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Archive for February, 2009

Addressed to Paula S. Yorke, Administrative Law Judge, NYS Dept. of Labor

 

Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits employers from discriminating against qualified individuals. An employer is required to make reasonable accommodation to the known disability of an employee if the request does not impose undue hardship to the operation of the employer’s business.

 

The requests for reasonable accommodation that I made to my supervisors at the Jewish Board were not requests that would have adversely affected the operation of this corporation. I did not refuse to participate in auditing, – I requested that due to my mental health disability, that I be alerted at least one day prior to such interrogations so that I could prepare for these excruciating examinations.

 

I was terminated from a position that I served honorably within for more than six years because I was not able to tolerate additional psychological assault from my employer due to my disability.

 

An employer is prohibited from firing or harassing an employee who files discrimination proceedings. The Americans with Disabilities Act specifies that “increased surveillance” is considered one such adverse action by an employer.

 

The thirteen audits and inspections that were ordered upon me last year constitute increased surveillance under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Other Office Managers of the Jewish Board were not audited as excessively as I.

 

The Jewish Board was alerted of the deteriorating condition of my mental health state by two licensed mental health professionals– Psychologist, Dr. Diane Schneider and psychiatrist, Dr. Gabriel Kate of Saint Vincent’s Hospital, yet, the Jewish Board splintered me emotionally by pursing unlawful retaliation practices, ignoring the medical advice from the professions under whom I was receiving treatment, causing the symptoms of paranoia and delusions of persecution to surface.

 

In 2002, I was diagnosed with one of the most painful and puzzling conditions known to medical science. I was an employee of the Jewish Board, not their patient. My civil rights were violated.

 

A formal complaint filed in July 2008 is still pending before the office of the Division of Human Rights. The Jewish Board violated state and federal labor laws with unjustified methods of surveillance, prohibited by law.

 

The Americans with Disabilities Act was passed by Congress in 1990. It’s purpose: to provide a clear and comprehensive national mandate for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities

 

I am an individual who is disabled, yet willing to remain a productive member of working society, and I am grateful for such profound decrees and remain protected by them.

 

I ask, your honor, in review of the evidence submitted today that the decision to decline my request for unemployment insurance be overturned so that hope remains a part of my American dream.

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Take a walk across Williamsburg Bridge. Unlike the over-exposed Brooklyn Bridge, littered with hundreds of camera- obsessed tourists, a hike across the Williamsburg Bridge offers one the sense of abandonment in the city of 9 million.

It is relatively empty upon the graffiti- ridden bridge. Cars flow like river rappids under one’s feet, but other pedestrians are few and far between. “Stinki” wuz there and left his tag.

Few bicyclists ride the pedestrian way. No benches to sit on. The entire walkway is encased in a chain-link fence. No unobstructed view like on the Brooklyn Bridge and the structure gives one a sense of walking in a hallway of a maximum security prison.

Walked across it early last Monday. Wasn’t sure about where one gets on the Williamsburg exactly when walking, but I knew that Bedford Avenue, just outside my house, leads to that bridge.

Through the city of Hasidic Jews, one must roam in baggy gym clothing. They have nice public housing. The Jews, like queers, sure know how to fix up a neighborhood.

Taylor Avenue runs through the heart of Williamsburg. Crossed it like it were mine.

This side of Williamsburg reminds me of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Amish in black rush with curls blowing in the wind, on their way to some sort of temple service. The rest of the city is on their way to work.

I’m not afraid of shifty-eyes. Their wives with very clear white skin rarely pay the gentiles much mind. Wear running shoes when walking the Williamsburg Bridge. It’s over five miles from here to the island of Manhattan.

Made it to the foot of the bridge in less than twenty minutes. Wanted coffee. There are no Starbucks coffee shops in that part of Williamsburg.

An authentic Jewish pastry shop with a sign offering fresh coffee! Little pink and white candies everywhere and the smell of fresh leavened bread to die for!

Cappuccino machine caught my eye. Just push a button and poof!

They greet me. I nod in respect.

“Two dollars.”

I hand the young cashier, a twenty – something non-convert, a $20 bill. He speaks in Yiddish to a man who looked like a Rabbi, sitting next to the shop’s streak-free bay windows.

The young cashier returns eight dollars in change to my red, cold hands.
“I’m sorry, but I gave you a twenty,” I said. This I knew, for I was fresh from the Chase ATM and the machines give out twenties.

He opened the cash drawer– “You are right. I put it where the ten goes. I’m sorry. See how God works?”

The Rabbi replied “I am really sorry about that. I wish that would not have just happened. He was listening to me and not paying attention.”

“It’s an honest mistake. No big deal,” I said, keeping my head low.

As I sipped my instant cappuccino while walking alone in the cold February winds atop the Williamsburg Bridge, it occurred to me that I never count my change, but should. I wondered how much I’ve lost in life.

I learned a lesson, reflecting up there, watching as city before me seems to melt in the morning sun.

Slow down! Pay attention!

I finished the large coffee halfway across the mile long bridge and decided that I was going to make this walk every day to my gym in mid-town Manhattan now that I’m unemployed. I’m going to stop for coffee every day at that little shop and may just try one of those pink candies.

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Stone Creek Ridge

Esther Emerson-Taylor had a green thumb and hair colored the same shade as the skin on a tomato. The annual seeds planted in her garden came back every year like perennials. The heads of her zinnias were as round as a child’s face. Her marigolds grew taller than sunflowers. Rhubarb in her garden was so succulent, that it bled after a good rain.

Esther cultivated fake plastic flowers from the Five and Dime in her garden too. The artificial posies were her solution for confronting possible droughts and she never had to watch them die. She couldn’t get over how real they looked and how inexpensive they were.

Her best friend was Eva Bumgardener– a short, polyester pant-suit wearing former hippy with curly hair and thick glasses that darkened automatically when the sun came out. Despite at least three chins, Eva’s rather small, puckered lips, always covered in a tasty Raspberry lip gloss, could move a mile a minute. When she yapped, she blinked, and when she blinked, she nodded her head, and after making whatever point she was making when telling a story, she’d unconsciously pull her blouses down over her fat belly, stretching the polyester momentarily to reach across wide hips that were used for resting freckled hands. She wore a wig on her head. Esther didn’t know, or at least she pretended like she didn’t realize that Eva wore a wig.

Eva visited Esther almost every day at Esther’s farm on Stonecreek Ridge. There were very few animals remaining on the farm in 1972– a few chickens clucked around and a goat named Roger kept Esther company while I was in Kindergarten in the mornings, when Eva was still at her house in town sleeping, refusing to get up with the roosters.

“My goodness, look at these flowers! You should open your own produce market,” Eva shouted from near a trellis of grapevines which separated the dirt driveway from a large yard filled with cherry trees, a rusty toy tricycle and a sandbox littered with colorful plastic shovels and buckets. Eva slammed the door to her cadillac shut and walked towards Esther’s garden and trailer. Immediately she smelled the honeysuckles that grew near the well. Esther was out working in her garden as usual. I was making sand houses, for it had just rained and the sand in my box was like clay good for molding that morning.

“I brought you two loaves of bread from the Country Garden Market like you asked of me. How are you today, Esther? Where’s Charlie? I’m surprised he’s not helping you as usual. I still got that God awful pain in my big toe. I put on some of that Rose Bud Salve you gave me. It feels better already. That’s why I’m wearing flip-flops today,” Eva explained, blinking her eyes and sticking out her foot to show off a pretty shade of ruby nail polish painted on her sunburnt feet.

“I like the color of your nail polish. Where did you find it?”

“The Five and Dime. I thought you would like it. I bought it for you, but I wanted to try it out first.”

“Thank you, Eva! There are two pints of Rhubarb butter in the trailer for you.”

