Big Leafy Banana Tree

In the morning I had been listening to the Rochester radio station WXXI, and they were describing the day as wet and dreary.

At noon time I attended an advisory board meeting that included a very nice hot lunch.  I drifted into a this-could-be-anywhere-in-the-USA frame of mind, the meeting familiar to pre-retirement work sessions, almost feeling back in the saddle.  Buckle up, work mode. It was not unpleasant.

I was surprised when I walked out into the parking lot, the light was very bright, the sun surprisingly intense.  As I drove along, I approached an intersection and could see, down through a corridor of trees, the outline of the Gulf at the end of the street. You can’t get further south on the mainland than right here, at this spot on the coast. As I turned for home, I passed a large stand of big  leafy green banana trees, and I had to pinch myself to remember that it was October 20th, for god’s sake.

Folks from up North have been posting gorgeous pictures of the Fall colors. It’s all good, both North and South have their blessings. What’s especially nice is to feel familiar, at home, if only temporarily, in whatever place you are in, the place that in that moment, you can call here.

Musical Miracle

The choir director was away and the pianist was giving minimal direction, nothing more was needed, we thought.

The first hymn was “Oh Come O Come Emmanuel”. The women were certain that we were to sing verses four and five. The men were focused on verses three and four.

As the initial chorus ended and we headed into the verse, the choir, to its credit, immediately noticed that something sounded unrehearsed. Quite musically, everyone lowered their voices while staying true to what was thought to be the correct verse.

Having muddled through this first share of two simultaneous verses, finishing up the second go round of the chorus, the pianist looked over at us, glowered, held up fingers to signal the proper approaching verse. The choir apparently disagreed with which fingers were displayed.

For a second time, we launched into the magic of live music continuing bravely forward, regardless of the odd merger of vowels, consonants, the very recognition of text swirling around, here and there a mumbled word recognized like a flash of muted lightning, the choir certain in their own faithful direction. It would be difficult to recreate the Babel of sounds hushly produced. The congregation looked on, amazed, some shaking their heads, as if witness to a musical miracle.


This may sound familiar to folks who have sung in choirs, played in bands, taken part in theater productions.

Your fellow performers saunter in, greetings are made, jokes flash by quickly almost out of earshot. Papers are pulled out from binders that hold the music, there is a group-wide sorting to find the right song, someone looks over another person’s shoulder to see what it is supposed to look like.

Things settle, attention focuses on the leader who, like everyone else, is dressed casually, whose manners are organized and instructive but stop short of being pushy, judgmental. He/she needs you all, and you are all in this together. You will be performing for those who are not yet here. You all have to work together to get the kinks out. Sometimes it is more than that, sometimes it is learning the tune from the get go, hoping that it will not be played/sung this week.

You are in the back, on the single riser, and as the tune is broken into learn-able bits and repeated, the image comes to mind of being in the trumpet section, the big band in which you never played. The director gives you free rein to sing the tenor line, even make it up on occasion. There is a singer who tends to be off key at crucial moments, he is adjacent to your better ear, on the left side. You struggle at times to stay afloat, raise your volume in the hopes of keeping him and yourself in the same lifeboat. He doesn’t seem to notice the effort.

The piece is finished, it’s a little shaky. The director says kindly how we will sound as we become confident. This is just the rehearsal, a mini-break, more shifting of books, papers, everyone very informal, a light smattering of shared stories spreads in groups of threes, heads bending to the side and forward to be a part of it all, to be included. It’s the sum of the parts. It’s the heart of the endeavor.

No one’s arm was twisted to show up. We all want this moment and the moment to come for which we are preparing. We’ll be dressed differently then, the stories and jokes remembered. Quietly.

When we finally deliver this thing, it will be called the performance. What we’ll remember then is that it was never about us. The tune will flow as it will, from the collective work, and the un-rehearsed reception of the listeners, rounding the circle.

Meanwhile, this is the rehearsal. We start and stop and start again, in the liveliest preparation of the present.

A Visiting Presence

I think you know this. It’s what happens when someone close graces you with a visit, with their presence. Forever after, that particular restaurant, or deli, or museum, or stretch of beach, is connected to the time spent together.

“Oh, that’s the place where we…” “Do you remember when _______ was here and we stopped in there?”

That’s the place. We. Tagged with memory, changed into something more, in every way.

It was a visit, temporary.  It continues.

What Shows Up

It was startling, as much as a sometimes flapping white plastic bag can startle. It was across the street, just inside the small stand of woods. It should not have been there. It wasn’t there yesterday, was it?

The bag drew attention, a visual target, something grossly out of place. Non-biodegradable, threatening to remain, even if later half buried, for an epoch well beyond our communal lifetimes.

