(Here’s a newspaper story I wrote and photographed about a theater troupe of homeless people performing their true stories.)
Standing under the spotlight, peering into the faces in the darkness, the performers study their audience in the Oakland High School auditorium. The performance tonight is about a topic few high school students like to think about, much less confront: the homeless. The difference is that these performers are not actors; the roles they play are real.
“You may think the homeless shelter is a terribly depressing place,” Clyde Wray intones from the podium, in a deep orator’s voice that makes the room go silent. “You may think there is a lot of grief, anger, and tension. But the pain often brings out great beauty of spirit among the people. We love. We are loved. We are not just statistics.”
The troupe is called the Variety Pack, comprised of people who are, or were recently, homeless. Most are in recovery from drug addiction, and some have been diagnosed HIV positive.
The backbone of the Variety Pack is Nancy Wyatt, a deeply committed volunteer, poet, and writer, who has taken the life stories of these people and composed them into monologues, which are then read by the players.
“I discovered intelligence and beauty in my friends, and wanted to help them tell their stories,” Wyatt explains. “I want to help eliminate stereotypes so that others can learn to know them and love them like I do.”
Wyatt, 47, has been a lifelong volunteer. She works full time as a business manager at Northern Virginia Community College’s Manassas campus, and the Variety Pack has become a second full-time job. “This whole troupe is founded on my indebtedness,” she laughs. “I need to find out how to get paid for the work my soul requires of me.”
As a teenager, Wyatt worked at the Tawac Indian Reservation in New Mexico. She has volunteered with lifers at Sing Sing prison, was a member of Big Brothers, Inc. in New York City, and began volunteering at the Community for Creative Non-Violence about four years ago. At CCNV she worked with a homeless performing troupe called Voices from the Street.
Eventually, she and a core group of performers from Voices split off and formed the Variety Pack, their own troupe. The performances are a series of dramatic monologues, stories of “how a series of events can cause a downward spiral into quicksand.”
Her work has not gone unnoticed. In 1990, Wyatt was chosen for the “One and Only Channel 9 Award for Community Service”, and over the summer received a Governor’s Award for Volunteering Excellence.
“Now we are like one garden of many exotic flowers,” B.J. Norris tells us in his monologue. “Homelessness provided the common soil into which we were planted. The water of our tears and the sunshine of our affection brings our souls into full blossom. We enrich our lives.
“Now you too can learn to live and love and grow as we do. Just leave the statistics to the statisticians, and look instead into the hearts and minds of all humanity. Some of the most beautiful flowers grow in some of the most out-of-the-way places.”
The Variety Pack has its rehearsals at McKenna House, a drug rehabilitation center in northwest Washington, D.C. In a low-ceilinged basement room, the group sits at tables, rehearsing their monologues one by one. On the wall are framed statements of the twelve steps of Narcotics Anonymous and the Serenity Prayer.
How does one rehearse their life story? While one person reads, the others listen in quiet reflection, some with bowed heads, resting on their folded hands. It has all the quiet reverence, respect, and reflection of a prayer service.
The actors are not acting. The stories are no less painful for the telling. The jokes still bring laughter. The stories of drug-related shootings, and the plight of a junkie trying to find a vein and finding only “bloodless holes” bring murmurs and somber nods.
A older, bearded man named Rindgo gets up, leaves his crutches propped against the wall, and stands at the podium. “How old do you think I am?” he asks. “I’m only 53, six years older than Nancy. They say your life is mapped on your face. If you look at mine, you should see deep contradictions. My name is Rindgo.
“If you ask me, the R stands for religion. I’ve always believed in God. I was married to a minister. That’s right, a lady minister.
“The I stands for incarceration. Since childhood, I’ve spent most of my life in reform schools and prisons, so being in the shelter isn’t any different, except for more freedom of movement. But you still don’t have a choice about who you live with. There is zero privacy, day and night. I can see why some homeless people won’t live in the shelter.
“I hate to admit it, but the N stands for narcotics. That is a merciless battle I fight every minute of every day, and usually manage to lose, with no Purple Hearts to my credit. I did real well once, but when the shuffle city blues hits me, I feel helpless as a baby, and a great cloud of depression descends upon me like a coarse grey shroud, grinding me into the pavement. There’s no 21-gun salute to tell you that the war is on again. It’s just the quiet, secretive, jubilating moment when you urge the poison into your body, to change your mood just enough to make it through another day. Or maybe just the next few hours.
“The D stands for diabetic. It wasn’t enough to be homeless. I had to lose my leg. Gangrene had set in. Most shelters don’t even serve meals, much less a diet of specific nutritious meals at certain times every day. So, the disease progresses, while I live in terror of what’s going to be amputated next. But I’ve got to hang in there, because Nancy promised to dance with me when I learn to walk on my new leg, and I’m looking forward to that.
“On the brighter side, the G stands for great with children. I love the little people. Even though I’m homeless, I go over to the family shelter to take homeless children to the park, the zoo, or a museum. That might surprise you. A lot of homeless people do volunteer work to help the homeless. Bet you never thought of that.
“Whereas grownups might see only my rough exterior and look only at the surface things, the kids see through me to my soul. They make me laugh, and I feel like a person again. The only hard part these days is when they wanna race.
“The O stands for orator. I’m actually kind of shy, but once you get me going, I can preach, brother, and the whole room stands up to listen. Some of the young boys say I helped them get their lives together by sharing my experiences and philosophy with them. That really surprised me. I didn’t know it meant so much to them.
“My name is Rindgo, and I hope that by telling you my story, I’ll help you to understand people differently; to see that things are not so clean cut, so black or so white. Each of us has beauty. Each of us has ugly. And thank God for grace, because each of us has hope, whether we know it or not.”
The high school auditorium falls quiet after the monologues. The students are visibly shaken. During the question-and-answer session, the questions come in tearful fragments.
“My God,” junior Joanne Sheldon sobs. “I’m sitting in Oakton High School, thinking about school and how my mother won’t buy me a car. What can I do? How can I help?”
Junior Arlette Deltoro adds, “Just watching you all, it really hit me. It made me feel superficial, listening to what you all have gone through. It literally, physically, affected me. It was really draining. It’s bizarre to see that this really happens to people in real life.”
“Listening to these stories, I have a sense of how hard it is to talk about these things,” junior Eric Envall notes, his voice breaking. “I have a hard time talking about my pet fish who died a week ago. How can you stand in front of us and tell us these things?”
“This troupe is great therapy for us,” answers Ronald Williams. “When my life can help you, I get great self-esteem. I see that you might not be destined for the same roads and mistakes. One of the ways I deal with my problems is by telling you about them.”
Nancy Wyatt adds, “We honestly feel like we have a duty to break stereotypes. We’re trying to mess with you. Our love comes through in the performances, but we’re still scared and lonely at 2 a.m.”
Skip Bromley, who teaches theater arts at the high school, was responsible for inviting the Variety Pack to perform for the students as an example of alternative theater.
“This is culture, and culture is what civilizes us,” he explains. “The students have never bumped into this. And, at this age level, it’s like, ‘don’t get it near me, I might catch it. If I accept it, I might become it.’
“This troupe plucked, for me, one more time, those strings that change you, and make you transcend the separation barriers between us all. This is why we like to hear stories. It’s you there, touching me, making me believe I could be there.”
(I’ve been unearthing old handwritten / typewritten essays that, until now, existed only in 35-year-old papers. Here’s a story about going to a lecture by one of America’s greatest photographers).
A couple photographer friends insisted that we absolutely had to go see the photographer Richard Avedon lecture at Harvard. One of them had that rarity, a car, and so we made our way from Providence, R.I. to Cambridge, Mass.
I didn’t know much about Avedon except that he was a Very Famous Photographer. I’d seen some of his classic fashion photographs: a woman in a ball gown with elephants. A cat-like Nastassja Kinski, snuggled up with a large Python, not letting pesky clothes get in the way.
I had seen his show of photographs, “In the American West,” in D.C. the previous summer. They are life-sized, needle-sharp, black-and-white portraits that look more real than real people. He photographed everyone with an 8×10 view camera on a blank white background, which removes distractions and makes you focus only on the subject. The size of the prints is confrontational. You can’t hide from these pictures.
Having now seen the show a second time, and having heard him speak, he seems to me less a man of Fame than of Greatness. Integrity, I guess, is what bridges the gap. I think that learning what a photographer has to say about their work can play an important role in our interpretation of it. To know what sort of person is making the pictures gives us a sense of the emotional context behind them.
Richard Avedon looks like a man in his mid-’60’s, going grey, wearing glasses and a V-neck sweater. He has a funny, high voice and he would tell jokes, the crowd would laugh, and then he would wave his hands modestly to shush us. The crowd was stuffy-looking and preppy; Harvard, after all.
Then the funny man got serious.
“Underneath the surface is this traffic between fact and fiction,” he said. “Because there’s no denying that that person was right there. That IS that person. But yet, it isn’t. It’s a kind of theater.”
In the introduction to “In the American West”, Avedon elaborates on this idea. “These disciplines, these strategies, this silent theater, all attempt to achieve an illusion: that everything embodied in the photograph simply happened.”
Illusion? No one smiles in these photographs. Everyone seems a captive in the frame. Their sharp-focus eyes fix us with unrelenting stares, mysterious and unsettling. Is this natural, or is it direction? Manipulation?
Someone asked Avedon if he thinks he exploits his subjects.
This made him laugh, a high, silly laugh, and then he responded, “Did Cezanne’s apples tell Cezanne how to paint? I photograph partly because of habit and partly because of an inner tension that I can’t go into.”
Avedon’s original claim to fame, of course, was in high fashion photography. Someone asked what it’s like to photograph the famous and powerful.