Eva took the time to smell every open bloom in the garden while Esther remained bent over in a pair of checkered cherry slacks. She was busy pulling out weeds from the rows of crops that grew in near- perfect parallel lines. Smelling the pretty flowers in Esther’s garden was a habit of Eva’s. Taking the time to smell every one of them gave the two friends a reason to spend so much time together outside, sharing gossip and beauty tips around the flowers. Esther stood up, propped a hoe under her arm pit and listened to Eva run her mouth for hours in the mid-day sun. Eva repetitiously placed her nose into all the flowers, including the blossoms on the cucumber vines.

“Does she ever shut up?” Esther whispered to me as Eva rattled on about her son, Jim, the game warden whose job it was to protect and preserve wildlife on Stonecreek Ridge. Eva liked to brag about a how intelligent Jim supposedly was.

“He should’ve gone to college, Esther. He is so bright– a hell of a lot smarter than his daddy was!” Eva talked on and on as bees fluttered around in the warm morning air, fulfilling their pollination duties. Eva looked just like a bumble bee in Esther’s view. The constant humming from her lips was very similar to that of an insect, and the way she had to poke her nose against every flower in the garden was almost obscene.

“You look like a wasp in those glasses. Why are you smelling that yellow flower? I told you that pumpkin blossoms don’t have a scent. Stop that. Watch out! There’s a bee in that one!”

Eva, after swatting a yellow jacket flying near her ear, bent down and placed her nose on a plastic pink rose from the Five and Dime store and flat out lied. “Oh, this one smells real good Esther! I just love the smell of Irish roses.”

“Eva, that’s a plastic flower. Look at it closely, ya damned fool. I got you good,” exclaimed Esther while rolling her eyes and holding her belly in laughter.

“Oh Esther, you are so clever. It only goes to show how beautiful your flower garden is,” sniffed Eva.

“Eva, you talk too much. Sometimes I think you see things with your mouth.”

“I talk so much to you because you are a good listener. I don’t care to see many people in my old age. I hate all those fuckers in town. I keep it all inside. I can’t help my big mouth. I’m sorry! I’m going home now. I know I can be too much sometimes, but I have no one else to talk to or call my friend” said Eva sadly while scratching her wig and swatting a swarm of gnats that didn’t seem to bother Esther the same way.

“Besides Charlie, you are the only friend who comes to see my flowers. Talk all you want. I don’t care. Just look at ‘em grow. They like hearin’ ya. Makes all this hard work seem worth it to me. The sound of your voice is like manure,” insisted Esther as she plucked a dandelion and threw it from her garden, next to where Eva was still smelling flowers.

Esther and Eva were a pair who could upset the tranquility of a library simply by reading in the same room together. Other women their age called them cackling hens and home wreckers. The women valued their single lives and the time they spent together away from the jealous ladies of Huntingdon County. They remembered a time when life was simple, back when almost everyone grew their own food, milked cows every morning and collected eggs from chickens that were raised as free-roamers– not from hens that were cooped up all day in chicken factories.

When not working in the garden, they spent spare time chasing wealthy men. They were both widows with just a little money left in the bank and life seemed to get more and more expensive as each growing season passed. Eva and Esther did not spend their golden years trying to raise the dead or praying in church. Life was too short and they were offered a new lease on it when their husbands died in the same year, both in car crashes caused by slippery mountain roads and too much booze. They met in a cemetery one May afternoon while there placing flowers from the Five and Dime on the tombstones of their husbands that were planted in close proximity.

“What’s in a husband?” Esther asked the stranger standing a few rows away with tears in her eyes.

“Yes I agree. I’m tired of reading this same damned tombstone over and over again. Should have had something different written on this stone, but that’s what he asked for– just his Mom and Dad’s name and the years he was born and died. I’ll be God damned if I let them plant me here when I’m gone. Hope they burn me. Going to hell anyway. Yep, that old selfish bastard husband of mine is planted right here where he belongs,” Eva said to Esther who, prior to striking up conversation with a stranger, was talking to herself for hours over a piece of engraved stone.

“This is my first husband growing here,” Esther said. “I think I have finally learned how to love him.”

Eva thought the statement was incredibly funny.

“What do you do with him gone?” Eva asked.

“I make and sell Rhubarb butter,” Esther explained. “It gives me something to do. I also work at a sewing factory, but only because I can’t stand being alone all the time.”

They became best friends that instant. They left the silence of the cemetery together. Eva drove her big car that used a lot of gas and followed Esther in her Chrysler back to the farm that Esther inherited from her husband George when he died. Eva never tasted Rhubarb butter and was curious about it.

George and Esther were planning a divorce, Esther explained that day over a cup of instant coffee with Eva. The paperwork was almost final when tragically, George was killed in a car accident along old Ridge Road. Esther immediately tore up the divorce papers and returned to the home where she lived as the wife of a farmer for more than forty years. She was planning a move to Florida to find a rich city man, but since George was gone for good, she realized that it was never really the hard life of living on a farm that got on her nerves. Esther was not running away from the beautiful house and farm in the first place. She had other reasons for turning in her overalls for fancy city-slicker dresses.

Eva had one taste of Rhubarb butter and immediately wanted to move in with Esther in her pink trailer.

“You should patent this stuff. I’ve never heard of it before. It’s delicious.”

“Would you like to try some apple jack?” Esther asked.

“What’s that?”

“You’ll see…”

Eva should have moved in. The girls went everywhere and did everything together. They often placed bets on who would find the richest man and marry again first. I sat in the back seat of the Chrysler and licked a lollipop while listening to the old hens decide how they were going to escape the solitude of country life.

“I had a dream I won the lottery last night, Esther. In my dream a man who looked like Bob Barker walked up to me in the supermarket and handed me a cucumber with three numbers written on it– 6-4-3. I’m going to play those numbers in the lottery today and you should too. It was a sign. I’m either going to win the jackpot or finally find a man who knows how to do it right! Close your ears, Charlie,” Eva said while pointing her finger at me from the passenger seat. I knew what the women were talking about. I wasn’t stupid.

“I think Bob Barker is handsome. I’m going to be on that game show one day,” my grandmother said while glancing at her outrageous friend with frizzy hair and thick dark glasses while starting the car. Eva didn’t dream that often because she had bad nerves.

“Are you sleeping better at night with that Sassafras tea I made you?” Esther asked.

“Sure as hell am. I’m horny now too. I think you’re a witch. Those concoctions you come up with are something else, Esther. I hope I do see a man that looks like Bob Barker today. If I do, I’m going to give him your phone number and tell him pay you a visit up on your farm. I’ll tell him all about your Rhubarb butter,” said Eva to her best friend playfully.

“Old rich men like Bob Barker need more than one woman,” Eva chuckled. “Ever see how he kisses all the women on that game show. All men wish they had two or more women like that to tend to them. Don’t you grow up a be like Bob Barker, Charlie.”

“I won’t,” I promised, taking the cherry flavored lollipop from my mouth and licking my lips with a tangy tongue.

“I don’t want to marry again,” Esther explained. “I enjoy the peace and quiet of living up here on the ridge now that George is gone. Why would I ever want to go back to that?”
“You don’t have to love him. Marry him for the money! How much money do you have in the bank anyway? Don’t think I didn’t see your ad in the ‘Daily News’ selling off ten more acres. Don’t give away your farm Esther. How could you ever think of selling your field of Christmas trees? It’s like you are selling George’s soul when I see your advertisements in the real estate section. You’ll hate living in town like I do. There are people everywhere and you’ll never find a moment’s peace like you have up here on the ridge.”

Esther turned left and headed up a dirt road that was carved into the side of a hill. Layers of slate stone were stacked like piles of paper along the side of the cut cliff. Eva looked confused while glaring out the car window. I continued to suck on my lollipop, determined to find out if there was gum in the middle.

“Where are you taking me Esther? Oh no! Don’t take me down Ridge Road! You know those steep banks scare the living hell out of me and that’s where Frank was killed,” demanded Eva as she rolled up the car window and tossed out an unfinished cigarette.

“You’ll be fine, Eva. I just put new tires on this car. I want to see how they handle the road in good weather, not after it snows. Remember what happened to George and his car on this road?”