And then I noticed the lofty evergreen tree nearby, clearly planted with landscape intention, once carefully trimmed, shaped.  A yew. It was meant to be at the corner edge of a well tended yard.  It looked as if it might have decided years ago to join its untrimmed brethren, a slow sashay into the woods.  More likely, it stood impassively, editing any comment as the encroaching wildness, brambles and briars, hearty ever entwining bark, twisted its way toward and around what was a solitary presence, the lighthouse swallowed by its once warned sea.

Despite a year of observing the woods across the street, watching the sun rise through its essence,  I had never noticed this  large yew tree.  It took the visiting white bag to show up first, to blink like a sideways glancing eye.

Simply Put

He was heading back north to Mississippi State University the following day. The campus is far enough upstate that the climate is a bit different. He anticipated the approach of a cold rainy season.

We were walking out toward the parking lot. It was 68 degrees at 1 in the afternoon, the skies were deep blue, there was a gentle breeze. I had to remind myself privately, repeatedly, that it was January 20th.

A small group of us had spent the morning doing some volunteer work. It was his first time, and he wouldn’t be back anytime soon given his school schedule.

When he said goodbye, I was reminded of the way that Southern speech can be surprisingly elegant and personal, all in one flash.

He turned to shake hands and said, “It’ll be awhile before I’m back but I’ll promise you it’s not the last time I’m going to shake your hand.”

Friendly Indifference

I was celebrating an appointment that concluded “return only as needed”, by stopping off at Grammy’s, a place for great baked goods and coffee refills. I was seated at one of the smallest tables, the ones typically used by solo customers.

An older man was sitting at an identical table in front of me, but at a right angle, so that I faced his left side and could only make out the first two letters prominently displayed on his baseball cap. He may have looked over in my direction early on, but I was already well into the pastry, coffee and looking at facebook on my phone.

I wondered for a moment if electronic media had interfered with the opportunity for live personal contact. He sat five feet away. I had just entered a comment in response to an acquaintance in Rochester, 1300 miles to the northeast. I looked again. He looked like he might welcome sudden contact breaking in on his left side, a question perhaps about his hat. But then again maybe not.

He reminded me of a “country person”, someone whom I see here a lot, someone you would see at a coffee shop in Clifton Springs, or Palmyra, or at any smaller town that is thirty or more miles separated from a larger population, separated by open fields, farms. Attached ring suburbs are ruled out.

He would be instantly engaging, other than a momentary pause to account for putting his private thoughts away, to account for my geographical displacement, knowing intuitively that I am not from here.

Country folks are in the place where they are from. A lot of family, living or not, nearby. They have stories about the intersection, not that far away, notorious for what happened there. It wasn’t all that long ago. There are also the local stories about the, in fact, long ago.

Such familiarity brings a contentment. Maybe. If the roots are more good than not. A slower, less demanding pace. Another easy sip of coffee, looking out the window, a friendly indifference.

When, on the other hand, the well known acquaintance shows up, the spark is immediate, instantly showing the mutual history of ups and downs, all of which is honored for the experience. Known each other for a long time for better or worse. There is nothing to replace that.

Sometimes it’s different than this, sometimes the local guy beams like a bright light, sends a quick humorous message that is simply shared, reciprocated with no effort.

But not this fellow.  When he left, he took a long time to leave, he stopped and turned around to look up again at the list of specials, as if he had regrets, or might plan better for the future.  He didn’t speak to anyone as he left.

There was already one response to the facebook message.  I decided to tap “like”.  Right back at you.

Seeing What We Don’t Want To See

The trip was specifically to see the current exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art, an amazing series of paintings in the photo-realism genre. I looked forward to having Bill see what Wendy and I had seen a few weeks earlier, to see it, enjoy it.

It is a great show, and we took our time to marvel at the detail, the phenomenal use of light, reflection, shadow.

After we left the museum, we were walking along the sidewalk which is bordered by a tall iron fence along one side of the park. As we moved along slowly, we saw what appeared to be the slumped over body, sleeping-probably, of what was likely a homeless man, dressed in long-unwashed clothes, a large satchel by his feet. It was not a warm day, and we were bundled, as much as one does in New Orleans, on a chilly day in January.

We stopped and looked. The body looked as if it might be lifeless, the way the legs were sprawled, slightly bent. Bill called 911, was transferred to an emergency medical unit. After the call, we slowly moved on as a woman walking with her dog approached. We had gone a little distance before I turned around and watched her make a wide circle out to the curb and beyond.

It was several minutes later, after we had reached the car and started to head for the park’s exit, that we heard the siren. Bill said something like, “Those are our guys.” I thought he meant that his work somehow had a connection to a fire and and ambulance crew. I had already, in the space of five minutes, forgotten about the slumped over body.

It was a few days later when I recalled the incident, and realized that had I been alone, I would most likely not have called 911. It would have been, for me, yet another instance when I did not want to see what I was seeing, did not want to commit to any action if I had the option not to act. If it was a crisis, I would do my best to imagine that it wasn’t one. Denial. Not wanting to be bothered, not wanting to be challenged. Just another homeless guy sleeping.  Wasn’t he?


