Formative Days

It’s been more than three years since my divorce, but I still find comfort in some traditions that my fabulous ex-wife introduced to me. In this case, I mean the Jewish tradition of the memorial candle, or yahrzeit candle, lit on the day of a loved one’s death to celebrate their life. I am also deeply appreciative of the idea of lighting the way for them to a happy afterlife.

October is a challenging month. Starting with the memorial for my favorite aunt, my Aunt Connie, at the beginning of the month, then moving on to the memorial for my sister-in-law, landing here on the memorial of the father’s death, and ending with the memorial of the death of the brother with whom I grew up at the start of November. It is, as I have observed in a prior post, one long yahrzeit candle burning.

Formative days stay with us long into adulthood in unusual bits and pieces, as we have heard recently from trauma specialists. This experience bears out for me less in the realm of significant hurts, because so many of the bruises (though not all) fade into the blur of days as recurring events, but more in the realm of significant losses. Formative losses endure for a lifetime.

Today is the day of a formative loss and, as is my practice, a yahrzeit candle burns in the kitchen. I hesitated to write this post, then wondered why, because I’ve already written it in much detail in Urban Tidepool. And what the hell…I’ve written several humorous posts over the summer. A serious one will provide some balance.

Share a walk with me through a formative day, just shortly past my 17th birthday. I’ll appreciate the company.

 

An excerpt from Urban Tidepool:

October 1982

I called him in sick that morning. It’s usually the other way around, the parent calling the kid in sick, but that would be really unlike us at this point. The call itself was uneventful.

“Pennsylvania Refrigeration, may I help you?”

“I’m calling Charlie Mullen in sick.”

That was that. He really wasn’t feeling well; no lie today. I knew that. He had mentioned not feeling well the night before. The fact he wasn’t doing shit to take care of himself wasn’t lost on me. A small “I told you so” floated on the edge of my awareness. Try giving up smoking like the doctor told you, I thought. Try not eating the stuff they told you not to eat. Maybe you’d feel better.

As I returned the handset to the cradle, the phone rang. I grabbed it again. My friend Kathy asked if I had been given the message that she had her parents’ car this morning and she was driving us to school. Could I be ready in ten minutes?

Of course I hadn’t gotten the message. I’d been off making a 10 p.m. dog food run. I ran from dining room to basement, searching the dryer for a pair of my uniform socks, and then back upstairs to the bathroom. I wasn’t in too much of a hurry to pause at his bedroom door, though, and ask, “Did Kathy leave me a message that she was picking me up for school?”

He grunted, half awake. “Oh, yeah. Last night.”

“Awww…Dad, you are such an asshole!”

He didn’t answer.

I showered, spooned out some of the dog food rallied on the emergency Alpo run, kissed the dog and met Kathy on the front steps. We lived in a neighborhood of one-car families. It was a big deal to get the family car for school, avoiding the hassle of a Septa bus, or—God forbid—the Grays Ferry school bus. I was not going to miss this. We were seniors! With a car! As I picked up my work clothes, I contemplated calling out a good bye. He was probably asleep again. Besides, Michael might wake up and bitch about being disturbed—or slap the shit out of me. I didn’t need that. Never mind. I locked the door behind me.

Kathy greeted me with her usual morning announcement. “School blows.”

I could only agree. Six weeks into senior year, we were already counting days mostly unremarkable in their sameness; same uniform, same nuns, same resented expectation that we not think for ourselves. The good part of the day started when my work shift at McDonald’s did.

October 18th was a beautiful day in South Philadelphia, still warm, with shortened sunshine slanting earlier, heralding fall. By October we had golden sun, not the white sun of midsummer that made the asphalt melt and heat shimmer up off the pavement, playing tricks with your eyes. The walk from the bus stop to McDonald’s was pleasant, even enjoyable, and my leftover irritation with the father softened. I hadn’t missed my ride, hadn’t been late to school, all was well.

I changed into my uniform and clocked in without a minute to spare. I loved closing shift. I especially loved coming in directly from school, skipping that whole going home part. This was my second year at this job, my part-time, as-close-to-forty-hours-a-week-as-I-could-manage job. I had been promoted to manager last spring. Maybe it was being able to exchange the nasty polyester crew uniform for the cotton button-downs that the managers wore. Maybe it was not having to wear the crew hat that never looked right no matter where I put it on my skull, earning me the nickname “Helmet Head” from the regional manager. Maybe it was just that the regional manager had a nickname for me. Whatever it was, this was my favorite place.

