City Confidential: Southern American Graffiti

Pensacola mural

Pensacola, Florida, is a town of many faces. It is a tourist town, a military town, a college town, a transient town. Making up what is known as L.A. (or Lower Alabama) are the butter mint pastel neighborhoods of Pensacola Beach and the turn-of-the-last-century charms of the North and East Hill neighborhoods near downtown, juxtaposed against the sketchy Brownsville and Warrington areas that look like Detroit, which makes sense, as the water in Escambia County is some of the worst in the nation.

The days are so hot and humid, one feels like they’re walking into a sauna. The blacktop shimmers in the boiling heat. Cars plastered with Bible quotes drive by with bumper stickers like, “In case of rapture, this car will be unmanned.”

Alorica—Pensacola’s version of Initech from Office Space—is one of the few employers that pays more than minimum wage to unskilled workers. Most everyone in town has, is, or will be working there.

Strings of chain restaurants line the streets like dirty laundry on a clothesline, and trash from the transients collect like fermented sewage.

The Bible screamers are on one corner, the homeless on another, and parking lots are prime real estate for vagrants approaching strangers, asking for a handout—usually with a story that involves a serpentine belt.

On other corners or roadsides, people wearing sunglasses and sandwich signs dance to the beat coming through their earbuds while advertising going-out-of-business sales.

There is a church in the hub that seems hell-bent on scaring people into receiving the free gift of fire insurance with their signs such as “If you don’t want God, the devil will always take you back.”

Most of the signs in town have a letter burned out or fallen off, or they often contain a misspelled word.

Empty buildings are everywhere, yet brand new mattress stores (which come across as fronts for drug trafficking) are always being built. Zoning is practically nonexistent as “Donna Reed-type” homes are set up right next to trailer parks; it’s like having Haiti and the Dominican Republic within walking distance.

Plasma centers (where phlebotomists are also known as vampires) and payday loan shark tanks are popular in this city that has more churches per capita than any other county in Florida.

Though the town is overwhelmingly conservative, there are plenty of bars and even a vegan restaurant or two. There used to be a gay bar on the seedier side of town called Emerald City where heterosexuals frequented the drag shows, but it’s gone now.

The tower on Scenic Highway where homosexuals hook up stands like a phallus that experienced a circumcision mishap; the sand on the Bay Bluffs beach below, down the boardwalk and past the railroad tracks, looks like yellow grits—as if urine from a Mountain Dew drinker saturated it. The water is so murky, you can barely see the varmints that glide underneath.

Pensacola has its share of interesting people. Several years ago, there was a mute old man who looked like Moses and held up an Israeli flag—another street corner squatter. Mike Slocumb, “The Alabama Hammer,” is one of the dozens of lawyers who advertise during the local news. Dr. Michael Berkland, a former medical examiner, was put away for storing human body parts in a storage locker.

On Guillemard Street, across from Open Books—a non-profit bookstore that sends books to Florida prison inmates on request—is a park with a headless cow, looking like something from a post-apocalyptic world where children have stopped being born. The fountain there is rank—like a toxic waste dump.

The overnight cashier at CVS stands like a sentinel as a couple of potheads run in, their graffiti-like tattoos streaking past like a Van Gogh painting left under the Floridian sun too long.

It is in the wee hours that half the populace are red-eyed zombies and the other half are just going through the motions of life in a dying town—a town that only manages to stay alive by sucking the life out of everything and everyone—a town that is completely dependent upon tourists and the military to survive.

Inasmuch as there is a softening of morals in this small city, there is a coarsening of the culture where the counterculture is becoming the culture.

The ECAT (Escambia County Area Transit) bus is there for those who are unfortunate enough to ride it—two hours for what might be a twenty minute drive. Potholes proliferate on the streets like acne scars. Pedestrians and cyclists are always being hit. Hit-and-runs are the norm.

There are the bright spots, like the thriving downtown made possible by King Midas, a.k.a. Quint Studer—the local philanthropist whose name is on everything, it seems.

There is Pensacola State College (formerly Pensacola Junior College) where the magnolia trees produce their fat, white blooms that are like freshly-peeled apple slices which brown quickly in the sweltering heat; there is the University of West Florida, where the Spanish moss hangs like the beards of ancient philosophers and learned astronomers.