“When I photographed Henry Kissinger, he told me to ‘be kind’,” Avedon replied. “Photographing famous and powerful people is different because they’re used to it. Ordinary people have a different kind of vanity. When they see the prints, they say, ‘oh, I look terrible, but it’s so wonderful. My grandchildren will be able to look at this and know who I was.’
“As for the famous and powerful, beauty and intellect have the same kind of isolation, except beauty has no lasting reward.”
One guy stood up to ask, rather snidely, “Why are you a photographer?”
Avedon coiled to strike.
“If I was to photograph you, I’d look at the way you’re standing. You’ve got your hand on your hip. Your shirt sleeve is rolled up just so, which says something about you. You’re wearing a watch. You’re leaning to the side a little bit, leaning out of the picture. If I tilt my camera to the side a little bit, I can create unrest in the frame. This will read as unrest between you and the viewer.”
The guy started to look pretty uneasy, like he was being made a fool of in front of a crowd.
Someone said, “I think your work is similar to Diane Arbus’ pictures of freaks.”
This made him visibly angry. (I would later learn that he and Arbus were very close friends, and that he was there when her body was found). He called her Dee-Anne, her correct pronunciation.
“Actually, there are very few freaks,” he snapped. “Maybe three. I suggest you look at Dee-Anne’s work again. You will find it very humane and very easy to read.”
Avedon talked about his process for In the American West. “A black background fills, a white background empties,” he explained. The poses are similar, all on white backgrounds, but, he insisted, “when you look at the hands, you’ll notice no two hands are the same.”
More questions about exploitation ensued. By now Avedon seemed very irritated with the crowd. “What I wanted to get across this evening was about my own creative process, and that’s the one thing I’ve failed to do. I can’t describe my life’s work in words any more than a writer could in a series of photographs.”
Then, as if an idea had just seized him, he began to tell us a story about his father. “I wrote to my father to explain why I wanted to photograph him. I told him, ‘I’ve been giving the best that I can be to strangers.’ ”
He photographed his father over a period of seven years. They’d always had their differences; a businessman and an artist.
“When I showed him the pictures, he said, ‘Richard, what have you done?’ and I said, ‘’Dad, don’t you see? That’s you, you’re terrific, and you’re eighty.’ ”
As the years went by, his father got sicker and sicker. Avedon continued to photograph him, but would send the film off to a lab to be processed, have the negatives put in an envelope, and not look at them.
He said that during their last session, it seemed as if his father was staying alive just to be photographed one last time.
He showed us the series of portraits, beautiful, proud, sad images of a man gradually realizing he was dying.
Then Richard Avedon, one of the giants of American photography, was red-faced and crying on the podium, and he said, “In answer to an earlier question, I think my work is about helplessness.”
With that, the lecture was over and he was gone.
I cried too. I felt as though a true Artist, a very famous and remarkable man, shared part of his soul with an abrasive and unworthy audience. He made himself vulnerable in front of us. He certainly didn’t have to, but he did.
The next time I went to see the “In the American West” exhibit, on a field trip to Boston, I paid attention to the hands in the images, at the way they seemed to mirror their owners: the twisted, spotted hands and long white fingers of a drifter, the steadily chipping nail polish of a housewife.
Whether or not these people really looked like that, or whether it resulted from some alchemy of the interaction with Avedon, seems to matter less than what IS captured here. It may not be honesty, but it’s something. We photograph how people react to us.
Avedon calls his photography an exercise in self-portraiture, and if it’s about him, then perhaps the uneasiness the pictures give us is even more valid. It’s like the black-magic notion of photography in reverse: instead of stealing people’s souls, he’s projecting his own onto them.
(Richard Avedon died of a cerebral hemorrhage on October 1, 2004 at age 81, while shooting an assignment for The New Yorker in San Antonio, Texas.)
(A story about my brief career as a diner waitress).
There’s a trick to this, like anything else. There is a subtle but finely-honed craft to every art. Angela shows me the ropes. There’s a way to carry multiple plates on one arm. There’s a way to carry five cups of coffee in one hand! But this game is one of skill and chance, requiring more quick reflexes and rapid strategic maneuvers than I could have imagined. Since I’ve never waitressed before, I am still quite spacey and have been known, on occasion, to forget tables entirely.
The Town Chef was always my favorite diner, even before I started working there. What a place! A long, splendid aisle of red vinyl booths and plastic wood. Each booth has a small jukebox built into the wall, and, though they no longer work, they still feature all the classic tunes, like “New York, New York” and “When Irish Eyes are Smiling.” There are paintings of the Acropolis, and daisies, and seascapes. There are bowls of plastic fruit and a mirror that says “Pepsi Refreshes America.” There are plastic plants in the window, soaking up sun. When the plants get mildew, Bessie runs them through the dishwasher. They come out clean.
Pastries under glass sit in the window, beckoning. More pastries sit, enshrined, in bubble-like plastic domes along the bar. The cream, for a “regular” coffee, is housed in a huge, shining chrome obelisk that clicks out cream in spitting spurts. The menus are large and red and they say, “Chris and Bess: The Town Chef.”
But, actually, it’s just Bess who’s the chef here. Bessie is a stout, sweetly-soft spoken, bleached-blonde Greek woman, and she has worked and run the Town Chef since she was 21, which was 22 years ago. She married Chris when she was 17. She and Chris now own another restaurant, in Warwick, and that’s where Chris spends his days, as do their three sons.
The other restaurant is called P.J.P.’s, named after the three sons, Peter, John, and Paul. Bessie says that after Peter and Paul were born, “I was hoping for a girl, Mary, you know, so we could have de group.”
The regulars are some serious characters. It seems that there are many crazy, lonely old people in Providence. Some come in every day. Some stay all day. Shorty is a tiny, wrinkled, pale man who plays piano in a bar at night. He has been playing the piano, he will tell you, for 42 years. Every day he comes in and gets a bowl of Corn Flakes and a cup of tea. There is no need to approach him with a menu; he will just tell you, “tea and cornflakes,” in a hoarse, wheezing whisper.
There is a blonde woman, with a scarf over her beehive hairdo, who never speaks. My first day, I was about to approach the woman with a menu, and Sue, the other waitress, said “No, no. Just tell Bessie that The Duck Lady wants her breakfast.”
I relayed this to Bessie, and she knew exactly what this meant. It seems this woman always says she wants a duck, and Bessie deduced that this meant eggs.
Trish is a thin, aging wisp of a woman who comes in every day to drink coffee, pop pharmaceuticals, and tell elaborate stories to anyone who will listen. “My son’s a lawyer, he’s rich, he lives over on Douglas Avenue. I want to go visit him. He’s 35 years old, but I miss him. He’s my son.” Trish can never quite remember my name, so she’ll improvise. “Hey, Hiawatha, another iced coffee!”
And there’s a bearded lady (really!) who once left me a strand of green plastic beads as a tip. One time this lady argued with me about the price of her bill. After she left, Bessie told me in a conspiratorial whisper, “that woman has enough money to bury us all, and she’s giving you a hassle over forty cents. But aren’t they always the ones?”
Richard is one of my favorite Regulars, a sandy-haired young drunk who comes to the Town Chef after a long night at the bars. Black coffee and eggs over easy. The first thing Richard says every day is, “I’m confused.”
Then he begins a wacky running commentary on everyone else in the diner. “What’s up, Santa!” to an ancient, bearded man in glasses. “Hey there, Popeye!” to a scowling woman with a crew cut. His delivery is so clever that most people burst into laughter.
Sunday mornings are the best because I work with Angela. We have a blast every time. Every Sunday, this group of loud, rowdy bikers and their girlfriends come in, whom we refer to as the Mickey Mouse Club.
There are enough of them to take up all the tables in the back. They order tomato juices by the dozens, sit in the back and mix Bloody Marys. It took Bessie a while to figure out what they were doing with all those tomato juices. They bring in all the works: olives, celery. The drunker they get, the louder they become. “Hey, Erika, keep the tomato juices comin’!”
One large, heavily tattooed man in leather, who calls me “Hon”, asked if I’d like to run away with him to New York to join the Mickey Mouse Club. It sounded promising, but I had other tables.
The height of Sunday mornings is their grand exit. Hours later, after multiple plates of eggs and sausage and bacon and pancakes and countless “tomato juices”, roaring drunk, as they file out of the Town Chef, they sing the Mickey Mouse Club song.
“Now it’s time to say goodbye
To all our com-pan-y.
See you real soon!
Why? Because we LOVE YOU!
And then, one of the biker chicks hoots, faithfully, “Donald Duck!”
Weekdays in the Town Chef are usually slower, but not always. The other morning, some drunk got loud and rowdy and threw his food on the floor!
Bessie grabbed him by his jacket, screaming, “Pay my girl and get out!”
He replied, “Don’t touch my jacket, bitch.” Whereupon, Bessie grabbed the meat cleaver, shouting, “Whatta you gonna do about it? Huh? Jerk!”
Bessie commenced to hurl insults at him, waving the cleaver, until he was out the door. Then everyone in the Town Chef applauded.
John, one of the regulars, recalled this incident while sitting at the bar, gesturing with his cigarette, waving his long brown fingers. “Every once in a while, you get a couple’a idiots,” he told me. “This is sacred ground. If someone’s hungry and don’t have no money, Bessie’ll give ‘em something. Bessie takes care of her own.”
After 22 years, Bessie’s philosophy is simple. She slings up a Breakfast Special with longtime skill, and hands it to me with a flourish.
“These people,” she says. “You gotta treat ‘em like gold.”
The Hot Weenie Phenomenon! You’d be amazed at the loyal and devoted following of the Hot Weenies for lunch. People from every social strata come in for “Weenies All The Way.” There’s a science to making a Weenie with everything.
