Why I still march: 2017

Al, Nancy, and Pat, who met at the parade over a decade ago. Old-timers from Clearwater, they loved talking about what it was like in the “old days.”

There’s a chapter in Strangers Have the Best Candy entitled “In or out? The dilemma of every parade.” Although I marched in the Brunswick MLK Day parade a couple of years ago, this year, I chose to be on the sidewalk, photographing marchers in the Clearwater, Florida MLK Day parade. By sharing my pictures and stories, I am making their voices heard.

Al, Pat, and Nancy are three old-timers who met on a corner, watching the parade, 12 years ago. Every year since then, they look forward to meeting on the same corner and watching the parade. I listened to them talking about the way things used to be, here in Clearwater. In the 1950’s, Al was going to an all-black school near downtown Clearwater. Then the schools were integrated, and he went to Kennedy School, to the north, for the rest of his education. Nancy, who is white, sent her children to that same school.

On MLK Day, we can celebrate our accomplishments for equality, but we must not forget that there is still work to be done. We must not become complacent.

This Saturday, I’ll have my camera with me at the Women’s March in Washington D.C. I won’t stand for anything less than equality for women, the disabled, people of color, and the LGBTQ community.

Two years ago, I marched in a Martin Luther King Day parade in Brunswick, Georgia, surrounded by African-Americans who are still fighting for their rights. You can find the photos, along with the article “Why I still march” on my former blog, mepsnbarry.com.

Why I still march

This is a reprint of an article published on Martin Luther King Day 2015. One year later, it is still timely and worthy of sharing.
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In July 1963, there were riots in Savannah, Georgia. A large headline in the Savannah Morning News read, “Rioting Negroes Stone Cars, Set Fires, Smash Windows.” Several stories were run under the headline about property damage during night marches that turned violent.

I wasn’t born yet, but I know that those front-page stories caused problems for my father, the executive editor of the newspaper. Decades later, he told me his publisher had called him on the carpet over it, saying, “Dammit, Schulte, why did you have to put that on the front page?”

Dad was defensive. “There were five thousand people marching in Savannah last night, and you don’t want me to publish the story? This is big news!”

The publisher continued fussing about the articles. “Next time, bury that in the back of the paper.”

The Civil Rights Act was passed a year later, and one would think that would solve the problems. But people are still marching, and the reason is still buried in the back of the paper. Why is that?

Broken window

A common sight in some parts of historic Brunswick

Where I’m living, in Brunswick, Georgia, the median income for a family is $28,564, and 25% of families are below the poverty line. The city’s racial makeup is 60% African-American and 36% white.

Contrast that with neighboring St. Simons island, where the racial makeup is 94% white. There, the median income for a family is $73,580. Only 2% of the families are below the poverty line.

When I first arrived in Brunswick, on my sailboat, Flutterby, the folks at the marina gave us a map of the town. They told us to walk a circuitous route from the marina to the Winn-Dixie grocery store, 2 miles away. “Why’s that?” I asked. “Oh, you know…MLK Boulevard runs through that section,” was the reply. It broke my heart to hear her tell cruising sailors, most of them white, not to even go into the black neighborhood.

Adams Market sign

The Latino grocery store nearest to the Brunswick Marina

I disregarded her advice, discovering charming houses and intriguing Hispanic grocery stores in that neighborhood. I also discovered a lot of abandoned shacks and lots full of weeds. I had some uncomfortable encounters. This was definitely a neighborhood whose residents struggled to survive.

I returned to the neighborhood this past Monday, on Martin Luther King Day. For the first time, I was marching in the MLK parade with a group of folks from the Unitarian church. The day was beautiful and the mood was buoyant.

At the staging area, I photographed the folks who were in the parade. But as we began marching down Gloucester Street and then turning onto MLK Boulevard, it was the people watching the parade who drew me. I began handing out Happy Spot cards, getting hugs and handshakes, and taking photos of the parade-goers.

Why do I march? I have mixed reasons. I love to celebrate the successes of the African-American community, a group of people whose rich ancestry predates my own on this continent. But I also march as a protest. The law may say otherwise, but inequality persists.

Parade-goers

Family watching the MLK-day parade in Brunswick, Georgia

The photos I took that day (see below) are full of happy people, but they bring tears of sadness to my eyes. Many of the houses behind the parade-goers are unpainted and unkempt, with bare dirt yards. These are people who live below the poverty line, because they don’t have the wealth of opportunities that I do. The economic figures and demographics are painfully clear. Being black and living in poverty often go hand-in-hand.

