Knives

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The two women and four kids came in ten minutes before the mercantile closed.

The women looked so young to me, although they were probably in their early 30s and were obviously the mothers of the children.

The first woman who came in had her hair pulled back into a tight bun. She wore those hiking tights so popular with athletic (and not so athletic) women these days. Her scoop-neck t-shirt dipped just enough in the back to show the tattoo of a lotus at the base of her neck. Her son was maybe nine, her daughter around six.

The second woman had loose dark hair and glasses with square black frames. Her shorts were quite short, and she wore white almost-to-her-knee socks with her boots. She had a sarong or a large scarf or an East Indian tapestry draped over her shoulders with a side hanging over each breast. At first I thought she was topless under the sarong/scarf/tapestry, but when she turned, I saw her black bikini top. She had two boys with her, one about five, the other probably ten.

They were on a souvenir buying expedition. The children were turned loose in the store while the women looked at magnets and t-shirts and Christmas tree ornaments.

I have twenty bucks! the littlest boy exclaimed, to which the boy who wasn’t his brother said, Who cares? (It soon became apparent to me that this boy had just about had it with the younger kid.)

The little boy’s mom said, That’s not cool to the older boy, but the grin on her face told me she thought it was all pretty funny.

It turned out that while the little boy was clutching a $20 bill, he had to share it with his brother. Each of the four kids had a $10 souvenir budget.

They circled the store eliminating possibilities. The walking sticks were too expensive. The t-shirts weren’t enticing (and probably too expensive anyway), and none of the kids were interested in stuffed animals.

The mercantile sells these wooden whistles carved to look like forest animals.

The boy who didn’t care about the little kid’s twenty bucks was the first to find his souvenir: a wooden whistle carved to look like a bear. He tried to get the other kids interested in the whistles too, but he was the only taker.

(How do you know it’s a whistle? his little sister asked.

Let her blow it, his mom said.

No! said the boy with concern on his face. She can’t blow it! We haven’t paid for it!)

The older of the brothers tried to convince the little one to pool their money and buy something they could share. He showed the little boy a breakable “I Love California” bank, and the little boy about had a fit. He screamed his negative feeling about the bank until—finally—his mother told him to chill out. I was beginning to think the little boy controlled the whole family.

Then the older of the two brothers saw the pocket knives.

We keep the pocket knives in the glass display case. People can’t touch them unless a worker hands them over.

How much are the pocket knives? the bigger boy asked.

I told him they were $6.95 plus tax.

Can I see one? he asked.

I didn’t really want to hand one over to the kid and have to take responsibility for whatever might happen, so I said, We’ll have to see if it’s ok with your grown up. The boy rolled his eyes behind his Buddy Holly glasses.

Bikini Mom was across the store. Grown up? I called to her. Oh, grownup?

She looked at me, blinking, as if I were an intruder in her secret dream world.

Can he look at a pocket knife? I asked her.

She said he could. She didn’t even walk over to supervise.

The mercantile sells these “razor sharp” pocket knives. We keep them in the display case until someone asks about them.

I pulled out the cardboard knife display and set it on the counter. The boy grabbed a knife and examined it.  His little brother watched with great interest.

I’ll get this, the big boy declared.

I want one too! I want one too! the little brother hollered.

You have to get your parent’s permission, I told them. No way would I have given that angry little brother a knife. I’m not sure the big boy was really ready for one either.

The older boy rolled his eyes at me again. Can I get a pocket knife? he called out to his mother.

I want one too! I want one too! the little brother hollered some more.

Bikini Mom said sure, they could get knives. She hadn’t even come over to take a look.

I turned to her and said, You know the box says they’re razor sharp, right? Of course, she didn’t know anything about the knives because she hadn’t come close enough to gather any information. However at the words “razor sharp,” she did walk over.

The little brother was still hollering, I want one too! I want one too!

The boy from the other family was very interested in the knives. He also wanted one. Bun Mom told him he was NOT getting a knife. He said he’d had a knife before…And it broke! his mother said, and you’re not getting one! Her tone of voice left no room for argument, and the kid dropped the subject.

Meanwhile, Bikini Mom and her oldest boy examined the knife. They couldn’t figure out how to close it. I showed them. Both moms started talking about safety and being very careful and this is not a toy. The little bother kept hollering about how he wanted one too, and I thought the big boy might roll his eyes right out of his head.

Bun Mom told her friend this knife thing might not be a good idea. Maybe she should consult with the boys’ father, Bun Mom said.