First, retrieve the bun from the steamer. Add the shriveled Weenie, and cover it with Weenie Sauce. Ground beef, perhaps, or leftover meatloaf, seeping in orange grease. Then a streak of mustard, a handful of onion, and the inevitable Celery Salt. This gets tricky when there are orders for multiple Weenies, but Sue showed me the Arm Trick, kind of a Weenie assembly line on your forearm. Sue is particularly good at the Arm Trick and can load up to eight Weenies at one time.
(Editor’s note: I have since learned that David Byrne, of the Talking Heads, who attended the same art school, before my time, has a forearm-chopping dance move that directly references the Hot Weenies).
Sue is actually very good at all the Town Chef subtleties. This is her sole support for her two children, and she has taken her skills to new heights. Alas, I am new, and she is goddamn bossy. I look forward to the days I work with Angela, as she still knows how to laugh.
I like working the show nights. Every now and again there are shows next door at the Ocean State Theater. Bessie will stay open late for the pie and coffee crowd. This is a wondrous event. Splendid, glittering, aged women in furs grace our humble, greasy diner. Of course, they want their Sanka immediately. Hurry up, we’ve got a show to go to!
One woman told me, “I haven’t been here in twenty years and this place is exactly the same.” She seemed to find this more spooky than nostalgic.
Show nights are also fun because I get to work with Paulie, Bessie’s son, who comes in to help. I get a real kick out of Paulie, with his crazy mop of curly hair, loud, rasping laugh, and enthusiastic stories. Generally, Paulie and I talk about either cars or rock. He is a true car enthusiast and has just bought a new white Z28 with louvered windows and Jensen speakers. He has just turned 18 and Angela and I tease him. “Hey, your Mom can’t bail you out of jail anymore!”
“All dese beautiful cars,” Bessie says, “and I can’t even getta ride.”
A couple of times, Paulie gave me a ride home in that roaring, badass, beautiful new car.
My classmate and friend Lisa also works at the Town Chef, but on weekdays, so I never get to work with her. We compare notes on the place. We tell each other anecdotes about the Regulars that no one else could understand. It’s good to have a friend who is also walking between worlds. I wanted to take a week off for Spring Break, and Lisa said she’d work for me, and Bessie said it was no problem.
Coming back into Providence in a cab from the airport, the cab passed the Town Chef. It looked suspiciously closed for a Sunday. This struck me as odd, but I dismissed it. Maybe Bessie finally took a day off, after 22 years?
News: 1 youth killed, 2 injured in auto accident. Alcohol related.
All I know is what Lisa told me. Three teenage guys went for a ride in someone else’s car. It crashed. Paulie got thrown out of the car upon impact. When the ambulance came, it seems the other two forgot about how there were three of them in that car. Left behind, found later, gone for good.
I didn’t believe it until I saw Bessie, and then it was all too real.
I sit at the bar like one of the Regulars. The atmosphere is changed; hushed, the fearful quiet of mourning. Everyone knows. Everyone is walking on tiptoe. No one knows what to say, myself included.
Bessie wears a black sweatshirt and black apron. Her eyes are sunken, ringed with shadows. Her face is hollow, haunted. Nothing will be okay again.
“Bessie, I’m so, so sorry,” I say, lamely inadequate. “Maybe you should close up shop and try to heal yourself.”
Bessie shakes her head. “Bein’ home, it was worse,” she says. “I had nothin’ to do and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Bein’ here, I can keep busy.” She shuffles around, making Breakfast Specials with mechanized calm like a sleepwalker, that woman wearing all her grief on her lovely round, sad, sunken, brokenhearted face. Bessie!
When I heard Angela had left also, I felt a little better, a little less guilty and selfish. I’d fled to avoid the ghost, the palpable sorrow, of the Town Chef. I was glad to know it wasn’t just me.
I talked to Angela on the phone. We talked about Paulie. She hadn’t been back since. I went in for breakfast one day. Bessie’s home fries were cold, and Sue handed me my bill in callous silence.
I’d like to tell Bessie I think of Paulie often: whenever I hear a Led Zeppelin song, or a see a hot rod car, or, sometimes, for no reason at all.
Chris and Bess are selling the Town Chef. Bessie will spend her days at the other restaurant, the now sadly named P.J.P.’s.
I hope whoever buys it keeps it exactly the same, with every painting and jukebox and all the bowls of plastic fruit and pastries and Hot Weenies in place. This is sacred ground.
Angela and I decided that, before it is too late, we’ll go in one Sunday morning and sit in the back with the Mickie Mouse Club bikers. We’ll partake of their Bloody Marys and crunch on celery and be just as loud and rowdy as they are, while eating a Breakfast Special.
And, when it’s time to leave, we’ll sing that song.
(A strange story about a “friend” who turned into a narc.)
There was always an edge of mystery about John Kelly, but we all adored and trusted him nonetheless. After all, friends are the very ones who tend to escape suspicion.
John was a friend to all. Quick-witted, sharp and insanely funny, he was charming; the kind of friend who’d call you up just to see how you were doing today, or for no reason at all.
His home was a humming hangout, with good music always blaring, John running around like a madman, lighting cones of his favorite Patchouli incense, serving round after round of Kahlua and cream, especially to (underage) me. I have a thing for Kahlua, or at least I used to. Patchouli and Kahlua: these things took on a warm, ritual significance.
John was a good friend of mine. I’d look forward to seeing him when I came home from college on breaks. Sometimes he’d call me on the dorm’s pay phone, long distance from Virginia, just to rap. Or he’d leave a message, which would get taped to my dorm room door: “Call John Kelly collect! Urgent!” which would amount to an urgent “Hi!”
In a strange way, I miss him still. He used to yank the tam off my head, send it sailing like a Frisbee, give me a crazy grin, wiggle his eyebrows and call me “Dingbat.” Then, I’d have to devise a clever and terrible way to get him back.
Yet there were a few facets of John that I knew little about. Things he’d hint at, or mention and then dismiss. At one point, he said, he had been an alcoholic, to the extent where he had to be hospitalized. He said the doctors told him he had so many toxins in his blood that if he ever had another drink, he’d die. For this reason, John never drank any Kahlua himself.
And there were shadowy, vague things I remember him mentioning. He said that when he moved from Fairfax to Arlington, he sent in his obituary to the paper, so that no one from his past would be able to find him. Like closing a book. He refused to set foot in Fairfax, ever, regardless of the circumstances.
And once, in part of a long, rambling story, he mentioned one of his high school activities, burning a cross on someone’s lawn one night.
“We were crouched in the bushes when the Feds came. We were scared shitless,” he said. I guess this shook me up, made me uneasy, queasy, disgusted. But John was so unerringly charming, sweet and fun that I dismissed it as something regrettable from times past. We all have a dark side.
I can’t help wondering what really went on. Last winter, John said he’d gotten in some trouble with the law, an offense for which he was more of a bystander than participant. It was a case of being in the wrong place at the right time for a major bust.
This guy Kirk got royally busted, with sheets and sheets of acid at some astronomical street value. It was enough to dose an army. Kirk was up the creek, and John looked like an accomplice. John said that his attorney proposed the following: he could go to jail, or he could join the U.S. Army.
The prospect made us all cringe. Oh, John! We’re all pacifists, of course, but when he explained that the Army could be a good opportunity for him to Get His Life Together (he was twenty-four), we cared enough to be supportive about what he believed was best.
Do what you must do.
We all knew the date when he was going to Go to The Army. We had a small farewell party of sorts, with all the good people gathered to tell him how much he’d be missed. He took snapshots of the horde of us, grinning, arm in arm. This was last spring. He’d asked me to bring him back something from the Dead shows, which he had been unable to attend. I brought him a sticker that said “We Will Survive.”
I told him to keep that in mind.
John had something for me too. With misty eyes and gritted teeth, he presented me with a black box and said, “for you, because you’re the only one who will truly appreciate this.”
It contained dozens of Patchouli incense cones and his incense burner.
It’s all kind of dizzying and unsolved now. I guess I wonder if John really thought of me as a friend, or if I just happened to not be around when he “turned bad,” as one friend put it. I dodged a bullet.
Or did I?
In one of those dorm pay-phone-in-the hall calls, I casually mentioned that, what with the Grateful Dead and all, I had made an acquaintance who could procure Ecstasy, that euphoric intoxicant that made everything–live music, dancing, hugging friends, orange juice—immensely entertaining!
Well, John was immensely interested. Could I procure some for him? Like, a lot? He’d send money immediately. Why, I could just pop it in the mail!
“I don’t think that’s a good idea, what with you’re about to go in the Army and all. I care about you,” I said. No other scenarios crossed my mind.
He would’ve set me up.
He would’ve set me up too.
What makes someone consciously betray all of those closest to him, a deliberate attempt to send their lives spinning into ruin? Was that his intent all along, a calculated plan?
No doubt about it, John Kelly was a clever guy, because we all sincerely believed the network of stories he was building.
I got a letter from John right before he was supposed to go to the Army. It was all covered with the holographic stickers we called “visuals”.
It said, “I’ll miss you the most, ‘cause you always cared without a question. I don’t want to go away. One day you and me will sit down and I’ll roll a great big Joint and we’ll try and figure out whether it was all worth it. I think we’ll say yes—maybe.”
I want to ask him whether it was all worth it.
It’s a grim irony now.
April 28 was The Day, and John disappeared, right on cue.
Except the Army was a big lie.
Tobi called the pay phone in the hall, hysterical. She was shrieking, like a lamentation for the dead. She said, “John Kelly is a narc! DON’T HAVE ANYTHING TO DO WITH JOHN KELLY!”
John Kelly set Kirk up, got him busted.
John Chandler got busted the night of the acoustic Jerry Garcia show in D.C. He was getting ready to leave for the show when the police came to his door with a warrant for possession of LSD. They found it, of course. He was going to a show. They had a reliable source: John Kelly.
