Seven Memories from Seven Years Ago

I miss our photo albums and picking up packets of pictures from the Safeway. Photos were so valuable to us then. Aubrey and I would pour over the albums in the living room, as Mom watched nervously, hoping we weren’t tearing apart years of labeling and organizing. Every once in a while you’d hear a “get your grimy mitts off…”

Sometimes I go through old photos on my phone. It’s not the same. But it still conjures up nostalgia and details so specific that I wonder how I can still remember the lyrics to every song by the Backstreet Boys too. Also, it’s amazing how fast the time moves the older you get. I can’t believe these memories are this old. I can’t believe I am 31. I give you: 7 memories from 7 years ago (though they feel like yesterday).

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I remember Chas’s roof on Patterson Park Avenue. It wasn’t a real deck but we walked out on it anyway. There was a small black cat who would stop over from time to time and we called him Felix. You could see several Polish Catholic parishes from that vantage point, the buildings downtown, the Natty Boh sign, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, the spiky or bushy tops of trees, depending on the season. It was so quiet up there, as if everything down below were frozen because we were up top.

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When Chas graduated from grad school, the Ebys and I took a road trip up Route 1 with a side trip into Yosemite. Inside the park, Chris, Chas, and I stayed in a cabin. Aside from listening to coyotes, there wasn’t much to do at night. Chas figured out a way of opening imports on the bunk bed metal frame and we played LCR. A few months later two people staying in the same cabins died of hantavirus, the disease you can catch from mouse poop.

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On the same trip as above, when we made it up to Oregon, we spent a night in Coos Bay. I was particularly excited about that because Steve Prefontaine was from Coos Bay (I knew nothing else about it). I remember this restaurant well. There was a band playing that night that identified as “surf country.” I’d never heard that term before but it was pleasant music. Skip ordered a crab cake because he said he “had to know what you get when you order crab cakes on the West Coast.”

After dinner we all drove to the Indian casino. Cindy and I played the penny slots. A woman sucking down cranberry vodkas and cigarettes told me to try “the ones with the pandas on them.” After I won $287 on one of the panda ones, Cindy and I decided to tip her with a five dollar bill (we didn’t know the etiquette). I will never gamble again.

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Grandmom’s birthday in 2012. She loved to conduct us when we sang “Happy Birthday.” We were on the Papas’ back porch. Someone had made mint juleps because it was May and Kentucky Derby season. I remember Gram really liking it. My cousins Ben and Zack are 20 now. I see them here, tiny and childlike. It’s hard to remember. But Gram and her spirit, it’s like it’s in the palm of my hand still.

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That Memorial Day we went to Cape May Point for the weekend and stayed in the Murphys’ house there. Aubrey and Chris were somewhat freshly in love. I remember marveling at how cute they were holding hands on the beach and seeing my little sister gleeful and laughing and glowing. Chris also had a mow-hawk on this trip. Now they are parents.

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My mom bought me this dress. Every once in a while she buys an absurd item for each of us. There was the sequin skirt, the shirt that shrinks to the size of a butt cheek, she can’t resist. This is maybe one of the best ones I can remember. I wore it to Dot’s Bachelorette Party. We rented a gorgeous house in Capitol Hill and had a glorious weekend of girlfriend time. All night my dress reflected on my chin–that’s not something everyone can say.

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Caitlin, Alice, and I went to see Shar when she lived on Main Street in Frostburg. Another walkable roof, you could see the mountains from this one. In the house next to us, earlier that year a couple had fallen asleep after a night out and died in a fire. I remember traipsing around Frostburg like we owned the town then coming up here and feeling so tiny with the Appalachian Mountains so present and huge and there.

 

I do realize social media allows us to catalog and caption our lives but there’s so much more that we’d never say, because it’s weird to share, or it’s not happy, or it paints us in strange light. All of the realness that make seven years ago feel like yesterday.

F for First

A rare foray into fiction.

NPR used to do contests called Three Minute Fiction, I’m unsure why they stopped. In 2013, I wrote a piece for this and sent it to Tim and to NPR. Round 11 in May of 2013 was “Finders Keepers: Write a story in which a character finds an object that he or she has no intention of returning.” I (obviously) did not win but what’s weird is that one of the winners chose the EXACT SAME object as I did. Here’s that story.

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And here’s mine:

“A S D G H J K L,” Mr. Filbert reads from his keyboard. Its home row had 8 keys only yesterday.

“A S D G H J K L!” he crescendos. Lenore glances quickly enough, she thinks, toward his desk. Mr. Filbert, however, is hardly deterred from drawing her into the 23rd time today he’s bemoaned his missing F key.

“I just don’t see the lure, Lenore! Miscreants, their games!”

He continues his rant, but in Russian. Lenore crouches behind the laptop cart feigning Mr. Filbert’s required power button checks.

“21 – off, 22 – off,” she pretends to scratch on the clipboard he’s provided. Instead, she’s drawing a dog. Her mind replays Mr. Filbert’s accidental poetry. I just don’t see the lure Lenore. Its paws are wheels, five careful dots along each edge. Lure Lenore. Lure Lenore. Lure Lenore.

A student enters the office as she focuses on a cartoonish left eye, her Bic wearing a label pre-scolding: MR. FILBERT. Three years have taught her the cadence of pre-pubescent gaits.

Dale Tyne squeals, “Mr. Iiiillllbert, can I have my computer password again?”

A pregnant pause and Mr. Filbert breaks into his vigorous pacing ritual – desk right, desk left, by the microwave, a loop around the shelf, and back to desk right. Knowing what Mr. Filbert’s disregard means, Dale’s untied shoes scamper past the laptop cart.

Midway into lap three, Mr. Filbert blurts words Lenore has translated herself. Lately, he’s been favoring “bull shit” in Portuguese. Her delicate script leaves “Lure” above the dog’s pointy ear.

“Did you hear that scoundrel? Ilbert? Ilbert?”

At Lenore’s silence Mr. Filbert peers over the cart. Looking up at him, her head hovers above her seated bottom, which spills out around her, coated in polyester brown.

“Lenore, we need to find our villain. Is Tyne on the suspect list?” he asks, his torso flanking the top of the cart.

“I – do think we added him earlier.”

“Well children cannot destroy property and go on their merry ways, Lah-nure.”

“We’ve already called in so many for questioning–it’s become a joke in the entire 7th grade.”

“Oh really, Lah-nure? Well why don’t you just go back to drawing your puppies?” he says under gray eyebrows. “Yes, I will defend the integrity of our equipment uh-lone. Tyne moves up the list!”

“Principal Glick said we can’t profile a student because he has a pas-”

“Profile? I can’t even spell profile right now, Lah-nure! This is about more than F or all the other keys. It’s about respect! And Glick? She has some nerve! She’s on the list!” he exclaims raising a hairy hand above a bald head, index finger protruding.

“Always suspected she has it out for the library. This is our 10th missing key in three years!”

Mr. Filbert huffs to the cafeteria in hot pursuit of his daily cheese steak sub. In 13 minutes he will be seated, dipping French fries into the center of the yellow paint and faux leather scooped from a bucket into a sub roll for his blissful consumption.

Lenore takes note of the time, retreats to the back office, and opens a drawer near the old transparency machines. Lenore unscrews the cap of her E6000 superglue. Chemical concoctions fill her nose as she pulls a small black square from her pants. She introduces the clear goop to the back of a small F key. She affixes both to a wooden board in the drawer.