There is the Bear/Levin/Studer YMCA, where the swimming pools face a wall of windows and the sunlight and twilight give the place an ethereal feel—where, when a train goes by, you feel like you’re defying gravity in a floating building.

There is the Naval Aviation Museum with its skylights and throwback exhibits that memorialize the Greatest Generation. There are the Blue Angels air shows, the fireworks at Blue Wahoos Park—adjacent to the “Dr. Seuss-like” park with its negative space and springy terrain.

There is Sacred Heart Hospital, where sepia-toned copper statues of little children greet visitors like storybook sculptures and the colonnade on Twelfth Avenue that makes you feel like you’re entering that magical place where the woodbine twists and twines.

Though the town has aged, and not so gracefully in many places, in others, it has been revitalized with cosmetic construction.

Pensacola is a place for misfits and miscreants, for the backsliders and the born-agains, for the poets, artists, and musicians who can’t afford to live in Austin or NYC, for the students who can’t afford the big-time universities, for the foodies who nosh on grits a ya-ya and beignets for brunch, and for the Mormon missionaries who come to save them all.

Pensacola, 2016

Pensacola Amtrak

A family drops by the Apple Market for some fried chicken
and cold salads on the way to the beach.
The sound of ice being poured into coolers,
of flip-flops flapping on the pavement,
the smell of charcoal and char,
are harbingers of fun times to come.

Families frolic on the sugar white sand,
glassy and silver in the right light—
the water like a mood ring,
hovering between blue and green.

The congregation at Olive Baptist Church
sings “Our God is an Awesome God.”
When one seeking salvation opens the door,
a heavenly blast of cold air banishes the hellish heat.

At the corner, a group of students from Pensacola Christian College—
with their white shirts and black Bibles—
call out the wages of sin, one by one,
whilst on the opposite corner,
a homeless man holds up a cardboard sign: Cracker Needs Help.

At Palafox Market, Miss Lizzy Loo sells her raw goat’s milk soap and
Miss Patty Jones, her nanner puddin’ fudge,
while Kirk Fontaine strums his dulcimer, singing sunny blues.
Wind chimes made of stained glass create patterns on the sidewalks,
the concrete cool from the tents and trees.
The subtle aroma of fresh oranges carry like music notes—
singing a song of Floridian bounty.

At the Naval Aviation Museum,
a group of enlisted wander the halls,
feeling red, white, and blue all over,
from learning of those who served before them.

Hilda Hoggshead makes it up the 177 steps
in the Pensacola Lighthouse Museum—
the sound of the Blue Angels flying overhead.
The guide talks about ghosts,
which Hilda thinks is hogwash.

Children climb the forts at Ft. Pickens,
parents admonishing them to be careful
while photographers collect shots for their newest calendar.
A hipster lays on a cannon.

The WriteOn! Pensacola group meets at Josie Norris’s house
over raspberry iced tea and corn muffins,
trying to solve the problems of the world with prose,
chatting over Rick Bragg witticisms,
and mourning Pat Conroy, who lies in repose.

At the Bodacious Olive,
a couple of girlfriends since college meet
to whip up some eggs as they think about their empty nests.
Here, they trade family night fare for budget-busting gourmet,
finding their new rhythm through the clicking of cutlery
and mounds of butter—a la Paula Deen.

At the Miracle Faith Center,
Pastor is giving an inspirational talk
on Pop Culture Jesus,
asking for “an Amen, Praise the Lord, and Hallelujah.”
From either heat or sensual, religious rapture,
women fan themselves with programs,
caught up in the charisma and magnetism
of a man after any goddess’s own heart.

A group of Bernie Sanders supporters
create graphic art on Graffiti Bridge,
while a group of “Anybody But Trump” supporters
hold up handmade signs,
the smell of Sharpie still high-inducing under their nostrils.

Poets meet for vegan cuisine at “The End of the Line Café,”
the smell of coffee and a warm invite
enticing others to listen to an alternative speech form—
truth tellers in narrative.

