Pieces of my past
Freed from their dark cardboard jails
What the hell is this?
We’re at that point in our unpacking now where there are just a few lingering boxes, and they all contain what I will loosely call junk — items that I’ve hung onto for reasons sentimental, hopeful and, more often, unclear and irrational.
All those 34-inch waist blue jeans? Hoarding those paid off. After decades of wishful thinking, they suddenly fit now, after our near year on the road. My baseball autographed by Willie Mays? It — though his name is fading – still falls into the category of forever keeper.
But what of all the rest — the five unpacked boxes that remain: a jumble of shoelaces; matchbooks; cables, cords and adaptors that I have no idea what they go to; marbles; sea shells; little green plastic toy soldiers; a doggie Christmas stocking; old dog collars; artwork by my son; artwork by my self; unlabeled VHS tapes that contain who knows what and I have no way of finding out; cassette tapes of which the same can be said; old sunglasses; remote controls with nothing to control; owner’s manuals for things I haven’t owned for a decade or more, old keychains, some of them with mystery keys; a set of large plastic ears that fit over your real ears; a fake severed finger in a pool of blood; balls of all kinds; musky smelling pipes; business cards for people I can’t remember ever meeting, mysterious names and numbers scrawled on bits of paper?
All, mostly, things that served a purpose, things that were important, once; and at least one item that, as mentioned in our poetry above — it has been some time since our last Highway Haiku – we’ve never been able to figure out.
Mixed in with these are souvenirs accumulated during my travels as a writer — some Korean money; two stuffed dogs from a company that clones dogs; chips of wood from the woodpile outside the Unabomber’s isolated cabin in Montana, a framed get-out-of-jail-free Monopoly card; a matchbook from the Mustang Ranch in Nevada, a no-longer-greasy stone from the Exxon-soiled shores of Alaska; a photo of a twenty-something me swilling Thunderbird wine with two hoboes on a dirty mattress in Lexington, Kentucky.
They, too, occupy the boxes of items not essential to everyday life — boxes labeled “junk,” though not all fall under that rubric. (Speaking of which, where did I put my rubric? I thought I packed it away with my milieu, under my ephemera.)
I remember a time in my life when I only had one junk box. How did I get up to five? It seems once we outgrow and leave behind our childhood toys — hey, there’s my squirtgun! — we find other stuff to squirrel away, in my case enough to fill a box every five years or so.
In these boxes – oh look, a yo-yo! — are items of great sentimental value, nestled with items of questionable value (plastic vomit, anyone?), nestled with items of no apparent value and, sometimes, no clear purpose.
Which brings me to these wooden things — pictured atop this entry.
I’ve probably had them for a couple of decades at least, and I believe they came from the home of grandparents. I haven’t a clue what they are, yet I’ve held on to them, moved them from home to home, and packed and repacked them away in junk boxes.
Maybe you can help me out.
Allow me to describe them. They are made of wood, polished on one side, grooved wood on the other. They interlock. They have a brand name, “Blitz” emblazoned on one side. They are slightly bigger than your average blackboard eraser, about the size of a telephone receiver, or what used to be size of telephone receiver.
What they do — or ever did — I don’t know. My best guess, given the grandparents I think they came from were once in the laundry busines, is that they have something to do with the maintenance of garments.
If you know, I’d love to hear. If you just wish to hazard a guess, I’d love to hear that too — for often there can be more fun in the guessing than the knowing. (The first person to provide the correct answer will receive some slightly used plastic ears; I won’t just lend you an ear, I will give you two.)
We are nearing the last of our boxes, and have made five trips now to the Goodwill donation center down the street. I love that place. One can drop off unwanted items with such ease — you pull in, drive over one of those gas station hose bell ringer things, and a smiling man comes out with a cart to help you unload. Then you’re off. It all goes so smoothly — unlike much else in life — that I’m tempted to start dropping off items I actually need.
Need, of course, being a relative term. If we learned anything during our travels it’s that so much of what we think we “need” is really just what we want, or are convinced we must have by advertising and the media. In our 11 nomadic months, food, water, coffee, something to sleep on, a roof when the weather’s yucky, an electrical outlet and, of course, each other, sufficed nicely. Not until Ace and I moved into a structure of our own did I start feeling the need to accumulate things – even as I’m doing the opposite of that, getting rid of the junk.
I really shouldn’t call it that. It’s an overly broad term that’s unfair to some of those items that reside in the boxes so classified. “Accessories,” or “accoutrements,” would be a kinder label, but those are too easily misspelled, and take too long to write on the side of a box.
