Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Raisin Wives



STACKS AND STACKS OF COOKBOOKS fill Dayton Titus’s dining room.
“Help yourself,” he said. “The kids have already taken the ones they want.”
Post-it notes stuck up from the bindings.
“Did you mark your favorite recipes?”
“Hell, no. Gayle did.”
Gayle Klingler Titus, who died in October 2011, was acclaimed in both the Mattole and Eel River Valleys for her cooking and baking. I wanted to load up the back of my car with the entire lot and spin out in the driveway before Dayton changed his mind.
I didn’t, of course. I chose “Favorite Raisin Recipes.”
I picked it out because of the cover line: From the Raisin Wives of California.
A raisin wife.  That was a life possibility that had never occurred to me.
Before I baked anything, I went to the ‘net. The Raisin Wives of California, a fairly new organization, was founded in 1972, a year before the cookbook was published.
I called the president, Lladona Estermann, who lives in Kerman. (The parents of Lladona and her husband, David, immigrated as children with their families from Indiana and Iowa, respectively, arriving in the Central Valley in the early 1900s. Once in the valley, both families became raisin farmers.)
“We only have about 30 members now,” Lladona said, “we’re down from well over a hundred members fifteen years ago. We’re old. The young wives are too involved with their kids in sports.
Until that moment, everything I knew about raisins was centered on the vision of a dark-haired young woman in a red bonnet on a red box with  a yellow sun.
“We Raisin Wives all belong to the Sun-Maid co-op,” Lladona said.  (Sun-Maid, 94 years old, is owned by raisin growers who live within 100 miles of each other in California’s San Joaquin Valley.)
The dark-haired girl on the Sun-Maid box was Lorraine Collett Petersen. As Sun-Maid’s website says: “In May 1915, she was discovered drying her black hair curls in the sunny backyard of her parents’ home in Fresno…she was then asked to pose for a painting while holding a basket tray of fresh grapes. …the treasured original watercolor painting is today kept safely in a concrete vault at Sun-Maid’s headquarters in Kingsburg, California…sometimes we forget that in 1915 there were no electric hair dryers…”
(The last comment reveals that no cynical editor touched the Sun-Maid website copy. I would have deleted that line with margin notes: “Off-point!” “Spoils original image!”)
Tell me about making raisins, I said. I’d already consumed a bag via a Brandied Raisin Applesauce Cake (p. 9).
“We grow Thompson seedless grapes, same as green table grapes, except that our culture practices are different. We don’t want ours to be great big, with tough skin. Raisin grapes have to be smaller. If they weren’t, it would take forever and a year to dry. It takes four to five pounds of grapes to make a pound of raisins. We figure 2.5 tons per acre, if everything goes well. Lack of water, like now, you just never know. We just got our first water today — we can get water when the west side of the San Joaquin Valley can’t — we get water from March or April through September or October, from a reservoir of melted snow in the mountains. Irrigation water comes through ditches from the mountains to the valley. We belong to the Fresno Irrigation District.” (The FID, publicly held and controlled for nearly a century, serves 245,000 rural and urban acres in Fresno County.)
“This year, we’ve had 25% less than normal snow, and it’s dry on top of that. If we don’t get water that way, we have to pump ground water. Some farmers’ wells are going dry.
“Anyway, Thompson grapes are also used for commercial sweeteners — they’re very sweet — as a wine blend, and in one of the steak sauces. A1. They’re green until they’re really ripe, and then they’re kind of yellow. That’s when they’re really, really good, but people won’t buy them because they think the raisins have gone bad.
“We start picking the first of September. We put the bunches on paper trays, craft paper, like grocery bags, 2 feet by 3.5 feet. We put the trays between the rows.  All hand work. The raisins dry there, in the sun.  Then, we put them in big boxes and take them to the Sun-Maid processing plant in Kingsburg, where they’re cleaned and stemmed and fumigated for mites.”
What happens to the grapeless vines, I wondered.
“We shred the canes, stack them in the middle of the rows, and a machine cuts them up and works them into the ground. We’re trying not to burn anything. We have the worst air quality in the state. The prevailing summer winds from the north blows in the junk from the Bay Area, there’s a dust from farming, trucks on I-5 and the exhaust…”
I had a question for the expert. We have a grapevine at our place, tiny purple wine grapes that came from Italy as grew from a slip carried in Paolo Gabrielli’s coat lining. Years ago, I was told by Fulmina Borges that the time to prune the vine was after the first full moon in January.
I mentioned this tip in an effort to wow the president of the Raisin Wives of California with my knowledge of the lore of viticulture.
“Never heard of that one,” Lladona said. “We prune after a frost. Otherwise, the leaves are still hanging on the vine.
“You can’t see to prune if the leaves are on.”
There’s so much life wisdom in that comment, I have nothing to say.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The new dog

