Serendipity or Divine Intervention?

At the last adult education program I ran, the program assistant used to smile and shake her head at me when she’d see my heart melting over some of our more in-need-of-a-hug students. My “benditos” she called them. (Don’t misunderstand: quiet as it was kept, her heart was just as squishy as mine. In fact, all of my benditos were hers, too.)

Admittedly, I was then and I continue to be a pushover, especially for young people who’ve been thrown away by the system — education, justice, employment, legislative. My heart yearns to adopt every last one of them. In that years-ago job, I had the opportunity to offer them kindness and acceptance, to give them a little bit of a soft place to land. And every time I bent a rule or gave one of those young people yet another chance, our program assistant would shake her head and smile. Because I was being my usual bleeding-heart self … and because she expected no less of me.

Some of my beloveds were able to find strong foot- and hand-holds and fight their way up from whatever was holding them down. Some weren’t. Or, were only able to go so far. All of them deserved so very much better than the hands they were dealt.

I left work tonight and walked a subway stop so I could get some more steps in. When I got to the train, I saw that I’d missed a call from the coworker I’d left in the office. Turned out, she’d locked herself out of the suite, so I walked back, went upstairs, and let her in.

When I left the building the second time, I contemplated getting on the train but decided to walk the stop again, get some more steps. (All told, I added about 1500 to my daily total with this extra to-ing and fro-ing.) I thought this story would be my story for tonight, short, kindly, done.

As I went down into the train, a deep voice called behind me, “Excuse me, miss, ma’am?” 

There was no way I wasn’t going to turn around at the landing. Unsure if I’m a miss or a ma’am? Yeah, that sounds like someone I’d have bent the rules for at my old job. That probably sounds silly, but I have a good gut instinct most days, and I trust it. I turned around.

A very young, slight man, grown-ish, but still more baby than brother, not nearly grown enough that he couldn’t have been my grandson.

He handed me a paper and asked if I could help him find the precinct noted in the upper right corner. “They just let me out and I’m trying to go get my stuff.” He took a step back from me. “I don’t need to touch your phone or nothing. I know how that goes. But maybe you could look it up?”

I did, found that the precinct he needed was nearly an hour away.

Let’s think about that. This kid was arrested for something. Was arrested in the neighborhood where that precinct is. They brought him downtown, I have to assume, for court. And they just released him because, I’m going to assume, whatever they’d arrested him for didn’t stick (or they had no good reason to arrest him in the first place but could so did). They brought him downtown to go to court and were so certain they’d get to keep him locked up, they didn’t bother to bring his things downtown with him. It’s winter. This baby had on a t-shirt and a wisp-thin hoodie. They didn’t even let him put on a damn coat. And then, when they didn’t get to put him back in jail, they just put him on the street all the way downtown, no money, no anything, just a piece of paper telling him where he could go to pick up his things.

We are, more often than not, a pretty hideously cruel species. What the actual fuck?

I told him the precinct wasn’t close, showed him what train he’d need to take to get there. We kept going down the stairs. I asked if he had money for the fare. He said no, that he figured he’d show the paper at the token booth and hope the agent was nice. I’m not saying that wouldn’t be possible, but we were going into an entrance that didn’t have a token booth. I told him I’d swipe him in. But then it turned out I didn’t even have enough money on my fare card to swipe myself in. I asked him to wait, so I could load up my card. Again, he stepped away from me, clearly wanting me to be aware that he wasn’t a threat to me, wasn’t going to try grabbing my wallet when I went to the machine. As if I would have been afraid of this kid. My gut had already passed judgment. I knew I was safe.

I put money on my card and swiped him in. He thanked me very sincerely. I told him I was happy to help. We heard his train coming. He put his hands over his heart, bowed a little, and ran down to the platform.

Obviously, my evening went exactly as it was supposed to. I was supposed to walk the subway stop rather than get immediately on the train so that I was above ground to get the message from my coworker so I could walk back and let her into the suite. I was supposed to walk the subway stop again so that I’d be the person heading into the station in front of that sweetheart of a boy who needed a little kindness to send him on his way.

I accept that, the serendipity of all of that.

What I don’t accept is the casual lack of care with which that boy — and far too many boys and girls like him — was treated. For him to be turned out onto the street after his trip to court is ugly. You know you’ve taken him far from home, far from an area that is familiar to him, far from his belongings. And yet you throw him out like so much chaff. Into a winter night when he has no coat. As if you hope he jumps a turnstile to get himself home so that you can arrest him again. As if you don’t want him to have a chance. As if he is worth not the briefest nanosecond of thought.

