Birding with a two-year-old in San Francisco

Melissa Fischer, Artist

I scan the ochre-colored sandy path closely as Paul and I walk beside the canal, he sometimes riding, sometimes pushing his tricycle. I'm intrigued by the houseboats lining the canal. Who lives in them? What are their lives like? I've been fascinated with houseboats ever since having a childhood friend who had lived for a time on a houseboat. The path is lined with pines and other trees I can't identify– the flora here in California is so different from that of the Northeast. There are birds, many species new to me, in these trees, and I have binoculars in my pocket.

The binoculars remain in my pocket, though, and I barely glance at the birds, much as I am drawn to them. I continue to closely watch the path ahead, making sure my active grandson doesn't step in the wrong place anywhere along the path. There's actually surprisingly little dog waste given the tremendous number and fascinating variety of dogs to be seen anywhere one goes around here– from tiny Chihuahuas to towering Great Danes, from a diminutive nine-week-old Shiba Inu that looks like a bright-eyed teddy bear to two lumbering Newfoundlands who look like real bears. The vast majority of dogs here are social and well-behaved, and I'm guessing that the vast majority of dog owners are considerate and responsible about cleaning up.

Apparently not everyone takes advantage of the conveniently placed poop clean-up bag dispensers and attached garbage cans, though. What I'm most concerned about Paul stepping in is human waste. I know from an earlier walk with Paul that there is some along this path, thankfully covered with a little paper, but obviously something to keep my quicksilver grandson from inadvertently running in. I also want to be sure Paul doesn't jump on the navy blue sleeping bag, unzipped and spread out right beside the path, that I'm pretty sure is sheltering a sleeping person. That would be an unwelcome surprise and rude awakening for the sleeper.

Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye I see a movement above me and I look up and see a very small, fairly nondescript, drab-colored bird fly from the pine branches above me as another alights in the same low branches, then immediately disappears! I glance ahead along the path, then tell Paul there's a bird in the tree even though I can't see it. I've been teaching him some basic bird species and he's been quite interested, though he's generally ready to move on pretty quickly. The branches are low and not particularly dense. Where could the bird have gone?

The binoculars still heavy in my pocket, I glance back and forth from Paul to the branches overhead. And then I see it: a beautifully fashioned, perfectly camouflaged, narrow tube-shaped nest with a small opening near the top, hanging from one of the branches, partially obscured by the needles of another branch. It appears to be made of moss, the same color as the surrounding pine needles. I never would have noticed it if I hadn't been alerted by the quick movement of the parent birds.

At that moment Paul spots a rock on the path a little way ahead– round and white with small black speckles, about the size of his fist. Running to it in delight, he picks up the rock, looks at it closely, then adds it to the treasures he's already collected in the compartment on the back of his tricycle, and we continue on our way.

The next day, my last before returning home, I once again take Paul out on his tricycle for a walk along the canal, hoping to look more closely at the hanging moss nest and the birds whose home it is. We don't get any farther than the sleeping bag that's still beside the path, however, because just at that spot, without any warning, Paul's tricycle suddenly collapses and falls apart into three separate pieces! Thankfully he's been walking, not riding the tricycle, so though startled, he's not hurt.

As quickly as I can, which isn't very quick due to my lack of tricycle assembly experience, I reassemble the tricycle, only to have it immediately collapse once more in a heap in the sandy path. All the while Paul is providing shrill two-year-old commentary, and soon the sleeping bag stirs, revealing a sleepy older woman's face. I apologize for disturbing her rest and tell her we'll be on our way as soon as possible. After a short time that seems long, probably to all three of us, I finally get the tricycle precariously assembled and we head home where Nathaniel will do what dads do– repair broken toys.

I never do get back to see the hanging moss nest, but I have a clear enough memory of it and the birds to look them up and identify them as Bushtits– a new species to add to my life list of birds I've identified! I also have memories of a delighted boy holding a round white rock with small black speckles, a tricycle collapsing into pieces on a sandy path beside house boats, and a sleepy older woman patiently watching a baffled young boy trying loudly to grasp what had just happened to his hitherto unquestionably reliable tricycle.

Birding in a city neighborhood with a curious two-year old is nothing like strolling quietly, binoculars in hand, through the dense woods and open fields I'm accustomed to, but it, too, is rich with moments of delight and wonder.

"Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries."

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

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Loving Myself Enough

I met Jeff just one day out of college and proceeded to circle my entire adult life around him. Our relationship was unsalvageable and I knew I needed to get out of the marriage to save my own life. However, in order to save my own life, metaphorically speaking, I would have to sacrifice a limb.  I would need to give up my right arm.  I could not imagine a life without that arm. I would be so different, so impaired, so needy. Nothing would ever be the same again. I would have to compensate with just the one arm. I would have to learn to do things differently. I wouldn’t be the same mother. I would look different. People would treat me different. I might feel ashamed, less than whole. I might struggle for awhile unable to keep up with the busy life we created. These two arms helped me balance the load. They carried the babies, the groceries, the towels, the bags, the diapers, the presents, the toys, the laundry. Could I manage my three children and all of our stuff with only one arm?

