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Soft Serve Summer

One teenage summer I was hired to sell soft-serve ice cream on the corner of Eighteenth and Main in South Belmar, New Jersey. I opened the stand in mid-morning and closed my shift at four. I had just enough time to get home, shower off the sugary goo and get to my other job counting out cash drawers at a popular saloon on the beach. The legal age for working at the bar was twenty-one. I was eighteen.

On the east coast the common name for soft serve was carvel after the brand that invented it. Learning to dish it up was the easiest gig to master. I started the day pouring gallons of ice cream mixture into the top of a big aluminum tank, replenished the cones, cups and toppings and waited to pull the lever of creamy goodness for the crowd.

Most summer businesses wisely set up on the boardwalk or Ocean Avenue where the action is. The carvel stand opened a mile and a half from the beachfront as a gamble, a beacon of delight beckoning vacationing families. George the owner gambled himself a bit at Monmouth Park Racetrack during the day and at all-night card games. In the 1960s the Jersey Shore had its share of mobsters conducting illegal poker games in summer cottages up and down the Atlantic coast.

I spent a lot of time perched on a stool reading books and magazines that summer. Very few customers came for carvel during the day. The crowds were seaside, swimming, surfing and sunning. A little boy popped up and down at the window one day. I heard him giggling under the ledge where I couldn’t see him.

“I think I hear someone,” I said out loud, “I wonder if I should make a chocolate or vanilla cone.”

“Chocolate!” Came the response loud and clear.

I held the cone out the window without saying a word. A head full of tight black curls slowy pulled up the thin shirtless brown body of Perry. He reached his hand out for the cone.

“Twenty-five cents please.” I said.

“Don’t have no money,” said Perry. “It’s already made so jus’ gimme it.”

I tried to tell him I couldn’t do that but his persuasive smile matched his logical entreaty. I cautioned him not to tell anyone. He did tell someone, of course—all his friends. One by one they appeared below the window in the same way Perry did, as if bobbing up and Unknown 2down was the normal way to get a free cone.

At one point George told me the reason we didn’t have customers was because too many Black kids were hanging around. We both knew that wasn’t true. He loved those funny bobbers as much as I did but that’s what he told his white friends and family to justify his failure.

Between George’s lifting cash from the till and my give-aways to Perry and his friends the post Labor Day accounting showed two thousand dollars in the red.

George, curiously unconcerned, laid plans for his next scheme. 

Mammy Minnie

FeaturedMammy Minnie

Her name was Minnie. At least that’s what we called her. When I read Kathryn Stockett’s novel, “The Help,”  I was surprised that Stockett named one of her household maids Minny.  Perhaps Minnie is a mid-century modern name for black women who cared for white children, similar to Mammy in “Gone with the Wind”, one of the most iconic racist caricatures of black women ever created.

White families wouldn’t have consciously known how demeaning it was to replace a black woman’s given name with a generic. Nor would they have cared.

My family’s long-gone photo collection had a picture of Minnie surrounded by my toddler sisters and me. We were all born a year apart beginning in 1945 in post-war Annapolis. All the Navy officers had black help to clean, cook and iron for their families. When we moved to Washington, D.C. Minnie came with us. I don’t know if she ever lived with us but I do know she had her own family.

Her dark skin captivated me. I desperately wanted to touch her face, but feared her blackness would rub off, as if it were like the watercolors in my little tin paintbox. I’ve coveted curly hair my whole life, a direct result of knowing and wanting to be like black-mammyMinnie. She smelled as fresh as her starched dresses and aprons. In contrast, my parents and their friends had an unrelenting stench of cigarettes and beer.

Minnie was older than my mother. She may have been a grandmother, though I only knew the notion of age from my parents. My grandmothers were dead and I have no early memory of my grandfathers, nor any other old person.

My mother, Agnes, allowed my sisters and me to spend our own separate weekends at Minnie’s house. I don’t know whose idea this was. Surely no black woman would have volunteered to be responsible for the welfare and safety of a white child for a weekend. I like the idea of my mother introducing us to life in a black household, to expand our horizons, as it were. An unconventional mother, Agnes could have sent us off to the projects in southeast Washington just to shock the neighborhood swells. Then again, maybe all white parents foisted their youngsters onto the family lives of their maids.

