Urban Beachcombing

When I lived in Cincinnati in the early 1990s, the motif of my bachelor apartment in Clifton Heights would never have been in an Apartment Life photo shoot.  I think even the hosts of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy would have given up in disgust at any attempt to decorate my apartment in an aesthetically pleasing manner.

Were I to name the style I used to decorate, it would have been “Late 20th-Century Clifton Castoff.”  Clifton Heights is the neighborhood bordering the University of Cincinnati campus, so it featured a highly transient student population.  Most of the students were from U.C., but Hebrew Union College was also in Clifton, so some of its students lived in the area as well.

I had the good fortune to move to Clifton in early June 1990.  I was planning trips to St. Vincent de Paul and the Volunteers of America to pick up furniture, but this turned out not to be necessary.  The spring quarter was winding down at U.C., and most of the students were going home for the summer.  This also meant apartment leases were ending.  Rather than rent U-Hauls or go through the hassle of trying to transport unwieldy furniture, many people left totally functional, but bulky, furniture at curbside.

I am not sure where I first heard the term “urban beachcomber.”  It is not familiar enough to be in the Urban Dictionary, although I get some hits when I Googled it (it’s apparently the name of a band).  The closest direct experience I have had is with some loosely connected bands of Freegans here in Columbus, although I drew the line (mainly for health reasons) when they foraged for food.  I know that the United States heads the world in wasted food, but that is a gamble I am not willing to take, because the chances of getting food poisoning or bacterial infections are just too great.

My (re-) bachelor quarters in Olde North contains several pieces of furniture I salvaged from various alleys and sidewalks, all of them in excellent condition.  There are bookcases in my living room that are groaning under the weight of books (and my 78s, I admit).  I am not bringing home upholstered furniture, regardless of condition, mainly because I don’t want to risk introducing bedbugs into my house.

Rhonda Byrnes’ idiotic book The Secret led many people to believe that hard work be damned, you could have whatever you desired merely by sending out the right type of energy into the universe, and a benevolent universe would reciprocate in kind.  The only thing even close to that I have experienced was one evening just before the start of another graveyard shift at the Cincinnati post office.

It must have been about 1994.  I had been running an errand, and night was falling.  I just had time to take a quick bath and change clothes before a 13-hour shift of toting barge and lifting mail at the main post office.  I was hurrying into my apartment building, and in the foyer I nearly tripped over a brown paper bag.  This was in the pre-9/11 era (although the Unabomber was quite active at the time), so I didn’t immediately jump to the conclusion it was a bomb.  I looked inside, and lo and behold there was a small Yorx boom box, with brick-sized speakers, a cassette deck, and an AM/FM radio.  I kept it on my bedroom dresser, and played tapes and listened to the radio when I was in bed, or sick.  That being said, I have never been arrogant enough to think that if I need a new bookcase or chair, all I need to do is manifest it, and voilá it will be sitting on my front porch when I wake up tomorrow.

Attitudes about urban beachcombing seem to vary from the small city to the big city.  It may be a city mouse versus country mouse thing, but there are many evenings–especially weekends–when I am walking N. High St. and hear some drunken students ridiculing the shabbily dressed man who pushes a rickety shopping cart through the alleys that parallel the bars, stopping at every trash barrel and Dumpster to pull out aluminum beer cans and plastic pop bottles.  (I make it a point to give this guy the empty Diet Pepsi bottle I’m using, once I finish the beverage.)  The man is working.  He gets a paltry sum for the recyclable materials he collects–and he is wise to do the bulk of the collecting on weekends, when the empty bottles are piling up in the trash barrels and alleys around campus.

But he is not panhandling.  He is not one of the army of people who come up to you uninvited in the fast-food restaurants around campus with various elaborate tales of woe, in the hopes of getting money for their next fix or bottle from good-hearted people.  He is not mugging drunken pedestrians who are staggering, guard down, back to their apartments or dorms after too many draft beers and tequila shots.

