Heartland

During the wheat harvest of 1977, when Betty was thirty-two and Arnie forty-five, Betty drove every evening from her full-time job as a subpoena officer at the Sedgwick County courthouse in downtown Wichita to Arnie’s farm. She took over the house, cooking for Arnie and his field help, driving tubs of fried chicken, paper plates, and jugs of iced tea to fields where yellow dust followed red combines. She learned the blowing dirt of the country summer, when teeth turn gritty in the wind and shower water turns brown between shoulders and toes. She rode the combine with Arnie, a rite of passage for any would-be farmer’s wife, and woke up the next morning with clogged sinuses. She sweated through the harvest nights of midsummer, when fans blow hot air through hot bedrooms and sleep is possible only because of how hard you worked.

~ Sarah Smarsh, Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth


More on this book:

Sunday Morning

A homie named Cruz spent his last dollars taking a Metrolink train sixty miles to Los Angeles from San Bernardino, where he had relocated his lady and newborn to avoid the dangers and desperation of his previous gang life. He had a part-time job but could not get his boss to give him more hours. Now he sits in my office, rattling off a list of the pressures and needs of his family. With no safety net in sight but me, he speaks of no food in the fridge, no lights, landlord looming, no bus fare. When he finishes this breathless account, Cruz stops, shaken and exhausted. He grows teary-eyed and says quietly, “I just keep waiting.”

“For what, son?” I ask.

“For the last to be first.”

~ Gregory BoyleBarking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship


Notes:

Thanksgiving?


A student in her uniform balances on stones over sewage water on her way to class in the Cite Soleil slum of Port-au-Prince, Haiti.


Notes:

  • Thanksgiving is a not a statutory declared holiday in Haiti.
  • Photo by Dieu Nalio Chery, AP. wsj.com, Nov 21, 2017

Monday Morning Wake-Up Call

A sewer cleaner cleans road manholes near Jatrabari Dhaka in Bangladesh. For this one-day work, the cleaner gets about $8. (KM Asad, Human Press, wsj.com June 16, 2017)

Jimmy

open-gate-bo-bartlett

Tuesday.

I’m leaning back in the chair.  The bodies on the teleconference are shifting, their paper shuffling is booming on the mic. The update continues, I’m fading, drifting. I look up at the clock and it tugs me back, way back.

It’s hidden inside, in a dark space, deep in a corner on the edges, frayed but biting.

~ 1967

I was a child. You were a child. A Boy.

The schoolhouse had two classrooms, three grades in each room, one row for each grade, four to six students in each grade.  Three rows of heavy steel, four legged desks, each having a pocket for school things.  We were in the First Grade.

He was oversize in first grade, having been held back. Tall, thin, with hunger hanging from his bones. His brother was already categorized as a Juve, his Father an alcoholic, in and out of small jobs and a Mother desperately trying to keep it all together, and losing.

Faded jeans, not from stone washing, but from hand me downs from his older brother, or from a flee market sale. Everything wrong-sized, tattered and carrying a whiff of moth balls. Laces on too-big shoes loosely tied. Hair long, unruly and badly in need of a sheer. [Read more…]

Breakfast

migrant-serbia

A migrant eats during a snowfall in Belgrade, Serbia.

 


Source: wsj.com – Marko Djurica, Reuters, January 9, 2017

Walking Cross-Town. Children of a Lesser God.

walking

It’s late afternoon Thursday. We’re walking up 47th street dodging the lingering jewelers, puffing on their Marlboros, blowing smoke rings, their arms out with pamphlets: “We buy Gold Sir, top price.” If I had gold, I wouldn’t be traipsing up 47th street rushing to catch a commuter train. Step back.

My colleague is in front. I’m trailing. He’s a New Yorker to the core, from birth, wily and confident. And you, you Friend, are country, and you can’t take Country out of the Boy.

I catch him and finish sharing a moment:

“I just can’t let it go. I’ve been carrying this with me for two days.”

He pauses: “Are you nuts?  Don’t give it another thought. This is New York. Anything could have happened.”

He veers right.

“You’re right. See you tomorrow.”  I push on to Grand Central.

Anything could have happened.

It was Tuesday morning, early.

I exit Grand Central. It was brisk, and dark. I wait for the light to turn, and I cross Madison. There’s plenty of time before my morning meeting, no need to push it. Music is streaming in.  I’m lip synching James Taylor’s Country Road : “But I could feel it Lord, on a Country Road, Walk on Down…But you know I could feel it child, yeah – Walking on a country road, I guess I know where my feet want me to go.” 

I hit repeat, and James sweeps me away again. Lightly Child, Lightly. And on this morning, I’m right there in that sweet groove with Ahab, “he never thinks, he just feels, feels, feels.” And on this morning, here I am, a tall sunflower leaning into the Sun. Sweet Jesus, why can’t I find this place more often.

I pass into a dim section of the street.

He appears directly in front of me from Nowhere.