Minnie had a white two-story new house full of people, food and laughs. The little girls around her home taught me to hopscotch. I played that game the rest of my childhood on the sidewalks of all the myriad towns my family moved in and out of. For years after, the words “projects” and “southeast Washington” evoked a neighborly feeling full of kindness and fun. I was safe there. Even now, with all the negative information packed inside my head about “the projects”, my thoughts are pierced by a loving instant, Minnie.

I never heard Minnie’s name again after we’d been evicted from our house in Washington. I hope she missed me.

 

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Shutdown Week 13: Haircuts

Chicago yawned its way out of its zoom sleep last week. Mayor Lightfoot cautiously moved the city through Phase Three of the reopening. The elated citizenry, with and without masks, piled up outdoors in restaurants, parks, sidewalks and in the streets. Nothing surprised me more than all the haircuts donned by my semi-quarantined zoom friends and dog-walking neighbors. Everytime I asked, “did you get a haircut?” I felt like I was accusing the person of a crime. And in turn, people responded defensively.

“I drove up to my hairdresser’s apartment,” one friend said, “but he wouldn’t cut my hair because my temperature was 100.”

“Your hairdresser took your temperature?”

Going to the barber or hairdresser with its face-to-face closeness has been cited as high risk for covid-19 exposure by some epidemiologists. But if barbers are taking temperatures, wearing masks and sanitizing the chair we plunk ourselves in, what’s the harm?

Surprise sightings on zoom chats accompanied by empty shutdown calendars have prompted much-needed connection to distant friends and those nearby I’ve not talked to  in ages. At a newly reopened outdoor restaurant, I met a friend I’d not seen since she married, moved to the suburbs and had babies. 

“Your hair is so long!” she said.

“I know. I’m not quite ready to go for a haircut. But when I do, it will be a short one.”

“Oh no, don’t get karen hair.”main-qimg-cdca39eb3f778d4a6a38d2b1d8596519

“Karen hair?”

She went on to tell me karen hair is a bob, cut shorter in the back with long straight sides. 

“Karen is slang for an entitled, obnoxious, middle-aged white woman,” she said.

She plunged into Instagram on her iPhone to show me a Karens Go Wild site. A list of witnesses rolled by with photos and descriptions of “karens” asking to speak to the manager, which is a major part of the karen mien. Apparently karens complain about waitstaff or retail clerks as a matter of course. They often demand the firing of an employee for inconveniencing them. Some of the posts:

karen gives raisins to kids on Halloween

drives an SUV to carpool her kids to soccer practice… better hope the ref doesn’t make a wrong call because she will sue!

“oh my god Karen do you really have to talk to the Burger King manager every time they forget to give you a ketchup packet.“

You Tube has an array of karen videos titled, Karen Meltdown Compilation, Karen Armageddon, Karen Apocalypse, Karen Freakout and Top 5 Karens Getting Triggered. I must admit a few video anecdotes remind me of some of my most obnoxious moments. Like the time I refused any explanation from the building manager on incorrect charges added to my monthly condo fee. “Just fix it!” I growled as I careened out of the office.

Karen, a lovely name bestowed on some of my loveliest friends, is draped with this memed-out behavioral style because it’s so white, according to the Slang Dictionary. 

I really need a haircut. But I’ll avoid the karen until throwing shade on her passes.

 

Shutdown Week 12: Anti-Racism ABCs

FeaturedShutdown Week 12: Anti-Racism ABCs

Dystopian streets boarded up to thwart theives don’t scare me.

Eking out alfresco cafes here and there in the pandemic shutdown, I find a seat.

From my lone coffee chair I hear neighboring chats.

Great pseudo-intellectuals compare this 2020 spring to 1968.

How shallow the words ring from fellow boomers conflating serious demonstrators, hothead window smashers and professional ransackers.

I was there, you know”, I want to interrupt and say, “in 1968.”

Jacketed in fringed denim and tie-dye.

Kaleidoscope eyes spiritualized reality.