But my only other choice was to die.

I was not physically dying. But my spirit was dying. I could feel it fading fast. I was past the stage of unhappy and I was becoming apathetic. For a long time I was angry at the injustices in my marriage.  Raging energy was burned through my veins. Then one day I realized, I no longer felt anything.

No sense of hope for the future. No glory in achievements. No joy in raising my three sons.  I was not the person I wanted to be. I was not the mother I needed to be. The woman I wanted to be, for my children, was brave and honest, warm and funny. I didn’t feel warm and funny living with Jeff. I felt tight, guarded and defensive all the time.

I was scared of my own apathy, until a small voice in my head whispered, “This is your one life.”  “My one life,” I echoed back and repeated as my head hit the pillow that night and again in the shower the next morning, and later while driving home from work. This mantra began to settle into my bones. I thought about this truth, “this really is my only life and I won’t get a do-over.”  The words settled into my bones and I knew I was not being my best self anymore; I was incapable of being that self in this marriage and I alone, had to act.

I made the steadfast decision that the only way for me to continue living, was to cut off my right arm and get a divorce. There was much uncertainty in what my future would look like, but ultimately, I would live, would gain my strength back, I would find my way and regain my balance. I embraced my resolve and did not waiver from that day forward. I knew I could manage with one arm, however challenging it would be. I could survive and thrive without my husband.  I wanted to live!

My spouse knew that our relationship was in serious disrepair and had been for awhile, but when I said with all finality that I wanted to divorce him, he went into a fury that lasted several weeks. He hated me and fought with me. His concern was over our three young boys. We both loved them very much and we rightly predicted this would be heart-breaking for them.  I had thought through different scenarios but still had so many unanswered questions. There would be no guaranteed outcomes. I could not say, one hundred percent, that we would stay in our house or that the boys would stay in the same schools.  I had a long list of things I did not know. 
What I did know was that I needed to take control of this life that was slipping away from me and divorce was now the only option.  Once I made the actual decision, I began to feel empowered. I summoned strength from my bones. I willed my body to support me. I pushed through some hard discussions with Jeff and when he said, “I can’t believe you would do this to the kids,” I without hesitation said, “I am not doing this to the kids, I am doing this for the kids.” And I believed my words, heart and soul as I said them. Despite the challenges that would inevitably come, I was ready to be a strong, graceful and protective mother for my children.

My children needed a mother who would love herself enough to leave a bad situation. I could see that my young boys had strength to carry out their own convictions.  Hadn’t they gotten that from me?  I needed to be true to myself in order to be true to them. I did not want them to move through adolescence in a home watching their parents belittle each other with biting words over dinner, alternating with evenings of silence.  I did not want them to witness me dragging my heavy heart behind me as I begrudgingly engaged in chores or activities.  During this time I loved these boys more than I loved myself. I knew I needed to lift myself up for them.

Separating proved to be as difficult as I expected. It was a good thing that I had really prepared my heart and my thoughts for this challenge. A symbolic last ditch effort at counseling further clarified that divorce was the right decision. During the session, my husband flat out stated that he would not change and was unwilling to try.  In hindsight I am grateful for his honesty.

During the summer months, I slept on the couch, but at the end of August, I ordered a bed and had it set up in the playroom. I pleaded with my husband to move out.  We battled back and forth and he sent me horrible, hateful emails. My gut hurt on the inside. I begged Jeff to be reasonable when we spoke to the kids about our decision to split up.  I wanted to deliver the news in a respectful, careful, loving way. He wanted me to do it without him or he threatened to tell the kids it was all my fault- that, “Mommy wants the divorce.” I was worrying quite a bit about this moment.

Jeff came around to my side and eventually, we sat the three guys down and said, “We have something we need to talk to you about. Well, Daddy and I love you all very much. But Daddy and I are not able to live together anymore.  We need to separate from each other.  It is not anything you did. It is just about us.”

“It’s a divorce?” asked my oldest son who was about to begin eighth grade.

“Well. It’s a separation.”

“I always knew you would get a divorce,” he yelled through tears. One of the twins came over to me and I hugged him. His twin brother, headed right to his father and Jeff embraced him. Devon turned his face into the pillow and cried.

I found my voice and said the words I had rehearsed, “We are always going to be here for you guys.  We are always going to love you.”