“F – REELENORE,” she says out loud for finality.

She gently closes the drawer, unsure what step lies next but certain that her backwards project is the first step of many.

Dear Baltimore

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Dear Baltimore,

It’s been a week…again. We lost Gil Sandler yesterday, though WYPR plans to run his Baltimore Stories every Friday for the foreseeable future. We hit 300 homicides on Wednesday. There’s a 7 year old boy missing and someone turned in a rocket launcher through the gun buy-back program. I spent three minutes on the phone being screamed at by a very angry parent and then cried for the subsequent two hours. And in her irrational rant with which I could not possibly disagree more, I hear the plight of this city. I hear frustration and ire and an inability to restore and sadness and resignation and misguided action and biting the hand that fed you and misunderstanding when someone is just trying to make things better.

Poor Baltimore, you’re so tired. You’re old and creaking. Your veins are swelling and exploding, arteries are clogged and rotten. Water main breaks abound and with winter beginning today, that’ll only increase as you get cold and 200 year old pipes freeze, expand, and swell beyond their encasings. It adds up, doesn’t it?

You have an irregular heartbeat in the form of a city government tripping over its own ego and stabbing in the dark at problems that go so deep with blindfolds made of the hunger for power.

The arthritis in your joints, at the intersections of people who stayed apart for centuries, is where the cartilage has worn away but instead of healing together there’s clashing. Your bones click as you try to move forward and layers of synovial fluid pops, a reminder that you’ve been here for hundreds of years and movement and change come with audible reminders of your stagnation, your stuckness, your old bones and natural inclination toward the way things have always been.

Your vision is blurred from tears, being poked in the eyes, and several lost fist fights. It’s hard to see what you need when you can’t actually see. When you can’t see the intersection of Penn and North or the blood stains over east. Do you see the people who are trying? Trying to make their lives better, trying to make your people better, trying to make you better? Not to mention your hearing. Surely it’s past its prime and fading. Is it drowned out by whirrs and dirt bike vrooms?

You’ve had a headache for years. Each murder is another concussion slamming your brain against your skull. Another lost resident. Another person who maybe hadn’t been given a chance at something better.

But Baltimore, you’re not dead yet.

You’ve still got 611,648 souls that look to you to rest their heads each night. Do you need a diet? Therapy? A massage? Antidepressants? A stiff drink? Probably all of this and a lot more. But it’s possible. And there are people who care. People who see your ailments and come up with Neosporin and Bengay and ice packs in the form of nonprofits, ideas, vigor, and optimism. You’ve still got a pretty face in your 19th century architecture, the birds in your parks, the public art that adorns your streets, walls, and most unlikely nooks.

Baltimore, you can’t give up because we haven’t. We the renters, the homeowners, the out of towner transplants, the apologists, the celebrants, the generational residents, we are here. And we need you to be a home. To open up those grandma arms and cuddle us against a fluffy bosom. Make us feel appreciated and welcome and lucky to be yours.

So as we look to 2019, Baltimore, make this year different. Make this a year with a life record rather than a murder record. Make it a year in which you come out of your elderly fog and you start to feel better. We start to feel safer. Make 2019 a year of positivity and love and growth. Make it a year where you don’t let people make fun of you for being “murdery” or backwards. Make it a year in which people proudly say, “I’m a Baltimorean.” Make it a year when the Orioles win the pennant. Okay, that one was a joke.

Make it a year that people look to Baltimore, from around the world, and say, “Look at Baltimore. She has her problems. But she knows how to heal herself and lift up her people.”

I believe in you, Baltimore. Of course, it’s really up to us, isn’t it?

Love,

Amandy

 

PS: How to help:

https://www.thread.org/get-involved/volunteer/

https://writingamandy.com/2017/11/10/let-there-b-more-love/

https://writingamandy.com/2018/07/06/paint-baltimore-kind/

The New Ideal

Hampden’s Avenue has multiple personalities. Some reflect its past, others its present and future, and many present an attitude of “That was then, this is now.” The second chances abound.

If you’re awake soon after the methadone clinic lets out round one, you’re likely to walk through a tunnel of cigarette smoke and strange both whispered and yelled negotiations by those working to shed what ails them. Wool hats and jackets are year-round attire. The choice venue through the early morning light is outside of Royal Farms’ headquarters. Classical music tumbles out of the speakers, onto the ears of the daily sidewalk ornaments and seems to faze no one.

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By the time the sun fully crests the hill on Chestnut Avenue, a new crew floods the pavement. They’re young and they’re hungry and they’re not here for the methadone. No, but vices and attempts at betterment still call out to them. They traipse in and out of shops and, in their swirl they snag drinks stirred with almond milk and paper bags with handles. The dawn crew still malingers but they’re watered down by wool sweaters and shoes that make clopping sounds and a palette of washed denim. They use the valets and shopping baskets in boutique stores and they stop to sniff things, soy candles and book spines and incense cones.

A few flicks of a cigarette butt away is The Ideal Arts Space, for now a dance hall that hosts classes such as swing dance and salsa and a church on Sundays. And like many things in Hampden in the past couple of decades, The Ideal is soon to be a phoenix rising. 

At the turn of the 20th century, life in Hampden centered on cotton mills. Cotton was trucked up from the south and then processed into fabric or cloth at Mt. Washington Mill, Meadow Mill, Mill No. 1, and so forth. Before the Great depression, Hampden was economically booming. And the motto we now see stretched across stock photos of ethnically diverse people advertising giant apartment buildings, was true back then: “Live, Work, Play.”

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In 1916 The Ideal was one of 129 theaters on Baltimore’s main streets. Its next door neighbor for decades was another theater called The Hampden.

The Ideal Theatre and The Hampden were the two premier movie houses in the neighborhood. They catered to the success of Hampden through the first half of the century. But, when multiplex movie theaters began wooing crowds with options, The Ideal and The Hampden went the way of the once active mills. 

If the revitalization of the mills is any indication, one might not be surprised to find that The Ideal will soon have a new use, a new crowd, while keeping its old school charm. Hampden’s mills now house restaurants, shops, galleries, athletics, nonprofits, offices, and apartments, all of which nod to the past with exposed concrete, massive factory-like windows, and the occasional old rusted appliance on a ledge somewhere.

The Ideal, which closed in the ’60s, cycled through as a Salvation Army, other retail ventures, an antique shop, and the dance hall we know today.

Plans to add to the story of The Ideal are now in the works as self-described serial-entrepreneur, David Rosenberg, is teaming up with the Five and Dime Ale House to create a multi-use entertainment venue. For the current residents of 21211, the new idea concocts mostly visions of giant SUVs circling and then plopping themselves in front of old marble stoops, stoops the drivers do not ascend everyday. But if you’ve met Rosenberg, for even a handful of minutes, you’d know he has already thought of that. 

Rosenberg, a native Baltimorean and attendee of the University of Maryland, has certainly dabbled. He started in the clothing business, jumped to chocolate and candy stores, did a stint with Mr. Coffee, and most recently has worked for New York Life. He consults, he strategizes, he conceptualizes. Rosenberg’s favorite word is “immersive.” He sought to create an immersive shopping experience at his clothing stores, then an immersive visit to his candy stores, and finally the same full-service comfort at New York Life. Now, he has his sights set on one of his hometown’s main streets, The Avenue in Hampden with a vision for The Ideal that eschews the lingering retail slab wall that lines the interior to this day. A vision that harkens back to a marquee that once read, “Talking pictures at their very best.” A vision that puts “Play,” back into “Live. Work.”