Eva remained silent until we reached the supermarket. She didn’t like to joke about Esther’s dead husband George or the ‘son-of-a-bitch’ she was once tied down to. Although she wasn’t religious, Eva didn’t like to taunt the dead. She believed they had control over ping pong balls in lottery ball baskets.

Eva forgot all about the bet with Esther and her Bob Barker dream after Esther drove her down Ridge Road. She gobbled down a cerise pill as soon as the car started winding down the narrow, steep, unpaved mountain trail. She was fast asleep by the time we reached the supermarket.

We didn’t wake Eva while we went inside to pick up a few necessities– things that grandma couldn’t grow in her garden. She was particularly fond of kiwi. She bit into one and let me taste it too. “Here, have another one before we get to the check out,” she insisted.

We did see a man who looked just like Bob Barker standing next to a pile of watermelon that had been sliced and wrapped in plastic wrap and put on display like meat in a butcher shop. Grandma made me promise not to tell Eva when we got back to the car, but it was too late. The man with the silver hair who looked like the host from the Price is Right was standing on the passenger side of the car talking to Eva about the outrageous price of Florida oranges by the time we made it through the checkout line.

“Did you see the way he eyed you up and down, Esther?”

“I don’t know what you are talking about.”

“My heavens, Esther, have some fun. There is nothing you can do to bring George back. He’s not like strawberry runners, you know.”

“Eva, shut your trap and don’t talk about my grandson’s granddaddy in front of him like that.”

Eva gave me the evil eye and kept her mouth shut until we made it back home to the farm.

Esther married her garden after George died. Every seed that fell into the ground from between her thumb and middle- finger grew madly. Her potatoes were as big as footballs, green beans tasted like taffy and red cabbage in her plot had heads bigger than mine. She told me I had a green thumb too, but didn’t trust me to help her pull weeds. I couldn’t distinguish the weeds from the real plants, especially in the spring before the vegetables appeared.

My father introduced my grandmother and her friend Eva to a new kind of produce in May 1973. He asked Esther to plant a handful of tiny, hard seeds in her garden. We filled a trench she hoed for the seeds with two wheelbarrow loads of chicken manure, not knowing how much influence the potent, digested nitrogen would have on the special seeds that we planted for Dad.

Eva was there that day while Esther and I did all the hard work of planting Dad’s seeds. Eva acted as if we were doing something wrong by placing tiny seeds into the ground, six inches apart. My foot was six inches at the time, the perfect measurement for spacing Dad’s seeds, according to grandma. She taught me to talk down the rows and plop in a seed at the tip of my toe, over and over again.

“What’s that Esther? What are you planting there? I hope that’s not what I think it is. Isn’t that where you are supposed to plant your blue potatoes?” Eva asked

“I don’t know what these seeds are. Barry gave them to me. He said they come from South America and they are supposed to be some type of medicine, like sassafras. I figured I’d throw them in the ground and see what happens.”

The plants grew taller than her trailer. They looked like trees to me.

One night in late August a deer was spotted eating Esther’s rhubarb. She shot it without leaving her bed, pointing a double-barrel out her trailer window. She called the Pennsylvania Game Commission the next morning and asked them to remove the carcass from her property.

It wasn’t legal for Esther to kill deer, outside of deer season on her own land because she wasn’t officially a ‘farmer’, nor was forty-percent of her income generated from her land. She shot them at all times of the year anyway because Eva’s son worked for the Pennsylvania Fish and Wildlife Commission.

Dad stopped by his mom’s trailer for coffee before heading off to work at the sneaker factor the morning after the deer was shot dead.

“I called the Game Commission and told them to come get that dead deer out of my garden. Did you see it on your way in here? Fuckin’ things been eatin’ my apples,” Esther informed my dad while boiling a large kettle of hot water and pointing out the window at the whitetail she shot between the eyes. Dad didn’t notice the deer despite the swarms of blow flies all around it. He walked right past in on his way into the pink trailer.

“Mom, you have pot growing out there. Jim Bumgardener is going to see it and you could go to jail.”

“Pot? Holy Hell, I thought that was a South American herb! That’s what you said. Why didn’t you tell me this before I planted it? Oh my gawd, Barry. Hurry up. Go pull it out and hide it up in the barn.”

Jim Bumgardener arrived in a game commission vehicle a few moments later.

“What are these holes in the ground out here, Esther,” Jim the game commissioner asked rather bravely after he tossed the dead deer onto the tailgate of his truck. Esther gave him a look as if he were still six years old and replied, “They were weeds, really big weeds, Jim.”

“Do you want to show me the pile of weeds?” Jim asked in an authoritative tone.

She pointed to a pile of black goat pellets he was standing in and explained that Roger, her goat, had eaten them. Jim shook his head and said he was going to tell his mom because it was his duty to look out for such things.

“What the hell do you think she is going to do to me? I’m your mother’s best friend. You listen to me, Jimmy, boy. I’m the only friend your mother has! You show me some respect or get off my land.”

No further questions were asked that day.
***

Jim’s mom Eva studied a Farmer’s Almanac in an attempt to educate herself on the simplicities of country life and to become more like her best friend Esther. The yellow booklet was a roadmap for navigating through her stormy life filled with panic attacks and long periods of dark depression. She always knew when a full moon was about to rise. She felt better when it was full and empurpled.

The Farmer’s Almanac sat on Eva’s coffee table next to a photo of Jim riding a horse, and endless supply of nerve pills. Esther turned Eva onto the most intriguing piece of literature published since the Holy Bible. Eva used the book for knowing when she would start feeling horny again and when the blues were on their way. Esther used it for growing things.

Weather predictions in the almanac were more reliable than forecasts on local radio station, WHUN or in the Daily News. The mysterious phrases in the book always granted the publisher a little room for error. The yellow paperback book was never exact when the contents of its pages spelled out periods of hot weather and the dog days of summer, but it was always close in its predictions, especially when it came to those times when the moon would turn to blood.

Esther always planted her garden following the advice of the Farmer’s Almanac. The chapter on harvests was almost exact to the date. The growing tables printed on the back cover notified Eva as to when Esther’s beets would be ready for harvest. Eva loved pickled eggs.

By studying the Almanac, Eva believed she was a farm girl too. It gave her more to talk about with her friend when she visited her on her farm and she felt less like one of the ladies who lived in town. She didn’t want to sound like a city slicker to her best friend.

Eva used the annual publication, given to her as a Christmas gift by Esther, to cast spells and enhance her knowledge of what many mountain folk in Pennsylvania consider ‘witchcraft’. The book offers so much more than planting and harvesting guidelines and timetables.

Eva was a country girl too, just like Esther, even though she didn’t have a green thumb. She kept her distance from her neighbors and for a good reason. They were not real down-home country folk. Eva knew they would burn her at the stake if given the opportunity.

“Get off my property you little bastards or I’ll make you grow warts,” Eva shouted from her kitchen window almost every day at the town children who called her names and played in her front lawn.

When the farmer’s almanac promised the last full moon of the summer, her powers were in full- force. Her psychic abilities were at their peek at this time and she usually won the lottery at least twice during those long bright nights. She really believed she could make town kids grow warts. She often threatened to put one on my nose if I didn’t stop clinging onto my grandmother like a lady bug to a pumpkin vine.

Eva’s sadness disappeared when the moon was high and dry. The kids who played on her lawn didn’t wreck her nerves as much when the moon was like an apricot. She was even nice to me when the moon shone full– when she was “at her peak” and full of energy.

Eva nearly fainted when she turned to page 84 in the almanac to learn that a full moon was still three days away. Her fingers were already tingling. She believed she could ‘zap’ unsuspecting residents of Huntingdon with her ungodly psychic witchcraft and put curses on them. Eva’s trembling hands, caused by taking too many pills, rattled like changing leaves on an oak tree in October by the psychological effects of a harvest moon brewing on the horizon. She could hardly pick up the telephone to call her best friend to invite her out to Saturday night bingo at the Methodist church in Huntingdon. She sensed strange vibes from the telephone and on days when her energy was high, it was painful to make a phone call. She dialed Esther without an area code or prefix by simply sticking her finger in holes in a plastic dial and turning the numbers 5-7-0-3.