School started up and the autumn months dragged; Jeff had no plan to leave the house. It was unbearable.  I was seeing a gifted core-energy therapist and at her office I would allow myself to feel the overwhelming sense of loss and would unleash a river of tears.  After the session, I would get into the car, wipe off my smudged mascara, inhale big breaths and tell myself to be strong, then drive away with thoughts immediately shifting to what I had in the kitchen that could be scrounged up for dinner for the kids.  We kept the routines running, except that often Jeff would come home very late, or not come home at all. It was a strain on both of us.  His sustained anger was wearing me out.  My sleep was suffering; it was hard to go to work.
Abruptly, a couple days before Christmas, Jeff announced he had secured a studio apartment in the city.  On New Year’s Eve, three suitcases, a guitar and an amplifier appeared in the foyer.  And then they were gone and so was Jeff. That marked the official end of the end.

A few weeks later on a bitter cold Friday night, my three guys and I stepped out the doors of Grand Central Station and headed south down Lex, toward their father’s new apartment. Devon sailed a few feet ahead of us on his skateboard with his backpack slung over his shoulders, and the twins skipped along, excited to spend the weekend with Jeff.  I held Scott’s pillow under my arm and as we approached the curb, Nolan grabbed my hand. As Scott started to step off the edge; I lunged forward to reach around his shoulders with my free arm. Catching him, I traipsed with one twin on each arm and my skater boy leading the way across the bustling street.  My children were resilient and I realized that I was still intact, after all. The metaphor of losing a limb may just be too strong, perhaps a more appropriate comparison would be a “bad break” that if properly set can heal.
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Featured Writer - Bythema B. Bagley

Bythema B. Bagley is an educator, administrator and musician, who now explores communication and creativity through the artistry of the written word. In recognition of her career achievements in education, the arts and her contributions to community development, she has been awarded the Doctorate of Humane Letters by the Board of Trustees and the President of Delaware State University.

Grandpa's Garden

Bagley Grandpas Garden2Grandpa was super. He was very, very tall. When we looked up at him, his hat blocked out the sun. Mom said, “That happens when you’re short like you are.”

He was nice to children and regular people, but he said, “Children are my favorite people. They listen, learn and ask good questions.”  In his garden, there were so many interesting things to learn: the names of flowers, plants, and why bees, butterflies and worms were so important. He always took time to explain and made sure that we understood.

Much of the bounty from his well-tended garden would be canned, pickled and stored away for winter when the growing and harvesting had been completed. Onions and garlic dried and hung –corn, beans and tomatoes blanched, canned in scalded Mason jars, and stored in the root cellar to be made into winter soups.

When the last snow melted, and the ground was mushy and muddy, we began to get excited. As the trees assumed a faint pale green or pink or red at the tips of the branches, our excitement heightened. That was when Grandpa began to walk about the garden patch at the end of his day n the coalmine.  My brother and sister and I were at his heels every day, absorbing like little sponges his love of gardening, waiting for the most important news of the planting season.  

When at last the ground was tilled, the carrots, beans, corn, tomatoes and potatoes planted. Early one Saturday morning, we saw Grandpa in Bagley Grandpas Gardenthe one bare patch of ground left.  He had a heavy pointed stick in his hand making lines in the dirt. We leaped out of bed, ate the quickest breakfast possible, and ran out to the garden to see which of our names had been scratched out in large letters. Grandpa planted the seeds for planted in scratched out rows.  As that lettuce matured, it proclaimed to the neighborhood in whose honor the garden was planted that year.  

Everyone, even, Grandma asked permission of ‘that person’ to take lettuce from that spot.

©MRBQ Photos reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.
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© ©MRBQ Photo reprinted with permission.  All rights reserved.

Recent comment in this post
Colleen Geraghty
I was so touched by this story about your grandfather. I could feel the excitement of spring and the children's joy at being able... Read More
Monday, 20 June 2016 22:02
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Featured Writer - Allison B. Friedman

What's Playing at the Paris Theater

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Paris Theater New York2 by litherland on
My Grandma Sally was a career criminal, and if there were a Hall of Fame for Liars, she would have been a charter member. Her crimes were petty, insignificant really, but Grandma Sally was truly gifted. Octogenarian criminality is rich fodder for performance art, and she was a natural. She lived her life at the heady intersection of inspired eccentricity and faux normality, which was a clever ruse if ever I saw one. Her disregard for social mores she found inconvenient was coupled with an unfailing ability to accurately assess when it was time to pull the plug, play dumb, and/or flee the scene.

Grandma Sally started exercising her talents early on. She was only 16 when she hurled herself into the path of my very aristocratic, very wealthy Grandpa Murray, who she met by stalking him on a Harlem subway platform. He had caught her eye while she was doing an errand in his very swanky neighborhood, a mere ninety blocks north of her home in a working-class neighborhood that almost qualified as “modest”.  Poor Grandpa Murray didn’t know what hit him. Grandma Sally travelled ninety blocks, twice a day, to brazenly insinuate herself into his daily commute to and from his place a business, a fancy law firm in an even swankier neighborhood, and the next thing he knew, they were getting married.

