Bangkok At Last

January 3, 2017

Bangkok, Thailand

Let me just get this out of the way: I need a damned camera. The one on the phone is just useless unless the subject is less than five feet away.  And then I need to learn how to use it. Otherwise, it’s just as useless.

Okay, that little item of business dispensed with, let’s get on with it. The airport in Bangkok was a breeze compared with my Shanghai experience. After the plane landed, I was able to quickly navigate my way to immigration, and the Thai officials were very efficient in getting us through the booths. I was at the baggage carousel before it began dispensing our luggage. I enjoyed a nice conversation with an American girl from New York, who was planning to stay in northern Thailand for about six months. Aven, (“it’s like ‘Raven’, but without the ‘R'”, she explained to me) had been here before, and had some helpful tips about the country. I’m still a rookie at traveling, so I’m happy whenever someone is willing to share their experience with me.

For the first time in memory, I actually had to show my claim tickets to collect my bags. Two hard-working Thais offloaded the items as they came around on the belt, saving us the trouble of having to wade through a crowd to snatch them off ourselves. I checked the time and saw that I still had several minutes before my friend was to pick me up outside exit number 4, our pre-arranged meeting spot. I quickly rolled the luggage cart over to the currency exchange, and received 3,382 Thai baht for the $100 US that I handed the woman along with my passport. The challenge is to try to remember how much you are spending in American money when everything is in a different currency.

Titima, my friend who hosted me for one night during my last trip here in May, met me with her car outside the entrance. Sitting in the left-hand seat without a steering wheel or pedals always throws me a bit. Thais drive on the left side of the road, which is a bit unnerving when you see oncoming traffic in the lane where you think you are supposed to be. I’m sure I’ll get used to it eventually, as long as I remember to look to the right before crossing the street. It took about 30 minutes to reach her home, driving through an incomprehensible maze of highways and side streets and alleys. I truly have no idea where in town I am, or how to navigate. I didn’t have time to grab a new SIM card for my phone, so Google maps is just a pretty little icon on my homescreen for now.

After hauling my bags up the stairs to the third-story bedroom in Titima’s lovely home, I washed up and then we left to go pick up her younger son, Ben, and his girlfriend who was introduced to me as “B”.  They had a family gathering at the university hospital to visit an ailing relative, so I was introduced to several of her family members. I was to wait inside a small coffee shop on campus while they gathered together visiting grandmother, and I availed myself of the opportunity to eat something and try not to fall asleep at the table. Jet-lag is always a problem for me, and I was determined to stay up as long as possible, even though I had only slept for two hours the previous night. When they returned, they ordered dinner for themselves, and we had a nice chat. I’ve met both of Titima’s sons now. Paul, the older one who stays with her, I met on my previous visit. He is a broadcast news editor and works early hours. Ben works as an on-air personality at the same government-owned radio station. Both of them are very fluent in American-style English, having spent much of their earlier lives in Texas. They are extremely polite and pleasant company to be around. So conversation around the table was not difficult, and it helped to keep me awake. I did fall asleep in the car on the ride back home. I just hope that I didn’t snore loudly.

Since New Year’s Eve and Day fell on Saturday and Sunday this year, yesterday and today (Monday and Tuesday) are observed holidays. We decided to head to one of the temples near Nakhon Pathom, a town to the east of Bangkok. When we arrived, there were several hundred people sitting in the courtyard at tables while the orange-robed monks delivered a prayer service. I’m not certain how long the service had been going on, but about two minutes after we walked up to the spot, the monks went silent and everyone got up and queued up at long buffet tables where sat huge pots of rice and countless platters of various home-cooked food. Titima, and her sister who joined us, led me into the line and told me to fill a plate for myself. I really didn’t know what it was all about, but when offered home-cooked dishes that I’m not familiar with, I almost always say yes. I took a little of this, a little of that, until my plate was filled with small tastes of meats, seafood, rice, noodles, and curry sauces. I asked what the occasion was, and they informed me that this is a regular practice, weekly at least, if not more often. The monks are forbidden to dine after noon-time, and the faithful worshippers bring food for them to eat. Anything left over (which is a tremendous amount) is distributed to the tables for everyone to eat pot-luck style. I felt a little guilty, because number one, I’m not Buddhist. Number two, I didn’t bring anything. I also noticed that out of the hundreds of people in attendance, I was the only non-Thai person there. Yet nobody looked at me funny, or pointed and whispered. They handed me a plate and treated me like anyone else. I was made to feel at home.  Definitely a privilege that I appreciate being able to be part of.

After the meal, everyone took their plates to a communal wash station. Plates and silverware (Thais prefer the western utensils over chopsticks in most cases) were washed in soapy water, then rinsed off in a series of three sinks to make sure that they were free of soap residue. It was really something to see and be a part of. Nobody expected someone else to take care of it for them.

We then adjourned to another building, an open-sided library, that sat along a body of brown water. We respectfully left our shoes at the entrance, a custom whenever entering any temple structure. While my friends looked over some books for purchase, I wandered over to the railing overlooking the water. As I allowed my eyes to gaze out over the pond at the beautiful building on the other side, I caught some movement in my peripheral vision.  Gliding through the water was a monitor lizard. He eventually climbed out of the murky basin, through the lush green flora, and onto the grass. I estimate his length from nose to tail was about 7 feet. It was interesting watching him walk, using his left-front and right-rear legs simultaneously to propel himself forward, then repeating the opposite sides. He didn’t stay out long. Monitor lizards are shy, and he left as a small group of people came his way from around the building. I also saw some very big carp swimming below the surface, colors ranging from whitish pink to orange to brown. A large snapping turtle lazily floated in the shallows. I tried to take good pictures, but as I said before…

The variety of trees surrounding me was stunning. I found myself staring up towards the sky to view them, then realized that I probably looked just like the Nebraskan folks that I poke fun at when they visit the concrete forests of Chicago. The Thai people possibly thought of me as a naive tourist, but are way too polite a society to say anything rude.

We briefly visited the next building, which held an altar. I followed Titima up the steps and into the main hall. She explained to me the proper manner in which to sit and supplicate the Buddha- different styles for men and for women. I did not perform the ritual myself, since I’m no longer religious, and somewhat a non-jihadi atheist.  But I did kneel, showing respect for those worshippers around me as they went through their prayers.

Despite the fact that this was only half of what I did on this amazing day, I’m going to end my post here. I don’t want to run on and on, because I fear that my small audience will shrink instead of grow if the stories take longer to read than the amount of time allotted to a reasonable trip to the restroom. (Because that’s where you are reading this, aren’t you?)