The reaction to another can collector, a man whom I saw all over Marietta as I came of age, was quite the polar opposite.  In the fall of 2009, I was reading The Marietta Times online and learned the impossible had happened: Jim “Can Man” Heller had died, aged 85.  In addition to his obituary, which listed the time of his funeral and the site of his burial, another story ran the following day.  (I printed off both the obituary and the article, and pasted the hard copies on pages in my diary.)  Many Marietta natives shared their memories, all of them respectful and positive.  Six days a week for over 40 years, he pounded pavement in Marietta, retrieving aluminum cans and selling them by the pound at the recycling center.

He was memorable to me because he was the first adult I was allowed to address by first name, instead of Mr. or Mrs. somebody.  (The second was my aunt Mary Anne’s life partner, Lois.)  My parents hired him occasionally to do yard work when I was a child.  As I got older, I saw Jim in his well worn work boots, with bulging trash bags overloaded with cans slung over both shoulders, walking the streets and alleys of Marietta, or headed back to his dilapidated house on Muskingum Drive.

Jim “Can Man” Heller (1924-2009) on Putnam St. in Marietta.  This picture appeared in The Marietta Times soon after his death.

The only “handout” Jim ever accepted was the free coffee and banana bread in the lobby of the YMCA, which was a regular part of his beat.  He would socialize at the coffee urn while talking to whoever was nearby, and then go out on the swift completion of his appointed rounds.  For years, he resisted getting a TV, because he was afraid he would be tempted to stay up too late watching sports, and not be able to get his work done the next day.  (Compare that to me, who has often called in sick because of vision problems–I couldn’t see myself getting up and going to work.)  Grudgingly, as he aged, Jim accepted rides when he was struggling under the weight of his cans.

So, in no way could this particular forager be considered a bum.  The man who picks through the cans for beer bottles and cans is working.  He probably doesn’t earn enough to file an income tax return, but this may be the only type of work one with such limited resources can find.

Winter Solstice is Officially Here

It seems that I have to kick off more and more blog entries by apologizing for not posting more frequently.  I plead the usual–work overload and utter exhaustion once the work day finally ends.  I’m logging the usual 40 hours per week in service to the State of Ohio, and two or three nights per week at the Discovery Exchange.  (The winter quarter is in full swing at Columbus State, but my supervisor asked me if I would stay on until the end of next week.  I need the extra cash too much to decline such an offer.)

As I left the DX (as Columbus State people call it) last night, the snow began to fall.  I was under-dressed for this, since the temperature was in the mid-40s when I left my house around 7:30 a.m.  It was cloudy and gray, but I didn’t give that any special consideration.  From mid-November to about March, Columbus residents speak of seeing the sun the same way other people talk about UFO or Loch Ness Monster sightings–and usually receive the same skeptical responses.

When I left the Industrial Commission at 5 and started to make the 0.8-mile walk east on Spring Street, a cold rain was falling, and I was, as usual, hatless.  I managed to keep busy by re-shelving buybacks and customer assistance, so I was astonished when the work day was winding down and I saw that wet snow was starting to fall.  Snow had covered most of the ground, including the sidewalk and streets, much thicker than the very light dusting that covered the grass just before Christmas.

Susie came home about 30 minutes after I did, not happy about having to walk from High St. to our house in the snow.  Now that she is older, snow is definitely losing its allure.  The Susie and snow memory that I will retain until the day I die was the sudden dumping of snow in February of 2010.  I was lying abed, recovering from my gallbladder surgery, and Susie and one of her friends shouldered snow shovels and went all over Baja Clintonville, coming back $40 richer.  They were out earning money, and getting some major exercise, while my major accomplishment that day was that I managed to get from my bedroom to the bathroom and back without having to hang onto the wall the whole way.

One of the books I got for Christmas when I was about three or four.

