The Upside’s Downsides

Pensacola mural.jpg

For a few seasons after that dark, tans-free summer
after the British Petroleum oil spill,
Pensacolians still found purple-black shells & tar balls
washed ashore like some Biblical plague.
They pumped gas like some people pumped iron,
pulled mullets out of their gullets
like some people pulled muscles & tendons.
Browned while smoking hash,
they luxuriated in the erupting boil
that was the sun,
pickling their organs
while drinking in
the bay’s briny scent,
puckering up,
wrinkling like worried grapes,
fermenting,
preserving,
& dehydrating their bodies
with mixers & elixirs.
Even a BLT sandwich seemed too hot to eat.

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).

Yessir and No Ma’am: Livin’ the Dream in Lower Alabama

Pensacola may not be in the heart of Dixie,
but it is in the aorta (if the aorta was upside down).

Our cuisine is macaroni and cheese any way we can get it
and grits 5-ways to Saturday & 6-ways to Sunday.
If you put sugar in your grits, You ain’t right.
We love us some Cajun boiled peanuts in brown paper bags
and nanner puddin’ in sheet pans at every potluck.
Everything else, we fry and wash down with sweet iced tea.

Gardenias sway like flouncy-skirted temptresses,
releasing their fragrance like a pheromone;
the azaleas pop out without care,
for water is in the air;
privet clusters and crepe myrtles take flight like dandelion seeds.

The iconic Graffiti Bridge on 17th Avenue
is our landmark for free expression.
Facebook pages are dedicated to it.
Everything from breasts to Bush for President
has been painted on there for a day.

There’s the 1000-plus member Baptist church,
pastored by the fire-headed preacher with the big teeth
an Elmer Gantry-type personality who’s found his Zenith, Missouri.
If you’re in need,
they will give you expired food for free.

“Bless your hearts, you’re going to hell,”
one of the lady parishioners tells a pair of Mormon missionaries
the ones that ride around town on bicycles,
marked as Elder This and Elder That,
even though they are young.
They don’t know what to think;
they don’t talk about Jesus this much in Utah,
and church here for many is just a Sunday thing,
’cause they already be saved.

Everyone is either saved or damned;
there’s always somebody praying for you,
passing the buck to God.
If you say you’re spiritual but not religious,
well, you’re just trying to have your red velvet cake and eat it, too.

Jesus was a Socialist, I hear from the liberals
who don’t believe in Him anyway
at least the One with all the rules
while those wearing Confederate flag tees say,
“God only helps those who help themselves.”

At one street corner, a well-dressed group is waving their Bibles and yelling;
at the other, a homeless man is holding up a cardboard sign that says,
Anything helps, God bless.
The homeless are like the trees that sway in the gulf breeze;
they have become part of the landscape
that’s made up of shuttered businesses and brand-spankin’ new homes
built next door to shitholes.

Cars wallpapered in Bible quotes drive by churches with signs that say,
“Do Jesus a favor by putting yourself in His,”
“God’s will can be your way,”
and “An apple one day turned God away.”

Everyone is pro-choice here
it’s just a matter of whom they want to save:
the unborn or the incarcerated?
Which does Jesus save?
The sinful or sinless?
Don’t you have to be born to be in sin?

There is no separation of Church and State here;
politics and religion are one and the same.

Here, God is omnipresent.

Hot spells compete with cold snaps;
it’s usually boiling hot or freezing cold,
with just a few days of spring scattered
like parsley on a plate of glorified scrambled eggs.

When a hurricane knocks the power out,
we can be found taking several cool showers a day,
the damp towels hardly drying in the humidity,
leaving them smelling mildewy
as if they’d been left in the washer too long.
During those times, our family would be fine dining
in the Sacred Heart Hospital cafeteria.
We want hot food in a cold room
not the other way around.
There were no squirrels for a long time after Ivan
they got blown away.

Every week, there’s a hit-and-run;
cyclists and pedestrians:
be green and poor at your own risk.
Every day, there’s roadkill baking on the asphalt
probably enough critters to fill all the potholes in town.

In the T.T. Wentworth Museum,
a petrified cat is on display.

Beach-themed crap is everywhere;
the weather reports are endless.

Its called the Deep South because its like a pit
that you fall in and can’t scrabble your way out of
not because you’re broken,
but rather, because you’re broken in
and baked into the bread pudding that is the Redneck Riviera.
The South is still proud of its Southerness
even for using don’t when it should be doesn’t.

For grammarians,
it frustrates,
but for storytellers,
it captivates.

The Grammar Girl Returns

trees.jpg

Today is the day I start my Baccalaureate program as a Creative Writing major.  I was fortunate to be able to take two months off from work to read, write, and spend time with my family; I even got to catch up with friends.  I got back into the habit of strength training (as weightlifting doesn’t sound very feminine) and took up water aerobics; I’ve also focused on updating all my online presences (including my portfolio), professionalizing them for potential employers as well as uploading my resumes to all the usual suspects (e.g. Indeed, Glassdoor, etc.).  The university I am attending also provided invaluable feedback on my resume and cover letters.  