Lucy in the Sky laid down groovy colors on the streets.

Marching on Washington.

Not Lake Shore Drive.

Or Union Square.

Progress not perfection drove our activism.

Quaker’s silent prayers for peace undergirded our courage.

Rolling Stone Magazine announced tickets to Woodstock, a music festival for serious protesters, hippies and dope dealers.

Sinners-turned-saints came marching in with sit-ins and shut-downs.

The mailman delivered March on Washington alerts from the Vietnam Moratorium Committee and Another Mother for Peace.

U fought for civil rights having gone your whole life without knowing one black person.

Violence erupted when non-violent Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in Memphis.

We never stopped writing letters, and when we could afford it, we telephoned Washington; the Vietnam war ended, racism didn’t.

Xgen’ers and millennials are younger than me now, older than I was then.

Yeastlike, they rise in the cities demanding “Defund the Police”. 

Zenlike, cities bow to the anti-racist revolution, even my city. Maybe.

Applauding the masked and unmasked demonstrators, I have hope.

Black lives may finally matter in myth

Curious covid coronavirus city, Chicago.

Shutdown Week 11: Wild Weekend

Shutdown Week 11: Wild Weekend

I’ve been cooped up so long that it didn’t even occur to me to put Saturday’s protest march in my calendar. When a friend texted me about it I thought, “Hm. Should I go? Not go?” I’m a chronic protester and the seventy degree partly sunny weather was perfect for a march. What held me back? Social distancing. Coronoavirus. Covid-19. Pandemic. Vulnerable. I recoiled from visions of the no-justice-no-peace viral load shouting into the air and landing on me.

But there was something more to my hesitancy. Something more basic, deeper than protecting my own health. I want to be in that number when the saints march in with the solution. One more march protesting the licensed execution of a black man by a white man fell short of that solution.

The block-long parade of peaceful protesters chanting and chugging past my building Saturday afternoon gave me reason to pause my podcasts, stretch my legs, grab a Ginger Ale, and take a look.

Why was the group so small?  Oh, well, back to the Axe Files for Ezra Klein and David Axelrod pointing out America’s polarization is driven by race. No solution there.

On my evening walk with Henry I wondered why the Rush Street restaurants with bustling shutdown take-out activity were suddenly shuttered. The couture Oak Street stores were boarded up again after spending the previous week removing the pandemic plywood in anticipation of opening for business. The smell of plywood and sounds of buzz saws and hammers filled the air as workers boarded up store after store. Were they really expecting looters from such a peaceful protest?

I turned on the TV. Mayor Lightfoot declared a nine p.m. to six a.m. curfew. Every major city in the country had erupted in violence all at once. Police cars were turned over and set on fire. State Street stores were smashed and looted. The city raised the Chicago River bridges to keep the danger from spilling into my neighborhood.

So I thought.

If Chicago erupted into a war zone Saturday night, Oak Street was the equivalent of Sherman’s March to the Sea. I entered the east end of the street early Sunday morning. A wide open empty U-Haul truck was smashed into a vintage storefront. Maurauders had ripped off the fresh plywood, broke through windows and looted every store. Collateral trash lined the streets and sidewalks. I fixated on a Versace shoe box strewn on the curb next to a disrobed

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Oak Street Chicago May 31, 2020

and de-limbed mannequin. A middle-aged man came along and kicked the box open. He had shoes hung with tags tucked under his arm. On the prowl for left-behinds from the professional thieves, he smiled like we were on a scavenger hunt together.

I stilled myself.  In the quiet, a quote from playwright Idris Goodwin, kept fluttering around my thoughts. “This is not the intermission. This is the stage.” Will I ever actually believe we’re on the same stage, an ensemble supporting the same story? The solution I seek stirs there.

Shutdown Week 10: Memorial Day

Shutdown Week 10: Memorial Day

Shortly after  May 30, 1957, our 38-year-old mother Agnes, weakened by anemia and chronic drinking went to bed for three months. She delegated the care and feeding of newborn Stacy to my sisters and me.