Tobi’s boyfriend, David, a sweet, mellow, 38-year-old hippie (we were 19) had a warrant with his name on it too. It said on the warrant that “The Informant”—John Kelly—had purchased LSD in that residence that week. It was an outright lie, but in the course of ransacking David’s home, police did find some marijuana. Enough to make David’s life difficult for about a year.
John Kelly also stole money from his best friends. He stole from Dale, his nice roommate, and vast sums from Cindy, his devoted girlfriend. He bounced a $100 check on Mrs. Chandler, John Chandler’s mom, a sweet, unassuming old Italian lady.
This was all discovered after John Kelly was gone. Gone? Just gone. We figured we’d never see him again. Particularly since some people were angry enough to want to kill him. No one spoke of him by name anymore. He was referred to as “The Antichrist”, as in, “oh, that’s where the Antichrist used to live.”
Last summer, I drove by the Antichrist’s old apartment. I got the shakes, I wanted to go in and say “what’s up, Juan,” and he’d burn those crazy cones and bring out something fragrant to smoke. He’d swirl his hands around and dance to whatever great music he was playing. He’d be watching bad TV with the sound off.
“What’s up, Dingbat?”
Strangely enough, his name came into our midst again. It seems that he is alive and well, despite those who would wish otherwise.
Brett said the Antichrist was staying in “some alcoholic house.”
I said, “I’d almost like to see him.”
Brett hissed and made a face and said, “WHY?”
“Well, somehow I just can’t believe it.”
“Oh, believe it. John Chandler is in jail now.”
Kirk is also in jail, with the promise of a long time. David was lucky. I haven’t seen Cindy, his girlfriend, since she fled to try to find a safe, sane place.
And Jimmy, John Chandler’s best friend, tells of walking down the street and seeing John Kelly in a car. John Kelly slowed down, rolled down his window, and stuck his tongue out at Jimmy.
Jimmy said it was just like seeing the Devil. It spooked him bad.
“The Wizard of Oz.” There’s something about this glittering fantasy of the Thirties for me that leaves the realm of Hollywood and approaches that of prophecy, like an oracle. It’s filled with bits of wisdom which I pull out constantly, for direct application to my life. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen the film so many, many times, I’ve begun to quote it, speak it, live it.
Beyond the moon. Behind the rain.
Well, who could blame Dorothy for wanting to leave the Midwest? I think that everywhere is Kansas sometimes, with the black-and-white blahness of familiarity. We all yearn for escapism, a little bit, to go somewhere Technicolor.
I’ve been waiting for a tornado for a long time. As luck would have it, over the summer, when a twister finally came to Providence, I was at home in Virginia.
Why, then, oh why can’t I?
Poor Dorothy. She had such a bad case of house-lag, and only a cute, on the payroll, MGM-paid dog talent to talk to, which actually doesn’t sound too bad. She had an uncanny ability for choosing a location to land her craft. Yet she could barely relate to the hubbub of Munchkinland. Maybe she was afraid of the little guys. Maybe she was brained with remorse that she left her camera in Kansas. I’d have stayed.
The cool lady in the bubble who gave her directions knew how to deal with other, unwelcome tourists.
“Oh, rubbish, you have no power here. Begone, before someone drops a house on you, too.”
When I was in sixth grade, my class did a performance of “The Wizard of Oz.” I really wanted to be cast as the Scarecrow, my favorite. His brilliant, self-deprecating wit. His loyalty. His DANCING!
No such luck. I wound up being one of the many “extras” who would sing the music while Mrs. Williams pounded on the piano. But, seeing how I knew the story so well, I realized that there was one essential role that no one was playing: the Wicked Witch of the East!
I asked Mrs. Williams about it.
She said, “you really want to stick your feet out from under the house?’
Yes, yes. It was a good deal. I got to wear the ruby slippers, which they made silver, a bit of inaccuracy on their part. Actually, they were spray-painted foam ‘70s sandals. And the “house” was sticking my feet out from under the stage curtain.
When Dorothy yanked them off my feet, I got to curl up and die, with a high-pitched scream, just for effect.
Well, my little pretty, I can cause accidents too. I even got to take a bow during the curtain call.
Of course, people DO go in both directions. By now, Oz is an obsession for me. I like going up to the fifth floor of the Metcalf building to watch the glassblowers, because they wear those groovy green glasses. I wonder if the world is Oz for them too.
The Emerald City is closer and prettier than ever!
Who are you, and why have you come?
A heart is not judged by how much you love, but by how much you are loved by others.
I even know the Yellow Brick Road skippity-step. Lions and tigers and bears.
I did it once during a museum opening, and some jaws dropped with surprise and recognition.
(I hate this holiday the most, especially now. But once, in simpler times, crowds gathered for the true meaning of Independence Day: marijuana).
The Fourth of July is always a great excuse to party unabashedly, and in Washington, D.C., this is no exception. Although I am usually politically apathetic, this is one Rally that I’ve found is worth my participation. The official name for this once-a-year heyday is the Smoke-In.
Sponsored by a group of self-proclaimed Yippies and NORML (the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws) the Smoke-In begins at “High Noon” in Lafayette Park, right across the street from the White House. It is a fine opportunity for folks of all stripes to peaceably assemble, from the young hardcore punks to the aging Hippies and Yippies.
United in the celebrated connoisseurship of acts of civil disobedience with controlled substances, favorite slogans include such chants as “Pot Is An Herb, Reagan Is A Dope!”
Although the Smoke-In is always a festive time, The Best Party was on July 4, 1983, the year that James Watt (Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior, who claimed that the only tunes he knew were “Amazing Grace” and “The Star Spangled Banner”) banned the Beach Boys from the Fourth of July for being a bad influence on American youth.
The youth seemed to want to be influenced anyway, for the Smoke-In was mobbed. A concert entitled “James Watt, Eat Your Heart Out” was held at the nearby Lincoln Memorial, and featured rock, acoustic, and hardcore punk bands. People with Mohawks carried paper cups full of joints and threw them into the crowd.
One of the really joyful, wonderful things about that Fourth of July was the way it seemed to gather my own past and present and lump everyone on the same field. The entire cast of characters was there.
From my hoodlum past, there was Paul, tall and lanky with eyes like a cat, who at eighteen was still a sophomore in high school and was regarded as shifty by all; Bobby K, beaming and sleepy-eyed with the physique of the Buddha, who used to sell pot in little origami envelopes; Joey the Drummer, a high-strung Albino guy who was incessantly tapping.
From my more recent past, there was everyone from Jay Gee, the maniacal redheaded funnyman who would refer to high school only as “That Place”, to Jeremy, a clever Deadhead who now attends Brown. And all the Freaks in between.
Everyone was sitting on the grass, partying in close proximity to one another. It was Jay Gee who started it. Perhaps it was his reaction to the accumulating sea of garbage that happens every Fourth of July. He began sneakily, then got progressively more radical as he began to fling garbage at people. There’d be a soft WHAP! and you’d know that Jay Gee had just pegged you with a paper plate. There was nothing to do but respond. Soon, all of the members of my collective past were hurling garbage at one another. The tone was light and humorous. It all seemed so terribly communal.
It began to rain, a fabulous, torrential thundershower. With wide eyes and illegal smiles, people continued to splash about, until the rain stopped and a rainbow appeared. What an unbelievable rainbow it was, right over the Washington Monument. At the time, it seemed like a mass hallucination; however, later reports stated that its existence was real.
As the sky got darker, D.C., trying to compete with nature, provided a fine show of fireworks which dripped out of the sky and ran down to touch the earth. It all seemed for the benefit of we, the purple people, who sat on the wet grass and murmured.
(When I was 19, I became obsessed with a disabled street musician. It was his wit and charisma that fascinated me, not his disability or religion. It was my first foray into “Gonzo” journalism, crossing the line from witness to participant. It carries some risks, as we’ve discovered.)
I call him Brother Joe because I need to be little sister to someone. These warm days I know I can always find him. Wheelchair Joe plays his harmonica for spare change downtown, a shrill “Amazing Grace” whining, winding through the Plaza. Like the Pied Piper, it’s easy enough to follow him.
The day we met we talked about harmonicas. “This is a C”, he said, handing me his for observation, “and I pull this slide out to get the sharps.” His voice rumbled with New England pride: shahhhps. His lean, narrow face was veiled by the hood of a grey sweatshirt, monk-like. One of his hands was twisted in his lap. He had a little metal box with three compartments, for money, his harmonica, and his Marlboros, for easy access with his good hand.
“Can I take your picture?”
“Yeah, because you asked.”
I had borrowed a medium-format camera from school, an awkward tool, where you look down into the camera instead of having it in front of your face. As I fumbled and bumbled, Joe made fun of me, playfully.
“Let’s go to Dunkin’ Donuts,” he said. “You push.”
I never knew this, but there’s a certain skill to cruising a wheelchair, and I quickly realized I wasn’t very good at it. People WILL get out of the way (they don’t see you, they see the chair) but, you can’t just plow a wheelchair into a crowd of people. They will freak out. Chuckling, in a conspiratorial stage whisper, Joe said, “yeah, they think it’s catching.”
Joe knew everyone in Dunkin’ Donuts. “Hey, Charlie! How ya doin’, Mike?” He murmurs to me, “that’s my brother, Mike, he’s labeled retarded.”
“Your brother?” I asked.
“My brother in the Lord,” he said.
Even that first day I felt completely at ease, not threatened. There was something intriguing about Joe, childlike at thirty-one. Besides, I had the advantage.
“Don’t worry, little sister,” he told me, laughing. “You can run faster than I can wheel.”
We drank coffee and smoked all his Marlboros, and Joe told me stories all afternoon.