And, in truth, they have value. In a way, these items — your junk, my junk — are like life’s loose change: However seemingly trivial they appear, taken together they amount to something. We keep them because, even when packed away, they are pieces of our identity, they’re what makes us us, and throwing them away is like throwing pieces of ourselves away.
That, in my case, those pieces include yellowing newspaper clippings, whorehouse matchbooks, big plastic ears and a severed thumb in a pool of blood, says something.
I’m just not sure what.
Posted by jwoestendiek May 4th, 2011 under Muttsblog.
Tags: america, ancestral, animals, beginnings, belongings, birth, blitz, dog's country, dogs, dogscountry, haiku, help, highway haiku, home, homeplace, house, identity, items, junk, matchbook, mementos, moving, mustang ranch, north carolina, novelties, pets, plastic ears, possessions, resettling, road trip, settling, severed finger, souvenirs, stuff, travels, travels with ace, unpacking, what is this, whorehouse
I think my paper towels — flowery as they are — say it best.
We’re moved — not settled, but moved – into the apartment in Winston-Salem, N.C., in which my parents lived when I was born.
After 40 different residences in 10 states over 57 years, and nearly a year on the road with Ace, circling the country twice, I’m back where I started.
Life, that is.
Here in the apartment in which I spent my first year — none of which I remember — we’ve still got a few weeks of unpacking/organizing/decorating ahead, but we’re getting comfortable (always dangerous). We’re back on the grid (always expensive). And we’ve got enough tiny bars of Motel 6 soap to last until 2015.
Returning to the ancestral homeplace was purely accidental. It was about the time Ace was diagnosed with a herniated disc. I started looking for a place that, unlike our mansion basement, didn’t require going up a lot of stairs. On an outing with my mother, who lives in Winston-Salem, I — seeking a better connection with my white boy roots — asked her to show me the apartment where she and my father lived when I was born.
When I saw a “for rent” sign in its window, it seemed to be fate – even though moving in, since it was unfurnished, would require reclaiming all the possessions I placed in storage 11 months ago, when Ace and I departed on our journey, and hauling them down south.
Moving day was also a homecoming for this desk (left), which my parents purchased on a trip to the mountains nearly 60 years ago, and which, when my mother moved into a retirement community, I took home to Baltimore.
It’s fragile, in need of repair, and I thought one more move would surely kill it, but it survived and now holds a prominent position in the living room in which it resided long ago.
That’s in College Village, an apartment complex when it was built in the late 1940s – in anticipation of Wake Forest University’s move to town.
It was built in a neighborhood – or what there was of one then – of far ritzier homes. And several longtime residents have told me there were objections to its construction at the time. All that affordable housing would lower property values, it was feared. My mother recalls a friend, back then, telling her, “You’re looking at the slums of tomorrow.”
It’s quiet, very quiet, and pleasant, most pleasant, with lots of grassy expanses. Birds are constantly chirping, and chipmunks are everywhere. There’s also an opossum who’s not shy at all.
The housing units themselves are small and unassuming, but sturdy — made when things were built solidly, with plaster walls. I haven’t heard the slightest peep from neighbors — a pleasant respite from my nights in Motels 6’s, where, more than once, groans and slamming headboards kept me awake.
Still watching the old budget, I’m trying to settle in without spending too much money — buying bookshelves from Wal Mart, my sheets from K-Mart, and hitting Target for my high end needs. It’s amazing how it’s impossible, even at so-called discount stores, to walk out having spent less than $100.
Unpacking, at first, was a little like Christmas, for I’d forgotten about many of my possessions during their time in storage. After a week, it has gotten old, and I’m down to mementoes and junk. and it’s all I can do to get through a box a day.
I wonder if, when I do get everything unpacked and put away in another week, that will be the time the urge to hit the road hits me again. If so, this time, I plan to ignore it — well, mostly.
Ace, who doesn’t like the noise involved with unpacking, likes to sit outside while I rip through boxes, amid the big oak trees, probably about my age, that line the street.
He seems to enjoy watching the squirrels feast on the dropped acorns, which pile up in mounds. He doesn’t chase the squirrels — unless they start to do that running around the tree trunk in circles making squeaky noises thing, in which case he’ll rush over like some overzealous lifeguard to get them to knock it off. He’s content, otherwise, to just watch them sit on their hind legs and nibble away. After a few days watching, he tried an acorn himself. It wasn’t to his liking.