A few minutes before 8 p.m., the phone by the manager’s desk rang and one of the guys on grill called me to pick it up. I expected the father and was surprised to hear Marie’s voice.

“Have you talked to your father today?”

“No, I came right into work from school. Why?”

“I’ve been calling the house and it rings and rings but nobody answers.”

“Okay. Let me call and see if he answers. I’ll call you back.”

The phone in our house rang endlessly, surely long enough that even with his hearing loss, he would have heard it. He would have rolled over or coughed or something, and the ringing two rooms away would have pulled him the rest of the way into consciousness.  My stomach tightened.

Turning to the other manager on duty, I said, “I gotta go. Something’s up.”

A friend from my neighborhood had just clocked out at the end of her shift, and she offered me a ride. We didn’t think to turn off the radio as we drove. As it had been for weeks, the theme song from An Officer and a Gentleman played.

My house was dark. Not a single light shone, despite it being full dark outside now. The front door was locked. Chills ran down my back and arms. Above me, the dog jumped down to come greet me. From the direction of the thud, she was in the father’s room. I relaxed a little. Navigating a few steps around the couch arm, I flicked on a lamp and went up to see how he was feeling. The door was closed halfway. I pushed gently, reaching for the wall light switch.

“Dad?” I stepped into the room. “Dad?” I stopped beside the bed, put one hand on his shoulder and shook once. “Dad?”

The information flooded in all at one time.

Sight.

Sound.

Touch.

Overload.

He lay on his back, with his feet crossed at the ankle and his hands folded together on his stomach. His fingers were waxy white. Bloodless. I was the only one breathing in the room. His shoulder under my hand was cold. When I shook him, his head rocked slightly to one side but the muscle did not recoil. I looked down into his face: the slack jaw, the pallor, and a detail that I didn’t speak about until more than fifteen years later. Oh God. His tongue was black.

I backed away, shut the light off, closed the door. I learned later that one of the neighbors heard me scream, although I was never aware that I did. This was it. I had known for months it would happen exactly this way. Years ago last night, I went on a dog food run so I’d have something to feed her this morning. Upon arriving home I sat in the car, idling at the curb, staring at our front windows and thinking, It won’t be much longer. He’s so sick. I knew. I always knew it would be me that found him. And years ago last night, I did the familiar, unwanted practice run in my head that I had been doing for months. Now it kicked in automatically.

I dialed 911. “I need an ambulance.”

“What is your emergency?”

“My father has had a heart attack.”

A few more questions followed that blurred together. I didn’t feel any emotion, only hands shaking so badly it was hard to dial the phone. I called my brother, The Major, and my sister-in-law answered. I called my sister’s house, where my brother-in-law answered. Both siblings were out. I left the same message. Send them—I think our father is dead. Still disconnected, I called the father’s girlfriend. Jesus, had it only been half an hour ago I’d spoken to her? How could that be possible?

“The paramedics are on their way, but I think he’s dead.”

“Oh no. Oh no. Oh no.” She was crying. Why wasn’t I? “We’ll come. I’ll find a ride.”

Marie was half an hour away, even if she had a ride and walked out the door right now, but I agreed she should come. I wanted her here. After seven years of dating the father, she was a part of this. I refused to call my brother Michael. Him, I didn’t want here.

“Okay. Come.”

Hanging up, I knew I couldn’t stay there alone. As I had practiced in my imagination, I made one more call to my aunt’s house. “My father has had a heart attack. I think he’s dead. Can someone come and stay with me while I wait for the paramedics?”

I don’t remember who answered the phone, but the first person in the door was my cousin Doreen. She was eight months pregnant. Oh God. She’s gonna have that baby right here!

The paramedics arrived next, and I took them up to the father’s room. I hovered in the doorway to see what they would do, but they asked me to wait downstairs. My Uncle Dick, definitely no fan of the father, and Joe, my cousin Maureen’s husband, came in on their heels and Uncle Dick went upstairs with the paramedics. Why him but not me? They announced they would take him to the hospital.

“He’s not dead?”

“You should get ready to go to the hospital.”