Friends hang out at Scenic 90 Café
for homemade pie or a black-and-white—
the taste taking one back to a place in time
to a place one has never been.

There is Joe Patti’s, where one goes for the freshest seafood in town,
like red snapper and crawfish for boils on the back patio.
A couple of drunk chickens and a few beers—
the cold bottle as wet as the humid air—
relax the flow of conversation.

Baseball fans and lovers of anything local,
file in to the Blue Wahoos stadium,
the pounding of feet rapping a tinny melody.
The breeze from the Gulf
caress the faces like the ghosts of dandelion seeds.
The stadium lights come on with the periwinkle twilight—
a wrinkle in time that separates day from night—
the sudden brightness creating an interplanetary, otherworldly effect.
An air of lassitude and happy times pervades.

Even the ghosts that haunt St. Michael’s cemetery
are shadowed by the overpass.
All are a part of the Pensacola community—
a melting pot simmering in the Emerald Coast.

When you hear some laughter and nobody near,
that is the ring of Southern belles from summers past.
I am home.

This was published in The Emerald Coast Review’s “Life in Your Time” edition (2017).

Fiction Friday: Novelines from the Book

mormoni

Christmas had come and gone, and the New Millennium had begun.  At Maxwell Manor, burgundies, navy blues, and hunter greens had been replaced with shades of cream, ecru, and chartreuse.  Modern art had been replaced with several of Greg Olsen’s paintings, and the place began to more resemble a Mormon temple than a museum.

“Though the husband is the head of the home,” the elders of the Church had often said, “the wife is the heart.”

It was my house, too, even though I was old enough to move out , but Mother was changing everything.  The house on Harrington Court was mine now, but I would always have a place at Maxwell Manor—a room in one of David’s many mansions, and the one room, besides David’s study, that Mother would not touch.  Did that make it a shrine unto myself?

I would keep the house at Harrington Court as one would a museum, for Mother had changed nothing in it since the Mormons had come, flooding our house with their holy water and setting fire to our lives as we had known them.

He told me that I’d become as she once was, even as he believed who Mother was now, she would always be. She would never change her mind about the Church, for the Church had changed her.  

Mother had put off the natural woman to put on the spiritual, for in her eyes, the two entities could not coexist, for one would always rule over the other.  It was perhaps the first time in my life I acknowledged with defeat that a Force greater than the influences of those who loved her, led my mother now. As she drew closer to God, she withdrew from us, even as David and I grew closer than ever.  A part of me still feared losing him, if he completely lost Mother.

David thanked God for my will that I would never allow the Church to change me.  I had never heard David thank God for anything before, save that night in the hospital, and I wondered, if, in his own way, he was changing, too.

It Happened One Night in Poplar Bluff

The Not-So-Great Missouri Robbery

Clipping of the newspaper article from The Daily American Republic in Poplar Bluff, MO.

Poplar Bluff, Missouri, is the kind of small town that rural America is made of. P.B. (what the locals call it) is just past the Bootheel after you drive out of Arkansas. There is one high school—the Home of the Mules—so generations of children grow up together. It is the kind of place where the names in the newspaper mean something to you. If you didn’t run into someone you knew, you’d run into someone who knew someone you knew. Violent crime is out-of-character for this town that isn’t on every map, and is often mispronounced by city slicking anchors as “Popular Bluff.”

A lot of the outdoorsy residents like to go to Black River to hang out, and Wal-Mart is the biggest non-wild game in town. The newspaper, The Daily American Republic, comes out in the evenings, and is more of a large pamphlet than a newspaper; there’s very little breaking news in this hilly region of the heartland. This area of Butler County is where life has an ebb and flow to it like Pensacola Bay at low tide.

If you want a good barbecue, you have to go to Dexter Queen in Dexter, Missouri, where they put shredded cabbage on the sandwiches and the inside looks like a throwback from a teenage hangout in The Fifties.

P.B. is all built up now, but in the early eighties, it was home to my parents. Dad had grown up there, and Mom had moved in and out several times. Their first place was an apartment on Fairmont Street where my dad’s tenth grade Spanish teacher would bang a broom handle on the ceiling to let them know they were being too loud.