I still enjoy snow, although, as I get older, I like it more while I’m watching it from inside.  I never willingly participated in a snowball fight (I knew kids in Marietta who were not above putting M-80s and rocks in their snowballs), although I enjoyed sled-riding.  I was a bit of a chicken when it came to sled-riding–I stuck to my easy-to-manage flexible flyer, inviting ridicule from kids who used saucers, car hoods, flattened cardboard boxes, etc.  (I have never ridden on a metal saucer.  Once they started going downhill, you were a projectile, with absolutely no way of stopping until the hill bottomed out or until you hit something.)

The hill next to Mills Hall on the Marietta College campus was the one we used most often.  The campus was private property, and security officers had repeatedly run us off, but we had the rules-are-for-canasta attitude that I still retain to a lesser degree, even now, and security finally gave up.  It was steep enough to get up a good head of steam while you were headed downward, but not so fast as to instill terror.  Usually, your ride would stop when you hit the chain-link fence that enclosed a small basketball court at the foot of the hill.  It would smart a little, but usually the kids wore enough heavy clothes that it wasn’t more than a bump.

Susie had school today, and I went to work.  I took for granted I’d be working, since the State barely agreed to close all offices during the 1978 blizzard.  I made the lunchtime walk to the Payroll office at Columbus State, but moved a little more slowly than usual, since I was afraid of slipping and falling.

The snow hasn’t kept Susie and me confined to quarters.  We’re both at Kafé Kerouac right now, and I’m typing away while two aspiring guitarists play on the stage.  (Listening to these guys, I think they will be aspiring for a long, long time!  Susie reviewed them in her blog and her critique is quite accurate.)  High St. looks pretty clear, and there’s plenty of condensation on the windows, which makes the streetlights and car headlights look a little ghostly.

While we were walking here tonight, the neighborhood seemed to be pretty quiet, other than some music from some of the houses we passed.  This is quite a contrast from last night, when the sound of the wind howling up and down Maynard Ave. awoke me several times.

Marietta did not get the full force of the 1978 blizzard, although we missed a lot of school because of the snow, and because the Bituminous Coal Strike drove up the price of heating.  When snow came, it was quite subtle.  I remember one Sunday night calling a friend of mine and saying, “Hey, it’s snowing.”

“It is?” he said, quite skeptically.  There was silence on the line for five or 10 seconds, and then he gasped, “My God, it is!”  He and his older brother made the 15-minute walk over to my house, and the three of us left together about 15 minutes later.  His brother was disappointed, as we retraced their path, to see that their footprints hadn’t been covered up.  A day or two later, snow was falling fast enough and heavily enough that footprints disappeared almost as you made them.

Happy 2012 to All!

And may there be many years ahead of you!  I’m excited right now because Susie will return from Florida in a little over 24 hours, in time to begin Winterim at The Graham School on Wednesday.  I haven’t been completely as productive as I wanted to while she was gone, but I’ve put the time to good use.  I’m as ready as I’ll ever be to return to work tomorrow morning.

I worked New Year’s Eve day at the bookstore, so I couldn’t sleep in.  I went to Kobo, a nightclub on High St., for the evening.  I saw a co-worker of mine from the bookstore, and he immortalized my presence there by photographing me deep in my (Diet Coke) cups.

Me at Kobo, January 1, 2012

I declined a drink of champagne from the brother of another bookstore co-worker, and when I left, I bumped into some pretty graphic evidence of why I’m glad that I no longer drink.  (I don’t think I am/was an alcoholic, but I was definitely headed in that direction, and with two alcoholic parents, the deck was definitely stacked against me genetically.)

I stepped out onto High St. and there was a woman huddled on the ground in the fetal position in the alley next to the bar.  Her friends–both male and female–were helping her, but she was so out of it she couldn’t even make the initial moves to get on her feet.  My first thought, shared with many of the onlookers who had come outside to smoke, was that she had overindulged, had gone outside to vomit, and then had passed out.  Her friends’ attitude ran the gamut from commiseration to impatience to disgust.  One wanted to get her a cup of water, but another friend wisely pointed out that she wasn’t conscious enough to swallow; if they gave her water, she would probably drown.  They kept her turned on her side, so she wouldn’t aspirate in case she vomited.

