I grew up as a crooked girl who dealt with a mild case of cerebral palsy. In a small Cajun town during the 1960s, I relied on my little sisters' support and energy to give me confidence and our grandma's movie theater to help me escape when life's "pas bon" moments overwhelmed me.
Dogs are easy to please. They give out affection as naturally as they receive pets, treats, and almost any kind of attention. When we got Jambo, our first dog, in 1993, Gary looked at the five month old puppy one morning as the dog put paws on his knee and looked up with the imploring eyes of a small child who has lost the top of her first ever ice cream cone on a hot August day. Or Oliver Twist begging in the movie, ”Please, sir, may I have some more?” Gary stared into those eyes of trust and hope and said, “Why are you so needy!?”
Cats tend to be much cooler creatures. They meow for food and occasionally allow us to pet them, but they rarely let us know what goes on in their cat brains. They seem to have knowledge mere mortals do not possess.
During my early walks I love seeing cats perched in kitchen, bedroom, and living room windows, looking out with the wisdom of Buddha or the bored disinterest of Marlena Deitrich.
From their thrones behind clear glass they stare at me without a smidgen of concern. As if all they survey is theirs and they have no reason to worry about anything. Do cats have everything all figured out?
During these uncertain days of the pandemic, I wish I could think like the window cats.
I would watch the bad weather and the worried humans pass by. I would observe without judgement or fear. I might have a sweet pea amount of curiosity about something, but it’s not enough to make me uncomfortable where I sit and survey all that is not me. For my minutes at the window, I am satisfied to meet others’ gazes and I might turn my head at the sudden movement of a squirrel or close my eyes when the sun shines on me just right, yet I am comfortable for the moment, and the window ledge or armchair or doorway is where I need to be for now. All is well.
For twenty years my friend Crystal Fox has been a steadfast source of laughter and support. She lets me dump my food scraps in her city-issued compost bin; her granddaughter, Sunday Joy, is one of my remarkable “practice grandchildren,” and we share food. I drop off containers of lentil soup, and she gives me homemade loaves of bread. Crystal has more good qualities than a thirteen-year-old has sassy looks! For me her sense of humor is her magic power, and her explosive laugh cannot be topped by anyone, anywhere. It begins in her throat – a rich guttural sound that soon moves to her belly and takes control of her torso. She bends over and her laugh continues for at least 45 seconds as she pulls others along for the kind of laughter that leaves one breathless, with stomach cramps, and sometimes in dire need of finding a bathroom.
Crystal and I first met at Crockett High School while attempting to educate teenagers whose hormones were stronger than our computer skills. At work we struggled alongside our teacher peers to deal with the usual high school shenanigans: dreaded state-mandated tests, meandering eye-glazing meetings, countless committees (eye-glazing), unavoidable staff development (more eye-glazing), and classes with more students than we had desks for.
Outside of school we shared happy hours, movie nights, and pool parties. However, what we did best together was getting lost.
We are both blessed with a cockeyed sense of direction that makes all journeys unpredictable and any destination a crap shoot. The two of us get turned around on the streets of Austin and the highways of Texas.
Crystal told me that when her husband Ric used to ask her “Which way should we go?” (whether on a road trip or nature hike) and she gave her answer, he would go in the opposite direction.
Because of our off kilter inner compasses, we often feel like Lucy and Ethel from I Love Lucy any time we venture into new territories (or even to ones we’ve been to before). But like the black and white t.v. gal pals, we find humor in our mess-ups and camaraderie in our wanderings.
Though I’ve played Ethel to Crystal’s Lucy, and she’s been a stalwart Ethel to my Lucy for several years, one of our best episodes took place in 2017 when we planned a trip to New York City with the hope of seeing Bette Midler on Broadway in Hello, Dolly! I’m fortunate enough to have Gayle as my sister – a casting agent who is as generous and helpful as the Big Apple is big, and she had scored tickets to see the Divine Miss M portray Dolly Levi at the Shubert Theater.
Our anticipation to visit my sister, explore NYC, and see Bette in a Broadway show (Crystal’s first!) had us feeling like Charlie when he opened his last chocolate Wonka bar and discovered that magic golden ticket! We had also found budget-priced airline tickets and a friend of a friend’s Brooklyn apartment to stay in for free. A jackpot of a trip for two high school teachers!
