Adventures in Trader Joe’s parking lot

An older model beige Buick turned left around an island in the Trader Joe’s parking lot and hit the red Subaru that was parked alongside it. The driver backed up, adjusted, and pulled past the island into a parking spot. Indignant on behalf of the Subaru’s owner, I waited to see what would happen next, running confrontational scenarios in my head.

Across the lot, another woman was also watching. At an Active Bystander workshop, I learned that if you want to intercede on someone’s behalf in public, it’s best to enlist another observer, because, in part, there’s safety in numbers. Designed to empower bystanders to address harmful situations—abuse, harassment, injustice—safely, there had been no role-playing for this situation: an elderly woman slowly unfolded herself from the Buick and walked towards Walgreens without a backward glance.

Despite the fact that our antagonist presented no apparent threat, I was relieved when the other observer raised her eyebrows at me, wordlessly offering to join me to inform the driver of her transgression and ensuing responsibility.

The driver, who I will call Hilda, had no idea she’d hit a car. She thought she’d bumped the curb. Her distress was so acute that my need for justice was subsumed by the desire to reassure her that it was a minor accident of no real consequence.

We urged Hilda to leave her name and number under the Subaru’s windshield wipers so the owner could contact her, but she was too upset to understand the how and why of our suggestion. She wanted to wait for the owner to appear and when we couldn’t dissuade her, I told my partner in Active Bystander-ing that I would stay with Hilda and she could go.

I learned a lot about Hilda. She was 87, her son was sick, and her daughter was out of town. She was a religious woman and G-d was referenced as often as her son, who she was sure would be worried about where she was and angry at her “stupidity.” We stood at the Subaru, in the gray mist, watching people come and go. Each time, Hilda would say, “Is that the car’s owner?” as if I knew.

We were damp and chilly. Hilda was thin, the skin on her hands translucent. She wore a lavender raincoat without a hood. I begged her to go stand under Walgreens’ awning and let me wait for the car’s owner, but she refused. I had no way of knowing which store the owner was in, but when I saw a man in a day-glow orange vest rounding up carts from Trader Joe’s, I asked if he could have the store announce that the owner of a red Subaru was wanted in the parking lot. A few minutes later, a blond, middle-aged woman in a tan overcoat came striding purposefully out of the market.

It only took a moment to explain the situation, after which the owner of the Subaru took down all of Hilda’s information on the back of an envelope, asking for my name and number as well. With each new bit of information captured, Hilda would say, “I am so sorry. I wouldn’t have known if it weren’t for this angel here.” But I was no angel. When Hilda dented the Subaru, my response was one of righteous indignation; I was prepared to do battle for something that was none of my business.

I‘m sorry that this parking lot episode will create an aggravating, confounding problem for an elderly woman who has plenty of other difficulties to deal with, and part of me wishes I had not stepped in. On the other hand, fixing the damage to the Subaru will be a trial and expense for its owner, who deserved consideration as well. Perhaps I will look the other way next time, or leave it to some other Active Bystander to manage. Given the ridiculous configuration of the Trader Joe’s parking lot, I suspect I’ll have the opportunity to test myself again.

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Decision point. (Short fiction)

Laurie and Max met at Goodwill where they sorted rags for minimum wage. Both had severe developmental disabilities and Max was legally blind. Though they were in their thirties, they asked for, and received, their parents’ blessings to be married, and set up housekeeping in a one-bedroom apartment on Turner Road. They were a good team and were often seen hand-in-hand walking to the bus, or to visit the goats at a small farm down the street. There was only one thing missing in their world. Laurie desperately wanted a baby, but despite the desire and the prayers, they still didn’t have one.

One gray, Saturday morning, Laurie walked to the grocery store and came home with a baby. Max was confused, but delighted, even though Laurie had neglected to bring home the cereal and milk that she’d gone to the store to get. Nor did she have diapers or formula or even a bottle to feed the baby with, so they agreed that Max would go out and Laurie would stay home with the baby, who had been remarkably quiet the entire time.