My mind flashed back to a fall night in the ’80s, back at Ohio University, when there was a party in one of the dorms.  This was typical for a Friday night, but it was a freshman dorm, which meant the hosts and many of the guests were underage, and the noise could be heard all over East Green.  One of the clowns attending the party decided the action was a little dull, so he/she went out into the hallway and pulled the fire alarm.

Everyone–party-goers or not–soon came out of Shively Hall because of the fire alarm.  All but one, a guy at the party who really had his load on, to the point that he was unconscious.  The squad came for him, and two EMTs brought him out, his arms around their shoulders, his feet dragging, swaying back and forth between them and his head dangling down.  Everyone was still in the parking lot, waiting for the all-clear to go back inside, and not at all happy about having to go outside for no reason.

Their mood changed when the EMTs came out with this guy.  The entire crowd broke into applause, whistling, and foot-stomping.  “Buy that man a drink!” several people shouted.  Had Twitter and the Internet existed in 1984, I am sure that the video would have gone viral in hours.  My amusement was not a “Well, that’s what you get for overindulging,” but it was more along the lines of “Can’t hold your liquor, can you, tenderfoot?”  (I haven’t drunk anything stronger than Diet Pepsi for over 13½ years, but I don’t think the Straight Edge community would claim me as one of their own.  My love of meat and my excessive caffeine consumption would negate any claims of being Edge.)

The woman in the alley was drunk, but, as it turned out, there was more to the story.  After 15 or 20 minutes of debate, one of the bouncers finally called 911.  It looked like this overindulgence was going to be costly to more than just the woman’s pride, because she was barely responsive at all.  The bouncer also flagged down a police car as it was headed up High St.  I talked to the brother of the woman’s boyfriend, and it turned out she had been assaulted, and her cell phone stolen from her.  She didn’t seem bloody or bruised, and when she was finally with it enough, the police officer took a statement from her.  (By this time, she was able–barely–to stand under her own power, and she leaned against the wall with her boyfriend, while the officer stood there with his notebook and his pen.)  I asked her if the cell phone had a GPS, so they could track it down, but she said it didn’t.  (I have one on mine, but it’s only activated when I dial 911.  My thinking is that if I have a heart attack or stroke, and can only manage to dial 911 before I lose consciousness, the paramedics can find me.)  And she ended up going home with the boyfriend and her retinue of friends, and the police car made it less than a quarter of a block up High St. before they had to quell some other fracas at Ledo’s Lounge.

My friend Jeff from Marietta, whom I met in 1977 when he was working at the public library, came up for a long overdue visit on New Year’s Day.  I had sent him Google Map directions, so he had no problem finding my place, and we walked over to the Blue Danube for dinner, caught up on our respective life situations, and he fell in love with the ‘Dube immediately, as does almost anybody I’ve ever brought there.  (It was my second day in a row going there.  On Saturday, after the bookstore closed at 2, I took a co-worker and her father there.  She is 19, and grew up on Indiana Ave., but did not know the place existed. I could not allow this state of affairs to continue, so when the bookstore closed, she, her dad, and I went there for lunch.  In addition to the food, she fell in love with the jukebox and the painted ceiling tiles.)

After Jeff left to return to Marietta, I had a pretty sedate evening, which lasted until about 4 a.m. this morning.  I put on hours’ worth of music (I patched my old Dell laptop into my Crosley phonograph, so the Crosley can serve as an amplifier), stretched out on the love seat, and read until I finally felt tired.

There’s a slight dusting of snow on the ground right now, and the Weather Channel icon at the bottom of my screen says 24 degrees Fahrenheit right now.  In the early hours of New Year’s Day, there was a windstorm.  Coming back from Kroger yesterday afternoon (I went there to pay the electric bill), I saw that a tree in Brevoort Park had blown across E. Torrence Rd. and totally blocked it.  Also, the screen on my living room window is completely ripped, and I saw quite a few limbs and spilled trash cans as I was out and about in Clintonville during the day yesterday.