Tikvah, in a photo taken by her fostering family.
Peggy Hartley Rice died on February 10 and on March 10, one of her many friends, Leanne McCulloch, sent this mass e-mail:

I’m asking everyone I can think of  in hopes that they may know someone who needs/would like/might be looking for a little companion dog.

Tikvah belonged to Peggy Hartley… She’s about 6 or 7 years old. Is a loving little dog that tolerates cats. She’s good company, but Peggy was always a little nervous with her around toddlers.

What’s with people only wanting to adopt babies and puppies.

If you can think of anyone, please let me know.

PS  Tikvah means hope in Hebrew.

Leanne

I searched Google translations. I’m always optimistic about English translations of Hebrew, in the off-chance that something touted as a law punishable by death turns out to be only a suggestion.

Leanne was correct. Tikvah means hope.

Still, while we prefer to adopt house-broken members of all species, we also prefer dogs that can be easily called.

I went to the back door and practiced yelling “Tikvah” a few times. There are two distinct and linguistically incompatible syllables. I tried a few variations. Frank wandered around the corner to see if I was announcing an exotic table scrap.

Not going to work, I decided. 

For a moment, her adoption had been a consideration. Frank is aging; he and John share the glucosamine.  We’re not sure of Frank’s true age because he was an adult adoption from the King Salmon pound. He joined us in 2003, at the time when Viola, our previous Australian shepherd/border collie mix adopted ten years earlier from the same pound, was apparently in her last days. It was my theory that Viola’s life would be extended by a loving companion – and if not extended, at least significantly enhanced over the screwball fellowship extended by the chickens.

Theory proven. Viola lived another full, blissful year.

We had more or less agreed to seek a similar twilight plan for Frank. (Recently, about to have a routine medical test, I was asked by the receptionist if I had an end-of-life plan. I do: it is to go to sleep at some reasonable chronological point, have a lovely dream, like skinny dipping in a warm and isolated mountain lake, and never wake up. I didn’t mention that to the receptionist. She needed an answer that would fit in a check box.)

Like most big ideas, the best end-of-life plan is Biblical, from 1 Kings: Now King David was old, advanced in age; and they covered him with clothes, but he could not keep warm. So his servants said to him, "Let them seek a young virgin for my lord the king, and let her attend the king and become his nurse; and let her lie in your bosom, that my lord the king may keep warm."…

Two nubile nurses were ultimately involved, as I recall, but maybe that’s the Hollywood version.

I especially like the part about staying warm and having servants.

So, finding a pleasant, adult female companion for Frank was a priority. Toward this end, and before Leanne’s email came, I had visited the King Salmon pound.  I figured they’d be delighted to have our place available again, with two successful, long-term adoptions to our credit.

I was wrong.  I had to fill out a form with the longest list of questions I have ever been asked, including foster parent applications and government security clearances. After I answered the questions, I was asked to wait for an interview.

Eventually, a pleasant young woman sat down with me and reviewed my answers. I offered that surely there were records somewhere attesting to our responsible pet ownership history. She smiled patiently. Things are different. We are more concerned about the type of home... When you come for your first visit –

The visit, she said, would require the attendance of all of us.  John and I.  And Frank. It was critical, she explained, that Frank interact with his intended companion in a neutral zone and under supervision.

Wow, if the pound were a dating service, I could have spared myself a couple of husbands.

Then, she asked – much too gently -- if I thought I could offer a dog “at least 15 years” of a stable home.

That’s what you get when you stop dyeing your hair. I said I’d be in touch.

When I returned to my email, Leanne McCulloch had sent a bit of history. Peggy’s daughter-in-law, she said, had found the dog, abused and starving, in a parking lot in Davis. She nursed her back to health and brought her up to Humboldt County to be with Peggy, who was battling cancer. Peggy named her “hope.” Since Peggy died, Leanne wrote, Tikvah has been living with Jeannie Fulton, Peggy’s friend and neighbor.  “Jeannie will keep her if no one else will, but the family is away most of the day and they don’t think the dog should be alone that much.”

