I am glad to have worldwide acclaim,
In the self-published, dog-eat-dog game,
It’s my title, thank god,
That is prize-winning odd,
Not my writing, my looks, or my name.
I don’t know whether to be excited or embarrassed.
When The Bookseller announced that Strangers Have the Best Candy has received the Diagram Award for the Oddest Book Title of the Year, they said there was no cash award, just a “passable bottle of claret” awaiting me in London. However, their news release said that agents and publishers “are tipping it to be the ‘hot book’ at the forthcoming London Book Fair.” Is this an example of British humour (sic), or are they serious?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
They 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, 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.
Across 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.”
“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.”
Over 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.”
“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.”
I 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.
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.”
Don’t miss the rest of the photos!
Go to Meps’ blog at 1meps.com (and scroll to the bottom) for the rest of the happy, smiling photos from Mr. Smoke’s 34th Anniversary Party. Thanks!
Strangers Have the Best Candy relies
On its title to catch readers’ eyes,
Now the Guardians claim,
That it’s found worldwide fame,
And it might win the Diagram Prize.
I woke up on Saturday to a Google Alert, saying that my name had appeared in The Guardian. “This must be a mistake,” I thought, as I clicked on the link to one of the best-known online news sites in the world. To my surprise, the shortlist had been released for the Diagram Prize for the Oddest Book Title of 2015, and Strangers Have the Best Candy was one of the seven books!
According to The Bookseller, “The prize was open to self-published authors for the first time in its 37-year history, and the self-published Strangers Have the Best Candy by Margaret Meps Schulte (Choose Art) completes the shortlist.”
Being on the shortlist hasn’t translated into any sales or calls from publishing houses so far. Actually winning the prize might do the trick, so here’s my shameless request: Would you please go to the voting site and cast a vote for me? It will take less than a minute, if you use this link: https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/diagramprize2014.
After that, please share this and tell your friends you know a Diagram Prize nominee! Anybody who votes for me gets a hug and a piece of candy!
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
The photos I took that day 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.
In 2005, we traveled thousands of miles, aboard sailboats, ferries, buses, trains, canoes, and bicycles to reach the site of the claim that kicked of the 1897 Gold Rush. That Christmas, we compiled the breathtaking photos into our first calendar.
The following year, our travels were more mundane, but there were still enough incredible pictures for a calendar. Some family members began to treat these Meps’n’Barry calendars as collectors’ items.
We haven’t been able to distribute as many copies to our friends as we used to, but this will be my tenth year of designing a custom calendar with our photos. Here, for the first time, is a gallery of the images that make up the 2015 calendar.
If you’d like to purchase a calendar, drop me a note. I know it’s already late, but the year still has 11-1/2 months to enjoy!
Most of my phone conversations begin with, “Where are you?” Today, a good friend specifically asked, “What state are you in?”
I know she meant “Georgia.” But my answer was, “Contented.”
Last winter, I struggled in a remote boatyard without a car. When I finally left in April, I was constantly on the move, and I lived out of my suitcase. I stayed in dozens of places in 12 different states, and I never ceased rummaging.
I was perpetually wrinkled, except when Libby insisted on helping me with ironing. I had too many unmatched items, so I took them to a thrift store, where I replaced everything with black. But all suitcases have black interiors! I would unroll every shirt and jacket looking for one pair of pants.
I was terrified to unpack for two reasons. One was the fear of leaving something important behind. The other was the fear of offending my hosts by placing something of mine in their space.
On January 1, I spent the night on the boat with Barry, but it was too cramped for the three of us: Me, Barry, and Barry’s projects. On Saturday morning, I drove out of the boatyard with the intention of finding a short-term rental. Vacation rentals were super-expensive. Craigslist had some ads that were downright scary: “Free rent for female. Send photo.”
I sat in my car, wondering if a women’s shelter could refer me to a safe place. I didn’t know where to find a women’s shelter, so I went to an old, sad motel in on US17. Every car door and flushing toilet woke me, all night long.
I needed a little help from my friends, and I knew where to find most of them on a Sunday morning: At church.
If you know me, you probably just spit out your coffee in shock. Meps? In church?
My favorite church in the world is a tiny Unitarian Universalist congregation in Brunswick, Georgia, where we moored Flutterby for a month in 2012. Walking into the vestibule is like walking into a Happy Spot. I get lots of hugs and exuberant greetings. Sally keeps my old nametag, so I don’t feel like a visitor.
I made an announcement that I was looking for a place to stay, and by early afternoon, I had secured a peaceful room in an elegant townhouse. My housemates were a purring cat named Nell and a brilliant, funny Philadelphia native named Joanne.
