Since the breakup a few weeks ago, I have been trying to take better care of myself: exercise, eat healthier, get plenty of sleep. My moods have been a little erratic, occasionally in the gutter with depression, and sometimes through the roof with energy. I have such a firm rule about starting a new relationship that I am really careful about how I behave when my eye is caught.

I didn’t mean for this afternoon to happen, you know. It wasn’t a planned thing. I suppose a cheater always says that, at least at first. Deep down, of course, it was a deliberate act of self-sabotage. I knew the man I live with wouldn’t be home for several hours.

So, when I saw you at Target this afternoon, I knew, in a primal way, that I would take you home with me. No one would have to know. I knew that I shouldn’t, but I wasn’t listening to myself. You looked so smart in your brown outfit, with the blue top. I admit, I fantasized right there what it would be like strip you naked, there in the store in front of all those people and take you, but I was afraid I would be arrested. I tried to ignore you. I tried to do the right thing. I deliberately walked away.

I focused on my shopping list. Wandering in housewares, I picked up some measuring cups. I thought I saw you for just a moment, but I was mistaken. I was caressing the baking pans and dreaming of cookies when I realized security might be watching me. I put the pans down, and with a new determination, I began combing the store, trying to find you again.

In ladies wear, I had to put the belt and gloves into the cart while the guard stared at me, as I had been trying them on for several minutes as a guise. I checked upstairs. While I did find a fantastic bargain on the vacuum-sealer bags I like, you were no where to be found. In a last-ditch-effort, I returned downstairs to the food section of the store. I considered the Halloween candy, but it all seemed so ugly. I scored some Starbucks beans on sale. In a fit of pure frustration, I grabbed some Chex mix. I could not find you at all.

I was ready to give up and leave.

I turned then, and there you were, waiting for me. You didn’t say a word. Neither did I. Everything we needed to say could be communicated in a glance. I traced my finger along your face, enjoying its amazing smoothness. In a rush, I paid for my purchases and we headed to the Metro.

~ ~ ~

Thankfully, I did not have to explain your presence to the guard at the front desk. Once again, he was on rounds. It was all I could do to contain myself on the elevator, but there were other people, and I did not want to risk tales being told. I fumbled with my key, trying to unlock the door to the apartment. You were so close, I could almost smell you. The door opened. I shoved my bags in, turned to you, and locked the door behind me.

~ ~ ~

I needed a shower afterwards, our rendezvous was that messy. But oh, how blissfully delicious. A part of me feels guilty for taking you into my mouth like that, greedily, hungrily, but another part of me knows I will certainly do it again, if I have a chance. I just hope I don’t get pimples.

Remember Their Misery No More

I was once a community organizer.  For many years, I was quite vocal in a far-larger-than-some-think subculture. I managed a decent-sized group, organized monthly meet-and-greets, the whole thing.  I discovered one of the harder tasks was finding essentially free meeting space for groups as large as 30 people.  For the record, the hardest task was dealing with non-violent overthrows, but that is another story.

In 1999, while attending graduate school in Lexington, Kentucky, I practically lived at a local coffee shop called Magic Beans.  It was more convenient for me to hold my teaching assistant office hours there. I was such a frequent customer, I got to know the young owner Keith and his wife Melinda.  One slow afternoon, I told Keith about my space problems.  He asked me what the meetings were and as soon as I mentioned the name of my group, his eyes went wide.  My reputation had preceded me again!  Knowing who I was and what we were doing, Keith offered me a trade. I could have full use, all day, of the normally-closed coffee shop on Sundays. All I had to do was “cover” his lunch four days a week so that he could actually leave the place for a while.

I learned how to run the fancy espresso machine, how to make the amazing hot chocolate, why filtered water tastes best, and how to roast green coffee beans in a popcorn popper.  When I say someplace makes a good cup of coffee, I have a passing frame of reference.

It was at Magic Beans that I met “James Brown,” aka Henry Earl. He was a well-known homeless alcoholic, a local anti-celebrity.

He hung around the coffee shop and YATS (which served the most amazing Cajun food) because the staff was kind and well-meaning.  Henry Earl could count on some coffee, a muffin, often some rice. “It’s real food, better tasting,” he would say, eating a few bites, “better than that other shit.” Well, he would say that if he was sober, which was exceedingly rare. Henry Earl would disappear for a few days, a week or two, then he would show up, dancing, singing, begging for change. He occasionally scared away the more timid students and better-dressed patrons from local office buildings just a few short blocks away, but he was mostly harmless.