Onward…

January 1, 2017

Somewhere over Thai Airspace

As I looked at the neighborhoods of Chicago for the last time from the window of the Lyft that I ordered to take me to the airport, I almost became overwhelmed at the thought of leaving this beautiful city that I have called home for 3 1/2 years. True, I’ve lived longer in other places, but Chicago truly has become my hometown. I love it more than any other place I’ve lived in my 48 years of existence. I talk about it proudly to anyone I happen to meet from other places, explaining the rich history, the charm of the green space and parks, the lovely, unmatched shoreline devoid of commercial or residential high-rises that would spoil the view. I tell them about the food they must try, about the free music, the neighborhood festivals. When I do this, I am reminded of the times that I personally have taken advantage of these, and how much I enjoyed them. Sure, Chicago has her problems, the poverty, corruption, violence, winter… but overall, I am in love with her. Frank Sinatra sang about Chicago being his girlfriend. Maybe she was, but Old Blue Eyes is dead, so…

But as much as I love Chicago, I realized a while back that I needed to change. Change my life, change my habits, my scenery, my occupation. Otherwise, I’d miss out on so much of what else this world has to offer. And that would be a shame. So, I’m taking a leap of faith. The totality of my material possessions now fit inside a suitcase, a large backpack, and a day pack. And I’m on my way to Thailand.

I kept thinking that the day was off in the distance. But it crept up on me when I was busy preparing for it. So I found myself in the Lyft, ready to go, but not ready. Not completely ready emotionally, anyway. And not packed correctly for the trip, either. At the airport, I discovered that my suitcase was overweight. Cards Against Humanity has done me in again at the airport. I wanted to bring my whole set because it’s the only game I have left. And it weighs in at over 6 kilos. So, I had to pull my bags over to the side, sit on the floor, and repack everything. Fortunately, I kept my empty messenger bag instead of giving it away, and was able to fit almost all of the cards into that, thus bringing my suitcase in just under the 25 kilos allowed, and giving me a personal item to bring on the plane in addition to the day pack that served as my carry-on. The cards would subsequently fuck me one more time, as the TSA screening machine cannot tell what the dense boxes of material are. For the second time, I had my bags pulled aside and inspected while the TSA agent assured himself that the contents were simply an irreverent game and not blocks of C-4.

 So, at approximately 1:50pm CST on December 30, 2016, I wistfully enjoyed my final glimpse of the Windy City skyline from over the wing of the big Boeing 777-300, and I was on my way to Shanghai. That’s a long flight. Fifteen hours in the air is a tad uncomfortable. I watched several movies instead of trying to sleep, holding my bladder for the first several hours while the cute couple sitting next to me took turns napping with their heads in each other’s laps. They were very nice, though. Eric, a young guy who grew up in the northern suburbs had taken his Chinese girlfriend, Amy back to Chicagoland for Christmas with the family. Eric has been teaching English in Wuhan for the last two years. (How do I keep meeting these people?) So we chatted a bit about China and Chicago. It was encouraging to hear his story about how he was doing well in his chosen profession and life abroad. 

My plans for Shanghai had consisted of clearing customs and catching a train into the city to enjoy some street food with a friend of mine who lives there. However, those plans didn’t work out as I had hoped. First of all, it was explained to me that I would have to collect my baggage in Pudong airport and find a place to store them before check-in on New Year’s Day. I guess that comes with the 14-hour layover. Getting through customs itself took quite a while. Then trying to locate and grab my suitcase and backpack off the carousel was a chore, because everyone crowded around the  moving belt like they were watching a cockfight. I helplessly witnessed my suitcase going around twice before I was able to muscle my way into the crowd and grab it before it took the long, circuitous journey one more time. Finding the place to check bags didn’t take terribly long, but along the way, I was propositioned by a local man who told me that the bag storage was prohibitively expensive, and that it would be cheaper to book a local hotel and take the free shuttle there instead. But I’ve been conned before, so I told him I’d let him know if the bag storage idea didn’t work. I was correct. He was playing me. Then came the issue with paying for the storage. It was cash only, and the only cash I had was Benjamin Franklins, which don’t work as well for paying for things over there. They like pictures of different guys on their currency. So began the ordeal of trying to get RMB, or Chinese Yuan, to pay the fee. The currency exchange booth shut down early, the ATM next to it only worked for Shanghai bank cards, my new Chase Sapphire Visa card didn’t work in the upstairs international ATM (and the toll-free international number on the back of the card wasn’t in service), so I finally just swiped my debit card and took out 300 Yuan, foreign transaction fees be damned. By the time I got my bag storage paid for, I had been in the airport terminal for over two hours, and I was exhausted. I had already told my friend that I probably wouldn’t make it in time to meet her before the train system shut down for the night, stranding her far from home. So I chalked it up to having an experience, not getting upset about it, and plopped myself and my carry-on down in a leather lounge seat inside a deserted priority ticketing area to try to sleep.

Just when I had given up hope of having a decent time in Shanghai, I got a text message from Ming Lee, a Taiwanese girl from couchsurfing, whom I had contacted to see if she’d like to join my now-abandoned excursion into the city to eat, as her layover was around the same time as my own. She hadn’t been able to contact me using the spotty, free airport Wi-Fi. When she found out that I hadn’t left the airport, she was surprised. She was on her way to a hotel that she had booked for $35US, because she didn’t want to sleep in the airport and needed a shower. She offered to let me split the room with her, and I gratefully accepted, grabbed a taxi (after fending off the predatory, non-metered crooks), and joined her shortly after she arrived. We both showered (separately, of course), rang in 2017 by splitting a bottle of water supplied in the room, then went out to grab some food and beer. Honestly, as dull as that may sound to you, that was the one of the best New Years celebrations I’ve ever done. We returned to the room and talked for a bit before going to sleep at 2am. I got about two hours of sleep and woke up before the alarm went off. 

Surprisingly, I felt great, having stayed up over 30 hours since beginning my last morning in Chicago. I grabbed a hot wake-me-up shower, dressed quickly, said goodbye to Ming Lee, and caught a taxi back to the terminal. Getting through the ticketing counter was a breeze. Then I completely failed at being an experienced traveler going through security. I did a great job of unpacking my laptop and tablet to be scanned separately, off with the belt and jacket (shoes aren’t a requirement over here), and proceeded not once, not twice, but three times to set off the metal detector. I had forgotten that I had been wearing a money belt, forgot my cell-phone and wallet, and forgot the change jingling around in my front pocket. I thought the Chinese TSA-equivalent lady was going to brain me with her wand. 

I still had about 40 Yuan left to spend, and so I grabbed a nice breakfast in one of the airport cafes, joined at the table by a delightful young woman from Hong Kong, who has been living in NY going to university. Yu, as her name turned out to be, hadn’t said anything to me, but then let on that she spoke English when she had to translate to me the question from the waiter, “tea or coffee?” So we got to talking about what we liked about Hong Kong, where she was headed to visit her friends, and about New York, where she doesn’t like the pizza. Oh, well. I guess nobody’s perfect. 