“Hello, Eva!”

“How the hell did ya know it was me? I told you people lose a part of their souls when they make phone calls. You’re a psychic too, Esther. I hate all this modern technology. Do you remember what life was like before telephones? I tell you Esther, it’s the end of the world,” babbled Eva on the end of her wire.

“I knew it was you because you always call me when the moon is full. Where are you taking me– to bingo again?” Esther asked.

Eva put her hand over the end of the phone with the mouthpiece and whispered “That witch is more psychic than I am.”

She returned the receiver to her big fat lips covered in bright lip gloss and continued– “No, I thought I would tell you about the recipe for dandelion wine I found in the farmers almanac,” replied Eva with her fingers crossed behind her back.

“You know I can’t stand those hypocrites at the church,” Esther said, not falling into Eva’s trap.

Eva held the black phone receiver a few feet from her ear and tapped the ear piece twice, blinked her eyes and asked again– “Are you sure?”

Esther felt a sudden tingling rush up her arm and across her forehead– a feeling she normally only felt when her friend Eva worked with her in the vegetable garden. The feeling was strange, yet alluring. How could Eva do that to her over the phone? Esther was shocked.

“I invited that man who looks like Bob Barker to bingo,” Eva tempted.

“I’ll come along but only because the price is right– ten cents a game and a $100 jackpot!”

“I’ll pick you up at six and I’m doing the driving!” Eva promised.

“I can’t stand your son, Eva. He’s gonna rat us out one day. You know he was up here yesterday raising hell.”

“I’m sorry Esther. He was only trying to do his job. He told me about the strange holes he found outside of your trailer. I hope he didn’t figure out what you are up to.”

“What I’m up to? Chicken shit! His only job is to pull deer from my property when I kill them. You got that?”

“Sure Esther! I’ll tell ‘em.”

“I own this property, not the state of Pennsylvania! George cultivated this land with his red English hands from dusk to dawn for forty years. Tell that little bastard where his place is Eva before I smack his ass like you should have when he was little.”

The two widows never told the truth over the phone and spoke in codes. They were paranoid that their phones were tapped. That’s the way life was in Central Pennsylvania in 1972 when half of Huntingdon County was smoking marijuana. Jim took his job far too serious. He knew the ‘illegal’ activities his mother was involved in along with her best friend. Eva couldn’t keep her mouth shut about anything. She never should have told Jim about those special South American plants that Esther was growing up on her farm, otherwise he would never have known where the holes in the ground came from.

Esther and Eva were quite nervous running an illegal business on the top of Stone Creek Ridge, and very well they should have been. All the married women in town with husbands still alive didn’t trust them. Their phone conversation about playing bingo at the Methodist Church was referring to wine making time. It was the last full moon of the summer which officially is the start of Fall. According to the farmer’s almanac, August 31, 1972 was the perfect day to make wine.

Eva waited all year for the harvest. She didn’t win the lottery like she thought she was going to and her dead husband didn’t leave her enough money to drink away the long, lonely years. She managed to keep the neighbor kids from her front yard all summer long and cultivated an unusual abundance of dandelions in the yard that they insisted on playing upon. Neighbors called her crazy because she stood outside for hours each day in the Spring blowing delicate feathery thistles from the caps of the matured lawn weeds all over the neighborhood.

Eva watched her front lawn turn gold. She waiting impatiently all summer for Esther to give the heads-up to pick them and bring them up to her farm where they made their highly coveted and expensive concoction that they called ‘dandelion wine’.

“Pluck the heads of the lion now and boil them until they roar,” the Almanac advised. “The yellow flowers are perfect for pickling when the moon shines with the flavor of Fall.”

Eva knew Esther read the words too and had a hunch this was the time for them to mix- up thousands of dollars in flower wine with a twist of what Eva referred to as “lip balm”.

Eva didn’t want to know what went into making the lip balm ingredient– the thick, scarlet, Vaseline like substance that Esther kept in the butter compartment of her refrigerator. Eva’s only responsibility for the botanical business was picking and growing the dandelions. She had no part of the illegal activity of boiling down ‘lip balm’. The process of making the sticky balm was simple. Buds from the marijuana plants were thrown inside large pots of rapidly boiling water with a touch of paprika and allowed to simmer for several hours. Esther strained the water through cheese cloth to remove the bits of the plant. After cooling for several minutes, my grandmother was able to skim off the oily substance at the top of the steaming water. It was as simple as removing fat from broth when boiling chicken down for soup.

“Hurry up and throw some in. I don’t want to see it. If we get arrested, I’m going to insist that I knew nothing about it,” Eva cried with a paranoid tone when the special secret ingredient was mixed into the batch of simmered dandelions.

I held the cheese cloth.

Eva walked right past the twelve feet tall shrubs with little green buds every time she knocked on Esther’s trailer door as the summer progressed. She pretended she didn’t notice them. Even I knew what it was and what it did– my dad liked it more than his beer.

Funny, Esther thought– Eva has something to say about every flower in my garden and she does not want to discuss those beautiful split-tails or stop to smell them on the way in. Esther got $100 a pint for the dandelion wine. Locals paid top dollar for just a little bit of it. One cap- full could cure almost anything, including soft peckers. Its juices could heal chapped lips, even mine.

As soon as my grandmother agreed to ‘go to bingo’, Eva ran outside with paper grocery bags and picked her dandelions– ‘Bingo’ was the special code word that they used over the phone to discuss the start of the harvesting process. Eva was careful not to miss the petals which surrounded the faces of the dandelions– that’s what gives the wine its shine according to Esther.

Esther had to start selling parts of the farm as soon as George died in that terrible car accident. It was driving her nuts that she didn’t learn George’s secret applejack recipe. George did something to his cider to make it more than hard, yet Esther never took the time to learn his secrets. The distilling business disappeared along with the supplemental income, after George died. Eva drank the last of it on the day the two met in the cemetery. It pissed Esther off that she had to get a job at the sewing factory when her husband was killed. The wine making business was her secret revenge on a society that sometimes overlooks older women.

She set out with her partner and friend, Eva and a new type of seed given to her by her youngest son and learned how to make wine from dandelions and marijuana. Esther wanted to die owning more land than her husband George, or his father Miles who also owned a farm but grew only tobacco for smoking.

It was a warm August afternoon in 1972 when Eva picked the most succulent dandelions ever to be made into wine. It was the day my grandmother was struck by lightening. Esther said it wasn’t God who bowled her down with a lightening bolt even though she had once explained to me that the sound of thunder is caused by God bowling in heaven. It was my granddaddy who was down in Hell who struck her, according to Esther. He was pissed off because she was a woman, still alive with color, who knew how to survive without a man.

Just as Johnstown was flooding due to the remnants of Hurricane Agnes, the red headed farm girl got zapped by a blood-like thunderbolt while working outside in a storm, trying to bring her harvest inside before the storm spun over. A deep dark cumulus cotton ball of pure tropical moisture was floating lower than the rest of the wispy clouds in the sky. They don’t get tornados on the peaks of the Appalachians, but the cloud looked threatening. It crept along the summit of Stone Creek Ridge like a bat flying in search of June bugs. The chickens had been acting strange all day. Rain never kept them in their coop. Even Sally, the chicken raised from an egg in an incubator on top of Esther’s television set next to a lava lamp stayed inside that day.

The green, arm-like leaves of the corn were turned upside down– a sure sign of a dangerous electrical storm according to the Farmer’s Almanac. The rain tapered off briefly and Esther thought it was safe to go outside and salvage the harvest of split-tails for the making of dandelion wine.

“They’re calling for 40 mile an hour winds and eight inches of rain today, Esther,” Eva screamed over the phone on her second phone call of the day. “You better get outside and pick those flowers before that God forsaken hurricane hauls ass up over that ridge you live on. I got six paper bags of dandelions today Esther. If we don’t play bingo today, we’re not going to have very much wine to sell this year. Bob Barker said the price is right on television today, Esther!”