Parent-Sanctioned Bullying

On the first Friday of every month, First UU here in Columbus features a potluck and social evening known–appropriately enough–as First Friday.  There is a meal, followed by several different activities (board games, workshops, speakers, or a movie).  On the first Friday of January, I made one of my rare appearances at First Friday.

The featured film was Bullied, produced by the Southern Poverty Law Center, about anti-gay bullying in a public school in Minnesota.  The young man who was on the receiving end of the bullying took the school district to court because the principal and other school officials turned a blind eye to his numerous complaints and pleas for help.

As someone who was bullied from kindergarten through senior high school, I applaud any anti-bullying actions that schools may take.  On the other hand, I think I’m enough of a realist to know that anti-bullying rules and measures are about as realistic and enforceable as anti-thunderstorm edicts.  Bullying is by no means confined to the schoolyard, and very few studies or memoirs dealing with the subject mention bullying that is encouraged by parents or adults in authority.

When I was 11, a little boy (pre-kindergarten) who lived next door befriended a boy his age (we’ll call him Mick–only because I’m listening to the Stones’ Some Girls as I type this) who lived a block or two away from where we did.  All of us (adults and children) took an instant dislike to him.  He was dirty, we heard he had a pretty foul mouth (which he learned at the knee of his mother), and the house where he lived with his mother and three siblings was somewhat ramshackle.  I know you can’t judge a book by its cover, but my dad fueled our dislike for the kid by telling me that he had seen Mick throwing rocks at the letter carrier one day.  (Not even in kindergarten, and he had already committed a Federal offense: assaulting a Federal employee while in the performance of his job duties.)

The parents were all a united front: This kid, and his equally reprobate siblings, were trouble.  I can’t even think of anything they did that led us to believe that.  What we did know was that the mother didn’t work (“She gets a check” was what one of them told me when I asked what Mom did for a living), and the father had been killed in Vietnam.  The mom seemed to have an endless parade of boyfriends who came over, and all the kids were in fear of them.  (“I’ll tell Bill!” was the ultimate threat I heard one sibling use on the other.)

A side effect of bullying is that a kid (or adult) who is bullied will all too often relish the chance to be the bully, when that opportunity arises.  On Facebook, I mentioned I was reading Dave Cullen’s Columbine, and I quoted a line from W.H. Auden’s poem “September 1, 1939”:

I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

The “evil” that I did was subtly encouraged by parents who turned a blind eye to what we did.  No one egged us on, but neither were we taken to task about it.  Being the oldest of the other kids, I was a de facto leader. Mick and his siblings usually traveled in a pack from their house to ours, and they rode Big Wheels.

For the benefit of my younger readers, too young to remember Big Wheels, I offer you the following visual aid:

Mick was the youngest of the kids, at about five.  He had a brother, Kevin, who was maybe about eight, and a sister who was nine but looked much younger.  As I said, they moved in packs, all of them riding Big Wheels.  Before long, all of the older kids in our neighborhood (and our parents) could sense their imminent arrival.  It was like Radar O’Reilly on M*A*S*H‘s ability to know choppers bearing wounded were en route before anyone else.

We were on hand to greet them.  Something the commercial neglected to show was how fast someone could U-turn a Big Wheel.  Parents would sit on their front porch and see the same scenario played out several times a morning that summer.  There would be the roar of Big Wheels, and when it got closer, my friend John and I would come running out with baseball bats, croquet mallets, or tomato stakes, making these hellacious “battle cries” as we did it.  The invading force would very quickly reverse direction and head back home.

Fortunately, none of us ever actually struck one of the kids with these weapons.  As an adult, I often wonder what would have happened with (or to) our parents had we actually connected with the bats, stakes, or mallets that we waved at these kids.  Yes, these kids were a pain in the ass, and no one liked them.  (They certainly didn’t win any friends when they peeled all the bark off a crabapple tree “to keep away vampires.”)  But never did a parent sit us down and tell us that baseball bats were not toys, and if we actually decked one of them, it wouldn’t be play, it was called assault and battery.