He wasn’t great for business, but some gentle prodding was usually enough to get him to move along to his next stop. Some gentle prodding accompanied with a couple bucks worked even better.

As the weather changed, the wind grew colder, and the thoughts of students turned towards Thanksgiving and final exams, Keith tried again and again to encourage Henry Earl to move to Florida. “Get on a bus, James Brown,” Keith would say. “Go where its warm, man. Stay the winter.” Henry Earl would take his coffee, mumble something about liking it where he was, maybe sing a song for a few coins, and then leave.

Keith would not be put off. Magic Beans hosted a fund raiser.  The goal was to purchase Henry Earl a one-way bus ticket to Miami, and get him out of Lexington. The support was, well not amazing, but it was there.  A few dollars here, a few dollars there, and eventually enough money was raised for the ticket. Keith successfully put him on a bus heading south; and until last week, that was the last I thought I would ever hear of Mr. Henry “James Brown” Earl.

A few months later, Keith had to close the coffee shop. I moved with the family out of Lexington to a much smaller town, though not that far away. Nearly ten years later, the kids graduated high school and I moved here, to the city with more lawyers per square mile than any other in the United States.  I don’t remember ever thinking of Henry Earl in all that time.

Last week, I saw a news headline “Lexington Man Arrested 1,000 Times.” Curious, I clicked the link.

A Lexington man, now famous for how many times he’s been arrested, is again making headlines.

Yesterday, Henry Earl answered to a judge on a charge of alcohol intoxication – a crime he’s now committed one-thousand times.

Henry Earl is a man well known inside the Fayette County Detention Center and well beyond the walls. He’s an internet [sic] sensation for the sheer number of times he’s been arrested.

I double-checked the photos; it was definitely the same man I had met nine years earlier. I could not believe that the homeless drunk we had sent to Florida on a bus was now an Internet star.  I googled him. There are 6,840 hits for “Henry Earl”+drunk.  There are web pages devoted to his escapades, celebrating each arrest.  There are rss feeds for immediate updates. If one really needs to know the status of this guy, the Internet will provide.

I am not interested.

When I moved to DC, just over a year ago, I noticed the homeless everywhere. I was so proud of my ability to see those invisible people, the ones without homes, without sobriety, without sanity sometimes, that I practically bragged about it.  I carried dollar coins around with me so that I could give them out as “treats” when I was accosted for change.  I bought dollar-meals I didn’t like at fast food restaurants just so I could give them to people who looked hungry.

How I have changed in the last fifteen months. Just yesterday, I was making my way to the sales office for my new penthouse condominium, with my iPod ear buds firmly in place; walking while staring straight ahead. A man dressed in layer upon layer of clothing staggered towards me and tried to catch my attention. I tilted my chin up a little higher, stared at my goal building a little harder, and stepped a little faster. I was passing through the worst part of my short walk and I wasn’t about to stop.  As I passed the man, the stench of unwashed clothing and flesh nearly overwhelmed me, he was that close.  When I didn’t stop, he shouted an expletive at me. I just kept walking, kept ignoring him.

I am still not sure if I was trying to feel safer, or if I was trying to justify my callousness. I remember Henry Earl. I wasn’t afraid of him, but he was annoying. I remember the invisible people are still out there now, just past my door step, living in the park outside the soon-to-be-mine penthouse condo. I am just having a really hard time caring about them.  Sometimes they are really annoying too.

Addendum 10/01/08: A couple of people have asked me if I could tell why I changed, how I went from helpful to heedless.  At first I was going to be all clever and crap. I thought I knew.  However, I started reading through my journal, looking for a clue.  This is for Idol, after all.  I might be able to try and BS the public, but I really can’t be that clever with myself. I found an entry back in June of this year that I had forgotten.

In a nutshell, someone was stabbed, in broad daylight, right at the corner where my building is. I learned this after walking home from the Metro station, through the massive police presence (looking for the attacker who was on foot), past the scene of the crime, and into my building. There, the desk supervisor had explained it all. So, I guess I am scared. I should care about the problems, but I can’t.  Not right now.  And that is a more honest answer.

Addendum 10/04/08 (for the web publication): This essay was originally written for a somewhat grueling writing competition called “The Real LJ Idol” (it is scheduled to last for six months, and the last person standing wins). Since submitting it for public view, some of amazing things have happened.