Days before our adventure we coordinated packing, reviewed the subway maps of the City, and giggled like schoolgirls getting away with borrowing the family car and smoking Grandma’s cigarettes while we got lost driving around at midnight.
Then at the height of our unbridled joy, I got a text from United Airlines the night before our trip. Our 7 a.m. departure flight was cancelled due to bad weather! We had booked the early flight to give us time to get lost in JFK Airport, secure a cab, meet Gayle, get lost taking the subway to Brooklyn and maybe get turned around finding the apartment we’d be staying in, get gussied up for the theater, walk the wrong way toward the subway, take the wrong exit out of the underground before walking up instead down the avenue that took us to the Shubert to experience Bette’s Tony award-winning performance from our orchestra seats on the fifteenth row!
Pessimism teased its way into my head when I first read the American Airlines text at 8:30 p.m. Crystal had not received any messages from United, so I pushed aside negative vibes as I tried calling the airline over and over. Nothing but busy signals. By 9:10, my palms were sweaty and my stomach felt like I’d eaten a chicken and sausage gumbo appetizer followed by a Wendy’s Baconator. Gary had gone online to see that our flight was cancelled and the next flight from Austin to NYC would not land in the city that never slept until 7:45 p.m. Our curtain call was at 8!
I was about to call Crystal and share some tears when Gary said, “Let’s drive to the airport and talk to a human.”
At 9:20 p.m. we walked into the Austin airport’s empty check-in area, saw the dark counter for American, and headed downstairs to baggage claim. Someone pointed us to a quiet corner and a dim lost luggage window where a lone American employee waited. The urgency in our voices convinced Majorie that we had to get to New York as early as possible the next day. She looked energetic in her crisp navy uniform with the red accents that matched her lipstick, and she started tapping her computer keys and nodding her head of long jet black hair that was teased and styled to handle all airline emergencies. Gary gave her our cancelled flight details. He also explained about the Hello, Dolly! tickets and how my friend Crystal had never seen a show on Broadway.
“Oh, they have to see Bette,” said Majorie and she focused on her computer screen to work her magic. I stayed quiet because I knew I’d cry if I spoke about my greatest fear – missing seeing Bette live.
Majorie squinted at her screen, furrowed her brow, and allowed her red lips a brief pout before she typed faster. I let out a sigh and stared at the dirty floor while saying a quick Hail Mary. Gary drummed his fingers on the counter and said, “They’d fly into New Jersey if that would help.” Majorie typed even faster. My blood pressure rose as my hopes of sharing Hello, Dolly! with Crystal dwindled.
“That 7 a.m. flight was the only direct one to New York. All the others have connections in Houston or Dallas,” said Majorie. “Earliest I could get you there from here is 7:30 p.m.,” said Majorie. She gave me a sad slow smile.
Gary interrupted our brief connection of empathy. “What time is the first flight out of Houston?”
Majorie followed his thought process, raised her perfectly plucked eyebrows, and typed with hopeful fingers. Then she smiled at Gary. “I got seats on a 7:45 a.m. plane to LaGuardia!”
Gary looked at our heroine. “I’ll drive them to Houston!”
Majorie straightened her shoulders and clicked with confidence. I stared at my husband in disbelief. Houston was three hours away. “But we’d have to leave Austin at…” I struggled with the head math.
“Leave at 3 a.m. to be safe,” said Majorie as she finished her typing and Gary smiled at me.
“You’d take us?” I said. “And drive right back home?”
“It’s Bette!” was his answer.
Majorie gave us a glorious smile and handed me the new airline tickets. “You just got to see Bette!”
As we drove home, I called and woke up Crystal (it was now 10:40 p.m.).
“Gary offered to drive us to Houston to catch a flight that will get us to New York in time to get to the theater. You up for leaving in four hours?”
“Of course!” said the Ethel to my Lucy idea.
The drive down a very dark Hwy. 71 and a mostly empty Interstate 10 went quickly because our shared adrenaline kept us giddy with the refreshed joy of getting to see Bette on Broadway.
The brightness of the airport and the thought of seeing Bette made our first hour in Houston joyful. As we sat at our gate, even the initial flight delay of one hour did not squelch our excitement. We walked a couple of laps around our terminal and returned to our gate in time for the announcement: “Due to weather concerns, Flight 1313 to New York is delayed and will depart at 12:07.”
