In these last few years of (sort of) voluntary reduced means, one spending pleasure that remains is the grocery store. There is no concern at the grocery store for if one should be spending money, one must buy food, mustn’t one? A child of the ’80s, the grocery store is also the only place I feel good about capitalism, with all its choices.
(This comes at the cost of periodic fury when, with all the myriad options, they still don’t stock my New Orleans coffee, or my vanilla yogurt.)
I loaded up the cart and pulled out my debit card.
I had $85 in my checking account.
The clerk had already loaded all $85 of my food into my two reusable bags. One was a bag someone gave me, with wildlife on it, showing someone else had donated to wildlife. The other was my New Yorker tote bag, which every snob needs, to show that one is that type of person.
I said, I work! I swear I work! And I’m a good person! I’ve been working in public education for twenty fucking years and I still owe $30,000 in student loans, I don’t need a house with an ‘updated kitchen’ or a speaker I can talk to because I’m lazier than George Jetson and can’t even push buttons, just let me have some fucking groceries, man, be cool!
Oh, I’m so sorry, ma’am, I didn’t know who you were, the check out guy said. I had no idea. Our educational system is so messed up. Thank you for all your hard work. I respect you so much. Please take your groceries, and this coupon for a free bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon next door, and a free orchid on your way out, and have a nice evening.
It’s no problem, I said. Everyone makes mistakes.
We will not be charging you for groceries in the future. Please come see us again.
The reason our family had money, for the first ten years of my life, was that my dad happened to have been born with skills and interest and been born at a time he could go to college cheap, he met a woman who helped him return to college, and he did work men had traditionally done, work that was well compensated and highly respected by most people (except Shakespeare).
If you can’t get your parents to stop fighting, you will have to start worrying about so many things you never considered: did you bring your gym clothes to Dad’s? Who are you going to ask for money for the field trip everyone else is going on? Whose house will you be at on that day?
When I couldn’t pay for my groceries, I wished I was back in my Brooklyn, where I knew a lot of people were struggling financially, and I did once have my card declined. I went ahead and sorted out what I wanted and didn’t, and I felt okay about it. Shit happens, right? Even to white ladies. In the scruffier part of Brooklyn or Queens, I felt like we all knew good people sometimes came up short because it was hard to make ends meet. Everyone knew the city was a hard place to make it.
I decided that the Lawrence gods had punished me for going to the too-fancy grocery store instead of what everyone knew to be the best local, no-frills grocery store in the world. I took my mom’s money and bought trash bags and cat litter and a few green vegetables. The card went through.
I carried five bags of groceries around the side of the house. They were so heavy. In New York, I never would have bought this many groceries at once. I wouldn’t have been able to haul them home, or get them up and down subway stairs.
So it worked out this time, the cat said.
Well, I brought you some wet food, I said.
Meow, she said. Meow.
I picked her up, and she purred for 30 seconds. Then she wiggled.
I put her back down.
I’m sorry you live under this brutal capitalism regime, she said, as I put half and half in the fridge.
Can I have some wet food?
I’m sorry, too, I said. Here you go.
Image: detail of “Grocery Store Window, Macon, Georgia, February 1935,” Walker Evans. Metropolitan Museum of Art.
He was telling me he forgot the name of the town that is just south of Garnett. I wonder if he is a Trump supporter, I thought. “I’m sure I don’t know it, anyway,” I said. “I hardly know anyplace in Kansas, except along the way to Colorado. My great-grandparents’ farm was near Lancaster, though, that’s a pretty small place.”
“I know Lancaster!” he said. “I used to work on some equipment up there.” He worked on aircraft engines, and now he is a volunteer at the train-station-turned-museum.
“I’m already forgetting things, too,” I said, the fortysomething to the eightysomething. As we looked at object after object in the museum, a hand-built miniature, a case for an exhibit, several times he said, “The guy who made this used to volunteer here, but he passed away.”
The Grand Overland Station in Topeka has some displays on the Harvey House that was there, a spunky repainted ceiling, and replicas of the light fixtures, which were melted down to help with, as they say, “the war effort.” (Not “fighting the war,” or “making tanks or bullets,” but the effort.)
I was in Topeka for a meeting, already conducted, and had time to see something. A tiger just attacked a zookeeper at the zoo, and I’ve already seen the Brown versus Board of Education museum, so I ended up at the train station.
