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.

Frankie makes new friends

Frankie, the Joyful Bear, has been traveling and meeting new people all across the U.S. Here are some of his new friends and fans, beginning with old and new friends who came to our presentation at The Book Loft of German Village. If you’ve never been to The Book Loft, it has 32 rooms and is one of the most unusual (and non-ADA-compliant) bookstores in the world. The books are neat and tidy, but the architecture is downright higglety-pigglety!

After his visit to central Ohio, Frankie boarded an Amtrak train (watch the video!) in Cincinnati and rode for four days to Eugene, Oregon, enjoying the scenery and capturing hearts along the way. He was extremely impressed with fellow author Tamara Boyens, whom we met in the observation car of the Coast Starlight. A Ph.D. student in Tucson, she publishes dystopian novels in her spare time.

Because nice matters

On April 19, the city of Vero Beach issued a certificate recognizing Mike Williams, aka “Mr. Smoke’s,” for his contributions to the community and 35 years in his current location. His customers marveled at the irony: This was the very same business that both the city and the state fought to shut down in the 1980’s.

How did Mike go from being anathema to award-winner? He never gave up. More importantly, he never became bitter. He kept going, and he kept smiling.

Last year, I attended his 34th anniversary party and wrote about his customers in a piece entitled “A good guy, always happy.” This year, mayor Jay Kramer showed up to congratulate Mike and receive the first t-shirt. Other than that, the event was just like last year’s — a small-town gathering with live music and happy, smiling people hugging each other. As the sticker on Mike’s sales counter says, “Because nice matters.”

If you were featured in one of the photos below, please let me know if you’d like your name added to the caption!

I’m gonna fax a Polaroid

It only took me 30 minutes at the St. Vincent dePaul Thrift Store to find all the components of a pirate wench costume: The multi-layer skirts and blouses, the gold belt, the red headscarf. By 10:30 am, I stood in line to pay for my armful of colorful finds.

There were a few people behind me and a few ahead of me, and there was only one cashier. He was an older gentleman, and judging by his careful, methodical handling of each sale, probably a volunteer.

While we waited, I noticed that the young couple in front of me was buying a Battleship game.

“That looks like fun!” I said to them. “I bet I know what you’ll be doing today.”

The young woman’s face lit up. “It’s in great condition! We checked, and all the pieces are there.”

“You’ll have to post a picture of yourselves playing, like that.” I pointed at the box, which featured two excited children sitting across from each other, separated by the plastic stand-up Battleship board.

It was a scene from the 1970’s that I remembered well. But the young couple didn’t look old enough to remember the 70’s.

“I’m going to take a Polaroid and fax it to all my friends,” quipped the man. “And then I’m going to call them on my land line to make sure they got it.” The way the two of them laughed, I knew neither of them had a land line.

“I know what you mean,” I said. “I called my Dad the other day, and he had left his phone off the hook. I’d forgotten what a busy signal sounds like!”

When it was their turn, they set the box on the counter. As the cashier searched for the price sticker, I suddenly flashed back to 1993, and I said to him, “However much it is, could you just add it to my stuff?”

“Huh? It’s two dollars,” he said, entering it into the cash register. “Two fifty-one, with tax.”

The young woman protested briefly, but I said, “I’d just like to enjoy the thought of you playing Battleship.” I gave her a little hug and shooed the two of them out the door with their prize.

The cashier finished totaling up my pirate outfit, and as I paid for everything, he said, “That was a nice thing you did.”

I explained my 1993 flashback. “When I was their age, I had the exact same thing happen to me. My husband and I found a Scrabble game in a thrift store, with every single one of the pieces. And when we went to pay for it, guess what? A complete stranger insisted on buying it for us.”

I’d forgotten about it, but 23 years later, it’s making me smile. So is the thought of two young people, somewhere in Vero Beach, saying, “Heyyyy! You sank my battleship!”

