Showering at 70 mph

I was riding the California Zephyr, an Amtrak train that goes from Chicago to Emeryville, California, when I got a song stuck in my head:

“I bet there’s rich folks eatin’ in a fancy dining car,
They’re probably drinking coffee, and smoking big cigars.”

That’s from Folsom Prison, Johnny Cash’s song about a man in prison watching a train go by. When it got stuck in my head, I hadn’t noticed that I was only a few miles from Folsom Prison, in central California.

Anyway, after three days on the train, I’d like to set the record straight about those two lines.

Donner Lake

Frankie looks out at Donner Lake

Trains are full of hundreds of people (and teddy bears) with nothing to do but look out the window. You might keep that in mind the next time you think about peeing beside the railroad tracks. I’ve seen seven deer, three hawks, one sandhill crane, and two men peeing.

On the other side of the equation, people notice passenger trains, and sometimes, they wave. I saw kids waving from the front porch of their house, as well as fishermen and rafters waving from the Colorado river. “What, nobody mooned you?” asked a woman I met in the dining car. Evidently, mooning is not unheard of.

For the first leg of my trip, from Cincinnati to Chicago, I sat in the section called “Coach.” Every seat was full, and people lurched up and down the aisle all night long, back and forth the bathrooms. I dozed, but I didn’t sleep well.

In Chicago, I discovered the Metropolitan Lounge, a sparkling, brand-new facility just for first-class passengers. I was eligible, because I had booked a sleeper car for the middle portion of my trip. Suddenly, I had access to free sandwiches, wine, coffee, and deep, comfortable seats.

I had arrived in “First Class.”

When it was time to board the train, the first class passengers were whisked onto the last three cars, the ones behind the dining and observation cars. Sleeper cars are always very quiet, compared to coach. People speak in hushed voices, and the loudest sound is the flushing of the vaccuum toilets. The sound of the whistle is very faint, and even the tracks are super-quiet, unless we are going across a switch, which makes the wheels clatter, or around a bend, which makes them squeal.

Meps in the bathroom

I didn’t take photos in the shower. But here’s one from the bathroom.

One of the first things I did when the California Zephyr departed from Chicago was take a shower. There is absolutely nothing special about a shower on Amtrak; it’s a standard little stall with a stack of bath towels and soaps. But I was traveling at 70 mph while I did it.

Then I got cozy in my private “roomette,” which I only had to share with two teddy bears. I hung up a couple of jackets, set my books and notebooks on the shelves (which are also the steps to the upper bunk), and plugged in my laptop. At 7:00, I went to dinner in the dining car, sharing a booth with three strangers. We all ordered the exact same steak.

Fortunately for my dining companions, there were no tunnels during any of my meals. Whenever we went through a tunnel, I was in my private room, and I kissed my teddy bear. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, go read Strangers Have the Best Candy.

To return to the Johnny Cash song, the folks in the dining car were not rich folks. We were just average people from all over the world — librarians, retired postal workers, families on summer vacation. Some of us drank coffee, like the song, and some drank tea, wine, juice, or soda. We had our choice of steak, chicken, seafood, or vegetarian entrees. For desert, chocolate mousse was the favorite, but there was strawberry cheesecake, ice cream, and sugar-free vanilla pudding.

Charleen

Best service ever!

Unlike the dining cars of old, we did not have custom china, only plastic dishes. But some of the flatware had an Amtrak logo stamped into the handle. Most importantly, my meals featured a fantastic server named Charleen, an efficient woman with a twinkle in her eye and an encyclopedic memory of everyone’s beverage preferences.

Absolutely no one on the entire train was smoking a big cigar, because we’d been warned that if anyone was caught smoking, they would be thrown off the train. Furthermore, we were told over the loudspeaker, if anyone tried to smoke in the bathroom, all the bathrooms would be locked for the duration of the trip.

For two nights, I had my choice between the top and bottom bunks, and I divided my time between them. Last night, the Big Dipper was hanging over my window, as big as I’ve ever seen it, so I moved to the lower bunk to enjoy the view. There was nothing else to see outside my window until first light, when we left the Bonneville salt flats, crossed the Nevada state line, and passed Winnemucca. The riotous lights of the casinos left after-images on my retinas.