“The kids love this,” he told me, as we looked at a child-sized train car playhouse. “We can hardly get them away from here.”
How had we survived this, how were we surviving this, the president claiming there had been a “coup,” when referring to an investigation by a Republican prosecutor, which had led to several convictions by federal courts.
“You want to take the stairs, or the elevator?” the man asked me.
I had just injured my knee, but I was feeling better, so I said, “The stairs are fine.”
“I don’t want to wear you out,” he said. We walked slowly up the steps.
He told me about where they had taken out train tracks, where tracks weren’t, anymore. I said I missed taking the train on the east coast. He said he was from Vermont, originally. I said my stepmom’s dad worked on mail cars. He showed me the contraptions that let men on trains hold out paper messages to be grabbed by someone at the station (or vice-versa).
I wondered if he thought any change was good. He explained how he met his wife, and said they had been married 56 years.
He showed me a giant bell. “We put something inside it so they kids can’t ring it. It was so loud you could hear it through the whole building!” He showed me a steam whistle, with a flowery pattern around the bottom edge. “Think you can lift that thing?”
“Oh, no,” I said.
He got out a remote control and pointed it at a miniature train. “They’ve got just about everything you’d have in a real town,” he said. “A blacksmith shop, I mean, of course you wouldn’t have one in a town now, but in the town I grew up in, there was one at each end, so your horse wouldn’t have to go so far.” A farm, a carnival, a church with a wedding, a parade, a fire house. “And every animal!”
“And Mickey Mouse,” I said.
“And see Hong Kong over there? I mean, King Kong?”
“I’m sorry the flags aren’t up right now,” he said.
It was a windy day. When I had gotten out of the car, dozens of bare silver flag poles were having their ropes whipped in the wind.
“The wind has been so bad this year, they took them all down for repairs. We have 50 American flags and 50 state flags. And they are expensive. But we got volunteers to repair them. When the volunteers are done, they’ll be better than they were to begin with.”
“It sounds like you have great volunteers,” I said.
“Well, all of them except me,” he said, and we chuckled.
This is the first Maundy Thursday in maybe 800 years without mass. Notre Dame is empty but for the ashes of her considerable hat, and the waterlog of the saving spray. There must be people who always have the triduum at Notre Dame, and this time, for the first year, they will hear the Passover story, the Last Supper story, somewhere else. They will get eucharist from different silver or gold. They will watch a different altar stripped. Or they will stay home.
The last two years have been one long Lent to me. I didn’t need any additional practice. I went back to church on Ash Wednesday, after a hiatus, and feeling good about returning was enough. It wasn’t God’s fault that the president lied so much. That the holiness of accepting the stranger was ignored. Well, it is, but I guess I set it aside. The only way I can make sense of it is to say that on a terrible reality television show I watched, a couple talked about being completely disconnected, though still married, and hoping someday they would feel married again. It was like that.
This year I went to new, small town church, two blocks away. Maybe because of Notre Dame, I noticed the floor was linoleum. I noticed I wasn’t at Kansas City’s cathedral– no Notre Dame, but with haunting icons up front, of Christ, Peter, John. I wasn’t at the magnificent downtown church I went to in Manhattan, with her enormous ceilings, stained glass Jesus and saints. I wasn’t at the little church I went to in Brooklyn, which was painted like I’ve only seen French churches painted. Every other church I’ve frequented, I chose partly because I found it inspiringly beautiful. Not so much this church. It’s just all right.
I wasn’t sure if they would foot wash. It’s the outer limits of what Episcopalians can accommodate, so much touching. But they did. I lined up. A young man in front of me quietly asked if I wanted to go first. I said I was fine either way. I said I was experienced. That’s good, he said, because this is my first time.
So he sat first, and I poured the water and touched his feet.
The process of doing this, and having it done, a little water, hands, and a towel pat dry, made me present. When I got back to my pew, I knew I had hands, and they were touching the wooden rail in front of me, and my fingers were touching each other, and the kneeler was padded, and I was breathing.
I’ve been waiting for this big day, The Mueller Report. I listened to a lot of commentary on the radio, read my usual news online, refreshing the home pages hoping for more. I feel numb. It’s gone on so long, the insults to care and compassion. A president who name-calls and lashes out with hate. The insults to the concept of democratic dialogue, acknowledging the other side, and staying committed to truth. Even if spun, or winked at, still: truth.