Emboldened by her friend’s caution, Bikini Mom told her boys they could not have knives. I was relieved and put the knives back in the display case.

The older boy followed his mother around the store, hassling her.

She must have said she didn’t want the little boy to have a knife, because I heard the big boy say, Then just tell him no! I could tell he was completely exasperated. I suspect the little boy was hardly ever told no.

The big boy finally wore his mother down, and she told him to go ask his father. Presumably, the father was on a campsite nearby because the boy wasn’t gone three minutes.

He said yes, the boy told his mom.

Even for your little brother? Bikini Mom asked.

Yep, the boy said. I wondered if he’d used the words “razor sharp” when he described the knives to his father.

The boys used their $20 to each get a knife, plus a box of candy and a pack of cheap plastic finger lights. The big boy immediately opened his knife.

How do you close this again? Bikini Mom asked.

I told her The Man would show her, and he did, but neither the mother nor son could do it.

If he can’t even close the knife, he shouldn’t have it, The Man whispered to me.

Can I carve with this? the older boy asked.

Absolutely NOT!  The Man told him. He told the boy the knife wasn’t made for carving. It would be dangerous to carve with that knife, he said. The Man tried to scare some sense into the moms by telling them about times he’s sliced into his own hand while carving and how now he wears a special protective glove.

You can only use this when you’re with your father, Bikini Mom told her boys.

Someone’s going to bleed tonight, I whispered to The Man.

He just shook his head and told me quietly that no one under 13 should have a knife.

I took the photos in this post.

Firefighter (Tracy, California)

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I had a house sitting gig in Tracy, California in late October of last year. I stayed in a comfortable house, watched a lot of Food Network and Cooking Chanel shows, hung out with two adorable little dogs, and worked on my blog and my book.  One morning, I spent a few hours in downtown Tracy.

One of the interesting things I saw downtown was a sculpture of a firefighter on the side of the fire station on Central Avenue.

Firefighter sculpture, Tracy, CA

There wasn’t any information about the artist included with the statue. It wasn’t until I did a Google search and read a 2003 article from the Lodi News-Sentinel that I learned a couple of things about the statue.

The artist who created this piece is Lawrence Noble, “an honorary firefighter with two San Bernardino County fire departments…[who’s] spent the past 15 years of his career specializing in large public sculptures, often of firefighters.”

According to the article, “Tracy reserve firefighter Terry Langley commissioned the sculpture on behalf of his nonprofit group Hometown Heritage…” The statue was originally carved in clay, then cast in bronze.

In the same article, Noble says, “The firefighters of Tracy are very, very lucky, because they’ve never lost someone in the line of duty… “What I chose to portray was just an honest day’s work, and the pride a single firefighter would take in doing the best job he could.”

This firefighter is a working class hero, much like the Toilet Paper Hero of Hoover Dam. I like this guy. If you ever find yourself in Tracy, you can visit him too.

 

Devil Inside

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I’d been cleaning earlier in the day, and maybe the bleach I’d used had over-sensitized the nerves in my hands. Maybe it would have happened anyway, even if I hadn’t exposed my ungloved hands to bleach. Whatever the cause, I was in pain before the day was done.

That evening, I went over to the infoshop to help cook for Food Not Bombs. We made a potato dish and spiced it up with jalapeños from the box of produce Whole Foods had donated. I took on the task of chopping the peppers.

I’d chopped a lot of green bell peppers in my day. Before chopping, I always pulled out the membrane and the seeds because–well, that’s the way my mom did it. I figured jalapeños and bell peppers were basically the same, so I pulled the membrand and the seeds out of the jalapeños just the way I did to bell peppers. Wearing gloves to prep peppers never even crossed my mind.

By the time the meal was cooked, my hands were tingling in the way my lips might tingle if I ate spicy food. It was unusual and noticeable, but not altogether unpleasant.

I don’t remember if I helped serve food to hungry people that night, but as the evening progressed, the tingling in my hands increased to burning. The feeling did become unpleasant, then painful. After a couple hours at home, I tried to go to bed, but the feeling that my hands were on fire from the inside kept me from sleeping.

I still hadn’t connected the burning in my hands with the chopping of jalapeño peppers. I thought maybe it was the bleach from earlier in the day that was affecting me. In any case, the pain was in the form of a throbbing burn and seemed to be intensifying.

I’d already washed my hands with soap and water, which hadn’t helped one bit. I decided to soak my hands in ice water, which helped a lot–until I removed my hands from the liquid. When I took my hands out of the icy water, the relief I’d been feeling was replaced by pain worse than what had caused me to submerge them in the first place.

