Real People, Real Lives


On Monday I took my camera and notebook to the spaghetti dinner.

This is Dennis.
After I took his picture he simply said, "Thank god for the meal."

                                                         © Tracy Abell 2011

This is Wayne.
He told me, "The meal means a lot to me.  I haven’t had a whole lot of work for the past year."

                                                                                                                                          © Tracy Abell 2011

These are real people struggling with real-life problems.
I wish the powers that be would stop pandering to the already-rich, entitled people,
and throw substantial support to those hanging on by a thread.

Unfortunately, it’s only going to get worse; the new meme is "we’ve all got to make sacrifices."
Except the power structure will ensure the rich get richer
while the disenfranchised poor pile up like so much forgotten trash.

They’re people.

Karma, Baby


AGNES by Tony Cochran

I can’t help thinking of the little spat I got in with the resident evangelist at the meal on Monday.
She thinks it’s her right to tell people they’ll go to hell unless they accept her religious dogma,
and got testy with me when I told her to knock it off.

Wonder how her teeth feel today?



All the current hateful anti-Muslim rhetoric makes me ill.
And it’s everywhere.

While busing tables at the spaghetti dinner on Monday,
I overheard some mumbled slander aimed at Muslims
from an evangelical woman who likes to
put her hand on people’s foreheads and pray over them/bless them.
Over the years I’ve asked her to stop doing that since we’re about feeding people,
not proselytizing, but she’s so locked into her belief system my words don’t make a dent.

Which is probably why on Monday I walked away from her in frustration (something I’m not proud of),
and went into the kitchen to vent to Zippy who then told me
the same anti-Muslim crap was being spewed there by a volunteer washing dishes.

It’s everywhere, and it’s getting more and more blatant.
We have a man of color in the White House, a man many choose to believe is a closet Muslim,
and that’s unleashed The Ugly which people have kept simmering in their guts.
G.W. Bush was able to keep a lid on anti-Muslim sentiment following September 11, 2001,
but Obama’s skin tone has inflamed The Ugly.

Burning Korans.

Shrieking opposition to mosques all over the country.

Denying Muslims their First Amendment rights.
I’m sickened.

PREVAIL in your pants


Yesterday while helping at the spaghetti dinner,
I saw a family with young kids and offered them diapers.
I went to the basement and dug through the donated personal hygiene items
(diapers, tampons, napkins, adult underwear, etc.) to find the correct size.

In my search, I happened upon a package that looked like this:


My personal motto is also a brand of adult underwear?

My hand-made, special-order, one-of-a-kind bracelet that I haven’t removed
since artist Laura Hamor mailed it to me in September 2009
might conjure images of incontinence?

I stared at the package, stunned, and gave myself a few seconds to mourn.
Then I started thinking about the situation in broader terms.

Lots of those product  names would make great mottos for inspirational or philosophical bracelets:

          DEPENDS (for those trying to remember to make nuanced decisions).

          ALWAYS (for those professing undying love).

          WHISPER (for those struggling to find their "inside voice"). 

So, I’ve decided I’m going to keep wearing my bracelet
but I’ve also resolved to be more diligent about doing Kegels.

Gift Ideas

Yesterday the Street Reach volunteers
bagged gifts for our annual toy drive.

This year we provided gifts for 1000 children
from about 320 families.

When families sign up they provide the sex and age
of each child and we give each a gift.

The gifts are sorted by age groups and we walk around
"shopping" for the right gifts which we put in a numbered bag.

Even though it’s a good cause, I get a little tense
because selecting gifts feels like sex-role stereotyping.
Dolls-for-girls and footballs-for-boys sort of thing.
(My family donated books but there weren’t nearly enough).

I’m putting together a list of suggestions for next year’s drive
and I thought you all might have some great gift ideas.
We especially fell short for the teens (and there were lots this year).

We try to keep the gifts at $10 or less (bought on sale).

I’d appreciate any sex-neutral suggestions.

Thank you in advance!

Big heart, not so big brain

When is being nice too nice?
Or even dangerous?

Last night I walked out of a store to the parking lot.
An old, loud truck passed me.
As I reached to open my car door
I heard "Excuse me, ma’am."

It was the guy in the truck.

He had a story about being stranded
and needing gas money.
I told him I didn’t have my wallet and only had a credit card
but would look in my car for change.

He then asked me to go to a gas station where he’d clean my windows
in exchange for some gas.

I hesitated and told him I needed to check in my car.
I found four quarters, accidentally dropped one between the seats,
and took three out to the man.
It wasn’t until I handed him the money that I looked at him.