There are more ancient things than democracies. Notre Dame knows that. I remember seeing the lines at La Chapelle, nearby: below here, the revolutionaries stored grain, and above here, the walls were left with their paint. Notre Dame was beat up at that same time. I don’t blame them. I would have wanted to beat up The Church. Sometimes I still do.
She is ancient, letting wounds bruise, letting the swelling set in. Her people let her rest until she’s ready to be cleaned, and dried, and dressed again.
Image: detail of Rose Window, Notre Dame.
Brooklyn, I descend two stories of stairs, and our stained and dinged pressed-in patterns on the plaster. Places there were holes, there is now a smooth smear instead of the pattern. I walk the walk to the subway, the walk to the station that is so many lengths: so long when you are late for work, short when the weather is pleasant and it doesn’t matter when you arrive, you sigh at the next set of stairs, down, down, to the train. Up at Wall Street, past George Washington and Federal Hall, into churchful of worshippers and tourists and paid musicians who make it fancy. A plaque to remind everyone Queen Elizabeth visited, once.
Lawrence, I descend one story. We have wallpaper with a pattern so old-fashioned it seems it could be the original. I’m certain it isn’t. It also has a few places it’s been bumped by people moving in and out, patched spots. I walk two blocks, and up five steps, into the little church where everyone is a worshipper, and everyone knows everyone and who is there and who is not. The sharing of the peace is uncomfortably long for someone who only shakes the hands near her. She sits and pretends to study the bulletin. A plaque to show the church was founded in 1856, by a guy who came from Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
The streets are equally busy, a few cars. Manhattan is not busy, Sunday mornings, and is certainly not busy Wall Street, weekend mornings. Walk past the Wall Street bull, people taking photos, getting the balls in, for sure.
Mass Street, Lawrence, weekends, is busy, all the foot traffic, people standing outside waiting for their table at the places where one can get breakfast from a waitress. The accordion player, instead of the guys who sell little Statues of Liberty and signs that say things like, “Coffee saves lives,” and “Sure I’m a bitch.”
There are two kinds of people in Manhattan, downtown: visitors and residents. Visitors are seeing the bull, the stock exchange, Federal Hall, and the Statue of Liberty. Residents are running by the water, getting lunch, sitting with a book.
There is one kind of person in Lawrence: people who live here. The guy who sits all day, most days, and says hello to me, and then returns to his schizophrenic-ish monologue. I think he thinks of me: the woman with the bright coats. The people in athletic wear as day wear. The people wrangling small children. The students returning to their work, after dropping it Thursday night.
When I cross one street, I close my eyes a second, missing, pretending I am walking on a subway platform, this is something I miss, the smell of it, the feeling of joining the circulatory system of the city, letting oneself be pushed somewhere new, wherever the train goes.
This is not the subway platform. Here there is sun, so much sunlight, all for free, anyone can have it on your whole skin, up, down, turn around and in it. The only sun in Manhattan is at the tip of the island, at Battery Park, where those people run, and wait in line for the ferries, and sit on benches and face the water.
There are alleys here.
When the Coen brothers filmed “Inside Llewyn Davis,” they had trouble finding an alley in Manhattan because there are not alleys in Manhattan. Space is not reserved for trash and rats– space is shared with trash and rats. Except in the oldest part of town, where the foundations are too old, or the air is, and there was an alley I walked through to get to my meditation group. It was a well-scrubbed alley. Fit for bankers.
Here there are alleys, plenty, the kind that run between, a place for carriages, and later cars, to park.
If I am not all right, I can never blame the architecture, as I have always chosen my architecture carefully and well (at least as well as my small earnings could). Here I have magnificent windows, rectangles so expansive it’s like glass was taking up too much room somewhere else, and my inlaid mantle that I drink up every day, as pleased to live with him as if I had a beautiful pool boy, and my curved staircase, and my leaded glass window. These aren’t the kinds of things broke people generally get to live amongst, without being a servant. And the alleys. Since I park my car behind the house, lined up with the horse hitch with the rounded top which reminds of all the roundels on the corners of all my windows, I think of the house as being located on the alley, rather than the street.
The alley walk is behind the scenes. The backs of all the houses which are overgrown. Houses built big, and built onto, with extra fire escapes hanging off, those pushed-out kitchen window spots, tacked-on back porches. There are our dumpsters, always full, and our recycling bins, always overflowing. The concrete is crumbled. Cars cannot pass without care.
