When you get on the dull workday lift,
Where you always give strangers short shrift,
Just this once, say hello,
And then see how things go,
It’s the day to give strangers that gift.
Friday, July 31 is National Talk in an Elevator Day. For Meps, that means San Francisco Talk on the Radio Day, as she’ll be interviewed by KCBS morning anchors Stan Bunger and Susan Leigh Taylor about talking to strangers.
The brief interview is scheduled for 9:30 am PST. You can listen on the internet using the KCBS Live Audio Stream (http://cbssf.com/listen). If you are in the Bay Area, tune into KCBS at 740 AM or 106.9 FM.
For readers who must save a tree,
There’s now an e-Book, and it’s free,
It’s a little bit newer,
And the drawings are fewer,
But you’ll find that it still sounds like me.
The Kindle Edition of Strangers Have the Best Candy is now available! The download is free today, June 28. Since I cannot autograph your eBook, I’m offering an autographed Happy Spot to anyone who downloads the eBook before July 10! Put your request in a comment on this post, and I’ll contact you for the mailing address.
Although this edition doesn’t have the full quota of illustrations, the best ones are included. Frank Lloyd Bear and I have also included a teaser for our next book, The Joyful Bear.
I hit the road yesterday from Vero Beach, Florida in Bon-Bon, my Toyota Matrix. I packed everything I’d need for the drive to Seattle via Las Vegas, including a folding bicycle, an inflatable kayak, clothes, art supplies, and two boxes of Strangers Have the Best Candy. I also brought lots of pillows, three teddy bears, a brand-new Therm-a-Rest pad, a couple of blankets, and a sleeping bag. I can make a cushy blanket fort in the back of the car and sleep anywhere.
In the late afternoon, I saw a sign for Withlacoochee River Park. It seemed like a nice county park, about 5 miles off the highway. I circled the camping area, which was mostly empty, then followed the sign to the office.
A young park ranger was outside the building as I got out of my car. He greeted me with a smile and asked how he could help me. “Is this where I pay for a campsite?” I asked. “Yes, it is,” he told me. “What kind of site do you need?”
I shrugged. “It doesn’t particularly matter.”
“Do you have a tent?” he asked me.
When I said no, his smile disappeared. “You have to have a tent.”
I continued smiling. “I can just pay the RV rate,” I said. He looked at my car and shook his head. I couldn’t figure out how they could have a rule against sleeping in the car, but I was determined to figure out a way around it.
What if I put my sleeping bag on the ground next to the car? Nope. What if I rigged a tarp as a tent? Nope. What if we called it a Toyota Matrix RV? Nope. At that point, he suggested that I wait for his supervisor.
While I waited, I thought about telling them my tent was six feet tall, pink, and went by the name of Harvey. Unfortunately, the supervisor who appeared was much more humorless, so I stayed quiet about having an invisible tent.
Condescendingly, he showed me the written rules, which said that I had to have a “commercially-made, flame-retardant tent.” When I told him my car was a very small RV, he rolled his eyes. “That? No way.”
I just waited. Finally, he said, “If you insist, I will call my supervisor, even though it is after hours on a Saturday evening, and I will have to call him at home.”
I nodded and said, “Would you, please?” He picked up the phone and called his supervisor. “I am so sorry to bother you at home, after hours, on a Saturday, but there’s this lady here who wants to camp…” His tone spoke volumes. “And she doesn’t have a tent, and she’s just driving a car.”
The man on the other end of the line said something. Then he said, “That’s what I told her, but she insisted that I call my supervisor, after hours, on a Saturday, at home.” He hung up with a smirk.
I put on my most gracious smile and said, “Thank you very much,” then I turned and went out to my teeny-tiny RV and drove back out to the road.
I pulled out my phone and ran a search for nearby campgrounds, and a listing popped up just a few miles up the river. When I clicked on the Sawmill Resort and Campground, the first thing I saw was the photo on the homepage. It featured three hot guys, two of them shirtless. This was not your every day campground. The list of amenities included a pool and several nightclubs. I read further, and found the statement “…the premier gay and lesbian community in the Southeast.”
I called to make sure they had a campsite for a person without a tent. No problem. I didn’t tell the woman I was straight.
In the camp store, the young woman took my credit card and gave me a wristband. “You do know this place is, um, alternative, right?” I just nodded.
When I asked where to set up camp, she wasn’t certain. “I’ve had this job for five days,” she told me, “and I actually haven’t been back there yet.” She was referring to the 120-acre community on the other side of the fence.
When I drove through the gate, I was unnerved to find that there were no other women “back there.” Just me and a few hundred guys of all ages, doing what everybody does on vacation: Relaxing. I stuck out like a sore thumb, but I felt completely safe.
More importantly, I felt completely welcome. As the FAQ said, in answer to the question, “Are Women allowed at Sawmill?” ”YES! We are open to anyone who is open minded.”
It’s OK that I don’t have a tent. It’s OK that I’m not gay. Saturday’s curious turn of events reminded me that being surrounded by open-minded people is more important to me than anything else.
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.