Crystal and I exchanged worried looks, but ever the optimist, she said, “We’ll get to New York around 3 and have time to meet Gayle and go to Brooklyn and get to the show.” She paused. “Right?”
“Sure, sure,” I said and imagined a taxi strike in the city (unlikely) or us getting lost in the airport as we tried to find the taxi stand (likely).
We now had two hours to kill so we decided to do more walking. When we passed an empty bar just opening up, I said, “Let’s have a drink.” We bellied up to the bar with our luggage beneath our stools. “Two Kir Royals,” I said.
Crystal smiled and told the bartender, “We’re seeing Bette on Broadway!”
The bartender put on a little show adding the creme de cassis to the champagne, and we toasted to Bette, to Gayle, to Gary, and to New York City.
“We’re doing this!” said Crystal.
The 10 a.m. cocktail revived our hopes and warmed our insides. The bartender took a picture of us smiling like Cajuns on a Mardi Gras morning with a cold beer in one hand a link of hot boudin in the other.
Forty minutes later we settled into blue plastic chairs near our gate and nibbled peanut butter sandwiches and cut up apple slices Crystal had brought along. We reviewed our plans to grab a cab, get to my sister’s place in Greenwich Village, hightail it to Brooklyn, and make it to Times Square and the Shubert before the stage curtain rose. We leaned back in our chairs confidently, and soon we were both fast asleep – probably dreaming of a dancing and singing Bette.
Two hours later, I awoke to an intercom voice: “Final boarding call for Flight 1313 to New York City. Final call!” I punched a snoring Crystal who jumped up, grabbed her suitcase, and led the charge to our departure gate.
We got settled into our seats and did not close our eyes for the duration of the flight. When we clicked on our seat belts and watched the stewardess make the final seat check and snap shut all the overhead bins, we truly believed we would see Bette on Broadway. Crystal and I clasped hands and took a selfie as the plane backed away from the gate and rolled its way forward for take-off.
My husband Gary wakes up with a head full of Gary. Like a toddler or teenager, he has perfected the art of self-absorption.
In the 1990s when our three sons were young and Gary and I both taught full-time, I woke up early to make little lunches and plot the day’s obligations: get the boys to two different schools before getting to my own school and teaching five sections of seventh grade language arts; remind Shane he had jazz band practice after school, Casey he had computer class at Boys and Girls Club, and Evan to do homework at his elementary’s Extend-a-Care program; stop by HEB for supper ingredients and swing by Terra Toys for a birthday party gift on Saturday before I picked up my sons.
All day the kid details fought for control of my brain with lesson plans about teaching the difference between “your and you’re” or nuances of dramatic irony in Roald Dahl”s short story “Lamb to the Slaughter.”
Gary’s brain lived a different existence. It woke up an hour and a half later than mine, and after his mandatory two cups of coffee, it was awake enough to carefully fry three neat strips of bacon for his own breakfast. He did help with the dropping off and picking up of children if I wrote him detailed notes and reminded him during his lunch break and ten minutes after his school’s final bell.
As our boys grew up and needed more rides to more places, Gary became a trusted driver as long as my directions were specific and did not impose on his weekend jogs and his Thursday “pint night” at the Dog and Duck Pub.
Now our boys are men and living their own lives. Gary and I have been navigating the pandemic and aging as best we can. We walk our dog each morning as a team – he’s on lookout duty for other dogs on leashes and for free-range cats. He also scans the sidewalks and grassy areas for discarded scraps of food or other potential dog distractions. Millie pulls on her leash as I follow, and Gary calls out helpful warnings like “Big brown dog at twelve o’clock” or “Broken beer bottle on my right.” Sometimes, however, his head fills up with his own thoughts, and he misses telling me about a stray fried chicken bone or a big turd dropped in the middle of the sidewalk. We have brief spats and he may say, “Don’t you have two good eyes as well?”
Gary has admitted to not being a noticer. And he’s not talkative when he gets in his “me zone.” Also, now that he’s lost hearing in his right ear, I take no offense when he sometimes does not respond to my insightful comments during our dog walks. Did I remember to direct my voice to his left side? Or is his mind too preoccupied with more important things like his latest film script or the current Amazon rental sales of the horror/comedy movie he wrote and self-produced in 2013: Virgin Cheerleaders in Chains?