I remember when I became a nanny in Sidney, Montana—eastern and hilly, rather than western and mountainous—I called my aunt Cheryll that first night after my mom left to board the Greyhound bus cross country. Those first few days I was on my own in a strange house with two little girls who were my responsibility, I was rereading my favorite book, Small Town Girl by LaVyrle Spencer, set in Wintergreen, Missouri, where Poplar Bluff is mentioned once.

I was never homesick for Pensacola but for my summer place, for I hadn’t yet established a presence there.

Poplar Bluff was like my Disney World, for so many kids I knew saw their grandmas every day, whereas we had no ties to this touristy, military town on the Gulf Coast.

It often seemed like the only memories of which my parents were fond or nostalgic for were the ones that hadn’t been made in Pensacola; I suppose that made me nostalgic, too.

Maybe that was why the first episode of Bewitched resonated, for when Samantha tells Darrin (played by Dick York, and the only actor I acknowledge as being the true Darrin Stephens, whose name I always thought should’ve been spelled Darren Stevens—much cleaner) that she’s a witch, and he says something like, “I’m from Missouri. You’re just going to have to show me.”

Being from the “Show Me State,” I suppose that’s why we’re all as stubborn as mules and have to prove we’re right about everything (often via Google).

Grandma and Grandpa Booker’s house was like going back in time—from televisions that were a giant block of wood with convex screens in them to the library-orange, hardcover Childcraft books (which included the politically-incorrect legend of “Little Black Sambo”) to vinyl records of The Andrews Sisters. Grandma and Grandma still had the seventies-style paneling in their downstairs basement that was as big as a private bowling alley, with furniture in forest-green and burnt orange, and carpet that looked like autumn leaves after a rain.

I would play away the hours going through Grandma’s Better Homes and Gardens magazines, tearing out all the pictures of the porcelain dolls and writing their autobiographies or just exploring, though I never went in the closet under the stairwell, for it smelled like rubber from all of Grandpa’s boots.

Their house seemed ginormous, with Grandpa’s desk that looked like it belonged to a judge and Grandma’s double closet stuffed with hatboxes and fur coats—relics of women in her time.

The smell of coffee and bacon permeating the air brings me back to Grandma’s downstairs kitchen that is as clear to me as if I were sitting there with her, eating cold cereal late at night. That kitchen was where I had my first scoop of peanut butter with Karo syrup (still the only way I can eat p.b. that isn’t drenched in chocolate). Their house seemed like the land of plenty, for whereas our cupboards were sometimes bare (like Old Mother Hubbard’s), their pantries and deep freezer were always stocked like a famine was coming.

Grandma and Grandpa would sit on their porch swings outside the kitchen door, and I’d be way down the hill, sometimes barefoot, laying in the clover and soft grass while the martens and wrens built their nests in the Jetson-like birdhouse apartments.

Even at twilight, when the lightning bugs would come out with their lime-green glow, my grandparents never worried if I was out of their sight.

As for me, just looking back and seeing the patio light on was all the reassurance I needed.

I didn’t know fear then, but I would learn it.

Now I know I could never live without it, for it is that thing that becomes a part of you— like your shadow; I would go so far as to say it’s like a guardian angel—a gift. My fear of forgetting to be aware of my daughter’s location and surroundings has been with me so long, I don’t even think about it. It’s just the price I pay for living in the modern world.

Times were different then, and Poplar Bluff seemed like the kind of place where nothing bad would ever happen, but it did.

It was the last day of May in 1981, when my parents were robbed at gunpoint at the Mansion Mall Cinema where they worked as night managers. I was there, gestating, hovering between conception and birth. Even though I wasn’t cognizant of what was going on, that experience changed my mother, thus changing me. My mom became more aware, and thus taught me to be more aware.

I grew up as one of the most observant teenagers in America.

That night of the robbery, my mother had tried telling my father that something wasn’t right; throughout the day, a car kept changing places in the parking lot, containing Stackhouse and Patterson (both named James)—two men who had worked for them. These ex-employees had records, and one, my parents had even given rides home to. (“The one with the personality,” Mom told me.)

