Piggly Wiggly and Me

I was a bag boy. That is to say, my first job was working as a bag boy when I was 17 years old. I started out for a brief few months working at a grocery store chain called Winn Dixie. My family shopped at this store’s competitor, Piggly Wiggly, which was much more prevalent in our town. One day when I was in the Piggly Wiggly where my folks shopped, the store manager stopped me and asked if I wanted a job. I accepted and ended up working there for the next five years. By the time I left, I had advanced to the position of front end manager, which meant I was responsible for supervising all the bag boys, running a cash register when necessary, and scheduling all the cashiers’ breaks. There were plenty of related duties as required, including making coffee and keeping a cup in the manager’s hand whenever he wanted one.

I couldn’t have known it at the time, but I learned so much about life and people during those five years. I witnessed blatant racism and discrimination against black employees. I saw my share of gender inequity too. I saw sexual harassment for the first time. Admittedly, as an older teen and a man in my early twenties, I got away with inappropriate behavior and language that would have earned me a reprimand 20 years later. I had not yet learned to respect people, especially women, as I should. My college education would eventually help me overcome my immaturity in this regard.

I had lived a sheltered life before starting this job. I was raised in a Southern Baptist home, had attended a Baptist private high school, and had very little contact with anyone who drank alcohol or smoked cigarettes, much less weed. Some of the people I worked with at the grocery store had lives drastically different from mine, and I saw glimpses of an unfamiliar world on many occasions. By the time I was 21 years old, I was working closely with women who were anywhere from 10 to 15 years older than I was. There were generous portions of flirtation and provocative language served all around, and more than my share of stupidity. I was a little more than infatuated a few times. And yet, I have no doubt that these women cared about me and had no intention of hurting me. To the contrary. They were incredibly patient with me. I hope they were never truly offended by my childish behavior.

Some of my fondest memories from those days involve the times the bag boys and I had to stay after hours to strip the wax from the floors throughout the store and rewax them. This was a laborious project that kept us working sometimes 5 or 6 hours after the store closed at 9:00 p.m. Most of these guys were slightly younger than I was, and we had developed a bond working so closely together week after week. Sure, we wasted more time than we should have, and we got distracted too often playing practical jokes on each other. Some of the pranks were over the top, and I would never confess them in writing – just hilarious. I had hints from time to time that some of these fellows had much tougher home lives than I could have imagined, and I probably wasn’t grateful enough for the safe environment I took for granted. I made more than spending cash at Piggly Wiggly. I got schooled. I learned to lead. I found new values. I made friends.

I Will Miss You, Rick

I lost someone recently, and the space left behind seems unimaginably large right now. For over 30 years Rick was my close friend, longer than anyone has been a close friend to me. Others were probably friends with him longer than I was, which is quite fortunate for them. I don’t remember the first conversation we had when he came to my church as minister of music and youth. I can’t really say why we forged such a close bond. We had some things in common. We both loved BBQ; we liked bike riding together on farm roads back in the day; we both liked to travel, especially out West; we liked reading and occasionally made book recommendations to one another. In fact, I was reading a book that he had recently recommended when his sweet wife called to tell me Rick had suffered a serious incident with his heart.

We both loved music, but our abilities in that regard were not equal. I’ve always been a lazy musician, learning how to play something just well enough to get by, and he certainly knew it. He never said it, but he knew it. Rick was anything but lazy. He was quite accomplished at the piano, but that’s because he worked and worked at a piece until he got it right. He was like that with a lot of things, which made him so good at what he did in ministry, and then later as a piano technician.

We also shared a similar sense of humor, and for those who know me best, I hope they won’t hold that against him. He was so patient with my endless disruptions during choir practice. We ribbed each other mercilessly, and Facebook was just like . . . fuel. I consider myself so very fortunate to have had the opportunity to talk to Rick less than 24 hours before he passed away. I had texted his wife asking about his condition, and a minute later he called me. He told me he’d had a good day and was feeling much better, which is such a deceptively cruel but common occurrence with critically-ill patients. During the conversation, I said something — I don’t know what — but it was most likely ridiculous, as I am wont to do. Rick chuckled lightly and said, “They’ve got me hooked up to all kinds of monitors here, so I can’t laugh, or I’ll set off the alarms.”

