Tuesday, March 1, 2011

FEBRUARY 29, 2011 - what? you didn't realize there was a Leap Day this year?

How about a Leap Week?

The end of the month is upon me.  In fact, we could say (thanks to a major power outage) that the End of the Month is been and gone, hit and run, abscondido.  That it is the First of the Month now squalling and mewling for attention out in a basket on the front step.

We could say that.  Or we could say February is far too short when among friends. We could, actually, consider today February 29th.  We could decide that for once, February gets its full complement of 30 days hath September . . . even an all the rest get thirty-one.  In fact, considering the amount of things I find I need to tell you before slipping back behind my vow of silence, we may need to stretch this month to a record thirty-two days.

Couldn't we?  Actually, we could. 

So, since the first of the month (which is still February remember?) I've been carrying around notes I wrote on the fly after one day at the Food Bank.

For weeks I've kept coming back to my little book and its quick scratches, trying to shape scribbles into something postable, trying to tease out some interesting angle, or shadow of insight - because something here mattered immensely to me.  I began: 
Last Monday I worked at the HELP Pantry - unless that stands for Hunger Eradication League Pantry in which case I worked at the HEL Pantry.  Which would be unfortunate.  But a good sight warmer.  However, it was achingly cold, so I suspect it stands for Help Everyone Live Properly Pantry.  Or the Higher Eating Levels Project Pantry.

Anyway, as I was saying . . .
Though I never actually did say.  I never actually got beyond playing around with what I wasn't saying, never put shape to the telegraphic notes I've carried around with me in the  little moleskine notebook that I carry everywhere so that I am never prevented from scribbling down recipes copied from magazines in waiting rooms or meditational maunderings or, shockingly often, taking dictation from the unsuspecting who speak interestingly in my presence.

I have from a child upwards  gathered small rocks.  Overlooked treasures.  And this habit of collecting the things that people say is the same habit.  Check the pockets of my coats, the side pockets of my car, my recipe box, window sills, inside the covers of my books - everywhere: pinecones, bizarrely shaped pebbles, little rocks with intriguing glitters, scraps of paper, 3x5 cards of sketchy monologue, torn-open envelopes with snatches of other people's conversation scribbled on the back. Small undervalued delights.

I wanted to tell them to you.  I was going to set the scene . . .

 . . . how I breezed in, in a hurry as I so often am.  How I greet the grim-faced helmet-haired lady and the pale young man beside her: his slicked-back 1920s poet's coiff and curly spurt of chin-hair, the heavy chain hanging out of his pocket.  How even before I say anything they are wary, watchful, on guard against me, anyone, everyone.  I won't know why until I hear the whole story later in the day of how the absentee I'm covering left in a huff in the middle of last week's shift.

"Hi," I introduced myself, brisk and bright, "Are you working the desk?" 

The old lady bristles, "I usually work desk,"  drawing herself up to do battle, "Unless you have some Reason you need to?  Really though it's much too heavy for me in the back room, filling the boxes -  "

"No, no, perfectly fine. Just wanted to know where I'm needed."  Other days there are some volunteers who find the alphabetizing a little onerous, and are glad for me to relieve them, though thankfully I do not suggest this might be the case with her.  But my tone is still too bustling, and I can see the feathers are not unruffling.

So I step back to the warehouse, catch my breath, stroll around the shelves - to all appearances checking supplies but really just getting quiet.  And then come back in.

And feel glee rising in me.  Because this is something I know how to do.  It's a pity (or maybe a blessing?) that I don't know how to make this knack, this whatever it is  - pay.

But what joy in watching the transformation! As faces lose their tightness, eyes relax, open wider, begin even to shine sometimes, and twinkle.  Those intriguing pebbles full of fool's gold.  And I'm the fool that gathers them up like best treasure.

I was going to tell you how the thaw took place.  How she at length reveals she's been a nurse - her nursing degree at Missoula whose campus we both admire for its clean, wide brightness.  While she talks, the crisp white nurse's cap almost shimmers into its place on her head and I can see how her clean silvery cut still curves up in expectation of that badge of hygiene and progress.  The young man, who it turns out is her grandson, asserts and I agree that nurses in his grandma's day were certainly lovely beings. 

He loves to talk, swoopingly, dramatizing as he tells it - airing the heat from his collar and fanning his slender face, "Grandma has showed me her yearbook. Oh oo-wee! yes, they don't make nurses like that any more.  Now they all look like they're from California."

His sad and scornful tone when he pronounces the name of our neighbor state makes me laugh out loud. Which you may not understand unless you've had to live too much in the neighboring shadow of that unreflecting, water-guzzling. self-proclaimed capital of the world.  . . . Or, I suppose,  if you happen to be Canada or Mexico . . . 
But that's another tangent. 