They say I’m a religious fanatic and they say I’m a radical, but I say that’s a contradiction.
There’s this lady who was upset with me, and God told me I should buy her a flower. I said, “OK, God, but if I spend a dollar, then I have to make five on the street today.” Not one, but three, people gave me fives. Now, how’s that for a blessing?”
I asked God to send me some children. And these senior citizens were comin’ up to me, gettin’ a charge from my energy and me gettin’ energy from them.
And I said, “God, these are senior citizens, I asked for children,” and He said, “Yes, but these are My children.”
If I ever walk, it’ll be through the grace of God. I was born with cerebral palsy, my spine’s all messed up, and I have a dislocated hip. I used to get sad about it when I was younger.
The way I look at it now is, I’m God’s Funnybone. I asked God if he understood my sense of humor. He said, “Understand it? I created it!”
“It’s irony, you know. I say vengeance is mine for the disabled community. When the sign says ‘Walk’, should I get up and push? It would take me half an hour.
I wanted to be a stand-up comedian, but they told me I didn’t meet the requirements. Rodney Dangerfield says he doesn’t get respect, but he has no idea.
I went into that pizza place, what is it, Mama Mia’s, and I ordered a pizza. After my meal I went back to use the facilities, but they were not available to me.
I said, “hey, man, if you just move that video game, the disabled will be able to use your facilities. You don’t have to do it right now, but do it.”
The next time I went to Mama Mia’s, they wouldn’t let me in. So, I pushed my way in anyway, but they wouldn’t serve me, and called the cops.
It took the cops fifteen minutes to come. I could’ve ordered a beer while I was waiting. I said to the policemen, “these are my constitutional rights. I’m disabled and should be able to use the facilities. Not just me, but all of my disabled brothers and sisters.”
And the policemen said, “Yes, but this establishment has the right to refuse service to anyone.”
Being disabled is a minority that doesn’t discriminate. We’ve got everyone: Black, white, Asians, Hispanics, senior citizens and children. We’ve even had a President. Now, what other minority can say that?
I’m gonna write my autobiography, as soon as I get me a typewriter.
Instead of “I’m OK, You’re OK” I’ll call it “I’m OK, What’s Your Disability?”
The Claw. It takes Joe a minute to pick up his change. He’s treating me to coffee, again.
Something happened when I was in the darkroom printing the pictures. It’s not that they were great pictures, but the story compelled me. I told my roommate, Nicole, “I want to go see him again.”
I decided that I would find him again with the premise of giving him a print. But I would have to find him first. I feared it would be impossible. Downtown Providence is a theater whose characters and faces are constantly changing, hour by hour, day to day. As a street photographer, I know this. Every moment is decisive and fleeting. Every photograph is a memory of something gone.
“I have something for you,” I say, giving him the print.
“Hey, I look like a monk!” Joe says.
I spend more time in Dunkin’ Donuts now than I could have ever imagined. I spend a lot of time just hanging around while Joe plays the harmonica. All religious tunes, and he doesn’t know too many, mainly “Amen” and “Amazing Grace” and “Jesus Loves Me.” Still, Joe profits.
Popularity helps. He knows every flower-seller, shoeshine boy, and blue-haired old lady, and he knows them by name. He knows every freaky eccentric in the Plaza, and they all contribute. On a good day, Joe gets a plain cruller to go with his coffee.
I was raised Catholic, so I shrug off religion, but Joe gives me new faith. I like this alternate reality better than my own, the smug college bubble up the hill. I don’t need to explain anything, or explain myself. There is no need for silly small talk. I’m a vicarious chameleon. I appear and disappear. I know where and when I can find him. Sunny days, he’ll be sitting outside of Woolworth’s.
Lately I appear more and more often. I reevaluate the phoniness of my cozy marshmallow world. It seems dim, insignificant.
“Will you do me a favor?” Joe asks.
“Tonight, will you pray for me? Pray for yourself, but pray for me?”
He tells me I have shoes like Moses, and toes like Fred Flintstone.
I know to keep to the sides, where it’s paved, and avoid masses of people. I’m learning where the ramps are on the sidewalks. Curbs are hell, stairs are out of the question. The double sets of glass doors found in banks and in Dunkin’ Donuts are also a hassle. I hold the doors open while pushing, while he’s one-handedly wheeling, but I must then start opening the second set of doors before the first ones close or the chair is going to get nailed, meanwhile, there are people coming in and out of both doors, doing their damnedest to get out of the way.
I go with him into the bank. It’s lunchtime, and the bank is packed. There’s a big line, which forms in between a series of pole dividers. I have trouble maneuvering the chair around these dividers. In fact, I crash him into one. Then I go too far and the chair hits the man ahead of us in line. “Sorry, new driver,” Joe says. “These women drivers.”
Joe starts cracking jokes, talking loudly to No One In Particular. “Yeah, you people are bummin’! You have to stand in line, well, I get to sit down! You know, I wanted to be a stand-up comedian, but they told me I didn’t fit the spot!”
When we get outside, I say, “that was amazing! You made all those businessmen and sullen strangers laugh with you.”
He gives me a big twinkling grin.
“Funnybone, funnybone,” he says.
I go with him to the Plaza, to observe The Bus Hassle. Joe lives in Warwick and commutes every day. There’s money to be made on the streets of Providence. While we wait for the bus, Joe introduces me to Richmond, a tiny, elflike man with a mischevious grinning face. I almost expect him to have pointed ears. He has the funny high voice of a TV Martian. I gather that he, too, is “labeled retarded.” Richmond goes to the same church as Joe.
Joe goes into a familiar one-liner: “Hey, are you Rich?”
“I’m rich in the Lord,” Richmond says.
The Bus Hassle is a spectacle to witness. It is a slow, plodding process. The driver gets out and opens the back side doors. Then he hits a switch to activate a motorized ramp. It takes a couple minutes to come down. It feels like I’m sending him off on a spaceship.
“Don’t forget,” Joe says.
“You have my word.”
I’ll pray for you, all right, that much I can do.
The ramp rises up, whirring, the doors fold in shut behind him. Blastoff.
There’s a line I like a lot on Paul Simon’s “Graceland”:
“I need a photo opportunity/ I want a shot of redemption.”
This rain is bad for my spirit. I need a spiritual connection. I say to myself, well, of course he’s not out today. It’s raining. It was raining yesterday, too. I walk around, just to make sure.
I still have a certain affection for downtown Providence. The old women in scarves, carrying umbrellas, the flower-sellers with their dying, rainy-wet wares, a bearded man in neon-red plastic sunglasses in the rain. But I’m looking for Joe.
I walk around with my hands in my pockets. I go to the usual places. I glide past Dunkin’ Donuts, peering in carefully. I even look around in the Plaza, to make sure he’s not lurking in a bus shelter.
I don’t know enough to come in out of the rain.
I get these weird half-hallucinations out of the corners of my eyes. I see the spinning wheels of a truck and for an instant I mistake them, far off: was that a wheelchair?
I’m convulsed with a strange and terrible fear. It’s more than just being worried that it’ll rain tomorrow and tomorrow. I’m scared, I feel strangely panicked.
Sun at last. What’s more, it’s eighty degrees. “This is good,” I tell my roommate. “All kinds of people will be out today.”
Nicole smiles wisely, she knows exactly what I mean. “No fair,” she says. “You’ve filled your quota of obsessions. I haven’t.”
It’s warm enough for Joe to be without his hooded pullover, and I almost don’t recognize him. His hair is sparse, cropped, greasy. His hairline is receding. Goofy somehow. The hood was like the vestments of the holy man. Of course, the chair lets me know it’s really him.
He stops, takes the harmonica out of his mouth, right in the middle of a rousing rendition of “Jesus Loves Me.” “Hello!” he says, squeezing my arm. “I knew I’d see you today.”
I saw this blind guy today. He was shouting, “help those less fortunate than yourself!” I said, “Less fortunate? Who’s less fortunate? Look at me. You’re blind. You’re wearing a suit. But will you dance with me?”
I know plenty of blind guys. And they see more than you n’ me put together.
My landlord’s selling my place. I have to make a down payment on a new place. I have to serve The Mighty Buck, even though it says In God We Trust. Money, what’s money anyway? As long as I have my harmonica, what do I care?
I saw a lady today, she was singing “How Great Thou Art.” I said, “Bless you, but take singin’ lessons.” She was making a spectacle of herself. I mean, I’m a spectacle too, but thank God mine’s physical.”
I was complaining to my God, and he sent me the Proverbs.
He said, “Get back in your place, boy. The funnybone, that’s just the elbow.”
It’s a big day, Joe says. He wants me to go with him to a Prayer Meeting at his church. I hesitate, for secretly I grow tired of the constant religious rap. But I am polite. How bad could it be? Images of people saying the Rosary in a dank church basement. I am interested in uncovering different facets of Joe’s life. “OK,” I say, “I’ll go.”
Joe’s pleased. “Brother Vic will give us a ride,” he says. “He can give you a ride home.” I’ve been wanting to meet Brother Vic, who he’s told me about.
Vic has a long grey beard and twinkling eyes, which lend him the appearance of an old fisherman. I hop in the back of Vic’s small two-door car. It takes a few minutes for Vic to help Joe get in the car and to disassemble the chair, a tricky business.
We get there early, as Vic has to attend a Pre-Prayer Meeting. I sit in the car with Joe, smoking his cigarettes to pass the time. Joe is very excited about the Prayer Meeting. “Things are gonna shine tonight!” he says, beaming.
Joe says, much as he enjoys interacting with so many good people, it puts a drain on him sometimes.
“Do I drain you?” I ask.
He considers this. “Yes,” he says. “But you give me something back.”