Gary is a natural at self-promotion. He raised thousands of dollars on Indiegogo to realize his dream of being a film producer! He will tell our condo neighbors or grocery cashiers or anyone who comments on his Virgin Cheerleaders inChains t-shirt, “I wrote and produced this movie! Available on Amazon! Very meta; not a porno!” I envy his confidence and bravery.
Am I any less self-obsessed with writing blog essays and linking them to my FB and Twitter accounts? What is the line between “Look at me!” and “Give me your money”?
Most mornings my head fills up with thoughts of my family and friends. I worry about their health, their happiness, and what I can do to help them with either one.
I blame my momma. She took care of my dad, my brother, my sisters, and me like the strong Cajun force she was. She cooked and cleaned nonstop and insisted we spend all our time with her because she did not want to miss a bouree card game, a trip to the drive-through Daiquiri Shack, or hanging out on the front porch. At the end of our holiday visits, she hated telling us good-bye.
“Oh, oh, I don’t want y’all to go,” she’d say and give me the biggest hugs her 5’2” ninety-nine pound frame could produce. She’d lock her arms around my waist and give me three short but intense hugs. “Humph! Humph! Humph!” My body would tense waiting for those squeezes of love. She cared and worried about those she loved. However, she also realized that not everyone needed looking after.
Every Christmas holiday, Gary spent a night in Baton Rouge with his best friend Richard. One time I was concerned about saving enough turkey gumbo for my husband when he returned to Eunice. Momma focused her bright blue eyes at me and said, “Don’t you worry about Gary. Gary will always take care of Gary.”
My momma knew some big truths!
My husband may think about himself a lot. He may need a little guidance with remembering others’ needs sometimes. But self-reliance is a very positive attribute. Emerson said, “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.” As I follow Gary on our dog walks, and he clasps his hands loosely behind his back and strolls a half block ahead and he tilts his head to look at tree branches dancing in the wind, I will recognize a man comfortable with himself and at peace with his own thoughts.
Note: I didn’t get pictures of the dogs in this essay, so I included pictures of the dogs I know best.
I started my by-myself walk during the pandemic. It’s earlier than my walk with my dog Millie and my husband Gary.
I cover a couple of miles; I pay attention to bird songs and the sun rising and people’s homes and yards, and the unevensidewalks I walk on.
I make connections with people who also walk in my neighborhood before cars head to work.
I also encounter different dogs along my route. First, I pass a place where two monster guard dogs live. It’s a head shop, and if I walk after 9 AM the employee has released one white and one black dog who make me cross the street as they growl, bark, and run along a crooked chain link fence that extends to the business’s back parking lot. One scary morning those dogs squeezed through the back gate and ran toward me, Gary, and Millie at first. However, we were lucky that they were more interested in their unexpected freedom than attacking us or our startled dog.
The second street I walk down has a house with a mid-sized brown dog who claws at his window and the rest of the Venetian blinds he’s managed to destroy half of while frantically barking at passers-by. Another place has a wooden fence that’s undecided in its leanings and hides two small dogs who take turns yipping and yapping while I walk by.
After I turn onto the next street, I see an elderly housing solutions development (for older folks with problems to solve I suppose), and I sometimes see a dachshund wearing a smart blue coat who searches the sparse grass for the best spot to pee. He seems as unaware of me as his hunched over owner is.
Later, I turn down my favorite street that runs alongside a small, tree-filled park. At the corner of Armadillo and Cottontail, a Pomeranian on the other side of a barely standing chain link fence barks at me nonstop with yaps as fast and high as his blood pressure must be.
However, my favorite dog I pass during my daybreak walks made himself known to me in pieces. I first met his nose. I was walking past the house with the vintage baby blue Dodge Charger in its driveway. The place has a long wooden side fence, and one misty morning I spotted a large pink nose thrust through an arched mouse-sized hole when I’d reached the fence’s midpoint. I startled a second and walked on. The dog did not bark, but sniffed my presence as best she could. The next day when I passed that same fence, someone had forced a rock of concrete into the hole. (This reminded me of the tree’s knot hole being filled with cement in To Kill a Mockingbird). It wasn’t until a week later that I met the dog face that belonged to that inquisitive nose. The long fence ends at an enclosure for the house’s garbage and recycling bins, and right at that corner at the bottom of the fence is a rectangular cut-out about 6×4 inches.
