Sunday, December 7, 2014

Man in Mirror

When I lived in Baltimore, I volunteered weekly with a tutoring program for neighborhood kids. Entering my fifth year with the program, I took on a management role in which I rarely worked one-on-one with the kids, mostly assigning tutors to them, seeing to administrative odds and ends, and putting out fires as they arose.

One week, all of those administrative details were wrapped up and the fires were few and minor in nature. I had the chance to visit the upstairs gymnasium during the play time at the end of the night and simply hang out.

And I saw Carrie, one of the nicest kids who came—studious, obedient, shy, sitting alone in the corner. I asked if she was all right and she nodded. I asked if she wanted to play and she shook her head.

I thought of leaving her to her own devices, remembering the many days of my youth when I’d just as soon have been left alone.

Then I recalled Carrie walking into the church that night with her headphones on, bobbing to music before we asked her, like the rest of the kids, to put their electronics away.

I asked her what she had been listening to.

She mumbled that it was Michael Jackson.

Michael Jackson, who had died when she was all of three years old. Michael Jackson, who hadn’t cut a single in her lifetime. Not Drake or Miley Cyrus, or other popular choices among the kids I worked with, who presented proof of a generational gap.

I asked her what her favorite Michael Jackson song was.

She shrugged and looked straight ahead. “I like ‘Man in the Mirror.’”

And I sang. Not quite the comic falsetto I default to in karaoke settings, but still a little high and loudly. A lot of the kids looked, never having heard me sing a note.

Carrie smiled. She sang along.

I’m starting with the man in the mirror
I’m asking him to change his ways
And no message could have been any clearer

Carrie trailed off into “doo-doo-doos” while I carried on with the lyrics, “if you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and make a change.”

She laughed. “I don’t really know all the words.”

This song transitioned to talk of others. Another girl joined us to talk about movies. And for the first time since I assumed my coordinating role, I lost track of time and called for gym time to end a minute later than I meant to. I remembered why I had chosen a job that focused on work with children, and I why I was spending a portion of my would-be leisure time with another program spent corralling and coaching and, yes, at times hollering at kids. I remembered why it was important and why it was fun, and why, at the best of times, those reasons weren't so different.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Thanksgiving with Housekeepers

One of the great ironies of my life: the period when my job centered on building community and making people feel at home was also the time of my life that I felt least at home and most lonely.

I spent two and half years managing dorms at a university. The job provided for some excellent professional growth. I got to meet some fascinating personalities, and living where I worked saved a lot of money.

All of that said, I don’t feel my personality at the time meshed particularly well with my colleagues, and, freshly removed from my own college experience, where I’d cultivated a pretty substantial and diverse social network, my time at my first full-time job felt a lot more insular, and I never felt quite reached a comfort zone.

My second year on the job, I sat alone in my office on the ground floor of the dorm. Most days, there was plenty of foot traffic, plenty of pleasantries exchanged, meetings to attend, etc. But things were different on the day before Thanksgiving. Since I was only an hour from home, I opted not to burn any vacation days, and instead worked my usual schedule, only in a dorm that was all but abandoned, less than 10 percent of the residents in attendance.

The housekeeping staff was still on. By late morning, the scents of a turkey dinner wafted from their break room by the loading dock, down the narrow hallway, past the laundry room and vending machines to my office. Just a few minutes before noon, when I had planned to escape upstairs to my apartment for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or some Ramen, one of the housekeepers popped his head in my office. He was a skinny guy with a lazy eye, patches of stubble that never seemed to grow thicker and that he never seemed to shave away from day to day, compulsively clad in a plain red baseball cap. “You coming to lunch?”

Lunch, it turned out, was a potluck affair between the whole housekeeping crew. Though, I had nothing to contribute, they insisted I join them. I marveled at the spread--a twelve-pound turkey, homemade stuffing and mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes baked with marshmallows, pumpkin and pecan pies. Bill, the manager, sat at the head of the long table, a patriarch. Donna, a dead ringer for Melinda Doolittle from the season of American Idol that would follow a few months later, poured clear plastic Solo cups of grape juice and cranberry juice to pass around the table.