How could you not see his soft eyes? How could you not hear his warm voice? How could you not notice the way he moved his body so carefully to make sure you would know he was not a threat? How could you not feel the knife in your heart when he hunched into himself, ready for sharp rejection when he asked for help?

If Linda had been with me tonight, she would have shaken her head and smiled. She would also have put that boy in the backseat of her car and driven him to the precinct and then home. And not because she and I are the world’s biggest softies (though we might be) but because that boy was a boy, a child, a young person who deserved better than what he’d been handed. He was someone’s baby. And, for those few minutes we spent together at the Jay Street station tonight, he was my baby.


It’s the 15th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
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Original Slicer - GirlGriot

Disposable

In my early 20s, I did a fair amount of hitchhiking. (I’ve written about this several times on this blog. I survived, clearly, as I am here to write about it. Nevertheless, this isn’t a means of travel I would recommend in this day and age … and I probably shouldn’t have been so casual about it back then, either, but I did have plenty of great rides and got to travel a lot more than I could have if I’d had to pay for transportation on every trip.)

On my first long hitch, I traveled with my friend Rachel. We were in England, on our way south from Scotland. It was getting late and we needed a place to stay. Our driver brought us to Blackburn in Lancashire to a big, rambling house. He said it was a hostel for girls. I suppose it kind of was, but it was more accurately a halfway house or group home of some kind. It was run by an older, kind-but-flinty woman who was exactly as you might imagine an almost-elderly British matron of a girls’ home to be. She wasn’t thrilled to have us dropped off at her door, but she didn’t turn us away, either.

The house was full, but not. Some of the girls were away visiting family, so there were a few empty beds. Rachel and I were given a room to share for the night. We had adapted to our vagabond life by that point in our trip, so climbing into strange girls’ beds didn’t faze us. The room was small and cozy, the house felt safe, we had made it through another days’ hitch. All was right with the world.

The bed I chose for the night was surrounded by evidence of its owner’s fangirliness. The walls at the head and side of the bed were plastered with magazine spreads and publicity photos of various bands. If I had any question about her favorite, it was answered by the ceiling décor: a bed-length poster of Simon LeBon of Duran Duran. Simon and the rest of the boys were featured on the walls as well, but that poster basically had me sleeping prone beneath him. Oy.

*

I’ve often thought about that house, wondered who the girls were who lived there, how they wound up there and how long they stayed, where did they go when they left? It was definitely not a hostel. Those girls were home for however long they needed to be. But they also clearly had families with whom they had successful enough relationships that they could go for sleep-over visits … but with whom they couldn’t live year-round?

I like the idea of that house, the kindness of it, the awareness of its need to exist, and that woman giving over what had once been her family home to make it a reality. Yes, she surely worked with and hopefully received funding from some government service agency to make that house a going concern, but it still spoke of compassion to me. Rather than have those girls be destitute, they could live in a pretty house with their album posters and newspaper clippings on the wall. They weren’t thrown away.

We do a lot more throwing away here. It’s much too easy for us to see young people as disposable. Especially the unhoused. Especially girls.

Yes, there is foster care, but not every kid who might need to foster is in the system, and kids age out of the system. We need more and better options for young people who can’t live in their family homes and aren’t yet ready to live on their own and take full care of themselves. Such places exist, but they seem few and far between. And are there set-ups like the house in that quiet and pretty little neighborhood where I slept under Simon LeBon?

In the town where I grew up, girls were often sent away. They were sent to mysterious, anywhere-but-here places where they lived until they could return to town without the babies they’d been carrying when they’d been hurried off. Were they sent to places as kind and welcoming as that house where Rachel and I stayed? I have doubt. And the house where we stayed wasn’t for pregnant girls. It was for girls — the youngest we met was 15, the oldest 19 — who had nowhere else to live.

*

When Rachel and I hitched around Europe, we weren’t homeless, of course. We both had families on the other side of the ocean who eagerly awaited our return from our travels, who were ready to welcome us home, safe and sound. I can’t imagine that not being the case. I have always had a place to go home to, no matter how far away from it I’ve journeyed.

When we were hitching, however, we were absolutely in the hands and at the mercy of strangers. We weren’t always found by kind drivers who went out of their way to drive us to safe places to sleep, but we did always wind up being safe. Strangers, for the most part, treated us with care, with the understanding that we had value and were deserving of kindness.

Whatever became of the girl whose bed I slept in that night? When she came back from visiting her family, was she told that a random American had been in her bed? Did she scent me when she went to sleep that night? How long did she live in that house and what life did she walk into when she left it?