As I strolled past the small fence opening, my dog acquaintance shoved her nose, mouth, and one eye into that missing piece of fence. My shoulders jumped when I noticed the white face, red-rimmed eye, and pink nose of a pit bull. No barking, just an intense glare and a sniffing nose. The next day I got ready to acknowledge my dog friend, and I was surprised to see the top half of her body atop an upholstered chair in a window right before where the fence started. She barked twice, and as I kept walking the fence line, someone let her outside and she hurried to catch up with me as I could barely see bits of white dog running in the backyard. Then at that fence cut out she once again pushed her face towards me. Both of us shared a few seconds of silent appraisal of one another.
Now I look forward to seeing my pit bull friend’s face. Some days I catch her in the window first and we meet at the end of the fence; other times she’s already in the yard and I see snatches of her muscular form dashing to our meeting spot. Sad to say, she’s not been there this week. The Charger is also gone. I hope she and her owner are on a vacation and will return soon.
I don’t know why, but I enjoy the dog’s intense perusal of me, and I tell myself she does not give everyone who passes her the same look – all curiosity and intelligence, no anger or fear.
To be honest, broad-headed, confident pit bulls normally frighten me. I think they want to start a fight or at least show me who’s boss.
So I think this pit bull is teaching me something. I need less fear and more curiosity in my life? Understanding others is crucial to respect? I was looking over some MLK quotes Monday and I focused on the one about light and darkness: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”
My morning walks and the yard dogs I meet may lead me to a more hopeful kind of light.
In 1968 I got a 3×5 inch red five-year diary with a tiny lock and key to protect all the wisdom and intrigue I would pour onto its pages. Each day of the year was allowed four lines, and profundity like “Today I quit playing paper dolls forever” (first entry) or “Kelly made her confirmation. It lasted 2 and a half hours. But it was comfortable with the new cushioned pews” (last entry) filled its pages.
I was a faithful writer for four years, never neglecting to document a day’s monumental trivia. I hid these pencil-written treasures in the bottom drawer of the heavy blonde oak night table next to my bed. Two years ago I reread my 12-year-old regimented thoughts and found at least three interesting entries over that four year span.
A year before I received my diary, I had tried to write a children’s book. I made up a tale about a rabbit and a crawfish and mailed off this masterpiece to the “Be a Writer!” course advertised in the back of an Archie comic book. The writing professionals sent me a typed letter that proclaimed I had “potential”! They promised me fame and publishing creds if I sent them $50. My dad exposed the company for the scam it was, and in 1967 I decided I should settle for being a world class actress instead of a writer.
Still I kept writing, and in 1971 I traded my red diary for a blue 8×13 ledger that expanded my writing experience. I no longer wrote every day, and a day’s entry could take up four full pages. I obsessed over fights with my sisters and crushes on boys I was terrified to talk to. My ideas danced around philosophical questions like why cousin Gina liked my sister Gayle more than me or who Bobby G. was taking to the homecoming dance. Also, my Barbra Streisand fanaticism screamed from these pages because I always wrote her name in all caps and underlined it.
Despite the banality of what I wrote, I still felt compelled to fill the ledger’s pages and apologized for sometimes letting weeks go by between entries. After the blow of the children’s book writing course, I no longer believed I was a writer; however, I needed to write for my own sanity. When I read To Kill a Mockingbird in ninth grade I loved Scout’s thoughts on being a reader before she went to school: “Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.”
When I move my pen across blank pages, ideas often come faster than I can write. Even if I later loathe what I’ve written, I feel stronger and saner. Now that I have the time to write every day, a day is not pointless if I have made time to write something down. Life is somehow easier if I write. It’s my Balm in Gilead, my parade I don’t want people raining on, and the actual rain that washes dust and bird poop off my car.
As much as I hate the word “blog” because it sounds like a portmanteau of “blah” and “slog,” I’ll keep posting essays online because it feels equally right and ugly. I may be vomiting words that are unworthy of others’ attention, but filling pages in notebooks lets me process life’s joys and tragedies. I write for myself for sure, yet pressing the “Publish” button on a wordpress blog gives me a jolt of bravery that I think I’m addicted to.