Pleasure was Grandma Sally’s passion, maybe even her life’s work, and her standards were pretty lofty.  She loved the limelight, and thrilled to danger. She would invite, even encourage, the discovery of her criminal transgressions. For Grandma Sally, the best part of any caper was that her hapless victim knew she was absolutely guilty as charged—and that she would get away with it anyway.  

Grandma Sally had a laugh that was astonishingly large for a woman of her small stature; a combination of a whoop, a hoot, and a cackle, that laugh was so contagious that it went viral, every time. Even in repose, she seemed to be laughing. She was a woman of many mysteries, including her natural hair color (I only knew her as a stylish honey blond) and how she managed to keep the thick, waxy, ever-present red lipstick she wore from getting all over her teeth, I’ll never know.

She was in her early 80’s in the early 1980’s, widowed by then, and I was in my early 20’s. In Grandma Sally’s company, I was stunned to find myself behaving like an authentic grownup when one of her inspirations showed signs of careening out of control. She was utterly infectious, and her own best audience, too, laughing, always laughing, as she reported her illicit activities. My mother is her daughter, and it is extremely obvious, at least in my lineage, that mirth can skip a generation.  
Grandma Sally lived at 215 E. 68th street, in a many door-manned building that also housed a famous kiddie-show TV star who travelled everywhere with two enormous, perfectly groomed poodles, one black, one white, and an incredibly handsome network news anchor who Grandma Sally felt certain was not a “real” man. The very fancy Paris Theater also lived in that neighborhood, just a couple of blocks away. A precursor of the indie movie houses that have since sprung up all over NYC, the Paris Theater showed mostly racy foreign films with French and English subtitles.
The marquis was huge, edged in lights, and the ticket-takers were homogenous, handsome young men with exotic good looks that suggested continental origins.  They wore impeccably tailored uniforms the color of a fine French Bordeaux, old Hollywood style with a military flare, gold braid and blinding, shiny brass buttons, complete with small, severely structured hats that aspired to being jaunty. The hats were worn perched at an exactingly saucy angle, anchored by a gilt elastic strap beneath the unfortunate wearer’s chin. (“They all look like fagelehs,” sniffed Grandma Sally). The ticket-takers and ushers and the unfortunates working behind the ornate concession stand were trained to adapt an effete Parisian air and a subtle arrogance that some people might find a little intimidating. Grandma Sally, of course, was not one of them.
On the day of the Paris Theater caper, the ticket-taker was demonstrating mild annoyance as he attempted to create order amongst the ticketholders who had stupidly arrived on time for the opening of a new, very blue movie that had gotten fairly salacious press. The mere mortals who came to the first showing of the movie did not seem to understand that in France, and at the Paris Theater, apparently, it is considered inelegant to do pretty much anything on time. Thick ropes of burgundy velvet attached to gleaming brass posts provided the blueprint for crowd control, and for the most part, the ticket-taker’s personal authority, demonstrated by the indifferently aggressive toss of his saucy-hatted head, prevailed.
Part of the cachet of the Paris Theater was that no matter when you got there, you were going to wait on a long, long line, sometimes snaking around a corner or two. This stroke of public relations genius was designed to make both the inhabitants of the Checker cabs streaking by and the hurried pedestrians en route to whatever they were late for all pause to wonder what fabulousness was happening at the Paris and why they were not part of it.  

Grandma Sally loved soft porn, and she called me pretty much long-distance (I lived uptown, in the now not-so-tony neighborhood of 121st and Amsterdam) to invite me to accompany her to the big-ticket dirty movie that was opening at the Paris Theater. I was in graduate school at the time, and when I pleaded mid-terms as an impediment to my taking part in this fine adventure, she started laughing that laugh, pronounced me a prude, laughed some more, and, inevitably, I found myself heading downtown, knowing full well that this excursion was rife with possibilities. I briefly hoped we would not get arrested. Under normal circumstances the thought of being under arrest was somewhat quelling, but this was Grandma Sally, after all, and the possibility that the two of us could get booked, fingerprinted, and end up sharing a jail cell was pretty titillating.

We rendezvoused in the lobby of her building, and staked out the Paris, a mere two blocks away, from the covert vantage point of the back seat of a taxi. The velvet-roped line was three city blocks worth of discouraging, rounding two corners and implying a significant wait time. I may have started to say something sensible about a later show, but Grandma Sally held up her hand to silence me, and instructed the cab driver to let us off half a block away from the entrance. There was a cadre of uniformed “fagelehs” patrolling the line, but Grandma Sally dodged them expertly, maneuvering her fierce little body at warp speed as she flounced straight up to the ticket booth. It was March, and not very cold, but she was wearing her mink coat, for effect, I think. “Two, please,” she said.

