At the laundromat this weekend, I met a man who’s been living in his car for the past year. As we both stared at our clothes whirling in the dryers, he said he was quite content and had all he needed. He also talked at length about the pros and cons of different thermal clothing brands, his days as a hospice care volunteer, and the heroic feats of a park ranger he met along the way, and as he folded the last of his clothes and prepared to leave, he thought to ask me what I did for a living. Upon hearing that I’m a writer, he told me there was a novel I should read — In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust. Then he recommended two movies — Children of Paradise by Marcel Carné and Ran by Akira Kurosawa.
I’ve spent a good chunk of time lately in Northern Virginia where one of my neighbors is a 90-year-old former prisoner of war named William Tippins. He stopped by one day last week and asked me if I wanted to go to Ft. Belvoir, specifically to the Base Exchange, or BX, a shopping mall of sorts anchored by a store with Macy’s-like products and a Target-like layout. Keen to check out the bargains and hear more of his story, I said yes.
During World War II, Tippins was in a foxhole in Anzio, Italy, when a mortar shell exploded, knocked him unconscious, and sliced through his lower abdomen, leaving his intestines hanging out. When Tippins came to, a German soldier was standing above him.
“For you the war is over,” said the soldier, who gave Tippins a choice. The soldier could put him out of his misery or let him walk three kilometers to the nearest aid station. Tippins chose to walk.
Periodically pouring water on the wound, as the German soldier had told him to do, Tippins survived the trek. He was then taken to a German field hospital near Rome, where, he said, “they put my intestines back in and sewed me up.”
A couple of days after the surgery, Tippins tried to escape. He was caught and placed in solitary confinement at Stalag VII-A in Mooseburg, Germany. Unable to keep down the rations of bread they gave him, his health rapidly deteriorated, and prison officials sent him to an aid station in a town called Fuerstenwalde outside of Berlin.
Tippins was telling me this story, one of stunning bravery, gumption and grit, as he was driving along back roads from Springfield, VA, to Ft. Belvoir. When we pulled into the BX parking lot, he put the story on hold while we went into the Macy’s-like, Target-like store and looked around. I eyeballed the bargains while he, an apparent regular, chatted with a few familiar faces before we went back to the car. Once there, he promptly picked up where he left off — in Fuerstenwalde.
Her name, he said, was Ursula, but he didn’t know that at the time. All he knew is that she had rosy cheeks, tended to his wounds, and on the down-low, brought him extra food. He, in return, gave her a nickname – Pinky. And that was that. She brought him food, he called her Pinky, and the war determined everything else.
On a patch of land about two blocks west of the University of North Carolina campus, people from disparate parts of UNC and the larger Chapel Hill community come together in pursuit of a common goal — to till the soil, plant seeds, pull weeds, and harvest a vast array of fruits and vegetables.
The produce is then donated to the university’s low-wage workers, the people who make sure that from the Dean Dome to Franklin Street, the floors are scrubbed, the bathrooms are clean, and the trash is thrown out.
This 14,000-square-foot piece of land tucked away at the end of Wilson Street is known as the Carolina Campus Community Garden, or CCCG. The first seeds were planted in the spring of 2010, and ever since a small army of volunteers have helped it grow into a thriving agricultural space that has produced more than 24,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables worth $121,000.
The volunteers, who refer to the tasks involved in planting and harvesting the produce as “digging in the dirt,” tend to be dedicated and passionate about what they do.
“What really hooked me originally,” said recent UNC graduate John Powers, “was being able to get out here and do something completely different from classes and develop skills that I didn’t have before.”
Powers, who initiated a compost collection program in his dorm and served on the garden’s advisory board, said his work with the garden helped him develop valuable communication and leadership skills and introduced him to a close-knit group of friends.
One of those friends is Tait Chandler, also a recent graduate and a driving force behind a $15,000 construction grant the garden received from the Renewable Energy Special Projects Committee, a UNC student organization that supports eco-friendly construction projects.
The garden, he said, made him realize “how nice it is to get outside and do meaningful work that doesn’t involve paperwork.”