First, as a direct result, an old friend found me, pointed me to fan group for Magic Beans on Facebook, and there I found Keith! This made me quite happy. I had wondered what had happened to him.  I still have my old Magic Beans coffee mug in storage; I will get it on my next trip back to Kentucky, and use it when I go to Starbucks.

Second, Keith read this essay. Between my medication and my medical history, much of my long term memory has suffered. He was able to remind me of the details of the Henry Earl’s “trip to Florida” that I had wrong.  While I have not changed the entry, as the details do not actually change the point of the story, I appreciate his help.  When I write my memoir, it will be nice to have the details correct.

Third (and last), I have had several days to re-evaluate my feelings, to face my fears. I still live in a fairly dangerous neighborhood. I have seen drug deals. I have been stared down by the dealer’s body guards for being a bit too curious.  I have been followed by groups as I walked home from the grocery store, and I have been invited to work as a prostitute.

The homeless are still everywhere.  I take their photos in parks, and I wonder if I should offer them money for this simple act. This neighborhood, this city, is a scary place, but I do not want to be afraid.  I want to care again, to reclaim my small-town innocence. In time, I think I will.

Amusement of Fear

On Route One, in Saco Maine, just before you reach the border with Old Orchard Beach, there is a theme park. The last time I was there, Funtown had exploded from the small-time collection of carnival rides and amusements I grew up with to a multitude of attractions including New England’s largest wooden roller coaster, its own internal water park, a drop tower, and a full size go-cart course.

Of course, they still have my favorite ride, my first ever grown-up ride: The Astrosphere.

It is a hot summer evening in July, 1976 and I am ten years old. This is my family’s first trip to Funtown! I have in my hand the requisite four 25cent tickets for the ride that everyone has been talking about, and I am finally going make myself get on it. I turn the corner past the giant swings and there it is: the great white dome.

There is a long line that snakes around the monstrosity. Everyone is fidgeting, some smoking cigarettes, others sort of swaying to the occasional rumbling sounds that we can hear over the loud motor that blew hotter than the night air on us. One of the teenagers in front of me gestures at me to his friends, and then, laughing, offers me one of his Winstons. I turn him down. His friends laugh even harder, and the whole line moves closer to the huge black doors that hiss each time a group of people were allowed into the inner chamber.

After what seemed like hours, it is finally my turn, although I am stuck with the jerk teenagers. I try to get in front of them, but they push me even further to the back. We are all crowded into a dimly lit white corridor. I am glad I am short; everyone else has to lean over because the ceiling is slanted. I realize the room is shaped almost like an octagon. That is kind of neat. The music starts up again, so loud next to me that I can not hear anyone else talking. I hope this is not the whole ride, because it would be sort of a letdown.

The music finishes, and the other end of the tunnel we are in opens onto a huge, nearly pitch black room. A man with a small flashlight takes small groups of people off into the darkness. I decide to wait until last.

“The exit is over there,” he motions, jerking his thumb. I shake my head no and he pulls me into the room. Ahead of me I can barely make out a yellow monster dripping with green phosphor. The man turns off his flashlight and straps me into a single seat. “You hang on, and close you eyes if you get scared.” He leaves me there, in the dark.

The my chair begins to move below me, first up, and then forward, around and around. I recognize the ride; it is a Scrambler. What a gip! I got sick on one of these last month at Old Orchard. They are not scary, even riding one in pitch da-

There is some strange talking… I can not quite make it out. I listen more closely.

The music and the images start simultaneously.


Skulls look down on me. Centipedes slither across the inside of the dome. I want to look away but I can’t. Worms. Mice. Skeletons. I try to block it out with my hands and I slide all the way out to the end of the Scrambler seat. I am terrified. I can’t get out of the ride. The music is too loud. The pictures are scary. There are flashing lasers and strobe lights. The ride is too fast and all I want to do is …

Someone else is screaming.

The ride ends and I didn’t scream once. I didn’t close my eyes either.

I am looking for my dad. I know he will give me four more tickets if I ask him pretty please.

This ride no longer terrifies the adult me. I ride it every time I visit this amusement park. But now I let myself scream, just a little, to honor the little girl who was so scared the first time she rode it, but bravely didn’t make a sound.