Even while we isolate and avoid close contact, some people send messages in nontraditional ways. Whether it’s scratched on wet cement or drawn with colored chalk, people express themselves.
During my neighborhood walks, I started noticing the sidewalks. First, I saw the writing in the scratched initials or names that said, “I was here.”
Sometimes the message was angry.
I loved one section of a child’s footprints. Was this accidental or intentional? I imagined a mischievous kid being told by a harried mother, “Get up in your car seat.” The three-year-old makes a wild dash down the wet cement while his mom deals with her fussy eight-month-old. The kid gets in a two yard run before, “I said ‘Get in!’” pulls him back to the car.
During the spring of the pandemic, chalk artists shared their whimsical renditions of Disney characters, and they did not mind that a short rain would wash it all away.
Now more than ever we need to look for life’s artistic touches in unexpected places. It’s proof of the creativity and goodness among us. Sidewalk messages feel like hope to me. They communicate feelings and ideas even during a pandemic. I search for these symbols etched in concrete. I feel connected to others, even if I never see who sent the message.
As the sun rises, I walk down a quiet shady street. No sidewalks – a long road with eerie undertones.
When I first discovered this spooky street, I saw no one out so early in the morning. I passed double-wide trailers with front porches that were permanently planted in large lots. Most yards were mowed and cared for while a few looked like a dumping ground for Frankenstein cars and forgotten toys. A house and a two-story duplex broke up the pattern of mobile homes. One residence had a rusted bike mailbox stand with several vintage cars parked in its side yard. Another place had a huge unhealthy palm tree that looked like a Dr. Seuss drawing and a yard crowded with cacti and tired metal chairs. Near the end of the street a poop-brown trailer had a “Zombie Crossing” sign in a window. Next to that dwelling was the huge Boo Radley house that looked abandoned. It lurked on a deep long lot behind a slanted chainlink fence with several crooked trees and an abundance of trash in the yard.
For weeks, I saw no people during my walks. Each residence had between two and seven vehicles parked on its property, so I assumed they held multiple families. I guessed at the trailers’ secrets. Why was no one ever outside in the mornings? Drug dens or meth labs? Late night partiers? Werewolves, vampires, or aliens? (zombies were too obvious a guess).
The first human I saw during my walk was a skeletal old woman wearing a loose house dress who appeared behind her screen door. She glared at me before slinking away and slowly closing her front door. The next week I spotted a young woman carrying a lunch box and purse heading to her car. She saw me and hurried back into her house. Had she forgotten something, or did she not want to blow her undercover CIA assassin disguise?
As I made up backstories for the street’s assorted residents, I pushed down my nervousness of walking alone on an empty street. Then one morning a dusty & battered brown pick-up clunked onto the street as I moved onto the street’s grassy shoulder. The driver slowed to a crawl and stopped next to me. His window creeped down, and he brushed dirty fingernails through a scraggly grey and brown beard that touched the top of a faded flannel shirt collar. “Need a ride?” he said.
I gave him my best fake smile. “No thanks.”
He nodded, said, “OK,” and drove down the road like a person with no place to go.
I called Gary as soon as the truck was two houses away. “Listen up. I’m on the Spooky Street and some guy in a truck tried to give me a ride. Keep talking to me until I get to a busier street. Ok?” My husband’s voice calmed me down as I walked and talked. When I was almost at the Radley house, I noticed that the old truck had backed into the driveway of the neighboring trailer. The man was still sitting in the truck, smoking a cigarette. I walked faster and made it to a street with sidewalks.
“You alright?” said Gary. “Still there?”
I nodded and whispered into the phone, “ I think so.”
I’m 87% sure my fears are wasted on the Spooky Street. The brown truck guy is more quirky then threatening. A month later developers tore down and hauled off the Boo Radley house. Four small modern homes of different colors with garages and private yards now take up the huge lot. The slate blue, whisper grey, smooth olive, and eggshell white houses look out of place on the Spooky Street, and the stray cats who once roamed that area have moved across the street.
I think FDR was right about being afraid: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” And I like the lyrics of the “Ghostbusters” song. These days I need to face my fears, keep walking forward, and stay connected to those who love me most.