That’s when I finally unpacked, setting my suitcase on the top shelf of the closet. I stood back and looked at the sparsely-filled closet and the empty bag with tears in my eyes. Even if it was only for a month or two, this was going to be my home. I could hear Joanne’s music from the living room; we had the same taste in blues and show tunes.
Joanne’s a fabulous cook and has an incredible art collection. We can talk about anything. Soon after I arrived, she told me she’d received an email from a local minister about an emergency homeless shelter that needed volunteers. “It’s supposed to be below freezing on Wednesday night,” she explained. “Count me in,” I told her.
The weather seemed too mild to warrant an emergency shelter when we drove downtown at 10 pm. In a room provided by the Methodist church, all but one of the homeless guests were asleep. There was a mountain of donated food and a huge pot of coffee.
To our surprise, a friend we hadn’t seen in a long time arrived for the same middle-of-the-night shift. We sat in the kitchen, catching up on each others’ news. The hours flew by.
Our conversation was accompanied by gusts of wind that literally shook the tiny building and rattled the windows. When it was time to leave, I stepped out into winter. The temperature had plummeted, and the wind chill made my eyes water. I cranked up the heat in the car.
In a state of gratitude, I crawled into my warm bed with my teddy bears and the purring cat. I was not just grateful for my circumstances, I was grateful for the chance to serve those ten cold and hungry men, whose sparse belongings were piled beneath their cots. I understand their plight all too well.
Barry’s grandmother, Loraine Gaspeny, passed away this week in Saginaw, Michigan. She has been a huge influence in our lives, and she was well-known to our friends, readers, and Margaret’s family. We’ve written a joint blog post to share a few memories and stories.
~ Barry: My grandmother, Loraine, lived 101 years on this planet. With so much life, I don’t know where to start remembering her. She lived over half her life before I was even born.
She lived independently, all the way through her last day in her apartment. If you asked me how I would want to spend my last day, doing my laundry would not be the first thing out of my mouth. I doubt she would have said so either. That she did her own laundry speaks of her strength and independence. I can only hope to have as much.
My sister and I called our grandfather by an interesting merger of Italian and American titles that he chose for us, “Grandnono.” But I always called my grandmother “Grandma.”
Meps: When I met Barry, 26 years ago, I didn’t have grandparents. Three had died before I could remember them, and one lived just long enough to give me an impression of grumpiness. Barry’s grandparents were more fun and spontaneous than any I’d ever known. I first met them when they drove all the way from Florida to Ohio to surprise Barry’s Mom on her 50th birthday.
Barry: I remember their beach house in Au Gres, Michigan, on Lake Huron. I just thought of it as my grandparent’s house at the time. I didn’t think of it as their retirement dream home. The whole family went fishing in their boat, and we’d all catch lake perch. At the end of the day, Grandma fried a huge mess of it for dinner. I didn’t have to clean the fish; I just caught the fish and ate the fish.
I rode on their snowmobile, but not in the snow. Mostly on the sand in the summer, loving the excitement of going fast on a noisy machine, complete with the smell of two-cycle exhaust.
Meps: When I met her as an adult, Grandma told me and Barry stories about the snowmobile club, how they would ride from party to party on the frozen lake, drinking and having a great time. After Christmas, they would put their trees on the frozen surface of the lake as navigational markers. She loved to reminisce about the good times with family and friends.
Barry: I didn’t understand at the time, but the beach house became too much work as they aged. So they sold it, got an apartment, and started spending winters in Florida. My first Christmas with a swimming pool was with them. One time, my sister and I got our faces painted at an amusement park, and came back to surprise my grandparents looking like clowns.
The six of us spent many evenings around their kitchen table, playing Uno or rummy. Some of those times, there were just four of us — my parents left to enjoy some much-treasured kid-free time. I appreciated playing with special toys they had, ones I didn’t have at home; eating treats that Grandma cooked; and generally being doted on.
When Barry and I first got together, I was amazed by the incredible boxes of cookies she mailed to his parents. When Barry and I received one at our first apartment, I was in cookie-heaven! Every single item — Cherry Bites, Icebox Cookies, Dream Bars, homemade fudge — was perfect, and individually wrapped in plastic wrap.
Barry: She never had a computer or used the internet. But Margaret has been writing about Grandma for almost as long as we’ve had a blog, so her memory will live on for a long time.
Meps: I’d never been doted on by a Grandma, so I celebrated her special place in my life. She took time to send a get-well card when she heard through the grapevine that I was sick, and she never missed a birthday or Christmas. I received three or four cards this year; I’m sure each one took much effort to write.
I know it was time for Grandma to go, but I’ll miss her terribly. One of the most interesting activities we shared in her later years (besides drinking champagne!) was reading tea leaves. I’ll be looking for messages of love from her in every cup.