I didn’t know what to do. Not only was I in intense pain, but I couldn’t pinpoint the cause of it. I was starting to feel like I’d lose my mind if the burning didn’t stop.

I wanted to call my mother. I was still young enough to rely on my mother’s advice when times were hard. However, my mother was a fundamentalist Christian who was not thrilled by my pants-wearing, hair-cutting, alcohol-drinking, sex-before-marriag-having ways. I was honestly afraid my mom would tell me the fire I felt in my hands was the devil inside of me. Finally, the pain got the better of me, and I called my mom.

I told her about the bleach and the peppers (which I’d finally begun to suspect as the culprit). Thankfully, she didn’t mention the devil. She thought the peppers were the cause of my distress. The same thing had happened to her, she said. Now she wore gloves whenever she chopped peppers. The solution, she said, was to soak my hands in milk.

I was ready to try anything, so I thanked her very much and set out to implement the plan.

At the time (to control my weight and to save money), I drank reconstituted powdered milk. I didn’t know if the milk made from powder would have enough fat to relieve the burning in my hands. I was tired of messing around with remedies that didn’t work. I decided I needed whole milk.

I didn’t have a car, so I got on my bike and rode six blocks through the big city night to the Walgreens open until midnight. I bought a gallon of whole milk and transported it home in the basket on the side of my bike.

Once home, I poured milk into a big bowl and submerged my hands. I felt instant relief, but feared an increase in pain when I pulled my hands out, as happened when I took my hands out of the cold water. I kept my hands in the milk for a long time before I tentatively removed one from the bowl. Not only did the pain not increase, I feld a marked decrease in the burning I’d felt before. I returned my hand to the bowl and continued to soak both of them until the burning had decreased to a slight tingle. I rinsed the milk from my hands and went to bed.

In the morning, my hands were back to normal. Maybe the burning would have decreased naturally, but I was glad the milk had helped the process along so I’d been able to get some sleep.

After this incident, I was more careful when using bleach, and for years I wore latex gloves when chopping hot peppers. Even though I knew the cure, I wasn’t too keen on feeling such a fire burning inside me ever again.

 

Birthday Wishes

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My friend Laura-Marie is a kind and talented woman. She is s peace activist and a writer (of letters and zines and poems). She is dedicated to community, inclusion, and love. I’m blessed to have her in my life.

She visited me recently, and the topic of her birthday came up. I started thinking about what sort of gift I could give her. Last year I made a collage for her, and she already has a hat I made as well as bracelets and necklaces I created.

She and her friend Ellen Redbird have a tradition of sending each other poems for Christmas. I thought I could get on the poetry bandwagon and send Laura-Marie a poem for her birthday. With her permission, I’m sharing that poem today. I’m pleased with its playful quality, and working out the rhymes was fun for me.

Without further ado, here’s the birthday poem I wrote for my friend.

To Laura-Marie

on the Occasion of Your Birthday

Happy birthday to thee,

Laura-Marie.

Today is a day

to be joyful and gay.

I’m glad you were born

early one morn.

The work that you do

is loving and true.

Your zines help us all

stay on the ball.

 

My world is much better

when you write me a letter.

Your hugs are the best;

they give comfort and rest.

Your friendship I cherish.

It never will perish.

Have a great year,

you of long, curly hair.

Much love to you,

to you and your crew.

 

Golden State Green

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I’d heard the stories from other travelers. Seemed like most everyone had a story about being handed weed while flying a sign. Seemed like everyone had a story like that except me.

Maybe I looked too middle age and normal. Maybe I just didn’t look like someone who wanted marijunan. In any case, although I’d flown signs for two years in a dozen states, no one handed me weed until I went to California. Money, yes, and food–once an entire cake–and hand sanitizer and a toothbrush, all were given to me as I stood on corners and held my sign, but no one thought to give me pot until I made it to the Golden State.

I was in Ukiah the first time it happened. Mr. Carolina and I had just spent a few days with the Viking and Mick and Karl, his three friends I’d recently met in Santa Barbara. We’d made some new friends and seen some beautiful California mountain land, and now we were back on the quest to return a pipe to Sweet L’s dad and then drink from the headwaters of the Sacramento River. After we said our farewells to our friends, we headed down from the mountain and into civilization where we hoped to get fuel for the van and for our bellies too.

We pulled into a gas station next to the Wal-Mart and stood behind the van. Mr. Carolina held my two-gallon gas jug and I held our “out of gas” sign. A few different people handed ua a few crumpled dollars, and we thanked each person sincerely.