Brother Wayne, Vic’s brother, sticks his head in Vic’s car’s window. He’s got the same eyes as Vic, but beardless and ten years younger. He has a giddy laugh, a continuous stream of ahhahaha! He helps Joe get out of the car, while Joe cracks jokes about the virtues of Patience. Slow-going, tedious reassembly of the chair.
Wayne’s wearing a big wooden cross around his neck, and as we get inside I notice that everyone else is wearing one too.
The Prayer Meeting is, as I expected, in the church basement. It is completely decked out for the event: card tables covered with paperbacks on “How I Found Jesus”, dozens of folding chairs set up around amplifiers and mikes. And everyone’s wearing these crosses! Little kids, teenagers, old ladies.
“Like your cross,” Joe says to a little girl.
“Thank you,” she says.
“Do you believe in Jesus?” he asks.
“Yes, I do,” she says, staring him in the eye.
I’m a little spooked.
The Prayer Meeting begins! The place fills up with people who begin to save seats for one another, coats strewn on chairs. A few men hoist up a giant wooden cross in the center of the room next to the mikes and amps, which makes me think of crucifixion, or the Klan.
People with guitars plug into the amps, everybody stands up to sing. “Stand up, Joe,” I whisper, and he punches me on the arm.
Everyone’s singing, everyone. And loudly. People are clapping, it’s a beat, a pulse, that rocks the entire room. I feel bad for not clapping. I am an outsider.
The pulse grows, people have upraised arms, closed eyes. People are dancing, swaying, keening in the aisles.
Joe says, “Look at Vic.”
Vic’s eyes are closed, his face is upturned, his lips are moving but there’s no sound coming out.
“He shines,” I say awkwardly.
Wayne hands me a songbook with a glassy smile. I shake my head; no, I’m not going to sing. I’m watching the people, trying to fix their faces in my mind so I’ll believe this is really happening.
Joe nods at the entrance of a grey-haired priest in a red cardigan sweater. “Father Randall.” When he appears, the room goes hush.
“Hello, my friends in Christ,” Father Randall says.
Murmuring, “Hello Father.”
Father Randall is quite a good speaker. With gestures of his hands, dramatic facial expressions and a hypnotic tone of voice, he captures everyone’s rapt attention, even mine. But I’m afraid.
Father Randall begins reading a few announcements. Some are fundraisers, requests to “please be generous” for this and that. Some are more specific: “Saturday noon will be our monthly mass for all of the slain unborn, and the healing of their mothers and families. Spread the word and come give them a decent funeral, washing them in the Blood of Jesus who will save them.”
I’m shocked. Disgusted. Apparently, Joe can tell, because he asks, “what’s wrong?’
“It’s OK,” I say, and try to maintain the appearance of interested, yet indifferent, bland observation.
But it’s not easy. After a round of more exuberant singing, a strange thing happens. Everyone begins to babble. The room starts buzzing with strange, otherworldly sounds, a weird singing without words. It gets louder and louder, developing into a high, hysterical wailing, like a lamentation for the dead. Joe’s doing it too.
“Speaking in tongues” it’s called.
Father Randall says, “Oh, Holy Spirit, you give us the gift of speaking in tongues, now give us the gifts of translation and understanding.”
And suddenly, the Holy Spirit does possess this one little old lady, and she begins to speak, loudly:
“Oh, my children. I exult in your presence here today. But the world is not yet ready. We must pave the way. We must heal all the broken people. The people that are put aside, the people that no one wants to deal with. We must heal the drug addict and the alcoholic and the prostitute. We must wash them in the blood of Jesus.”
After a few more words from the Holy Spirit people begin to sing again. Father Randall comes to our row to ask Joe if he will Witness tonight. Beaming, he says, “yes, Father.”
I ask Joe what this means, to Witness. He says “to go up there and tell how you found Jesus.”
More readings, more songs. Father Randall praises Ronald Reagan for being a good, God-fearing man. I ask Joe what he thinks about that.
“Reagan is handicapped too,” Joe says. “He’s paralyzed from the neck up.”
The meeting goes on and on. I’m not sure how much I can take. I’m not maintaining my fake serenity poker face very well. Joe notices and asks if I want to talk outside.
“No,” I say, “I’m not going to ruin this for you. This is your thing, but I feel like an outsider.”
“This is my thing,” he whispers.
After another round of speaking in tongues, Father Randall says, “our Witness tonight will be Joe Tremmel,” and Joe goes wheeling up to the mike.
Joe’s obviously excited and a little nervous, because he’s giggling like a silly kid, and when he speaks, he slurs a little. It takes careful listening to understand.
“The last shall be made first, well, I’m the least of all!” he squeals. “I’m ready for the second coming. I’ll wait. Come on down, man!
“Let it be yours, Lord, there are many believers but few workers. Father Randall is a great man. Do whatever this man asks. What a mighty man.
“I used to wonder why I was mobilly impaired. So I prayed, and I fasted, and I prayed, and I fasted, until finally I saw this glowing light, and God said to me, ‘which is more important, the body or the spirit?’”
Father Randall says, “that’s Joe Tremmel, a living example of God’s grace. When I met Joe he told me ‘we’re all handicapped’, and I said, ‘what do you mean, Joe?’ and he said, ‘well, Father, aren’t we all sinners saved by grace?’
“Joe is probably way ahead of us, he doesn’t want to be called handicapped. What is it you want to be called, Joe?”
“Emotionally and physically challenged,” Joe says.
Father Randall starts a chant: “Long Live King Jesus!” People are stomping their feet and shouting.
Joe asks, “will you do me a favor?”
“What is it?”
He points to #7 on the announcement sheet: “Father Randall will be in the kitchen after the meeting to introduce you to a living relationship with Jesus and answer your questions.”
“Will you talk to Father Randall?” he asks.
I get a cold chill. I shake my head.
After the prayer meeting, I drink rancid coffee from a Styrofoam cup. People hug Joe and try to hug me. I’m not sure which makes me sicker, the coffee or fellowship. I really want to leave, but I have to oblige Joe, and more importantly, Vic, our ride. I feel shaken and shocked, a little hysterical. I’m afraid to speak, lest I start speaking in tongues myself.
Joe knows something’s wrong, but I won’t say anything. I know there’s no way I can explain why I didn’t get into it. I’m afraid of what I’ve seen and what it means. I’ll never be able to tell him why his God frightens me.
“I’m not going to see you again,” Joe says.
“You’ll see me.” It’s the first time I’ve ever lied to him.
“I’m not going to see you ever again,” he says.
“Yes, you will.” But, as always, he knows me too well. He knows.
No, you won’t.
Someday, some sunny day, I’ll go downtown and buy a flower because God told me to.
I’ll walk around with no particular place to go. I’ll nodding acknowledge all the flower-sellers, I’ll grin at anyone I think might smile back. Maybe I’ll go in Dunkin’ Donuts.
I don’t know what I’ll say, but I know who I’m looking for.
(What was I looking for? Closure? Forgiveness? Redemption? I still don’t know.
Two years later, in 1989, on a fine spring day, weeks before graduation, I went downtown and found Joe. I brought him a cute porcelain bowl I made in ceramics class.
He invited me to take the bus with him to his house in Warwick. It started out as a nice visit, but he soon became very, very angry. My disappearance and prolonged absence, he said, was extremely hurtful to him. He put his trust in me and I betrayed that trust. I was a coward, a false friend.
Things escalated from awkward to uncomfortable and I got on the next bus. Unfortunately, I had given him my phone number and he took to calling me repeatedly to belabor his points, shouting and slurring. I took to hanging up on him. A few weeks later I graduated and moved back to Virginia, disappearing again, this time for good.)
Pass the hulking aircraft carriers in the Bremerton shipyard, enter the dick-boy-danger-driving vortex of Belfair, and turn right by the Safeway to Hood Canal.
First is the the menagerie. Baby goats are cute, and I officially have a little crush on a large pig. He wags his tail so fetchingly, like a puppy, creating bacon conundrums at BLT time. The ram is also quite handsome. I am thankful that there is some distance from their roosters, whose early morning shenanigans inspire my murder fantasies. There are countless chickens and ducks, and also turkeys, some of whom are destined for what their owner calls “freezer camp.”
After the hilarious critters, head further uphill.
You will recall that I had Mustard Seed, a trucker couple, move my fragile 1960 Airstream on a flatbed 118 miles from Washaway to Tahuya back in February. The truckers in question, Curt and Tracie, can do anything, but I didn’t know that yet.
In Japan “forest bathing” is a thing. It’s said that trees talk to each other. To be in their mighty, mammoth presence, here, I feel and hear it. I decided I needed an appropriate get-up. My costume designer friend Ute stepped up to realize my Wood Nymph vision.
Oh, I had big ideas. I bought a plan for a cabin with a wraparound porch. There was septic design, (wouldn’t running water have its charms?) and a “geotechnical report”, which is a fancy way of saying “will a tree fall on me?” (No.) Are there “seasonal streams” with little fishes? (Yes, and no). I asked Derek, who built our deck in Bremerton, to build our cabin. He’s known for his impeccable craftsmanship, and also for high flakiness and drama. But then he got Covid, and while he was sick, the price of lumber tripled, the bids for a well were almost as much as the land, and I commenced to lower my expectations.
Meanwhile, Mustard Seed casually mentioned that they could bring a backhoe, trench a massive ditch, get the permit, lay conduit and save me thousands on a “real” electrician. It came to pass. It passed inspection. I love electricity.
Like many trailers that have spent time in the salt sea air, the Airstream leaks. Thus, its cuteness, like hiding a light under a bushel, has always been tarped. I decided that while the cabin was not happening, a carport would be nice. I ordered one from Carports For Less in February. Alas, China has its own supply issues with steel, and I became impatient with flakiness. Mustard Seed said they could build me a carport.
They built me a pagoda.
