Brown Paper Packages

taco picSo, Sean and I started our Saturday morning by walking down to Jo’s Coffee shop on South Congress as we often do.  We ordered our coffees and as I was feeling pretty hungry I ordered two Pappas, Egg and Cheese tacos to match Sean’s order.  We said hello to our new friend Nichole who was once again sporting her red silk kimono and joined her at the large community table to eat our breakfast.  After finishing my first taco, I decided I’d been overzealous in my ordering and wrapped up the remaining taco in a brown paper bag and shoved it down in my backpack to bring home to Al.

I read a little and did some writing warm-ups while Sean sketched various people from around the shop.  Jo’s has a different vibe on Saturdays.  The regulars are there, but there are more families and small children and impolite dogs who bark, bark, bark.  At first the energy is inspirational but eventually we feel the itch to move on and today we have errands to run anyway. So, we packed up our stuff and continued up the hill.

I wanted to make Mexican Wedding Cakes and forgot the vanilla last time I was at the grocery store so we headed to the Farm to Market store which is too expensive to go to on a regular basis but I was willing to splurge to save the time of dragging Al’s big truck out of the garage to go to the HEB.  I spent ten dollars on a bottle of organic vanilla and even the cashier double checked the outrageous price but I was being lazy and I paid for it.  The cashier asked if I wanted a bag. I considered just throwing the bottle in my purse but worried it might leak so I said yes and she wrapped the bottle in small brown paper sack.  I shoved the sack down in my purse not realizing that brown paper sacks would cause problems in my near future.

Sean needed to go to the bank so we walked further up the hill than usual.  Beyond the bank there is a middle school and some barber shops but the shops become more spread out and less appealing so the bank was to be our last stop before heading back to the apartment down the hill.  On our way to the bank, we approached an elderly man with a bushy gray beard in a wheelchair.  He had a cardboard sign in his lap and the words written in Sharpie marker said something about needing any kind of help anyone could offer.  I remembered my leftover taco and said hello to the man and his friend standing next to him.  I told him I didn’t have any cash, which I didn’t, but that I had a taco in my purse and would he like to have it.  He said he would, so I opened my purse and took out the brown paper sack and handed it to him.  We exchanged God Bless You with Have a Nice Day and Sean and I crossed the street to the bank.

As we left the bank, I noticed the man and his friend were gone.  I mentioned to Sean that this was the first time I had ever uttered the phrase, “I have a taco in my purse,” to anyone.  We laughed.

At home, I tidied up the kitchen and started chopping pecans for my cookie dough.  I followed the recipe until I got to the line that read, “Whip butter and sugar together and add vanilla.”  I went to my purse to retrieve the vanilla and dug around past the sunglasses and Kleenex and various pens and pencils. There was no brown bag.  A realization started to dawn and so I checked my backpack and there it was, wrapped in brown paper… the taco I thought I had given to the wheelchair bound man.  “Oh no!” I shouted to Sean with wide eyes while slapping both palms to my cheeks.  “I gave the vanilla to the homeless man!”  “What is he going to do with ten dollars’ worth of pure organic vanilla?” Then, I mimed tipping back a bottle and taking a drink and planted my face in my palm while Sean laughed.

Stranger’s Story

The rubber stamp display took up one whole aisle at Hobby Lobby.  Rows and rows of wooden blocks backed with red rubber for all occasions imaginable.  As I stood there contemplating the serif versus sans-serif alphabet collections I was joined by another shopper.  A small woman in jeans and a black canvas jacket who aligned herself with the inspirational quotes section of the display.

I took a step further down the aisle to avoid unnecessary pleasantries.  I had a lot to do this day and discussing “stamping” with another shopper was not on my list.  She mirrored my step, maintaining our distance and then she sighed heavily from deep down inside.

“OK,” I thought, “this one is clearly trying to engage me in conversation.”  Still, I resisted by saying nothing and squatting down to closely inspect the contents of the lower shelf.  She took another step toward me and touching a delicate floral stamp she spoke.

“Hmmm,” she said.  “There sure are a lot of stamps.”

“Yes. There are,” I replied without making eye contact.