Ten-year-old Gael spent endless steamy hours sterilizing glass baby bottles. Twelve-year-old Maere used her authority as the oldest to redo the assignments in order to do the least amount of work. We all took turns feeding the baby. Meanwhile our father was commuting to downtown Chicago by train from our anglicized Irish-American enclave, as part of a brief effort to be a sober citizen, husband and father.

“Women should always have babies in the summer,” Agnes would say, “in case they’re colicky, they’ll be soothed under the trees by the sounds and the shadows of the leaves.” She’d mutter ‘idiot’ under her breath anytime another mother announced the birth of a baby in any other season. And indeed, three of her four babies were born in May, June and July. She pretended she planned it that way.

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“Live Oak Shelter” Karen Lynn Newman 2020 Dailypaintworks.com

 

My job was to walk collicky Stacy around the neighborhood in her baby carriage, hoping the swaying of the leaves would soothe her distressed stomach. Carl Jung tells us Agnes simply passed on an inheritance—the collective unconscious of Irish tree worship that supposes tree fairies live in high branches watching over us.

My mother’s life was rooted in addiction—less like the tranquil trees, and more like the life-sucking aphids. Yet, her words gave my family a love for trees—a priceless, ancient, tranquilizing inheritance.

It’s taken a lifetime for me to understand my mother was spiritually in tune with the earth, its seasons and its creatures. As soon as Stacy was able to sit up and clutch the handlebars of my bike, I rode her around introducing her to birds, clouds, the sun. I had a hunch her life would be happier if she could name her birds before she had to memorize the ABCs. Agnes gave us that.

Until 1970 we observed Memorial Day on May 30. Now its the last Monday in May. This year we involuntarily honored the Covid shutdown. There were no beginning-of-summer public celebrations during pandemic-stricken Memorial Day weekend. My habit is to observe Memorial Day on May 30, Stacy’s birthday. That day marks the start of summer when leafed-out trees relieve winter doldrums. This Memorial Day I pray the trees soothe my baby soul as I emerge from the worrying world to a new normal.

Shutdown Week 9: Dream Time

Shutdown Week 9: Dream Time

A navy blue velvet shirt arrived in the mail from J.Crew the other day. Thinking it was a gift, I rummaged through the packaging for a hint of who sent it. Turns out I had backordered it ages ago, when I was going places. Blue velvet would have been lovely for my book launch in March, 2020.

But.

The publisher recently told me the book will be on Amazon by October. Then in a surprise move last week he posted on Instagram:

Tortoise Books: We are launching IN THAT NUMBER by @reganchicago THIS OCTOBER! It’s a thrilling and heartwarming memoir about one woman’s journey from the streets of protest to the halls of power, with fascinating firsthand reminisces about Woodstock, Vladimir Putin, THE EXORCIST, Bill Clinton, and more! Stay tuned for details.

I guess the Amazon availability triggered the book launch. But what do I know? The answer is—nothing about publishing or marketing a book. My completed memoir, fully edited, trussed and ready for prime time left my control in December 2019. I dreamed of the day I would stand in front of a crowd of friends in late winter at my book party.

At the party I’d be showered with compliments, jeter des fleurs, as the French say. I’d hold my book overhead and shout, “I did it.” I must have ordered that forgotten velvet shirt at the time to celebrate crossing the finish line. The coronavirus didn’t stop InThatNumberPhotomovement on publishing, but the shutdown slowed incoming blurbs for the book cover. Reviewers must have cast my manuscript into the suspended-indefinitely heap. I stopped asking the publisher or even wondering “when will it be out?” for the same reason. Everything else in the world came to a halt, why not book printing?

Here’s what I’ve learned ambling along book-publishing lane. These apply to unknown authors only:

1.  A full length memoir is no more and no less than 250 pages, Times New Roman, double spaced, 12-point type, 60,000 words.

2.  Non-fiction titles should be five words or less.

3.  When you tell people you wrote a book, they’ll ask you what it’s about. Have a good answer.

4.  Dreaming up chapter titles is a monumental waste of time. Just number them.

5.  However long you think it will take to get your finished work published, it takes longer.

6.  Even though a full length memoir is episodic, it needs an arc or storyline.  You can’t just put all your 500 word essays in chronological order.

