Wal-Mart with waterfront view

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 In the past decade, they have been replaced by manufactured homes, and there are many businesses that thrive on such things: “House Moving, Lifting, and Leveling.”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.

Turning onto MLK Jr Blvd

Brunswick MLK parade photos

These images were taken by Margaret Meps Schulte during the Brunswick, Georgia Martin Luther King Day parade on January 19, 2015.

Looking at the proud faces in these photos, I became teary-eyed, wishing I could do more to help my neighbors. Their spirits are strong, but their economic situation is not.

Please read the accompanying story, “Why do I march?”

The MLK marchers who gathered at UUCG

Why I Still March

View MLK parade photos

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
Broken window in 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
Latino grocery in Brunswick

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 in Brunswick
Family watching the parade on Albany Street in Brunswick

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.

Seattle

More than a calendar: A tradition

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!

UUCG on Gloucester Street

Shelter

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, Grandma, Meps

Long-Lived Loraine

Grandma at 100
Grandma at 100

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.

Meps: Grandma showed her love with food, and I collected some of her recipes for The Foodie Gazette. Just last year, I asked for a Grasshopper Pie for my birthday. For Christmas this year, we’re going to have Loraine’s Dip and a Snowball.

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.

This 2011 blog about Grandma really captures her spirit:
The Life of the Party
Here’s another gem, a limerick from her 100th birthday:
Vintage 1913: Here’s to Loraine! We are still toasting to her!
She can stop reading the obituaries now:
Obituary for Grandma

Barry, Grandma, Meps
Grandma’s first “selfie” with a digital camera, October 2004
Fire trucks at the Columbus Colony

Silent Night

The night before I left my brother’s apartment in Columbus, I was packing my bags. “Are you going to carry those out to the car tonight?” Hank asked. I sat back on my heels and looked at the heap of stuff I’d dragged into his apartment during my nine-day visit.

It was dark and cold outside. “Nah, I think I’ll wait ’til morning,” I replied. “OK, can I turn this light out?” he asked me. He’s always turning out lights behind me; his vision is so poor that he’s content in the dark.

I went to bed early, to get a good night’s rest before driving to North Carolina.

“WHAT THE?!?!” I woke in the middle of the night to the loudest alarm I’d ever heard and a strobe light going off in the living room. A fire alarm! Was it real? I waited in hopes that it was a false alarm, but the hideous noise continued.

I got up, bouncing off the furniture by the pulsing light of the strobe.

I threw on a pair of jeans under my pajamas and a coat on the top and stuffed my feet into untied shoes. Hank didn’t show any signs of getting up for Armageddon, so I banged on his door.

“I smell smoke,” I told him. “We’d better go.”

While he put on his bathrobe, I grabbed my purse, my laptop, and two irreplaceable teddy bears. I threw a bulky blanket and two coats on top of my pile, then helped Hank with his slippers. I took one last deep breath and opened the door to the hallway.

It’s terrifying to have a fire in a big building and not know where it is. The hall was full of awful-smelling smoke, but there were no people. I dragged Hank towards the stairwell, hoping we were going away from the danger.

By the time we made it to the first floor, the only evidence of the fire was the alarm. Hank’s apartment was right near the source. I sighed, thinking of all my worldly possessions up there. I should have packed the car, then everything would be fine.

Meps and Frankie waiting for the firemen
Meps and Frankie waiting for the firemen

Fire trucks were just arriving. There were clusters of people in the lobby, some with walkers and wheelchairs, but nobody seemed freaked out. I sat on a sofa, embarrassed by my heap of coats and teddy bears.

The firemen charged through the front door, and then stopped. They didn’t know where to go. There was obviously an emergency — alarms were screaming, strobe lights were flashing — but the residents just stared at them without speaking. The firemen milled around, puzzled by the reception.

Most of the people who live in the building are completely deaf.

Finally, I stood up, teddy bears and all, and showed them the door to the stairs. “I think it’s on the third floor, down that wing,” I said, pointing. They pounded up the stairs in their boots, axes at the ready.

I sat back down to enjoy my late-night people-watching and wishing I could eavesdrop. Around me were small circles of people, talking excitedly in American Sign Language. ASL-speakers use much more than their hands. They use their whole bodies, like dancers, to convey complex meaning. I put my fingers in my ears to block the alarms, but the people around me were completely unfazed.

Hank waits for the firemen
Cheerful Hank waits for the firemen to give the all-clear

The fire was quickly out, and the firemen brought giant fans to blow out the smoke. They sounded like jet engines! Hank’s neighbors simply continued their silent conversations.

The whole catastrophe was over in about an hour, but I couldn’t sleep after that. I tossed and turned, my ears ringing. They would still be ringing the next day.

I’ve always said that Hank and his neighbors are not disabled; they are differently-abled. For those who cannot see, darkness is no problem. For those who cannot hear, every night is a silent night. And for those like Hank, who do not worry, every night is a peaceful one.