The fronts of the houses are beautiful, dreams of people I imagine optimistic and clean-living (though I’m not sure why), and the backs are beautiful, too: the same people waking up late Sunday morning after a surprising Saturday night. Tangled hair, makeup not removed, desire for coffee, wishes that one had gone to bed earlier, wishes that one had done chores Saturday instead of waiting for Sunday, but wasn’t Saturday good?
The thing that I like most about being older is fewer surprises, and it’s also the most depressing part.
There is a truck that is actually a storage unit. Stuffed to the gills with carpet padding, other junk, the bed and the cab.
The houses are tall, perhaps only to get warmer in the winter, they are three stories, mostly. Only the midgets are one, or two.
I grew up in a three-story house, with a burrow floor, a ground floor, and an up upstairs. I find ranches so depressing. Live up! Live taller!
In the suburb where I grew up, houses had fronts that were only for show, and backs that were so private, no one should ever see anyone else’s.
In the apartments I’ve lived in, the front was for everyone– both my Kansas City homes had sitting porches– and there was no back.
I grew up at church as much as at home, so many hours spent wandering while my parents ran this or ran that, and I remember sneaking behind bushes to look down in window wells, seeing how the basement floor of the church had a trench dug for it, a way to see out, a way it was not, completely, underground.
And the way we climbed into the two cement tunnels on the playground. They must have been just leftover, or cheaply purchased, pieces of concrete, for drainage. The long one was painted blue, and had letters or numbers on it. We climbed in, to hide, to hear the echo, and to be, looking out each end, neither in, or completely out.
Images: Relief plaque with ram, and on opposite side, two feet, 400-30 BC, Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Because there was a giant cardboard Moulin Rouge windmill on top of it, I was driving my sister’s car very slowly. Mardi Gras proceeds deliberately. So slowly people can get in and out of the car/float in progress.
Somebody got in the passenger seat. We chatted about history in the area, Mardi Gras and otherwise. They’d been having Mardi Gras in Kansas City since someone was there. This time of year, people are cold and hungry, he said. They share. We chatted about Lecompton, Kansas, a place that has been circling me since I got myself out there to see it.
And about the West Indian parade I lived so close to, in Brooklyn, and about other festivals of making and beauty, other places. That one, while beautiful, was a little hard for me to see, because I was always a spectator, always would be, and I love events without spectators, dance floors made of dancers.
He was holding sage out the window and a reveler walked by and was like, “Whoa! I aint never seen a joint like that!” and he said, “It’s sage.”
Mardi Gras afternoon, there was: “I’m gonna lay down my sword and shield/down by the riverside,” and “ain’t gonna study war no more.” I had no idea how to do that, but it sounded like a good idea.
I jumped out myself, so I could be under the overpass when the sound rings full, physical sound, that tells you how human bodies are like brass and like wood, are wet, smooth, hollow.
I grieved to miss it, the years I did.
I decided to go to services, Ash Wednesday, maybe only because I couldn’t imagine how I would feel if I didn’t go. I had in the back of my mind some unbearable pain I might experience if I really, really, really didn’t believe. As someone who’s been too anxious to get out of bed, I mean, what is worse that that?
The church is two blocks from my house, all wood paneling, no painting, and at night the stained glass windows are dead, as things are, in the dark. The woman sitting in front of me was looking up, I thought at the ceiling, which is the prettiest part, woven with different tones of wood. No, a bird! A bird! What’s better than birds inside? No one knows what to do!
We had chatted about Mardi Grases past: fires, snows. Things I sometimes wish were written, and sometimes I am gladder they could, like all stories, become feeble, waver, recover, fade, grow, reseed.
The priest got up, and he said there was a bat in the belfry. Even better! If it pooped on me, at Ash Wednesday, what a story that would be.
I liked hearing, “We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see– we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.”
Both windmills made it all the way to 18th and Vine (one of the four cradles of jazz, thank you, as I taught all the New Yorkers I taught ). When the party turned, as parties do, we tiptoed out, untied the ropes and ribbons that haphazardly had held the toppers to the tops. Put them on the backseat. And I drove home, and I stood in the warm water and scrubbed and scrubbed my face.
Image: Jeremias Ritter, Powder Flask, Metropolitan Museum of Art.
I drove out to my favorite local formerly Confederate sympathizing town last weekend, and sat on a plastic chair in the corner and took notes. There was a lovely lecture being given on a vegetarian settlement in Kansas. The settlement, like many utopian communities, lasted about fifteen minutes, but a lot of other history of early vegetarianism and politics and travel stuck to it.