And I made small talk with James, a middle-aged housekeeper with an accent from Wales and an ornate tattoo of a cross on his forearm. We chatted about the college kids on the fifth floor who had routinely made messes that year, most recently leaving a Jackson Pollock-like display of vomit in the middle of the women’s bathroom floor.

I said I was sorry he had to deal with all of that.

“Don’t be sorry.” He took a bite from a drumstick, tearing a scrap of turkey skin free with his teeth. “If they didn’t make a mess, I wouldn’t have a job.”

I thought of this man, literally thousands of miles from home, making ends meet on a housekeeping gig in a college dorm. And I thought of myself, just at the start of my career, just an hour drive removed from most of my friends and family, and the places I knew best.

I looked around that table. At people who scrubbed toilets and mopped floors to earn their paychecks. At people who had invited me into their fold when I sat alone at my office computer, the day before Thanksgiving. These people who were thankful for their jobs, their lives, their community.

Trite as it may sound, in their midst, I felt pretty thankful, too.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Kentucky Fried Chicken

A year and a half ago, I went a week-long road trip. First and foremost, the objective was to attend an a cappella competition in St. Louis, but the outgoing journey from Baltimore included a stop to see friends in Indianapolis, and the drive back included a stop in Lexington, Kentucky, for the sheer principle that I’d never visited the state before.

I didn’t give much thought to what I would do in Kentucky, which was probably fine because I’d only stay there for 16 hours before I headed off toward home in Baltimore. Nonetheless, the one hard and fast item I did have on my agenda for that leg of the trip was to get some authentic Kentucky fried chicken.

A round of Googling revealed that the actual original KFC restaurant was both well off the beaten path and nothing to write home about, so I elected to focus on local fare. I check into my hotel around 7 o’ clock on Easter Sunday and asked the woman working the front counter where she would recommend that I find a good fried chicken dinner.

She looked at me, bland-faced and dull-eyed. “Wal-mart’s right across the street. They have really good fried chicken.”

I put on my most polite smile, the best I was liable to mange in a weary state after eight hours of driving. “Any restaurants you could suggest. Maybe someplace more locally based?”

She ran her tongue over her upper lip. “Cracker Barrel’s good, too.”

I gave up on the front desk. Moved into my room and settled in for a quick nap. Then I got up and set to Googling on my phone. I should have expected as much, but I couldn’t find a single local joint of repute open that late on a Sunday, and realized I had all the less chance of doing so on Easter night.

So, I singled out an establishment known as The Parkette or my Monday lunch on the way out of town, and settled for the Cracker Barrel two doors down for that night’s dinner.

I brought along a book--common enough practice for me when I’m traveling and dining alone. The hostess sat me at a table for one, and fifteen minutes later, my server was there--a young woman with long, straight brown hair, severely yellowed teeth, and a brass name tag with big black letters that read Anna-May. She sounded a little nervous, a little frazzled when she asked me if I’d decided what I would like to order.

I smiled my polite smile again. “I was thinking maybe I’d like to look at the menu first.”

“Of course, sir.”

She scurried away and a minute later, returned with my menu and asked if I knew what I wanted to drink.

“How about an iced tea?” I asked.

“Would you like that sweetened or unsweetened?”

“Sweetened, please.”

I scanned the menu. Anna-May returned with my iced tea (unsweetened, but I tended to that myself with the sugar packets at the table). I elected to hold off for the real thing on my fried chicken quest, and ordered a ham dinner instead.

I got lost in my book, and didn’t notice the passing time at first. But as the wait time drew to half an hour, I did become conscious of it. Finally, my dinner arrived along with an apology for the wait. It wasn’t very good, but it was a Cracker Barrel so I didn’t come in with the loftiest expectations. The waitress stopped back three times as I ate.

The first time, she asked if I wanted anything for dessert.

The second time, she asked how my dinner was.

The third time, she asked how my dinner was again, but lingered longer after I repeated that it was great and thanked her. “You’re so nice,” she said. “This is my first night on the job and everybody seems so angry. I wish all of the customers were like you.”

She left before I could respond.

And I thought about how nice I’d really been. Only looking up from my book long enough to answer her questions. Thinking to myself that she didn’t seem particularly competent. And I remembered my first few days on the job, working the counter at the Yorkville McDonald’s. Trying to learn their limited menu, the appropriate codes to put in the register, getting scolded by my manager for giving someone the wrong breakfast sandwich.