Max carefully wrote down all the things he needed to buy, adding in a tiny scribble at the bottom, cookies. He was supposed to be on a diet and didn’t want Laurie to know that he was cheating.

“Take the wheely,” Laurie said. “Diapers are big.”

“But I’m getting little diapers,” Max said.

“Little diapers are big, too,” she said, rolling her eyes. “Take the wheely.”

Max didn’t understand, but he was used to that, and to doing what Laurie said, so he dragged the collapsed, wheeled grocery cart out of the closet and bumped it down the stairs behind him. He stood on the threshold for a moment, studying the sky. It was pretty when it was overcast, and it didn’t hurt his eyes to look at it, like it did when the sun was out. He pried opened the cart so it became a tall wire rectangle, and pulled it down the street. When he got to the corner, he stopped and looked both ways.

A couple of blocks further down the road, in front of the grocery store, he could see flashing blue lights, lots of them. There must be something interesting happening for there to be more than one police car and Max was eager to see so he moved a little faster. But he didn’t run, because that could be dangerous. As he neared the store, a policeman held up his hand in the stop position. Max could now see that there were four police cars and an ambulance and a fire engine.

“Is there a fire?” he asked the policeman.

“Nope. Woman dumped her baby.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means,” said the policeman patiently, “that a woman had a baby, decided she didn’t want it, and tossed it into a dumpster behind the supermarket.”

Max nibbled on his lower lip. “Can I go into the store?” he asked.

“Not right now. We’re trying to find the baby, but it’s not where the lady said she put it. This shouldn’t take long, though, and then you’ll be able to go in.” He turned around and put his hands on his hips, one resting lightly on the butt of the gun in the belt full of cool things that he wore.

It was strange, Max thought, that on the same day Laurie brought home a baby, there was one missing from a dumpster. Why would a lady not want a baby? And why wouldn’t she give it to someone who wanted it instead of throwing it away? That wasn’t good. Max was diligent about recycling, reusing, and reducing, except maybe that last part. He decided he wouldn’t get the cookies after all.

Making decisions was hard. Max wasn’t sure if he should wait for the policeman to let him go into the store, or walk home and try again later. If he wasn’t going to get cookies, maybe he didn’t need to go in at all. What was he supposed to buy? He dug the list out of his back pocket and remembered, oh yeah, cereal, milk, diapers, and formula to feed the baby.

The baby.

Laurie brought a baby home from the supermarket, where some lady had “dumped” her baby.

“Excuse me,” he said, reaching out to touch the policeman’s arm.

Without turning around the policeman said, “Not yet.”

“I have a different question,” Max said.

The policeman sighed, turned around and raised an eyebrow. Max knew that meant he could ask his question.

“Does the lady want her baby back?”

The policeman snorted. “That woman is not getting that baby back. She’ll be lucky if she doesn’t end up in jail.”

Max nodded slowly. “Okay,” he said. “Thanks.”

He decided that he didn’t want to wait on the sidewalk anymore so he turned around and pushed his cart home again.

 

 

 

Who hasn’t thought about suicide?

Every time someone famous kills themselves, editorials and blog posts spring up cautioning us all to keep an eye out for our friends’ mental health. I read one post that I thought was particularly interesting because it discussed the difference between everyday depression, with a small d, the kind we all experience when things aren’t going our way, and clinical Depression, with a big D, where no amount of good fortune will make the person feel better because their brain doesn’t act like (dare I say) a normal one. Unfortunately, as the writer pointed out, we only have the one word for all that, depressed.

I hate to pile on with a me too (not the kind with the hash tag, thank you Michelle Wolf), but I’m depressed, too. Not the big D kind, as far as I know, but that’s the problem with depression, how do you know? Years ago I was diagnosed with anxiety, which we all know is a kissing cousin to the big D, and I often wonder, if I tipped over into Depression, how would I know?