“So, are you a stamper?” she asked taking two slow scissor-steps in my direction.

I did a mental eye roll and gave in.  I faced this small woman and noticed her black coat was worn and that her short choppy brown hair was uncombed.

“Not really,” I said.  “I’m working on a project and need to get an alphabet set.”

And then I did it. There was no turning back.  I completely engaged and asked her a question.

“You must like to stamp then?” I asked.

“Yes, I do,” she said.  “I like to stamp them on that thick paper and then trace over them with a black marker and color them in like a coloring book page.”  She hugged herself and smiled as she thought about her artwork.

“Oh, ok ,” I thought to myself.  “There’s something a little off with this one so just be polite and go about your business. “

She stepped away to touch a stamp with a cartoon deer and then said over her shoulder, “these are nice.”  I nodded with a polite smile and then she turned and walked right up to me face-to-face.

“I’ve been clean and sober for 5 months now, you know.”  She looked at me expectantly and for a beat I didn’t know what to do.

“That’s so great!” I said with a smile.  “Congratulations.  Good for you.”

And then she started to confess…three or four cases of beer a week and the beer lead to drugs.  There was a boyfriend.  “There always is,” I thought. He had anger management issues and she had to get a restraining order…

Then I noticed how her left eye tended to wander up to the ceiling and off to the left as she talked.  I wondered if the boyfriend had practiced his anger management issues on that side of her head a time or two before the restraining order.

She told me the whole story.  Right there in the rubber stamp aisle of Hobby Lobby.  I interjected here and there with a “good for you” and a “well, it sounds like you are on the right track.”   She told me that she figured out the beer caused her to have trouble with the law.  That when she drank beer she got mouthy with the officers.   The last time the cops came to her boyfriend’s place she kept quiet and stayed out of trouble.  She hadn’t been drinking that day.   So, that’s why she wasn’t going to drink a beer today.  I asked her if she was hooked up with a twelve step program and she said, “I go to meetings, sometimes.”

And then she was done.  Her story was told so she smiled at me and shrugged.  So, I held out my hand and said, “It was so nice to meet you.”

“I’m Molly,” she said.

“Good luck to you, Molly,” I replied.  And she walked off.  No rubber stamp, no thick paper, nothing.  She left the store empty handed, her story told.

Dancing Gorillas…Why not?

Monday was Valentine’s Day, and as I traveled down U.S. 40 to pay a visit to our insurance agent, I saw evidence of the commercial nature of this bright holiday.  In the parking lot of a florist shop, across from a large shopping center, I saw a man-sized, hot pink gorilla.  Against the backdrop of the florist’s neon “open” sign, the pink gorilla man kicked his heels.  He danced a little “stir the pot”, and waved his arms at passing cars to, “come on in.”  I’m not really sure what a dancing gorilla has to do with Valentine’s Day, but the parking lot was full so it appeared to be working.

Along the way, I saw shops with flowers arranged to form giant red and pink hearts in windows and vans on exit ramps with 5-gallon buckets of flowers for the lover who can’t quite commit to parking the car and walking in.  There were chocolate shops, their windows filled with red foil wrapped cardboard hearts and sandwich boards adorned with heart-shaped Mylar balloons announcing the best deal around on a dozen roses.

The over-the-top ridiculous competition to get people to spend some cash on one day out of the year made me giggle and the gorilla made me laugh out loud.  But, one sight that day made my heart swell.

In a neighborhood that had seen better days; the clapboard buildings in need of paint and curbs still wearing weeds from last fall, I saw a young man, probably a teen.  He wore his hair shaved close to his head and jeans three sizes too big, belted mid-thigh.  He had the hood  of his over sized sweatshirt pulled over his head, but I could still see the firm set of his jaw as he walked down the street.  He had just left a florist shop with a large bundle of red roses wrapped in Valentine red tissue paper.  He carried the bundle in one hand, held out from his body as if it might burst into flames any moment.  Carrying flowers, it appears, didn’t fit his Eminem emulating image.

A crazy day of commercialism inspired this guy to step way outside his comfort zone and into a flower shop.  I hope he was on a personal mission that day, taking that bundle to someone he loves.  I like to imagine that the tough-looking young man I saw along US 40 on Valentine’s Day has a tender place in his heart.