I put the book aside after I’d finished my dinner. And when Anna May returned with the bill for my nine-dollar dinner, I told her she was doing a great job and to have good night. She blushed, smiled, waved awkwardly and said “you too.”

Cracker Barrel has you pay your bill at the counter, which left me with a dilemma. I didn’t want poor Anna-May to think for a second that I was stiffing her on her tip but putting it on my card out of her sight, but I only had four dollars cash in my wallet. I did also, however, have an emergency twenty-dollar bill stashed in my cell phone case.

I thought about asking for change. I thought better.

People have to face all manner of hardship in their lives, not the least of which is the discouragement of other folks putting them down--not out of necessity or in an effort to help them improve at something, but just for being carelessly or consciously mean.

I came to Kentucky fully prepared to pay in excess of twenty dollars for a fried chicken dinner, and I’d stayed well under budget for the overall road trip up to that point. I had a good job and twenty dollars wasn’t going to put me out in any meaningful way.

I left my twenty-dollar bill under the empty glass of iced tea Anna May had never refilled, and went to the counter without another word to settle my bill and be on my way. I slept easy that night.

The next morning I woke in time to do a little writing, grab a shower and check out of the hotel just before 11 to make it to The Parkette for an early lunch. I planned to hit the highway straight from there, and not stop for anything but gas and the rest room until I hit Baltimore seven or eight hours later. Thus, I had few inhibitions about ordering a small feast: an eight-piece order of fried chicken, a side of fried chicken livers, French fries, and a small (24-ounce) sweet tea.

I left Kentucky with a full stomach, a couple new stories to tell, and a happy (if slightly less healthy) heart. Not a bad end to a week on the road.

Friday, October 31, 2014

What Scares Us

As faithful readers have likely identified by now, I like holidays. I enjoy the ritual assembly of family that happens on Thanksgiving and Christmas, the resolution that comes with New Year’s, the signature fireworks of the Fourth of July.

And then there’s Halloween.

In my childhood, it was about costumes and candy. My mother fashioned some pretty impressive get ups for me through a combination of store-brought props and an ingenuity at crafts that she didn’t show often but was truly a hidden talent, leading to costumes that included Skeletor, Darkwing Duck, and The Phantom of the Opera. Rather than venturing door to door for candy, we traditionally took part in the more convenient, less weather-dependent store-to-store trick-or-treating at the Sangertown Square shopping mall.

In my late high school years, the holiday became more or less equal parts about candy and mischief. After a several year gap without dressing up, I realized the free candy to be had, and friends and I dressed up in minimalist costumes (I put the hood up on my jacket and wore sunglasses to become the Unambomber). While our mischief was relatively managed, I can’t deny that I sprayed some shaving cream and smashed some pumpkins in those less responsible years.

In adult life, aside from the obligatory party or two, I’ve used Halloween as an opportune time to indulge in scares, mostly in the form of watching a few new horror movies and revisiting an old favorite or two; sometimes I’ll throw in a horror novel as one of my October reads.

But in between teenager and adult I recall the first Halloween I spent at college. As I’ve written about before, it took me a while freshman year to find my bearings socially.

For the first couple months, I fell in with a group of girls with whom I had little in common besides living in the same dorm and happening to have found myself in the same stairwell the same night when we all met and first got to talking.

By Halloween, as the cliche goes, the bloom was off the rose. As the day approached, a couple of the girls talked about having a movie night on the 31st, and persisted in adding that it would be a really fun “girls night.” I laughed (I thought) along, in reference to how I was one of the girls. By Halloween eve, it was clear I wasn’t invited.

I felt betrayed, for sure, but all the more potently so for having been dismissed for a holiday. Like a jilted lover the night before prom, I felt righteous indignation for having been left to myself in a town still new to me with nothing to do on Halloween.

More than indignation, I felt alone.

I walked around campus aimlessly that night, feeling sorry for myself, hoping to stumble into some new fun, but just the same sulky enough to repel any good times that really might have awaited. In the end, I wound up back in my dorm room at a decent hour, where I finished my homework and went to bed without incident.