Rosenberg presents his concept with the confidence that this will work, and he makes you believe so too. “This marries two things, my passion for music and my passion for creating an immersive experience.” It’s a combination of two things he loves. Rosenberg has played with a few bands himself, and currently plays once a month at the Cat’s Eye Pub in Fells Point. Rosenberg describes his vision as a performing arts venue with mostly music, some comedy, and he welcomes Baltimore institutions such as Stoop Storytelling. 

The team working on The Ideal, which Rosenberg hopes to open by July 1, includes acousticians, architects skilled at bringing out historic features, and consultants who will ensure that the sounds of the street stay outside and the music remains in. Though passersby won’t be able to hear the shows, they will be able to peer through several panes of glass and see the show and in Rosenberg’s mind, want in.

Why this? Why now? “There’s no place for live music. The only good listening room is Creative Alliance. This will have more capacity, food and beverage, and a lot of bands.” Rosenberg already has food and beverage figured out through the next door Five and Dime Alehouse. He has been toying with flex seating area on the stage level and permanent seating on the street level.  “There will be walk-ins because it’s Hampden. I think this is really gonna be a crown jewel for Baltimore,” says Rosenberg. “I love Baltimore,” he says. “Baltimore is one of the best kept secrets on the East Coast.” 

Rosenberg rattles off Baltimore’s tiny size, the harbor, the diversity, the authenticity, the warmth. What’s it missing? Performing arts space. “All these bands and talent are jumping over Baltimore with no place to play.” Rosenberg wants to fill that void. 

Rosenberg has worked out a deal with Johns Hopkins Keswick to use its garage at 37th and Chestnut Streets. A shuttle will pick guests up from the garage and cart them to the venue. All part of the immersive experience.

To sweeten the deal for the parking-anxious, residents of 21211 will be able to purchase discounted tickets to shows at Rosenberg’s Ideal.

And with Hampden’s xenophobic past, one in which outsiders were traditionally unwelcome, it could be a challenge for The Ideal, despite its century on The Avenue, to find a comfy home in its latest Renaissance. But another one of Hampden’s traditions is rebirth. So why not The Ideal, all over again, over 100 years after its start.

Two Weddings and a Funeral (not in that order)

First, did you purchase your ticket for the Peace and Presence Yoga Flow yet? Karen and Lauren did!

 

Have you ever seen Death at a Funeral? If not, go find it, rent it, watch it. It is the single funniest movie I have ever seen. I was thinking about a line from it recently and thought about some of the pieces I’ve written for important occasions. I love writing pieces for people I love. I give you: a speech, a eulogy, and a “reading.”

 

Aubrey

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Thank you all for being here, for traveling far, for your love, and for the unbelievable celebrating that is about to happen. Thank you Mom and Dad for giving me THE world’s most amazing sister. Thank you, Edie and Nick, for giving me a brother, that is not a dog for once…well…Lochdawg? Oh well. Thank you all for hosting this incredible party to celebrate these gorgeous people. I also want to shout out Mary Lou, our beautiful, unstoppable grandmother who inspires us every day.

I think I will flip the script a little and start with Lochdawg or Chris. You all know how I met Aubrey so that story is less interesting.

Back when I first started dating Chas, he was on one of those drinking teams, you know the kind  that occasionally plays softball? I assumed he’d grow out of it so I put up with the ridiculous Sunday Fun Days. Little did I know, 8 years later that drinking team that occasionally plays softball would still be a cohesive unit.

Anyway, Chas was the pitcher and I’d go and watch some days but sometimes someone else stepped in and pitched instead of Chas. Other than he was the other pitcher, I knew four things about him: his name was Lochdawg (weird), he drove a very blue car and had very blue eyes, and that he was Canadian. Sometimes, as I understood it, he would be in Canada (his home) so Chas would pitch both games of the double-header.

Fast forward two years, we planned to go celebrate the final Memorial Day at the Eby Family Beach House by hosting 25 of our friends for the weekend. Apparently, this blue eyed blue car-ed Lochdawg overheard Chas talking about it and said, “Oh that sounds fun. That sounds like something I’d like to do” so along he came. I like to say that Chas and I both fell in friend-love with Lochdawg that weekend. Chas, for Lochdawg’s strong stomach, I’m guessing. And me, for his kindness, sense of humor, and great taste in music. From there we all hung out constantly.

About a year later when Aubrey had moved home from college, I went to a work event with her. In the car on the way, I invited her to hang out with my friends and me afterward and passingly mentioned that the only friend of Chas she was allowed to date was Chris. Aubrey agreed to come along to meet up with my friends. The very second we walked into Cat’s Eye Pub, it was like SHWOOMPPP. They did not stop talking all night.

Now, the funny thing about accidentally setting up your sister with your good friend is that they BOTH give you the play by play. So I’d talk to Lochdawg, “Oh you’re going to Annabel Lee? That sounds great, she will love that” and then I’d talk to Aubrey 10 minutes later, “Oh he’s taking you to Annabel Lee? That’s adorable!” Anyway, you’re all welcome. We wouldn’t be here but for my careful coaching of both parties.

But I actually might not be right about that because a couple years ago Lochdawg wrote me a beautiful birthday note (he writes very heartfelt notes), he thanked me for setting him up with his soulmate but added that he liked to think that since they are sincerely, definitely meant to be together that he likes to think they would have met anyway. And as I look at them today and have watched them grow together over the past 5 years, I think deep down I know that his truth is the right one. They are here together, married, because they are meant to be. I don’t think a strong enough word exists to explain how happy I am to see my sister marrying her best friend, one of my best friends.

Aubs, you are absolutely stunning, not that I am not used to that. She passed me in height when I was 11 and has basically looked like a model ever since. Aubrey and I are only 18 months apart and with that comes an understanding of the world that only she and I share. We were, after all, raised by Nancy and Dick.

We have grown up completely symbiotically. We are like those trees that has roots that wrap around one another and grow up all twirled. And with Aubrey, that’s easy. She just loves. She always talks about how Joe, her dog, “loves to love,” but Aubrey that’s because YOU love to love.

There’s a character in the book The Secret Lives of Bees named May Boatwright who feels the feelings of all people around her. She takes on the emotions of everyone she sees. I remember reading that book like a million years ago and thinking: Wow that’s Aubrey. She is the most empathetic person that only a fictional character can match it. I know she’s exploding with emotions right now, a room of 200, wow I can’t imagine. But that’s my sister. And I think in this world, it’s empathy like Aubrey’s that we can really all use more of.

Chris, I know you’ll take care of our girl and she will certainly take care of you. And now that I have been married for four months and am an authority on marriage, the simple advice I want to give is communicate, listen, and apologize.

Aubs, I can’t believe the stars aligned this well to be able to give me a sister like you but I know every single day how lucky I am to have you, to be your co-tree, to be your sounding board, and to have you be my own. You are such an incredibly caring, driven, and brilliant woman.