 

Thanks to North Carolina

Some people get excited about five star hotels or other fancy lodgings. I’m not usually one of them. I was about half-way between Columbus, Ohio and St. Marys, Georgia, on the last leg of a 2000 mile Thanksgiving road trip. I just needed a quick stop for the night.

I got the last room in a cheap motel, just into North Carolina, in Mt. Airy. They claimed it was clean. They said it wasn’t fancy. Apologetically they mentioned that if I’d called earlier I wouldn’t have got a room on the side for long-term rentals. They told me how to connect to the internet, with two networks, one that probably wouldn’t reach, and the other which sometimes needs to be reset.

I read somewhere that more vacations are “ruined” by dirty motel rooms than anything else. Fortunately I’m tolerant. The lights were dim. A lamp shade didn’t stay on. To my nose, there was only a hint of stale smoke. The space heater wasn’t quite up to the job, with temperatures below freezing this night. The blanket was thin. I tried to connect to the internet. Half-way there, but no luck. The staff was about and tried to reboot it. It didn’t help, and I didn’t ask again. I even tried to break into their access point (EASY!) and see if I could somehow fix something. (NOPE!) While I worked on this, with a warm laptop in my lap, the room heated up a little bit. I then dressed in enough clothes to sleep peacefully in the cool room overnight.

In the morning, I took a shower. The hot water was fantastic. The shower…well…In boatyards and marinas, I normally shower in my crocs, just in case. They dry easily, and my shoes are clean when I’m done! This was my first motel shower this way. No problem, I’m used to it. A long hot shower on a cold day is one of my absolute favorite things in the world!

I hit the road looking for breakfast. The motel hadn’t even had coffee I wanted to drink. My standards are higher for food than lodging. At least a little. I avoid fast food, especially for breakfast. I figured that a Denny’s would do, if that was the best I could find at a freeway exit. An hour down the road, I saw a sign for Toast Cafe at the Davidson, North Carolina exit. The name was promising. I got a little lost, pulled over, and tried to find a decent breakfast diner with Yelp. I re-found Toast, a mile away, and drove there.

I walk in to see the Saturday morning brunch crowd filling all the tables. I was glad to be eating alone—I got a seat at the bar instead of waiting. I saw a sign for the 2013 “Best Breakfast in Charlotte” posted on a mirror.

I ordered an avocado bacon and tomato omelet, and ordered grits for my side dish, after a reassuring answer my vague question “Oh yeah, I’m in the South again. I bet you do grits right.” When the waitress asked me later about the grits, I said that they were wonderful, and mentioned my unfounded fears of the grits put in little packets by Quaker. I think I saw her shudder as she said something sympathetic about instant grits. After two cups of coffee I was plenty caffeinated already, so the staff sent me on the road with a travel cup of decaf.

In honor of Thanksgiving, I’m going to express my gratitude: To North Carolina for a night’s rest, a wonderful hot shower, and a fantastic breakfast. And to myself for low expectations!

Peaceful Thanksgiving powerboat in Beaufort

Turkey with strangers

You can’t argue with this: Thanksgiving is not really about food. If it was, we’d be perfectly happy to eat turkey in a restaurant. There’s an entire episode of Mr. Ed about how horrible that would be.

In 2008, Barry and I planned to spend Thanksgiving with my brother, Stevie. He didn’t call, and he didn’t arrive, and by noon, I realized our plan had fallen apart. Barry and I were in a boatyard, hauled out, with no invitations to a big family meal. There wasn’t even anything appropriate to eat on the boat. I shed a few tears of frustration and loneliness over my sorry plight.

I’d heard a rumor that the God-fearing Baptists in town would be serving dinner for nomads and wandering sailors. I’m no Baptist: You could call me a Baptist-fearing Goddess! But I was willing to face my fears for some turkey and cranberries.

We drove the Squid Wagon into Beaufort at 1:30. “We’re not serving until 3 pm,” said the nice man in front of the Baptist church. “You should go over to the Methodists.”

We headed over there, about a block away. When we walked into the Methodist church, we found that we’d missed their dinner, but they were eager to load us up with leftovers. We staggered out to the Squid Wagon with to-go boxes of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and about a dozen desserts.

Then we climbed back into the front seat of the van and had a debate: Where should we eat our dinner? “I don’t want to eat Thanksgiving dinner on a park bench in town,” said Barry.

We decided to take a one-hour walk and then go back to the Baptist church, where they welcomed us with open arms. Their food was simpler than the Methodists, but we found the camaraderie we were looking for. We were treated as honored guests, not strangers.

Over dinner, we discovered that many of our new Baptist friends were in a hurry to eat and get going; they were going home to share a second Thanksgiving dinner with their families! That explained why the Methodists served so early, why there were so many leftovers.

At the end of our meal, we were urged to take even more leftovers! We were chuckling as we drove back to the boatyard with plenty to share with my brother, who arrived a day later. I pray the God of the Methodists and Baptists forgives us for double-dipping. We gave thanks for every bite, but it was not about the food.

Peaceful Thanksgiving powerboat in Beaufort
Peaceful Thanksgiving in Beaufort