I was 20 when I stayed there. When I went home, I was embraced by my family and absorbed back into my entirely sheltered existence: living in a college dorm, living with my family. I worked on campus, but not to pay my rent or tuition. I needed that money, but my room and board was paid for by financial aid and loans. Yes, I was poor, but I rarely felt it, and it didn’t dictate how or where I was able to live, who I lived with or the level of kindness or safety I was afforded. At least not in ways that I had to be aware of … which was, of course, a big part of that kindness and safety.

*

Why does it seem so difficult to create places of refuge for young people? Or, perhaps more accurately, why are we usually not interested in doing so? We get emotional about that song, “The Greatest Love of All,” and sing passionately how the children are our future, but what we clearly mean is that some of the children are our future. The rest we see as chaff … when we see them at all. Years ago, I was in a meeting with Geoffrey Canada. He talked about the difference between thinking about “at-risk children” and “our children.” At-risk kids are somone else’s kids. They’re not our responsibility, so it’s easier to ignore their needs, to accept sub-standard outcomes from them. But when we think of our own kids, we are more invested. All kids, he said, should be our kids. If all kids were our kids, would we discard them with such ease? Wouldn’t we make more effort to see to their care?

*

My grandmother ran, for years, two large houses for adults who couldn’t live on their own. They weren’t halfway houses, they were residences, more temporary for some people than for other. I was young then, so not overly clear on the life circumstances that landed people in Mom’s houses, but nothing about her managing those houses or people needing to live in them seemed odd to me. Part of that was surely because Mom’s house had been full of people my whole life — first foster kids and then older teens and young adults. People needed places to live, and it made sense for them to live in houses like Mom’s — a giant, many-bedroomed home with a dining room large enough for a dozen folks to eat around the table. The two houses she eventually ran were an obvious extension of the care she’d been providing in her own home for hears. And the fact of people needing places to live continued to make sense, continued to be an obvious truth.

I know — or at least I insist on believing — there are many other people like Mom across this country, people who make homes for folks who need them. Maybe they, too, have enormous cooking pots on their stoves, constantly simmering in preparation for the meals they’ll serve every day. I believe these living arrangements exist, but they still seem rare, are still not nearly enough.

*

Rachel and I ate breakfast with the girls in England. We had coffee, eggs, toast and juice. When we left, we followed their careful directions to take a local bus to a place that everyone thought would give us the best chance of finding a ride.

We didn’t worry about where we’d sleep that night, just hopped off the bus and put out our thumbs. We landed hours later in Betws-y-Coed, Wales, at a youth hostel down a winding, tree-lined road. We had stopped on the way at a jumble sale in a church yard where, for no discernable reason, I dropped two pounds on an small bellows camera that has decorated bookshelves in my homes all these many years since. We spent the night in that hostel with many random, traveling young women, and then we continued on our way. We rode on, confident that we’d be fine, that we’d end up somewhere safe and suitably comfortable, that we could continue relying on the kindness of strangers.

Why is it so hard to reshape our society so that all young people, all people, can rely on that should-be-basic level of kindness?


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve kept working on personal essays, kept at my #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join, it’s never too late! Find the group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

24 Hours: Do I Dare?

What is it with me and challenges? I can’t resist them. Cannot. I never used to think of myself as a competitive person, but I so am. And that’s part of the driver behind my saying yes to challenges. I’m competing: against the ridiculousness of the challenge, against myself.

I think it throws me back to taking a dare as a kid. Someone would thrown down some petty or foolish gauntlet, and I would immediately feel the pull to dive in and prove … who knows what, but prove it all the same. Clearly, I’ve never outgrown the inability to resist that pull.

All this to say I can’t resist. Generally speaking, the challenges I take on are fairly mild. They come in the form of, say, doing NaNoWriMo. Or the 30/30 poetry month challenge … and sweetening the pot by choosing a poetry form and writing that form all month long. Not easy for me, but pretty harmless.

The 24 Hour Project is one of the challenges that keeps captivating me year after year. It tests me on different levels:

  1. Can I stay awake and mostly functional for 24 hours?
  2. Can I find something or someone to photograph every hour of the day?
  3. Will I be able to imagine a story to write for each photo I post each hour (this is the “sweetener” I’ve added to the basic rules of the 24HrPrj)?
  4. Will I be able to get all the photos of people that I want without being spotted (I fail this every year, always get busted at least once)?
  5. Will I venture into neighborhoods I haven’t visited on previous 24HrPrj days?
  6. Will I post all my “leftovers” after the day — all the pics that didn’t go up on the challenge day but which I still want to make stories for (I haven’t succeeded with this one this year … yet)?
  7. If I’m going out alone, will I settle into the fun of the challenge and not let the worry and discomfort of being alone on the street in the middle of the night sour my good mood and make it hard for me to take pictures (this one is really a crap shoot and has as much to do with me as it does with who else is out on the street in the middle of the night)?