Rick and I certainly didn’t see eye to eye on everything. But that’s not what defines true friendship, is it? One of the many qualities I admired in Rick was how honest he was. He would give it to you straight – always. And if he were able to speak right now and I could hear him, I have no doubt he would say, “The least you could do in my memory is get a haircut.”

I don’t really know what Rick got out of our relationship over the decades. I hope somehow I made life better for him, because he definitely did that for me. What I do know is that I became friends with Rick at a pivotal point in my life. I had serious questions without a lot of good answers. He was only a few years older than I was, but his maturity far exceeded his age. On those Thursday mornings we got together for coffee before heading into work, we had some really deep discussions that I will never forget and for which I am eternally grateful. I told my wife and his, I can’t imagine the world without Rick in it. I’m not going to get used to that. I love you Rick, and I’m going to miss you for as long as I’m still around.

In Memory of My Good Friend, Joyce

I met Joyce in “The Commuter” office at the junior college where I began my tenure in higher education. “The Commuter” was the student newspaper, aptly named because there were no residential students at the institution. As I recall, the office was just a small interior room in the student union building, which also housed the offices of student services, a short-order grill, and a room with several billiard tables where I spent way too much time as a freshman resulting in a quarter marked with the stigma of scholastic probation.

By the time I met Joyce, I was gaining clarity and getting more serious about academics, learning to accept some of the responsibility that accompanied the freedom of the college experience. I had also given up on the dream of majoring in biology after encountering chemistry at the college level and discovering it was nothing more than higher math hiding behind glass beakers and Bunsen burners. English classes were always my favorite in high school and where I consistently made the best grades. With encouragement from advisors and after a careful look at the curriculum requirements, I decided an Associate’s Degree in Journalism would be my best hope of staying in school. A wonderful benefit from choosing that path was the friendship I developed with Joyce.

Joyce must have been about 40 years old when I met her. She would have been labeled as a non-traditional student by the college faculty. I’m almost certain she was divorced by then and had several sons, probably ranging from teenagers to young adults. I do not recall if she was returning to school or if she had just decided later in life to pursue a college education. I also don’t remember if she were actually seeking a degree in journalism or just liked writing for the newspaper. I don’t know if she ever received a degree. Our friendship started in 1979, so my recollection of details that long ago is foggy.

Joyce was a contemporary of the two professors, a man and a woman, who ran the journalism program. It was a new experience for me to have a classmate who was halfway in age between me and my parents (I was a “late” child). Junior colleges and community colleges tend to attract nontraditional students, and our institution was no exception. I knew several others by name, but I didn’t associate with them outside our mutual classes, nor did I stay in touch with them after graduating. I knew at the time that Joyce’s life was not an easy one, a stark contrast to my own. She had challenges that I simply could not appreciate at the time – a single mother trying to make ends meet while going to college and taking care of the mundane frustrations of adulthood. Honestly, I will never fully comprehend how tough her journey must have been.

After graduating from the junior college, I left my hometown to pursue my education further at another state school about 45 minutes away; however, I continued to come home on the weekends to work at a grocery store, go out with a girlfriend from high school, wash clothes, and attend church. Being raised in a Southern Baptist church, that last part of the routine was expected and not even questioned. When I wasn’t out on a weekend date, I would often visit Joyce, usually after I left work at 9:00 or 10:00 in the evening. She lived in an apartment complex not far from my home. Perhaps she still had a son living with her at that time, but I don’t recall seeing anyone regularly.

When I arrived, Joyce would ask if I wanted her to put on a pot of coffee, and I imagine the answer was “please” most of the time. She typically drank instant iced tea during my visits. Even though I was of legal age by then, I was always under the influence of Baptist temperance and never alcohol. I don’t remember ever seeing Joyce imbibe. We would sit at her kitchen table sipping our drinks and smoking cigarettes. Joyce was practically a professional smoker, never letting more than a few minutes pass without lighting up. By comparison, I was a novice, only picking up smoking while being around it so much at work and with the journalism students. Although I never would smoke around my parents (my father had quit when I was a child), my mother knew I was doing it and was greatly disappointed.

I’m sure there were plenty of times when Joyce would rather have been alone or was too exhausted to spend a late evening with me, but she never failed to open the door. I probably never called in advance – just showed up like the impertinent, clueless guy I was back then. I don’t know how many times I stayed past midnight, but it was more than once or twice. We sat at that kitchen table and had conversations deeper than my green intellect and Bible-saturated head could properly process. We talked about life, death, love, sex, religion, and more. She was widely read and had a sharp, critical mind. She was full of compassion and never judgmental, but she hated injustice and had no time for moral superiority. Although I don’t remember, I must have taken my guitar with me a few times and sang for Joyce – probably to get her opinion on songs I was composing. I shudder to imagine what she thought of my efforts, but I’m certain she smiled and encouraged me just the same.