My seatmates in the exit row of the plane promptly passed out as soon as we began taxiing to the runway. The two idiots on across the aisle pulled out a large container of Baileys Vanilla/cinnamon-flavored Irish Cream and began swigging directly from the bottle. They went completely unconscious in flight, not even noticing the fat Chinese man with the short legs and big fanny-pack climbing over them to get to the aisle. It was almost comical to watch, but God help us if we had had to ditch the plane, because I believe this was the most inept group of adults in the emergency exit row that I have ever seen.  Nobody seems to understand or care about the safety rules of flight, because more than one person actually unbuckled their safety belts and walked down the center of the plane towards the bathrooms while we were still climbing to altitude. I thought that the flight attendant was going to blow a gasket, but she just calmly grabbed the microphone and said something in Chinese, then sat in her jumpseat smiling until the wayward passengers finally made it back to the safety of their seats. 

I’m currently still on the flight, and we are beginning our descent into Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport, where my friend Titima will be waiting to pick me up. Scheduled landing is at 12:30pm on New Year’s Day, fitting for me to begin my new life. I’m beginning to get a little excited. 

India House

December 27, 2016

New Orleans, Louisiana

As I’m sitting at a picnic table under an umbrella in the courtyard of the India House Hostel in the Mid-City section of New Orleans, I am reflecting on the past four (five?) days and nights that I’ve spent in the Big Easy. It’s a good day for reflection. The sky is overcast, the ground is wet and the trees are still dripping a bit of the remainder of the latest shower. The temperature is noticeably cooler today, which is nice. I have just bid goodbye to a nice German girl who was hoisting her backpacks onto her shoulders, front and back. By her own admission, she has too much stuff. In one of her hands is a plastic bag full of items that would not fit into her luggage. I’m left to assume that she purchased some t-shirts or other memorabilia from New Orleans, perhaps as gifts for people back home, where she told me she is headed.  She strikes me as someone who is not a novice at traveling, and has stayed in many hostels in many cities. I don’t recall her name, just where she is from, and the brief conversation that we shared with a guy from Colombia the other night.

Hostel living is a relatively new experience for me. It’s completely different from staying in a hotel, where you have your own large room, television, bathroom. In a hostel, you are usually sleeping, dressing, and storing your bags in the same large room as perhaps 12 other guests. It can feel a little close. Most of the time, the actual occupancy is much lower than the availability of beds. Which means that most travelers select the bottom bunk (nobody but a kid likes to have to climb up and throw themselves on the mattress while trying not to bump their head on the ceiling) and then use the top bed frame as a hanger for their clothing. If you want some semblance of privacy, you use your blanket as a curtain, stuffing one edge of it under the upper mattress and draping the remainder down, covering your own bed, a trick that comes in handy if the hostel has provided a small light on the wall next to the bunk, because then you can read a book without disturbing your fellow guests. I do not have a light this time. My current “room” is a converted shotgun-style house that holds 8 bunk beds, and sleeps 16. There are two toilets and three showers. It’s not as clean as some of the hostels in which I’ve stayed in Asia, but neither is it a roach-infested, smelly pig-sty which is how some other hostels have been described.  I am told that the original owner was enthralled by Indian culture, hence the name and much of the colorful decoration found on the property.

The courtyard where I am sitting is equal parts beautiful tropics and rustic shanty-town. There are lush plants- ferns, banana trees, etc.- scattered throughout. Ringing the courtyard are several clapboard-clad houses that are covered in colorful murals of smiling lobsters, a brass jazz band, a Mardi Gras parade, and several other eclectic works. Directly in front of me is the outdoor kitchen, a collection of rusting white refrigerators of various sizes, a large, stainless steel utility sink, and a restaurant-grade gas grill. This kitchen is also laid out in an “L” shape, but unlike most others, the “L” is inverted, meaning that the cook must walk around a 90-degree corner to get from the stove to the sink, with the refrigerators in between.  Incongruently, there’s a 50″ flat screen television mounted on the wall above the sink, facing the large portico that houses church-pew seating that surrounds a large table. There is an old, dusty piano against one wall. I have no idea if it works, but I’m guessing that it isn’t tuned, even if it does. The only other building that is visible from where I sit is a large, brick, mission-style church with terra-cotta tiled roof, rounded stained-glass windows, and a six-story bell tower. The entire effect is of being transported to an unnamed developing country.

The morning cook is frying up some bacon that is tempting me sorely. I remember that I’ve not eaten since yesterday at noon. (Strike that, I had a small portion of multi-grain tortilla chips with hummus a short while ago. What’s wrong with my memory, anyway?) The hostel provides breakfast cooked-to-order every day from 9am – 1pm for a reasonable price. Dinner is $6, and the offerings vary. On Christmas Day, the staff put on a killer feast- including baked ham, deep-fried turkey, homemade stuffing, potatoes, green bean casserole, macaroni and cheese, and much more. The cranberry dressing was delicious. For dessert, there were two massive pans filled with an outstanding bread pudding.  We were served family-buffet style, and after at least 40 of us had filled our plates, we hadn’t even taken half of what was prepared. Seconds, anyone? And in the spirit of Christmas, dinner was free.

I’m on my second cup of coffee as I wait for my new exploring companions to rise and greet the day. On Saturday night, I met up with Jonny, an Aussie couchsurfer who was having banking issues due to the holiday. I bought him a beer in the Famous Door bar on Bourbon Street as we listened to a pretty good band play rock music. When the first set ended, he and I walked a few blocks down through the perpetual party to a piano bar where we found Alejandra and MayLing, two Panamanian girls who were part of the couchsurfing messaging group that had been set up for a Christmas party here in New Orleans. It turned out that the girls were also staying at India House. So, because of convenience, and because we enjoy each others’ company, we have been discovering the sights, sounds, and tastes of NOLA together.  Sometimes we are joined by Daniele, an Italian guy who stayed here for a couple of nights before being hosted through Couchsurfing.  Alejandra, who promised that she was getting up at 7am, has just messaged me (at 9:30) to say that they are up, and will be ready in an hour. I’m guessing it’ll be more like 90 minutes.

The bacon trick seems to be working. A crowd of at least a dozen are ordering, sitting, eating, while yet others wander in and out of the main house. Most of the crowd is much younger than me, although one of my bunk-mates is roughly my age, if I had to guess. He seems quite at home here, and for all I know, he may live here semi-permanently. He got up, showered, and dressed himself business-casual. He’s using the portico as a makeshift office with his laptop and phone. I guess I’m doing the same.