You put up with me selling you candles out of my bedroom and making you pay me $20 so that I wouldn’t complain to Mom that you were allowed to shave your legs a year earlier than I was. You supported me through so much anxiety, through school and working in a school, and anything that I need to say out loud. Guys, I can’t believe two of my best friends are joining eternally today. My heart is through the ceiling. I love you. I am proud of you. Congratulations.

 

Elf Catz

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Amanda Eby 4 year old iPhone Photography (selfie) (c)

The first word that comes to mind when I think of Grandma Freida is “sugar.” Maybe more than anyone I have ever met, she was made of it. The only person I ever heard her say anything bad about doesn’t deserve to have his name uttered here. She was so sweet that you couldn’t help but just stop and marvel at her. Like, “Where did you come from?” And the answer to that is, a lot of places. As a military kid and wife, she moved around a lot.

She’d spout off states and towns that sounded like they were out of 1950s musicals–and most likely, they also were. She always maintained that her favorite place she ever lived was Blueberry Hill, Tennessee. She’d stare off into the distance and describe it like she was writing a poem out loud. And that’s how she was. In that tiny body, she held onto all the places she loved but also all of the people she loved. She’d tell me about her mother and her father and her sister and her best friend Beryl, her pet cat, and certainly about Stan.

She’d tell me about people in the very next room too: Cindy, Skip, Chris, Chas, Robin and John Christian, Carole and Martin, Luci and Sarah and Rob and Kattie and RJ, about Gabby, about Aubrey, about my own parents. She’d tell me about her new friends from church and Anne from next door and Sierra her card-playing friend, and she’d go on about someone whether dead or living to the point that she’d get tears in her eyes telling you how wonderful and special that person was to her. She’d even tell me about myself. And all that time I’d be looking at her like, Wow. You are made of love…or sugar, or both. And you must come from a place with a fruit in the name like Blueberry Hill.

Speaking of places, back in December Chas, Cindy, Freida and I went to go see The Lion King at the Hippodrome. It was a special treat, a night out, Chas and his girls. I drove us down and had Freida riding shotgun. She was on a medicine that made her a little loopy and as I hugged corners and searched for a parking spot, she sat next to me laughing. At one point she blurts out, “Of all the places in the whole world you could live, why would you ever choose to live in Baltimore!?” And as a Baltimore-lover, she is the only person I will allow to say that and get away with it. Yet in all her years of living here, I had never heard her say anything even remotely negative about it. Again, another reminder of what a sweetheart she was. But, I actually think she really liked it here.

Back in September I stayed with Freida for a night. My Gram was in hospice at the time. Freida insisted she’d go with me to visit her. The second she walked in, my Gram, who was having trouble speaking at the time but was still mentally there, said, “Freida!” and it was like she’d gotten out of that bed, and given Freida a bearhug. She was so excited. She shuffled over to my Gram, embraced her, and started telling my Gram all about her granddaughter. It was among the most beautiful and the most difficult things to witness. And looking at them, I thought my heart might explode–luckily it didn’t.

I’d like to end with a detail about Freida that always amazed me. She had two dolls she kept. And, they slept in her bed. One must have been the prototype of Snoopy–literally–like it had to be the first Snoopy ever created. The other was a girl doll with a face drawn on. Cindy can tell you their stories. I’ve heard them but forgotten. I do know the girl doll was from Freida’s great grandmother, someone I heard a lot about over the years. And again, she lived like hundreds of years ago but Freida would describe her as if she’d just gotten back from a visit with her. Anyway these dolls may have been terrifying to someone who didn’t know their story. But to Freida they were family. I used to like to go up to her room when we’d go over to Oakdale for dinner and say hi to her before she mosied down. I will never forget the first time I watched her tuck the dolls in under their doll-sized blanket. And the last time I visited her at Oakdale I pointed to the dolls and said, “Grandma, do you want me to get the dolls under their blanket?” And her response was, “Well, it’s a little warm in here, don’t you think?”

So goodbye for now to our Grandma Freida, to Cindy’s mother, to Chas and Chris’s grandma, and to everyone’s friend. But I know that with tears in our eyes, we will continue to talk about her in vivid detail, like she’s just in the next room.

 

Tim and Maddy

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Love is patient. Love is kind. It does not envy…

 

JUST KIDDING.

 

I don’t remember meeting Tim, which I think, is telling–not of him but, of “fun,”

When I first met Maddy she wore a dinosaur Halloween costume made of a hoodie and some felt.

When I first saw them together I thought, “Wow, those are two pairs of really light eyes.”

When I first heard them together, I couldn’t stop laughing.

To combine the wittiness of these two is almost unfair. How are the rest of us supposed to even seem clever?

Tim told me that when they first met, he thought,

“This is someone I can trust,

whom I’ll love,

with whom I’d like to embark on a journey.”

That’s what continues today: a journey.

Of belly laughs and end of a long day back rubs and Barry Glazer’s pink nose and three matching La-Z-Boys…oh wait, those are already a thing.

A journey of teamwork and pillow talk and loading the dishwasher the right way and jokingly bickering over whose turn it is to turn off the overhead light. (It’s definitely Tim’s.)

A journey of shared accounts and Home Depot trips and planning the next vacation.

 

Maddy told me that when she looks across the room at Tim, she thinks, “Look at how wonderful he is.

How could I possibly have gotten so lucky?

This is my forever.

There is no one better in this world for me.”

You’re right, Maddy, about some things, but this isn’t luck. Tim is a sign of your merit as a sister, daughter, friend, and now a wife.

And Tim, Maddy is a reflection of your kind heart, intelligence, humor, and general goodness.

You two are stellar humans as two and unstoppably fantastic as one unit.

I will end with my rewritten version that claims to be an Apache blessing but may also derive from a 1947 novel called Blood Brother. Either way, I don’t have permission to rewrite it so don’t tell on me.

 

Now you will feel no rain, for each of you will be shelter to the other.

If you do feel rain, you will together enjoy the sound of its patter on an old Baltimore awning and the way the Natty Boh sign lights up against a gray blue sky.

Now you will feel no cold, for each of you will be warmth to the other.

Like a bonfire in the Loughlins’ front yard on a November night.

 

Now there is no loneliness.

 

You are two bodies but there is one life before you, and one home.

On O’Donnell St.

 

When evening falls you will look up and there she will be.

He will take your hand and she will take yours and you’ll turn together to look

at the road you traveled to reach this – the hour of your happiness.

It stretches behind you as the future lies ahead, a long and winding road

whose every turning means discovery, old hopes, new laughter, and shared tears.

The adventure has just begun.

 

Lastly, did you purchase your ticket for the Peace and Presence Yoga Flow yet?

Nuns, a gnome, Nancy, and more

I attended another Mr. Kyle photo class. I love how walking around with the purpose of capturing interesting images forces you to pay attention. There are so many jarring, strange, and beautiful sights there are in a neighborhood, maybe even one you already know well.

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just another…

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stoop on the side

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stoopside

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criss-cross

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closed till further notice

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bouquet

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afternoon light

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Baltimore?

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berries

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blue and green

 

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close sesame

 

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gnome on a bicycle

 

 

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last of the season

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black and white

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layers

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claws

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wannabe leaf

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(caption included)

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MEWS

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cornerstone

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beer plants

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olive branch

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sister partly shaded

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Rod Iron

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Rod Iron II

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Aubrey

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boot scraper

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the top of the key

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heads

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other heads

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worth looking up

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dizzy

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spires

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not a bad alley

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stalking “sisters”

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dedication

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craggy

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may they rest in peace

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Nancy.