I invite you to listen to Fire On High by the Electric Light Orchestra in this YouTube video. Turn the base up, while you are at it, and imagine you are ten years old, hearing this for the first time, alone, with scary monsters racing over your head…

America the Beautiful

I started racking up my miles when I was just a little girl. I rode in the back of the family camper with my younger sisters and tried not to get carsick. I usually failed, until my father realized that I needed to see the beauty of the world outside the pickup-mounted-camper; I could not just feel it passing by beneath me.  Those trips each summer, from the coast of Maine, through the White Mountains, and into upstate New York, fostered in me a desire to travel that, to this day, drives me (literally) to plan some very elaborate adventures.

O beautiful for spacious skies,

Blues and I moved the family from Maine to Kentucky, many years ago.  The relocation involved a Mazda station wagon, a twenty-four-foot U-Haul van, two small children (under the age of eight), my baby sister (along for the ride), a cat (in a guinea pig cage), and a guinea pig (in a cat carrier).  The distance, door-to-door, from Portland to Lexington is 1050 miles, and can be done in sixteen hours at a nice, legal speed.  We took four days to move.

In our defense, it was the first time any of us had driven in that part of the country. We didn’t really know the roads well.

One of our overnight rest stops was in Hagerstown, PA.  Our little motel sat up on a hill.  The weather had been gray and gloomy, absolutely the worst kind of weather to drive in if you are not comfortable with what you are driving or where you are going.  We were anticipating the worst part of the whole trip for the next day: the mountains. It rained that night.  The next morning, the sunrise was a riot of pinks and golds, colors created by the concentrated toxins of the Eastern air.  The air at the foot of the mountains was clear, clean; as the sun rose higher and higher into the sky, I drank bad motel coffee and took in the view of the open sky over the mountains ahead of us.  It was just a taste of what was to come, a new world, a new life opening up.

For amber waves of grain,

Blues loves to travel too, yet another reason why we are such good partners for each other.  One summer, after we had been living in Kentucky a while, we decided to throw the kids in the van and drive to St. Louis on a whim.  The trip was only 350 miles, or roughly five and a half hours.  We were bad parents; we let the kids skip school so we could have the whole weekend actually at our destination.

We had a wonderful time once we got there.  We went to the amusement park.  We went up inside the arch.  We were tourists.  In fact, that is one of my favorite things to do – visit people and let them be tourists in their own home towns.  However, the drive to and from St. Louis had some great and not-so-great moments.  Mostly, the kids were bored.  They could only look at so much farmland.  I thought, and I still think, it was amazing.

For purple mountain majesties

I have joked that I can do the drive through the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia and Maryland in my sleep. While that is an exaggeration, I have driven that route too many times to count, repeatedly crossing the Eastern Continental Divide.  I have greeted the names of the peaks there like old friends: Laurel Mountain, Negro Mountain, Savage Mountain, Backbone Mountain, to name a few.

These high points are like children, sitting at the feet of their parents in the Appalachian range.  I have been in the  White Mountains, and climbed nearly to the summit of Mount Washington in New Hampshire.  I have gazed at Maine’s Mount Katahdin, looming in the distance, and dreamed of hiking it.

Still, as the Alleghenies are kneeling at the Whites; the Appalachians are supplicants to Rocky Mountain range in the west.  I have been awed and humbled by these majestic mountains, real and true mountains, rising up and out of the ground to dominate the landscape.  I felt very small, and I was ok with that.

Above the fruited plain!

Apple orchards in Maine, orange groves in Florida, peach trees in Georgia, corn fields in Pennsylvania, wheat in Indiana… every state that I have ever visited has offered a fruit of the earth to feed the hungry of the world.  This country has some of the most productive, arable land in the world, partly because it is still relatively new to the densely-populated club, partly because of advances in technology that will deplete this resource too fast. Acres and acres of gorgeous blooms which make way for fields of green that will yield the foodstuffs we humans need to survive.

What can be more beautiful than that?

America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!
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I have been incredibly blessed. I have friends, acquaintances, and associates, all over this country; indeed all over the world.  I have seen some amazingly beautiful sights. I have even seen some things that are beautiful in their ugliness. I have dipped my toes in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, as well as the Gulf of Mexico.  I have a few states left to visit, and so many people left to meet, but I am not finished yet.

Beauty is not just in the eye of the beholder; it is everywhere I go.