I’ve had years of therapy (and as you know, I’m a big booster). I learned an awful lot about myself and was a good enough student to put into practice what I was learning. Once upon a time, the only emotional response readily accessible to me was anger. You can imagine how difficult that was for family and other intimates. Now I have a full range of emotions at my fingertips and can tell the difference between them. The only one I continue to scratch my head over is depression (if you’ll grant me the latitude to call depression an emotion.)

I know people who suffer from the big D, so if I slip and say, “I’m depressed,” I’ll usually add, “not depressed depressed, just, you know, depressed,” so I don’t worry anyone, and then I feel guilty, because after all, I’m not Depressed so what do I have to complain about?

Occasionally, I’ve gone as far as to indulge in suicidal ideation. Don’t panic or jump to conclusions, here. It’s a fact that people who indulge in suicidal ideation (suicidal thoughts for those less inclined to show off their vocabularies) are not necessarily going to kill themselves. Most, I’d hazard a guess, do not, which is to say, lots of people think about it, but if they haven’t gotten as far as a plan there’s probably nothing to worry about. Probably. So how do you know when to worry? That’s a real question; I have no idea.

The point I’m trying to make is that I’d like to be able to reclaim the word depressed. I don’t want to feel guilty when I use it, because, dammit, I’m depressed! My father died last November, I broke my shoulder in January, I work out of my home and need to actively create reasons to leave. I worry about my mother who is now on her own and everyone else in my meshuggeneh family. I’d be crazy not to be depressed.

Unless I’m just unhappy.

In which case, as Emily Litella used to say on Saturday Night Live, never mind.

emily litella

A world of contrasts

It took me years to talk myself into paying someone to come into my home to clean upholstered chairs; it seemed like such a first-world problem. But after donating to a charity to help buy a water pump for a school for girls in Tanzania, I decided I could forgive myself for finally succumbing to the urge.

You see, once upon a time, we bought a dark brown sofa from Crate and Barrel. Then we let the salesperson talk us into getting light-colored side chairs for contrast. She was right, they looked great together, but there’s a reason she had to sell us on them; they don’t age well.

One day, when I couldn’t stand it anymore, I sprayed some fabric cleaner on a spot on one of the chairs. It worked. The spot disappeared and there was a clean patch in its place screaming, “What were you thinking buying light-colored furniture?”

Why not spray the whole chair, you ask? Don’t be ridiculous.

Then the rug in the family room acquired a stain. I have no idea what caused it and no one ever confessed. I suppose I could blame the cats, we have two, but honestly, it doesn’t look like their work. Besides, cats are meticulous groomers, if they’re not sleeping they’re cleaning themselves. Of course, whatever loose fur isn’t ingested, to be thrown up as a hairball at a later date, is going to end up flying around the house. And you know where it’s going to be easy to spot? On those light-colored chairs.

cats on sofa

The constant shedding isn’t their fault, they’re actually relatively well-behaved. They use the scratching posts instead of the furniture for the most part, which is important, because the boy cat is skittish and we can’t cut his nails. Nonetheless, they are cats and when they sit down their you-know-whats are planted flat on the ground. Gross, right? It’s not something you want to dwell on, but once you get it into your head it’s hard to shake. It also makes a good argument for having your rugs cleaned once in a while. And if you’re going to have the rugs cleaned, why not the chairs?

So now the rugs look new again and the chairs have no spots. If you want to spruce up your home, and you live near Arlington, MA, give Marcello at Capone Carpets a call. But first make a donation to your favorite charity. You’ll enjoy your clean space that much more. And if someone suggests that contrasting colors would look nice in your family room, pick up some pillows from Target.

Eulogy for my dad

Unedited – as spoken at his funeral

When I was a little girl, I sometimes went with my dad when he did rounds at the hospital on Sundays. He’d park me with the receptionist and go off to see his patients. When someone from the hospital staff came by, the receptionist would say, “This is Dr. Mintz’s little girl,” and they would reply along the lines of, “Dr. Mintz? How wonderful. We love your dad.” I remember feeling so proud to be his daughter, as if he must be someone very special for everyone to be so happy to meet me.

dad on 80th

When he was short-staffed at his office one summer, I filled in. I was probably 15 or 16. I loved watching him with his patients. They were so genuinely fond of him. When we met, they were surprised that I was so grown-up; they thought the doctor had little girls because the only picture he had of his daughters in his office was from when we were quite young. In many ways, for him, we remained frozen in time as his little girls.