During the rest of the year, you won’t see any other parades going down these streets. Until they do, and until we have real equality, I’ll keep marching.

A girl jumps under my umbrella

On Monday, I returned from AfterBurn, a three-day event in Florida that’s similar to a small Burning Man. Here’s a little vignette from Sunday night. I didn’t have my camera at the time, but send me a message if you want to see the rest of the AfterBurn photographs!

Where it all happened

Where it all happened

At 9 pm, I’m holed up in a tiny tent, listening to the pouring rain and feeling sorry for myself. It’s the final evening of AfterBurn, and they are supposed to burn the temple at 9:30.

I doubt they’ll be burning anything in this downpour. But I hear music at the nearby Camp Funk Evolution, so people must still be having a good time.

“Hey!” I think. “I borrowed an umbrella!” I stick my big blue umbrella out through the rainfly and push the button. Shwoop! My head stays dry as I step out, right into a puddle the size of a small lake. Five seconds later, a lively woman I’ve never met before jumps under the umbrella and introduces herself as 9-Volt. “Where ya goin’?” I ask her. “Shangri La La. How about you?”

I tell her I’m going wherever she’s going, and we zig and zag across the property, find a tent with a DJ, and start dancing. A few minutes after we arrive, the DJ announces, “We’ve got a real treat for you tonight. Gather round here and watch this drummer.” Everybody crowds into the tent, but luck has placed me right in front.

What an experience! The drummer’s near-solo performance whips the crowd into an excited frenzy and leaves me shouting for more. Like Cinderella’s prince, I must find this man again! Luckily, with Facebook, it’s not hard: He’s Mike Gray, of the Screaming J‘s, and I’m his newest fan. That’s short for fanatic, you know.

Thank you, 9-Volt, for leading me there. Thank you, Jon Z, for posting your video of Mike’s performance. Thank you, Shangri La La, for creating the magical space. And thank you, Dad, for loaning me your blue umbrella.

Got a minute? Visit the Screaming J’s website, which has a couple of excellent videos and really captures the boogie-woogie piano. Then book your ticket to Vero Beach — they’re playing here on December 4!

Maddox Ranch, in Lakeland, Florida

Maddox Ranch, in Lakeland, Florida

You have to have a tent

I set out yesterday from Vero Beach in Bon-Bon, my Toyota Matrix. I packed everything I’d need for the drive to Seattle via Las Vegas, including a folding bicycle, an inflatable kayak, clothes, art supplies, and two boxes of Strangers Have the Best Candy. I also brought lots of pillows, three teddy bears, a brand-new Therm-a-Rest pad, a couple of blankets, and a sleeping bag. I can make a cushy blanket fort in the back of the car and sleep anywhere.

In the late afternoon, I saw a sign for Withlacoochee River Park. It seemed like a nice county park, about 5 miles off the highway. I circled the camping area, which was mostly empty, then followed the sign to the office.

A young park ranger was outside the building as I got out of my car. He greeted me with a smile and asked how he could help me. “Is this where I pay for a campsite?” I asked. “Yes, it is,” he told me. “What kind of site do you need?”

I shrugged. “It doesn’t particularly matter.”

“Do you have a tent?” he asked me.

When I said no, his smile disappeared. “You have to have a tent.”

I continued smiling. “I can just pay the RV rate,” I said. He looked at my car and shook his head. I couldn’t figure out how they could have a rule against sleeping in the car, but I was determined to figure out a way around it.

What if I put my sleeping bag on the ground next to the car? Nope. What if I rigged a tarp as a tent? Nope. What if we called it a Toyota Matrix RV? Nope. At that point, he suggested that I wait for his supervisor.

While I waited, I thought about telling them my tent was six feet tall, pink, and went by the name of Harvey. Unfortunately, the supervisor who appeared was much more humorless, so I stayed quiet about having an invisible tent.

Condescendingly, he showed me the written rules, which said that I had to have a “commercially-made, flame-retardant tent.” When I told him my car was a very small RV, he rolled his eyes. “That? No way.”

I just waited. Finally, he said, “If you insist, I will call my supervisor, even though it is after hours on a Saturday evening, and I will have to call him at home.”

I nodded and said, “Would you, please?” He picked up the phone and called his supervisor. “I am so sorry to bother you at home, after hours, on a Saturday, but there’s this lady here who wants to camp…” His tone spoke volumes. “And she doesn’t have a tent, and she’s just driving a car.”

The man on the other end of the line said something. Then he said, “That’s what I told her, but she insisted that I call my supervisor, after hours, on a Saturday, at home.” He hung up with a smirk.