Powers and Chandler are among the many who year after year have helped the garden grow. Others include UNC faculty and staff, residents of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill, and a long list of donors, who have contributed everything from seeds to architectural expertise.
“It’s amazing how many people offer their services,” said Claire Lorch, the garden’s Education Coordinator. “They find out what we’re doing and are supportive, so they want to come help.”
As education coordinator, she’s in charge of pretty much everything that takes place on this busy patch of land. She oversees the work of the volunteers, grant writing, fund raising, and expansion projects as well as the ever important food distributions, which cater to a diverse group of people comprised largely of refugees from Burma, Hispanics, African Americans, and whites.
Timothy Carville, a zone manager with the university’s housekeeping services department, provides workers with the transportation and time they need to take a break, stand in line, and pick up their supply of fresh vegetables, and he does so very willingly. The food distributions, he said, have begun to break down racial and ethnic barriers and are a boost to morale.
“Before the distributions, they didn’t speak to each other,” he said, referring to the different racial and ethnic groups. Now, they not only talk to each other but also swap recipes.
“I’m not saying it’s solved the race problem in America,” he said, but “they’ve bridged the gap.”
LOURDES, France — “It’s the American,” said the nurse when I walked into the emergency room at the Centre Hospitalier de Lourdes for the second time in one night. The nurse didn’t say it in a derogatory fashion, as one might expect. In fact he and the rest of the medical staff working the overnight shift could not have been nicer.
If there was a silver lining to my four-day bout of food poisoning, it was my experience with the French healthcare system, one that, unlike the healthcare system in the U.S., seems much more intent on actually helping people than gouging bank accounts and amassing senseless amounts of bureaucratic red tape.
My first trip to the emergency room came after nearly 24 hours of making mad dashes to the bathroom and enduring cramps that, as I told the nurse, were about an eight on a 10-point scale. At the end of that visit, the doctor prescribed a pain medicine, an anti-diarrheal, and an antibiotic known as cipro, or ciprofloxin. I left the ER confident that the pharmaceutical cocktail would stem both the pain and the runs and that I’d soon be doing what I set out to do when I went to southern France.
Located in the foothills of the Pyrénées, Lourdes is France’s second largest tourist attraction. Every year, millions of people from around the world visit the town of roughly 15,000 people to both meander through the snow-capped peaks of the Pyrénées and bathe in spring waters believed to have medicinal powers. In the mid-19th century, the Virgin Mary reportedly appeared before a young peasant girl 18 times. On the ninth visitation, she pointed the young girl in the direction of the healing waters, located in a grotto that’s now part of the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes.
Skeptical of the spring waters and their curative potential, I opted for modern medicine, and since it was a holiday and well past midnight at this point, I had to take the prescriptions to the police station, where a police officer would call the overnight pharmacist to let him know I was on the way. Fortunately I was traveling with two friends, Susan and Bruce, and together we zigzagged from the ER to the police station to the pharmacy and back to our hotel. The process was a bit labyrinthian but crime-fighting savvy, and in the end, it didn’t take all that long.
Medicine in hand, I took each pill as quickly as I could and looked forward to a time in the not too distant future when I would no longer be tethered to a toilet bowl.
But, alas, that time would have to wait.
Below are excerpts from the foreword to a book called “Crowns, Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats.” Written by Maya Angelou, the foreword is a beautiful description of their lives, the burdens they bear, and the comfort and joy they find in Sunday morning church services where they wear their hats. I stumbled upon it yesterday, and in reading it, I couldn’t help but think of the shooting that took place earlier this week at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and wondering, “What if?”
What if Dylann Roof could have found a way to appreciate the Black women in church hats and to understand that their lives are filled with daily struggles just like everyone else’s, just like his. What if he could have found what they have found in their Sunday morning church services — a community of people who understand them, a sense of peace, a sense of place, and joy? What if, instead of a gun and the anger, hate and rage that must’ve gone into pulling the trigger, he had found the equivalent of a Black woman’s church hat?