Attached was a photo.

We call her Tickie. 


Friday, April 18, 2014

Following a Silver Star

The eBay lot of medals, at least one of which is stolen
property, sold on April 13, 2014 for $611.
IN AUGUST OF 1980, I left my house in northern Westchester County, New York, and moved into Manhattan to sublet a loft in Soho for the month with Robert Hard, a man I was dating. (I was divorced; my son, who was five, was spending the month with his grandparents in Humboldt County, California.)
It was a glorious summer, much of which was spent on the fire escape, smoking cigarettes and drinking wine.
On the last day of August, we packed up what belongings we had brought with us and shoved them into Robert’s car, which may have been a ’73 bronze Mercury Capri hatchback. We drove from Soho to the way-upper West Side, where Robert’s twin brother Gordon shared a flat with four other guys.
The next morning, we went downstairs to 104th Street, where we’d parked the Merc. The windows were smashed. Our stuff was gone.
The sublet had been furnished. All I’d packed from my house were necessities (clothes, cosmetics) and sentimental items I was reluctant to leave in an unoccupied house in the woods -- such as the the Silver Star awarded posthumously to my father, U.S. Marine Lt. John D. Robertson, Jr. for valor (“…which resulted in his death…”, as the proclamation read) on Okinawa in May 1945.
The guilt and shame of losing his medal lingered with me for a long time.
Two or three years after that August night, Robert called my house and said he had something he thought would interest me. Could he drop by?
He arrived with a package of letters from officials in the Pentagon documenting his long and utimately successful effort to have all of my father’s decorations and honoria, including the Silver Star and the Purple Heart, replaced.  
Last week, I was pulling into a parking space outside a class at Humboldt State University when my cell phone rang.
“A kid from Pennsylvania just called,” said my husband, John. “He asked if you knew that your father’s medal is for sale on eBay?!”
“That’s a scam,” I said. “The medals are at U.S. Bank, in the safe deposit box.” A beat, two beats.
My God. It’s the real one.
I called “the kid,” a 19-year-old pre-med student who collects military memorabilia.
“The seller doesn’t know what he has,” the kid said. “It’s listed wrong, and it’s with a bunch of common medals. But dealers will spot it. The bid could go up to a thousand dollars. If it had kept its ribbon and pin it would have been worth up to five thousand. Especially since there’s a story with it.”
I asked how he found me.
“The seller has included a photo of the back of the medal. Your father's name is engraved there. I Googled it, and found all the stories about you, and the movie you made — ‘Letters Home’ — and from the newspaper articles it didn’t sound like you were someone who would have sold this or given it away…”
He sent me the link for the eBay listing. The Silver Star, battered and dulled, surrounded by a dozen or so lesser medals, was nearly unrecognizable in the flea-market lot. A second photo showed the flip side.
I enlarged the image. A rifle shot went through my heart.
Up to that point, I had thought, well, amazing story, how unlikely, I already have a medal in storage, I don’t have time to pursue the red-tape labyrinth of getting this back, it’s just a symbol, a thing — and then I saw my father’s name, belly-up, exposed, tossed in a box like a piece of junk jewelry, abandoned and dismissed.
I wrote the seller, who is known to me only as Canuprovethat2010 -- by eBay regulations, he is allowed his anonymity regardless of whether or not he is selling stolen property, unless a police officer produces a report. I explained the circumstances. I also emphasized that in no way did I believe that he was the original thief. (“The people who stole our stuff probably only had possession for 10 minutes. The only things they collected were syringes,” I wrote.)
The seller responded, asking for more information about me, to prove my right to the medal. I produced the proof. He responded, writing that he didn’t know what to do, as there was already a bid on the item. (There is a simple procedure: eBay allows a seller to end an auction without giving cause, at any time before the auction closes.) The seller chose to stonewall; someone had probably clued him to the fact that he had missed a high-worth item. Last Sunday evening, the “box of medals, good stuff” that included my father’s Silver Star, sold for $611. The winner, from the looks of his history of eBay transactions, is a dealer.
I called eBay and spent most of Sunday on hold. I was transferred and transferred. I repeated the story eight or nine times. When the evening ended, I had had conversations with representatives in both the Mediation and the Trust & Safety departments.
As it now stands,  Mediation is pursuing the case, notifying both the seller and the buyer that eBay is aware there was prior notice that stolen property was being sold, and encouraging them to join a three-way e-mail conversation (in which, unfairly, only my identity is known to the others). The ideal is, says Joseph in Mediation, for the three of us to “work out something.”  Joseph emphasized that by this, he, and by implication, eBay, did not mean that I was expected to buy the medal back.
The Trust & Safety department of eBay deals a much heavier hand on stolen property issues, but that level of disciplinary action (lifetime exclusion from eBay, for starters) requires the involvement of a police officer and a copy of the police report.
Robert Hard -- I’d emailed him as soon as I learned about the medal, under the subject line, “This will blow your mind” -- was discouraging about the chances of obtaining a police report for a car break-in in 1980. I hadn’t been too optimistic myself. I seem to recall that there are warehouses somewhere in Brooklyn filled with pre-computerization paperwork from the NYPD.
In my most recent conversation with Mediation’s Joseph, I told him I was not going to let this incident pass.
“I always do that,” I said. “I’ve never sued anyone, I’ve never pressed charges, I’ve never taken a cent in a divorce. I’ve always decided that the hassle wasn’t worth the bad energy, and I’ve walked away. But I’m not walking away from this, not now, not ever. Tell the buyer and the seller that. Tell them that I am not going to lose this medal twice. I am not going to rest until his name is with people who are his family, people who look like him, who laugh like he laughed: his daughter, his grandson, his great-grandsons.