He looked a little volatile.
A bit scary.
But I see volatile and scary every week at the soup kitchen.

He thanked me and I walked back to my car.
A woman in an SUV was idling there, watching.
She said, "I was just making sure you were okay."

I thanked her and got in my car.
And then it all hit me:
I hadn’t thought twice about approaching that man’s truck.
Hadn’t thought twice about standing next to his door and open window.
Hadn’t thought about the big dog on the seat next to him.

I’m 5’10".
I regularly "bounce" people from the spaghetti dinner.
I’m used to people on the edge.

But none of that matters.
Last night I wasn’t paying attention to the situation.
And worse, I actually contemplated going to a gas station.

I need to maintain a sense of "me" in those interactions.
Giving is good until it’s stupid.

The miracle that was Larry Brown

Today I finished reading Larry Brown’s last book, A Miracle of Catfish.
Larry Brown was an excruciatingly good writer
who created characters you wouldn’t typically find in children’s literature.

They’re often selfish
murdering and pathetic.
But also kind-hearted and funny.

Larry Brown wrote for adults but whenever I read his work, 
I have this burning desire to be a better writer for children.
More like him.
Minus the occasional slaughter of various animals
and gruesome factory mishaps.

Larry Brown wasn’t afraid to shine a light into humanity’s dark spaces.
And he was one helluva storyteller.

Thank you again, Doug, for making the introduction.

Remembering Doug

Yesterday afternoon I learned I’ve lost a friend.

We met Doug in the summer of 1999.
Zebu had just turned three and Wildebeest was about five-and-a-half.
We were new volunteers at the spaghetti dinner and several old-timers
weren’t happy having young kids underfoot.
But Doug wasn’t one of the cranky ones.
He always made us feel welcome.
Doug had a smile that came from deep inside; you felt his warmth.

Doug sometimes cooked the spaghetti and sometimes served it out in the dining room.
Many called him Noodles.
Others called him Montana.
Something to do with a t-shirt he wore the first day he walked into our director’s
used bookstore.

Doug loved books.
Maybe more than anyone I know.
Signed-first-editions kind of love.

When Doug learned I’d written a novel, he gushed all sorts of compliments.
Told me I was amazing and that he was in awe.
He begged to read it.
I gave him the three-ring binder holding the single-spaced manuscript.
My first novel.
My mess-of-a-novel.
He didn’t finish it.
I got mad and demanded he return the manuscript.

He gave it back without a whole lot of apologies.
But then when he turned me onto so many great writers like
Larry Brown and Larry Watson
Pete Dexter
Sherman Alexie,
and I shared these new-to-me writers with my parents and brother
who loved them, too,
I understood why Doug couldn’t read my book.
Doug knew his literary shit.

When I mentioned I was submitting a short-story to the Boston Review
Doug was already familiar with the work of the fiction editor, Junot Diaz.
Junot Diaz who five years later won the Pulitzer for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
Doug knew his shit.

I think I was responsible for Doug reading White Teeth by Zadie Smith.
He’d already heard of it, of course,
but I’d like credit for one literary assist.

But Doug wasn’t just about the books.
He struggled with addiction.
He was clean when we met and I later learned
his brother had taken Doug into the woods
and belted him to a tree while he went through withdrawal.

 A few years back something changed for Doug
And he started using again.
I’m trying to remember what, if anything, I did to reach out.
I think I sent some emails and left a few unreturned voice mails
But mostly I kept out of the way.
I knew it was something Doug had to do himself
And I waited for him to get back in touch after he’d beaten those demons.

On March 5, the demons won.
Doug died of an overdose.
In an alley.
54 years old.

I can’t believe he’s really gone.

Last night I broke the news to the boys.
Zebu said he had no memory of Doug.
Wildebeest told us about conversations he and Doug had at the spaghetti dinner.
Jokes they shared.
Wildebeest told Zebu, “You would’ve liked him.”
I told Zebu, “You did like him, you just don’t remember.”

My heart hurts with missing Doug.
He was an extraordinary person
And now he’s gone.
But I’m grateful he’s no longer in pain.
I hope there’s some enormous bookstore in the sky
where Doug is kicked back
discovering the next great voice.

May he rest in peace.


I’m feeling so much better today.
Yesterday I had zero energy
and felt overwhelming sadness on top of other emotions.
This morning I woke feeling like my usual self.

Thank you again for taking the time to share in my pain
and help me sort through the feelings.
Your collective kindness and wisdom brought me back to me.

I am very grateful.