Leaving Pleasantville

A little over a week ago, my good friend Amy invited me and our photographer friend Lisa to join her on a road trip.  She wanted us to travel with her along the path she drives to work every day.  She wanted to digitally document the people and areas in need along her daily path to help people understand that we have an opportunity to make a difference right here in our own back yard.  Amy took Lisa’s images, compiled them with a collection she already had, and put them to music resulting in a moving slide show.  You can see it at:!/video/video.php?v=1376934218096&ref=mf.

Following our road trip, I was looking for a writing exercise to get me warmed up to blog and good old Fred White, author of  The Daily Writer challenged me to write in haiku form.  Anyone educated past third grade probably knows that haiku is a form of Japanese poetry consisting of three lines with a syllabic pattern of 5-7-5.  I have no experience beyond high school in writing haiku and I’m no poet, but Fred said to do it so here goes.  My haiku attempt based on Amy’s Humanity Road.

Boys stand chest to chest

Building anger in their eyes

Stare and drive on by

Spray paint marks the wall

Tall brown grass and broken glass

Plywood for windows

Dusk falls on fountain

Lonely man sits on park bench

Pretty girls look on

Nightlife is hopping

Man with sign collects their change

Pass without a glance

Becoming aware

Noting the poor feels empty

Time to take next step


Crossing the Street

Photo by Lisa Weartz

On Tuesday night, my husband and I went on a date.  The Indiana Repertory Theatre in Indianapolis was offering a preview of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days.  Al spent the day riding a street scrubber in the parking garage at the new JW Marriott currently being built on Washington Street. I settled the kids in after school, put on my dress up clothes and high heels and met him there.  The sun was shining and it was still warm out so we walked the few blocks past the theatre.  It was too early to get discount tickets so we headed down another block to the Rock Bottom Brewery for dinner and drinks.

Anyone who has spent any time in downtown Indianapolis knows the cross walks at the corner of Washington and Illinois, under the floor of the beautiful 7-story glass Artsgarden.  This corner is the job site of resident panhandlers.  I don’t know where they go when they are not on the corner but their faces are familiar so I know most of them are regulars.  As Al and I walk toward Illinois street, I am faced with a dilemma.  Suddenly, I don’t know where to look.  We are about to walk past a man who is sitting on the corner, leaned back against the crossing light pole with a backpack and a sign that says, “Why lie, it’s for beer.”  In the moment, all I know is that as I walk past in my dress-up clothes and high heels, I feel uncomfortable.  I feel conflicted about this man sitting on the street corner.  As we approach, he says, “Hello,” with a nod to my husband who returns the greeting and I feel a stiff, polite but unfeeling tight-lipped smile on my face while my eyes stay focused on the ground.  We pass to cross the street and this man calls out, “Hey Nate!” to the corner dweller opposite him and I see him gesture something out of the corner of my eye.  We keep walking.  An hour and a half later, we cross that street again in the opposite direction, and the guys are gone.

That night in my warm bed, I thought about that guy on the corner.  A flurry of feelings was running through me.  I tried to define what made me uncomfortable in the brief moment our paths crossed that day.  I’m pretty sure that first and foremost, I resented the fact that he was there on my date night, on a sunny spring afternoon during time that my hard-working husband and I set aside for one another.  Recognizing that feeling made me angry at me.  Who I am to feel inconvenienced by a guy on the street corner? Poor me, forced to contemplate homelessness when I was supposed to be having fun…

 Then I thought about that feeling of disconnection between my head and my heart.  My heart almost always tells me to offer assistance, help where I can.  But my head tells me, “Be careful.  Don’t encourage the panhandler.  Giving out money is enabling not helping.”   So, I’m conflicted.  I’m pretty sure that’s what that tight-lipped look on my face was all about.

It makes me sad when I think about all that inner turmoil and conflict.  All that stuff is about me.  All that stuff holds me back and keeps me from connecting with another human being.  Why does it matter if this guy is professional panhandler or not?  He is still a person.  If he says hello, I should look him in the eye.