And perhaps because of the lack of any event or drama, I look back on that Halloween as the one that most truly realized my fears--not of vampires or zombies, but of what scared me the most, even as a relatively introverted young man. I was terrified of ending up alone. For holidays. For the long haul. Even just for one stupid Halloween night.

And perhaps it’s those moments that scare us that expose the directions in which we must evolve, whether it’s dealing with ghosts or spiders or heights. For my part, while I’m still troubled by the idea of a life without friends and family, I have also very much learned to love myself. To find the joy in a long road trip alone with my music and thoughts; to relish the occasional weekend of uninterrupted productivity. Even the joy in those pensive moonlit walks, holding conversations with no one but myself.

I’ve also come to embrace the importance of chocolate. That Snickers and Reese’s may not solve problems, but they can make most nights better. And if I’ve gone a Halloween without either, then something is seriously wrong.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

On the Ledge

29 years old, driving back to Baltimore after Memorial Day weekend in Rochester, I stopped in Geneseo to watch the sunset.

I was on the fence about stopping at my alma mater. Sure, there are few places I’d rather get a slice of pizza than Mama Mia’s, few places I’d rather get a stiff drink than Kelly’s, few better places for me to wander and ruminate than all of those campus pathways and surrounding neighborhoods. But, pulling off the highway, driving into town, and then backtracking is at least a half hour detour in driving time alone.

But it was sunset time. And as far and wide as I may travel, there are few spots I’d rather watch the sun go down than from than the ledge, out by the gazebo, outside the College Union at Geneseo. There’s a view from that spot, overlooking an expanse of campus, and well past that into the surrounding fields and farmland. It’s a beautiful place.

I didn’t always see it that way.

Freshman year, I had a hard time making friends. I embraced so many awful clich├ęs, as I took to writing sad poetry, smoking cigarettes, and walking alone at late hours of the night. It wasn’t unusual at all to wind up at the ledge under moonlight, long after I should have gone to sleep. I’d stand up there and look down upon the pavement, maybe 12 feet down.

I never considered jumping in any real, conscious way. But I mused around the topic. Started writing a story about a character who took a swan dive from a similar perch and awoke in an alternate universe only to discover in the end that that alternate universe was hell--because he hadn’t dove through any magical portal, but rather had killed himself.

And while I never quite reached the point of suicidal thoughts, and while I did make more friends, and start to feel more generally content with my time at Geneseo, that ledge remained the place to go when I was least happy.

Then it changed.

At the end of sophomore year, I hit it off with a girl. It was complicated. We worked together and she had serious boyfriend back home. We talked all around these points and our feelings for one another in the final weeks of school, until we ended up sitting side by side on that very same ledge watching the sky turn to magenta. Our elbows touched.

The girl and I wouldn’t get involved in any meaningful way for another seven or eight months. But that very simple, innocent moment was enough to transform the location from a place that embodied loneliness and emptiness to a place of love and peace.

And oddly, unexpectedly, and perhaps even uncharacteristically enough, the space retained that meaning for me.

Two years later, after that relationship had ended, and a couple days after I had graduated, on the last night I lived in Geneseo, I returned to the ledge with my Discman in hand, listening to a freshly burned mix CD full melancholy, reflective songs. It was a surreal moment. Every last one of my friends had already left for summer, and it was only beginning to register that this place--from my favorite pizzeria, to the newspaper office, to the classrooms, to that very ledge--that, over the course of four years, had become a home, was about to become more memory than reality for me. A place to look at in pictures. A place to visit, but not to live within.

I sat down on the ledge alone in the late afternoon, when the sky was still blue. I stared out into the distance and listened to that CD twice through, watching colors fade, the twilight thicken, and the dark settle in. And I walked home alone.

Eight years later, I watched the sunset from that same spot, iPhone earbuds in, wishing I had more of the songs from that old mix CD on hand, but mixing college favorites with a few newer melodies. I remembered a time when it seemed unimaginable to leave that place. I realized that for all of my visits to friends in Rochester and the surrounding area, this was the first time I’d been to Geneseo--much less the ledge--in years.