Unshaven. 5’9″. Tattered corduroys, dark windbreaker.  And in my space. I step back, and lift my hand up signaling back, my torso trembling. I re-grip my case. I pull the ear buds out. And Brace.

He points to his ears and emits a muffled: “I’m deaf. I need help.” [Read more…]

Walking. And quivering with guilt.

hands-scrub-floor-close-up

I print “Thank you!” on the hotel note pad and lean into the pen on the exclamation mark. Maybe I should add another.

I decide against it.

I count out the bills. And, Pause. Then I add a few more. They rest in my hand, feather-like and heavy – shackled to a ship’s anchor and dragging me down to Earth. These same bills passing through thousands of hands before me.  Maybe I should add another.

I add another.

I stack the bills neatly on the Note below the Thank You!  I place the pen on top of the stack. I pause to take measure, I’m unsettled.

I step away, taking one last look around the room for anything left behind.

I grab my 2-wheel carry on and step out the door, removing the ‘Do Not Disturb‘ sign and affixing it to the inside of the door.

I walk. The long, narrow, dimly lit corridor adds to the weight of my shoulder bag. [Read more…]

More buoyant than before

blue-eyes

I was heading up Sixth Avenue and stopped to buy a new watch cap from a street vendor. As I pulled it on an old man approached me. His blue eyes burned and his hair was white as snow. I noticed that his wool gloves were unraveling and his left hand was bandaged.

—Give me the money you have in your pocket, he said.

Either I am being tested, I thought, or I have wandered into the opening of a modern fairy tale. I had a twenty and three singles, which I placed in his hand.

—Good, he said after a moment, and then returned the twenty.

I thanked him and continued on, more buoyant than before.

~ Patti Smith, M Train


Notes:

Riding Uptown. Saving the Best For Last.

taxi-cab-new-york-city

The memory was triggered by a tune played on the car radio on a balmy December day last week. A tune I’ve played hundred’s of times since it was released in 1991. A tune that sits on top of the same playlist that has been transferred from iPod to iPod to iPod to various iPhone upgrades for almost 25 years. It’s Marc Cohn’s hit “Saving the Best for Last.

Got into a cab in New York City 
Was an Oriental man behind the wheel 

It wasn’t an Oriental man behind the wheel. It was a cab in New York City.  He was in his 60’s.  He didn’t do much talking, and certainly not about mansions in heaven.

Started talking about heaven 
Like it was real 
Said “They got mansions in heaven” 
Yeah the angels are building one for me right now…

It was July. The midday heat exploded, and like a desert mirage, the waves were radiating off the Manhattan asphalt.  All four windows in the cab were down, hot air was gushing in. I took my jacket off, and loosened my tie.

I couldn’t get the words out: “Can you please turn on the A/C?”  It was as if my tongue was jacked with Novocain.  A/C Broken or conserving petrol?

We’d lock eyes in his rear view mirror. A Suit staring into the deep dark eye of an elephant, with its leg chained to steel spike.

And I know…
They’re saving the best for last 
Look around this town 
And tell me that it ain’t so 
They’re saving the best for last 
Don’t ask me how I know 
‘Cause it must be 
Saving the best for last for me

There was a 34 oz plastic bottle resting in the console, the Polish Spring label worn from the refilling, the hundreds of grips and re-grips, and the punishing heat magnified through the front window.

Classified ads sit on the passenger seat, folded neatly. A black Bic is clipped to the top left, the plastic cap marked with deep chew marks. [Read more…]

Walking Cross-Town. Saving the best for last.

dreadlocks-cornrows-hair

It’s not any day.
But every day, that I’m walking cross-town to the office.
I call him up.
Or better stated, he gets called up.
Why this thought among billions of others, I don’t know.
But it flutters in on its wings, lands and settles.
A 20-second moment in life that never returns.
But returns each time I walk on this patch of earth.

It was February.
A warm day, but a winter day.
He’s lying on the concrete sidewalk on 48th street.
Not against the store front.
Or over a grate spilling steam from the guts of the underground tunnels.
He’s more centered between the street and the hulking skyscraper.
Early morning commuters avert their gaze, and step far left or right.

He’s covered from head to toe in a soiled sleeping bag.
He’s sleeping on a thin sheet of cardboard. [Read more…]

Running. With AAA.

photography,black and white,tire,flat tire,
Yahoo Weather Update:
57º F. Humidity 97%. Visibility 4 miles. Areas of dense morning fog. Mist.

Mist. And Ambivalence rains. Mind says yes. Body says rest.

I gear up.
Red and Black shoes. Black running pants. Red top.
Red. Rhino. Run.
I’m out the door.

The Mind whirrs back to Wednesday.  We’re in the car on our bi-annual trek to pick up Eric at College.  It’s a 10 to 14 hour drive and we’re standing in wall-to-wall traffic on the GW Bridge. We’re tracking to the wrong end of the range and the horse has just left the barn.

We clear the bridge and I’m barreling down the NJ turnpike.  72 mph. OK, 78 mph. Making up time.