“The rain and wind are not going hurt my girls, Eva.”

“Well, you know how they close up when the ground gets wet. Who knows how long we’ll have to wait for sunshine to open the buds back up. By then, my flowers will be too old for making good wine,” Eva said as the receiver of the phone shook terribly in her left hand. She didn’t know that Esther’s ‘split-tails’ were already harvested and hanging in the barn. My father pulled them out and hid them before Jim, Eva’s son, came up to our farm to do what Esther said was his ‘game commissioner job’– removing the dead deer carcass from her vegetable garden.

After getting Eva’s call, Esther grew paranoid and started to become quite concerned about the crop she was drying out in the top of her old barn. There were no windows in the barn and the plants were very light. They could easily blow away.Yellow dandelions grow everywhere, but if Esther lost her little girls, her life would be ruined, at least for another growing season.

Esther used an old rusty pitchfork to carry what was the equivalent of a bail of hay prior to bailing towards her pink trailer. She had almost made it to the door before all hell broke loose. While reaching out with her free hand to open the screen door, Esther was struck by lightening for the second time in her life. The first time she was struck, she was feeding baby chicks. She had boiled a few eggs and mashed up the yellow yokes and put the chick feed in a metal lid. She was headed for the tiny hen house in the chestnut grove where the baby chicks were kept. She made the mistake of running outside in a thunderstorm with a metal Mason Jar lid in her hand.

She should have known better.

It seemed as if the devil himself struck Esther that day and sent her flying ten yards into the naked spot in her garden where the large South American plants had once grown.

It is strange how lightening works. It’s nothing like a contact high. I was walking right next to her and I didn’t feel a thing!

I knew not to call an ambulance or the game commissioner. I pulled the plants inside and rescued my grandmother and her friend Eva from the eye of a hurricane. By the time grandma woke up, Eva had the pots of water boiling on the stove.

Eva still calls me Bob Barker.

“What happened,” Esther asked when she woke up.

“God was bowling again,” I explained, rubbing lip balm on her dry mouth.

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I may be crazy, but I’m no fool. Having lost my job during this time of economic ruin and finding myself in a legal battle with my former employer for unemployment insurance benefits, I had not choice but to apply for public welfare. I marched my ass into the food stamp office here in Bed-Stuy. In less than two weeks, I was awarded what is just like a credit card. My secret code is 2473. The state of New York awarded me $199 for food and has offered to pay my utility bills this month.

With the exception of extraordinary long lines of Hasidic Jews in the welfare office, I was the only white guy.

“What are you applying for,” a black African sista with hair twisted and tied in a black cloth asked.

“I don’t think I’ll ever be able to work again– I have schizophrenia. I would also like to start the process for disability benefits.”

“You’ll need to sign this release so that we can obtain all your mental health records. I’m going to give you three appointments. One is with me, next Friday. I’ll need a letter from your landlord and a copy of a birth certificate. If you miss any of these appointments, your benefits will be terminated and you will have to start the application process all over again.”

With copies of my birth records formally on file and all other important documentation furnished, I proceeded yesterday to a Health and Hospitals Corporation facility in downtown Brooklyn, just off the Brooklyn Bridge.

I tried my best to remain calm while admitting to my medical condition to a non-licensed intake worker– a blonde Jew, wearing a doily to the best of my ability:-

“We’ll it’s what they diagnosed me with at Trinitas Hospital in New Jersey. You better write that down.”

“But bi-polar disorder seems a more appropriate diagnosis. An individual with schizophrenia would not appear so cognizant. Are you sure what you experienced was not simply a manic episode.”

I was angry that he did not look away from his computer screen when addressing me. Schizophrenics are supposed to be the ones with difficulty making eye contact.

“Let me ask you somethin’. You ever been washed clean by the Holy Spirt? Have you invited Christ into your heart? I didn’t think so. You say tomato, I say tomatto. I’m tellin’ you, I suffered from religious delusions when I was in the hospital. How many bi-polar people do you know who know they are God? I’m telling you, I gave schizophrenia. They kept me for almost two months. Thank you very much!”

“Do you drink?”

“Yep. Have one beer a night. A Corona.”

“What drugs have you tried in the last six years.”

“Marijuana and ecstacy.”

“Come with me. You must be screened for substance abuse.”

An obese Latino– either Mexican or light Puerto Rican was much nicer during her interview.

“Pardon my allergies,” she said.

“Are you allergic to cats? I got two of ‘em. I’m so sorry. Baby Girl was all over me this morning.”

“We’ll make this fast. I don’t see evidence of substance abuse. Come with me…”

Moments later, I was pissing in a cup and blood was drawn from my right arm by a pretty, young black woman who also tested my heart rate–

“That’s a little high. Have you ever experienced problems with high blood pressure?”

“No,” I explained, knowing that it was only my nerves. All this for $200? I asked myself.

Another black face– this one older– Anita Bakerish. She was the physician.

“I just love it when my knee jerks like that. Try it myself all the time, never works like that.”

“It has something to do with concentrating on it. Expecting it. Great reflexes, though. I’m going to ask a series of questions relating to your ability to work– here, you can read from the computer screen as I read the questions. Answer either 0 hours, 1-3 hours, 1-6 hours, or 1-8 hours….How long can you lift items?”

“1-3 hours.”

“Reach above shoulder level?”

1-6 hours.”

“Work while bending down and kneeling on knees.”

I looked at her, wondering if that was a real question. Who would want to work for 8 hours on one’s knees?

“Hell I can do that on a twelve hour shift.”

The doctor lost her professional demeanor immediately and burst into laughter, obviously aware that I’m a big cock sucker.

I was then escorted down the hallway to an office without windows for my psychiatric assessment. Another Latino medical professional was there. We fought for more than an hour over my diagnosis–

“I’m going to ask you to remember three things– Apple, Desk, Penny. Repeat those back to me when I ask.”

“How long at your permanent address?”

“Six years.”

“Count backwards from 100 in sevens.”

“Christ almighty. Who do you think I am– that dude from ‘A Beautiful Mind’. You should not assume that all schizophrenics are blessed in math.”

She smiled as I used my fingers to carefully obtain the sequence. A cell phone in her bag rang. S

“Sorry. I’ll have to take this if it’s the hospital calling.”

“What is the name of this facility?”

“Arbor,” I said.

“What’s the address?”

I thought long a hard and remembered– “One Hundred Portland Street. North Portland, no?”

“Correct”

“Are you sensitive to light, bright objects or sounds?”

“No, but I’ll tell you this much about what I know,” adding an accent to the word know, “One must be careful with what he shares with a shrink, but I’ll do my best not to sound too crazy to you. Cell phones. I sense those damned things. I swear, I can feel someone around the corner on one when I walk down the street. Call that crazy if you want, but now I hear that they may cause cancer. When everyone starts dropping dead from head cancer, I’ll do nothing but laugh. I refuse to have one.”

She seemed a little angry and went on–

“What were the three objects?”

“Apple, penny, desk.”

“I knew it!” She said— “It is bi-polar II. Sensitivities to light or bright objects.”

“Do you want to work?”

“Of course, but do you have a pill that will help me swallow corporate slavery?”

“Can’t help you with that,” she said, signing my paper, writing off my schizophrenia.

“You want to know something? I know things. Remember when I informed you that I was sleeping well at night– how I told you that I use a form of self hypnosis to fall asleep– putting my self in a large hand– Gods hand– and how he sweeps me away at night, despite my restless body? Well, I’ve been having these dreams that have come true. I predicted the housing market crash long before anyone. Ya wanna know the cool thing about it– I wrote about it before it all happened. It’s like proof or something.”

“Oh, I’ve heard lots from self-professed prophets– the real schizophrenics– people on the streets who I’ve worked with…go ahead and tell me. Nothing would surprise me. What was your dream that you’re not telling me.”

“They are going to blow this town to smithereens. Nothing left but ash. I saw it in that vision that led me to the hospital for two months. Was walking around New York with no shoes on. My feet were bleeding. The smells… Could smell death all around me but no one else could.”