America the Beautiful (first verse) Words by Katharine Lee Bates, Melody by Samuel Ward

The Invisible People

I walked home last evening, flushed with the pleasure that comes from a great new hair cut and a beauty makeover. I had my Macy’s bag full of new Clinique skin care products, swinging back and forth in time with my steps. I felt on top of the world.

The man struggled with his cart. He had the entirety of his belongings with him: a moving dolly loaded with old blankets, flattened cardboard boxes, a milk crate stuffed with clothing, and plastic bags of every sort dangling precariously from the stretch-cords he used to hold everything in place. The man was trying to cross from one side of the street to the other, but as the signal light changed, he was still in the traffic lane. A group of women, waiting to cross with the other light, completely blocked his path.

The well-dressed women, designer hand bags adorning their shoulders and wool coats protecting them from the increasingly chilly wind, stepped off the curb. The man pushed, but he had lost his momentum. He stepped backwards, further into the oncoming traffic. Grunting, he shoved hard, but his cart stubbornly refused to go over a raised spot on the sidewalk. People walked around him, completely unaware of his distress.

I reached down to help him. He smiled, a nearly toothless smile, and waved me on. I realized he was not an old man, as I originally believed, but a hard life was written on his young face. After making sure he was finally out of harm’s way, I continued towards home.

My husband Matt has a corporate law job which pays, in his words, “an obscene amount of money.” We have a fantastic apartment, right in downtown DC. If I stand in the right spot, I can see the top of the capital dome. Hard work, and a bit of luck, has brought me to this place where I can indulge in the best restaurants occasionally, spoil myself with Starbucks daily, and worry rarely about our financial status.

I have one of those invisible disabilities, one which could just have easily landed me on the street, homeless. Early in my relationship with Matt, we were less than a paycheck away from being out on the street many times, but we always managed to find a way to work things out. Not everyone is as lucky as we were.

The young woman stood on the corner across from Union Station, a small child beside her. The people coming and going from the busy train station flowed around her, parting like ocean waves around an outcropping of sand. She asked, again and again, for a small bit of change, a cigarette, something, anything… but there was no acknowledgment that she had even spoken. I caught her eye and smiled. Her lips tried to match mine, but sadness and desperation filled her eyes. I handed her a couple of singles from my pocket, and told her I wished I had something more.

Washington, DC, our nation’s capital, is filled with invisible people. The homeless live in the shadows of churches. They sleep near subway grates where warm air rushes out with the passing of trains below. They build homes of cardboard back under the brush of abandoned lots, and they look forward to the van that circles the city each night, handing out hot meals.

My secret shopping assignment was to visit a Popeye’s Restaurant. I had a specific list of food items to buy, and a lengthy form to complete for my experience with the staff. As I made my way home, carrying the bag of food, I passed a grizzled old man, dressed in layers of torn T-shirts, pushing a Safeway shopping cart. There were no groceries in the cart, only empty plastic bottles, rags, newspapers and and worn plastic bags of every sort. I asked him if he would be interested in some fresh chicken and potatoes, still warm. His face lit up. “I haven’t had Popeye’s in months, Ma’am,” he replied, eying my bag. “Bless you. Yes, please!” I handed him the bag, and as I walked away, I could heard him make “mmmmm” sounds as he began to eat.

During the holiday season, news stories encourage (or more often, applaud) actions to help feed those who do not have enough to eat and help provide clothes, blankets, life essentials. When the weather grows colder, there may be an article about overflowing shelters. Missing from the mainstream media outlets are stories of police harassment, fences installed to wall off sanctuaries, deliberate beatings, rampant theft of what little property remains, and so on.

The vignettes above are of my own experiences. The homeless and needy of DC do have a small voice, a newspaper called Street Sense. It provides a chance to earn a small bit of money. It is an opportunity for self-expression through writing: news articles, personal statements, and even poetry. I highly recommend it.

Poverty and homelessness are not only current “holiday” events, they are constant and ongoing events. Those affected are so invisible that what passes for local news ignore them; just like the stream of consumers, executives, and tourists that parts around them on the street. This lack of notice borders on inhumane treatment of fellow humans. The government spends billions a day on an increasingly unpopular war, promises aid to foreign countries, and yet cuts the budget again and again for social services here at home.

So, the next time a homeless person approaches for a handout, take a moment to count life’s blessings. They may be invisible to most, but they are still people. Respect their experience, their situations; do not jump to conclusions. Let them know, in some small way, that they can be seen, they can be heard.

There but for the Grace of G*d, go [I]. ~ John Bradford