I put on my most gracious smile and said, “Thank you very much,” then I turned and went out to my teeny-tiny RV and drove back out to the road.

I pulled out my phone and ran a search for nearby campgrounds, and a listing popped up just a few miles up the river. When I clicked on the Sawmill Camping Resort, the first thing I saw was the photo on the homepage. It featured three hot guys, two of them shirtless. This was not your every day campground. The list of amenities included a pool and several nightclubs. I read further, and found the statement “…the premier gay and lesbian community in the Southeast.”

I called to make sure they had a campsite for a person without a tent. No problem. I didn’t tell the woman I was straight.

In the camp store, the young woman took my credit card and gave me a wristband. “You do know this place is, um, alternative, right?” I just nodded.

When I asked where to set up camp, she wasn’t certain. “I’ve had this job for five days,” she told me, “and I actually haven’t been back there yet.” She was referring to the 120-acre community on the other side of the fence.

When I drove through the gate, I was unnerved to find that there were no other women “back there.” Just me and a few hundred guys of all ages, doing what everybody does on vacation: Relaxing. I stuck out like a sore thumb, but I felt completely safe.

More importantly, I felt completely welcome. As the FAQ said, in answer to the question, “Are Women allowed at Sawmill?” ”YES!  We are open to anyone who is open minded.”

It’s OK that I don’t have a tent. It’s OK that I’m not gay. Saturday’s curious turn of events reminded me that being surrounded by open-minded people is more important to me than anything else.

 

A good guy, always happy

Linda and Robert, mother and son, were the first to arrive, just after 5 am. They set up their chairs outside the door of Mr. Smoke’s Contemporary Department Store on Saturday morning and waited patiently for Mike Williams to open the doors at 9.

2015-03-21_0510-d90-2756They were accompanied by Robert’s daughter, Zoie, 6. Like many other children attending, Zoie was happy, outgoing, and had a balloon.

By 7:30, the diverse line stretched to the end of the block. People of all ages, colors, and ethnic groups were waiting together, chatting and greeting each other. The early arrivals had chairs; later groups stood.

It was a lot of effort for a free t-shirt.

Mike has been celebrating his store’s anniversary every year, because for the first several decades, he struggled to keep his doors open. It wasn’t for lack of customers. Vero Beach didn’t want a so-called “head shop” in town, especially across the street from the police station.

So while he fought the legal battles, he celebrated every year he managed to keep his unique store in business. Once a year, he designed a t-shirt to celebrate the milestone. He only printed 100 of each design, making them collectors’ items.

“We came to the first anniversary celebration,” said Linda, from her #2 place in line. She and Robert were both wearing shirts from previous years.

Not everyone wore their Mr. Smoke’s shirts. A man named Larry, who arrived in line at 7:30, said he had about 25 of them, but he never wore them. “I keep it in the bag. I collect t-shirts. I have over a thousand, concert shirts and stuff.”

Woody came out with two shirts

Woody came out with two shirts

Woody, who drove to Vero Beach from Cape Coral, lives aboard a sailboat. He has been coming to the event for 15 years and has 15 shirts. If you’ve ever lived aboard a boat, you know that’s a big storage space commitment.

“I’ve got every one. I’ve got one drawer in my dresser that’s nothing but his shirts,” said one of Mike’s friends, who was helping in the store. “I tell Mike, it’s my retirement package. When I get to number 50, I’ll put them on eBay.”

The store’s future is secure, with customers like Dace, Kristen, and Tay in line. They’re 21 and have been coming to the anniversaries for four years. “This store has history, and we know how much Mike went through for us,” said Kristen.

2015-03-21_0613-d90-2798Across from the waiting queue was a giant inflatable “bouncy house” for the kids. Girl Scouts were selling cookies, and a band called Station was doing sound-checks beside a tent where 99.7 Jack FM radio was broadcasting. Popcorn and balloons were everywhere.

At 9:00, Mike released a bunch of balloons, then unlocked the door. Everyone cheered.

“I’m taking the day off work for this,” said a woman named Kris. The man with her, Chris, said “I asked for the day off three weeks in advance. This is one day when you get to see people you don’t normally see.”

Thomas, in the middle, stayed up all night

Thomas, in the middle, stayed up all night

“I stayed up all night for this,” said Thomas, a daily customer of the store. “I couldn’t sleep!” It was his first year attending the anniversary celebration. Another enthusiast, Kenny, said. “It’s like Christmas!”

Zoie’s mother was about 15 places back from her ex-husband. She’d driven a couple of hours from Okeechobee for the event. “If I ever leave Florida, this will be the once-a-year event I’ll come back for.”