“Oh…I heard that one before,” she said.

I passed the Anita Baker physician on my way down the hallway. She smiled at me, remembering my offer to work on my knees all day.

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The $400 Million investment bang for the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases included within President Obama’s new economic stimulus plan was like legalized prostitution. It is best for our economy that the funding was cut.

It’s hard to fathom that the United States Congress was almost led blindly by the cock suckers of the public welfare system– organizations like the Jewish Board of Children and Family Services and the United Jewish Appeal Federation of New York (UJA Federation)– That’s where the money for STD prevention would have gone– “Community Based Organizations”– sluts of an already drained system.

These were Bernard Madoff vested charities that already received millions in funding through the Medicaid system for AIDS prevention and housing for people with AIDS. That money did nothing for the needy, but only helped to encourage AIDS. In order to receive immediate housing assistance here, young queers were taught to contract HIV so that they could move into scatter site housing units– apartments managed by community organizations like Steinway Child and Family Services.

Money would not have been used to buy condoms, despite the Democratic party’s good intentions. Liberal non-profits hosted conferences in places like Israel and placed previously issued AIDS prevention dollars into carefully crafted endowment funds. Now it’s all gone thanks to that tramp Bernard Madoff. Obama should not start fresh with these whore like charities and our Senate should not lay down with dogs. My condom goes off to my government for acting responsibly.

As anyone hit hard by STD’s in this town will say– it would make more economic sense to give people money directly for treating syphilis. People only fuck without condoms when they are broke and shouldn’t have to ask the government for them. Give the horny jobs so they can protect themselves. Condoms are like guns. They are constitutional rights. Let us buy our own. We shouldn’t have to beg for protection.

Money previously spent for HIV prevention was tossed carelessly into the stock market and ponzi schemes and not the services for which the money was intended at the time. Clinton was big on AIDS prevention. He pumped millions into condom distribution and education projects. Where does one go to get free condoms anyway?

Previous investments for condoms are all gone–thanks to organizations like People of Color in Crisis, AIDS Resource Center or Harlem United Community AIDS Center– it’s money in the pockets of social workers who cannot get laid– it does nothing to slow the spread of STD’s. Once the jobless run out of free condoms handed out at community centers, they fuck without them because they cost $1 each and that’s more than what most who catch AIDS have in their pockets in the first place– well, almost all they have down there.

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Love along the Rails

 

Elizabeth is Mal-Mal Miller’s real name. The eponym Liz, like with Hollywood actresses, is the preferred calling in Petersburg. Folks in places like the post office or Skip’s gas station call her Liz. Names like Elizabeth sound far too formal for those that speak a country dialect.

“Me and Bill’d go out dancing at the legion sometimes, but never did we go nowhere fancy. That was the extent of our social life here in this little town. Hell, there ain’t that much to do unless ya like to fish like my husband did. Never had to sign that name much in life either– Bill signed for everything as William. We never were the church going type, using fancy names and such. Elizabeth is just too fancy for ‘round here. We have always been poor. Isn’t the queen’s name Elizabeth?” Liz chuckles, her stomach, flat now, no longer moves like Santa’s.

“Ya know what? When you get as old as me, a name don’t matter in life. Everyone I ever see calls me mom or Mal Mal. You realize we all have lives of royalty despite how poor ya are. Yup– been plenty of things– but always Liz and poor. There were rough times here. The electricity got cut off many times, but before yah knew it, things got going again and this place would light up like any palace with lots of laughing and cheerfulness inside. You can call me Liz, if you don’t mind. Never did much like my real name. Bill and Liz the two-steppers– that’s what they called us at the Legion.”

Liz giggles again before softly blowing the surface of her Maxwell House coffee. Her hair, now permed in curls with most of the color faded to a shade of polished steel, shines like a bumper on a old chevy pick-up after a good scrubbing with a Brillo pad. She had her hair done once a week when Bill was a brick layer, back when the shade of her strands were much darker. Long, thick hairs were wrapped almost mummy-like in hundreds of bobbie pins and a coating of aerosol infused Aqua Net hair spray. When she kissed her grandchildren and got all excited, holes formed in the atmosphere over Petersburg.

Liz takes her first sip of coffee and unconsciously begins to check a hair-do that is no longer so heavy and tied to the top. It has been so long since she had the chance to sit down with a stranger and talk about her life like she did at the beauty parlor in Huntingdon. It’s nice for someone from outside the family to stop by to talk to. She regrets that her perm is not as fancy with guests coming by.

“I had a beehive, ya know. Just imagine that! Bill was bald and liked hair all done up.”

She sometimes wishes, with a thick head of hair late in life, that the beehive style was still in. Her hair-do in the Seventies was shaped like a cake pan. The straight strands were heated in curlers under a fancy space-age chair with a magic helmet with a bubble inside that could not be popped when little hands reached inside, with Mal Mal’s permission of course–an to attempt to fizzle an optical illusion within a child’s eye.

“Yep. Charlie was always in my hair and he loved those hair dryers at the salon. He used a curling iron in my hair when I’d let him. I’d just sit there in the livingroom watchin’ Gun Smoke and he curl it all day if I let him. I didn’t mind and thought nothin’ of a boy who likes to play in a girl’s hair– his granddaddy liked it. Thought nothin’ of it. Didn’t have the money to have it fixed

at the time anyway. That’s why I get it permed now.”

“I Told Charlie when he was little that there was a guy that worked in the beauty parlor in Huntingdon that was better than all the girls but ya had to wait for him. There was always a line for his business. Can’t remember his name though– Bill would never wanna wait outside long enough to get my hair done up by that good lookin’ man. Hair is easier like this. Wash it every day now. Charlie? He was always was a little funny like that– but he’s got a heart of gold. Love ‘em all. I don’t even know how many grandkids I have now. Seems like one comes along almost every month or so with great-great grandchildren in the picture. Bobbie Jo is due soon. You should see ‘er. Pretty as can be, like her Mom Marg. Never liked to eat but now she has to cause she’s pregnant. She is so beautiful– should see her glowin’. Poor Bobby Jo’s just ‘fraid of gittin’ fat like I wuz after all of mine but I told her she sure is pretty pregnant.”

Liz’s hair was piled by stylists in a parlor in Huntingdon all afternoon on Saturdays. Grandchildren who were being baby-sat in those days rested on her knee when her hair was drying. Poor Bill had to wait outside in the family’s convertible car and smoke cigarettes just waiting for Liz to get all dolled up to go out dancing at the Legion later that night. Buns were piled like real devils’ food cake above eyes that slanted somewhat downward in irresistible Tammy Wynette stand- by- your- man, bluesy fashion.

“We sure could dance. Be careful. This coffee’s hot. Ya wanna spoon? I stirred it already for ya. Bill was a mason. He made those steps you’re sittin’ on. Liftin’ all them bricks made ‘em stiff as a board. Dancin’ was good for him. Had to keep him moving. Bill didn’t step inside many formal places. He only go inside a church when his own kids got married in them. His son Francis carved a devil face out of wood in high school and Bill put it up in our kitchen right next to my Last Supper velvet painting. Took the damned thing down when he died though. Ya should have seen what color the paneling was in the kitchen behind that face when I took down that devil.”

“My Mom and Dad were always part of a church. I never thought one of my own offspring would grow up to become a writer though. Dear God, wonder what side of the family that came from. Wasn’t the Miller side, I can tell ya that much. My Mom and Dad mustiv’ been Methodists. Hell, I don’t remember fer shure. Bill and me never went to church like that. Not a lot of people from around here go– ya’d think this town would be worse than it is. We’d sometimes get groceries and stuff from members in that church up on the hill. They’d bring by big boxes of groceries every Sunday around noon. We’d take ‘em all right– always promising to make it up that hill one Sunday, but never really waking up on time, but forever grateful for that food that we lived on. Did ya see that church comin’ here? Can’t miss the damned thing coming down Goosegreen on yer way here. Younz must of seen it. They call that road that comes down to intersect with Goosegree ‘Church Hill’.

