My upstairs neighbor’s son passed in a car crash yesterday. She came by crying and told us to forgive her for the family commotion upstairs. I told her not to worry, that I was there for her, but I didn’t mean it – not because I didn’t want to mean it, but because there’s nothing I can really do. I only learned her name this morning. I baked the family brownies and brought them over. She had hair rollers and was smiling.
This is the second son that’s died in our apartment building this year. I didn’t know them, but I’ve been thinking about them both all day. That’s all I’ve got for the Coffee Log. Tell your friends you love them.
I asked the cashier for her opinion: “Is this pot too small?”
She said it wasn’t, and that she liked the color. That it looked like the desert. I thanked her. This was at Fairview Garden Center.
I bought a cactus. It’s a Bishop’s Cap, a small one, missing most of it’s thorns, though one still got me. It came in a black plastic planter and I sat on the steps outside my apartment while I transferred it to its new pot. Looking at it calms me, like watching birds, and inspires me, because it’s something growing, something alive, sharing this room with me, trading each others’ air.
On Monday, I’ll take the cactus to work. I want him in my office, something less sterile than all the paperwork. I’ve named him Herbert and I’ll tell people that, co-workers, customers, and maybe they’ll think I’m crazy. But this thing’s living, it’s simple, and it’s good, because it doesn’t need to be anything other than itself, and I love it for that. I hope it grows good thorns.
Walking alone one morning a few weeks back in Midtown Atlanta, I came across three dilapidated stone walls with ivy growing through them. They used to be the foundation of something, but that something was long gone. A bit of gravel and an old log were all that was stuck between them.
That part of the neighborhood had houses on high hills overlooking the road. Just a block further up was a steep iron fire escape climbing three stories. A guy in a beanie and rolled up slacks was creeping onto it from the second-story window. But anyway, the area was steep, so the broken old walls were likely the bones of a basement. I liked the way the ivy had them, and the deep gray color, and the fact that the sun was hardly out, and the smell of burnt sugar, honeysuckle, and that I was walking away somewhere with someone waiting for me, but sleeping, so that the waiting could go on and on and on with no effort, stress, anticipation. I thought about taking a picture of the three walls but I didn’t. Cameras can’t capture the feeling of old ghosts.
I spend a lot of my time looking for anchors. Bits of scenery, something that seems familiar, important, and that can fix me to a position long enough to get a grasp on who I am. A dwindling creekbed I pass every morning, or downtown Durham after the gas explosion. Life goes so fast I can’t catch myself, so I try finding the places I’ve left myself waiting.
I thought about walking between the three old walls, taking a seat on the log, but I didn’t want to disturb it. Dilapidation hangs together like a card castle. The best I can do is share a bit of it here.
I talked to a Subway manager while he was ringing me up. “You know that I’ve always got stories,” he says. And I do know this because he’s told me a few before. I ask him for another. He takes off his clear plastic gloves so he can dig in.
Last week there was this old guy. Old old, he came in with a cane. The guy orders a sandwich, some kind of turkey, and pays with a card at the counter. He leaves the same way he came in. He hobbles all the way to the door.
An hour later, the manager finds a wallet. It’s a long one, like a pocket-book. It was set by the register and forgotten, Fall leaves. There’s a couple customers so the manager asks each of them if it’s theirs. It isn’t. He opens it up. Right there in the plastic window is the old guy again, staring through his license photo. So the manager thinks ‘I’ve got to find him.’ he looks around the license, finds credit cards and prescriptions, no phone numbers. There’s $1200 cash. Not knowing what else to do, he calls 911.
It’s late in the day when the old guy returns. He comes in without his cane and rushes to the register. The manager has the wallet, offers to let him look through, make sure nothing’s gone, but the old guy tells him he trusts him, that only a good person would go so far as to call 911 to return it. And that’s heartwarming, but the story doesn’t end there.
The old guy sticks around. There’s customers, a long line around dinner, and the old guy hangs in a corner without ordering. The manager thinks this is strange. He asks across the counter if the guy needs anything, but the guy just shrugs. Later, when the crowds are gone, the old guy comes up to the counter crying.
“I’d been saving for two years,” he says. All that cash? It was put off to take his ailing wife to Florida. She’s sick, she wants to see it again, and he’s finally got the money to show her. The man’s a mess. He’s salt rain and thank yous. He leaves waving with both hands and the manager feels good.
A few weeks later, a gift shows up at the Subway. There’s a batch of baked cookies and a t-shirt waiting by the counter. The manager asks what it is and the employee says it’s from the old man’s family, that there were ten of them in earlier wanting to thank him. He’s touched. The cookies taste like cinnamon and burnt sugar. The shirt’s a Florida palm.