My cousin David came in, out of breath. He took one of my arms and Doreen took the other. David said softly, “Let’s walk up the block to Maureen’s house.” We needed to figure out how I was getting to the hospital, who would be taking me and staying there, since The Major and my sister were both at least an hour away.

A few houses away, Mr. Forsythe, summoned to his front porch by the flashing ambulance lights called to us, “Are you okay, Nance?”

David answered. “She’ll be okay. We have to go to the hospital with Uncle Charlie.”

My cousin Maureen greeted me with a hug and stood with me as I splashed cold water on my face. I didn’t know where she and her husband Joe had been when my call came in, but she obviously already knew what was happening down the street. “Here, take this. You need a’ be calm if you’re goin’ to the hospital.” She pressed a glass of water into my other hand and prodded me to sit down at the kitchen table.

I was just placing the water glass on the table when the phone rang. It was Joe. Maureen relayed his words. “He’s been pronounced dead. The paramedics had to wait for the doctor. No one’s going to the hospital.”

David, sitting on one side of me, held my right hand. Doreen gripped my left. I didn’t hear anything beyond that. No no no no no no no no. I couldn’t tell if I was saying it out loud. I wasn’t making any sense. Someone said they were sorry. No no no no no no no. David and Doreen held my hands, squeezing them, kissing them. Maureen stood behind me, her hands on my shoulders and the back of my head. No no no no no no no no.

Of course he was dead. He was cold. I had known. They hadn’t wanted his child there when they took his body away. His fingers were bloodless. How could he not be dead? I had known. But he had looked asleep. He had looked peaceful in his boxers and his strappy t-shirt with his hands folded on his belly and his feet crossed, and it didn’t matter what I had known because I wanted to believe we were going to the hospital. It should hurt, shouldn’t it? Dying should hurt. He looked asleep. His fingers… bloodless. I squeezed my eyes shut as hard as I could, but I could still see them. I had known. No no no no no no. They were never going to take him to the hospital. It’s possible I howled. Don’t all wounded animals?

It was close to 10 p.m. when my sister arrived. I sat with a comforter wrapped around me and a cup of hot tea in front of me, so cold my whole body shook. Just two hours ago, I had been comfortable wearing a hooded sweatshirt, unzipped, with the sleeves pushed up. This was cold like the middle of February, and the comforter and tea kept my shivers at bay with only marginal success.

I tuned into some of the back and forth about where I might sleep that night. Did I really want to go sleep in the same house where my father had just died? Would I be okay? I didn’t belong at Maureen and Joe’s. I needed to go home.

Pat walked with me, retracing the steps that Doreen, David and I had taken just a short time ago, hoping I was wrong, knowing I was right. I thought I was ready. I hadn’t anticipated the surreal feeling, walking into the living room, seeing the father’s shirt draped over the back of a chair and his shoes on the steps where he had left them.

Overload.

Disconnect.

The room spun. I staggered two steps and Pat caught me. The lump in my throat exploded and an animal-like sound swelled out. Pat sat down on the couch, pulling me with her. My head rested against her shoulder, the father’s shirt in my line of vision. The noise kept going, that animal sound. It took several moments to become aware that I was making it. No doubt about it this time. I was howling.

I was afraid I wouldn’t sleep, but the next disconnect came and I welcomed it. I prayed for it. Please take this away. Please make this stop. Several times during the night, I started to surface toward consciousness. Each time I became aware of an overpowering pain in my chest, quickly followed by no no no no no no no, words I saw in neon print on the back of my eyelids. My vocabulary was gutted. It was the only word I could manage.

*********

Formative days, like today, bring back floods of memories and sometimes the tiny candle flame struggles against the weight of darkness that lacks words.  In four years, I will be as old as he was on the night of his death. He has been gone now more than twice as long as I knew him.  On formative days, I remember that before I referred to him as “the father”, I called him Chuckleberry and when I was very young, he would clap his hands together backwards and bark like a seal to make me laugh. As a single dad after the mother crossed over, he taught me it was okay to eat cold Spaghettios from the can to avoid making extra dishes. He wore brown shirts with black pants and when I’d comment on him being no slave to fashion, he gave me an answer straight out of the Shit My Father Says manual:  “What?! It’s clean!”