She stood there motionless, then shot me a look that informed me that it was I who was footing the bill. As I fumbled for my wallet, the unfortunate ticket-seller behind the elegantly rounded glass-enclosed ticket booth tried to spit out the phrase “Sold Out”, but Grandma Sally held up a hand to silence him, the money changed hands, and two tickets spat out, just like that. At that point, a uniformed member of the movie police attempted to direct us to the end of the line, but Grandma Sally was in rare form. Her visage read “evil glee” and she was smiling almost sweetly as she said simply this: “ I’m not waiting in that line. I’m pregnant.”  She patted her mink-clad midsection, for emphasis.

The Captain of the Jaunty Hat, plainly annoyed, looked down his nose at me for assistance, but I knew my role in this scam. I met his gaze directly and nodded my head slowly, up and down, several times, simultaneously offering up a well-practiced subtle shift of my eyes to inform him that Grandma Sally was most definitely off her rocker and it would be best to just play along. It didn’t matter anyway, because she had already bolted past him and was now impatiently holding the door to the theater lobby open for me. As I passed through the doorway, she turned to the very mystified gatekeeper, and said, quite loudly, “You really ought to do something about that hat, you look like a fageleh!”  A few ticketholders lassoed by the velvet ropes began to applaud, and Grandma Sally curtsied and started laughing that laugh.

We were cracking up like crazy as we chose our seats and got ourselves situated in the completely empty Paris Theater, accompanied by the mournful voice of Edith Piaf, a soundtrack of French sorrow that was crashing through the enormous stereo speakers in the almost empty theater. It wasn’t long before two dandified ushers approached us, but I was nonplussed; my money (literally) was on Grandma Sally. They didn’t try to eject her; they wanted to know if she wanted popcorn. “Yes,” she said, “Double butter, and put some in the middle. Eating for two, you know.” She paused a moment and added, “And bring some for my girl. Single butter for her.”

Popcorn was delivered, and Grandma Sally sent the usher back twice, once for more napkins and a second time for a couple of large Cokes, one regular (for her), and one diet (for me). I didn’t have to pay for any of it. The doors to the theater finally opened, and as the room filled, a couple of patrons, laughing hysterically when they spotted her, actually paused to high-five Grandma Sally as they selected their seats.

Grandma Sally liked the movie well enough, but this didn’t stop her from loudly proclaiming it pure smut to everyone within earshot and asking for her (my) money back before we departed the Paris Theater. The same terrified ticket-seller refunded the tickets, and ponied up a couple of free passes to insure that Grandma Sally would patronize the Paris Theater in the future. Grandma Sally graciously accepted the passes and pocketed my money. A member of the movie police hailed us a cab without our even asking, and once we were safely inside, Grandma Sally lost it completely, out of control hysterical, gasping with laughter while narrating these events to me as if I had not been there. The cab driver got a little nerve-wracked and let us off at her building, two blocks away, without even attempting to collect his fare.

The doorman at her building split a wide grin when he opened the back door of the Checker, and Grandma Sally spilled out, already recounting a hilariously embellished version of the afternoon’s events as he escorted her from the curb. She told him the story three times, calling him by three different names in the process, the last as he was attempting to steer her into the revolving doors to the lobby. Her voice, and that laugh, really carried. I was made to corroborate every detail, even the ones that were pure fabrication. It didn’t even feel like lying.
By this time, Grandma Sally was running late for her weekly “canasta” game (it was really high stakes poker) and she needed some time to freshen that red lipstick and figure out the evening’s cheating strategy. I suspected she was going to have a whole lot more fun than I was, especially as I was about to pull an all-nighter in what suddenly seemed to be a despairingly sedate academic ivory tower.

We said our good-byes, and Grandma Sally pulled me to her and impulsively air-kissed me, French style, red lips smacking together loudly somewhere in the vicinity of each of my cheeks. Still laughing, she said, “ Au revoir! We’ll always have Par-ee. Next time, the Emporium, 79th and Broadway. Or maybe a Broadway musical.” And of course, I agreed.

I was heading for the revolving doors when, as an afterthought, I asked Grandma Sally to refund me the Paris Theater (free) ticket money. I wanted to take a cab uptown, a small luxury in anticipation of the grueling night of study ahead. “A cab?” She cheerfully feigned horror.  “Graduate students are too poor for cabs. Take the subway.” She was still chortling as she turned and flounced her tiny mink-clad self in the direction of the elevator. By the end of the evening, she had tripled my money playing dirty poker, and the following morning she called way too early, waking me up to brag about it.

Note: Paris Theater photo by Litherland on Flicker
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Featured Writer - Barry Menuez

The Old Hotel

menuezcurtis hotel3“Excuse me young man, are you alone?” asked the new bellhop in the lobby.

“Yes, for now, I just want to buy a comic book in the gift shop,” I answered.

“But you shouldn’t be here all alone.”

“I live here in the apartments in back, my parents are upstairs. I come down here all the time.”

I watched the bellman go to the front desk and ask about me. I couldn’t hear the words, but I saw the manager on duty nod in my direction as if to say, “He’s ok.”