For the past half-hour or so, I’ve been talking to a delightful girl from New Zealand. Pat is visiting New Orleans for the third time, and we’ve been swapping travel stories. I think that’s what really makes hostels so appealing to me. In a hotel, you’re protected from having to deal with other people by your four walls. But, why do we want to be protected from being in contact with other people? Aren’t other people and the interaction we get with them the very things that make travel and life interesting? Hotels can be very comfortable in a physical sense, especially the luxury ones. But I find them to be very uncomfortable in a spiritual sense, as they tend to disconnect us from life. The beauty of being human is in embracing our humanity, being interested and engaged with other humans. We are supposed to be a social species. Yet this whole “stranger danger!” outlook has been allowed to separate us from each other. Many of my fellow countrymen dream of a vacation in Paris or London, or if they are bold an exotic locale like Hong Kong. They save their thousands of dollars, buy the round-trip ticket, stay in the best hotel they can afford, then they go see the sights. They eat at the same “quaint” little cafes where their friends ate the year before, and go take a picture in front of Big Ben or the Eiffel Tower, take a ride in a cycle-powered rickshaw to the noodle place that the concierge recommends to every western tourist. They purchase their trinkets, get back on their plane, and come home with the same fucking boring stories, pictures, and experiences that their neighbor has. They didn’t experience what it’s like to live in France. They tell the cutesy stories about the conversation they had with the cabbie with the Bri’ ish accent, but other than speaking with people in the service industry, they really didn’t connect with the locals at all. And so their experience was sanitized.

I’m not trying to say that hostels or couchsurfing are for everyone. But if you don’t take the effort to have a real and meaningful interaction with other people who don’t look, talk, eat, or dress like you, then you have missed out on some of the best life has to offer.

I’ve just now come back from spending the day with Alejandra and MayLing, riding the trolley, walking down Chartres Street while drinking beers at 11am, eating gator sausage dog and crawfish ettouffee fries before seeing the outdoor art museum at City Park. They have gone off to see a Dr. John concert. It’s taco night at India House, and I’m about to head over for a plate, and then join a group of other travelers, including an Aussie who seems to have lots of cools stories about kangaroos and snakes.

Mealsharing

December 20, 2016

Chicago, Illinois

I believe that I promised at one point to tell you about my experience with a part of the sharing economy that has become a large part of my life. As you know, I have been hosting guests through the Couchsurfing (CS) website for over three years. This has been a good opportunity to meet people from different countries and cultures. And I definitely have enjoyed the social aspect of it.

Not long after I began hosting guests, there was an invitation on the local (CS) page to enjoy Thai food in a local host’s home on a Sunday evening. This was definitely appealing to me, and I joined up. When I arrived at the upstairs apartment, I found that there were a lot more people than I had expected. Friday (the host – cute name, cute girl) explained that there were a few people from CS, some were from her community garden, some from Mealsharing, a couple of coworkers, etc. I asked her what Mealsharing was, and she started to explain how people signed up on a website to come to meals that were posted. She then stopped and told me to talk to some guy named Jay who was standing next to the sofa conversing with other guests, because evidently he was the person who founded the website.

I have no problem introducing myself to people who have something interesting to share, so I walked over to this young guy in his mid-to-late-twenties, told him my name and that Friday had sent me his way. Jay was very pleasant to talk to, and enthusiastically began to enlighten me on this very cool concept where local home cooks posted information about a meal that they wanted to cook on the website, then waited for other locals to sign up to come eat the meal with them and others who joined. He then warmly invited me to come on the following Thursday to his home, where he was going to be cooking authentic Indian dishes that he was raised on. I readily accepted his offer, and was told that if I wanted to bring a guest, that would be fine.

I asked my friend, Erica, whom I had met on a dance floor in a city park a couple of months before if she would like to join me for some Indian food. We took the bus, even though it was only 12 blocks from my apartment building to Jay’s condo in the South Loop neighborhood of Chicago. As we approached the building, I double-checked to be sure we had the correct place. This was not lost on Erica, because she expressed surprise that I wasn’t sure of my friend’s address. When I mentioned that I had only just met Jay about four days prior, her face became contorted in horror as her eyes widened to the size of saucers. “What??!! You don’t KNOW this guy?? How do we know that he isn’t going to drug our food, or POISON us??!”  I still get a kick out of her reaction when I remember it. I smiled, then calmly pointed out the unlikelihood of that happening, but I offered to abstain from eating so that I would be unaffected and able to assist her if she were to be overcome by our host’s evil intentions.

The food was simple, yet delicious: chana masala, a spicy shredded carrot salad, some naan, and yogurt to temper the heat from the peppers. What I remember most fondly, though, was the fun and interesting conversation that was happening around the table. I really didn’t know these people. I had only briefly met Jay, and known Erica for only a short time. The others were complete strangers. But after joining together to eat and then continue our discussions afterwards for at least another 90 minutes, I felt like I had known them for a while. And Erica didn’t get poisoned. As I recall, she loved the meal.

I soon found other mealshares to attend, and regularly began signing up for them. To help cover the cost of the food and preparation, there is a nominal fee (set by the individual host) that is deducted from your credit card when you join a meal, thus obviating the need to bring cash to the table and making things awkward for all. Simply find a meal that you wish to attend, sign up, and go. I found that this was my favorite option for dining. Because otherwise, I had two choices when it came to eating: I could cook for myself, and it could be great food, or it could be crap, and the conversation would be non-existent. Or, I could go out to eat, pay a little, or pay a lot. The food might be great, or might be mediocre. And my conversation would consist of “Table for one.”  “I’ll order the…”  “Yes, it’s good, thank you.” “Check please.”  And the experience would last anywhere between 20 and 45 minutes.  But with mealsharing, I get to go and eat good quality dishes, maybe not fancy, but good. I have great conversation with other people who have differing life experiences to share. And the time that is spent is much more in quantity and quality than when dining alone.

One of the more interesting things that I’ve observed about mealsharing versus dining out is the lack of cellphone activity.  I find myself caught between amusement and irritation when I go to a restaurant and witness families, friends, couples on dates, all sitting at the table together, but instead of interacting with the people they are with, are interacting with their electronic devices. Texting, Facebooking (yes, I guess that’s a verb now), or otherwise choosing to be involved with others who are not even there. During a typical mealshare, cellphones come out to take pictures, but are generally set aside as the participants exchange ideas and experiences with each other.

I’ve personally attended over 140 mealshares since I began. I’ve hosted over a dozen myself. Each is a unique experience. I’ve enjoyed authentic Chinese dumplings, Vietnamese pho, German schnitzel, Congo chicken moambe, Mexican tamales, and many, many more. Sometimes the food is as simple as burgers and hot dogs. I personally served up peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at one of my own mealshares. (Granted, they were GOOD pb&j)  The whole point of the pb&j mealshare was that the menu or featured cuisine takes a back seat to the good times and friendship that the experience offers.