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seasons change

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welcome to 208

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friends

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white noise no more

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stamps

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TO MARYLAND WITH LOVE

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Mr. Kyle

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Nance.

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contradiction

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diamond district

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Frederick oversees

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pane pains

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switch-down

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We ❤ Baltimore.

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Sheet Rock

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Spread it.

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new world

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public art

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you are a child of the universe

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(caption included)

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everything dances

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shell

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basketball pride

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Erin

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star

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tremors

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shadow X reflection = this

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urban sandcastle (beware of falling rocks)

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back alley fish

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chain, chain, chain

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diagonal

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curl

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improvise

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rooted

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over the dome

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on the dome

Dear Future Self

Dear Future Amandy,

This is a weird time and I don’t doubt that whenever this letter resonates with you in the future, that’ll be a weird time too. Generally, all the times are weird, aren’t they? If I think about past Amandy, I know she couldn’t have dreamt up the details of this life. But, I guess that’s the case with most people.

When you look back at the age of 30 and the year 2018, I hope you remember the growth you reached, the moments of peace you found, and the love you felt and gave.

Harnessing what sometimes feels like an absurd amount of energy, an innumerable collection of ideas, both interesting and atrocious, and general untamable excitedness is challenging. But that’s who you are now. And it’s really fun. Though, you might not always be this way. And that’s okay too.

Whatever you’re doing right now, think back. Remember what it was like to have a brain swimming with ideas for Baltimore and for the girls, for yoga, for your willing and unwilling friends and family? Do you still think that way? Do you still envision the best ideas at 4 a.m.? Do you still wake up before the world to write? Do you even write anymore? I realize I sound critical of you and I don’t mean to. I’m sure you’re fine, but I hope you continue to make it your mission to be more than “fine,” to make Baltimore more than “fine,” to make the people around you more than “fine.” Remember this?

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Credit: Sierra Smith Photography

If you’re reading this and feeling stodgy and weighed down, step outside, look up, and take a long set of deep breaths. Put on something cute. Do a few rounds of surya namaskar A. Write down what’s in your head.

What does Emma look like now? I already know she’s brilliant and amazing. Does she think you’re insane? Does she have siblings? Cousins? Did any come from you and Chas? Go look at a photo of Baby Emms and remember what that was like. Here’s one for you…

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Did you make an addition out of the basement? Did Chas ever get someone to fix the upstairs bathroom before the roof caved in? Does the rain shower still not work? Did hair stop growing on your feet? Are you still waxing your armpits? How many more countries have you and Chas visited? If it’s been a while, check Scott’s Cheap Flights. Go somewhere.

Did you get a dog? Does he smell? Does Chas let him sleep in the bed with you? Is there still U.S. Mail service? When’s the last time you sent thank you notes to the people you love? Does the dollar store still exist? Is everything still a dollar? I am scared to ask this, but did Trump actually win a second term? Are we still a country? If you haven’t done any activism lately, think of some cause that makes you feel alive and get after it. How about this–do you remember this?

Nasty Women

How many yoga classes are you teaching per week? How many are you taking? Do people live on the moon? Did you ever try running for office? If so, why? How’d that go? If not, why not? How about Chas? What’s his career like? Did you and Mom ever get your noses pierced? If not, maybe send her a text and see if she’s still interested. You only get one life, and one nose–it might as well be decorated.

Did you ever write a book? Maybe a few? If not, why? Look at all these blogs–read through them. One or more of them could surely become a book. Even Bobby Ray alone could be a book. Write it. The world might need what you have to say.

Whereever you are (likely Baltimore, duh), whatever you’re doing, what ever you’re writing and teaching and learning, just know that it’s exactly where you’re meant to be. And if this Amandy nudges you in a few right directions, so be it. Despite her greater instincts toward self-doubt, she’s already pretty wise.

 

With love,

Amandy

 

PS: I share this with the world instead of just tucking it in a drawer, because I encourage you to do this too. Tell your future self what your current self thinks.

Still That Karaoke Singer from Hon Bar

This is a continuation from last week. If you haven’t read last week’s blog, please read this first. 

“Sinatra with a cold is Picasso without paint, Ferrari without fuel—only worse. For the common cold robs Sinatra of that uninsurable jewel, his voice, cutting into the core of his confidence, and it affects not only his own psyche but also seems to cause a kind of psychosomatic nasal drip within dozens of people who work for him, drink with him, love him, depend on him for their own welfare and stability. A Sinatra with a cold can, in a small way, send vibrations through the entertainment industry and beyond as surely as a President of the United States, suddenly sick, can shake the national economy.”

-Gay Talese, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” Esquire Magazine, April 1966

Thinking about Frank Sinatra with a cold, and other similes above, I don’t think Bobby Ray would ever tell you he’s lacking anything. I don’t know if I’d call him glass-half-full, or just that the concept of the fullness of a glass is so far out of his vision, that it’s irrelevant. He’s just Bobby Ray and at the very least to him (if not to others as well), he lacks for nothing. Though, he’ll also tell you, he doesn’t have much to begin with.

“I came into the world banging my head on the way in,” says Bobby Ray. “I’ve been here before,” he says as he looks at me, half making sure I believe him, half I can tell he doesn’t give a shit if I believe him. This is his truth. “I had to write it all down,” he says.

When he talks of the vision that recurs for him assuring him that he’s reincarnated he says, “I know it’s true because it never changes. I got one of those old black copy books primers to write it all down. From before I entered this life I have memories. I have no reason to lie,” he tells me, and when I think about it, I guess he’s right.

“I had to really come to grips with this over a long period of time, whether I concocted it or it was a childhood dream or just the truth and that’s why I wrote it down. And it’ll never change.” Then his talk parades into a place where I get lost, of merging your unconscious and subconscious with your conscious. “We are talking right now through conscious mind, subliminal and the unconscious mind.” And as I start to lose him, he spells a word I must have missed completely, without being asked. He’ll do that, spell things for you, even when you’re not taking notes. His story of his pre-birth-image, he says, “This is like god’s memory in the subconscious mind.”

“Before I entered this life I was awakened in my soul body. I was out there in the darkness of space. It was like my eyes were open but I wasn’t a physical being. Under my vision was the earth and over here were these voices and they were female.” He points to where the voices came from. “There were two of them and they may have been like ancestors,” he points over his right shoulder with his thumb.

“I had my ears and eyes. I was looking ahead and listening to them. I was seeing the earth and they were talking about me coming to the earth, how I was gonna be, and I heard them and I got scared.” And this one ends.

He launches into memory two. “I looked down and I saw these little stick figures…it was my parents getting ready to copulate. I got scared and I went under again.”

And the third, “The next time I became conscious I was in the womb, fully formed.” And a side step. “My father was an ass. He was unedcuated and not refined. He had my mother locked in when he got her pregnant with my brother. Men did that to women back then. She was tiny. He was Fred Flintstone and she was Wilma.” He comes back to his vision. “I’m awakended all of the sudden. My mother was upset. She’s in a rocking chair rocking me in her belly, apprehensive about my father coming home. I’m seeing through the womb. I saw him come through the door with his paint overalls. She’s rocking me really hard like she’s worried about him coming home and I wake up. I’m psychically gifted, did a lot of psychic work.”