When I left the Subway this evening, after paying, and thanking my friend for his long story, I thought about what the moral should be, and I came up with this: the only real heroes are people who are willing to go just a little bit out of their way.
He told me he takes care of his mother, full time. She can’t walk, can’t drive, needs a chauffeur for shopping. But she takes care of him too. He can’t afford a house, can’t work due to a lifelong back injury keeping him on disability. He loves her, but he calls her a job. He’s embarrassed when he says it, but I get it. We talk a little more about her, then he tells me about how proud he is that he won a bit in the lottery and got to pay his back-pay in child support.
A couple years ago, I got taught about care-taking by a friend whose family was caring for her grandmother with dementia. I was invited over sometimes, joined them all for home cooked dinners or take-out Chinese, chatted on the couch, watched old episodes of British sitcoms, and in those fits and starts it was easy. I’d hear her grandmother’s circular stories, the way she’d mention the same place twice, and I’d see my friend steal away for an hour in the evenings to help her get ready for bed, but what looks simple on the surface is hiding an always-on exhaustion. Love can be a ring of iron roses around your neck.
There’s this image that the family bonds that bind us make things easier, and they certainly can, but not without a lot of behind the scenes work. Kids, parents, anyone you’re taking care of constantly, whose wellbeing is directly dependent on you, is nothing short of a full-time job. And though it might be a job you love, there shouldn’t be any shame or stigma in saying it’s exhausting.
Everyone expected Emily to take care and take charge. It had always been this way. When her mother was sick, she’d filled out her own permission slips for school. When Jess signed up to bring home the kindergarten rabbit for the weekend, Emily took care of it.
Part of my job is making people think hard about how they’d like to die, and what they’d like to happen after. If you’re going to help someone look at their whole financial picture, you can’t help using a wide-angle lens.
Everyone’s got a different comfort level. Often, I’m the most uncomfortable one in the room. I’ve met old men who tell me they can’t wait to kick the bucket, and young guys who say death isn’t even a thing. I work with one 93 year-old on the regular, updating beneficiaries, getting everything straight. She’s told me she doesn’t particularly want to die, doesn’t expect it’ll happen any time soon, but figures she might as well get things ready for when it comes to introduce itself. Right now, she’s giving full-time care to her younger sister who’s suffering cancer.
I had an old man in my office today. He can’t hear well so I was shouting. He’s a nice guy, very friendly, everyone knows him. I asked how everything was going. He said it was going fine. I went through his accounts, made sure we were doing the best we could for him. We were. Then he said “I don’t know if it matters, though, because, you know, I might not get to next year.” And he wasn’t happy about it, he looked down. I told him that, if he wanted, I could help him with the planning, but that we didn’t have to, whatever made him comfortable. Then there was this moment, a long moment, and then we switched subjects. He talked about the first car he bought in the 1950’s, and how beautiful it was to drive.
I like people more when I see them smoking. Going back home from groceries, I saw a van, a ‘former State Senator’ bumper sticker, and a lady’s arm hanging out the window burning a white cigarette. I like the vice in it, the desperation. Turn lungs to tar, and for what? It makes you seem a little more human.
I’ve had a lazy 3-day weekend. Monday’s off for Columbus Day, so I went to the Nasher to see an exhibit on indigenous American art. Something that stuck with me was the way so many of the pieces seemed to be in communication with the history you hear about, a long-standing culture, colonial oppression. I came away wondering if that’s just what the artists show to a paying white audience and, if so, what is it that they show to each other when the lights go down and the only sound to hear is a sister’s breath?
I bought two pillows off Amazon then I thought about wage labor. Amazon’s not the worst offender but it’s got it’s hands in everyone else’s pies. I spent awhile looking for these pillows from different vendors but the only options were Wal-Mart or faceless eBay vendors. And I tried to find information on who made them, the parts and labor, what foreign factories they were abusing, but I couldn’t dig it up. There’s a lack of transparency that gets in the way of ethical action, and there’s a lack of options also. But in the end I was the one who funneled money to a mega-corporation responsible for devouring the American economy, for widespread store closure, for pushing radical, robotic efficiency on people trying to make a buck to survive. It was my dollars that bought the pillows, just like it’s my head that’ll sleep comfortable at night.
Columbus sailed the ocean blue, and landed on land where other people were living, and did his best to consume them in his colonial machine. He wasn’t the only evil white man crossing an ocean, but he’s one we still celebrate. And he’s somebody’s ancestor, maybe yours or mine. We’ve come a long way, but we still put people in chains, only they bite around your spirit rather than your skin.