He’s Good People

He’s Good People

“I just thought I should come back and let you know that everything was just fine and I’m safe.”

Final papers are due this week, and–as usual–I’m working right up to the last minute. I have a quiet house, a warm room, a big desk, and a Songza channel that’s all instrumental Beatles covers. Oh, and, strangely, the paper I’ve been working on is coming along fine. The thing is that it’s supposed to hit 20-25 pages, and I keep deleting. So, around 2:00, I decide it’s time to get away from the desk and make a run to 7/11 for a coffee. Sometimes, they have a hyper-charged-super-caffeine-mega-mocha in the cappuccino machine, you know. And if not, they have those little things that look like creamers but are actually concentrated coffee(ish)-flavored caffeine shots that you can add in.

It’s been unseasonably, unreasonably warm this winter, but tonight, there’s iciness in the air and it’s cold. I pull my gloves on and zip my coat. I light a cigarette without thinking, so instead of driving to the 7/11 that’s just a few blocks away, I go to the one a little farther the other way to give myself time to finish it. Pulling into the the parking spot, I see a shabby-looking man standing a little way from the door. He’s wearing a coat with a hood, gray sweats, and work boots, but no gloves. I can’t tell if his sunken face is dirty or just covered in stubble. I can tell that he’s exhausted. He is grizzled, gray, weak-looking. He is every shabby-looking man standing outside the 7/11 at 2:00 a.m. on a weeknight. I just want to get a coffee and get back to working on my paper.

The cappuccino machine doesn’t have the mega-mocha, but it has peppermint mocha, which is my favorite, even if it’s not turbo-charged. I stop between the doughnut case and the open cooler full of cut fruit, honestly not sure whether I’m going to get a sugar twist or a cup of grapes and pineapple. Through the window, I can see the top of the gray man’s hood. The attendant’s name tag says “Rodney.” He’s a tall, sturdy black man, congenial and a little flirty. “There are boxes of doughnuts on sale on that table over there,” he laughs. “I see you lookin’, girl.” There is a wink in his voice. I tell him that I prefer the plain sugar twists, and he points at the table again. “That one in the middle is for you, pretty girl! Three sugar, three glazed. I packed it up myself. I musta known you were comin’.”

I’m no stranger to third shift, even though it’s been years since I’ve worked in a place that was even open past 10:00 p.m. You can only clean, stock, and tidy so many times before there’s nothing left to do but try not to fall asleep between customers. And when someone does come in, you smile and joke, because that gives you a rush of serotonin that not even those little caffeine shots can match. A person can go for an hour on the energy from a fun 3 minute back-and-forth. I think about asking Rodney if he knows anything about the gray man–is he a regular, is he waiting for a ride, how long has he been out there–but I don’t. I buy a pack of Pall Malls (orange box, shorts) and the box of Three-Sugar, Three-Glazed. Rodney forgets to ring up my cappuccino, and even though I offer to pay for it separately, he tells me it’s on him. Serotonin, man. It’s everything.

Coming out of the store, Rodney is a few steps behind me to go outside for a smoke break, stepping to the left of the doorway, because the gray man is still standing just to the right.

The words “do you need a ride somewhere” are slamming against my tightly-closed lips. I want to say them. I will not say them.
Because I have a paper.
Because It’s late.
Because I’m a woman.
Because I’m alone.
My heart is breaking because my head won’t listen.
The gray man coughs.

“Will you please give me a ride to Moline?” he asks. His voice is pleading and I feel myself relax. Rodney looks at me warily, and I guess that the gray man is not a regular. Of course I don’t care where he’s going. Of course I’m going to give him a ride. But of course, I know that I have to reassure Rodney, and my head, and the gray man, that I’m fully in control of this situation and nothing bad is going to happen to me. “Where to in Moline?” He gives me a cross-street, and I pause to appear as though I’m considering. “OK, sir. I’ll give you a ride. Come on.”

I can’t help but notice that Rodney’s serotonin is gone. I’m nobody to him, but he’s wearing a look of apprehension and worry for me anyway. He’s a good guy, Rodney. I’m grateful for his concern. The gray man is shaky and stiff; every movement seems to require his focus. As he works his way into the passenger seat, he is at once thankful and apologetic. “I’m happy to give you a ride as long as you don’t try to hurt me,” I say as he fumbles with the seat belt. “I’m Catholic,” he responds.