This was the old Curtis Hotel in downtown Minneapolis, 1941. I was eight years old and had been there for about two weeks. My parents had gotten back together a year before, remarried, and now my dad was here in Minneapolis on assignment for ten months. He was part of an early management consultant firm and had the task of helping the Honeywell Corporation re-organize for war production. We lived in the apartment complex attached to the rear of the hotel. Our permanent home was in Chicago, the headquarters for Dad’s firm.

From September 1941 to June 1942, I had the run of the place, a boy version of Eloise. The Curtis Hotel billed itself as the Largest in the Upper Midwest: 800 rooms, with restaurants, ballrooms, clothing stores, public steno, travel agency, drugstore everything under one roof. I was the only kid living there and the staff got to know me and looked out for me.

I was enrolled in the nearest public school, in third grade, about four blocks from the hotel, nestled in the middle of old tenements and worn out frame houses. This neighborhood was mainly newly immigrated Scandinavians: Swedes the majority, then Norwegians and Danes and a few Finns. Added in were poor Sioux Indians from the reservations in the north. The men worked the hard manual jobs at General Mills, Pillsbury, and the railroads, ten hour days, six days a week if lucky enough to have a job.

My classmates were mostly bi-lingual and spoke with a distinct accent. I sensed a common strain of pride, intelligence and stoicism. No complaints about their poverty and deprivation. I was quietly tolerated but felt held at a suspicious distance for the first weeks of the new term.

I made friends soon enough. I was good at it. This was my fifth school change and I had picked up some techniques for being the “new boy”. My rules for survival: stay cool, be prepared for all class assignments, but never volunteer to answer questions, wait to be called upon. If someone hit me, strike back full force immediately even if he’s bigger and older. Bjorn was my first and best friend there. He and his pals approached me one day and asked, “What are you doing here with us? Where do you live?” I had feared this question, but told them straight up that I lived in the Curtis Hotel due to my dad’s temporary work here in the city.

“How can you live in a hotel?” Bjorn said.

I did the best I could again to explain that our real home was in Chicago. This time in Minneapolis was a temporary deal and the Honeywell Corporation was paying for all of it. We couldn’t ever afford it on our own.

I could not begin to explain to them the strange irony at work in my life. They did not know that only a year and half ago, my mother and I were living in a shabby boarding house in Akron, Ohio. Three years earlier Dad had gone off with another woman. My mother and I were surviving on corn fritters and hot dogs through the last years of the Depression.

I understood my classmates’ poverty but didn’t know how to express myself at that age. I felt I belonged with them but my current circumstances created a chasm between us. How could I tell them I went with my parents every Sunday afternoon to the main dining room of the Curtis for their lavish Swedish Smorgasbord? If my father had not come back and remarried my mother, I would still be Akron, Ohio, eating corn fritters.

I slowly blended in, even though my clothes were new, while those of my classmates’ were ill-fitting hand-me-downs. Their shoes had rounded heels and holes in the bottoms. We all ate the same free lunch under some government Depression era subsidy.

School was fairly easy for me; my Chicago experience had put me a bit ahead of the pace of this immigrant oriented curriculum. I became one of the boys and even did well in the coed gym classes. During the harsh winter, we were indoors and gym time was usually Swedish folk dancing to old 78 r.p.m.’s.
The Minnesota winter came early with deep cold and snow.

Sunday, December 7th dawned, the day that will live in infamy, and life changed in the city, the hotel and at the school. My classmates’ dads got better jobs as the factories shifted to war production. Their older brothers enlisted for a chance at a job and to serve their new country. The hotel was filled with military brass, defense contractors, engineers, all juggling for position in the war boom. The Scandinavian immigrant mothers were yet to discover the meaning of a Gold Star in their window, one for each son killed in combat.

Just before Christmas, Bjorn finally accepted my repeated invitation to come to my place after school to listen to our radio serials and have some Ovaltine. Leaving the school, I looked at him and gasped, he was wearing only a thin flannel shirt, no sweater, and the wind chill had to be minus twenty.

“Where’s your coat, Bjorn?” I said.

“My brother Nils has it, it’s his turn. Let’s go!”  Off we went into the bite of the bitter wind. No more questions. When my mother opened the apartment door, I saw how shocked she was, but she recovered swiftly and warmly invited Bjorn to come in. She made us the Ovaltine drinks I had promised.
Bjorn, sometimes with Nils, came home with me occasionally, but I was never invited into their home or the homes of any classmates for the entire time I was in Minneapolis.

During the Christmas break, my parents were going to Chicago for the company holiday party. I was to stay behind in the care of my twenty-one- year-old brother, Ross, driving with friends to Minneapolis from college in Ohio. My folks went off on the Hiawatha, the super luxurious and high speed train to Chicago. Ross was due shortly. I was excited to see my brother; this would be fun. I knew we would go to movies. After a few hours alone in the apartment, the phone rang. It was Ross on a payphone. I heard him deposit a handful of nickels and dimes, “I’m snowed in here. A blizzard has shut us down, the roads are closed. Are you ok?”