And finally, “I’m hung upside down by my ankles, soaking wet, just got slapped on the ass at the old Mercy Hospital down on Calvert Street.” He digresses and his memories get lost again as he returns to the reasons he believes he’s found them in the first place, “I’ve taken many awareness-increasing, consciousness-expanding sacrements. I did a lot of clinical acid, peyote, mescuplic, STP, DMT, I still make DMT by looking at the sun.” (See last week’s entry for specific instructions from Bobby Ray.)

Bobby Ray shifts in the backed stool at Mom’s Market. He’s sitting in “figure four pose” as we talk, and he tells me that he knows that he’s often in yoga postures. While he holds his body in asanas, Bobby Ray measures life in musical eras–I think it might be easier for him than one’s typical time stamps.

He tells me about the time period from when he was born and up through Elvis. Then he talks of the “blues shouters and how “the spirit was there” and Big Joe Turner and the “jumpin’ blues.” Then, he says, in 1956 everything changed. He launches into a description that draws out some Bobby Ray style nostalgia. The rockabilly era through 1959.

“All these country boys really came out of the woodwork. Such American soul,” he says so intensely. “I remember getting up on Sunday morning with my brother and watching these old black and white films of these hillbilly families in the Appalachian families up in the hills. The best country music you’d ever want to see, double guitar, it was raw American country music.” It’s like he’s still watching the show in front of me on his old black and white, as trails of ironic boots and post-workout millennials padder by. 

He launches into one short non-music tangent, “In 1960 when Kennedy came in, this new look, Joe College, cool guy, more polished, the president was a cool guy. The early 60s everybody was cleaning their act up.” But it’s short lived. “I was 15 years old, a sophomore at Calvert Hall, everything was gray when Kennedy died, for about 90 days. Everything was grey. Until February 14, 1964 when The Beatles showed up on Ed Sullivan and the whole thing changed again.”

He tells me that The Beatles were “diff-er-ent” when most people use only two syllables. “I didn’t know how to process it. That changed the whole nation. All the way through 1969. Anything The Beatles did, they were the spearhead. Then they met Bob Dylan and George got turned onto LSD by his dentist.” I realize that anyone could google this information, but there’s something about Bobby Ray’s telling and I’d much rather hear it from him.

“They were trippin’ their brains out. That translated into their music. Deep esoteric metaphysical soulful head music. After Woodstock, August of 1969, November, I’m stationed on the Gulf Coast in Mississippi, we hear over the television. We hear Nixon is president and Spiro Agnew is VP. Spiro says, ‘The Beatles are writing anti-American lyrics in their music.’ Four months later the Beatles broke up.” 

He tells me about 1972 when Glamrock arrived, followed by Kiss and David Bowie, and Bobby Ray says, “It got back to cutesie wootsie in a different way. The police would see you and follow you, harass you, if you had long hair. 1969. A quarter ounce of marijuana in 1969–it was a felony.”

But then the record scratches. And Bobby Ray stops his musical timelines.

“In 1970 I got discharged from the military, addicted, mentally and emotionally disabled. I found a special diet shop. All I could do was make myself as strong as possible. Fought it that way all the way through.” 

Bobby Ray explains that half of him was addicted to drugs and the half was trying to get healthy and strong. “One side of me has a needle in its arm, the other side wants only vitamins and minerals.”

His struggle has been his own, if you ask Bobby Ray. It’s his struggle to fight through alone, too. “Knowing you got a problem, 50% of it is already solved. You’re already halfway there. You can change anything. I feel like should’ve died four times. I’m still trying to overcome stuff, little things,” he says. 

Bobby Ray returns to his pre-determined death time and again in conversation. He seems to love his ability to dodge it, but also he’s amazed by his own aptitude.

“I was supposed to die 24 years ago. 24 years ago, I was at a seminar at the natural food store, on macrbiotic theory and meal, by Murray Snyder. Michael Rossoff–acupuncturist and lecturer–was outside and he was reading peoples’ palms. I’m watching and listening to him. He was telling him how long he was going to live and when he was going to die. So I asked him when I was going to die. He said 45-46. And I’m 24 years old at the time. He said ‘You chose that. That’s why it’s on your palm. You choose how long you’re gonna be here when you get here. But you can change that any time you want.’ That was in the fall of 1972…Zen buddhism and macrobiotics.”

He returns to 1972 so often, it makes me want to inquire about why this year was so significant. Maybe it’s obvious in his stories but still, I’m sure he’d have a reason tied to numerology or history or diet, or all of the above. He launches into the year of his pre-determined death.

“You know where I was on my 46th birthday? In city jail in N Section. I was on there for a 200K bail for marijuana. They put me with murderers, rapists, and [nationalities] who sold cocaine who had no bail. And I was under durress.” (Bobby Ray loves the word durress.)

“I was in there with one black guy. He was trying to appeal his sentence. Two cold blooded murders. The last night I was in jail, I had spent 114 days in the place. I was told I was gonna get murdered. They openeded the cages for dinner and I sneak down to the shower so I can get a shower before they let me out the next morning. The murderer walks in with three guys behind him. Bob, how would like me to kill you right now?” Bobby Ray explains that he just kept on showering, finished, and then “walked back to the cage.” He showed no fear. He looked the guy in the eyes and didn’t flinch. And they spared him. 

Bobby Ray suggests, “You let your enemy destroy himself. If your opponent is trying to intimidate you with fear and you don’t show it, you don’t feed him anything. I wasn’t afraid. They [cops, I think] had stuck a gun to my head an 8 mm, I had 4 pounds of pot, I was struggling, I had a drug record, a drug habit. Veterans wanted to put me on chemicals and lobotomize me.” He rattles off his list of issues again. 

“But I’m like a phoenix rising,” he says as his hands lift like he’s picking up a beach ball. “The greater the struggle, the greater the reward. Why am I still alive? Why didn’t I die? [Rossoff] told me I could change it. Over the years of struggling and studying while I was trying to survive. With diet, exercise prayer, I did it. I kept gleaning all these things from different religions and lifestyles. Tauruses are like that–we extract things from our environment that work practically and we discard the rest. Over the course of decades I’ve done that with religions and cultures. I became universalized with all the sacraments. These things have worked into a lifestyle that I customized to who I am now.” 

And amidst a tangent about growing up in east Baltimore, hearing about the street lamp lighters who used to go down Harford Road and light each street lamp, every night, one at a time, and about the new gas buses that came around in the ’50s, and a pack of Camels for 32 cents, Bobby tells me that Baltimore is a Scorpio-run city (and so is New Orleans, he says).

He tells me that growing up in a violent neighborhood, as a guy thrown in the midst of lowlives, military, jail, poverty, and trying to get along with people that “the world is an ugly place, it’s cold,” He says again, “It’s cold.” And then he starts signing “Riders on the Storm” aloud. “I can relate to that,” says Bobby Ray. 

So I ask him toward what I thought was the end of our conversation, “What did you want to be when you were a kid?”

“Kinda who I am now,” he says. “Someone who was evolving. I didn’t want to be a mechanic or anything I saw around me. I’m a master barber, a numerologist, an astrologist…” And then he starts talking about his face surgeries. He has a spiritual connection with Frank Sinatra, he says. He’s been in touch with Sinatra’s spirit before, while chanting one of his mantras.