He tells me his name (“Corky. It’s my nickname.”) and the address he wants. He is bent, huddled close to the passenger door. His hood covers his head, so I can hear him but not see him. He is cold, broken, and very smelly. So very smelly. He bums a light while I look for the address. “We’re on 7th Street, Corky, but I don’t see that address. I don’t see any homes at all, actually. Only bars.”
“It’s close by, I know it. It’s a gray house next to a red and white house.” I randomly turn onto 18th and head for the next block. “This is familiar,” he says, “Yeah. This is right. Turn there.”  And then there it was. Gray house next to a red and white house. I stop, and Corky thanks me over and over again as he works his way out of the van.

If I count the time it took for me to get to the 7/11 in the first place, the whole event took twenty minutes. The gray man disappeared around the side of the gray house, and I pulled away to head home. I turned the corner at the same time as a buck came from behind another house. He stayed on the sidewalk and ran alongside me for three blocks.

I went back to the 7/11. Rodney was behind the counter. “I just thought I should come back and let you know that everything was just fine and I’m safe.” He smiled and shook his head a little, relaxing his shoulders a bit. “I would have wondered about you all night,” he said.
“I know. Thanks.”
“You have a good mornin’, girl.”
“You too, sir.”

Snow (with apologies to Louis MacNeice)

Snow (with apologies to Louis MacNeice)

Be still. The snow is good for slowing down.

For people who forget: to stop, to breathe,

to be of the world, for moments at least.

Weight, wind, and water wrap around, press down,

speak: parenthetic inside ellipses.

It doesn’t fall to earth so much as it

races to ground

to branch

to roof and road

to stop the world. To help it to be still.



Sunny Day on the Porch

Sunny Day on the Porch

My battered notebook has gotten wet once or twice; there are pages and pages of spots where the blue and red ink from the lines and margins has bled away and the paper is rough and brittle from drying out.

Birds and windchimes play the arbitrary melody of summer, grounded by the steady hum of the air conditioner and punctuated by a train in the distance, a motorcycle engine, a breeze through dense leaves.

This is silence, broken by the voices of a couple down the block. I can hear them, but can’t see them, as they jockey for power over each other. Neither of them gives a damn, and they battle to see who doesn’t give a damn the loudest.

Then they’re silent, broken by a slamming door. An engine revs, recedes, and then it’s birds and trains and whispering leaves.

“Chopped” Home Edition

“Chopped” Home Edition

Summer’s in swing. No classes for me, no summer job, kids are gone and Spouse works a day job. I find myself home alone a lot lately, a little stir-crazy. Going and Doing aren’t always budget-friendly, and I’ve taken to watching a lot of Food Network (especially Chopped, because they have to cook the way I do: on the fly and without a recipe) and thinking about different ways to entertain myself by reading recipes and cooking.

I don’t want to hang out with a hot oven or hover over a stove top too long, though, and I have to work with what’s on hand. Today, my on-hand “mystery basket” contained:

+ a piece of salmon I’d thawed in the fridge a few days ago
+ Swiss chard and mustard greens I found on sale last night
+ a tiny container of leftover canned pineapple chunks

This is what I wound up with:

"Chefs, today I have prepared for you..."

(I am not a practiced food photographer.)

I rinsed the salmon and patted it dry with a paper towel, then heated up a slosh (technical term) of olive oil, a slosh of orange juice, and a couple-three twists each of sea salt and pepper in a medium-size saute pan (med-high heat).

When that felt (technical term) ready, I laid the fish in flesh-side down and let it cook for like 3 minutes, adding a little more S&P to the skin-side. Then I flipped it skin-side down and scooted (technical term) it around in the oil and juice a little to make sure it was decently coated. After about two minutes, I covered it and moved the pan off the heat, hoping the skin would crisp up.

I tore off a small handful of chard and mustard greens and chopped that up together. Then I moved the fish to a plate to rest, put the pan back on the heat, and tossed the greens in with a bit of mixed garlic, another slosh of olive oil, and a slough of balsamic vinegar. I covered it and drained the juice from the pineapple, and then added that as well. Covered again, turned heat to med-low, buttered a slice of bakery bread, and cleaned up my mess.