“I guess so. Mom and Dad left at noon. I’m by myself.”

“I’ll call Dad’s Chicago office and leave a message. He should be there soon. They can find him and let him know. Stay where you are and I’ll call the Curtis to let them know you’re alone.”

“When will you get here?”

“I hope sometime tomorrow. You’ll be ok. We’re close to Eau Claire, Wisconsin. When the roads open up we can move. See ya soon.”

I hung up. I felt very alone. It was dark now. I turned on the radio for my shows and tried to stay calm. A few minutes later, there was a knock at the door.
“Who is it?” I had been told never to open a door without knowing who was on the other side.

“Hello, Barry, it’s Mr. Fitzpatrick from the front desk. I need to talk to you.” I did know him, so I opened the door. He stepped in a few feet and stopped.

“Your brother just called and then your dad, too. I understand what’s happened, but you’ll be fine. You stay in the apartment for the rest of the night, ok?”

“Sure, but I’m getting hungry. Can’t I go down to the drug store for some snacks?”

“Please stay here,” he continued, “Rita, the waitress, is coming up from the Coffee Shop with a dinner for you in about an hour.”

“Wow. I know Rita. Thanks a lot.” I said.

“Rita will make sure you’re set for the night. In the morning one of us will come and take you to breakfast in the Coffee Shop. Do not leave your place in the meantime. We’re all here for you. Goodnight.” Rita came as promised bearing a tray with a cheeseburger, fries, a chocolate shake and a bag of cookies for later. She briefly sat with me as I ate, then she had to get back to work. She went over how to double lock the door and told me to call the front desk immediately, at any time, with any problem.

“You know we’ll be looking out for you. Charlie Anderson is the in-house detective on tonight and he’ll keep close watch on this section. You know Charlie, right?” Rita said.

“Yes, he’s the one going off duty when I leave for school. He says Hi to me.”

A quick look out the window confirmed my earlier survey, the city was completely shut down, nothing moving. I listened to the radio until I got drowsy.
About 8:30, my mother called from Chicago, jolting me back to attention. “I am so sorry this happened,” she said. “Are you alright? Did they feed you? Did you hear from Ross?”

“I’m ok, Mom. Rita came with food, the manager stopped by and the detective is going to be watching this area real hard.”

“We’ll be home the day after tomorrow. The railroad is supposed to be back in service,” she said. “ Maybe Ross will be there tomorrow. It’s going to be fine and you have no school to worry about.” A little voice inside me suggested that I might use this situation to my advantage, “I’m running out of things to read and I can’t go outside to the library. I know the new comic books are on sale downstairs.”

My mother, never fooled for a moment said, “I guess you deserve a little extra. When we call the front desk in the morning, I can tell them to charge five comic books to our bill. Will that help?”

“Thanks, Mom. I miss you.”

“We’ll talk in the morning. I love you. Bye for now,” she hung up.

I remember lying in bed listening to news and weather reports--all bad, war and blizzards. Finally, I heard a lone snowplow working the street below our windows. I remember falling asleep listening to the wind rattling the windows and the snow swirling. I half dreamt I was snowbound in a log cabin in Alaska, a low fire in the fireplace warming the room. I was the hero of my favorite radio serial, Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy. A rap on the door early the next morning sent me scurrying to see who it was.

“Hello, are you there? It’s Bill Johnson, the bell captain, time for breakfast.”

“I’m here, Mr. Johnson, give me one second.” I had slept in my clothes and only needed shoes and a sweater. I followed Mr. Johnson down the hall; he was in a hurry but friendly. The Coffee Shop was crowded with Army officers, colonels and captains. I had learned to recognize their insignia. Mr. Johnson tucked me into a banquette in the far corner and Kiki, the waitress for that section, came over, “Look at you, you look like the outcast of the islands. Did you sleep in those clothes?”

“Yes,” I said.

“And what’d you do with the eggbeater?”

“What eggbeater?”

“The one you combed your hair with this morning,” she laughed with great self-appreciation, “I know what you want, right? It’s pancakes and syrup with lots of butter and bacon.” She was back quickly with a glass of orange juice, milk, and a big stack of pancakes. On the side were the bacon and the butter which came over from a German dairy in Wisconsin, pure butterfat and salt.

“Thank you, Kiki,” I piped up.

“If those don’t hold you, I’ll bring you some more, Sweetheart.” I came to love coffee shop waitresses at an early age.

Dad called after breakfast to tell me that they would be on the Hiawatha tomorrow: The Milwaukee Road had all lines open. He said their big party was that night. He was sure Ross would be with me by bedtime, “You’re doing ok, I can tell. You’re a real trooper. I’m proud of you.”

I couldn’t complain after that so I kept up my brave act. “See you tomorrow, Dad!”