Sometimes formative days have gifts. It’s just a little extra work to find them.

dad2

dad1

dad3 

A post from the archives for National Coming Out Day! Celebrate YOU today!

Urban Tidepool

National Coming Out Day is always a great day for reflection, given that I run an agency for LGBT kids for my job. This week found me wandering memory lane, taking a moment for my own coming out, which (if you’ve caught my previous comments) is always a big question for people who start to read Urban Tidepool and expect it to be a coming out story.

I was 25 when I came out, long past the ending point that is written for the current draft of Urban Tidepool. I had come out to a few very close friends but coming out to my family felt different, bigger, more ominous. Not that it should have, as I was already an adult, living in another state from my remaining family members, but I can still recall the sense of dread as I contemplated what words I might use to make…

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Yes! Let’s talk about this! Fat shaming happens. A lot. By the medical profession. It doesn’t help. It creates an immediate disconnect between patient and provider.
A couple of years ago, I ruptured my ACL while biking. I tore up everything inside my knee. I was referred to a specialty doc for the reconstruction. During my first appt, he looked at me and asked, “What do you do to keep active?”
I said, “I bike and I’ve been working on a couch to 5K program.” I was so proud of that couch to 5k thing. I was, at the time, more active than I had been in years and feeling pretty good about it, the whole ACL rupture notwithstanding.
Dr Banana Fingers waved his hand dismissively in front of my torso and said, “Come on. You’re not a runner. You’re a softball player.”
My jaw dropped. No. I’m not a softball player. I’m not a great runner but it involved moving my sneakers in front of each other in rapid succession–what most folks would refer to as running. Also, to note, when I injured my knee, I was not playing softball. I was riding a bicycle, which I like to do. A lot. For long distances.
I’ve joked about this in other blogs but it is a serious and ongoing issue. I look like everyone else in my family. We are short, sturdy, often stocky, and middle age is not kind to us. No one in my entire family could ever qualify as thin, except for perhaps the mother, in her last stages of cancer when her body was wasting. I do not require shaming to remind me that I look like my family.  What I expect of my doctors is to be treated respectfully and to work with me to live in the healthiest, and most comfortable manner that I can, in this body I came into this time around. This body bikes. And gardens. And likes yoga. And likes walking the dogs. And it STILL looks like everyone else in my family. Name calling doesn’t cut it, Doc.
But I digress. On a follow up appointment, post-repair, the nurse who brought me to the assigned room gave me the wrong shorts to put on for the exam. Dr Banana Fingers arrived, looked at me still wearing my jeans, then opened the door and yelled–and I do mean he YELLED–down the hallway, “HEY, CAN YOU BRING BIGGER SHORTS?? SHE NEEDS BIGGER SHORTS!”
I had two follow ups left after that appointment. I never went back. I will drive 45 minutes to the ortho clinic in the next town over before I will step a pudgy foot back in that clinic.
We don’t talk openly about this topic–either the need for the empathy based discussion or the disconnect.  When my primary doc asked about how things were going with the specialist, we were in the middle of addressing something else, I knew her time was limited and I wasn’t going to waste my appointment time talking about the poor experience with Dr Banana Fingers.  I think if she had more than the requisite 15 minutes…which is, truthfully, always more like 7 or 8 minutes….we might have some conversations about other important issues.
It is, of course, not just the medical profession going on the attack over this topic. About three weeks ago, a strange man in a Starbucks parking lot shouted at me that I was too fat to fuck. Again, the complete denigration of some stranger’s body is the go-to verbal abuse. Yup, yup, I got it. Your entire view of me is this single aspect.
Fat is a big queer issue. I’m going to save that tangent for its own blog.
In the meantime, I’m sorry your view is so limited. That’s like going to the theater for a night out and sitting behind the pillar that holds up the balcony. There are significant pieces of that show (and of people) that you won’t get to see.  I am a pudgy carbon based wonder and I’m sorry that all you can see is the pillar. Have you considered moving to a different seat?
fat-shaming-woman

Creating Community

Posted: September 11, 2018 in Uncategorized

From the archives, in honor of those we lost and in honor of those who lost.