I am realistic and honest enough with myself to realize that the only reason I never hit one of them wasn’t my inherent virtue, it was the fact that they could pedal faster than I could run.  I had plenty of anger inside me, and by age 11 I was a virtual storage battery of anger.  I could only constructively vent in my diary, but that wasn’t enough for me.  I do not relate the above anecdote out of pride–far from it.  However I was able to do it, I was able to channel my anger into constructive channels.  It would be untrue to say that I’ve discharged it entirely.  (I still bear grudges from nursery school.)  But Mick has not.  Whenever I’ve subscribed to The Marietta Times, either by U.S. Mail or online, his name featured prominently in The Docket, the column devoted to arrests, court appearances, and sentencing.  Usually, it was (is) alcohol-related, some of it petty misdemeanors such as possession of an open container of alcohol, or as serious as OMVI or criminal assault.  I often wonder how much our pre-teen brand of vigilantism contributed to this.

We were kids, yes, I know.  At the same time, the parents who should have told us that what we were doing was wrong, no matter how wrong these kids were, stood by and did nothing.  Maybe what we (I) did comes across as petty to the average reader of this blog.  (I’m reminded of a story, probably apocryphal, about Martin Luther’s days as a monk, pre-95 Theses.  The story says that young Luther would stay in the confessional for hours, reeling off the most petty or idiotic of sins–inattentive during Mass, desiring to sleep instead of pray, taking an extra portion at meals–and finally his confessor threw up his hands.  “For God’s sake, man!” he cried.  “Sleep with a man’s wife, steal some money, kill someone!  Then come back and confess to me!”)  But I’m laying it bare as a way of reminding myself, and anyone else who reads this blog, Qui tacit consentit–He who remains silent, consents.  So my purpose in writing this down for public consumption is as an indictment to the parents who watched with amusement as we went after other kids with baseball bats.  Susie is not a bully, and doesn’t have it in her to hurt anyone, so I have never, thankfully, been placed in that position.

Speaking of Susie, I will veer off this depressing topic by sharing with you some of the pictures she took yesterday.  Yesterday was a snow day for Columbus Public Schools (but not for State workers–the last time that happened was the 1978 blizzard), so Susie took my camera and took pictures around the neighborhood, including the playground at nearby Weinland Park Elementary School.

 Our back yard.  The footprints to the gate are
courtesy of me, as I trudged off to work.
 E. 7th Street, looking west.

Eve of Día de los Muertos Thoughts

My mother died two years ago on October 30, Hallowe’en Eve.  Because of the physical and emotional abuse she caused during the early years of my life, my reaction to her death is best summarized by this Mad magazine cartoon drawn by Sergio Aragones:

Just before I left work today, I turned the page on the calendar pad on my desk.  Besides November 2, the pre-printed page for tomorrow said Day of the Dead (M), with the M standing for Mexico.  I think about mortality often, so it’s gratifying to see there’s a day set aside for reflection and remembrance of the dead.

I don’t think much about immortality and whether there is life after death.  My thoughts about afterlife are rather proto-Judaic.  There may be an afterlife, there may not be.  However, there is much to do in this life, so you don’t have the luxury, time, or energy to spare speculating about what may come in the next.

When did I first become aware there was such a thing as death?  It was pre-kindergarten, when we lived in a small rented house on Third St. in Marietta.  I remember a summer early evening when I went out to the side yard and quite a few people, ranging in age from my age (which would have been about four) to teenage, all gathered in a semicircle around a tree.  I wondered what was so fascinating about the tree, until I saw there was a blue jay perched on one of its more slender branches.  It wasn’t flying, it wasn’t flapping its wings, it was barely moving.  I was able to understand that it was sick.  One or two of the kids made tentative moves to touch it, to take it down from the limb, but drew back when older friends and/or siblings cautioned them not to touch it because “it has lives [lice].”