Battleship box

Doing the Christmas wave

This Christmas was a very busy time for me — hosting visitors, wrapping gifts, cooking homemade food, and preparing for the Strangers Have the Best Candy Florida Keys book tour. I was running nonstop, somewhere between frantic and frenetic.

Finally, on Christmas morning, after I dropped my father and brother at the Catholic church, I had a rare treat: 15 whole minutes to myself.

I drove to Riverside Park in Vero Beach, where I thought I might walk along the river or just sit and look at the water. That all changed when I drove into the park and saw two young women in shorts holding cardboard signs. From a distance, they looked like hitchhikers at Burning Man! But up close, I could read the signs, which said “Free Christmas Breakfast.”

I rolled down my window. “Who’s sponsoring the breakfast?” I asked. They told me that it was a group from King’s Baptist Church, and they pointed up the road to a picnic shelter where they would be serving until 10:30. I glanced at the clock on my dashboard. It was 10:25.

All I hoped for was a good cup of coffee, but the friendly young group had much more than that. They had a huge grill and enough pancakes and eggs and pastries and orange juice for all of Vero Beach. They had excellent coffee.

They sat me down and treated me as an honored guest, and we talked about my favorite subject, talking to strangers. The conversation flowed along to a fun related topic, waving at strangers. On this sunny Christmas morning beside the river, no one was in a hurry to leave at 10:30, and I stayed past my planned 15 minutes.

I don’t remember all seven of their names, but thanks to this photo, I do remember their joyful faces. Here is how we celebrate Christmas in Florida: Out in the sunshine, smiling and waving at all of you.

7 new friends waving

Waving for the camera on Christmas morning

Love Wins

Love Wins.A while back, a dear friend of mine in Vero Beach gave me a ride in her new car. Right over the glove compartment, in front of the passenger seat, was a boldface black-and-white bumper sticker that said “Love Wins.” “What’s that?” I asked.

She told me about a church, about a mile south of my Dad’s house, that welcomed absolutely everybody, no matter what their ethnicity, sexual orientation, or beliefs. On their website, I read:

“We extend a special welcome to those who are single, married, divorced, gay, filthy rich, dirt poor, yo no habla Ingles. We extend a special welcome to those who are crying newborns, skinny as a rail or could afford to lose a few pounds. We welcome you if you can sing like Andrea Bocelli or like our pastor who can’t carry a tune in a bucket. You’re welcome here if you’re “just browsing,” just woke up, or just got out of jail. We don’t care if you’re more Christian than Mother Theresa, or haven’t been in church since little Joey’s Baptism. We extend a special welcome to those who are over 60 but not grown up yet, and to teenagers who are growing up too fast. We welcome soccer moms, NASCAR dads, starving artists, tree-huggers, latte-sippers, vegetarians, junk-food eaters. We welcome those who are in recovery or still addicted. We welcome you if you’re having problems or you’re down in the dumps or if you don’t like “organized religion,” we’ve been there, too. If you blew all your offering money at the dog track, you’re welcome here. We offer a special welcome to those who think the earth is flat, work too hard, don’t work, can’t spell, or because grandma is in town and wanted to go to church. We welcome those who are inked, pierced, or both. We offer a special welcome to those who could use a prayer right now, had religion shoved down your throat as a kid, or got lost in traffic and wound up here by mistake. We welcome tourists, seekers and doubters, bleeding hearts… and you!”

The Love Wins Church

The Love Wins Church

I asked my friend to take me, but I was shocked when she pulled into the parking lot. It was a nondescript blue church with a sign that said “Pioneer Baptist Church.” Although I am comfortable sailing acoss oceans and riding with gun-toting South Dakota strangers, I nearly chickened out at the door. I have only been inside a Baptist church once, and that was to cadge a free Thanksgiving dinner.

That week, when I heard the message of pastor Todd Holden, I was amazed. This Baptist preacher’s message was simple: If we set aside our own judgement and love each other, we are doing it right.