Sort of local

The fellow ahead of me at Walgreen’s was a big guy and he spoke with a heavy Southern drawl. He had a bit of trouble at the checkout and he told the clerk that he was “down here because my sister passed away.” The clerk was a young fellow, seemed a bit befuddled, not completely present.

The big guy must have hesitated outside the door because he was there when I stepped out. As he checked his small paper bag for whatever he’d just bought, he looked over at me and said “Well your weather down here is a lot warmer.” We just had the coldest day of the season, a low of 21 the night before. He said, “It was nine degrees yesterday.”

I asked him where he was from, expecting he would name some northern Mississippi town.

He said, “I’m a country boy, from the mountains of Virginia. My town is so small that if three cars park together at night, you know that there was a meeting and the taxes are going to go up.” Heavy drawl.

Bay St Louis has a population of about 8,200 people, the adjoining town of Waveland is slightly smaller. Folks along the coast tend to have a very soft, not heavy, southern accent. And people from New Orleans, which has a prominent influence here, have an almost Bronx/Brooklyn accent, with a touch of Canadian (the word ‘out’, pronounced something like “owoout” the way Canadians do).

I was speaking in my northern voice, maybe a tad less western new york nasal than a year ago. I said, “Well if you’re here a few more days, it will warm up.”

He said he’d be here for three weeks. His sister was 93, and he had just seen her at Christmas. Another sister had also died recently. I expressed my condolences. He said, “Things are too busy here, too much traffic.”

I said, in essence, “You’re kidding.” He enjoyed the brief conversation, as did I, and we walked slowly to his car which had a Virginia plate with a disability designation. He evidently thought I was a local. Which I am. Sort of.

I tried to say something nominally encouraging. As I slowly moved away toward my car I said, “Well, you’re taking care of business.” Doing what you need to do. Doing the right thing.

He would have been happy to talk longer. His immediate response to me was, “I gotta say this, I like your food here.”

Enough said.  His summation.  We exchanged friendly waves, and life resumed.

There are These Moments

I’d been dragging my feet about this, putting on the brakes. The necessity to change my driver’s license from the great Empire state of New York to the Magnolia state of Mississippi.  Now it was January of the new year.  1/6/15, the traditional day of Epiphany.

The local office of the DPS, Department of Public Safety, is in a small town ten miles north as the Pelican flies. Kiln Mississippi, often referred to as “the Kill”, often with an implied smirk and country wink. Though I had the GPS set, when “she” said “turn left”, I answered to no one in the car, “What? where?” because I didn’t see anything other than some scattered buildings, gravel parking lots, trees. I went a mile farther on and stopped to ask directions at a convenience store. The clerk said it was “a biddy building” just before the stop light I had passed.

Sure enough. A biddy building. You check in at the door on an electronic touch screen that reminds you about the documents you need if you are over 17 and applying to change your state license. Original raised seal birth certificate, original Social Security Card, two proofs of local residence like utility bills with your current address. I had checked the web site in advance and was prepared. And nervous. Take a number and join the other 19 people sitting in government chairs facing one direction. Paper signs saying things like No Cell Phone Use.

The website had said that if you are changing your license from another state, “you may not have to take the written test.” I had a vision of giving up my license, flunking the test, and asking to get my NYS license back until I could study the booklet. Worse case scenario. Wendy says I worry too much. It’s true, and I worry about worrying too much.

When my number was called, the friendly clerk said, “Okay, let’s see what documents you have,” in a cheerful voice and she was impressed that I had everything prepared, including the application form I had printed online and completed.

As she went over my paper work and began to fill in some other information, she noted the NYS license I had just handed her.  She told me that she had moved here from New Rochelle, “actually the Bronx”, thirteen years ago just before her son was set to start middle school. (In an unscientific survey where the N is 2, this was another African American mom who talked about how pleased they were to leave NYC years ago to come south just as their children were reaching middle school).

New York! As she continued to work her magic to make me a legal driver, we shared North to South stories. She missed the variety of food here on the Gulf Coast vs NYC. Her father used to be a chef at a prestigious NYC restaurant. I told her about the great Chinese restaurant we had just discovered in Pass Christian and she was delighted to hear this. She almost forgot to ask me to take the vision test. Read the top line, the big print. I did great until the last set of four letters that were a bit blurry. Apparently my answers sufficed. “Good enough,” she said. Bless her heart.

It just took a minute to print the shiny new license with its not-bad photo. We said goodbye to each other. When I stepped outside to the gravel parking lot, I had an unexpected sense of having arrived. The sun was shining.  I pulled out onto the two lane highway that leads back to the coast,  put in the CD “L.A. Treasures Project,” with its whooping Count Basie-like swinging drive.

There are these moments.