7.  The first time your editor sends edits, it’s not really edits. It’s questions.

8.  Learn to deal with jealousy.

The Chicago Reader headline this week screams, The Summer That Won’t Be. You know what they can add to that list?  My book launch. Visions of myself as a published author is alive beyond the still point though, squiggling around in dream time.

If the coronavirus still spooks us in October my book will launch on Zoom. Look for me in blue velvet throwing flowers at myself.

Jeter des fleurs.

 

Shutdown Week 8: What Would Agnes do?

What would Agnes do (WWAD) during the coronavirus pandemic? Agnes had an uneasy way of placing wedge occurrences in her life, like being married, onto the long arc of outputhistory. Her pastimes, smoking and drinking, fit nicely into an imaginative destiny all her own. She believed she was meant to smoke, meant to drink, that they were a sign of the times and not to be missed because of some pollyannaish medical or social admonition about motherhood. Nothing would have stood in the way of her scotch, beer and Marlboros. She was destined to have them.

Along side the subliminal moral compass WWJD (What Would Jesus Do), I act and react from a Pavlovian response to my mother’s teaching, character and personality. WWJD helped replace a lot of the bad stuff with certain social mores, like not stealing and staying sober. Stealing and drinking came so naturally to Agnes that by the time it occurred to me my mother might be setting a bad WWAD example, she’d already shut the door on self-reckoning. And I had to suffer through reckoning of my own.

She would have loved being in the midst of a pandemic, entering the shutdown as if it were a fun house full of reasons to drink jumping out at every turn. If I had said we must social distance ourselves, she would have said, “Don’t be ridiculous. You don’t know what you’re talking about.” No earthly situation of hers held destiny captive. She would have known the virus and all that went with it were temporary disruptions to help justify consuming more alcohol, smoking more cigarettes.

It’s not that Agnes was a rule-breaker. It’s that the rules didn’t apply to her in the first place. She would not have adhered to mask wearing, six-foot distancing and certainly not staying in her lane at the grocery store. She would have swallowed up the news, argued over every tidbit, insisting she was right and driven everyone in the house to their corners.

Medical appointments cancelled? School conferences shut down? What a relief! Except for clothes shopping, motherly obligations drove her nuts. Curling up on the couch with her beer, cigarettes, a mystery novel or the New Yorker were her destiny. She raged against anyone who tried interrupting her routine or attempted to rearrange her destined spot in the universe. Being told to stay home would have been the only rule she’d have upheld and savored.

WWAD hasn’t left me completely. Cozying up to the couch reading mysteries and the New Yorker is fine with me for as long as it takes. I love her for that hard-wired legacy.

But thank God I’ve ditched the booze and the cigarettes.

Shutdown Week 7: Unknowing

Shutdown Week 7: Unknowing

The first change I faced for the Covid 19 shutdown was the suspension of classes and groups for older adults at the Center for Life and Learning (CLL) in my neighborhood church. The cancellation announcement infuriated me. For an entire day, I thought it was the only shutdown announcement, the only group activity suspended.

The media had been continually reporting that people over sixty were more vulnerable to coronovirus than the rest of the population. Shutting us down was our best protection. My wounded ego jumped to the conclusion that we, as a group, would be thought of as weak, defeated and sick, putting a frame around the ageism I struggle to define in myself

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Mammoth Mountain Sky by Sharon Schock Sharonschock.com

 

and in the public square. I stuck myself in a cloud of unknowing.

It was mid-March. I bundled up to walk a long way around to the church for the last event before the shutdown, the CLL yearly Art Show.

How to express my agitation?  Old people were being singled out. Excluded.

That’s when I ran into one of the pastors on his way down the street to the Red Line.

“We’re cancelling services.” He said.

“Huh? How long?”

“Unknown. It’s all going to be livestream. We have to figure out Zoom for other gatherings.”

His worried expression hit me like a ton of bricks. He didn’t crack his normal smile, nor did he put a jokey spin on the situation.

“It’s serious.” He said.

“So, It’s not just old people?”

At the Art Show I gathered with friends and reported the news .

No Sunday services. 