I went to the church three times in March, listening intently when Todd spoke. I left Florida just after Easter with a lot to think about. When I came back in November, I went to his church three more times.

On my sixth visit to church, before the service, Todd announced that he was stepping down as pastor. It wasn’t a surprise; attendance was dwindling. That morning, he told us that he would give only two more sermons. The first would repeat the very first sermon he gave at Pioneer Baptist in 2002, introducing his theology. The second, his final sermon, would sum up his entire theology for the congregation.

In that first sermon, he talked about seeking God and finding him where we least expect him. It was a great message to give when he and his congregation embarked on their 13-year journey together. Since it was Advent, it also aligned with the story of the three wise men. At the end, he reminded us that the following week, he would give a sermon that would sum up his entire theology. He emphasized that several times.

Last Sunday, on the day of Todd’s last sermon, I sat alone in the middle of the front row. I placed my phone on the seat next to me.

Heather, his wife, led several Christmas hymns on her guitar, interspersed with three Bible readings. All were very clear, powerful messages from Jesus about loving each other.

Then Todd got up to speak. I quietly turned on my phone’s voice recorder, thinking I might like to listen to his words in the future, perhaps on one of my long drives across the country. Heather had also set up a camera on a tripod.

He stood there and simply looked at us, the ragtag remnants of a much larger congregation. He didn’t speak immediately, and I thought it was because he was too emotional.

Then he took a deep breath, and he said, “Love one another.”

Todd sat down.

Those three words were his last sermon, the one that would sum up his entire theology.

I sat in disbelief, and finally, I reached over and turned off my voice recorder. I don’t know if I’ll ever go to church again. I don’t think I need to. I have already memorized the most powerful, inspiring sermon ever given in a Baptist church.

Tony and Meps

My friend Tony and I had never felt as welcome as we did at this little blue church. We took this photo on our last visit.

The girl with the bang

Meps with a pink and purple stuffed snake

The giant snake called out, “Meps!”

For the past six weeks, I’ve been living in Vero Beach, Florida, focused on art, writing, and family. But I still want to have a social life. How do you launch a social life in a small town that rolls up the sidewalks at 9 pm?

My answer is, with a bang.

According to Wikipedia (not the best source, but it will do for now), the exclamation point has been called, in the printing world, a “screamer,” a “gasper,” a “slammer,” or a “startler.” The term that is most familiar to me, from hacker culture, is a “bang.” What I have discovered in Vero Beach is that my name is not “Meps.” It’s Meps-bang.

My forays out on the town started with Meetup.com, where I joined a group called the “Vero Beach Babyboomers Singles.” I’m only marginally a Baby Boomer, since I was born the same year the Beatles made their debut on the Ed Sullivan Show. But I figured that worst case, the members of the group would treat me like a pesky little sister.

The Boomers were “meeting up” to go dancing on Halloween. A little nervous, I dressed up and drove to The Patio, a restaurant I had noticed but never patronized. When I walked in the door, a voice sang out “It’s Meps!” I had expected to be anonymous, but it was not to be. I was noticed and made very welcome by Chris, the organizer.

Two days later, on a Sunday morning, I walked into a tiny church I had discovered earlier this year, the “Love Wins” church that welcomes absolutely everybody. I opened the door, and Todd, who has become a friend of mine on Facebook, greeted me enthusiastically. “Glad to have you back, Meps!”

It was time to rejoin Linda Graham’s yoga class at the Vero Beach Athletic Club. They’d moved, and I had some trouble finding the new location. So I was about five minutes late, but when I walked in the door, Linda announced to the entire class, “Hey, everybody, it’s Meps!”

I was starting to see advantages to being the only Meps in town.

This past weekend, I went to my first Toastmasters Club meeting in Palm Bay, a group called The Florida International Talkers. I loved the friendly group full of excellent communicators, but I wanted to see what was available closer to home. On Tuesday, I drove to another Toastmasters Club, just up the street from the house.

