Tag Archives: brief encounters

Comfort Food

liberian foodI’m in Richmond for a few days to advocate for Coalfields Appalachia. Introvert that I am, trekking up and down the Halls of Power leaves me whacked.

I totally understand how important it is to know, respect, and talk with your legislators, particularly about things that can help your community: roads, school policies that play fair, healthcare access to close a coverage gap. Witness West Virginia; eyes might not have looked the other way, balls might not have been allowed to drop, and the blame game might not now be flowing faster than poisonous water.

So I’m not a cynic about the process of democracy–although when one of the legislative aides I know well winked and said, “Time to make the sausages,” we both cracked up. You know the famous quote, “Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.”

It’s not cynicism that leaves me exhausted, but introvertism. (Is that a word?) I’m shy, and advocacy is important, so I do it. At each desk, the secretary asks which axe you’re grinding and the legislative aide wonders what you want; you smile and tell them, shake hands, move on. Smile some more. Once a Senator’s aide could be heard through the wall, saying in an exasperated voice to the secretary, “Well, just find out what she wants and tell her we’ll support it.” I get it, sweet child; it’s a hard job, dealing with people coming all day with their hands out. It’s a hard job, spending the day with our hands out. As one does one’s spiel and watches others do theirs, the place feels like a food warehouse with a thousand hungry people storming it.

Having spent the morning doing what feels vital rather than natural, I went out at lunchtime to recharge. Several restaurants nearby serve everything from barbeque to Middle Eastern lunches. A Liberian diner? Yes, please.  Stepping into the tiny “Africanne on Main,” I beheld a steam table laden with Cassava Leaf  and Smoked Trout and Oxtail Soup. The concept was simple; take what you want, $6.99 per pound. Behind me in the payment line waited a man with skin the color of caramel, salt-and-pepper dreadlocks reaching past his knees. When I turned, we almost collided; I smiled and apologized; he smiled and released my elbow where his hand had steadied my plate.

The meal proved delicious, fresh, hot, and calming (despite its fiery peppers). As I sat enjoying my out-of-the-comfort-zone comfort food, the First Lady spoke from the diner’s TV, rolling out an initiative to help disadvantaged students enter colleges. I thought of my morning in the Halls of Power, of the number of needy people in the Coalfields and other rural places who would honestly give back if given a chance, of the obstacles standing between them and a fair shot. And it felt like swimming upstream, to go back to the Halls of Power and ask, again and again, humbly with my hand out, for help for a whole bunch of people who wanted to give back, if only they could be given to.

And the man from the food line appeared at my table.  Without preamble, he said, “Hi, I just wanna say, in this era of school shootings and people on the make, with all that’s happening in the world, when I see someone with a warm, genuine spirit, I like to say, ‘hey, good for you, someone gets it.’ You have a great day.” And before I could swallow to speak, he was out the door.

Sir, you have no idea how much better you made my day. I flew back to the Halls of Power on wings of golden light because of you.

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, blue funks, Life reflections, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA

Brief Encounters of the Close Kind

Riding the Subway in NYC, we had some up-close anthropological observation points. Here are three of my favorites:

Encounter one:

A 40-something woman with frizzy hair, wearing jogging shoes, got on the train with three smartly-dressed young women in their twenties, knee-length boots, and smart coats. Blond highlighted hair swung seductively at their jaw lines. They wore make-up; she did not, but her eyes were wide and awed and shiny with adoration as she looked at one of the girls. Her daughter, it came out as they talked about where they were taking her and the delights they would show her, had been in NYC about a year and a half, and established herself in some career that involved fashion and seemed to be going pretty well.

“We’ll get off on 14th and change trains,” she told her mother after checking her iPhone with unselfconscious deftness. Her mother beamed. Her tennis shoe accidentally touched my foot in the crowded car and she immediately apologized. The flock of girls looked on with bemused smiles.

Someone said something about the color of their boots, and they began to compare. Mom said, eyes worshipful on her daughter, “Oh honey, when you were small, you had little brown boots just that color, and your gran made you a brown hat with red flowers to go with them, remember?”

I glanced at the girlfriend posse. They were staring at their friend–probably picturing the hat above that cashmere coat–and the smiles on their faces ranged from shark-esque to sweet. Daughter stared at Mom, smile fixed, expression flitting between not wanting to embarrass and not wanting to be embarrassed. She said, perhaps seeking compromise, “Gotta love Gran. Now, we’re two stations away….”

Gotta love Mom.

Encounter two:

I hauled the Korean paperback edition of my book from my backpack and stared at it–probably with an expression similar to the Mama above watching her baby-made-good. Aloud I said, “This is the cutest cover yet. I’m so happy to have gotten this today!” Andrew and Jack said something about when it had been published, and the English version, and the business-suited, bearded man (lawyer, was my guess) traveling across from us looked up. The train wasn’t crowded, so he could see what we were talking about, and put two and two together. His smile resembled one you’ve probably used yourself, when you see a woman at the grocery with a new baby dressed all in pink, big bow over one ear, and people gathered ’round cooing.

By the time he got up at the next stop, I’d put my baby back in the pack, but as he passed me the lawyer-esque man said, softly, “Congratulations.” I looked up in time to see him smile at me before he disembarked.

It felt good.

Encounter three:

On the train home to Virginia, a man and his son sat down in front of us. The man said, rather loudly, “We’re gonna sit here, Alex, because that man behind us was talking too loud and never stopped. Remember that. It’s good to take a break every now and then, and listen to other people.” He then proceeded to keep up a running narrative balanced against his son’s constant stream of questions, comments, and movements, which included staring over the seat back at us (me with my yarn, Jack with his computer) and his father’s command to “Stop terrorizing those people. Not everybody likes kids. Kids can be annoying, did you know that?”

Jack and I exchanged glances. As we got out the good cheeses and tomatoes and crusty loaf we’d bought at the Farmer’s Market that morning with Pamela, Dad started reading Alex–loudly, so the whole car could enjoy it–a story about a hero factory that made robots to fight the evil brain that turned people’s eyes a glowing red. As Jack concentrated on breaking the crusty loaf, I tucked two cherry tomatoes behind my glasses and gave him my best evil grin.

He nearly choked to death when he glanced over.

They were just having fun. So were we. It was a nice ride. And in case you were wondering, the hero robots defeated the evil brain, and we ate the cherry tomatoes.

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, book reviews, folklore and ethnography, humor, publishing, small town USA, Uncategorized