Despite his ability to charm patients, he still had to chase me around the house and pull me out from under the sofa to administer a vaccine. Then he’d give himself a shot to demonstrate how simple it was going to be. I always wondered how he could do that.

But I had the utmost faith in my dad. I had to have some blood taken at the hospital once for reasons I no longer recall. He dropped me off at the lab and went to do something else. The person charged with taking my blood was having a hard time. They were on their third or fourth try and I was in tears when Dad returned. He immediately took over and in one try drew a vial of blood. At that moment I decided he could probably do anything.

My dad was a very smart man, with a great love of silliness. Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in was a favorite of ours and as he got sicker I’d tease him that he sounded like Artie Johnson growling at Ruth Buzzi, “Want a walnetto?” Monty Python’s Flying Circus also provided a lifetime of references guaranteed to produce an appreciative chuckle. I loved his sense of humor, the way he would groan with pleasure at a bad pun.

He loved the animated show, Rocky and Bullwinkle. At the least provocation he’d say, “Nothing up my sleeve.” And every birthday I’d get him a copy of Mad Magazine. Alfred E. Newman was another favorite of his and “What, Me Worry?” his watchword. He shared with us his great affection for Winnie-the-Pooh, Pogo, and Charlie Brown. No holiday season was complete without a family rendition of Deck the Halls with Boston Charlie. And he and I could do a mean chorus of “When the buzzards come back to Hinckley,” a song we learned from a comedy hour on the old WCRB radio station.

Making my dad laugh was one of the great joys of my life, particularly in the last couple of years.

There’s a picture of my parents as a young couple, mom’s pregnant, and they’re holding matching stuffed animals, dogs with long noses and floppy ears. I played with those dogs when I was a child and they were well-loved. They’re still in my childhood room, waiting patiently for attention. I can’t bring my dad back, but, with my mother’s permission, I’ll take those stuffed animals home where my husband will indulge my playful side, just like my dad always did.

You may not know

The apartment was a studio, with an alcove just big enough for a queen-sized bed. The main living space was taken up by a large leather sofa and an equally large Doberman Pinscher named Freda. There was a desk catty-cornered to the sofa and behind that, a mattress on the floor. The name on the lease was Ronnie D. He lived there with his girlfriend, Judy, Freda, and his brother, Larry, my boyfriend.

During my late teens and early twenties, I spent a lot of time visiting that crowded apartment. Ronnie was older than Larry by enough years that he went to Vietnam and Larry stayed home. I was eight years younger than Larry. Since there was already a Judy at 525 Beacon Street, I became Little Judy. Big Judy worked in reservations for Delta Airlines. She gave me an over-sized coffee mug imprinted with the Delta logo and my nickname.

little judy

I was exceedingly fond of both Ronnie and Judy, in spite of the fact (or perhaps because of it) that they had personal histories of which I was only vaguely aware. For instance, I knew Judy had children that lived with her mother, but not why. And while Ronnie never spoke about Vietnam, his circle of friends seemed to be mainly veterans.

Eventually, Larry and I broke up. He married someone else and started a family. Time marched on and I lost touch with Ronnie and Judy. Many years later, in 2011, married, with a daughter of my own, I stumbled across Ronnie on Facebook. I messaged him and asked after Judy. He responded, “Sadly, Judy lost her 10 year-long battle with cancer in 2004.” She’d been gone for seven years and I hadn’t known. How was that possible? And why hadn’t Larry contacted me when she died? I was bereft.

When I thought about my time at 525, I’d picture all of us as we were then: everyone on the leather sofa, Freda with her head on Ronnie’s knee, Big Judy with her legs curled up under her as she drank tea. It was a shock to realize that I had been remembering happy times, ignorant of the pain Judy had suffered and the loss I had yet to experience.