Is it any wonder that I love this challenge when it has so many challenges baked in?

I had a lot of fun this year … after I managed to succeed at Number 7, calming down about being by myself. Both of the friends who’ve gone out with me in the past weren’t able to do the Project this year. I did wind up running into my friend S, the person who introduced me to the challenge. I spotted him in Times Square around 4 am and hung out with him and a few other 24 Hour Photogs for a couple of hours then met up with him for another couple of hours in the evening.

I was rusty with the story-making. Not only was the Project Covid-canceled last year, being in quarantine for the last forever has meant not being out and about that much, not taking pictures, not having the catalysts/inspiration to make up stories.

So yes, quite rusty. But after a couple of hours it began to feel easier. There’s a picture from the two o’clock hour that was the turning point. I had found an all-night diner (key establishments for making it through the Project, to be sure) and took a picture of a police officer who was having dinner and a very involved conversation with his partner. In the picture, he is studying the menu. The combination of his serious face and the fact that he reminded me of a friend’s son and echoed her older brother who had been a police officer all clicked for me and the story just fell into my head. From that point forward, the stories came more quickly and smoothly.

*

I miss my city. Eighteen months in my room is a long time to be separated from people watching, grabbing a coffee at a favorite café, chatting with store employees, having random and excellent encounters with strangers.

That last one is one of the things that struck me hardest during the 24 Hour Project. I miss talking to strangers, something I’ve always done quite a lot of … but not since Covid came to town. Around 7:30 Saturday morning, having seen my way through the long midnight-to-dawn of the challenge, I was headed home to charge my devices and recharge myself. I stopped in my grocery story because I still needed a photo for the hour. I saw an elderly woman I wanted to take a picture of. I did take a picture, but she surprised me by starting to talk to me.

Not only did she talk to me, but she was funny and sweet. At two moments in our conversation, she reached over and put her hand on my arm. You know, the way you reach for a friend’s arm when you’re talking and you want to emphasize your shared feeling at that instant. And she did it twice.

I am a toucher. I like affectionate physical contact. Not with everyone, of course, but yes, I like it. Having this woman touch me in this conversationally intimate way — after a forever of almost no physical contact, when we were strangers, when she was a tiny elderly white woman and I a big, Black woman — it was absolutely beautiful. It made my heart smile.

I have missed this type of sweetness my city has always given me. Yes, the city has given me some ugly moments, too, for sure. But I get much more of the random kindness and connection of that exchange in the chips and cookies aisle.

* * *

(My 24-Hour experience this year was a warm welcome back to my city. But what a difference a couple of weeks can make. I was out taking my pictures on July 24th … and now, Delta is threatening new lockdowns. I’m glad we got the Project in before the tide started to turn, and I really hope we can stay on the safer side of this variant wave.)

Do I dare? Well, I certainly always do when it comes to the 24 Hour Project. It’s such a great idea and a fun event, and I love following people from around the world, getting to see a day in their cities. This year I followed two Italians, a Pole, two Mexicans, one Turk, a couple of Australians, and a handful of people around this country. In a sense, I guess it’s a virtual way to have a random conversation with a stranger.

I need to get back to posting my leftovers … and some of the shots I’ve captured since the event. I’m already looking forward to next year!


It’s Tuesday, which means it’s Slice of Life day!
Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
and see what the other slicers are up to!

Original Slicer - GirlGriot

NOLA, Darling

The second trip I took with my mother was a tag-along trip. She was headed to New Orleans for a conference and invited me to share her hotel room. “I always get a double queen,” she explained, and said I should get a plane ticket and come on down. So I did. She was at work all day, but we had our nights to roam the city together, and it was pretty delightful. Because it was New Orleans and because it was my mother. And so …


Sense Memory
(or, Dreaming inside Her Dreams, 2)
Forty-eight, traveling with my mother

Is heat the secret, the magic key?
Those nights in New Orleans
unlocked new doors
slipped her back and back,
into her childhood
into memories you’d never heard before.