“Sundays are a precious gift to hardworking women who have labored unceasingly through the workweek. Remuneration is rarely commensurate with the outlay of energy. That is to say, working women work large and are paid small.
They generally use Saturdays to tend to home matters: i.e., to clean the house, wash and iron clothes, and cook for the coming week. They usually find their first deep breath around bedtime on Saturday night.
And then Halleluja, Hosanna! Sunday morning comes. If the woman is African American, she has some fancy hatboxes on a shelf in her closet. She will have laid out the clothes she plans to wear to church, the stockings and the shoes, but the choosing of the hat is saved for Sunday morning itself. The woman may, depending on how many she has, lay them all out, but not on the bed (it is said to be bad luck to put a hat on the bed). She may try on each hat two or three times before she dresses, just to see which one goes with her most recent hairdo.”
“She looks at her reflection from every possible angle. And then, she leaves home and joins the company of her mothers and aunties and sisters and nieces and daughters at church whose actions had been identical to hers that morning. They too had waited longingly for the gift of a Sunday morning. Now they stroll up and down the aisles of the church, stars of splendor, beauty beyond measurement. Black ladies in hats.”
— By Maya Angelou, from the Foreword to “Crowns, Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats,” a book by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry.
This has been a challenging year in many ways. It started off with way too much funkiness at the duplex where I lived, so I decided to move out, and not knowing where I wanted to live, I moved to nowhere. I put most of my stuff in storage, a lot of it (too much) in my car, and spent the next four months either house sitting or staying with friends.
All of this was my choice, but it’s not been easy, and I will forever be grateful to those who have been incredibly generous along the way — those who helped with the move itself (it’s harder to move to nowhere than one might think), the many who have offered me a place to stay, and the many more who have helped out in a thousand other ways.
Now I’m in Spain, and while my month-long stay here has been a great journey, it, too, has had its challenges. I’ve sliced up two fingers at this point, eluded a creepy Airbnb situation, endured a serious bout of food poisoning, and still to come, getting home in the middle of an air traffic controllers strike.
As with the move to nowhere, there have been many helping hands:
- An unexpected and much needed ride from a Camino de Santiago volunteer.
- The friends, acquaintances, and medical personnel who helped me get through four days of the runs and the first of the two sliced fingers.
- A cable car ride with a woman from Australia, which led to a wonderful conversation over lunch about the trials and tribulations of being a solo female traveler, a conversation that, in the end, left me feeling much less solo on the road.
- A chance meeting at a laundromat with a graduate of the South San Antonio Independent School District, once part of my beat at the Express-News. The South San alum is now a wedding photographer, so as we waited for the clean, rinse, spin and dry cycles to do their thing, we had a great time talking about photography, tapas, and SSAISD.
And then on Sunday, a mini contingent of guardian angels fell from the sky. The Prada family — Chema, his wife Inma, and their two children — are friends of friends who adopted me for the day. They gave me a driving tour of Madrid, fed me lunch, hung out all afternoon as if they had all the time in the world, took me on a guided walking tour back to my hotel, and made it very clear that if anything came up, anything at all, to give them a call.
I didn’t know the Pradas before Sunday, yet they treated me with incredible generosity. I would have been grateful under any circumstances, but nearing the end of a journey that has had its share of ups and downs, I was touched beyond belief to know that just down the road and across the river, there was a small group of people — just plain good people with nothing to gain or lose — who had my back.
Miles de gracias a la familia Prada!
Miles de gracias a todos who in the past few months have had my back!
For two days I overlapped at my current wayside stop in Springfield, VA, with someone from Burkina Faso. He’s now an IT guru and makes much more than he did as a lab technician in his home country. There, he lived with his brother, got around town on a bike, and made $25 a month. As a child, he said, both his mother and the demands of daily living instilled in him a strong work ethic. To retrieve potable water and bring it to the house, it was a two-mile walk each way. To attend school, it was a 10-mile, round-trip journey on foot. That, of course, was before the bike.