I wanted to tell you every utterly well-scripted, self-revelatory thing they said: trenchant commentary on the undeserving poor ("Drank his breakfast, he did.  Almost knocked me out.  Did you catch  whiff of him?") - which explains the grimness with which she faces off with some of the clients.

Even if she says nothing, I can tell which ones she has no use for even before her grandson tells me why.

Though he does tell me why -- and so gorgeously: "So he's leaning up against the fridge like he was the cat's tuxedo and hectoring Grandma . . .

(who says "hectoring" any more?  And I'm seeing the sleekest Cary Grant of cat-kind.) 

. . . but when they give Grandma a hard time I can't abide that.  I was about to give him a fat lip and would too if I wasn't working here.  Lucky for him he didn't just quite cross the line."

He squares his slender shoulders.  Translucent skin and an utterly refined profile, twisting his beardlet as he talks until it curls up like a pale candle flame.  Grandma looks at him purringly, pleased to be defended retrospectively.

Though it doesn't keep him from comparing haggis favorably to Grandma's Lenten fish. 

Her only recourse is to counter with blood sausage:  "My dad used to butcher a couple of hogs and hang them whole.  Then he'd send word to the Austrian ladies who'd come and catch up every last bit of the blood. They'd work it and work it - with their hands! - while it was cooling down so it wouldn't coagulate.  It would surely make our stomachs turn, my brother's and mine, watching them." 

I love it all - the disgusted expressions of the pigtailed girl she once was fleeting across her wrinkled face, the nurse's easy and precise pronunciation of "coagulate."

They know the stories of most everyone who comes through the door. And do not generally approve of any of them.

"And so crabby!" they comment as one old grump approaches our door.

They tell me about the regular scams and outrageous demands of the ungrateful and indigent.  I make myself remember they are choosing to volunteer here, faithfully week after week, not the erratic pinch-hitting I do these days.  But I notice when I shake my head with her and then sigh, "Lots of sad stories come through that door, don't they?" that her face softens.

I wanted to tell you how he described sitting down at dinner at one of his friends': "it's like Asgard - " (I'm nodding, thinking that sounds familiar?  Famous restaurant? Or is that the Astoria?)  " - like sitting down with Thor and Freya," he finishes with complete unself-consciousness, as if everyone is on first names with the Norse gods.  And his love of all things bike - both motor and pedaled.  "Don't you ride an old school cruiser?"  he asks me.

"I do."

"I thought I'd seen you around town.  I love those old school rides."  He waxes eloquent on the lost values incarnated in Vintage.  How it's more human, more full of sweat and courage.  His close-set green eyes are freshly clear.

He starts to trash-talk the yuppie-riders who clog the roads on organized rides in their skintight Lycra - though, when I laughingly  admit I might be one of them, with a gracious wave of his hand absolves me of any guilt by association.

By the end of our four hour shift, she's confiding that this is a hard town to make friends in.

"It can be," I say.  Because I can see how it could be.

And she tells me, a little shyly, how she hopes we end up working together again.  "Oh me, too." And I tell her what a pleasure it has been for me, too, talking with her and her grandson.

Because this is one of my deepest pleasures -- this connection that can be made. And that's what I wanted to tell you.

But I never did

Instead, throughout all this month it was to my own marginal questions I kept coming back: " . . . it's a pity I don't know how to make this knack, this whatever it is, pay" because I realize what I really want to do with the rest of my life is wander around getting people to talk to me.  That's it. 

But do what with it?

And also, the exhilaration I  feel - which is unlike the deadened and damped down way I feel after a day . . . doing other things. 

How I feel incredibly alive (filled, fed - despite/because of this grey little town we live in, because of/despite this cold rainy day - bright and vivid and deeply dear) but also chagrined - who is this easy, open,  laughing, helpful stranger and what is she doing in my body?  And why won't she come home and talk with Fritz and my other beloveds this way for me?

It's these questions I keep turning back to whenever I mean to write up these notes. 

Instead of shaping this post, I keep writing something else for somewhere else or getting up and leaving without writing, asking myself - why can't I make it pay? 

Until I begin to ask instead - Well, why can't I? 

And instead of  - Who is this person and why won't she come home and talk to my loved ones for me?,  I ask at last - Well, why doesn't she?

I keep asking myself that.

Until I think that I can.  Until she does. 

Which is, my dears, something else I wanted to tell you.

1 comment:

Melody said...

Beautiful post. Your writing slays me. I'm dead now. That's a compliment.

Have a nice day.

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