So that’s who Bobby Ray is. He’s a phoenix, a spiritualist, a karma-changer, a master barber, an astrologer-numerologist, a recovering addict, a pothead, a chanter, a Buddhist, recently, a right-wing Republican, a Silician-Irish man, a sharp-dressed, overactive, introspective septagenarian. He texts me weird jokes around 9 p.m. now. He’s 40 years older than me and I can barely keep up. He’s a rider on the storm, a survivor, a unique cat. All of that, and a karaoke singer. Maybe he’s out of his mind, or maybe he’s more sane than all of us.

 

That Karaoke Singer from Hon Bar

“Frank Sinatra, holding a glass of bourbon in one hand and a cigarette in the other, stood in a dark corner of the bar between two attractive but fading blondes who sat waiting for him to say something. But he said nothing; he had been silent during much of the evening, except now in this private club in Beverly Hills he seemed even more distant, staring out through the smoke and semidarkness into a large room beyond the bar where dozens of young couples sat huddled around small tables or twisted in the center of the floor to the clamorous clang of folk-rock music blaring from the stereo. The two blondes knew, as did Sinatra’s four male friends who stood nearby, that it was a bad idea to force conversation upon him when he was in this mood of sullen silence, a mood that had hardly been uncommon during this first week of November, a month before his fiftieth birthday

Sinatra had been working in a film that he now disliked, could not wait to finish; he was tired of all the publicity attached to his dating the twenty-year-old Mia Farrow, who was not in sight tonight; he was angry that a CBS television documentary of his life, to be shown in two weeks, was reportedly prying into his privacy, even speculating on his possible friendship with Mafia leaders; he was worried about his starring role in an hour-long NBC show entitled Sinatra—A Man and His Music, which would require that he sing eighteen songs with a voice that at this particular moment, just a few nights before the taping was to begin, was weak and sore and uncertain. Sinatra was ill. He was the victim of an ailment so common that most people would consider it trivial. But when it gets to Sinatra it can plunge him into a state of anguish, deep depression, panic, even rage. Frank Sinatra had a cold.”

-Gay Talese, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” Esquire Magazine, April 1966

It is not 1966 and I am not Gay Talese. Robert Murray “Bobby Ray” Barnaba is not Frank Sinatra and his health issues well-exceed a common cold. But if you hear Bobby Ray sing on a Friday night at Cafe Hon on the Avenue in Hampden, Baltimore, you can close your eyes and almost imagine that Sinatra found his way out from six feet under.

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“I got this jacket for $2 down at the church. 100% silk.”

Not knowing much about Frank Sinatra as a person, I’d say that he and Bobby Ray have only a handful of things in common. They’re Sicilian. They’ve been in a few fights and would have the scars to prove it. Olive skin that’s seen some wind and wear. And they can croon. Although the parallels may stop there, Bobby Ray has found his small stage, his loyal audience, his look and his voice and his repertoire. And he shares it with the willing every Friday at Hon Bar karaoke after 10 p.m. while he sucks down a few “long necks,” or what others call, Blue Moon bottles.

He landed on “Bobby Ray” because Barnaba was getting butchered too badly. He’ll tell you in not so few words, that every letter has a numerological value. Bobby Ray somehow equals a 9, “a good number to be out in the public eye,” he says.

Then there’s the Bobby Darin influence. “The first karaoke song I sang was 10 years ago. ‘Beyond the Sea,’ Bobby Darin. I loved it all along. Later I found out he was born in May, he’s a Taurus, year of the rat, had an Italian last name they used to butcher,” says Bobby Ray.

“He got Darin from a Mandarin restaurant–took off the front part of the word. And I thought, I got an affinity with this cat and I love his music. Too bad he died early, I’m keeping his spirit up.” 

Bobby Ray will rattle off details about his bouts of West Nile virus, about biosuperfood, about the natural food store, and about how he changed his own karma. He will tell you about his studies in astronomy and numerology. He will list names and dates like he’s been studying for this test all night. He’ll tell you about Geminis and full moon Sagittariuses. He will tell you how if you stare directly at the sun, you can get a high, that he’s trained himself by staring at weak rays and gradually increasing his tolerance to stare directly up at an August sun at two in the afternoon. And he will tell you about what he calls “the sacraments,” LSD, peyote, mescaline, acid. Then he’ll tell you how he moved beyond those very sacraments, how he got clean, well, relatively clean, on his own without help.

Bobby grew up in Waverly near the intersection of Gorsuch Avenue and Independence Street. Educated at St. Bernards by the Mercy nuns, in 1962, Bobby went to Calvert Hall College High School for two years and hated it. “Freaking hated it.” He said his highest marks were in religion so they tried to get him to be a priest. His response: “That’s when I started doing drugs.”

He went to City College and repeated 10th grade, survived junior year, then dropped out. So he joined the Navy and got his GED. Bobby Ray says, “You don’t need all that. You get all the basics down.” Then he launches into a story about a kid who grew up in the ’20s who sold papers and ended up owning half of Howard Street. “Fourth grade education.” For Bobby Ray, the exception often proves the rule. 

But even if he didn’t finish school, he’s constantly learning. His “teachers” these days are the authors of the books he reads. “One of my favorite quotes,” he says, is Einstein, ‘Education is something you get when you forget everything you learned in school.’ Great I didn’t fuck up.” 

Bobby Ray said that in school, they weren’t teaching him what he wanted to learn. He was nearsighted and undiagnosed. “I’m squinting going what the hell are you talking about?” Pretending to put on his first pair of glasses, he says, “I get my eyes again. I’m like Mr. Magoo.” He blinks hugely to show his new ability.

“I was the little one. I was a little guy. I wasn’t big. I wasn’t hairy. I wasn’t aggressive. I wasn’t athletic. I was intellectual. Everybody was calling me names and pushing me. It was the ’50s,” he says. “To be an asshole was to be a guy. [The neighborhood] was mostly working class. I was the more artist philosopher type, around all these rednecks, greasers, and the biker parties down on Gorsuch Avenue. I knew a kid named Motor Snyder. Motor–that was his name,” he says laughing.

Without notice, Bobby Ray launches into a story about his reincarnation. “I’ve been here before,” he says. “I have xray vision in my third eye.” And all of this might sound whacky to the typical person but then he throws his whole story out there–memories he has of his own infancy, visions of his ancestors. He lets the world, or anyone who will listen, take it at face value. “What have I got to lose? I’m an open book.” Open, he certainly is.

 

To be continued…

I have 9 pages of notes from talking to Bobby for about 3 total hours. I will continue this next week.

The Day I Ordered Turkey Lunchmeat

I wrote this during my MA in Writing. I also read an abbreviated version of this piece at our thesis reading at the end of the program in May 2015. It remains one of my favorite pieces although I just renamed it, again (never did find a title I liked). Thank you to my friend Tim Cyphers, who helped me sharpen it several times. 

 

 

The grocery store is an awkward place to run into someone you once knew. You could see the same person many times and, if encounter number one was uncomfortable, number five is excruciating. You make a quick duck into the cleaning supplies aisle—knowing you need no cleaning supplies. The person, of course, will also need cleaning supplies, and Swiffer Sweepers aren’t good cover. I find it’s best to get in, check off your list, and get out.