Although there have been one or two more painful yelps since Ace finished up a second round of the medicine for his herniated disc, he seems this time to be getting better.
I’m not sure if he’s up for any more long trips, and I guess, as I try to read his mind, that he’d prefer hanging around and meeting the dogs and humans in the neighborhood. He’s still up for short trips though, eager to get in the back of the Jeep, which he’s no longer permitted to do by jumping. The handicapped ramp is part of his new routine.
Conveniently, there’s a bar and restaurant half block away, where my mother says there used to be a grocery store. Next door to it, there’s a gym I have no intention of joining, and in the basement, according to a sign on the window, ballroom dancing is offered. ( I checked with Ace and he’s not interested.)
The restaurant’s a little pricey, so when I visited I just ordered an appetizer — one whose selection may reflect the fact that, though you can take the boy out of the south, and the boy out of Baltimore, you can’t entirely take the south, or the Baltimore, out of the boy:
I will tell you this much, hon. They was some goo-ood eatin’.
Posted by jwoestendiek May 2nd, 2011 under Muttsblog.
Tags: ace, america, ancestral, animals, birthplace, college village, dog's country, dogs, dogscountry, furniture, herniated disc, home, home sweet home, homeplace, moving, north carolina, packing, pets, relocating, road trip, settling, squirrels, travel, traveling with dogs, travels with ace, unpacking, wildlife, winston-salem
Ace and I have fully moved out of the mansion basement we spent more than a month living in — and while he’s not missing the stairs, and I’m not missing living underground, we are both missing Lord Barkley, the rescued sheltie who quietly watches over the manor.
Lord Barkley and Ace hit it off from the beginning — not in a jumping all over each other kind of way. From the moment they met, you could tell there was something similar to a quiet, mutual respect. They’re both mellow dogs; both can be a little aloof. And maybe something about the stately mansion setting evoked in them a sense that reserved and civilized behavior was to be followed.
Given Ace’s back problems, and the fact that Lord Barkley, according to his mistress, had never hung out with another dog since she rescued him, their co-existence was pretty low key. Only once or twice did they actually run around and play; more often they took turns following each other slowly around the yard, like a mini-pack.
Lord Barkley, when he was let out for his morning constitutional, and his afternoon and evening ones, would bark — though he’s normally not much of a barker — until I let Ace out of our subterranean quarters. Then they’d wander the yard, one behind the other.
When Barkley was called back in, Ace went as well — for our host, Miss Caroline, made it a practice to give Ace a treat everyday.
They’d both go into the kitchen and watch intently as Miss Caroline went to the dog treat jar.
“Manners!” she’d say. “Manners!”
Both dogs would lay down and wait for the treats.
Miss Caroline says, based on the information she received when she adopted him, Lord Barkley spent much of his early life in a crate and possibly was mistreated. Now, in addition to having run of the 22-room mansion, he follows her everywhere — grocery store, drug store, wherever she’s running errands.
In her late 80s, Miss Caroline has lived the kind of life of which books are written. She was a model, an actress, a writer, sculptor and painter, even a race car driver. She worked extensively in the Middle East, and was the star of several commercials made long ago for R.J. Reynolds cigarettes, produced in Arabic. She was a friend of shahs, sheiks and dictators.
She didn’t just tolerate having Ace at her home, she delighted in it, and Ace took an instant liking to her, even before the first treat was dispensed. As he does with those he deems friends for life, he took to sitting on her foot, which always made her smile. Or, with Ace being 130 pounds, was it a pained grimace? Either way, she let him get away with it.
Miss Caroline, who’s now working on a children’s book, has put the mansion up for sale several times. Unable to get her price, she has taken in guests, who live in the basement, the carriage house, or in some of the upstairs rooms, which she has decorated in themes. One of two men’s rooms, for instance, has a nautical theme. There are two rooms for women, too.
I enjoyed our month at the mansion; Ace, though he never seemed keen on the basement, or the stairs leading to it, preferred to spend his time in the yard, chilling with Barkley in the grass, or, better yet, upstairs in Miss Caroline’s house.
When Ace was diagnosed with a herniated disc last month, moving somewhere that didn’t have stairs was necessary. So we bid farewell to Lord Barkely and Miss Caroline, with the promise that we’d come back and visit often.
But, after reclaiming my stored stuff after 11 months on the road, and hauling it to North Carolina, almost all my time has been taken up by the seemingly endless task of unpacking.