"We will know him by his things.”

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Division of labor

THE TERRIBLE THING ABOUT SUNSHINE is how it highlights dust.
Bright sun in the wintertime isn’t too much of a problem because the days are short. If you work outside the home on a standard shift, you return in the dark. Are the porch lights on? Is it warm inside? Is there some of that lasagna left? Who cares about housework — we have no dusty wine glasses.

But now, horrors. The layers of fine river silt lay on the furniture in ominous defiance, and I know: no matter how diligently we fight back, nature will win. The layers will accumulate. We will be slowly preserved, pressed over millennia into a layer of striation as thin as cigarette paper. Then, suddenly, our detritus will be exposed in a tectonic event. A futuristic tool-user will dig into the rock and discover shards of a coffee mug, an amethyst ring with a peculiar engraving, a raccoon tooth, and a flash drive. From this cache, it will reconstruct our lives.

Housework may be the primary dividing line between men and women.

“What do you want me to do today?” John asks, as I leave for the office.

“The house is a mess,” I say. And then, because I have learned something over the decades — like, be specific — I say, “If you have time, you might want to dust and mop the dining room.”

“I think I’ll mow the back field,” John says.

“We’ve got forty-five-mile-an-hour winds.”

“Good. That’ll dry the grass.”

When the last ice age began to thaw, we humans — with our animals — were able to stop migrating to find feed. Warmer weather meant we could grow enough food for ourselves and our livestock in one place.  We built permanent structures for all of us to live in: part barn, part house. Everything must have been hunky-dory for about two weeks.

That’s how long it took for someone to realize that since everything you owned didn’t have to fit on your back or the yak’s back — you could have two pots, maybe three, instead of one.

That’s when the conversation changed from, “Let us all pause and thank the great spirit for this abundant patch of teosinte,” to “Where’s my big pot?” followed by, “Filled with bear grease, right where you left it. If you think I’m going to be the only one who cleans up around here…”

This is why — I feel a doctoral thesis coming on — married couples are much happier when they’re in the car, hundreds of miles from home, looking for a place to eat breakfast.

A few months ago, the Journal of Family Issues published a study by researchers from the University of Missouri, Brigham Young University and Utah State University; the study surveyed 160 couples who’d been married for an average of five years and had at least one child under five. Slightly less than half of the women worked full- or part-time. The researchers found that “the more wives perceived that their husbands were participating in family work tasks, the better the relationships were for both spouses.”

The title of the piece when it was picked up in the popular press was “Marriage Research Shows That Couples Who Split Chores Are Happier.”

First, let’s ignore the fact that women in Utah and Missouri may not be exactly a universal cross-section of post-industrial female diversity. Let’s focus on the two key words: wives perceived.

The philosophical struggle between reality and perception that has consumed many a great mind over the centuries now manifests itself in clear, promotional acts. Research (conducted locally with people we know well) reveals that when a man vacuums, he leaves the machine in the middle of the room 83 percent of the time and it stays there until someone says, “Wow! The carpet looks amazing!” to which he adds (51 percent of the time), “I changed the bag, too.”