Mr. Fitzpatrick, the day manager, was back on duty and called the apartment. He suggested I come down to pick out some comic books at the drugstore.
“After that, you come by the desk and I’ll get Mr. Johnson to take you down to lunch,” then he added, “please do not go outside the hotel” After lunch, I wandered the corridor behind the main lobby reception desk. It was lined with shops: The Poppy Shop, Western-Union, the Nordic Travel Agency, and my favorite, The Public Stenographer and Notary Public. Each small office had floor to ceiling glass fronts and glass doors with gold lettering identifying the business.

Miss Kaplan, the steno on duty, had placed her small sliding nameplate in the bracket under the door sign. I knew her from a couple of visits with my Dad who gave her occasional dictation and typing assignments.. She saw me looking in, and since no one was with her, she beckoned me to come in, “I heard about you, all alone. How’re you doing?”

“I’m doing fine. I'm sure my brother will make it here tonight.”

Miss Kaplan was warm and reassuring, “I know the highways are open now and the trains are running. Just be patient. You know, you’re the talk of the hotel staff, this never happened before. I think it must be fun.” I was sitting next to her at her desk and noticed a thick volume sitting on the near corner. It was titled Mein Kampf by Adolph Hitler.

“Why do you have a book by Hitler?”

She took a breath and replied, “My father gave me the book and said I had to read it to understand the evil we are fighting and to know why the Jews, and our family is Jewish, are in great danger.” Before I could respond, a client came in and I slipped away. This moment with Miss Kaplan and the image of the Hitler book was to come back to me when Life Magazine released photos of the liberated Nazi concentration camps.

I went to the drugstore at the end of the same corridor and picked out my five comic books: Captain America, Superman, Batman, Red Ryder, and Smilin’ Jack.

Late afternoon, Rita arrived with dinner, exactly the same: cheeseburger, fries, milkshake and cookies. It was good to see her, but she couldn’t sit with me this time. I remember being lonely and a bit apprehensive as I solemnly ate my food. Everything changed an hour later. There was a knock at the door and Ross yelled, “Any survivors left in there?”

“Just me,” I answered, and threw open the door. There were big hugs and smiles from Ross. He was pretty rumpled himself, unshaven, and in need of a hot shower.

“I need to get some food. Come downstairs with me, you can have dessert,” he said, looking at my tray with the remains of my dinner. He had already spoken with the night manager to let him know he had gotten through.

My folks got back on schedule the next day. I still had a few days of Christmas break left before school started up and was so happy to be with Ross. He had to be in Miami, Florida, on January 6th to report to flight school with Pan American Airways. He had earned his basic pilot’s license at Ohio University under the Civilian Pilot Training Program and was eager to sign up. Pan Am would train him with hundreds of others and then lease them to the Air Transport Command. Ross had dropped out of his senior year of college to enlist and wanted to see us all to say good-bye. It would be five years before the four of us would all be together at the same time again. I remember Ross going out to a New Year’s Eve party with his college pals and disappearing for two days, a final binge. My mother was quite distraught when she had to see him off on the train, a scene played out all across the land every day in early 1942.

My ninth birthday came in February and I went with my folks that evening to the main dining room of the Curtis. A twelve piece orchestra played, literally, behind the potted palms. A cake was brought and the bandleader went to the mike to tell everybody it was my birthday. The whole dining room sang Happy Birthday and the bandleader asked what song I would like him to play, “Chattanooga Choo Choo," I said. Dozens of couples hit the dance floor. It was great.

Winter faded, spring came. Bjorn, my other pals and I went on long exploratory walks through Minneapolis. We thought it fun to go racing through Dayton’s Department Store to look at the model trains in the toy section before being shooed out by the floorwalker. Once, on a warm spring day, we walked the bridge over the Mississippi River into St. Paul and back.

The end of my sojourn in Minneapolis came too early; Dad took us back to Chicago immediately after my last day of school. I barely had time to say good-bye to Bjorn and my schoolmates. I found Rita and Kiki in the Coffee Shop, they both gave me a hug and made me promise to come back soon.
I didn’t make it back until 1976.

A convention assignment took me to Minneapolis and I arranged to stay a week at the Curtis Hotel. Years earlier, the hotel had torn down the apartment section and replaced it with a health club with indoor swimming pool and elaborate workout facilities. The lobby and  corridors seemed tired; worn carpets covered the open spaces and hallways. The glass enclosed cubicles had been taken out to make a big open space for trade show display. There was no Public Stenographer, no Western Union, no florist, all the rest long gone. The Coffee Shop was still in the lower level beneath the front lobby. I had breakfast there every day and let the memories float to the surface. I could see Rita and Kiki working the floor, teasing me and chatting up the customers.

The Curtis Hotel was razed in 1984 at age seventy-five.
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Holly Christiana
This was a real delight to read, and I could easily read more of this. You brought it vividly to life - the lopsidedness in schoo... Read More
Friday, 08 January 2016 02:11
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