Now he’s married, has two children, and a brand new MINI Cooper. On Monday, he starts a new job in Norfolk, where his family lives, so he’ll no longer have to do his weekly commute from there to here, a three-hour drive he did every day, twice a day until he found a place to stay, as I have, at “Chez Deborah’s Wayside Inn” in Springfield.
What struck me, though, was that as he talked about his life in the United States and Burkina Faso, he seemed to be equally content with both. Here, I could see his easy smile and upbeat approach to just about everything, including his rather stunning commute and the trappings of yesterday’s five-inch snowfall.
As for there, this comment seemed to say it all: “I made $25 a month, I had a bike, and I was happy.”
I’m very glad the stars aligned so I could meet the man from Burkina Faso, a wonderful example of this age-old truism: “No matter where you go, there you are.”
Last week I found myself sitting in an auditorium on the UNC campus listening to an undergraduate lecture on American history since the Civil War. Both the course and the lecturer, Matt Andrews, had come highly recommended, and on this day, Andrews was doing one of the things he does best — using sports to illustrate the history of race relations in the United States.
This particular lesson focused on boxing.
Prizefighting, Andrews explained, became popular in the mid-1800s as a white man’s sport, one that pitted native-born Americans against Irish immigrants. As it evolved through the post-Civil War years, white boxers, especially those at the heavyweight level, refused to get in the ring with a black opponent.
Against this backdrop, a man named Jack Johnson emerged as a heavyweight contender through a parallel world of African American fighters. Born and raised in Galveston, Texas, Johnson was a stubborn man who flaunted conventions in every possible way.
He taunted white fighters in the ring, Andrews said. He had open relationships with white women, including his three wives; dressed in expensive suits; wore diamond jewelry; and drove fast cars.
According to filmmaker Ken Burns, Johnson “was everything that a black man of his era was not supposed to be: outspoken, articulate, intelligent, powerful, wealthy, good-looking and charming.”
Burns directed a 2005 PBS documentary about Johnson called “Unforgivable Blackness,” a phrase coined by NAACP founder W.E.B. Du Bois to describe the backlash Johnson faced throughout his life as he attempted and increasingly succeeded in demonstrating that as a prizefighter and a human being he was the white man’s equal.
Much like the film, Andrews’ lecture illustrated how Johnson, with his stubborn refusal to play by society’s rules, was able to break through the “color line” that once existed in heavyweight boxing.
Johnson’s first triumph came after he spent two years stalking, taunting, and challenging then heavyweight champion Tommy Burns, who ultimately relented and agreed to fight Johnson on Boxing Day (Dec. 26) 1908 in Sydney Australia.
Johnson knocked burns out in the 14th round, becoming the first African American heavyweight champion in U.S. history.
Retaining that title, however, would prove to be his biggest battle.
So, I’m walking around Shelley Lake in North Raleigh and coming toward me down a hill at breakneck speed is a kid, maybe 9 or 10 years old, on a micro scooter. Coming up behind me is a slow-moving jogger, probably in his mid-to-late 70s, who shuffles and hobbles more than he actually jogs, but both the shuffle and the hobble have spunk. This is what the two had to say as they went by me — the younger one with a daredevil shout and a whoosh, the older one with a grin and a nod.
The kid: “I’m gonna diiiiiiiiie!”
The man: “He’s having a blast.”
Editor’s note: I recently discovered “The Art of Fielding” by Chad Harbach. It’s a wonderful novel about a college baseball star, the people in his world, and how they grapple with the ups and downs of oh, so many things — hope, fear, dashed dreams, new starts, friendship, and love, to name a few. Here’s one of my favorite quotes:
“What would he say to her, if he was going to speak truly? He didn’t know. Talking was like throwing a baseball. You couldn’t plan it out beforehand. You just had to let go and see what happened. You had to throw out words without knowing whether anyone would catch them — you had to throw words you knew no one would catch. You had to send your words out where they weren’t yours anymore. It felt better to talk with a ball in your hand, it felt better to let the ball do the talking. But the world, the non baseball world, the world of love and sex and jobs and friends, was made of words.”