The crux of the problem is that there are two kinds of tasks: those with permanent results — refinishing end tables, say —  and Sisyphean chores, like laundry. Men like to accomplish things that last. Things they can remember fondly while watching “Counting Cars.” Things like Mount Rushmore.

Women enjoy creating things that last, too, but it’s hard to chip away around the nose of Abraham Lincoln when you’re being stalked by hungry people in dirty clothes.

We are — by nature or by necessity — process-oriented. “Life is a journey,” we tell each other, and we stick up refrigerator magnets and stitch tiny pillows to reinforce the mantra.

And then we dust them.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Larger than life

A Harlem Globetrotter includes us
in his selfie.
CUB SCOUT PACK 46 and I went to the Westchester County Center in New York to see the Harlem Globetrotters last night.

Outside, it was 14 degrees, headed to 1 degree overnight (but will “feel like minus 17”).  I walked from the car on salted sidewalks, repeating the mantra of the aging:  don’t fall, don’t break your hip: your children can’t take care of you; this parking lot is their ice floe.

Inside, I realized I'd been in this venue for another basketball game, in 1986, when my son was 11. One night, because his fool coach had egomaniaical aspirations,  his team traveled from Fox Lane Middle School to White Plains to play a team from Yonkers, a group of boys who were well outside our league, geographically and athletically.  Over parental protest, the game lasted the full four quarters. The final score was 128-3.

This flashback of vicarious suffering loosed a trove of basketball memories. 

Twenty years earlier, in the fall of 1966, I worked as an editorial assistant at Datamation, a computer magazine in Los Angeles. Our offices were on West Olympic Boulevard, across the street from a motel that may have been called the Olympian; in any case, professional athletes hung out there all the time: it was near the Forum, where the Lakers played basketball, and Exposition Park, where the Rams played football.

There was a television in the bar, always showing sports, a big deal in those years before sport bars, or sports bras for that matter, were common. 

An even bigger deal was seeing the basketball players who stayed there: Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Bill Russell...

Datamation had four season-ticket floor seats to the Lakers games for the purpose of entertaining advertisers. On those lucky nights when no advertisers were in town (Ross Perot of Electronic Data Systems in Dallas was a regular), one of the salesmen would stroll out to the reception area and toss a couple tickets on my desk.

This was a significant bonus: a pair of tickets was 75% of my monthly take-home pay. Plus, I had become a huge Laker fan.  And I wasn't alone. At every home game, Doris Day and her boyfriend, Dodger shortstop Maury Wills, sat with the Lakers directly across the court from our seats. We were close enough to see her turquoise eyeshadow; I can see it now. (In her autobiography, I am obliged to note, Doris denied she was Maury’s girlfriend. Perhaps I should refer to them as "long-time hoopside companions.")

One afternoon at Datamation, the editor shouted why didn’t we all go over to the Olympian and have a drink. (Those were the days documented in “Mad Men.” Everybody drank hard liquor during work hours. When I was new on the job, I didn’t know how to drink socially. I’d gone to college, where I drank a lot of beer, had a few boilermakers, and threw up.  This was not career-style boozing.  I asked my landlady – who was so old, nearly 60, that I wasn’t sure I should believe any of her advice – and she suggested I order sherry. I did. I drank Dry Sack for years before I learned about fortified wine, and discovered I was tripling the chances of disgracing myself.)

The Datamation staff trooped across Olympic Boulevard and sat down at a long table to talk, drink, and watch a basketball game on television (where was it coming from on a weekday afternoon? I now wonder).

“What would Martians think of us,” the editor asked suddenly, “if they were to arrive and notice that we are a culture intensely serious about running up and down in a small room putting a ball through a net?”  

“Yeah,” I said. “In our underwear.”

That ended the party. The editor smashed his Scotch mist to the table, stood up, and pointed at me.

“Don’t you ever step on my lines again,” he said, and he left. With his secretary.

I could have used a Dry Sack last night while sitting on a low, broken stadium chair, pitched slightly forward, watching a split view of the Globetrotters vs. the All-Stars. Also, the seat was directly behind a portable backstop.  Endlessly, the announcer screamed into the microphone, a constant barrage of unintelligible jokes acted out by globe-headed mascots and punctuated with “are you ready to rumble?” rhetorical questions. At one point, I yelled, “I was ready an hour ago,” a move that so enchanted the Cub Scout granddad on my right that he gave me a pretzel.