With what appears to be a light at the end of that tunnel, next week we will pay a visit, renewing our ties with Miss Caroline, and our bond with Lord Barkley, all, of course, while observing the decorum that befits a stately southern mansion.
Posted by jwoestendiek April 29th, 2011 under Muttsblog.
Tags: ace, adopt, america, animals, barkley, basement, dog, dog's country, dogs, dogscountry, friends, home, house, lord barkley, mansion, miss caroline, move, north carolina, pets, rescue, road trip, shelter, sheltie, south, travel, traveling with dogs, travels wth ace, winston-salem
Before I show you my new place – that’s next week, when I’m done decorating — I thought I’d show you somebody else’s.
We came upon it last week, on the trip to move my furniture down south.
There’s an exit on I-95 in Virginia that Ace and I always stop at — one where I can get low-price, by Maryland standards, cigarettes; fill my gas tank; and grab a bite at the Burger King, whose guide to which sodas go best with which entrees always makes by beverage decision easier.
Then we drive a few hundred feet to the end of a big parking lot, where there’s a large grassy area, next to a copse of trees. I park at the edge of the grass, open the back of the Jeep and sit there to enjoy my picnic lunch while Ace sniffs around the empty patch of grass, takes care of business, then sits and waits for french fries to be flung his way. Or better yet, in his view, a hunk of burger, whose variations at Burger King include a Triple Whopper, and Quad Stacker. As you know, you can “Have it your way.”
The exit — Willis Road, I think it’s called, on the southern edge of Richmond – has become a tradition for us. Ace likes traditions, especially those involving meat.
Last week, with Ace in the back of the Jeep, and my friend Will following me in the rented moving truck, I had tired of music and decided to find a talker on the radio, either flaming liberal or die-hard conservative — for those are the only options — it didn’t matter.
I can’t remember his name, but I ended up with the die-hard conservative — a Rush Limbaugh wannabe, only angrier, who was jumping all over President Obama’s recent remarks about increasing taxes on the richest to assist the poorest.
Obama, it seemed, wanted to help the “less fortunate,” and you would have guessed, from the way the talk show host was saying “less fortunate” that he was smirking and putting finger quotes around it — as if he thought there was no such thing, or, if there were, that they were all sissies.
Though I had spent nearly a year without my material possessions as Ace and I traveled across America on a shoestring; though I’m not employed by anyone other than myself, though I have neither health insurance nor nest egg, I’ve never considered myself among the less fortunate (which I say without finger quotes, because only sissies make finger quotes).
Similarly, I’ve never considered myself too far removed from that group. One overnight hospital visit would probably put me in their ranks.
In our time on the road, Ace and I were homeless by choice, but frugal out of necessity, which explains why we ran into plenty of down on their luck souls – some of whom had made bad decisions, more of whom were victims of matters beyond their control, like layoffs, or foreclosures, or crime, or natural disasters, or unnatural disasters, or health issues or disabilities.
In the America of 2011, with the gap between the rich and the poor having become as extreme as our talk show hosts, I’m thankful to be in the middle, even the lower section of the middle. I plan to try and stay there until the middle disappears. Having reunited with my possessions, called in my pension (it actually came when I called) and begun setting up a new home — albeit without stainless steel appliances – I’m feeling more secure. But I’m aware of how tenuous that can be.
After stopping at our traditional Virginia picnic spot last week, I finished off my fish sandwich, accompanied by a Diet Coke – though maybe Sprite would have been a better choice — and Ace I walked around the corner, where there was a wooden fence with a small opening in it. We stepped through.
That’s where we saw this homeless encampment.
I’m not sure if it served as home for multiple people, or just one, but nobody was at the camp amid the trees, just off I-95, where a half dozen mattresses and tarps were scattered, clothes hung on tree limbs and — speaking of accessories that pop — empty sardine cans, their tops peeled back, served as ash trays.
I was wandering around taking pictures, when a medium-sized, copper-colored dog came running out from behind a mattress that was leaning against the fence. Barking furiously, he headed straight at me, then stopped and stared, as if daring me to take another step in his direction.
I tried to fling him some french fries, but every time I threw one, he retreated — only slightly though, never leaving his position amid the modest little camp. That seemed to be his mission — to protect the few meager belongings that were there, to guard over them until his human came back from collecting aluminum cans, or panhandling at the exit ramp, or maybe even working a real job.
The dog acted like it was Fort Knox, and he was a German shepherd.