“The kid’s went sled ridding down that hill in winter. They almost give me a heart attack just thinkin’ ‘bout them over there. Charlie and his brother Bill’d do it to. He ever write about that? They wuz all about the same age– my kids and my first grand kids. Lou is my oldest. Had her when I was fifteen or sixteen, I think. Then she had Bill and Charlie when she was still so young. My youngest, Steve and my daughter Marg set up an old truck hood at the bottom of that steep hill and they would jump it like they wuz riding motorcycles while gliding on those damned forsakin’ sleds that Bill kept nailed together for them.

“Bill and Charlie wuz the same way as Steve and Marg. Little things flew like bats out of Hell down that steep hill in winter. Lou didn’t seem to care either. I’ll never forgot the day Charlie came in with a black eye that Marg gave him with a pop can. Didn’t even cry. No wonder he writes. He forgave Marg. I remember that…wondering why he put up with Marg like he did. Yep– don’t surprise me that he’s that way. A writer? Ya know my son Dave has a son who can write too– his name is Charlie too– that’d be Charlie Miller. His school put one of his poems in the Huntingdon Daily News. Maybe it does run on this side. Could be the Mennonite blood, I suppose. They say it runs thick in me. Bill and me never understood the church and Bible reading like everyone else and lived a life far from that our grandparents knew. Maybe we are to blame for the way the Charlies are with words. I don’t know. Now just look at all the people coming around here like I’m famous or something.”

“One thing I do remember is my dad sittin’ with his feet up on my good kitchen table on Sunday’s when he and mom came over after church to see their grand kids on Sundays. Always wore white gloves here and dressed up fancy for church. Mom gave all of ‘em a silver dollar when she’d see them. We wuz damn near starvin’ to death and couldn’t squeeze much out of them for important things. They’d fill the pockets of the kids, not given Bill and me an extra dime, scared to death we might go out dancing on it.”

“Bill and me went out dancin’ anyway. Our friends went to the legion, not church. We figured we was always gonna be sinners not good enough for the rest of them Fiberglass workers. Wasn’t hurtin’ no one in the way we lived our lives on public assistance. Just mindin’ our own business, raising our kids and living life simple.”

The smell of nearby Juniata River in late morning slowly makes its way across Liz’s large lawn. The flavor of the coffee seems enhanced due to the damp scent of a muddy river all around.

“My Dad found Christ after he quit drinkin’. I’ll always remember him singing that song “That Old Rugged Cross”. Ya know that one? Neither me or Bill like going somewhere where people get all dressed up just to pray and not have a little fun in life. I was so pissed at Dad for putting his feet up on my good table that Sunday, even if he was in his good shoes. I yelled at him for that. Told him this was my house! Lost respect for the church after the day my daddy thought cause he just came from church he could act like that. Who did he think he was? Church seemed to change Dad in a way that was snooty.”

The name Liz has a whistle to it. Suits her perfectly. It sings like the trains that roll nearby all times of the day blowing steam-powered whistles to warn villagers that freight from Pittsburgh is heading East. Elizabeth is far too formal a name to use when life is lived so informally along the iron rails and muddy cricks that run through Petersburg. There is after all, a place called Elizabeth, Pennsylvania, although neither Bill nor Liz were much interested in ever driving there.

Lots of work goes by these parts, but little economic development stops by, offering good paying jobs to those who settled these rural hills of Central Pennsylvania. What happens in Petersburg stays in Petersburg. Not even Bill called Liz “Elizabeth”– only when he had to, like the day he took her childlike hand before a Justice of the Peace to latch himself indefinitely to the most cherished thing his heavily calloused hands had ever gripped. Her fair, pale skin was like a rose in his hands. He was darker– almost worn to leather by hard work at such a young age. When Liz first let Bill touch her arm with his dirty, railroad worked fingers, he nearly melted. His large ears, sticking from beneath a cotton hat, glowed like the sky at twilight, settling over Huntingdon. Just as a train whistled in the distance, she reached back to touch his rough knuckles in a kitten, play-like way.

Liz grew up on Penn Street in Huntingdon. The well-bred daughter of Paul and Ethel Price met young Bill Miller while gliding on a pair of roller skates down Penn Street. Bill was headed home up the Petersburg Pike when he first saw her. She was skating like a fine doll in the direction of the factory to practice going backwards on the empty parking lot of the fiberglass establishment. Liz’s mom Ethel worked there, but this was Saturday– the Sabbath Day for most washed-clean in the blood Christians trying to obtain the American dream. Skinny Liz, with hay-like hair blowing in the breeze, flew right past Bill, almost knocking a lunch box from his hands.

Liz’s mom Ethel worked at the factory and helped to create Owens Corning pastel shaded, fluffy, cotton candy-like insulation for houses, Liz explained all the details of the manufacturing process to Bill that day. She did circles around the shy railroad worker. Fiberglass was heated and shaped to form a transparent material as tough as steel. You had to know people to get jobs there, Liz explained as she listened to Bill complain about sore aching muscles, caused by hard work on the railroad.

“You must be real strong, having to shovel like that all day. Just look at ya– black from head to toe. I couldn’t stand to be so dirty. How can ya stand it?”

Bill just smiled and explained it was a living.

Bill learned all about Liz’s mom, Ethel Price– the woman who wore pill box hats on Sunday mornings and white gloves to match. She told him as much as she could on their walk up Penn Street to the lofty Price home. A row of carefully cut shrubs and heavily leaved maple trees hid most of the estate from the sidewalk along the street. Liz managed to walk up a long cement stairway without having to take off her roller skates. Bill, uncertain of the appropriateness of his calling, stood outside under a trellis filled with unripened green grapes while Liz went inside to tell her mom that a stranger was calling.

“Just sit out on the front porch. He’s too dirty to come in here!”

Ethel, a short woman who carried the name Kauffman with pride, before marriage to Paul Price, was a saint of the modern world. Her Amish blood was tainted with that sense of communal loyalty in a world being overtaken by corporate giants and marriage into such hostile blood as the Price blood turned her into a living machine. Jobs as well paying as those at the fiberglass factory were at the time, paradise. Liz’s mom never sat still. When not gardening, canning, peeling potatoes, dusting the house, doing dishes, she worked as fast as lightening in assembly lines at Fiberglass. Lots of mouths to feed required long hours at Fiberglass.

“You mind yer manners with my daughter, Elizabeth, young man! Would you care for some sassafras tea? There ain’t no drinking goin’ on here. Hope you ain’t a drinker, are ya?”

Ethel, who considered alcohol to be the water of the devil, was known at the Five and Dime store in Huntingdon to buy Made in China doll babies for the children of strangers. Her daughters Liz, Fran and Ethel the second watched as their mother played santa to orphan like children–children with little or next to nothing who begged their mommies and daddies for the inexpensive toys at the Five and Dime. Ethel would offer to buy them dolls and toy trucks when their mothers or fathers couldn’t afford to:–

“Oh what dolls they are. Please. Here. Let them have it!”

“Say thank you to the nice lady, Susie.”

“Fank ya may’m.”

Ethel taught her children the value of compassion and moral responsibilities by not doing the same favor for her own wanting children, in fear of sparing the rod.

“Ya got everything ya need already! Praise God, girls. Don’t want to spoil ya.”

“Oh yes, Mom got me those skates. We was pretty well to do– Mom working at fiberglass and all. She sure worked hard. Mom never sat still til she was real old. When her legs gave out, she took up knittin’. Little ole thing got around pretty good when she got old, didn’t she? Must be where I get it from.”

The fiberglass factory was a far cry from the world Ethel’s ancestors knew. She appreciated her job and worked very hard to keep it. Always busy. Had to be fast. Lots of demands on assembly lines. Never did Ethel stop– always kept herself going. Busy as a bee all the time, even without coffee. Always breathin’ in that fiberglass. Maybe that’s why the way she was. She couldn’t seem to stop going all the time. Life was like that then. You had to damn-near work yourself to death just to get ahead.