I went in for dinner and didn’t come out again that night, but the next day there was no blue jay on the branch, but I did see something that wasn’t there before.  Our neighbors had a stack of bricks flush against the back wall of their garage, but one brick stood apart from the others.  Laboriously printed with Magic Marker on the brick, all in capital letters, was an epitaph.  I cannot recall the text (nothing like HERE RESTS IN HONORED GLORY AN AMERICAN SOLDIER BLUE JAY KNOWN BUT TO GOD), but it said something about “blue jay died” and the date.  All I could glean from that was that the blue jay was under that brick, and he wasn’t going to be flying, or pulling worms from the ground, or singing, anymore.

That fall, I learned that the same thing happened to people.  Our landlord lived with her husband, children, and widowed mother in a large brick house that fronted Third St., while our house was a small five-room house behind theirs.  One night, my dad was getting me ready for bed when the youngest child, a girl who about 13 at the time, knocked on the door and said that “Grandma was really sick.”  My mother left right away to go over to render whatever aid she could, and Dad continued to help me get ready for bed, giving me my usual snack of animal crackers and milk, helping me get into my pajamas, reading me a bedtime story, etc.  I kept noticing that Dad often made trips to our front window to look out into the night, to see what was going on at our landlord’s house.  I looked outside, expecting to see that something was different, but didn’t see anything out of the ordinary for an autumn night in Marietta.

I overheard conversation the next day at breakfast.  The grandmother (who was 79) had died.  In fact, by the time my mother had gotten over there, she was already dead, collapsing on the front hall stairs.  When my mother had arrived, the priest from St. Mary’s Church (which was only a block away) was already there administering the last rites of the Roman Catholic Church, and emergency personnel were already there to take the body to the hospital.  My mother immediately went to the kitchen to make coffee for everyone and stayed for about an hour afterwards.

The solidifying event was a spring afternoon when I was in kindergarten.  One of my dad’s female students was babysitting me, and we were walking from the Marietta College campus to our new house on Sixth St.  She suggested we make a side journey into Mound Cemetery, which was on the way.  (It would, in 2000, be where my dad would be buried.)  “Let’s go in and see the people,” she said.

I had no idea what she meant.  I had been past Mound Cemetery before, and we had driven by Oak Grove Cemetery as well.  I had heard of rock gardens before, and I thought that cemeteries were just big gardens set aside with big stones for decorations.  That was when the sitter explained to me that when people died, they were buried in the ground, and the stones and statuary I saw marked where they lay.  From that day on, cemeteries became places of refuge for me.  I could easily spend hours at Mound Cemetery, visiting the graves of different Revolutionary War heroes, or climbing the steps to the top of the Conus mound in the center (said to be the final resting place of a Mound Builder chieftain).  I never cared much for the parades, ceremonies, and rifle volleys that happened on Memorial Day at Oak Grove Cemetery, but Memorial Day was the one day its mausoleum was open, so I could behold the unique experience of seeing where people were buried in the wall.

Susie learned about death when my dad died in January 2000.  He lay in an open casket in the viewing room of Hadley Funeral Home in Marietta, a block from Mound Cemetery, and Susie, who was two at the time, wondered why people were standing around and talking.  “Shhh!” she kept cautioning, her finger to her lips.  “Grandpa’s sleeping!”  Steph took the time to explain that no, he was not sleeping, he was dead.  I explained to her later on that it happened to everybody.  The funeral director had a copy of a Sesame Street book called I’ll Miss You, Mr. Hooper, showing the story that aired soon after Will Lee, the actor who played Mr. Hooper, died.  The writers sensibly decided that Mr. Hooper would die as well, and I read the book to Susie.

(Compare this to my experience.  I never saw a dead person until I was in high school.  That was only because I had a funeral home on my newspaper route.  It makes me think of the opening line of the movie Stand by Me: “I was twelve going on thirteen the first time I saw a dead human being…”)

I try not to be this morbid, but it seems to be appropriate for tonight and tomorrow.  I won’t have a trip to the polls to report tomorrow, since I’ve already voted.