While we were twiddling our thumbs with big ideas, back in February, we ordered an “Old Hickory Shed.” After many months, it was magically delivered.
I have a doctor friend who visited Washaway in 2010. Like many doctors, she is impossibly bossy and prone to pontificating. “Erika!” she lectured. “The shed needs to be the Cookhouse! You need a wood-burning stove, a table and chairs, and a record player!”
“For once, you’re right,” I said.
Mustard Seed is making it so.
I realized that all I want is what I used to have. A trailer, a Cookhouse, and an outhouse.
And, actually, I want less. I can handily do without what the South Beach Bulletin used to call “Mother Nature’s Wrath”, the angry ocean, redneck neighbors burning their garbage and plastics, gullible neighbors enabling the local con artists, thieving tweakers, and Farcissistic false friends. I have lost my taste for drama.
How about Seattle? I woke up one day and everything I loved in our city-home had been demolished. The place that raised me for half my life had basically packed my bags for me. Luckily, I landed someplace better. And now my old hometown of Arlington, Virginia is Amazon’s new frontier. There’s no going home again.
There are places that I can never visit again, yet they will never leave me. My doomed beach property, my great-aunts’ house. I always knew they were perishable. My photographs are proof of them, and a comfort. I remember their musty, friendly smells.
Washaway Beach has always been complicated.
I bought 3 lots there, with an old boyfriend, in 2002. There, on that land we knew wouldn’t last, we built a compound of trailers and shacks that was, to us, magical. It lasted until 2014, longer than our relationship. Washaway Beach was a place that made me feel something. Of course, I am notorious for feeling things.
I got the Airstream in 2004 for $400 from some junk-collecting friends with a penchant for scrap metal in Grayland. A young guy had mysteriously died in it. It needed some serious work. You can read the strange story in my blog post, “Birds of Prey.”
By 2012 the ominous Washaway Beach falling-into-the-ocean nip was in the air. My local friends, my Hosts, offered to put the Airstream, the hippest and most labor-intensively, expensively restored of our three trailers, on their property, for safekeeping and as a cool guest cottage for them. Were it not for their generosity, it would not live today. Despite later complications, I will always be grateful. Local legend Les Strange moved it those few blocks to their place with his pickup at top speed. It made it.
In December 2014 my property did, indeed, fall into the ocean. I always stayed in my ancient and beautiful Vagabond trailer. That’s a place I visit in my mind to keep it alive. I hired Les Strange again to move the Vagabond to the seemingly-less doomed 3rd lot of my three lots. “May we be gypsy wagons,” I wrote, “transient as the beach itself.”
Gypsy Wagon Fail. The Vagabond broke. The hitch broke off, about 10 feet onto the road. Then people came and trashed it. Shot holes in it, broke windows, broke in, peeled off the golden paneling. Why would you destroy something that someone had loved, shortly before it falls into the ocean? Is there really nothing left to lose? I took the windows and doors off the Cookhouse to convenience the thieves. You can’t rip me off if I give it all away.
It hurt. Badly. All of it. Losing my sanctuary, losing my fearlessness, having everything either ripped off or trashed. It also clearly indicated that what sucks about Washaway Beach is not the ocean’s wrath, but its people.
The grief and loss of my compound was greatly softened by having the Airstream already tucked in at the home of my Hosts. The Host is a great guy, a good egg, handy and generous. He built me an awning and an outhouse and ran power to the trailer. He was always more than willing to help.
The Hostess is an artist, and she and I share many similar interests, yet have very different personalities and styles of communication. She is funny, but with a prickly manner, a coldness I ascribe to Michigan. She would routinely make blunt, insensitive remarks that often seemed disrespectful, even hurtful. She called me the “Queen of Unemployment,” then wanted to know how to apply.
“She doesn’t mean to be mean,” my love explained. “She’s just not nice.”
A Guest is beholden. In recent years, on my beach visits, it seemed that the Hostess was almost always in a bad mood. Was it personal, or just the daily travails of a princess?
In an effort to ingratiate myself I made a point to come bearing gifts, every time: nice bread from the city, tomatoes from my garden, gazpacho, birthday cake, Jim Beam. My goal was to be the most generous and low-maintenance Guest ever.
“Hey, can we talk? We’ve had a good run. Nothing personal, but we’d like our privacy and this back corner of the yard back. What do you think about moving it? How can we help? Give it some thought. Let’s have some cake and adult beverages.” That would’ve been a diplomatic way to bring up moving the Airstream. This did not happen.
It was August and we were tarping the Airstream on a fine summer day. I had just bought $200 worth of new tarps, at the Host’s (correct) suggestion, to batten it down for the winter from leaks, planning for the future.
“So,” Hostess asked, as we worked on our project on a golden afternoon. “What are you gonna DO with this thing?”
“Do?’ I asked. I didn’t understand the question. “We’re tarping it,” I said, by way of explanation.
“It’s been eight years. It’s time,” she said, and said that she wanted it moved “by spring.”
I was shocked by the out-of-nowhere timing, the tactlessness, her careless summoning of the old gypsy wagon Washaway dread, and the fact that I’d just brought her a very nice goddamn cake for her 60th birthday.
Will it move? Ancient, beloved trailers have been known to break.
How would it move?
If it moves, where to?
If it breaks, what then?
Good thing I had that corporate gardener job, whose HR department taught me phony but effective phrases.
“I am sensitive to your concerns,” I said. “We’ll be looking for property.”
It was only half bullshit, as I AM sensitive.
So we started looking for property. Our friend Steph, a real estate agent, had some ideas around here on the peninsula. Elfendal Pass. Toanados Peninsula. Dabob Bay. Tahuya. All fun names to say.
We checked out assorted “vacant land” and found something beautiful in Tahuya, on the north side of Hood Canal. 2.5 acres of mostly ravine. Through the ancient trees, you can see the sparkle of the water. The serenity, privacy and beauty are intoxicating. We found some land that makes you feel something.
A friend told me about a company called U-Ship, where truckers with trucks look for side jobs. I ran an ad, posted decrepit photos of the Airstream, explained the fragility, flat tire and rusty hitch, the need for a flatbed.
I got a response!
I emailed the trucker, and reiterated the fragility, the fear and the sadness of having trailers break.
“I have faith,” the trucker replied, “that we can move this easily and safely.”
On a trip in December to move out some nonessentials, I had a run-in with the Hostess.
“What are your plans?” she pressed. She was seemingly trying to pick a fight. It was not helpful.
“They’ll never get a truck down here,” she insisted. “It’ll never move.” And then there was the matter of the Airstream needing to be moved out through the neighbor’s lot, due to the Hosts’ zealous fencing.
“You’ll mess up the neighbor’s grass!” she cried. “He’s my Facebook friend!”
“Too bad,” I said. “Do you want this thing moved or not?”
She went storming off. I was touched that I had never known about her caring sensitivity and concern for the neighbor and his grass, after all these years, taking, as it were, priority over helping out an old friend like me.
I quickly remembered that money greases all wheels. I contacted the Facebook Friend-Neighbor (FFN) and offered him $100 for grass seed and to soften the blow of general inconvenience. He was keen. He is a reasonable person. He would drop off the key to his gate. We had a nice chat.
I don’t know why she thinks FFN is her new BFF. During our conversation FFN and I had some catty good fun at her expense.
Todd and I rented a U-Haul and got everything out of the Airstream. U-Haul is only 24 hour rentals now, so we drove 3 hours, unloaded 24 ft. of heavy stuff into a 15 ft. trailer, drove home 3 hours, unloaded it, returned the truck. It was exhausting, expensive, and overwhelming. But it did not rain, and I’m grateful we did it. We got everything out.
“Think about everything bad that can happen,” my buddy V advised, while suggesting getting supplemental insurance. (Ultimately, I didn’t). “It could be dangerous. A part could fly off. someone could be hurt. You could be sued.”
He had a gig on a movie set a few years back, and was tasked with driving a box truck to a marina for a delivery in the very early morning hours. He fell asleep at the wheel.
“You’re just jumpy because you drove a truck into a boat,” I teased.
“It was six or seven boats,” he replied.
“I’d like to see it taken further.” Throw around this handy phrase and save yourself a trip to art school! Obviously, I needed to take my worrying further, though it has been proven not to change the outcome.
As our move drew near, I was brained by anxiety. Sleepless, heart-pounding, brain-racing nights led to stressful days. I cried. I threw up. I hyperventilated. I had chest pains. I noticed I was doing this conspicuous, involuntary, annoying loud sighing. “HUH!” I remembered having made this noise before, and I suddenly remembered:
This is grief!
And why not? I’ve been going to the area since 1993. I bought my Washaway compound in 2002. I have beach keys, a beach purse, beach hat, beach boots, dedicated beach-walking socks with permanent sand. Why wouldn’t this hurt, again?
I knew that if I had to deal with being bullied by the Hostess during the move that my head would explode. I requested her absence, and my wish was granted.
It must be noted that our Host, once again, meanwhile, was going out of his way to help, weedwhacking FFN’s blackberry brambles that were in the way, borrowing an air compressor to try, but sadly, fail, to inflate the broken tire, taking down fencing. He was a true diplomat between warring factions. A rare breed.
Deep in Washaway, on February 9, Mustard Seed Trucking showed up. They are a husband and wife team that have worked together for 40 years.
When I worked in building salvage, we had what we called “the Chatter”, whereby, using a secret language with coworkers, you could move very heavy things through excellent communication.
“Tip it up.” “Tabletop.” “Vertical.” “Rotate.” “STOP!”
Mustard Seed’s trucking Chatter was evolved to the point of telepathy. Tracy drove the massive truck. Curt was outside, talking his magical Zen Chatter. It was astonishing to witness.
“Turn left 2 inches.”