It was, happily, very crowded, 50 or 60 people, maybe, all tucked into the upper room of Constitution Hall in Lecompton on a sunny, ugly-cold February Sunday. A lot of the audience was older, but not all of them. Working with young people as I have for years, I enjoy time with my elders. They are more likely to know that history is complicated, and confusing, and happening now.
The lecture ended, and I asked the guy sitting next to me about his comments. Some historical sites in Kansas are only open on the weekends, he had said.
“Are you a reporter?” he asked.
“Oh, no,” I said. I’m quite prone to seeing things the way I want to see them, and skimming across inconvenient facts, and most of all, ignoring things I don’t find interesting.
“Oh,” he said, and continued to answer my question, possibly in a less enthusiastic way, but who knew? Would he have been pleased to have a platform, or to know the press was paying attention to this little lecture, or would he, like our president, have attacked me for the spreading of lies to which I had dedicated my life?
(I feel certain it’s the former, but these are our times.)
I do take notes, though I am not a reporter, a professional writer, or a scholar. I like to write stuff down. Sometimes I use it later. Sometimes here. Sometimes not.
Walked across the Brooklyn Bridge
His sneakers torn
In the hour when the homeless
Move their cardboard blankets
And the new day is born
The questions that he’d copied from his heart
Who am I in this frightened world?
Where will I make my bed tonight
When twilight turns to dark?
With my hair as white as the morning moon?
The pilgrim is passing a billboard
That catches his eyes
He’s got a kid on each knee
He’s wearing clothes that he wants us to try….
In my graduate classes, it became apparent I was not a scholar, either. I am really not interested in things that don’t interest me, and when ideas become too abstract, I’d rather have a coffee or make a painting or go for a nice walk.
I do like to do the reading, listen to my kind teachers and fellow students, and answer the low-hanging fruit questions. And I like to chuckle, because I find graduate school a Very Serious Place.
At an inner-city high school, what we thought was at stake was a kid getting shot in the head or shooting someone else in the head or going to prison or going to college, the way we liked to think those events were mutually exclusive. I mean, you have to think that, or you’re not going to be able to show up every day.
I’m very susceptible to Very Serious Thinking, so I try to watch that.
How old are you? a student asked last week. My college students are generally more suave about kissing up. But not always! I’m 43. I think?
Are you a Republican? my students used to ask me. In Kansas City, I said, I don’t talk about that with students. In New York, I said, goodness, no. Cultural differences.
I had to go to the university library to get an assigned reading. The library is a chateau on the outside and an eastern bloc book prison on the inside. As I walked the stacks, I told myself I was enjoying just exploring the library, though clearly at a point I was not, I was wanting the damn book.
I went to ask for help (my least favorite thing to do in the world), and a librarian walked me around. “I’m still not used to the Library of Congress system,” I said, to signal that I was a person of quality who appreciated her and her life’s work.
“Well, it is impressive that Jefferson invented this way to categorize absolutely everything.”
“Have you been to see his library at the Library of Congress?” I asked, actually out of a little concern for her happiness.
“I’ve been there, but I haven’t been in to see the library itself.”
I wasn’t really sure what she meant, but she asked if I had seen it. “Oh, yes,” I said. “They tell you you have to be a scholar to get a library card, but I was like, sure, I’m a scholar.” I told them I was researching John’s gospel, which was certainly true at the time. I think I may have actually been enrolled at a university at that time, who knows.
“I was kind of intimidated,” the librarian said. “Did you want to take the elevator or the stairs?”
We took the stairs.
One focus of the class I’m teaching this semester is inquiry. Where my high school students needed a lot of information stuffed in their heads, my college students tend to have a reasonable amount of info to work with, and need to be persuaded to consider it open to interpretation, and theirs. My high school students considered everything theirs (that is adolescence, its better side) and most things, particularly my directions and ideas, open to interpretation (that is the part that drives one to drink BECAUSE I SAID SO).
Ms Schurman, why are you more likely to get HIV from anal sex?
Ms Schurman, how do you spell ‘coincidence’?
Ms Schurman, how old are you?
Lyrics are Paul Simon, “Questions for the Angels.”
Image: “Compass,” Man Ray, Metropolitan Museum of Art. I flipped it horizontally, which I feel a little guilty about, but not too guilty to do it, obviously.