That first night, walking through the Quarter
searching for dinner
settling, heat-flattened
in a tiny, crowded spot.
She was tired, a little depleted
enjoying her meal but subdued.
Then she tried the bread pudding.
One taste —
her face opened.
She smiled, closed her eyes, smiled more deeply.
It wasn’t just good
it was memory.
It brought her mother to the table.
You watched her change,
leaned in as the stories began.

That night on the tram,
windows open to thicken the stifling air
both of you half conscious
the heat drawing you down, under.
Then the story began again —
her first visit to New Orleans as a child,
her aunt who lived in
working for a fancy family on the avenue.
Stories from behind the scrim,
the curtain she kept drawn over her past,
spilling one over the other,
what she knew, what she saw,
what she dreamed, what she lived.

And what you wouldn’t give
to take her back and back again
into her memories
into the stories you’d always wanted to hear.

Every night of that mid-summer trip,
both of you soft and wilted in the heat.
It let her guard slip,
let the girl of her come out
come quietly out and into your arms.
Your sweet mother,
a woman you’d never known playing behind her eyes.


It’s National Poetry Month!

As I have done for the last forever, I’ve chosen a poetic form, and I’m going to try to write a poem in that form every day for the month of April. I don’t always succeed, but I always give it my best shot. This year, the form I’ve chosen is the epistolary poem — poems written in the form of an epistle or letter. They are also called verse letters and letter poems. I’ve also chosen a theme for the month. Each “letter” is going to be written to a younger me: 12-year-old me on the first day of junior high, 5-year-old me navigating the overt racism of her kindergarten class, etc.

National-Poetry-Month-2020

Equilibrium Shift

Epistolary poems, eh? That’s what I wanted? That’s what I wanted? Why?

Yes, this is a familiar place for me: choosing a form for April … and immediately regretting my choice because the form presents challenges. Yeah, sounds about par for the course.

I got lucky yesterday. Luck … and reading the lyrics to Leonard Cohen’s “The Famous Blue Raincoat” are what got me through that poem. Today, I’ve already hit a wall. I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing with an epistolary poem. Am I talking to younger me? Am I just reminiscing? I am just painting pictures of the past? I’m stuck before I even start.

Needless to say, I’m not thrilled with tonight’s attempt. My fingers are crossed for some growth and change for tomorrow.


Equilibrium Shift
Nine years old, Troy

You’re not going to love it here,
but it’ll be okay.
You’ll be here two years.
You can hold on for two years.
And you’ll be smart here — you’ll trust fear.
You’ll recognize danger
and steer yourself wide, away.
You’ll be bullied here
but remember — it’s just for two years.

It won’t be all bad.
You’ll learn to climb trees.
You’ll meet a crazy, kind old woman
who’ll treat you with care.
(How you knew she was a safe place …
I still can’t fathom.)
You’ll have your first for-real best friend.
You’ll rediscover the power of words,
wielding them deftly, both shield and lance.
They will build you an arsenal
a fortress
freedom.

It won’t be all bad,
but it will be bad.

One day your mom will miss your signals.
She’ll agree to a playdate you want her to refuse.
That will be a bad day,
a choose-your-words-carefully scary day.
You’ll feel the shift in your equilibrium,
a strange internal shudder,
and it will tell you —
the people smiling into your face intend to harm you. Yes.
But you’ll come through.

Why write you now?
If everything’s fine, why focus here?
There’s something you know, something about you,
something I need to accept, to protect.
I should have advice, helpful things to tell you,
instead, I look at you with surprise.
You’re such a puzzle to me —
who are you?
Nearly 50 years later and more worldly wise,
I’ve yet to process the secrets you’re holding.
I can tell you which choices I’d make differently now
as if you might care what path I’d choose.
I can tell you again that it won’t all be bad …

In the end, I want to tell you I see you,
take you back to that day when you saved your own life.
I want your hand in mine as we walk down the street,
your hand in mine all the way across town
back toward Burdett Avenue — your house, your family,
toward as much safety as that town could allow.
I know it works out. I know they don’t hurt you.
I know you get home. I know that you’re fine.
Still,
I offer my fangs, my claws —
you needed a lioness that day, and I want to be her.


It’s National Poetry Month!

As I have done for the last forever, I’ve chosen a poetic form, and I’m going to try to write a poem in that form every day for the month of April. I don’t always succeed, but I always give it my best shot. This year, the form I’ve chosen is the epistolary poem — poems written in the form of an epistle or letter. They are also called verse letters and letter poems. I’ve also chosen a theme for the month. Each “letter” is going to be written to a younger me: 12-year-old me on the first day of junior high, 5-year-old me navigating the overt racism of her kindergarten class, etc.

National-Poetry-Month-2020