Many of the people that I’ve come to know through mealsharing have become more than occasional dining companions. We get together for other events or activities. I’ve been hiking with Jueun and Huan. I went to a drag show at a gay bar with Cathy and Julia where George was a performer. Tony and Ina took me to a burlesque show. Coco and I went to a movie a couple of weeks ago, and she graciously offered me her couch for my last week here in Chicago as I am technically homeless. Jay frequently hits me up to go to Chinatown for late-night snacks and smoothies.

These are obviously my personal experiences with this exciting and rewarding way to share my life with others in a social network. But Mealsharing is a world-wide website, with home cooks in many countries signed up to host a meal for travelers or locals who ask. I hope to begin hosting meals again myself when I get myself set up in Thailand. If you are interested in becoming a host in your city or town, or just want a good, local, home-cooked meal and conversation when you travel, check out their website at www.mealsharing.com.

Breakdowns

December 19, 2016

Chicago, Illinois

There’s a blue Post-it Note bearing the number “3” stuck to the bottom-left corner of my computer screen at work. For the last month, I’ve begun my mornings by replacing the previous day’s sticky note with a new number, counting down the days until I clock out for the final time at this job. Now that I’ve been into the single digits for almost a week, the number seems to be an accusation. It reminds me that I still have much to accomplish before I leave.

This past weekend, I spent almost all of my time trying to get my apartment emptied and cleaned. It’s been frustratingly slow trying to sell my belongings. Using Craigslist wasn’t particularly successful. Many people asked questions about items they were interested in, but very few actually showed up and purchased them. I was lucky enough to get rid of the bigger, more expensive items, but I was deeply discounting much of the merchandise. I posted flyers in my building, advertising the “everything must go” sale, but got little response. In a moment of panic and brilliance, I invited a bunch of friends over for a cocktail/hors d’oeuvres party with a silent auction. The problem was that my friends didn’t really need anything. So a few small items were bid on, and I made a bit of money, but most of the stuff remained, mocking me for my recent foray into materialism. Two Indian girls, students who live in my building, came up and asked for my microwave and rice cooker. I told them to put what they liked in a pile, and I would make them a good deal on the lot. They bargained me down. And then proceeded to ask for other items to be put into the pile without increasing the price. I’m a really bad haggler. They left happy.  And still I owned too much. The last thing I wanted to do was to have to schlep all of these items down to my car and then take several trips to a charitable donation center.

The next night, when the girls returned to take advantage of my horse-trading skills once again, I made them a super deal. I told them to take whatever they wanted, with the agreement that they also take everything else. That seemed to work well. I was now down to my bed, which a friend had already spoken for, and one bicycle. The rest of the stuff was personal items that I needed to sort through and decide what I couldn’t live without in Thailand.

I also now had my roommate’s possessions to move. She was scheduled to move her personal effects on Friday evening before flying to the east coast for a family function. But her flight was cancelled ahead of a snowstorm that never really materialized, and she was lucky to get a flight out Friday night before the blizzard conditions were to hit. That left me to do the cleaning and moving by myself. I am not at all upset with her, because the circumstances were not her fault. But now my last weekend in Chicago was going to be spent packing up, cleaning, and moving instead of going out and enjoying the city one final time.

On Saturday, as I surveyed the mess around me, I had myself a bit of a breakdown. I started to doubt my decision to move to an unknown situation. I asked myself what the hell did I think I was doing? Was I really up to this challenge? So I took a break and turned on Netflix. I have discovered a Swedish show with English subtitles about three different Swedish individuals or families that emigrated to Thailand, and the trials they go through. It takes place near Phuket, and the beauty of it and the charm of the people tend to make me remember why I am going.

So yesterday, I got busy and got everything out. A friend and I drove around and donated my overabundance of blankets, pillows, and towels to the homeless. Some people came and took items that I advertised on Free-cycle.  A friend of a friend brought his van and helped me move my roommate’s stuff in exchange for gas money and what was left of the household goods. Finally, around 9:30 pm, I exited my apartment for the last time after mopping the floor. The only thing left to do is empty my storage unit, then turn in the keys and parking decal. Later, I’ll sleep like the dead on my friend’s couch. Officially homeless now, I’ll come to work tomorrow and write a nice, big “2” on the next Post-It Note.

The Karmic Dumpster

November 23, 2016

Chicago, Illinois

With the exception of a short stint in the ritzier River North neighborhood of Chicago, I’ve lived in the same apartment building on the south side for the last three years. The first two years, I rented a 400 square-foot studio on the 18th floor. I moved in without much. When I separated from my now-ex-wife, I pretty much took what would fit in my car. I had no furniture, no kitchenware, no electronic entertainment. I had planned to go back and get a few items, because there were plenty more than necessary for her. She, however, told me to give her a list of what I wanted, and she would decide what she would let me have. Fuck that. Not in the mood to kowtow to her over material items, I decided that I’d just start over and buy all new things. And thanks to IKEA, I was able to get the basics fairly inexpensively.

Of course, there are always items that you discover you need later on. When I began hosting couchsurfers, I found that many of them preferred to drink tea instead of the free coffee that is available in the lobby downstairs. So I purchased a tea kettle. And a toaster, because when my girlfriend visited, she told me that she enjoyed toast for breakfast. I rarely get to eat breakfast at home because of my work schedule, and when I did, I simply toasted my bread on a skillet. I didn’t mind having to purchase these items at the store, as they helped me be a more accommodating and confident host.

While I no longer confess a belief in an omniscient and omnipotent God, I have reached the conclusion that karma, or something like it, may, in fact, be real. I have always tried to treat others well, and many times gone out of my way to be helpful. And it seems that the universe has perhaps been paying attention and rewarding me for my good deeds. I have opened my home countless times for travelers, over 150 individuals, and never have I had a bad experience. Rather, it seems that I am blessed instead. And one of the ways that I seem to find blessings is by simply walking out the door and passing the trash dumpster on the path to my car.

I had purchased an iron, because that seemed to be something that a grown-up would own. When I was married, we had an iron, and I am fairly adept at using it, even though I prefer to let the dry cleaner press my shirts and pants. But a traveler may not have the time to wait on a dry cleaner. So the iron was mainly for my guests. I did not, however, have the funds for an ironing board at the time. I figured that in a pinch, they could iron on the floor with a blanket or something underneath their clothes to be pressed. But not two days after I purchased the iron, I passed by the dumpster corral behind my building, and there stood an ironing board. Not new, but in good condition. And it went right up to my apartment where it fit neatly in my walk-in closet.

Later, after hosting a party of five young ladies for a weekend, it became apparent that the bathroom mirror above the sink was insufficient. They were all trying to crowd in the tiny space to take turns making sure that their make-up looked right, and then having to ask their friends how they looked in their clothes. This was important, because we (they invited me) were going out to a swanky club. One of the girls mentioned to me that what I really needed was a full-length mirror. I had not really thought of that as a need before, but I completely understood her point. Again, within the week, the dumpster provided for my “needs”.  Someone had put out a 12″ x 48″ (30cm x 122cm) framed mirror that simply needed to be attached to the back of my bathroom door. Perfect!