Fast forward five months. And I’m back in Geneseo, this time not alone. Two of my best friends from college--Kevin and Emily--got married in Rochester. A small portion of our old crew came together at the church and at the reception, and the next day, we returned to campus, four of us returned to campus. We grabbed lunch on Main Street. We wandered past the academic buildings. We headed for the College Union.

And when we got to the ledge I stopped. Phone in hand, I stretched my arm long and asked everyone to huddle close together. And I took a picture of us. All nearly a decade older, maybe a smidge wiser than we were as college kids. But still together. Still smiling.

And though I didn’t say it then, I knew full well that we stood on sacred ground. And whether I stood alone or with those I held dearest, that spot would always be one in which I grew. One of my favorite spots to look out from. One of my favorite places to look within myself. A jumping off point in every sense of the word.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Homework Club

Throughout my time in Baltimore, one of the best things I did was to work as a tutor for the Remington Homework Club. It was a once a week commitment over the academic year, ostensibly helping kids with their homework, more realistically doing my best to keep them from fighting one another or calling each other too nasty of names, and, on a good night, playing a little basketball with them.

When people ask how I got started with this group, I tend to give them the generic answer--that I was looking for a volunteer opportunity and Googled around until I found this one.

That version of the story isn’t untrue, but neither is it complete.

The truth is, I reached a low point.

I pulled up to a red light and rubbed my eyes, 2:30 on a Sunday morning. I had been careful not to drink too much at the Christmas party, but I’d been up early that Saturday. I was tired and a little buzzed and low on fuel, and driving the only car in sight, on some neighborhood back road after I made a wrong turn en route to the highway.

And I was heartbroken.

That fall I engaged in all-too-short romance with a woman I thought I might love who summarily dismissed me after a few weeks of dating. In the weeks to follow, Delia and I had remained friendly, exchanging the occasional text message, remaining in the same social circles. It all culminated in that Christmas party when the two of us stood on our own and I mustered the gall to ask if she’d had any second thoughts about us seeing one another. I made it pretty clear that I had.

She hugged me and told me she loved me.

Like a brother.

I made a clumsy exit and headed outside to my rust bucket Honda Accord to drive home.

And I thought about how much everything sucked. How I’d had a miserable time when I went home for Thanksgiving the month before and I was headed back there in a couple days. How my budding romance had frozen over with the first autumn frost. How I was faced with the choice of still seeing Delia all the time, or giving up our mutual friends--the entirety of my Baltimore social circle at the time.

I thought of how I was fed up with most people in my life, and most of all myself.

I called my best friend and got his voicemail. The two of us talked just about every day at that point, and for months, he had listened patiently to me prattle on about Delia—about the courtship, about the dates, about the aftermath. On this call, I told his voicemail that I might need a couple days. Not to be alarmed if I didn’t answer his calls.

The truth is, I reached a low point.

Sitting at that red light, a new thought crossed my mind. That as badly I felt everything was going, I had a job. I had my health. I had a best friend whom I could call, and dozens of other people I could have called on if I were in bad enough need. I had family to return home to and to stay with.

And so, at my low point I realized that, objectively speaking, I was still pretty fortunate.

I thought of how I always intended to do more.

Intended to do better.

Intended to give back.

For a few years running, I had volunteered at a soup kitchen Thanksgiving mornings. Waking up early, stocking shelves, taking out the garbage--it was a good day’s work at a good, symbolic time of showing thanks and an interest humankind. Just the same, it was isolated to a once a year endeavor doing work in a place and on an occasion such that, were I not there, someone else almost certainly would have stood up in my place.

It wasn’t enough.

So that weekend I Googled volunteer opportunities in Baltimore. Opportunities to have a positive impact, and perhaps equally important to me at the time, to redirect all of the hurt and negative energy I felt to something worthwhile.

That January, I started with the Homework Club. I worked with a pair of boys, seated cross-legged on the dirty gymnasium floor, upstairs from the church community room. I spent more time trying to keep the boys from grappling with each other, or at one point me, than I did actively tutoring. I wondered what I had gotten myself into.

But I made it through.

And I kept going, straight through the spring and starting again the next fall. And I came back the next year. More sure of myself when I stopped kids from running in restricted areas and when I refocused them on homework. Better prepared to laugh and play along when they made up their own rules to a game of chess.