When the fish felt like it was right in the edge of hot and not-hot, I pulled the produce, drained the last of the liquid away, and dumped it on the plate. It was mostly delightful.

My flavors were good, but I didn’t need the extra oil for the greens; I’d hoped they’d be a little toasted/crispyish, but instead they were limp. Not unpalatable, just not what I wanted. The salmon skin crisped exactly as I wanted, but I still couldn’t eat it because I have an irrational fear of eating salmon skin.

I used every ingredient in the basket and served it to myself with a little glass of hard cider. I say I did well enough to move on to the dessert round.

Yeah, I Got Your Resolutions

Yeah, I Got Your Resolutions

The only benefit, in my opinion, to extreme Midwestern seasonality, is the multi-sensual indication that something has ended, and something new is beginning. I have come to respect the idea of using seasonal turns for marking one’s plans and progress.

I once gave up New Year’s Resolutions when, in a fit of manic productivity, I deemed them to be a cop-out for people who (like me) were full of good intentions and empty of follow-through. I like them, though, so I’m going to keep making them. I choose January 1st for the same reason I choose the solstices and equinoxes, or the first of any month, or Monday, or 6:00 a.m., or my birthday. These are the definitive measures, the bold black marks on the timeline. They’re easy to find, easy to count. A year, a season, a month, a week, a day, MY day. And so…

These are my failures, my poor choices, my ends:

I over-extend myself. I want to help out, be useful, be a part of things. I make people believe they can count on me and I say “yes” almost instinctively, without ever thinking things through. And then I hate myself because, invariably, I have to back out, cut down, redistribute or turn over the reins.

I am terrible at managing time. I overestimate my resources and my own blinding brilliance and, consequently, underestimate how long it will take to get things done. I spend too much time looking at other peoples’ phenomenal systems for personal productivity and no time being personally productive by just doing things the way I do them, which, theoretically, would get them done.

I gave up creating and took up consuming instead. Rather than writing a story, I turn on the television and watch someone else’s. Rather than painting a picture, I change the color of my hair. It’s faster, or less effort, or lower investment. When I stop to truly absorb the creations of others, I see few brightnesses amid muddled chaos. It’s always been that way, of course, but it’s denser now. All our media is saturated by fame-seekers and casual capitalists–some of whom are skilled, many of whom could be if they cared more about the product than the potential paycheck–and the only way to find true craft is by chance. And I’m guilty–triple guilty–because I consume, because I don’t create, and because I don’t do enough to support those who do create.

I am not terribly envious, gluttonous, prideful, or angry, but I am vain, lazy, and (seasonally*) lustful. Laziness trumps all. It has wreaked havoc on my physical health and appearance, and subsequently, my mental health and self-perception.  My vanity is probably an outgrowth of my laziness: rather than getting enough rest and eating properly, I create the illusion of good health with cosmetics, for example. And “seasonal” lustfulness is probably also due to general laziness…it means I don’t really have much use for sex or feeling sexy except in the summer when, for some reason, the heat and humidity make me feel strong and assertive. Maybe it’s because that’s when everyone is languishing and looking like hell, and not just me.

So…I’ll never be a perfect human. I’ll always feel like I’m not doing enough. Recognition and achievements will always come as a surprise. I’ll always be somewhat vain and somewhat lazy. I’m not resigned to these, so much as I simply acknowledge that they are. They have always been, for me. I won’t ever fix them, but I can work with them, and make them work for me. I suppose I just have to make my responses to them feel like nature instead of work. My singular New Year’s Resolution, then, is this:

Deliberate as necessary, and then do as I will.

It seems to me that that is the simplest, most memorable way to correct all the behaviors that bother me.

  • If I wish to be useful, it’s best to be certain before committing.
  • If I do things the way I do them, they’ll be done.
  • If I give weight to art, it will become a regular part of my active routine.
  • If I don’t feel physically and mentally good, I can hone in on what hurts and fix it.

These are my goals, my challenges, my beginning.


Shooting for the Noon

I know that I’m going to be so proud of this paper once I finish it, but right now I hate it. It will be done by noon tomorrow. It will be done by noon tomorrow. It will be done by noon tomorrow.*

*technically today.