Urban Tidepool

The goal of my work at Youth Outlook is to create safe space for LGBT youth. Presently, we do that in a number of ways, primarily through running drop-in centers in various communities, and also through our community education and youth leadership development work. But in 2001, our community education and youth leadership were just getting started and our focus went into the drop-in centers. Our Tuesday night in Naperville has been our biggest and busiest group since 2000. Again for comparison, in 2001 Gay Straight Alliances were few and far between and the Naperville group provided a “home base” for the thirty-plus kids who came in every week, most seeking refuge from still-hostile high schools. Coming to group in our borrowed church space meant family. It meant comfort. It meant, for the first time for many of them, safety.

By the time the chilling silence filled the skies over…

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The storms this past week have been hard on my peach tree. I watched all through the spring as the hard, fuzzy golfballs grew, blushed, developed an ever-so-slightly detectable give. They all come into peak at the same time so there’s one week each summer that is dedicated to collecting and processing, and the Ball jar collection on my shelves and in my freezer starts to increase.  One of my best recipes is my own creation—Uncle Nando’s Pee-Wee Jam. It’s a peach kiwi combination, and totally worth the effort of homemade.

I don’t really fancy myself a farmer. I adore the idea of homesteading but my job reality is that I also appreciate the convenience of running to the store for goat cheese because my only contact with goats is on Facebook when friends leave them on my page. There’s a definite leaning toward goats in pajamas, but that’s never a deal breaker.

So I was looking forward to this week of collecting and processing and my expanding family of canning jars. I waited for the first round of storms to pass to venture out in the yard. Once the rain cleared, it immediately became beastly hot again, so all of the outdoor entomos were present in full force.

I practice organic gardening. I say I practice because it always seems to be a learning curve and is sometimes more successful than others. I guess that means I practice organic peaches and cherries too.  The peaches can get a tad sunburned, making their little shoulders a little rough (and who can’t relate to that after a certain age?), and just as they reach peak, I have to wave off the gnats and the ants and sometimes the bees.

Did I mention that I’m not so much of a farmer?  The idea makes me chuckle. I wouldn’t know most large bugs from a new Fiat. Does it walk? Does it fly? Does it have a stick shift?  As long as it doesn’t bother me, I don’t mind sharing.

This week, when I made my trek to the back yard for picking day, it was already way too warm for a  post storm day. I took my handy green bin and stood beneath the weighted branches, looking my favorite tree up and down. Most of the ready-to-be-picked fruit lay in the mulch and grass, knocked free of their stems by the previous night’s torrential downpour and winds.  A few remained stubbornly attached and I reached for those, confidently waving off the gnats that joined me for the adventure.

It wasn’t a huge surprise they’d been knocked down, since earlier in the day, I noted that all of the portajohns in the construction zone on the tollway had blown over sideways.  Peaches are somewhat lighter and less intimidating than your average portajohn.

On the first reach, I noted new winged friends. Oh….they were pretty. I hadn’t seen such critters before. They were black and white striped, hovering over some of the damaged peaches. I wondered what kind of fruit fly they were. There were dozens of them. Maybe hundreds.  I shooed a few off the peach I wanted to put in my bin. They moved amiably over to the next available fruit or settled on ones on the ground. I shooed again. They moved again, yielding territory and their food to me.  I thanked them. I also complimented them on their snappy white and black striped rugby shirts. I told them they were very dashing. They buzzed happily and we worked together for a little while longer.

Later that afternoon, with the remaining peaches reclining comfortably in the kitchen, I popped onto Facebook for a minute. The first thing I ran across was a meme about Yellow Striped Stingy Things, depicting all kinds of bees.  Curious, I opened a new screen and did a quick search for black and white flies.

Rut ro. Did I mention that I’m not a farmer?  Yyyyyeaah.  I’m quick like that. They weren’t flies.  Not even close. They’re bald faced hornets, and they can be aggressive when their food source is at risk. Like…you know…when you’re standing under their peach tree, competing with dozens of  them for fruit and trying to shoo them away.

Why would they have been so reasonable?  Then I started to laugh. There was fermenting fruit on the ground under the tree.  Fermenting fruit. Wine, dammit. They were drinking and eating peach wine. The little bastards were so happy because they were drunk!

THAT’s why I recognized them! They were like a group of rowdy, winged, drunk Irishmen who just want to buy you a pint and sing with you!  “Heeeeyyyyyy, mate! Pull up a peach tree! Sit on that rock and have a nip!” I know those guys! Oh hell, I grew up with those guys!