That level of enthusiasm is really about Mike. All morning long, people enthused about him. “A good guy, always happy.” “A good man.” “A sweetheart.” ‘An awesome person.” “He’s good to talk to about stuff.” “He gives back to the community.” “Why do I come? Pretty much, Mike.”

2015-03-21_0509-d90-2754Over and over, people used words like “welcoming” and “family” to describe Mike’s relationship with his customers. Linda said, “He treats everybody like family. We call him Uncle Mike.” Her son nodded, and a woman named Chasya chimed in, “You’re supporting a locally owned and operated store by someone who treats you like family. There’s nothing like this anywhere.”

2015-03-21_0633-d90-2813“It seems like I’ve known Mike all my life. When my friends come from out of town, I take them to see him. They just love him to death,” said Marsha. “I told him he ought to do this twice a year.”

Daniel, who lives a block from the store, said, “You never just go in and out. Sometimes, when I’m bored, I just come in and kick it with Mike. If they sold food, this would be my favorite store.”

At 9:14, a woman named Karen, who had never missed an anniversary, came out with her 34th t-shirt. “I don’t wear them, I hang them. I don’t want them to get dirty.”

2015-03-21_0659-d90-2831I finally went inside to see what was happening. Even though Mike had recently expanded, it’s not a big store. The customers were orderly and polite, the children well-behaved, as they browsed among the ultra-bright t-shirts.

Behind the counter, Mike handled sales, accompanied by his beaming sister, Vicky. The conscientious storekeeper wrapped fragile items and carefully made change as he talked and joked with his customers. The life of the party, he was doing 50 things at once without breaking a sweat.

“I want a hug,” he said to one woman. “That’s what it’s all about!” He shook hands with a tall man, then turned to his teenaged daughter, asking her, “How’s school, anyway? Getting good grades?” One customer asked him to autograph his t-shirt.

2015-03-21_0712-d90-2837

Mike Williams signs a t-shirt in Mr. Smoke’s

Mike told me that he gets emotional when he sees how many people support him. “This morning, I just had to cry before we opened the doors,” he admitted.

Watching Mike, it’s obvious why he has as many followers as the Dalai Lama. He loves people, and he is not afraid to let them know that.

“You guys make me so proud!” he announced. “Everybody should be Mr. Smoke one day in their life.”

The House With Two Front Doors

Double-barreled shotgun house in east Texas

Double-barreled shotgun house in east Texas

Long, narrow double-shotgun house

Long, narrow double-shotgun house

On a January backroads drive through eastern Texas and Louisiana, I noticed a funny, skinny, old clapboard house. What was funny was that it had two front doors, in the middle, side-by-side. Yet the house was barely 16 feet wide, and the door hinges were inches apart.

Once I’d noticed the first one, similar houses caught my eye every few minutes as I drove down the road. All of them seemed to be a certain vintage, maybe 100 years old, and the beat-up cars and overgrown landscaping around them spoke of poverty. I didn’t want to invade anyone’s privacy, but I desperately wanted a photograph.

Finally, I saw one with a “for sale” sign, so I made a u-turn and went back. Half of the porch roof had fallen down, and the lot was choked with weeds. I walked gingerly, afraid of turning an ankle or stepping on a snake, but made it to the concrete porch without incident. Peering in the windows, I could see that it was two narrow rooms wide and at least four rooms long.

Wrought-iron column

One wrought-iron column holds up what’s left of the porch

When I did some research, later, I found out that such houses have a name: Double-barreled shotgun houses.

A shotgun house is narrow, with no hallways, and the rooms are arranged one behind the next. Doors at the front and back allow the breeze to blow through, and architectural historians trace the design’s roots to Haiti and Africa. In the period between the Civil War and the 1920’s, it was the most common home built in the South.

As the nation became more prosperous, after World War II, shotgun houses became a symbol of poverty. Many were without indoor plumbing, or had a bathroom or kitchen tacked onto the back end. Without hallways, the rooms had no privacy from each other. Double-barreled shotgun houses were even lower on the social strata, crowding two families on one lot with a thin wall between them.

Abandoned chairs

Abandoned chairs rot on the front porch

Today, blogs and tweets about Tiny Houses and Tumbleweed Homes are as popular on the internet as kittens and puppies. I, too, yearn for simpler living in smaller spaces. Owning a one-hundred year-old House With Two Front Doors appeals to me, as an opportunity to turn off the air conditioning, sit on the front porch, and learn about community and tiny living at the same time.