Sunday, September 25, 2011

Two Bucks Worth

What can you get for two bucks these days?

Not much, I think. Well, I used to think that. The coffee I like is more than two bucks, except for the cup of Americano when I’m trying to cut back on calories, but not the taste and caffeine of a dark roast. And, two bucks for a tip for lunch is pretty much the norm. The Sunday paper is two bucks now, at the grocery store. But, even the two buck Chuck wine at Trader Joe’s is really a buck or two more now for a bottle of cheap red. The good stuff in life usually costs a lot more.

Today, I was visiting my buddy at the youth prison. He was telling me of one of the inmates, I’ll call him Joe. It seems Joe hasn’t gotten a visit from family for the last four years, and hasn’t seen his son for all that time. The son’s birthday is coming up and he wants to send his son a photo of himself. And, the son is old enough now that he probably is a little curious about who dad is. Joe wants to let his son know that he cares about him, and wants him to remember who he is. A photo is probably the least of what a dad can send his son on a birthday.

Pretty tame stuff, you’d think. Even though this is prison and every guy here is a sex offender, it seems like pretty common sense, decent stuff. People just trying to be people, and live decent lives.

And, Joe wanted to send his mom a photo, too, just to say hi, and let her know he cares about her, and is really a part of the family. Most moms I know are really proud to show off the photos of their kids, not to mention grandkids.

But, the photos cost two bucks in prison. I’ve spent that, a couple of times, so the guy I’m mentoring can have a picture of me and him together. And, I keep those photos around, too, on the mantel, with all the other family pictures. He’s part of the family now, and a photo on the mantel just is a nice way of saying that. When people see his picture, I brag about him, and let them know I’m proud of the guy. He does that, too, with his bunk mates in his unit. I’m part of the normal part of his life.

Joe doesn’t have any money, though. He makes a big 25 cents an hour working in the canteen at the prison, but he spends all of that to help new inmates when they first arrive, buying them a few necessities, and a few snacks, making them feel welcome. At the end of the month, he’s broke, and won’t ever save up any of his wages to buy something nice for himself. I’m sure there’s some pretty sad reasons for all of that.

I guess other inmates pick on him a bit, because he doesn’t quite fit in and keeps to himself. And, I can see some pretty deep pain in his eyes, even though we’ve never talked, beyond taking orders for snacks and coffee at the canteen.

My buddy asks me if I could spare two bucks for Joe today. It would be a nice thing. Yeah, and I think I could afford that, and spend money so a dad can send his son a picture of himself for the son’s birthday.

So, we go to the canteen, right at closing time, and I ask Joe what he needs to get the pictures taken.

“Oh, nothing. I’m fine, sir.”

Yeah, right. You’re not fine and I’m already digging out the two bucks from my wallet so Joe can get a few photos taken, and send them off to his son and his mom.

Joe looks down at the ground, still mumbling that he’s fine and doesn’t need anything, including a couple of bucks from a guy who shows up on visiting days for a couple of hours, and occasionally buys sodas for all of the canteen crew.

The rest of the room falls silent, his co workers and the guard obviously knowing the story about Joe and his money and him wanting to connect with his son.

I put my two bucks down on the counter, and the silence deepens. I glance at a big burly guy, a guy who looks like he ought to be a lineman on some college football team, and I see a tear roll down his cheek. Joe is looking down at the floor, and I don’t dare say anything more to him, as he’d probably burst into tears. And, if he started, the whole room would be crying.

My buddy and I slip out the door, not saying a word, and not daring to look at each other. We’ve done something good here today, and nothing we could say now would make it any better.

Joe will get his picture taken today, and will get something mailed off to his son and his mom this week. He’ll feel good about himself, for reaching out to his family and letting them know he cares.

And, I’ll keep knowing that I’ve spent the best two bucks I’ve spent in a long, long time. I know now what two bucks can buy these days.

Neal Lemery 9/25/2011

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

To Forget

The list of things to forget
brought me to remember what I’d lost
and not wanted to find ever again --
to pains and aches and broken hearts
of long ago and yesterday,
all coming back.

To write it down becomes remembrance--
I try mourning, again.
The obituary
falling out of the old Bible
old and tattered, brings fresh tears.

In trying to forget, I remember again
the joys and smiles and songs well sung.
Those notes dull the pain
of what I came here to forget, but
need to remember
once again.