On a grocery trip to the Giant near my house, I am not worrying about awkward encounters. I’m thinking of food. All thirty-five members of my homeroom have realized I am not as hardhearted as my raised left eyebrow and crumpled lips would seem to indicate. I’m exhausted from full days of my focus-deficient seventh graders, and by the time the sun begins its leisurely spring descent, my stomach is in high hunting mode. Leaving produce, I guide my leafy greens toward the deli. A family stands in front of me. Man, woman, boy. And girl.

I study the fabric paint on the girl’s T-shirt and think about the odd practice of a commemorative T-shirt that’s unwearable in six months, yet undiscardable for a lifetime. Two boxes of shirts like this one rot in my basement: not sentimental enough for drawer space, too specific for Goodwill. Reading the haphazard red and silver glitter paint on cotton I make out “Pre Pre” on the back. Steve Prefontaine? Prepubescent? Prenup?

She and her brother receive a ham sample from behind the deli. She turns around to eat the pink sliver and there: her image rushes from my corneas, courses through my occipital lobe, and races, violently, through my synapses to a memory.

We stare. We know. No need for small talk. No breeze to shoot.

And, because it’s too much, we look down. In unison.

***

Three years ago, newly twenty-two, I chose to hide my age. Five teachers deemed this group unteachable, untamable, intolerable…impossible, and left the students behind. In these choppy teacher wakes lay trampled posters of kittens canoodling novels: “Snuggle Up to a Good Book” and wallet-sized images of middle school students now adults somewhere else. A dusty computer monitor, in one corner, powered to life like a jet plane in turbulence.

By January and by teacher number six (me), these students no longer thought of themselves as students. Some were proud. Like arrogant prizefighters, they beamed up toward imaginary rafters. Imaginary teacher resignation letters hung like banners of hard fought championships. I just wanted a vertical slash in the win column.

The homeroom would be the greatest contest. Convincing the Morgans just to sit sparked a clash of eye rolls, by both parties. Collecting homework mimicked begging for money on a median. Then I had to coerce twenty-seven fire-breathing dragons to listen, learn, and worst of all, to write something down. This was English after all, and I’d yet to gather enough evidence to definitively state that all of them could read.

Yet, small glints of hope kept me on my path. Ronald finally handed in a homework assignment. Armani asked me to read over a short story she’d written. By March we won a competition against other homerooms to collect the most money for Leukemia. We had started to work together. We were one. We devoured our victory donuts with football team cohesion—I, the fearless quarterback.

I didn’t bother to tell them that I slipped another teacher enough cash to surpass the group who should have won first place. I would not lose—we would not lose.

March rolled on, and April brought more marrow to my strengthening backbone, more calluses to my toughening skin. Despite the Morgans (L. and G.) still refusing to sit, and my literacy investigation still inconclusive, I could finally end a week without crying alone in my office, which I had done all winter long.

One April Wednesday, with my patience thinning like the female students’ clothing, I read the moral lesson of the day to the class, above a persistent hum about Who. Would. Be. At. Hot. Skates. One frequent and diverse lawbreaker wandered in late, so smugly casual that I had to show my power.

“Why are you late?” I said, both verbally and with my trusty eyebrow.

“I don’t know,” she said, not granting eye-contact respect.

“At this point, you’re up to an afterschool. Sorry ‘bout it,” I sassed back.

Dramatically, I pulled the white form and its attached yellow carbon copy from the file on my cart. I shook out the papers, attracting the attention of the front row. I slammed the pages on the table. A judge pounding her gavel.

I branded her name and checked off her offenses. I depressed both copies. Yes, this detention would go down in history. I signed my name as monstrous as the form would allow, waved the sheets just once in the view of the whole class, then shoved them down on her desk as if the wood was going to give. I challenged her, again, to meet my eyes. She declined, opting to apply pink lip-gloss with her small pointer finger instead.

Knowing I’d meet with the excess gloss on the underside of the desk later, I stormed back to the computer to send the attendance.

My detention victim and a friend stood at my cart—my filing cabinet, desk, and classroom—retrieving supplies.

Both victim and companion watched me as I aggressively clicked “P” for present next to each name in the computer attendance list, intermittently looking up at the two girls from the back of the room. Click, click, click, click, finally lock eyes. Click, click, click, click, lock eyes. Click, click, click, click, lock eyes. They kept staring back at me.

I figured my mascara had already found its way above my right eyelid. They were probably making fun of the small black streaks of residue that pointed to my forehead everyday by a certain hour—my own five o’clock shadow. I agreed that it was kind of funny as I hit “save” and returned to the front of the room. Victim and companion settled back into their seats to ignore me in favor of another round of lip-gloss application.

After class, I wheeled my cart back to my closety office. I rolled in and slammed the door, still running on the fuel of assigning the afterschool detention. I checked for food in my teeth and mascara above my lid, finding neither. Settling into my chair, I hoped for an uplifting email. Opening Outlook, I reached for a water bottle that rested on my cart and put it to my glossless lips.

I threw two gulps to the back of my throat. Quickly, I spit what I could back into the bottle. Perfume and alcohol flooded my mouth, torched my nose, and clawed at my throat. Coughing and spitting, I shot up out of my chair. Frantically, my eyes darted from wall to ceiling to floor. I stuck out my tongue to scrape off the taste.

Unscrewing the lid, I saw it. Globs of Purell, recently popularized by Swine Flu. I nearly rushed out the door to find the perps, but stopped myself. I stared at the wood grain and thought of all I had just lost. I began to weep. Letting go of the knob, I could not find refuge in the hallway now, red-faced, eyes spewing tears, scratched voice unable to speak between sobs. There’s no way I could face The Hallway.

They had stolen another victory late in the ninth inning. My win column empty. Still.

A few periods later, the “legal” proceedings unfolded, I learned that the girls were expelled. That day, the principal suggested I visit a doctor. When I returned the next morning, teachers thanked me for continuing to show up. Kids asked me if I was okay.

“I heard you went to the hospital, Ms. Doran. You still here?”

“I thought you was dead, Ms. Doran.”

I later found out that one of the girls, Daprea, also known as “Pre Pre,” wrote me an apology. “Ima start off saying that I didn’t mean no harm.” Said she wished she could take it back. Each exclamation point dotted with a small heart. This was not the way I set out to forever alter lives.

***

Three years later, while pondering deli nitrates it registers who I’ve just locked eyes with. I can’t say, “How are you?” I can’t tell her good luck. We will not meet in the dairy aisle and repeat a series of cliché exchanges. She won’t follow me to the checkout and ask how teaching is going.

We just look.

I know that her life changed with me. She probably does not realize that mine changed with her, too, or that I hated that they expelled her. Or that I wished I could have written back to her apology. That I didn’t get sick. That I didn’t throw up. That I didn’t have the allergic reaction she mentioned in her note. That yea, I cried, but I always cry. That I knew I could have taught her a lot. That I’m older now. That I can control a class. That people do my homework, and some of them can read. That we all do stupid things to other people even when we like them. That really, she gave me a compelling war story. That the poisoning made my coworkers finally, truly respect me. That I forgave her the day I read her letter.

And I hope that my look portrays some of what I feel because I can’t say it out loud. They order ham. I order turkey. And I get the hell out of the grocery store.