“Electricity was still new back then. Families that had survived generations as hardworking, land and farm laborers felt spoiled by it. The Amish are dirty and smell at times. Glad we got away from them. Always running water in a modern world. Ethel didn’t seem to mind that her daddy was forced to leave the Amish in Lancaster for making and drinking his own booze, but she would not tolerate having a husband that was lost to the bottle. She had to threaten to leave Paul to get him to stop. That’s when he learned to cling to the old rugged cross, just about the time when Bill Miller came along in Liz’s life.

Bill was a railroad worker. Every day, his overalls were covered in soot from the coal that lined the iron rails. It’s a wonder Liz ever paid him any attention on her skates. He chased her down, according to Liz–

“Yup! Was jus’ skatin’ down Penn Street. You know where the fiberglass factory is, right? Yup! Right there– wuz skatin’ in a pair of roller skates. Was one of the first in Huntingdon to have a pair, before they ‘came famous. Should of seen Bill that day– all flushed and lit up. He came up to the porch and talked for a while. I knew he was seein’ Carol Kern. You know she’s still alive? Yup! I see her at the Weiss Store sometimes. She’s always been nice to me even though I stole Bill from her. Bill ended up marrin’ me. And aww God, I was fourteen you know, and Bill, he was so good lookin’ and already a man. Always had them big ears. Should have seen ‘em when he still had hair. All dirty like that and me in my dresses. Oh hell! Just look at me now. You know I got skinny again after Bill died. Don’t eat as much. Just like the old me came rolling back. Wish he was back with me now. Hell, I’d probably put on a pair of skates just to hold him again.”

He shoveled coal all day– driving spikes through leveled pine beams that rested in a seemingly endless road of dark black coal. He walked through the Fiberglass parking lot every night at dark. The coal was not the best combustion able carbon in the world for heating a home– yet Bill carried ten pounds of it home, up the Petersburg Pike, every day. The Millers burned the surplus railroad coal in their kitchen stove. The Miller’s were dirt poor. Don’t know why I ever thought things would be diff’rent for Bill and me.

Eons before the landscape rose from the formation of the mountain chain, a sea existed there. Bill carried probably what was pieces of prehistoric plant life and dinosaurs home to burn in the kitchen stove. The Depression was hard and it hit the Millers a lot harder than it did most in America. At least there was lots of coal to keep warm.

Bill carried his gun to work too! While walking more than ten miles, to and from work, he often spotted at least a half-dozen ruffled grouses or a squirrel or few to shoot, take home to skin, and boil quickly in cast-iron pots to preserve the very soul of the game in delicacies known only to mountain-folk in times of depression.

Bill could only hope to work at a place like Fiberglass with people like Ethel Price. Following three long years on the railroad and a well-to-do girl on his arms, perhaps things would change. He wanted Saturdays off to fish again. He wanted a woman like Liz, not for the family from which she came, but simply because she was so pretty on roller skates. Unlike the squealing trains of the track– she moved in a whisper around him.

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Naked as a Jay Bird

The top and bottom porches at grandma Miller’s house face dew East. On fair days, when the clover of the Lehigh Valley isn’t under cloud cover, rising suns shed flaming rays of warmth down Goosegreen Street. The glowing infrared beams come to rest on the weather warn wood of Mal-Mal Miller’s house. She hangs her laundry on the top porch on clotheslines. In Summer, she places aloe vera and other houseplants up there to grow.

“I don’t sleep upstairs with Bill gone. Cost too much to heat! I do gotta clean out the bat shit in the attic. It drives me nuts just thinkin’ ‘bout it. I keep my Nativity figurines up there!”

Seven children, three girls and four boys grew up in the house of the rising sun. On hot nights in summer, the kids slept outside on the top porch, despite the bats that lived in the attic and the mosquitos of Petersburg that were known to grow as large as the bats.

A fresh pot of coffee is always on at Mal-Mal’s. It gets her going. Up and down the stairs she travers all day– to the top porch to water plants by hanging dripping clothes over them. Keeps her busy– the coffee. Nobody cares about her– if you let Mal-Mal tell it. She will beg you to stay– she loves company– not too many strangers in Petersburg anyway. Mal Mal still refuses to lock her door.

“Hell there ain’t noffin’ to steal from me, and this is Petersburg. Always been like this ‘round here and who the hell would want to kill me? I lock the doors at night though with Bill gone, though.”

Only her granddaughter Shannon comes once and a while in Summer to mow the yard and that’s only if Mal-Mal Miller’s son Francis, brings her and the riding mower to do it. Yes she named him Francis– they were, after all, part French.

“Hope ya like Maxwell House– that’s all I get at the Weiss Store in Huntingdon. I’m on a fixed income– see. You take milk and sugar? I can’t stand sugar in my coffee. Just some milk? That’s how I like it!”

The best place to sit on clear mornings at Mal-Mal’s is the cement stairway. Bill built them. He poured and mixed the cement himself, tossing in chunks of limestone rock to give the steps leading into the kitchen structure. The steps are so old. So are the cast iron skillets in the kitchen. Wish Bill were still here frying bacon.

Water from the creek came up three times and covered the steps. The swift muddy currents of a flooding Juniata River were not swift enough to sweep them away. Now the coal-like limestone chunks of well weathered cement stairs have surfaced, but people always sit there, watching the morning sun, often ten times larger than it is at mid-day.

Lots of running up and down wore these steps smooth like a bench, Mal-Mal explains, “I love sittin’ here and watching the sun come up over Goosegreen. Bill is gone. He always smoked out here in the mornings. I still sometimes imagine smelling him smoking. Wish heed’ never smoked but I still smell him in the house sometimes. I put my cabinet with nick-nacks next to that window where he sat all the time. Should move it, but by noon, all that sunlight comes in here and I can’t stand being hot. Can you?”

The tap water in Petersburg is delicious. Makes the best drip coffee. No need to buy expensive filtration devices. Mal-Mal always got a pot of coffee on. She will insist on brewing a fresh pot if ever a neighbor or off-spring stop by.

When mornings break, just as the sun is spotted boiling down Goosegreen like the eruption of a lava lamp, it is best to accept Liz’s offer for a fresh pot because she makes her coffee so strong and it turns bitter after just a few minutes on the burner. You’ll need it to keep up with her, conversation wise.

Maxwell House coffee is what brings out the great story teller in Mal-Mal. Sit down and listen and she’ll chew your ear off if you let her. Stories remain dormant behind her soft-pink lips until someone calls or comes by. Her eyes, the shade of a morning sky on a clear day, flutter in unison with a high-pitched voice carried forth from a flapping jaw line, not always filled with false teeth. She blinks like a cardinal- bird at the end of each complete sentence.

She clutches a rather robust, highly white bosom when listeners seem engaged with what she has to say.

Twice each day, the seventy-six year old grandmother of many crawls into a bathtub and cracks the window that forms the back wall of the bottom porch. The wooden, plywood banister painted in a shade of her eyes, protects Mal-Mal’s nakedness from external Petersburg. The heavy glass and wooden window is hard to rise. She lifts it with just enough space to permit the steam out and the morning sun of the East into her bath. She is the shade of the morning ray when she bathes and it feels good to come out after a good hot scrub and sit here and have some coffee with a friend.

Mal Mal will hear you come up the steps if she’s in the tub. Do not try sneaking up on her. Just announce yourself and sit down and face towards the sun.

She’ll gracefully retreat from her bath without slipping upon a heavily scoured claw foot bathtub, reaching with a towel free hand to silently let down the shade without having to close the window–

“I’m naked as a jay bird. What are you doing here so early? Ya want some coffee? I just finished worshin’ dishes, scrubbing the kitchen floor, and I did a load of laundry all before six this morning. The floor’s still wet. Stay outside. Be careful. Don’t sit near this window. I just hung up three blouses and that floor on the top porch leaks. Wish someone would fix it. Stay right there, I’ll bring you your coffee. Hope ya don’t mind I’m in my nightgown, still.”

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