(But, then, I asked, “Where’s the mustard?” If he’d had a secretary, he would have left with her.)

Later, tucked in and toasty, I decided I’d had a wonderful time. I remembered that the Harlem Clowns, a second-tier version of the Globetrotters, had come to Ferndale in the ‘50s. Everyone went to see them. There were professional basketball teams in those years, but who knew? It wasn’t on television. We may not have even had television in town yet, I can’t recall, but it certainly was not routine to see slam dunks and fancy dribbling and sleight-of-hand passing -- or very tall black men dancing to “Sweet Georgia Brown” in the middle of the FUHS gym. They were gentle, agile, exotic giants. I felt like a flea, a fluff of dandelion seed, a fragile organism in the midst of magic.

Would my grandsons, denizens of Pack 46, be so impressed? They play sports video games; they’ve attended dozens of professional sporting events, including Knicks games; they watch eternal ESPN.

To my delight, they were thrilled. At the end of the Globetrotters’ show, a player with the name “Big Shot” on the back of his shirt gave his sweaty headband to Carson.  Another player, “Turbo,” took a selfie with Cooper, Carson, their mother Lauren, and me. Lauren posted it on Facebook.
Lots of “friends” “liked” it. I didn’t. I was wearing four bulky sweaters under my coat, my eyes were shut --  and fluorescent lighting? Please.

Maury Wills wouldn’t give me a second glance.

Friday, January 17, 2014

The dream is alive

THE GROUP AROUND THE TABLE Saturday night in Escondido included four friends I’ve known for over 40 years. We managed to eat an enormous dinner without a pause in the conversation. 

While we were gathered to acknowledge seventieth birthdays, the celebration was about friendship. Coming from different places around the state, and the world, we had all come of age together in Pasadena in the late ‘60s. Los Angeles, in those days, was a forgiving place to be in your twenties and a full-fledged member of the working poor. Dinners out cost $3. I bought my first house for $19,000. After the down payment, my mortgage was $134/month, and I had a garage in the back with two attached apartments that earned a total of $200/month in rent, bringing my monthly income to $1,100.  In terms of discretionary income, it was the wealthiest time of my life.

In 1974, my then-husband, Ron, and I drove from Pasadena to the east coast and back in a rambling, five-week road trip. To fund the adventure, we first drove the thirteen hours north to Humboldt County and cleaned out my parents’ barn and garage. Returning to Pasadena, we placed an ad in the Star-News: “Heirs liquidating Northern California estate.” The dealers were at our door at 4 a.m. We sold everything and grossed over $500.

That night, August 8, 1974, Nixon resigned his Presidency. We watched it on a 17-inch black and white television from Sears. (A year later, our house was burglarized eight times in six months and the tv, which sat prominently on an old icebox, was never taken.)

We whooped over the denouement of Watergate and left the next morning for America. First stop, Vegas. We budgeted $1 each to play the 5-cent slots, won $3 and took off.
A month later we ran out of money during a monsoon in Shreveport, Louisiana. From a storm-battered pay phone, we called Ron’s brother in Tulsa, collect.

“We only have $3.40.” He offered to wire us enough to get back to Los Angeles. We agreed that $75 would be more than enough. It was. 

We had taken with us our one credit card, Shell gas. At the end of the trip, it had a balance of $300 -- very high, but then, gas had shot to 53 cents a gallon in the OPEC crisis.

In Meridian, Mississippi – a name that was still dripping with blood from the civil rights murders ten years earlier – we pulled into a decrepit Shell station with a sign advertising gas at 31 cents a gallon.

“Is that right?” Ron asked.

“You dreamin’?” the owner said. “I just don’t change the sign no more.”

When the owner approached our car closer – and carefully, we were also traveling with a German shepherd – he glanced at our license plates, and decided to show us some southern hospitality.

“Car needs a cleanin’,” he said. “I’ll get my boy.” 

He shouted and an aging black man walked out of the garage office, grabbed some soiled rags and a spray bottle, and tackled the grime. He avoided eye contact with both of us.

“Get your missus out of the car,” the owner said to Ron. To me, he said, “You need a coke?”

I was thirsty, but I didn’t want a coke. Do you have anything else I said, and he said he had all kinds of coke: grape, strawberry, lime, root beer.

“Oh,” I said, “Coke is generic for soda?”