They were changing the marquee when “the nicer one” approached them with a gun, demanding money. (The other was parked in the alley, serving as the getaway.) He settled for my mom’s purse, containing less than twenty bucks (the story of my parents’ lives), and a Cross pen and pencil set that Mom’s parents had given her for graduation. The nice guy wanted to take them off somewhere, but Mom refused; her grandfather had taught her never to go off with anyone—that to do so would mean certain death—and so she taught that to me.

The robbers were caught at the local Broadway Cafe, eating off the money they had stolen. They’d worn masks, but my dad had been able to identify their voices.

Mom, always wanting to make a point, wore a tee shirt that said “Baby” with an arrow pointing down when she testified. (It’s interesting to note that every time my parents turned on the lights when I was a baby, I’d hold up my arms like I was part of a “stick up”).

My mother would tell me years later that she made sure Grandma Booker knew that the robbers had been white, what with her being an old-fashioned Southern Democrat. (She even had funny ideas about “The Italian” who sold tamales, of all things, from the back of his truck—tamales she’d insisted were made of cats.)

From that night on, my parents had the local sheriff escort them to the bank for the night drop, just as now, I call a security guard to escort me to my vehicle after a night class (unless I am surrounded by classmates).

Because of that robbery, I grew up, always aware of when a car followed me after more than two turns, after which I would take an abrupt or unusual turn. I’ve grown up, appreciating the beauty of the world on its surface but also being mindful of the dark net below—that if I’m not careful, I could be caught in it.

I rarely talk on the cell phone while walking, and I don’t own a pair of earbuds. I have unilateral hearing loss, so I never use anything that further cuts me off from the world. I do nothing to make myself more vulnerable to those who would do me harm. Because of my mother standing her ground, I am walking on it today.

When my mom taught me to be observant, I believe she helped me save my own life more than once—in ways I will never know.

Navy mom

Since this was written in October 2017, my mom, the lady you see here, passed away, but she left behind a legacy of love.  One thing she always told me (and showed me) is that no matter how old your children get, they always have a place to come home to if they need it.

Updated 1/17/2020

Fiction Friday: Micropoetry from the Book

mormoni

With any other youth group,
the idea of dating a lot of different people
seemed like cheating,
but in Mormonism,
until one felt ready to marry,
it was better not to get fixated on any one person,
for that might lead to falling in love
& that just might lead to sin.

Tony had been willing to give up his reputation for Kath
but not Elder Roberts.
Tony had sealed his fate with his beloved by impregnating her,
whereas Elder Roberts had denied himself
by denying me.

It was a jubilee of sorts—
the tinkling of our fluted stems
signaling the beginning of the New Year
& the best years of our lives to come.

A cool gust, a warm breeze,
stirred me from my slumber
like a ghostly lover beckoning me.
I just stood back and watched him,
enjoying him,
& when he spoke to the sky,
it was then that I realized that he was speaking to the God
I thought he didn’t believe in.

I would never know if David lied to himself,
so he could lie to Mother,
but they would have a year before the temple
for her to fall in love with him
without all the trappings of Mormonism,
before she would expect him to take her to the temple
& promise things that he would never do,
not even for her,
even if she were me.

The Annexation of Angela

Chimerism

You knew me before I was born,
and the other me,
before we became one.

At the basic level,
I was two,
becoming the stronger of them,
absorbing the other like a sponge.

I’ve two fathers,
much like Christ,
though I know neither of them,
and they know not of me.

I look in the glass that looks back at me,
wondering who the other one was,
but I’m just a chimera,
a breathing being like few others—
an oddity.

I’m neither a myth nor a monster
with the head of a lion.
I have not the body of a goat,
nor have I a serpent’s tail.
I am not the devil;
the devil is one,
even as I am two.

I am not a horror of the imagination,
but am the product of two separate nights
shared by three.
An unholy triad, some say,
rather than a holy trinity.

Did we hold hands,
and I,
wanting to survive,
draw you into me,
having not yet taken my first breath?

Did I not let you go,
but held tight so that I might live?

Forgive me,
for I knew not what I was doing.
I did not steal your identity,
I simply split mine.

And then I was born.

Published in The Kilgore Review (2016), having placed second in the poetry category of Pensacola State College’s annual Walter F. Spara Writing Contest.