If you see an Amtrak train going by, be sure to wave. Even though it seems like another world aboard the train, we do see you. Some of us are waving back, or else we are mooning you. With the tinted windows, you’ll never know which.

 

Happy Chickie-Bunny Day!

Do you know that today is a holiday? It’s Chickie-Bunny Day!

Flowers and basket

Important components for celebrating Chickie-Bunny Day. (flower arrangement by Linda Caruso)

This important holiday falls on the first Saturday after the first Sunday after the first ecclesiastical full moon that occurs on or after the day of the vernal equinox. In other words, it’s the Saturday after Easter.

I invented it several decades ago, when I saw how drastically stores marked down  candy in the days after Easter had passed. I would buy chocolate and jelly beans (my favorite!) at 50%, 75%, and even 90% off, and by the end of the week, I would have enough for a giant basket.

Saving it for Chickie-Bunny Day, when I could share it, kept me from simply gobbling up the sugar every time I found a good deal.

Now that I eat less sugar, I still celebrate, but differently. Chickie-Bunny Day is my excuse to revel in the sheer silliness of commercial Easter. What do plastic eggs and stuffed bunnies have to do with death and resurrection? There were no jelly beans at the Last Supper, and Jesus’s shroud was not pink and fluffy.

It makes sense to move those traditions to Chickie-Bunny Day, and let Easter be Easter. The traditionalists can keep the ham.

~~~

I told the world about Chickie-Bunny Day ten years ago, on the Adventures of Meps’n’Barry. I’m still not sure what to say about semi-nude jelly wrestling.

 

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

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.

Does the bear have a name?

This past Sunday, my friend, Jeanie, and I were sitting at a picnic table, enjoying beautiful weather and laughing a lot. We were in Young’s Park, a riverfront park in Vero Beach, Florida.

Sonya with Love Live bear

Sonya with the LOVE LIFE bear, at Steve Fugate’s starting point

She had the view of the water: “Ooh! Look! A dolphin!” I turned around to see.

I had the view of the parking lot: “Ooh! Look! A giant teddy bear!” She turned around to see.

A woman strode across the grass, carrying a 3-foot tall teddy bear. He wore glasses and a hat, a t-shirt with a slogan, and a Hawaiian shirt. Like most bears, he wasn’t wearing pants.

She set him down next to a tree and went back to her car. She and a second woman put a sign that said “LOVE LIFE” next to the bear. They started taking photographs of each other with the bear.

“That reminds me of the Happy Spot sign,” I told Jeanie. “What do you suppose it’s about?”

“I’m waiting for you to go over there and find out,” said Jeanie.

“Me? Why me?” She smirked, and that started me laughing again.

They’d moved the bear closer to the river, and now other people were stopping to ask curious questions.

I took my time, finishing my sandwich, and when I got up, Jeannie muttered, “Finally.” We walked over, and I asked, “Does the bear have a name?”

“He’s the Love Life bear,” they told us. Then they told us about Steve Fugate.

Two years ago, Steve left this very spot in Young’s Park in Vero Beach, Florida, walking a zig-zag route around the US with a sign on his head reading “LOVE LIFE.”

It was not the first time Steve walked across the country, raising awareness about suicide. It was the seventh.

Steve lost his son, Stevie, to suicide, and his daughter Shelly, a few years later. His website says that he is inspired to share the love he would otherwise be sharing with his children with the people he meets. To do this, he has walked 34,000 miles, giving love and encouragement to the people he meets along the way.

To say that Steve Fugate is an expert in talking to strangers would be an understatement. Steve Fugate has literally saved the lives of countless strangers.

Sonya and Carol

Sonya and Carol, sitting on Dad’s park bench

But this post isn’t really about Steve. It’s about Sonya and Carol, his extraordinary friends.

Ardent supporters of Steve’s mission, the two of them do all kinds of behind-the-scenes work. Fundraising, social media, encouragement, sending care packages — they are two of many people who make LOVE LIFE possible. The previous day, they helped put on the second annual Love Life Walk Celebration. Dozens of people gathered, wearing LOVE LIFE t-shirts and carrying signs. Pointing to the 65-foot Barber Bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway, Carol said, “We walked over the bridge together.”

When we met them, they were celebrating Steve’s second anniversary on the road with pictures of the LOVE LIFE bear, in his Hawaiian shirt, at Steve’s starting point. It’s a reminder of the point where he will eventually return, and the fact that his LOVE LIFE family is there.

Meps with the LOVE LIFE bear

Meps with the LOVE LIFE bear

By strange coincidence, that spot is significant to me. In 2011, after my brother, also named Stevie, died in a tragic incident, my husband and I stayed in Vero Beach as long as we could. Finally, we set sail northbound on Flutterby. The morning we left, my Dad stood at the precise spot in Young’s Park where the LOVE LIFE bear did. He waved until we were out of sight, unable to see the tears streaming down my face. My Dad always loves life and inspires me to do the same.

Steve Fugate’s valuable LOVE LIFE message is heard much farther afield than his two feet will carry him. Sonya and Carol — and you and I — are making sure of that.
~~~
You can read more about LOVE LIFE on Facebook and on the web. There’s a short documentary film on Vimeo.