I eavesdropped on other conversations. Eavesdropping has become one of the social distancing casualties I miss the most.

“They say we might have classes on Zoom.”

“What’s Zoom?”

“Some kind of computer conferenceing.”

“I’m not doing that. I’m sick of technology.”

“Me too. I don’t want to learn anything new.”

“Well, it won’t be for long. Maybe a week. Maybe two.”

We’re in the seventh week now.

I fell victim to the fear of the unknown and refused to learn Zoom for about six days. But I longed for the energy of the collective silence in my meditation group. Others did too and meditation became the first Zoom hosted by CLL.

About fifteen of us spend twenty minutes each Monday and Friday sitting in silence in our Hollywood Squares with our eyes closed. Afterwards we each say a few brief words. We know a smattering of particulars about each other.

What could I possibly miss that I can’t do on my own?

In The Cloud of Unknowing, a fourteenth century monk teaches when we know enough and we don’t need to know more, an opening through the clouds to the sun or the moon brings us to an endless, wordless, deeper knowing. Contemplatives call this love.

This is why I yearn to sit in silence with fellow meditators. We know each other through the clouds of our own wordless unknowing. I call this love.

Shutdown Week 6: Solitude

Shutdown Week 6: Solitude

The coronavirus shutdown forces me to sit in silent contemplation, doing my best to control the one thing I think I can—my thoughts.

American buddhists say people in the West are afraid of solitude, of being alone.              That’s not my fear.                                                                                                                                  I fear the future.                                                                                                                               When the threat of coronavirus is over, will I ever leave home again?                                  Will I ever chance gathering with friends or strangers in a group for a common purpose, a protest march, choir practice, church, AA meetings?                                                            Lunch even?                                                                                                                                        How would I fit into the world with no connection outside of myself and Henry the dog? What would be my purpose?                                                                                                             No wonder loneliness shortens life.                                                                                                     It will kill you, this lack of purpose.                                                                                          

Hmm. Two fast-walkers below my window dressed head to toe in black spandex, masked like bandits.                                                                                                                                        What are they talking about?                                                                                                           Are they planning to rob the bank on the corner?                                                                        Do they know the polar ice cap is melting and will soon spill over into Michigan Avenue? Perhaps they’re headed to Northwestern to get tested for coronavirus.                                      I hope they bow to the angels fluttering around the Emergency Room.

Down the street gardeners dig up winter to plant spring by the goldfish pond.                    Those goldfish swam around that manmade pond the entire winter. 

                     

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Out with winter. In with spring

Blackbirds jump from branch to branch on the budding leafless tress awaiting the gardeners’ departure.                                                                                                                       They swoop in for a scratch-around in the fresh mulch, but ignore the goldfish.           They’re not fishers.

The backup whistle on the garbage truck that normally blends in with early morning noise?                                                                                                                                                         It now pierces the street from the otherwise empty alley.                                                         Cars are so infrequent these days that instead of tires rolling over the road with a steady hum, their sound breaks the air with a hiss. hiss. hiss.                                                          Where are they going?                                                                                                                              If I had a car I’d be driving around too.                                                                                            I’d drive up and down the Drive to be close to my own wild lake.                                                The mayor closed the lake path and parks for good reason.                                                 Chicago loves to be out.                                                                                                                       We’d gather there, on the lakefront, congregate.                                                                     Spread the virus.

Those words are my thoughts from five minutes of meditation. This is how I talk to myself. How embarrassing. My interior life is a tragic waste of imagination—that grammar, those articles, prepositions and pronouns. The mundane. Oh, to be a poet.

On Being’s Krista Tippett hosted Stephen Batchelor, a Tibetan Buddhist on Sunday morning. His new book, The Art of Solitude, made a fitting subject for the Shutdown era. He said indulging in myself leads to inward wisdom and outward compassion. The integration of the two make me fully human. I’m game to be fully human, to be wise and compassionate.

But for now, I must get control of my thoughts.

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Alone on Oak Street Chicago 11:00 am April 27, 2020

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Before Coronavirus We Were Dying of Loneliness 

On Being: Stephen Batchelor: Finding Ease  in Aloneness