Grandma Keller had a nickel slot machine in the hall next to the front door of her home. Several times a day she’d use her walker to reach a stool set in front of the machine and feed it nickels from a metal cup she held.
The machine was green and spun pictures of cherries, oranges, plums, bells, and bars for the chance to win the $7.50 jackpot. You could win five nickels for two cherries or a cherry and a bar. The machine never hit the jackpot, and 18 nickels (for three bells) was the most it ever paid out. Like other one-armed bandits, it was programed to keep you playing without emptying its whole stash of coins.
Grandma loved to gamble! From betting on the horses at the New Orleans Fairgrounds to playing poker or bouree with her lady friends, she loved games of chance when money was at stake. And like most of us, she hated to lose. After depleting her cup of nickels at the slot machine, she’d mutter, “Crooked as a barrel of snakes,” before she’d limp back to her favorite arm chair in the living room or her large wooden rocking chair on the front porch. Then she could let a cup of coffee or a Salty Dog (depending on the time of day) help her forget her losses.
For me, dealing with technology is like pulling that slot machine’s long metal arm and hoping my nickel was not used in vain. When I try to reformat a document or navigate a spreadsheet, my head watches those wheels of cherries, plums, and oranges spin. Will my revised document look centered and pleasing to the eye? Will my saved numbers on my spreadsheet make it to my employer correctly? Who knows? Your guess is as good as mine.
At times the document I spent seventy minutes working on disappears, or the info I emailed to work gets me a reply that explains how I entered information incorrectly.
I’m not a total idiot. Before I retired from full time teaching, I managed my online grade book, and most of my assignments were linked to class calendars. However, I could no way navigate the current issues of a virtual classroom! When I successfully shared my screen during a Zoom meeting with some student teachers I work with, a twenty-one year old had to remind me, “Ms. Gannaway, your mic is on mute again.”
My oldest son helps me with blog posts, and he tries to remember that patience is a virtue. But I hear his deep sighs and see him comb his hair back with his palm before saying, “Mom, what did we do last time we edited an image?”
Back in the ‘90s someone told me, “Don’t be afraid. You won’t break the computer or permanently lose stuff.” Well, I don’t know about that! I often have no idea whether clicking on a link or pressing a return button will have the result I want. The slot machine gears keep spinning and it’s all a game of chance!
I hate the fear and uncertainty COVID has created in our lives. Yet technology and social media put me on uneven ground years ago. SnapChat made me nervous when those weird animated photos all went away in 24 hours. But it’s also unnerving that FaceBook stuff never goes away.
I don’t understand or trust the Cloud and I wish texting had not become my go-to form of communicating. Since I seldom see people in person, I miss hearing their voices.
I’m still more optimistic than pessimistic, so I’ll pull that cold metal arm that sometimes sticks a bit and trust the technological slot machine of life as I say, “Please, Lord” while I cross my fingers and watch the blur of fruit and accept the whirring, spinning uncertainty of now. I never know when several coins will clatter into the pay-off slot.
In March I started 7:20 a.m. walks through my eclectic neighborhood.
Early mornings I pass subsidized apartments, an elderly elementary school, a head shop, a short strip mall that includes a convenience store with an impressive mural of Ice Cube on its side wall, a local take-out pizza joint, a Mexican restaurant, and a hair salon. A mental health hospital is a few blocks away, and a very unpopular Sonic is across the street from us.
I begin my walks down a sidewalk-less street with mostly trailer homes. I turn onto a shady street of duplexes and small houses. Later I follow a busy street towards a tiny park with lots of trees and a few backless stone benches. I pass a Korean Catholic Church before I head back home down a wide street with bike lanes on both sides. After I pass the elementary school, I turn onto my own street of apartments where people work on their cars and hang out after work. I hear music and conversations more often in Spanish than English.
Lots of cats roam my street, and one cat gives me the willies; I call it the opossum cat because of its weird white face and its pointed nose and menacing stare. A black dog with huge balls and stubby legs appears some times. He wears a frayed grey collar without tags that was once blue. He’s a curious guy without menace. His walk is brisk and reminds me of Tramp from the early Disney movie; he’s resourceful and scrappy and free.
