And the Very First Copy of The Joyful Bear goes to…

Juanita poses with Frankie and the first copy of The Joyful Bear

Juanita with Frankie

This is my brother’s best friend, Juanita. The two of them have been buddies for many years, and Hank serves as a guide for Juanita when they go out to restaurants and events. Technically, this is called, “the blind leading the blind.”

Juanita came up to Hank’s apartment to see me when I got to Columbus. Ever-curious and full of questions, she asked if she could feel my new book, which she cannot see. Little did she know that Frank Lloyd Bear was waiting for such a request. He jumped into her arms and gave her a big, furry bear hug, because you don’t need sight or hearing to appreciate a teddy bear.

To Frankie’s surprise, Juanita asked if she could buy a copy of The Joyful Bear. She planned to give it to her sighted friend, Jane, who helps her out a great deal. We are honored by her request, so Jane gets The Very First Copy, courtesy of Juanita.

 

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

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.

Florida Keys Book Tour

Here I go! Tomorrow morning, I leave for the Keys, via Miami!

The drive of six hours is a breeze,
Then I’ll be in the wonderful Keys,
Where I’ll whip out my pen,
Signing books once again,
For the readers who say “pretty-please.”

Here are the dates of this week’s appearances:

  • December 29, 5 pm: Key West Island Books
  • December 30, 3 pm: Key West Library
  • December 31, 11 am: Hooked on Books, Islamorada

Key West book tour poster

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.

Don’t fear this stranger’s candy

Now that I’m back in Vero Beach, Florida for the winter, I’m reading the Indian River Press-Journal again. Earlier this year, Larry Reisman wrote an article about me, and they ran it right on the front page (admittedly, it was below the fold). It’s a fun read — so in case you missed it, here’s the link:
Laurence Reisman: Don’t fear this stranger’s candy (from tcpalm.com)

I love the photo he published with me and Philip’s “Strangers Have the Best Candy” t-shirt.

Meps with Strangers Have the Best Candy shirt (photo by Laurence Reisman)

Illustrating The Joyful Bear

I’ve rented an office and art studio in Vero Beach, Florida, and I’m making progress on the illustrations for The Joyful Bear. Surprisingly, I’m having to work from photographs.

“It’s not that I can’t sit still for my portrait,” Frankie says, “but I don’t want that messy charcoal stuff on my fur.”

Frankie the Bear

Hugs! From the Joyful Bear.