Saturday, September 17, 2011

My Aunt Was The First Buddhist In Beaver

The ship’s clock struck the hour
me on the needlepointed settee waiting
for the water to boil, orange spice tea
in delicate Chinese porcelain.

She was busy in the kitchen, finding cookies
and flower painted plates and tiny spoons
while I petted her cat, and read
the Saturday Review article she’d wanted me to see.

Next to the big dictionary on its own special table,
and her reading glasses on a long gold string,
fresh flowers from her garden
shaded the sun from Neruda’s poems.

Only the river’s quiet flow filled the house she had built by her own hand
until she came back, everything on a tray--
now we could finally talk.

Fifty years later, I open her spiritual diary
and sip orange spice tea in a delicate cup
waiting for the clock to strike the hour
and finally understand her.


Friday, September 9, 2011

On the Road in Tonopah

It was on the road to Tonopah that I first knew I’d only be here once, maybe twice and I’d never be a Nevadan. Land is cheap here, and there’s lots of deserted houses to buy. Still, I didn’t think I’d be in the market. And it wasn’t just the miles of empty desert that had got me thinking that way.

The road wandered east, then north, then east, even though the signs said we were going south, promising Las Vegas in 250, then 150 miles. The hot September sun kept us warm, and maybe a bit disoriented, as we roared along the desert roads. Back a hundred miles, we went through a national forest, and once in a while, there were some scraggly dried up Joshua trees. National forest, huh? Or was that a joke of the Nevada highway department, keeping us entertained as we loped over ridge after ridge of basalt and colored rocks, and flat alkali flats, shimmering in the midday sun. Or, maybe this was just the great Nevada vortex, and we’d never escape, and never be found again.

If I’d been a pioneer here, on the way to California, I’d have died on the alkali flats on the other side of the ridge, my bones bleaching white in the summer sun, or maybe I’d have frozen to death on a cold winter night when only the coyotes howled against the moon, looking for a bite to eat. I’d have been that big bite, alright.

We rolled into Tonopah, looking for some food. We could have stayed at the Clown Motel in town but Vegas was where we were wanting to be. The big four story brick Mizpah Hotel was closed, in about 1960 it seemed, named after the big, and now closed silver mine that had made the town. Closed seemed the operative word of the year here, and maybe for the entire 21st century, as we headed down the main drag, looking for anything alive. Even the few pickups parked on the edge of the street looked tired and old.

I’d read that Tonopah got its big start when its founder was out in the desert looking for his ass,
and found a pile of silver ore, along with his long lost donkey. Tonopah wasn’t the ass’ name, but I like that for an animal name. I guess it means hidden spring, and given the absence of anything growing here, the name seems to fit.

Now the big attraction is the nearly bombing range, and the mountain where some folks want to bury all the country’s nuclear waste, and the tourists stopping by, thinking they’d missed the sign to Vegas, or Reno, or even Winnemucca, or maybe even their ass.

Our bellies empty, we were nearly through this town last really alive in the 20s, or maybe the 50s, which century we weren’t too sure. And the Clown Motel still didn’t make us change our mind about dinner on the Strip in Vegas Town.

The only place alive was Mickie D’s, Tonopah style. Not even a Safeway was around, or anything looking like a cafe. The golden arches clashed with the aquamarine tile trim, but we went in anyway, our empty bellies leading the way. Sunburned cowboys nursing their Friday night going to town hangovers had taken over the booths. The only folks in line were tourists like us, wanting only a little food so we could get back on the road and head out of town faster than we headed in.

A few blocks away, the high school gym wall was all painted up, a tough looking miner kind of guy, evil in his eye, looked over the town. He was the town mascot, and their claim to fame.
“Home of the Muckers” the letters blazed.

In my home town, we were the Cheesemakers, also known as the Mooks, the last syllable of our town’s own Indian name. There was another town, in Wisconsin, and they were “Cheesemakers”, too. But, we were the only “Mooks”. “Mooks” was bad enough, I’d thought, especially after listening to all the would be poets find their rhymes at all the high school games, until I heard of the Muckers. Not much challenge there for Nevada poets in waiting. No wonder there wasn’t much business at the Clown Motel, or anyplace else around here.

The clerk kept asking us if we wanted to eat in or have our grub to go. After the fourth parley, my buddy got a little firm with her, and asked for some bags. She finally figured it out, and we got back in the car, eager to hit the road, but more eager to just leave the town to the Muckers.