Mr. Carolina had wandered away when the man approached me. He didn’t look like a hippie or a Rastafarian , or a sterotypical stoner. He just looked like a normal guy.

Here you go, he said to me, holding out his hand. This might help.

I reached out to receive what he was offereing. He placed quite a large chunck of hash in my hand. I quickly closed my fingers to conceal it.

You can probably sell that for $60 or $70, the man told me while I thanked him very much.

I knew we weren’t going to sell it. First, I’m not in the drug sales business, because it seems like quite a risk. Secondly, who was I going to sell the hash to? I didn’t know anyone in town, and I wasn’t going to walk through the Wal-Mart parking lot and approaching strangers and saying, Psst! Want to buy some hash? while suspiciously shifting my eyes from side to side. Third, while I wasn’t going to smoke the hash, I knew Mr. Carolina would.

Mr. Carolina lived with pain. He’d been in a terrible car accident some years before. He suffered from a brain injury and what he called a “broke neck.” His spinal cord obviously hadn’t been severed, but I suppose one or more vertebra had been damaged. He told me about coming out of a coma and trying to pull out the catheter draining urine from his body before he realized where he was and remembering what had happened. He told me about pissing blood when the catheter was removed. He’d had multiple surgeries since the accident, and he’d lived with pain since then. I suspect he suffered more pain than he ever let me know.

He’d been on prescribed pharmaceutical pain pills for a while. He’d been a “bad drunk” too, he said. Now he used marijuana, when he could get it, to manage his pain. The chunk of hash in my hand would get him through the next few days.

When he came back to the van, I opened my hand and showed Mr. Carolina what was hidden inside. He had a big smile on his face when I handed it over to him.

The second time it happened was in Bakersfield. Mr. Carolina and I had picked up two traveling kids at a truck stop in Santa Nella, and now we were trying to get them to Oklahoma City.

Please don’t leave me in Bakersfield, the Okie kept pleading with me, although I’d never threatened him with such a fate. I don’t know what sort of disaster he’d experienced the last time he was in the city, but he was really nervous about being left there.

We pulled into the strip mall housing a Wal-Mart and about a dozen fast food joints, hoping the Universe would provide us with money for dinner that night and enough gasoline to get us out of town in the morning. Lil C siad he wanted to fly his sign at the parking lot’s main exit. I said that was fine with me, but told him I’d make more money than he would, and I planned to share whatever I was given. He said I should go ahead and take the main exit.

I’d been standing next to the stop sign for a while, and people had been blessing me with dollars when an older man wearing his hair in a ponytail pulled up. I saw him rooting around, trying to find something. He rolled down the window on the front passenger side and reached across the seat. I stepped over and leaned in to take what he was offering.

Do you smoke weed? he asked.

Even though I personally didn’t, I knew the boys would, so I said yes. The man handed me two skinny joints, and I thanked him very much.

Sure enough, the boys were happy when I returned to the van with enough money for dinner and gas to get us out of town, as well as two joints for them to pass around before we slept.

 

Antonito

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One year I went to the tiny (population 781) town of Antonito, Colorado for Labor Day weekend. The town was hosting a free music festival in the park and for a ridiculously small fee, I was able to sell my wares all weekend.

I arrived in town early Saturday morning and found the festival organizer among a group of men setting up the stage. The organizer showed me where I could put my tables. I unloaded the tables, my hemp jewelry, my shiny rocks. I arranged everything nicely on the tables and waited for the crowds of music fans to arrive.

The first band took the stage. A few of their friends stood around to listen. The next band took the stage. Fans from Santa Fe had made the drive to the festival, including the grandmother of one of the band members. At no point during the weekend were there more than a dozen people in the audience for any musician. I quickly understood why the vending fee was so low.

A family set up a table perpendicular to mine. They sold water and sodas cold from an ice chest and homemade burritos wrapped in foil. Otherwise, I was the only vendor at the festival.

I made a little bit of money, despite the lack of attendance. Mostly I sold shiny rocks to people living nowhere near a rock shop. I sold a few necklaces after I offered people great deals, and I sold some bracelets too. I suppose I paid for my gas to get out there and the breakfast I ate at a restaurant on Sunday morning.

One of Antonito’s claims to fame is being the childhood home of Indiana Jones from the Raiders of the Lost Ark movie. Of course, Indiana Jones is a fictional character, so he never had a childhood, but in one of the movies, a young Indy is shown in front of a house. That house stands in Antonito, CO. I didn’t care enough to find it.