“How much is the car wash?” Ron asked quickly. “Can we put it on the Shell card?”

“Cash,” the owner said. “Give him whatever you want. Two bits.”

The car had been hand-scrubbed outside and thoroughly cleaned inside, even while the German shepherd was ominously alert.

Twenty years later, a few weeks after moving back to the ranch in Humboldt County, I was in the back room of Nilsen's Feed Store, buying Round-Up to kill the nettles on the ranch, when a Dickensian dairyman from Loleta interrupted and said, “You don’t want to use that. It’ll burn your skin, poison you. Get a Mexican to do it.  You don’t even have to pay ‘em if you don’t want to, they can’t do nothin’ about it.”

I share that unpleasant story to balance the scales with Meridian, Mississippi. For years, I had recounted the story of the gas station owner as my single-moment proof of southern racism – only to be bluntly reminded that the evils of being human are not safely confined by geography or history.

No one at the birthday party over the long weekend mentioned Monday’s holiday or the civil rights events and struggle it honors – a movement in which, in varying degrees, we had all participated; it was a passionate commitment that became the foundation, the first coat, of our lifetime bonding. 

In the midst of the celebrating, the eating and drinking and laughing and loving, the era would not be foremost in my mind if not for a Facebook posting by my daughter-in-law, Lauren.

She had taken a photograph of a worksheet from my grandson Carson’s second-grade class at Link Elementary School in New City, New York. 

His assignment, printed at the top, said, “I Have A Dream…” and the instructions read: Draw a picture of a dream you have that would make our world a better place. Write about your dream.

Accompanying a graphic novel series of panels he had illustrated and labeled, "Help each other be stronger," was his narrative:

“My dream is no fights, no guns, no wars and no more hurting each other.”

Amen.


Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The joy of penguin pajama pants

I’m sitting at the dining room table of my friend-since-fourth-grade, Sue, who lives in Los Angeles. I’m wearing a pair of blue chenille pajama bottoms imprinted with penguins and snowflakes.

Last night, when it became clear that a run to the grocery for salted caramel gelato had reached emergency status, I said, “Wait a minute while I change my clothes!” and Sue said, “This is L.A. You can go to the store in your pajamas.”

Yes, I know girls have been wearing pjs in public for years, but I haven’t. I was disconcerted about my appearance until we reached the cashier at the mini-mart – he was a cross between George Clooney and Antonio Banderas – and he called us both “Ma’am,” thus confirming that if I was signally anything by my attire, it was not romantic availability; it was mental illness.

Nevertheless, the penguin pants are my choice for Best Surprise Purchase of ’13. I bought them at the Five Below store in Nanuet, New York (the store’s name means “under $5”). The pajamas cost $3; of course, they are made of materials worth 10 cents and were probably hand-sewn by slaves. Their origin is so dicey they have no label. I’m more ashamed to wear them because of my complicity in human rights violations and chemical pollution than I am for their garish, cartoon excess.

Still. I’m wearing them now, and when I’m in Ferndale, I rush home from the office to put them on. My biggest regret is that I didn’t buy the entire stock from Five Below, so that I don’t have to do laundry every day.

The Surprise Best Purchase is one of life’s delights.

 I posted the idea on Facebook last week, and asked folks to share their own nominations from the past year.

 The concept evidently wasn't clearly communicated..

David  said, “…a new D3200 Nikon camera!...” and Alicia offered her “Bose noise canceling headphones (Quiet Comfort 15) for work travel” and “our new furnace!” Kirk said it was “same-day repair of my track pad at an Apple Store in Monterey…”

Alicia eventually realized she hadn’t read the parameters clearly, and offered “the Sherpa throw from Costco,” as a new candidate.

Laura wrote, “What comes to mind is the Siamese kitten I did not purchase. May have been the smartest piece of finance for 2013 for me.”

Okay, let’s try this again.

Over the past twelve months, you’ve purchased something – maybe for a lot, maybe for a little, price isn’t the point – something you bought carelessly. As in, “Yeah, might as well throw in that bag of chili mangoes.” When you began to use/eat/watch/wear/read the item, you had a whoa-moment.

You had accidentally enhanced your life, reinforcing one of the truths about the Forever Years:  your cup runneth over with joy in the most insignificant of things, the briefest of moments. 

Since I'm already in my pajamas, I'm going back to bed for a while.  And I'm taking a bowl of gelato with me.