Not too much survived the storms this week. We won’t have any Uncle Nando’s Pee-Wee Jam.  I waited all year for what I would make this week and got blindsided by an enormous, unexpected storm that wiped out most of what I’d been waiting for. It happens. It is a good thing I’m not doing the serious homestead thing. I’d be sunk. But I did make some new friends who were wearing very snappy black and white rugby shirts and got a good laugh in the process, which beats the hell out of a trip to the ER any day!

Have a day of silliness, friends!

peaches

Indoor/Outdoor Entomos

Posted: August 17, 2018 in Blog
Tags: , , ,

Here’s a familiar topic for my readers. It’s summer, after all. How could we get through a whole summer and I haven’t done one entomo post? So I have to do it. Many posts back, we determined that I have entomophobia—the fear of insects. Not ALL insects. Centipedes. Specifically, house centipedes.

https://urbantidepool.com/2014/12/16/if-you-knew-what-bugged-me/

https://urbantidepool.com/2017/03/27/bad-ass-adulting-in-entomo-season/

It’s even been a subject of Facebook posts for me. “Somewhere in a parallel universe, there’s a bug version of Criminal Minds playing out and investigators are standing over dismembered centipedes saying, ‘Given this level of overkill, this is clearly the work of a centiped-acidal maniac.’  Yes. Arrest me now.”

I do battle with the entomos at least once a year. My new and growing friendship with the Orkin man makes a statement that is clear and concise and includes none of the stuttering that I am prone to when I speak to someone I think is cute. (Slow down, Tiger. That’s a story for another day.) Plainly, entomos are not welcome here. I come by this phobia honestly after summers spent with my brother who was stationed in Mississippi and then in Florida where bugs were so big they should have been assigned their own zip code.  I now choose to live in the land of blizzards and subzero temps for a reason: minimal bugs.

Hence, it was a surprise to me this week while I was changing laundry from the washer to the dryer to be rushed by an entomo with way too many legs.  I’m certain he was snapping and snarling at me, as they do, unless you find them wearing a shower cap and standing in the bathtub with you. It totally brings out the butch warrior in me. I can neither confirm nor deny the things that may or may not have happened right at that moment of us recognizing each other.

  1. I squeaked at a pitch that I will never be able to reach on a normal day
  2. I grabbed hold of my pant legs and hiked them 8 inches above my sneakers
  3. I got on the phone and booked a cruise to Alaska
  4. I stomped on it so hard I thought I may have sprained my ankle
  5. A, B and D

If you picked E, sorry. I’ll send you a postcard from Anchorage.

No, seriously, if you picked E, you may now have an image in your head that won’t go away for days. My apologies. You probably did not wake up this morning wondering if I ever wear Life is Good quarter socklets in a smashing cadet blue color. But there they were. In my defense, when I cleaned up the mess, I had to wipe extra legs off my sneaker and I won’t get that image out of my head for a while either. I think you got the better end of the deal with the socklets image.

Anyway…

It was right at that moment that I realized that this was not an ordinary house entomo. This was a garden entomo, the kind I see when I dig or move something that has been sitting on soil for a while. This guy did not belong in the house.

I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a fleeting touch of regret as I contemplated about 42 twitching limbs. His, not mine. (You’re welcome.) I mean, what if he wasn’t really snapping and snarling at me? What if I only THOUGHT he was snapping and snarling at me but he was lost and confused on a tile floor and he was running toward me to wave me down and ask directions? Just like our dads did when we got lost on vacation. (Yeah. Don’t get me started there.) Or maybe it’s like that spider meme—What if that spider you just killed thought you were his roommate? Sure, you didn’t think about that. You only think about yourself.

Don’t judge.

Sometimes, I guess, the best you can do is hike your pant legs 8 inches above your sneakers and squeak and try to carry on. It’s all in a day’s work for a bad ass who’s trying to adult. Or (more appealing) we can just plan to meet in Juneau. That’s good too.

fear

 

There’s almost always a panhandler at the parking lot entrance to the office supply store across town. It’s rarely the same person, so I think the people who station themselves there must stake claim with a first-come, first-serve approach. Sometimes there’s one person. Occasionally there are two people together. Sometimes the person has a backpack and a tent or a scruffy pet. I’ve seen folks in their early 20s. I’ve seen folks who are probably in mid-life. They’re out there in blazing heat and bitter cold. The dog-eared, cardboard sign, a flap from a box with a Sharpie scrawled message to passersby,  is ubiquitous.

