.  On to New Orleans!

Jim Crow, Old and New

This is the latest in a series of posts about a road trip from St. Paul to New Orleans that starts here.

If you don’t learn something about yourself when you travel … well, that’s okay—I’m not going to sermonize—but I was pleased to learn something important about myself in Memphis.

In the morning, Lynn and I took a walk along the riverfront, which is beautiful:

memphis_riverfront

We walked back to Beale Street, found a restaurant, and ordered breakfast. We were excited to try southern foods like grits and biscuits.  We waited, and waited.  You could say this restaurant put the “wait” in waitress.  She kept coming by and giving us a dose of another southern treat—calling us “honey”, “sweetie”, and “darlin’” as in: “Your food’ll be up in just a minute, darlins’”

It seemed like half the morning passed away before we got our meals, then we wolfed them down and headed over to the National Civil Rights Museum.

It was difficult to find—there was no signage—but then we turned a corner and there it was, the former Lorraine Motel where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.  I recognized it immediately, having seen it a hundred times in iconic photos.

TENNESSEE, UNITED STATES - APRIL 04:  Civil rights leader Andrew Young (L) and others standing on balcony of Lorraine motel pointing in direction of assailant after assassination of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who is lying at their feet.  (Photo by Joseph Louw/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

And this was the beginning of learning something about myself, because I got so choked up I had to turn away so no one would see me in tears.

I have been to Holocaust museums in Washington, DC; Jerusalem, Berlin, Prague, Chicago, and elsewhere, and they’ve been tear-filled experiences too.  But then, I’m Jewish.  Were my tears only because the story was about my people?  That fear—that I only felt empathy for my own kind—was laid to rest in Memphis.

Can a Man

I wiped my tears away but they welled up continually inside the museum, which was one long, sad horror show that traced the abuse of African Americans from slave days up through the assassination in 1968.

There was a large group of school children, mostly African American, going through with docents.  I wondered what they felt seeing Africans in chains, the police dogs, the fire hoses?  If it was my kid I would want to be on the tour to put my arm around him.  There was the usual laughing and fooling around that any group of kids will exhibit, but I wondered if they would have trouble sleeping that night.

I commented to Lynn, “A coworker of mine at Oxfam used to find every opportunity to mention, ‘the UK never had slavery’ in a superior tone.”

“We may not have had slaves in the country, but we certainly benefited and participated in the system,” Lynn replied as we read a display about how global the slave trade was.

And of course it didn’t end with the abolition of slavery.  “Jim Crow” was the system in the southern United States from reconstruction up through the civil rights era in the 60s that kept “negros” in their place.  Here are a few of the ridiculous laws from that time:

Baseball Law Mulattos Checkers

Really?  Checkers!?  Who knew checkers could subvert the social order?

Then we marched slowly through exhibits about bus boycotts, lunch counter protests, and strikes.  Then there were the cross burnings, lynchings, and bombings by white racists; somewhat counterbalanced by the support of white and other allies (including Jews).

Lunch Counter I am a Man Bus Boycott Activists

I watched a video about James Meredith, the first black student to be accepted to the University of Mississippi, in Oxford Mississippi.  Of course he hadn’t mentioned his race in his application, and when he showed up to enroll all hell broke loose.  After weeks of rioting by whites, which resulted in two deaths, he was reluctantly let in, and as Lynn read later, he did graduate and lived a normal life afterwards.

The museum was really well done.  There was a second building that explored African American activism post 1968, but after three or four hours in the first building we had to leave.

Last week Vince and I talked to a group about mass incarceration.  One of the audience members referred to it as the New Jim Crow.  I agree, although in my opinion it’s about poverty, addiction, mental health, and class as much as racism.

Long Ago in a Land of Spandex

Greetings from St. Louis.  One more day of the road trip, and one more guest post from Vince.

Long Ago, In a Land of Spandex

It’s Friday again, my favorite day of the week. I like my job, but I like weekends more, and at this very moment it’s the longest possible time before more work.  This will be the seventh post now on the topic of my career.  Or careers.  Or lack thereof, uh, yeah.  I have no career; I have held many jobs over the years.

At this moment, I’m taking a break from packing my few belongings for the big move. I finally threw away all of my stuff from prison and boot camp. I was never going to use any of it, so I’m happy to toss it out.  Alright then, on with it.

After leaving Rochester and finding temporary shelter with a friend of a friend in Fountain, Minnesota, I was given a job as a line cook at Pedal Pusher’s Café in nearby Lanesboro.  The owners were a couple with three kids and they all lived upstairs of the restaurant. Looking back, it really sucks to see how things went down.  They were kind, generous people who went out of their way to help me when I was down.  They even let me sleep in their camper for a while after things went sour in Fountain, and while I waited to find an apartment of my own which they also loaned me the money for.

pedal-pushers-cafe-corner

Lanesboro is a bustling little city full of B&B’s, bike trails, trout fishing, tourists, and spandex,  It has a few restaurants too, and they were very busy in the summer. I hadn’t been on a line in some years when I started there, but I picked things back up pretty quickly. Time flew by, I worked hard, and started drinking hard.  I also met a new friend that would play a major role in my life for many years to come: gambling.

In the form of pull tabs, I whittled away my pay checks one dollar at a time for months. Eventually, I started taking advances on my pay checks, and very shortly after I started doing that, I started taking advances without their knowledge. This may come as a shock to some people with whom I have not been entirely honest over the years, but I’m letting it all out now.  I felt like a lowlife piece of shit, but unfortunately, I just did not care.  It didn’t take them long to catch on to me and I was eventually fired for stealing.

Unable to get unemployment benefits, I became withdrawn and moved in with an unenthusiastic friend and his soon to be wife.  I sat in that room for a month, maybe two.  I wore the same clothes, I ate ramen out of the package, and I cried every day.  I was too proud to ask for help.  I couldn’t take care of myself, I couldn’t find a job (because I absolutely was not looking), and I was about as close to having a suicidal urge as I’ve ever come.  Auspiciously, a very good friend of mine got me out of that trance and back into Fountain where I held a few more jobs.

About two weeks ago, I sent a letter to the owners of Pedal Pusher’s. I told them a lot of what has been going on with me, but more importantly, what was going on with me back then. I asked them to give me a chance to repair the damage I have created, and I included a small token of my sincerity in the form of money. I haven’t heard back from them and I don’t know that I ever will.  But I have done my part.  At the very least, I have tried to open an avenue of communication with them so that I may fix what has been broken for so long.  It was the first of many letters to many people, and with each one, I hope to feel a little more human again.