My favorite part of my two days in Antonito was Saturday morning’s Labor Day parade on the town’s main drag. The number of observers of the parade was slightly larger than that of the music festival. There weren’t any floats in a New Orleans sense, but some people stood in the back of slow-moving pickup trucks and waved to their neighbors. Someone from the Forest Service had dressed in a Smokey Bear costume and stood waving from the back of a government truck.

I stood on the sidewalk and watched the parade go by. It was pretty short. The whole thing passed in under ten minutes. But wait! There’s more, or at least the same thing all over again. When the parade got to its endpoint, all the vehicles turned around and came back down the main drag from the opposite direction. I guess when a parade’s that short, once isn’t enough.

I took this photo of Smokey the Bear,

Patience is a Virtue

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I was alone in the mercantile when the couple came in.

While they were obviously older than I was—both the man and the woman had totally white hair—neither of them could be described as elderly or frail. Neither seemed feeble or weak. In fact, they both seemed fit and outdoorsy, just two people in their 60s who’d finished walking the trail and enjoying the trees.

When they came through the door, I gave them one of my standard greetings: How y’all doin’? or How’d y’all like those trees?

The man greeted me in such a normal fashion, I’ve forgotten what he said. Then he walked fully into the store and started looking at the merchandise.

The woman, however, stopped in front of the counter I was standing behind. She looked at me and said, Excuse me.

I waited for a question to follow, but none did. Nothing followed. The woman stood there holding a small cluster of needles from an evergreen tree. She looked at me with a strange little smile on her face, but she said nothing else.

I felt uncomfortable about the entire interaction. Had the woman said, Excuse me because something I’d said had offended her? She didn’t seem upset, and she was smiling. Had she done something to make her feel she should excuse herself? I hadn’t heard her burp or fart, and there’d been nothing for her to bump into. Why was she standing there, looking at me and grinning like the Mona Lisa?

In reality, she only stood and looked at me for a few seconds before she moved to the man’s side, but her scrutiny seemed much longer to me.

After giving the couple a few minutes to browse in peace, I asked them, Where are y’all visiting from?

(Side note: If any of my more grammatically gifted writer friends know a better construction for that question, please enlighten me. It’s been bugging me for years.)

The man named some town I didn’t know. He said his brother-in-law had suggested they visit the national forest  and see the giant sequoias. We agreed the brother-in-law had given them a pretty good tip, and I let them go back to their browsing.

About that time, the woman told the man they really needed to get on the road.

He gently told her they had plenty of time, and he wanted to do some shopping.

I want to go home, she told him.

I need to go home! she said more urgently.

The man told her again, patiently, that they had plenty of time and they would head home after they’d done some shopping. She told him a few more times that she wanted, needed to go home, but he stayed calm and distracted her by asking what souvenirs she thought different people might like.

As they moved from the display of coffee mugs the woman began complaining about the hat she was wearing. It was too heavy for her head, she said. It hurt! She indicated they should leave it behind. I’d noticed the hat when she walked in. It looked expensive and well-made, something a serious hiker or birder might use to shade his/her head. Would she really ditch it in my store?

Honey, the man said sweetly, that’s my hat.

As they moved through the store, I heard the woman repeatedly ask the man if he wanted the evergreen needles she was carrying. Each time he said, No. You can leave them outside, as if he’d never heard the question before. He never sounded irritated.

I started piecing together a story about the man and woman, and although some of my details may be wrong, I think I got the main idea.

The man and the woman were a couple, as in marriage.  Even if they weren’t actually married, that’s the sort of relationship they had. The woman was suffering from dementia or short term memory loss, maybe from a brain injury or a stroke or Alzheimer’s. In any case, the man was caring for her lovingly, patiently, gently.

As the couple placed their souvenirs on the counter for purchase, the woman placed a water bottle we do not sell in front of me.

Do we want to get this too? she asked the man.

Honey, that’s our water bottle, he said calmly.

I’ve thought about those people long after they left the store.

I want to emulate the man’s patience and calmness in the face of his partner’s short term memory loss. I get so irritated when The Man asks me the same question for the third time, even though I want to meet him with love and compassion. I want to follow the stranger’s example and simply answer the question again, not get caught up in the anger of he doesn’t even listen to me! Maybe he does listen, maybe the lady listens too, but their brains can no longer process the information into memory.

Let this be my prayer for patience, compassion, the ability to answer a question calmly and with love the fifth, the tenth, the twenty-fifth, the one hundredth and forty-second time it’s asked.