On many levels this endeavor worked for me. Long after I got over Delia, volunteering provided a welcome diversion from whatever office, school, or personal stressors were taking over at a given period of time. I met some new friends and some cool kids.

Just the same, there came a point when I wondered if, for all the time and effort invested, I was actually making a difference in any meaningful way.

As if answering a question I hadn’t spoken, that very night one of the boys I was working with looked up at me and said, “I wish we had Homework Club every night.”

And though I briefly tried to explain that most volunteers wouldn’t be available for every night, and that the kids would probably get sick of it if they met much more than once a week, and that the church was used for other purposes—despite all of that, the core of what this kid said got through to me.

That Homework Club offers these kids a safe place to play basketball and football and board games after dark. That the tutors are the best kinds of role models--not just setting good examples week in and week out, but choosing to show up for these girls and boys. That some of the kids actually do get homework done in this setting, and find help from their peers and this set of adults that they might not find at home.

Funnily enough, after that first time I heard a boy say he wished Homework Club met more frequently, I heard more kids say virtually the same thing. I don’t hold illusions about having changed the lives of every kid who came to the church Monday nights, or that many of these kids will remember me ten years from now. But I can also see that that sense of appreciation, and that those relationships we formed, as tenuous as they may have been, were still fundamentally important.

Aside from a couple of semesters when my grad school classes conflicted with Homework Club, I worked with the group for six years. A month removed from Baltimore, this particular community and this work is a part of what I miss most. Just the same, I’ll take the lessons from the experience with me. To put others first. To serve. What to do with all of my negativity.

The truth is, I reached a low point.

The truth is, I made the most of the journey back up.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Messy Room

As a child, my bedroom was a mess.

To be fair, most of the house was a mess. I come from a people who are nothing if not cluttered. Who keep things long past the point of utility, who value material possessions.

My bedroom took things to another level, though. The bed in one corner, covering toys I had outgrown and crumpled elementary school worksheets. A nightstand behind it, its lower compartment crammed with books and loose papers, drawer filled with mementos and party favors. My collection of stuffed animals. A dresser on which none of the drawers would close all the way for the sheer mass of stuff (only about half of it clothing) I had crammed inside. Another corner littered with half-completed art projects, books, games, and other miscellany.

Every now and again, I’d feel motivated to clean it all out, but even on those occasions when I did get started, the sheer immensity of the project had a tendency to overwhelm me before I made much headway. Or I’d get distracted by picking up the charge of one of those discarded art projects. Or the volume of dust would overwhelm my sensitive allergies, and I’d have to give up to tend to the flood of mucus flowing from my nostrils or my itchy red eyes. And so, the mess prevailed for a period of years, compounding upon itself, threatening to leave room for nothing but sleep if it reached much further.

I’m not sure what straw broke the camel’s back, but there came a point where my parents, and more specifically my father said we needed to clean out my room.

To contextualize this moment, my father taught me how to read. He schooled me in advanced algebra before school would get to it. I learned to drive under his tutelage. These were, collectively, some of the most demoralizing, hurtful experiences of my life. Though I developed essential skills through his teachings, they’re also the core moments of my upbringing that, though I’ve mostly made peace with them, make me believe I’ll never have an entirely fully functional relationship with him.

But there were a handful of other moments when my father taught me things in far less conscious ways and the lessons actually stuck, sans the psychological scarring. My father sat beside me, poring through scraps of the blue-and-red-grid-lined paper my mother would bring home pads of from work, and he said, “When you have a problem, you can’t just look at it.”

He went to explain the point in greater detail. That problems demanded action. That you’d never make progress without taking steps, as small as those steps may be. That, to appropriate the Chris Gardner quote I didn’t hear until decades later, “the cavalry ain’t coming.”

I’d have to be reminded, or remind myself of this lesson at different points in my life, from the immediate years to follow to recent times. But that may be the most important sort of a lesson of all--not the ones that we know, instinctively, to be true, but the ones that we must remind ourselves as the need arises. And the ones for which that need will inevitably arise time and again.

I looked at my messy room. When I learned that I needed to do more than look, everything changed.