Since that time, I have found folding chairs when I needed them, a set of four nice wooden dining chairs in excellent condition that went to a friend who was needing them, a beautiful lacquered wooden table with legs that folded neatly underneath. This was perfect for when I needed a coffee table for after dinner drinks or a game of cards with friends. And perfect for when I didn’t need it, as it stored very neatly tucked in the gap beside the refrigerator. It’s been uncanny how the dumpster knows what I need.

As I have been preparing for my move to Thailand, one of the items that I have kept in the back of my mind that I need is a large piece of luggage, I used my last suitcase to ship the rest of my girlfriend’s belongings to her in California after she moved back for school. So I had been planning to see if there was a sale on luggage before I have to vacate my apartment next month. Last week I walked downstairs and out to my car with a friend so that I could donate the frozen turkey that my employer graciously gives me every year before Thanksgiving. And sitting right in front of the dumpster was a large, black suitcase. It was in excellent condition. The wheels worked. The handle worked. The zippers worked. It was clean, and had stickers on the outside indicating that it had recently been through Hong Kong International Airport. The inside was filled with empty shoe boxes, women’s size 6. It perfectly fits my needs for my move. And the shoeboxes served to remind me of another good deed that I had promised myself that I would do. I filled two of them with gifts to be distributed by the Samaritan’s Purse charity for their Operation Christmas Child drive. One box for a girl, and one for a boy. I hope to keep paying it forward, as I continue to be blessed.

I hope there’s a dumpster like this in Thailand.

In Memoriam

November 19, 2016

Chicago, Illinois

Hello Readers,

It’s been a few days since my last post. I’ve missed you. I apologize for allowing myself to get so distracted that I didn’t take a few minutes at least to write something. I don’t really have a good excuse, but my not-so-good one goes like this: I’ve been so busy at work and then with trying to sell off my belongings at home and Netflix. I’ve accomplished quite little that I had hoped to. I tell myself “tomorrow”, but then I’m still tired and hungry and unmotivated when I get home from work.

This morning I got all busy and motivated. After dropping my roommate off at the train station so she wouldn’t be late for her new job, I went and hung flyers in all of the buildings in my apartment complex, even though I wasn’t supposed to, according to management. Then I returned home to continue organizing my sale and putting out new items. My living room looks like a consignment store. And I’ve had not one single person call or stop by in the three hours that I’ve been “open” today. Somewhat discouraging, but I still have faith.

One of the containers that I was dreading going through was the one that held all of my documents. I don’t have an organized filing system, so I end up tossing check stubs, insurance papers, tax returns, etc. in the plastic bin.  I started the onerous task of going through the stacks of papers and envelopes, throwing most of it in a bag to be safely disposed of, meaning I’m going to throw it directly in the back of a garbage truck that comes to my work after it collects the foul-smelling trash of local restaurants and a candy manufacturer. I figure that if anyone is ambitious enough to crawl through a landfill looking for my information, they’ll probably be way behind the slightly-less ambitious person who hacked into the IRS for my details. Nobody is safe.

Of course, I had other items in the container. Pictures from long ago. Of my kids and me. Of places I’ve visited. Ticket stubs from shows I’ve gone to. Postcards that I never filled out and mailed. I came across my parents’ wills. I have them because I am listed as executor. A job that I never want to do.

I found copies of a five-page letter that I wrote to a former girlfriend explaining to her why I decided to stay with my wife and how I had prayed to God for forgiveness and that she should do the same. (Okay, that is a very simplistic description of the letter, but you really don’t have time for the whole story) I don’t know why I have held onto that letter for over a decade. I’ve since gotten a divorce and moved on. I don’t retain any feelings for that girl, though it took me a very long time to get over her. I read the letter again today, looked at the pictures from various family vacations, little scraps of evidence from trips that I took on my own.  I don’t feel particularly sentimental about these things, but I hesitate to throw them out, because they provide interesting snapshots of my life over the years. I’m probably the only person who even knows or cares what the artifacts are.

I’m hit with the enormity of what I am about to do- quitting my life here and moving halfway around the planet with barely anything of my old existence in tow. I guess it’s different from those who two centuries ago boarded ships and left their home shores bound for another land with zero hope of ever having contact with the ones they left behind. Today we have cell phones and internet and Skype and modern air travel that easily keep us connected with our friends and family. And that’s comforting. But still, there are things about us as individuals that only we remember, at least in detail. And we don’t even remember them without prompts, such as photographs or some type of tangible evidence that causes the synapses in our brains to recall that awesome day at the lake with Alexis, tossing a Frisbee and watching the sun sink into the water in the evening.  That play that we went to see with that person whom we don’t keep in contact with any longer. The time we went to that restaurant and ate a 40oz (1134 grams) prime rib dinner because someone told us how amazing it was and that we couldn’t finish it. (It was, and I did)  Pictures, playbills, menus…all bits of information that make up the time capsule of our lives. If I owned a piece of property, I think that I would bury a small chest filled with documentation of my existence. Because isn’t that what’s important to us? Leaving a trace?

Some men and women leave monuments. In Chicago, Marshall Field left his legacy with an endowment for a museum and the department store he built on State Street. (Yeah, so Macy’s bought out Marshall Field’s a few years back, but they suck and it’s still Marshall Field’s to any proper Chicagoan) Jane Addams left Hull House, and has a portion of a major expressway named after her.

Yet the majority of us live our lives without having a recognized impact on society at large. Of course, we affect the lives of our families and friends. We hopefully do our part by raising our children (if we have them) to be productive and positive members of society. And by doing this, we collectively help to make civilization better. But not many of us are remembered past three generations or so. I could possibly tell you the names of my great-grandparents if I really reached back in my memory, but nothing much about them. I remember vaguely Gigi Nana, with the large mole on her cheek. (And it strikes me for the very first time in my life that G.G. probably stood for “Great Grandmother”) Bits of memory playing ball in the back yard with my Papa (grandfather) and his father who was in his eighties. Beyond that, I really know nothing. Except for Adolph, who was my great-great-great?-grandfather and who built a large foundry in Grand Rapids, Michigan that still bears the family name. I guess that’s his monument. The company was sold ages ago to someone else, and no longer belongs to the family (though there is an offshoot of the family that has a century-old metal castings company in south Chicago, and it’s still in family hands). Several years ago, I stopped into the Leitelt Iron Works to see what information I could dig up on my ancestors. The general manager kindly sat down with me for almost an hour and showed me pictures of the old factory, some pictures of Adolph (who looked almost the spitting image of one of my brothers) and some newspaper articles written about him. I guess he was kind of a big-shot in early Grand Rapids politics, or he thought he was.  I was told where his grave marker was, and that it was in a state of disrepair. The company had reached out to some of the family to see if they wanted to restore the marker, but I guess nothing came of it. I didn’t go visit.