Crossing the Do-Nut Belt

On January 27, I was driving from Dallas, Texas to St. Marys, Georgia on backroads. I collected all the funny bits for my sister, as a belated birthday present.

Junk-food Mardi Gras cape

All hail the Krewe of Junk Food

The Gulf coast visitor’s center had a display of sequined Mardi Gras finery. My favorite was the one featuring hot dogs, hamburgers, and popcorn containers.

In one small town: “Not Your Mother’s Tavern”
In another: “Mom’s Bar”
In a third: “Mother Clucker’s.”

Baton Rouge has a place called “Schlitz & Giggles: Silly Name. Serious Pizza.”

I usually get a kick out of church signs. When I did a Google search, I realized many of them are not original. The fact that they come from sayingsforchurchsigns.com, rather than from God himself, takes the fun out of it.

Donuts. Did you know the US has a Do-Nut Belt? Shipley’s Do-Nuts says it’s Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas and Tennessee. As I drove, I noted dozens of hole-in-the-wall places with no pretentious hyphen in “donut”: Dee Dee Donuts, the Donut Palace, Donut King, and my personal favorite, the Texas Donut Ranch.

I didn’t succumb to either donuts or Do-Nuts.

But it was touch-and-go when I saw a roadside sign saying “Original Homemade Sausage Jalapeño Cheese Bread, one mile,” with an arrow pointing left. I will always regret not stopping.

I will never regret stopping at Ozzy’s. I got love in a takeout container.

Strangers Have the Best Candy at the Russell Stover factory

Strangers Have the Best Candy at the Russell Stover factory

Dick took my picture at the Russell Stover Factory. I know you’ll roll your eyes at this. That’s why I didn’t buy you any.

There was a big green interstate sign for Baptist Pumpkin Center. Without punctuation, I have no idea what that means. Where is the Methodist Pumpkin Center? And the Buddhist Pumpkin Center?

Next Left: Dead Man Road. Followed by a smaller sign saying “Cemetery.” Dunno who else would want to live there.

On any given day, along Interstate 10, thousands of people see the memorials to Buddy, Amanda, Ben, Brian, Wesley, and the Dobbins family. Their descansoes, or roadside memorials, feature lettering large enough to read at 75 mph.

At a slightly slower speed, I drove for five minutes past acres and acres of stored FEMA trailers. In the past decade, they have been replaced by manufactured homes, and there are many businesses that thrive on such things: “House Moving, Lifting, and Leveling.” Fueled by donuts, no doubt.

Speaking of housing, did you know you can buy a whole acre of residential beachfront property in Pascagoula for only $159,000?

Wal-Mart with waterfront view

Looking north, looking south

Just down the road is the most incredible view I’ve ever seen from a Wal-Mart.

Another pretentious sign: “Mississippi Gulf Coast: A Certified Retirement Community.” Certified by whom? Evidently, I’m not the only one to ask that question. Even the Wall Street Journal has a sense of humor about such things as ticks, chiggers and snakes.

One last comment: Even if Cretin Homes is named after the company’s owner, I’d change it.