“Homeless. Anything helps.”

“3 kids, please help.”

“Trying to get home.”

“Please help. God bless.”

I stopped by the office supply store yesterday toward the end of my work day.  I had eleventy million things on my mind that I needed to do. Running plans for how my evening would go and when I would put together the tee shirt bags I wanted to create, I got back in the car and pulled up to the light at the entrance/exit of the parking lot.

As you might expect, there was a panhandler on the corner. If I happen to be carrying cash, I share a dollar or two, or a bottle of water in the summer, or a cup of coffee in the winter. Whatever their reason for being out there, heat stroke and frostbite probably don’t figure prominently into their plans. Yesterday, I was so caught up in the planning for the supplies I had just purchased, I forgot to pick up a bottle of water for the man on the corner.

The panhandler was standing by the first car in the stop light queue when I pulled up. He was maybe mid-20s, bearded, wearing a dark tee shirt with some kind of graphic on the front which was obscured by the worn cardboard sign he was holding. I sat at the red light long enough to notice the little pile of his backpack and his sneakers kicked off in the dust on such a beautiful afternoon. I looked at him again—mid-20s, bearded, barefoot with his pant legs rolled up to mid-calf. His feet were a couple of shades lighter than his legs and they looked soft and unsuspecting standing there on the curb of the midway.

He started to walk toward my car, keeping about 3 feet to the side. As he got closer, I rolled my window down and before I could speak to him, he spoke to me, stopping near my door.

“You look mad. Are you mad?” he said gently.

“Who? Me?” I asked.

“Yeah, you. You look mad.”

“Oh. I was just thinking about something.”

My eye swept up and down. There was something about him being barefoot that riveted me. He wasn’t that old…maybe 23 or 24. He could have been an NIU student. Maybe he WAS an NIU student. I wondered who he had been before he panhandled, barefoot in the Office Max parking lot. The questions were quick and blurry. Where had he gone to high school? Did he have a prom date? Did he ever play baseball and go out for pizza with his team when they won? Who dropped him off for his first day of kindergarten?  Did anyone touch his tiny baby feet and speak softly to him? He had feet, he had been a baby, someone brought him onto the planet.  Who was this man before he came to this parking lot?

The red light changed to green. The car ahead of me pulled forward.

“Hey! Don’t be mad, okay? It’s a beautiful day!”

I looked into his face. He broke into a smile, disarming, uneven teeth appearing through his beard. He didn’t come any closer to my window. He wasn’t asking me for anything—he just wanted to talk. I couldn’t stop my own smile in return. His eyes crinkled at the edges and he flapped his sign at me.

“Have a blessed day!” he called, still smiling.

I waved to him, also still smiling, and he shrunk in my side view mirror as I drove away.

Don’t be mad, okay?

I pondered that, struck by his words. I hadn’t been mad. I was simply pre-occupied with something I wanted to get finished for work.  Today. I wanted it done today. It reminded me that an old boss, my favorite boss, used to tease me about how she could always tell if I was thinking seriously about something because it looked like I wanted to kill everyone around me. It took her three years to realize that expression meant only that I was thinking hard, and not that I was homicidal.

I have said for many years that the Universe gives me EXACTLY whom I need at EXACTLY the time I need them. It’s all a matter of listening to the messages.

When I got home, I put the project materials away until morning and took the dogs out to the back yard. I dragged my miniature dirt digging toys out of the garage and made container gardens for my driveway. When I finished that, I sat in my favorite Adirondack chair with a book and a soft drink and listened to the cardinals call up and down the street. I let the project slide from my thoughts and took some time to absorb one of the last evenings of spring.

I got a gift from a strange man who was asking for spare change and I had given him nothing.

It’s a beautiful day. Indeed, it was. If you watch, the Universe brings you EXACTLY who you need EXACTLY when you need them. If you’re really fortunate, as I was yesterday, the Universe will bring you a barefoot panhandler with a charming smile, who will remind you to slow down and just BE. When that happens, don’t be mad, okay?

barefoot