The Warning light flashes on dash. “LOW TIRE PRESSURE.”  Followed by a PHSSSSSST. And then, a WUMP. WUMP. WUMP. WUMP. (Blood rushes to head. Why is it so hot in the car? Tension fills the cabin. Co-Pilot has seen the Captain manage the unexpected. It’s not pretty.)

I pull the car over to the shoulder. (I come from a long lineage of handymen. DNA somehow skipped me. My fix-it depth consists of bangin’ on the Alt-CTL-DEL key.)

Susan calls AAA. ETA is 30 minutes. (30 minutes to show up. 15-20 minutes to put on the provisional. 90 minutes to 3 hours to find a service station to replace tire. Estimated 2.5 – 4 hour delay. Mood darkens. Migraine thundering on queue.)

AAA arrives. I get out of the car to car to greet him. He gives me a hand signal to stay off the highway. His lips mouthing “too dangerous.” A Semi passes by and kicks up a wind gust. Diesel exhaust fills my lungs.

[Read more…]

White T-Shirts

photography

We wait for the phone to ring.
Every Sunday.
For the obligatory college briefing call.
(As long as you feed from the trough, you’ll call home on Sunday. Non-negotiable.)
Rachel jabbering. Eric tight lipped…leaking information on a need-to-know basis.
Not last night.
Big day for me on Tuesday Dad.
I forgot it’s his 20th birthday.
You forgot right?
Of course not.
Of course you did.
You know that I’m leaving for El Salvador on Saturday.
I’ll be taking vitals…blood pressure, temperature…and recording it.
Dad, I’ve been told there will be thousands, all waiting for medical care.
We’ll be readying patients for the doctors and dentists.
And then feeding homeless at night.

I’m dressing for work this morning.
I check the weather app. -5° F with wind chill.
How many children are huddled and shivering in the cold? Hungry. A soda can and not much else in the fridge for breakfast. Not in El Salvador. Here. Right here.
I shudder.
I reach for a t-shirt. Folded. Stacked. Clean. White.
I’m drawn to the label. I squint to read the small print.

XL 100% Pima Cotton. Machine wash warm with like colors. Only non-chlorine bleach if needed. Tumble Dry Low. Warm Iron if needed. Made in Bangladesh.

Made in Bangladesh.


Image Credit

There IS a Santa


Or at this link: CBS: The Secret Santa

My 1%

Alex Van Gelder %22Armed Force%22 - Louise Bourgeois Hands

Rush jobs. Corners cut. One constant in 30 years, disappointment.

A handful of notables come to mind. So few, I can picture the craftsman. I can picture the chair. Here the tired and the scuffed are healed to a high gloss sheen.

It’s rare. 1%.

Lambert-St. Louis International Airport.
Kloten Airport in Zurich.
Allen Edmonds, Port Washington, Wisconsin.
And, Grand Central.

Her country of origin? My best guess. Guatemala. Age? Impossible to gauge. Hunched over. Plump. Hands tough, cracked. Brown skin is smooth, free of pock marks. Hair pulled back. Green smock. I’ll say mid-50’s. But a hard 50.

I wait for her to be done with another customer. The other shoe shiners, all men, smirk.  I turn away, anger surges.  Clench my fist. [Read more…]

Lie to me

lunch seaside

It’s lunch. It’s a small informal gathering. Light conversation.

Discussion turns to summer vacations. And rolls around the table clockwise. One is going to the Far East with family. Another to the Cape. A third to Montreal.

The must see art exibits. The lazy days at the beach. Late afternoon cappucinos at the outdoor cafes on the cobblestone streets. Evenings spent people watching from the hotel veranda. The concerts on the grass.

I feign a glance at my watch and look right. I can sense the uneasiness. She’s shifting uncomfortably. Rubbing her hands. Her forehead is glistening. (Dr. Cal Lighman, Lie to Me, flashes up.)

It’s her turn. Everyone’s eyes shift and wait. An uncomfortable silence. A pause in the discussion of the world tours. There’s a surge in my chest. [Read more…]

Riding Metro North. A break in rush hour.

MetroNorth Train
It’s a brisk morning. 45F.

I board the 5:59 am Metro North train to Grand Central.

I settle in with the morning news. Rifling through the papers. Eyes scanning headlines. Going no deeper. Distracted. Then annoyed at my lack of focus. I turn to my work papers to prep for my late morning meeting. Mind wanders again.  I toss them in my bag in frustration.  I lean my head against the window. Close my eyes. And listen.

There’s no conversation. No disturbance of the clickety clack except for the periodic rough jostling of the rail cars on uneven rails. This being no high-speed train.

Conductor breaks the rhythm.

Tickets. Tickets please.”

I pull the ticket out of my shirt pocket.

Conductor stops five rows up.

Sir, these tickets are for non-peak rides.”

Soft voice responds but words are undecipherable.

No, sir. You will need to purchase Peak ride tickets.”

Other riders now rubbernecking to check out the break in morning routine. [Read more…]

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