What will I leave behind? My children are on their own. Only one will carry on the family name if he chooses to. Perhaps my grandchildren, if any, will get to meet me and remember. But beyond that, what trace of my life will there be? I don’t foresee leaving an edifice or monument to my fame. If a tree falls in a forest and there is no one around to hear, does it make a sound? If a man or woman lives and dies, and there is no one after a while to remember them, did they exist? I totally understand why many people have such a strong desire to believe in an afterlife. I don’t any longer. At least not one that is Heaven or Hell or living forever on a cleaned-up, perfected Earth. So without that option, what is there? I have no desire to be put in the ground underneath a granite block announcing my name and two dates. In fact, my wish is to be cremated. It really doesn’t matter where my ashes are scattered. I won’t know or care. I really will be just dust in the wind. (Thank you, Kansas)  If someone would like to plant a tree or an orchard in my name, that would be appreciated.

What we do during our lives, how we benefit society, how we impact the people around us in our day-to-day contact with them, is really more important than our name on a building. Maybe they won’t compose epics about us. But, we’ll know what we did.

Barbara Ann

November 8, 2016

Chicago, Illinois

It’s election day here in America. I voted already, but have neither the time nor desire to watch the coverage of the polls. I’m still busy putting my belongings up for sale. I’ll find out who won tomorrow morning on my way to work.  Unless the country blows up tonight.

At any rate, I’m sharing another story that I composed in the past. This one was penned in 2003. I still remember writing it out longhand with a pencil on notebook paper while at work in a paper mill. And I recall how lost I felt at the time. I’d love to hear how it feels to you after you read it.

Barbara Ann

I don’t exactly recall actually meeting Barbara Ann Hanson.  I was the new kid in the second grade, having moved to this small, Southern community from the northern Midwest.  Everything was so different here.  I had a little difficulty adjusting to the new environment.  I was a little shy.  After some of the other children had checked me out and decided that I was okay, they began to introduce themselves.  Jimmy, Ronald, Arthur, Tara, Shelley, and so on.  “And that over there is Barbara Ann,” I was told.  “She’s got the cooties.”

The little girl I saw was nothing out of the ordinary.  Just a quiet, shy, brown-haired girl with freckles and a simple dress.  She didn’t look up at me.  I didn’t go over to her to introduce myself.  She was Barbara Ann.  She had the cooties.  All I needed to know.

I don’t remember Barbara Ann ever playing with the rest of the kids during recess.  She was always the last one picked in any team sport that we were required to play.  No one wanted her.  No one talked to her.  She was just there.

One of the worst things that could happen to a second grader in Mrs. Williamson’s class was to accidentally touch Barbara Ann.  My classmates and I would go out of our way to walk around her.  “You got Barbara Ann germs!” was the most horrible insult lobbed at another student.

Little Barbara Ann rarely spoke in class.  I’m sure it was just much easier for her that way.  Just coming to school every day under those circumstances must have required courage beyond comprehension.  Were her parents nurturing and supportive at home?  I have no idea.  Evidently, they had been excited enough at her entering this world to name her after a wildly popular Beach Boys tune.  So great was our aversion to Barbara Ann that we hated that piece of music.

What had Barbara Ann done to earn this ostracism?  I didn’t know.  I never questioned it.  Whatever it was, it had happened long before I arrived.  What crime as a kindergartner or first grader could she have committed to deserve it?  Most likely, nothing more offensive than being poorer than most of the others in this cliquish small town.  She wasn’t dirty.  Not unkempt.  Her clothing, though not stylish, was neither threadbare nor ragged.  But her family did not have a lot materially.  Not that this was an uncommon situation in the county.  Most people didn’t have a lot.  I really don’t know what made Barbara Ann’s case different.  I never bothered to find out.  I guess I was just glad that it wasn’t me who was being persecuted.  Being nice to Barbara Ann would have invited the same treatment.  I certainly didn’t want that.

My parents, had they known, would not have approved of my cowardice.  We were reared to treat everyone with respect and kindness.  Which in itself was a rarity in the racially divided area.  I was friendly with the black kids and the white.  The white kids, for the most part, tolerated the black children, and vice versa.  But not Barbara Ann.  She was an outcast.  A leper.

One day, in the fifth grade, Barbara Ann vomited on the floor after our lunch period was over.  I remember laughing when it happened.  The teacher spoke to me rather sharply as she hurried the poor, embarrassed girl to the washroom to clean her up.  Why had Barbara Ann gotten sick?  Was it something she ate?  Was it the flu?  Or, perhaps, was it a case of nerves on edge, caused by years of relentless torture inflicted upon her by children who should have been her friends?  While the teachers certainly did not endorse our treatment of our classmate, neither did they do much to put a stop to it.  This was years before Columbine and the subsequent spotlight shone on the issue of classroom harassment and its consequences.

After seventh grade, my family moved to another town about 30 miles away.  I lost touch with most of my former classmates.  I had no idea what became of Barbara Ann.  I had heard from someone that she had gotten pregnant as a teenager by a boy who also had been somewhat socially unacceptable.  I had no way of knowing if this was the truth, or just another malicious lie perpetuated by those who despised her.

As I grew older, I began to feel ashamed of my treatment of Barbara Ann.  She had never done anything to me.  I had just been a follower of the crowd.  A spineless conformist.

I had a little taste of my own of what it was like to be pariah, when during my later teenage years a misunderstanding caused some who I thought were my friends to turn on me.  Memories of that dark period of my life haunt me till this day.  I cannot imagine the pain that it would cause for a little girl too young to understand why the world can be such a cruel place.

Decades later as I composed this record of my shame in my head, it was as if an iron claw gripped my throat.  I actually began to sob.  I wanted so badly to be able to find Barbara Ann, get down on my knees and beg for her forgiveness.  But then, as I thought about it, I realized the futility of such a gesture.  What if I was able to track her down after over 20 years?  What would I find?  What if I discovered a broken-down alcoholic thirty-something woman living in a ramshackle hovel?  What would I say?  “Sorry, Barbara Ann, for my part in bringing you to this condition.”  No.  What if I found an attractive, well-adjusted woman?  Would I really want to remind her of those awful years she went through?  To drag up the past she had worked so hard to forget?

And I think that is what pains me the most.  I will never know how life turned out for Barbara Ann.  I cannot imagine her as an adult.  I can only see the quiet, shy, brown-haired girl whom everyone hated.