After refreshing my Upwork account, I was hired as an independent contractor to proofread documents submitted by Grammarly clients.  Even though I work from home, the job has a very Silicon Valley startup feel, which I love.  I am learning so much already; it’s a great gig.  Though there is nothing quite like being able to set your own hours, walk into the next room to go to work, and never answer a telephone, I will always be the type of person who has to have an outside job where I communicate face-to-face.  I’m a people person who also happens to be an introvert.

In addition to my jobs as an office assistant at uni and as a professional writing tutor, my plate will be full, but it will be full of things I enjoy, and that makes all the difference.  

Writerly and Grammarly,
Sarah Richards, Class of 2022

She’d graduated a Titan
before The New Millennium,
watching her training grounds
as a gladiator
in the public school arena
disappear.
Loosely prepared
to become a Pirate,
she laid down
her educational armor,
only to pick it up again
with eyes wide open,
diving head first
into the land of magnolias,
with their spinach green leaves
& mascarpone white petals.
Now, well-prepared
to become an Argonaut,
her armor fortified
with precious mettle,
she dove once more,
under graying canopies
of Spanish moss.
As a Titan,
she had brought home
the bronze medallion;
as a Pirate,
the silver chest;
but as an Argonaut,
she would put upon herself
the Golden Fleece
& battle with her wits
that had no end.

By Car:  Before We Loved Lucy

With Lila%2c our Caddy.JPG

Before we loved Lucy, we loved Lila—
a 1992 Cadillac DeVille, owned only by the aging Poppies.

Lila was our first car together—$500 and pristine as the sugar white sands
of the Emerald Coast
with red-leather seats and curves of shiny chrome.

She took us to Heaven and back—
Heaven being the surf and sound sides of Pensacola Beach.

We never pierced her with cigarette ashes or tattooed her with bumper stickers,
however strategically placed.

Come morning, her top would be sprinkled with the crepe myrtle
and moist with the dew.
Lila’s character became more dear with every ding and scratch,
the chip in her windshield like the dimple of Shirley Temple.
Sometimes her perfume was Chick-Fil-A;
at others, the darkest roast at Starbucks.

She was there when we found our first home
and when I went back to school.
She was our shelter from the summer thunderstorms,
our cool respite from the oppressive, breathtaking humidity,
and the hearth that kept us warm during the icy, snowless cold of Southern winters.

She was our metal parasol from the golden globe that warped our milk chocolate bars
like the timepieces in Dalí’s, The Persistence of Memory.

She brought us home from our simple little wedding,
her rear windshield saying “Just Married” in soapy, green paint,
and carried us away to our honeymoon at home, for home was Paradise.

She shuttled me to the hospital when, after a jalapeno burger with Cajun fries at Five Guys,
I went into labor and gave birth to our baby girl—our Hannah Banana Beth.
She was there to pick me up,
cradling our newborn like a porcelain doll.

Bluebell

The interior panel lights with her emblem were like the tusks of elephants
and added to her beauty;
her functionality was in her large trunk where we often packed fried chicken and potato salad
and glass bottles of RC Cola on ice.

She was the vessel who sailed me over the Three Mile Bridge
to the sparkling town of Gulf Breeze
where I would meet up with my WriteOn! Pensacola group—
a scenic drive during which I would listen to the local radio host
who was like a friend I had yet to meet,
the windows down, tangling my hair.

For my birthdays, she brought me to the boardwalk at the Cactus Flower Café;
for Christmas, she bore gifts only she was large enough to hold.

Like a priest, she heard all our arguments and make-ups and worries about the future.
She knew what we ate, the kind of music we liked, the things that made us happy or sad.

She was independence and the first car I owned who completely belonged to me.

She passed from her second life as an auto,
donating her organs to the local junkyard to be recycled,
though we still have photos of her and some of her jewelry in a shadowbox above our mantel.

Though we’ve moved on in different directions,
we, with another addition to our family and she, with a repurposing of her life,
we will never forget you, Lila, for you were our first.

Love,
The Richards family

The Marriage Carriage

#Fiction Friday: #Novelines from the Book

Mormoni

The vapor from my breath in the chill air was like a ghost, haunting the space between us.

When I met Mrs. Hobson, I saw in her the kind of mother I had never known yet yearned for deep inside. She was ordinary in an extraordinary way.

When Elders Roberts & Johnson were transferred out, our friendship with the missionaries ceased. Dinner appointments were no more.

Sister Wiley was the elders’ new “missionary mom,” even as Mother became the mother to us she had never been.

It was a curious feeling, knowing we had interrupted something we could not have possibly understood, for the people involved were all wrong.

The elders called themselves “The Stripling Warriors,” we were “The People of Ammon.” “The Crusaders for Christ” was but one voice in the wilderness.

Sister Wiley was the celestial body which the elders of the Green Haven & Pensacola wards revolved around—a thin, aging Ursula Andress.

Sister Wiley was the Mormon Mrs. Robinson, & under her tutelage, confused elders had become confused no more.

I murmured that I was going to tell the Bishop, even though I knew he would never believe me, for I feared he loved her, too.

I knew it not then, but beyond the scope of my understanding, there were things going on that would undo me & the life I was beginning to know.