They are able to show respect, loyalty and compassion to the poorest of souls — in a way Republicans, at least the loudest ones, are rarely able to master. Some Democrats aren’t that great at it, either. I’m not always too good at it myself. How much have I contributed to Japanese tsunami victims? Zero. I need to save up and buy a clothes dryer.
We humans are far more selfish than dogs. Then again dogs aren’t raised on TV ads and shiny magazines that bombard them with images of things that manipulative marketing types persuade them they must have.
I thought about calling the conservative radio talk show host, even though he sounded like a very nasty fellow who would interrupt me. ”Why is it we make a greater investment in accumulating stuff than in our fellow humans?” I wanted to ask. “When did war become patriotic and helping people become unpatriotic?”
And which soda really does pair best with the fish sandwich?
Posted by jwoestendiek April 20th, 2011 under Muttsblog.
Tags: ace, america, animals, burger king, compassion, conservatives, democrats, dog, dog's country, dogs, dogscountry, encampment, greed, helping, homeless, hosts, less fortunate, liberals, mattresses, obama, pairings, patriotic, people, pets, poor, possessions, poverty, radio, republicans, rich, richmond, road trip, sardine can, selfishness, soda, stacker, stuff, talk shows, taxes, travels with ace, virginia, whopper, willis road
Three friends showed up to help me load my rental truck, along with a fourth, from Philadelphia, who also followed me the 400-plus miles back to North Carolina in the rental truck.
There are two types of friends in the world — those who say they’ll help you move, and those who help you move. And while they’re all worth keeping, one must take special care never to take the latter type for granted. A friend who helps you move is right up there with the person who pulls you from the path of an oncoming bus: You are forever in their debt — at least until you help them move, or save their life.
Will Weaver of Philadelphia flew down from Baltimore, did most of the heavy lifting and masterminded the loading of my Budget rental truck in such away that the contents would not be crushed — at least I think so, we haven’t unpacked yet.
Three Baltimore friends showed up to help load, including the couple who, as they have before, let us stay at their home, which they occupy with a Boston terrier named Darcy. They even saved us a space to park the truck on the street in front of their house.
All the shows of friendship gave me second thoughts about departing the city — even if it’s only temporary. And as for Ace, he was thrilled to visit, reconnect and suck in the smells of Riverside Park. Despite his herniated disc, he frolicked as he hasn’t frolicked for at least two weeks.
But just as we when we left Baltimore 11 months ago to start our journey, the city made leaving a little easier, slapping a parking ticket on my rental truck sometime during the night. Though it was otherwise parked legally, apparently “commercial” vehicles aren’t allowed on the street. Cost of the ticket: $250, almost as much as the truck rental.
The ticket was one of only two moving mishaps (so far). The other was when I stopped at my ex-girlfriend’s home (the real one, not the cardboard one). I was picking up a few items I left in her care, and Will and I grabbed lunch to go at the eatery across the street. We sat at her picnic table to eat, and, just after I took my last bite — as if it somehow that last swallow of cheeseburger put me over the limit — the legs on the bench cracked, sending me falling over backwards.
I was fine. The bench is not.
As for the cardboard girlfriend, I passed her on to another male friend, leaving her on his doorstep.
Yesterday, we pulled out of Baltimore in the rain, and arrived seven hours later in Winston-Salem, also in the rain.
That allowed us to put off unpacking until today. Instead, Will and I went out to eat at a Vietnamese restaurant, where we got soup in bowls bigger than my bathroom sink. I, the ever-frugal one, got what remained of mine packaged to go.
As we walked back to my car (which thankfully had no parking ticket this time), a large man approached me and said he wanted to shake my hand.
His story, as they always do, followed: Just got out of jail three hours ago, trying to raise $14 for a cab ride to his aunt’s house, already had $10, needed $4 more.
I informed him that, with his $10, he was in possession of more cash than me, but — feeling his pain and smelling his breath, and realizing I should probably stay on his good side – I offered up what I had.
“How about some soup?”
Being new to town, and not having my protector, Ace, with me, I figured it was better to make a new acquaintance than to have soup tomorrow.
For me, the choice was simple: Friend or Pho.
Posted by jwoestendiek April 13th, 2011 under Muttsblog.
Tags: ace, america, animals, begging, budget, dogs, friends, frugality, move, moving, north carolina, panhandlers, pets, pho, rental, road trip, soup, travel, traveling with dogs, travels with ace, trip, truck, vietnamese, winston-salem