Estate Sale

November 5, 2016

Chicago, Illinois

As I mentioned in the previous post, I came across some older writings that I had tucked away in a file case. This particular story I find fitting because I’m currently trying to organize my belongings for sale and I find myself wondering how I managed to collect all of these items that I have surrounding me. This happened probably about six years ago…

On an absolutely gorgeous spring Saturday afternoon, my daughter and I decided to put off our chores for a while and retrieved our bicycles from the garage for a ride. We pedaled first to a sandwich shop where we split a meatball sub sandwich. It’s okay, we weren’t riding for the exercise anyway. With no particular destination in mind, we ended up following a series of bright yellow signs guiding us to an estate sale in one of the neighborhoods off of the main street.  There were several vehicles parked along the streets in front of and beside the corner house where the sale was. After placing our bikes far enough off to one side so that they would not be mistaken for sale items, we were greeted by a woman who looked to be in her early forties with a name tag reading “Grumpy”.  She explained that she was one of seven workers from the company managing the sale, and that most of the other “dwarfs” had abandoned her. I took the opportunity to ask if that’s why she was “grumpy”.  That drew a very nice smile.

The sale was already in its third day, and obviously had been picked over by hordes before us.  Not that there was nothing left- actually there was plenty- just none of it was organized any longer.  Upon entering the open garage and looking through what was left of the tools, I began to get an understanding of what it was that the gentleman whose estate this had been had done for a living. I discovered lock-out devices meant to be placed on equipment to disable it while maintenance work was being performed on it. There were tags reading “Do Not Operate” and “My Life Depends on It”, with the signature of one Harold Grimes affixed to them.  I saw the initials, “H. G.” engraved on assorted wrenches and stray sockets. Small boring bars for a lathe, grimy used and new pneumatic fittings, a few hydraulic gauges- all were haphazardly laying in and around several old, rusting metal toolboxes My interest began to rise. I’m assuming that the late Mr. Grimes was some type of industrial maintenance mechanic, and being a machinist by trade myself, I was hoping to perhaps uncover an overlooked set of micrometers or dial calipers (precision measuring tools) for my own use. No joy. I set aside a couple of items to think about, then wandered into the house behind my daughter.

Once inside, it became obvious that this house had been lived in for a very long time. Not that it was run down. In fact, it seemed to have been quite well-maintained. But even after two-and-a-half days of being invaded by bargain hunters, this place was still overflowing with…STUFF.

In some ways, it was like entering a time capsule. Found in the upstairs rooms, on the main floor, and in the basement were (among many other things) stacks of periodicals dating from the 1950s; several different cameras of various ages- from 35mm’s in brown leather cases, Polaroid instamatics, VHS-style video cameras from the 1980s, 8mm movie projectors, carousel slide projectors and screens. There was also an assortment of 1950s-era electric razors in the hard plastic cases. We found vinyl phonograph records, 45’s, reel-to-reel tapes, and myriads of 8-tracks, cassettes and compact discs- waiting to be listened to on the attendant playback devices. There were also computers- again plural. Everything from a Radio Shack TRS-80 an a Commodore Vic-20 (still with original box!) to a Hewlett-Packard desktop with dual Pentium processors. We were literally (no, not figuratively…literally) tripping over things. My daughter and I looked at each other and simultaneously mouthed, “Hoarders!”

It was obvious that the Grimes’ never threw away anything. How could someone live with all of that junk? It looked like a cyclone had picked up six entire decades and dropped them in this house.

It began to dawn on me slowly, however, that the Grimes’ has not lived like this. All of the pieces were in good shape, some lovingly maintained.  Over the course of twenty-plus hours, Lord knows how many rag-pickers had unpacked and scattered all of these belongings. Boxes that had carefully held and organized these items had been unceremoniously emptied and used as make-shift shopping baskets, then taken from the house to carry purchases.

I started to pay closer attention to what was surrounding me. Playing anthropologist, I discerned that not only was Mr. Grimes a maintenance man, perhaps an engineer, but had a strong interest in electronics.  He had a workshop filled with tools and the skill to make use of them. Evelyn (I discovered her name in a needle-point display) was heavily involved in crafting. She had sewing machines, patterns,  and enough bolts of textiles to make three of the upstairs rooms look like a JoAnn Fabric store outlet. There were buttons, dolls, drawings and instructions for complicated decorations everywhere.

Both of them were readers. She was into mystery novels; he preferred left-leaning political tomes. They were devout Baptists, having at least contributed to, if not gone on missions to Southeast Asia. One or both of them were interested in raising pedigreed dogs. Judging from the appliances and utensils found in the kitchen and dining room, they enjoyed entertaining guests.

The had at least one child, a daughter. I found a bible with her name inscribed, a gift from “Mom and Dad.” Games and toys of a certain vintage provided evidence of grandchildren, and the lack of video games provided no evidence of great-grandchildren. There were no photos or family pictures about- the relatives had at least wanted to keep these for themselves, if none of the other items.

I looked around at the detritus of sixty-odd years. The flotsam-and-jetsam of the lives of Harold and Evelyn Grimes. All I had, really, were educated assumptions, but the Grimes’ somehow reminded me of my own grandparents, Robert and Lucille. I ran into Grumpy again, and mentioned to her that I felt like a bit of an intruder, a voyeur peering into others’ secrets. That earned me another smile.

My daughter and I left without making a single purchase. We had only our bicycles on which to carry anything, and I normally don’t have much cash in my pockets. As interesting as some of the artifacts were, I did not feel compelled to go home, drive to an ATM, and go back for any of them. I have enough stuff of my own, mostly unused.

We may have left empty-handed, but I felt richer for the experience. I never met Harold or Evelyn Grimes, but I feel like I got to know them a bit anyway. And I believe that getting to know others is one of the best parts about being human.

Dead Poets Society

November 5, 2016

Chicago, Illinois

Today I began taking pictures of my belongings and throwing them up for sale on Craigslist. I came across a folding file with some of my older writings inside. I thought I’d share a couple of poems that I wrote several years ago, back when I was inspired to write poetry. Hope you enjoy.

The Lighthouse

Above the waters tall she stands

The great lady guiding me

Though beaten by the surf and sands

Unmovable and firm is she

Face to the wind, she does not stoop

Nor cower when fierce storms rage

She protected lives of countless men

Steering vessels in another age

If not for her constant light

That bright beacon from her lens

The world may have had fewer ships

The sailor fewer friends

Joceyln

At times when I am treading gingerly

The darkened alleys my mind has created

I gaze at her while she is sleeping

So peaceful, so trusting, so dependent

At this mountainous task I often shudder

This huge responsibility that is mine alone

Though not a journey that I sought

Despite feeling inadequate, I dare not fail

Her smile inspires me to find my inner strength

Her innocence, to pray for wisdom to guide my steps

For if I am successful upon this path

An angel to this world will be my gift