After I’d been walking for several weeks at the same time each morning, I began connecting with some people. Brisk Walking Woman was my first connection. She lives close by, makes fast laps around the streets, and wears a wide-brimmed orange floppy hat.
Near the park I pass Scraggly-bearded Man in a motorized wheelchair with a small white dog on a leash. He is often barefoot, and I once helped him untangle the dog leash from his wheels while the dog sat in his lap and barked at me. The man and I both wore face masks; I was equally fearful of his dog biting me as I was of catching the virus.
In July after I’d said hello to Young Gardener tending her raised bed of flowers and vegetables, she offered me fresh tomatoes! Score!! I later gave her blueberry muffins, and after swapping names, we now swap fresh produce and baked goods.
There’s also Wonderful Woman who carries a cane for protection and has a sunny smile to match her bright disposition and bold colored wardrobe.
I also wave to Tie-dyed Lady who wears her dog leash around her waist and Tall & Handsome Guy who walks a hyper black and white puppy that gives my hand puppy-nips when I pet him.
Recently I encountered Tiny Woman who has grey and black curls and walks her dachshund near the elementary school and waves at me across the street.
Waving to my walking friends reminds me of a Dan Hertzfeldt’s cartoon: “Billy’s Balloon.” In the cartoon, a stick figure kid gets lifted into the sky by his red balloon, and while he’s floating into the clouds, he sees another kid being carried upward by a yellow balloon. They wave at each other from across the distance. They smile. Then an airplane ploughs right through the kid with the yellow balloon.
My walks connect me to others, and when we wave hello and make mundane comments about the high humidity or the welcome breeze, life seems almost normal. Yet underneath the brief bits of friendliness lie the uncertainty and fear that never fully go away.
My face mask hangs from my left ear when my sidewalk is empty for blocks ahead. About fifty percent of early walkers I see have masks.
Last week Wonderful Woman was on my side of the street, and after I said, “Feels like fall,” when I passed her, she pulled down her mask and said, “ What? I can’t understand you.”
So standing a few feet from her, I pulled down my own mask and we had a one minute conversation as I shoved worry and fear into a back room of my mind next to paranoia and uncertainty. I feel the need to connect to others as much as I feel the desire to stay safe. May we handle our connections with equal amounts of compassion and safety.
Momma always kept a balled-up Kleenex in her right hand (or in her pocket).
She used this all-purpose tissue to wipe her drippy nose caused by what she called her “hay fever.” When we were kids, she also used her Kleenex to wipe a snot-nosed child’s face or to stop a scraped knee from bleeding. In the 1960s right before entering our Catholic church for mass, she could use a not-too-crumpled tissue as a make shift head covering for a forgetful daughter who had left her chapel veil at home. I still remember her pinning the white tissue atop my head using a stray bobby pin from her purse. No need for her to fuss at me for my memory lapse. My pin-scraped scalp was punishment enough.
In a way always having the Kleenex on hand is a “Mom thing” – a being prepared thing. (for small spills, runny noses, dirty faces, fresh lipstick blots, minor cuts, or sudden tears).
When Momma was wheelchair-bound and barely talked, she still kept a Kleenex in her hand. After she died, I looked through the small leather purse she had carried everywhere she went. Inside I found her wallet, which held My Daily Rosary prayer card, her drivers license, and her library card. Also, there was a tiny round frame with a picture of my sister Kelly, a half-used Wine with Everything lipstick, a nail file, Double mint gum, and a couple of balled-up tissues. I smiled.
I’ve been going on long walks around 7:15 each morning, and I take along a Kleenex in my pocket. I use the tissue to open the black iron gate that surrounds our apartment complex, to scratch my nose, and to wipe my forehead when the temperature gets in the 90’s.
After my walk, the tissue is ragged and sweaty. It seems to symbolize my fears and uncertainty these days. The tissue keeps me from touching my face or some random object. The Kleenex I shove into my pocket before I venture out (for a walk, to the grocery, on an errand) feels as necessary as a face mask or hand sanitizer.
Either I’m turning into my mother or channeling a parent’s attempt to be prepared for life’s surprises and disasters. If a balled-up piece of tissue gives me comfort, I’ll take it. And I’ll focus on not tripping on the cracked sidewalks while I listen to birdsong and car horns.