I was about five minutes late, and I took a slightly nervous breath before walking into the room full of strangers. From across the room came a loud and clear, “Hi, Meps!” It was Becky, whom I’d met at the Sunday meeting, 50 miles up the road.

So far, there was only one exception to “Meps!” That was at the Zumba studio, where they already have plenty of exclamation points. “Your name is “Meps,” right?” I just smiled and nodded.

One of these days, I’ll set them straight. Bang.

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

Victory Through Dog Power

Making a BBQ Dog

Chuck seasons a BBQ Dog on the grill. The whole time we are talking, he never stops cooking.

Chuck Reeder, of Medford, Oregon, is a believer in street carts. “But I’m a hot-dog cart killer.” He says eight of his competitors have gone out of business since he started Victory Dogs in 2012. While we are talking, he’s taken orders from the three customers behind me, and he’s busily grilling three split hot dogs and a raft of bacon while he prepares the buns for their BLT, BBQ Beef, and Pizza Dogs.

The basis for every item on the 50-item menu is the grilled bacon dog. “It’s taken a while for some folks to come around to the idea of putting meat as a topping on hot dogs,” he says, telling me that the pastrami dog is his personal favorite. It is also his customers’ favorite, along with the Philly and the Pulled Pork dog.

Chuck Reeder cooking hots dogs on his grill

Chuck mans the grill as the noonday line forms.

“What makes the Philly great is plenty of black pepper.” Chuck holds up a very large pepper shaker. “This country was founded on spices. People would have killed for this much pepper.” He points to the matching salt shaker. “This much salt? I would have been a rich man.”

Chuck doesn’t cater to low-salt diets. ‘You know what I say about special diets? I don’t care.” He laughs. “There are plenty of other places for them to eat.”

Condiments at Victory Dogs

The 50-item menu features 35 unique condiments.

It’s noon, and he’s continuing to take orders three at a time, deftly setting out ingredients on his counter, running the grill, assembling the finished products, and taking payments. A regular stops by, and counter to his statement about special diets, Chuck prepares a bunless omelette dog, with ham, sausage, bacon, and two eggs on a bun-shaped piece of fried cheese. “He’s my protein guy,” he tells me.

It’s hard to believe that the mobile street cart, at the corner of 8th and Central, can hold all the ingredients needed to fill the menu, which includes a Mexican-inspired Walking Taco Dog, a Greek-inspired Gyro Dog, and a Curry Dog, which has yellow curry sauce with coconut milk. The Meatapocalypse lists nine types of meat, plus the hot dog and three cheeses, and is served on three buns. Chuck explains, “Most restaurants try to keep to a 28 percent food cost, but my food cost is about 45 percent.”

BBQ Dog

The BBQ Dog, loaded with garlic and BBQ sauce

I had never eaten at a hot dog cart before I found Chuck’s grilled bacon dogs. When I was a little girl, my Dad took me to New York City, where they are everywhere. I wanted him to buy me one, but he refused, saying, “They drop hot dogs in the street, and then they pick them up and sell them to unsuspecting customers.”

But the first time I stopped at Victory Dogs, I recognized that this was no ordinary hot dog cart. I was so captivated by Chuck’s professional operation, I didn’t realize he’d only been open for a couple of weeks. Each time I drive from Eugene to California, I look forward to visiting with him, even if I’m not hungry. He’s charming.

Customer with Pizza Dog

Customer with a Pizza Dog

San Leandro is still six hours away. and it’s time for me to get back on the interstate. I order a Philly Dog, which comes in a tidy yellow paper wrapper. As I’m sinking my teeth into the peppery combination, Chuck asks, “How do you like it?” All I can do with my mouth full is grin and give him a thumbs-up.

I like it, a lot. Most of all, I like Chuck’s sense of humor and the way he treats his customers. He calls his business “Medford’s only destination hot dog stand.” I call it hot dog art. Chuck’s putting Medford, Oregon, on the map, one grilled bacon dog at a time.

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