“Hard right all the way.” And there Tracy was, right precisely where my rusty hitch needed to be to connect to the ball of the truck.
It made frightening and terrible sounds as it began to roll, creaking and cracking.
I think I was either in shock, or in some kind of sleep deprived trance, but it was like watching a brilliant chef, or like watching Regnor throw a beautiful pot out of clay on the wheel. The undeniable presence of mastery, a lifetime’s work. “Wow,” I said, to no one in particular. “Wow,” as Tracy rolled the Airstream, its flat tire shredded like the fringe of a go-go dancer, in reverse up the ramp of the flatbed.
“You are artists!” Todd shouted.
They demurred to have us follow them to Tahuya. “We need some coffee,” Curt explained. So, sadly, we did not get to follow them while singing the 1978 hit “We’re in a trucker’s convoy! Ain’t she a beautiful sight!”
As a consolation prize, we went to Big Bubba’s in Shelton and got burgers, fries and shakes. “We earned this!” I declared, sucking down my 3,000-calorie peanut butter shake.
110 miles later, Mustard Seed arrived in Tahuya. Our property is 700 ft. up a very, very steep, narrow hill. For those wondering if/ when I’m going to fall into the ocean again, I say “NOT TODAY!”
I had delegated part of my worrying nights wondering how the trailer, if, having survived all other initial perils: breakage, wheels breaking, hitches breaking, crumbling rust, parts flying off on the freeway, hurting someone, getting sued, after all that, how would it make up that last leg of the journey, going up that very, very steep, serious hill?
Masterfully. Tracy and Curt unloaded it off the flatbed on the scary hill, hitched it to the pickup and pulled the truck and trailer in. Then they needed to do a multi-point U-turn. One of many tricky maneuvers for the day. Our 2.5 acres are mostly ravine.
I’m going to drive off the cliff,” Tracy protested.
“No,” Curt said. “You’re not.”
They got the Airstream set on the new property, and spent time carefully finessing its parking, much longer than I would have. I tipped them $100, which Curt tried to refuse.
“Guess I’m buying her a nice dinner,” Curt conceded.
It did sound familiar, so I checked. It’s from the book of Matthew.
“If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘move from here to there’ and it would move. Nothing would be impossible for you.”
Well, that’s a mighty good ad for a trucking company.
I’m sure I’ll go back to Washaway Beach now and again. I have some nice friends with a cabin there. What’s different is that there’s nothing of mine left anymore. I wonder if, as with my vanished old property, I’ll keep wandering around the grounds where there’s nothing, looking for me.
The sign to the woods by my childhood home in Virginia used to say, “Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but tracks.” Maybe it still does.
(This photo essay about the closing of Robertson’s 5&10 surfaced in the recent cleaning out of my parents’ house in Arlington, VA. Edited for some reveries about 1970’s candy.)
Red, white and blue plastic fringe rustles in the wind. As always, Robertson’s is hysterically festive, even in its dying days. Everything! Must! Go!
Robertson’s is a tradition, an eccentricity and an oddity in an ever-changing Arlington, Virginia. The highway is becoming a corridor of banks and fast food chains, and here, around the corner, is the Little Engine That Could. The Five and Ten! We’re talking about squirt guns, Silly Putty, plastic fingernails and rubber spiders. A whole aisle of “Fashion Jewelry,” plastic rings with fake birthstones, one for everyone. Sequins, pipe cleaners, and unlikely, unflattering polyester clothing. A splendid array of buttons and spools of ribbon. Iron-on name tags (as one might wear in a jumpsuit, pumping gas, if pumping gas was still a thing) with bygone names: Dawn and Vinnie and Connie and Marla and Ricky.
The store always seemed to be in a time warp, even in its glory. Especially because of the three elderly women who ran the store for three decades. These ladies were legendary. When we were kids, we used to dread them. They were always hovering, watching, hawklike, keenly observant. They would blatantly follow you around. They believed all kids were shoplifters.
Truth be told, they had a point.
One time, I must’ve been about eight, my Mom was buying some stuff and I pocketed a roll of WintOGreen LifeSavers. A bold move, considering the proximity to the cash register. As we drove home, I covertly unfurled my prize. I should have just savored that wintery goodness, but no, I commenced to crunch.
“What are you eating?” Mom asked.
“Where did you get it?”
“Found it.” Pretty slick, huh? I remember quickly location scouting in the back seat. Surely one could find an intact LifeSaver in the wells of the seat belts.
Mom did a swift U-Turn in the Chevelle and marched me back into Robertson’s, had me pay for it, apologize and swear to never do it again. Oh, the burning shame!
Not only did this cure me of shoplifting, but I can safely say it was my last time having a WintOGreen LifeSaver. So, if anyone has tried chomping on them in the dark, in front of a mirror, and seen minty sparks fly out of one’s mouth, please share your work.
I am not excusing my early foray into petty larceny, but it’s important to note how seductive the candy packaging and advertising was. (See also: sugar cereals). To my way of thinking, the candy fell into four distinct categories. Note that I am not including bubble gum, which is its own thing, or chocolate, which was, and remains, delicious.
1. Hard As A Rock For No Good Reason: Tootsie Roll and its evil twin, the Tootsie Pop. The dreaded Bit-O-Honey. Mary Jane, the rock-hard caramel on a lollipop stick. All the taffy.. All of this candy must still exist, since no one ever ate it more than once, and it helped create discerning palates for young children on Halloween.
2. Hard As A Rock On Purpose. Here you have all the hard candy: Jolly Ranchers, with the “fruit” flavors found nowhere in nature: Green Apple, Watermelon. (shudder). They were so hard they could cut your tongue. The aptly-named Jawbreakers and fireballs. Zots, I would still eat those. The aforementioned LifeSavers.
3. Weird/ Exotic. This is a vast category. Wax vampire teeth filled with red liquid. Candy cigarettes, two kinds: the candy ones, and the gum ones, which would blow out powdered smoke. Candy necklaces. The ‘Ring Pop”, a jewel of hard candy on a plastic ring, so you could walk around sucking on your finger. Nothing weird about that. Lik-Em-Aid, also sold as Fun Dip, where you’d have three packets of a sweet-tart-like powder, into which you would dip the included stick, moistened, which was also made of candy and you could also eat. The Sweet-tarts and Pixie-Sticks helped us develop our sour palates.
No discussion of Weird /Exotic ’70s candy is complete without Pop Rocks and their early predecessor, Space Dust. They were artificially flavored and colored granules that would crackle, loudly, in your mouth. Not long after their appearance on the scene, an Urban Legend ensued, concerning Little Mikey of Life Cereal advertising fame. (“Some cereal, supposed to be good for you / Let’s get Mikey, he hates everything /He likes it, hey Mikey!”). As the story goes, Mikey had some Pop Rocks with a Coke and blew up his stomach. This is not true, but at the same time, the candy disappeared, due to supposed problems with “out-of-date product”. What could go bad with a bucket of chemicals from space? It just seemed to lend credence to the Mikey story. I’m told that Pop Rocks still exist, that you can have them with Coke and not explode, and that they are used by trendy chefs in desserts.
4. Inedible Product, Toy Surprise Inside. CrackerJack blazed this trail with its stale popcorn, rotten peanuts and very fine toys. Bazooka gum was rock-hard and inedible, but featured charming Bazooka Joe comics (“A man with one foot nailed to the floor walks only in circles.”) And lastly, my beloved, the Wacky Packages. “Collectors,” Wikipedia notes, “reportedly did not chew the gum.” Hah! Nobody ate the gum. It was cardboard. The point was the stickers, which were spoofs of popular products, making fun of advertising. “AllPoo” dog food, “Gulp” oil. They were subversive. Parents didn’t like them. Their artistic style was the early Mad magazine/ R. Crumb/ Keep On Truckin’ ’70s nastiness that was, and is, so compelling. Here are my last two surviving Wacky Packys:
These many temptations made kids hard to police. Betsy would corner you in the Aisle of Ribbons with her scissors. Eleanor would command us not to play with the toys. But we did, we always did. Cap guns and Yo-Yos and Slinkys and gyroscopes. We were not subdued. We were brats. In retrospect, it must’ve been a challenging customer service job.
Now Robertson’s is going out of business. Ethel and Eleanor have been here twenty-seven years, Betsy, seventeen years. They pace the aisles as though their kingdom is about to be repossessed, which it is.
Sharon, too. is in shock, though she’s only been here two years. I remember when she first appeared. I was shocked that Robertson’s had hired a young person. Somehow she fits, though. She is seen and not heard. She is wearing a fancy purple dress, as if on her way to a party, and tells me the scoop about Robertson’s in the Aisle of Ribbons. Mr. Robertson, the owner, passed away and his son, Ricky, sold the store. Even sacred sites have their price.
I am buying an armload of ridiculous items, precious junk I won’t find anywhere else. Relics. I have plastic flowered magnets, a pencil sharpener in the shape of a clock, vintage ’50s window decals, a piece of “Fashion Jewelry”, a small plastic flag, and a candy necklace. Standing in the checkout line, I am gravely nostalgic.
The cash register, you see, would open and shut, but not add. So one’s purchases were tallied by Ethel doing the math in pen on a brown paper bag. Time not only stopped at Robertson’s. It sometimes seemed to be going backwards.
Ethel writes out the long slow line of calligraphic numbers and tallies them. Then she can’t remember if she included the flag. The only thing to do is to start from the beginning and add them up all over again. This fills me with a sweet grief, as when you realize the moment you’re in is already the past.
“What will you do when Robertson’s is gone?” I ask Ethel.
She pushes her cat glasses up her nose and gives me the special, sharp look reserved for potential shoplifters. The more things change, the more they remain the same.
“Gonna sit down and relax, what do you think?” she snaps.
She scoops my change into my outstretched palm, but I’m too sad to count it.