I always check the obituaries in the Boston Globe. I look to see who passed away in the town I live in, and the one I grew up in. If I have time, I’ll scan the photos, stopping to read about someone who looks too young to have died. Sometimes a name I recognize will pop out. That was how I found out, at the tail end of 2012, that Ron had passed away, too.

There was a memorial for him at a funeral home, but he wasn’t there. It was winter and his remains were to be buried in the Massachusetts National Cemetery in Bourne. I scolded Larry for not calling me and reminded him that I wanted to know when people from our shared past died. He shrugged and allowed as how he just wasn’t very good at that sort of thing. I hope his wife will prove better at it when the time comes.

Every couple of weeks, I use my Little Judy mug for my morning coffee and think about Ronnie and Judy. I wonder how many people from my past are gone, and if there’s any way to prepare for the inevitable feelings of loss. I hope Big Judy remembered me fondly from time to time, even without a mug to remind her.

delta mug

Fear vs. awe

When the lights went out, we watched Bozo the Clown shrink to a tiny dot on the television before he disappeared entirely. It was early November, 1965, and a power glitch in Canada had thrown much of the Northeast off the grid.bozo

I was seven, home alone with my four-year-old sister. It was early evening and we could see perfectly well by the light that came in from outside. Nonetheless, perhaps knowing that the sun was setting and fearing worse to come, I was frozen to my spot on the sofa.

I sent my sister out to the kitchen to find a flashlight and she dutifully trotted off. Soothed by its presence, however unnecessary, I was able to follow her back to the kitchen where we stood at the open door to wait for my mother to return.

While my initial response to the power outage was debilitating, I have a warm, visceral memory of the sky that night. It was beautiful; dusky pink and vast. I imagine the scene as a filmmaker might: two little girls holding hands, staring at the sky, as the camera pulls back and frames them in the doorway.

The upset I experienced that night was real, but I recall it in an abstract way. When I tell the story, I don’t relive the feeling.

There was another time, as an adult, that I responded to fear by freezing.

My husband grew up reading Babar the elephant books and always envisioned flying off in a hot air balloon with his own Celeste. It was never a fantasy of mine, but when I gave him a hot air balloon ride as a birthday present it was understood that I would play the part of Celeste.

Hot air balloons typically fly at dawn or dusk. I booked our outing for an early morning, in Rhode Island. I was a bit nervous, but nothing unusual given that anxiety precedes me everywhere. And my husband’s excitement was so palpable that it distracted me from my own misgivings.

We watched the crew lay the balloon out on the ground, attach it to the basket, and inflate it with air. When it was suitably robust, they turned the burner on to heat the air and slowly it rose, pulling the basket upright. We clambered in, the pilot shot more flame into the balloon, and up we went.

I immediately regretted agreeing to participate. The further away the ground got, the whiter my knuckles. My husband tried to put his arm around me and I hissed, “Don’t touch me,” convinced that any movement, however slight, would send me hurtling to my death.

After a while, when the cars were as small as they were going to get and we had floated along without incident, I began to breathe. I even relaxed enough to turn my head to marvel at the beauty of the scenery.

hot air balloon

We have lots of photographic evidence of that outing, and in many of the pictures I’m smiling. I also remember that after we landed and scrambled out of our wicker conveyance, I was giddy with exhilaration. But for all that, my strongest emotional memory of that day is not my awe at the wonder of it all, but how terrified I was as the balloon lifted into the air.

So why do some emotions live on in memory while others don’t? Perhaps when I was a child, even though I was scared, I knew I wasn’t in mortal danger from the power failure. There have, however, been deadly hot air balloon accidents, so that particular fear was not, in fact, entirely unfounded.

Today, if I want to remember what the world looks like from a hot air balloon, I pull out the photo album. If I want to remember the beauty of the sky the night the lights went out in ‘65, all I have to do is close my eyes.