Sometimes Joyce would tell me about the latest trouble one of her sons had landed in, which usually involved an arrest and charges for violations associated with drug use. Her eldest son was the one who no doubt kept her up at night when I wasn’t around. She spent so much time pleading with law enforcement officers, prosecutors, lawyers, and influential friends, always defending him unconditionally regardless of the circumstances. Her love was true and unwavering.

After earning my B.A. in English, I decided to stay on at the same college and work towards an M.A. in history. I started working on campus and had no reason to return home every weekend, which meant my visits to see Joyce eventually ended. However, we stayed in touch through correspondence after I graduated, got married, and started a family. I can recall getting thick envelopes with multiple pages of hand-written letters from her, filled mostly with her thoughts about current events and books or the latest news, good or bad, about her sons. She was a much better correspondent than I was. I kept her letters in a box for many years, and I painfully regret that at some point I disposed of them, probably during a move to a new house.

In the mid-1990s, Joyce was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor that would ultimately take her life. She got in touch with me and asked me to sing two songs at her memorial service that was going to be held at the Unitarian church. I have no idea if Joyce was a member there or ever attended, but Unitarianism would have been about the only brand of Christianity Joyce could have tolerated. Up to that point, death was more of an abstraction to me, manifested primarily in family visitations and funerals. Joyce’s death was perhaps my first real confrontation with mortality. I visited her once while she was in the hospital to talk about the songs. I was woefully unprepared to fathom the finality she was facing, and I remember asking her, “How are you doing?” She could have easily shot back with, “How the hell do you think I’m doing? I am dying for Christ’s sake!” Instead, she told me she was having a lot of anxiety but that the doctor was giving her medication to help. Gracious, as ever.

Her request was that I accompany myself on the guitar and create two medleys of four songs in the following combinations: “Graceland” by Paul Simon and “In Your Time” by Bob Seger along with “Circle” by Harry Chapin and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” a popular Christian hymn written by Ada R. Habershon in 1907. I was more nervous singing those songs than I had ever been up to that point. I had to get it right – no mistakes. I suppose I did. I was honored that Joyce had asked this favor of me. But now, 25 years later, I understand clearly that I didn’t do Joyce a favor at all. Like so many times in the past with our late-night conversations, her sage advice, her endless patience, and her enduring friendship, Joyce was giving me one last gift. She was confirming that I mattered to her, and that my modest musical talent was a worthy expression of my love for her. I am forever grateful, and I am a better human being because of Joyce.



A Moment in Time

People travel for a variety of reasons.  Even people who travel for pleasure don’t all have the same agenda.  We may be looking for simple relaxation, thrilling adventure, outdoor recreation, breathtaking scenery, cultural or historical education, stimulating enlightenment, or something altogether different.  Generally, we are looking for an experience that transcends our day-to-day lives.  We seek a opportunity to look at the world with fresh eyes, to be somehow transported if only for a brief time.  And, we really don’t have to be in some romantic or exotic location.  It can happen so unexpectedly, not because of our plans but in spite of them.  It can also happen in an unlikely place — not at all where we anticipated “the magic” would occur.

Several years ago, my wife and I took a trip to San Francisco.  We stayed for about a week at a good friend’s house in Port Richmond, a neighborhood in Richmond, California overlooking the bay.  It was my first time to the west coast, so we acted like true tourists and visited Muir Woods, the wine country, various places in and around the city, and even took a drive down Highway 1 along the Pacific coast and spent the night in Carmel.  It was fabulous.  On one afternoon during our vacation, we met up with a young man who is a family friend who lives in the city.  He took us to some of his favorite hiking spots at Land’s End and other locations around the entrance of the bay.  We came back to the Port Richmond house and settled out on the deck overlooking the bay.  We had a few drinks and took the time to catch up with him as the afternoon drifted towards evening.  We were enjoying each other’s company and the comfortable weather so much that we decided to have pizza delivered instead of going out for dinner.

Sunset over San Francisco Bay
Sunset over San Francisco Bay









We continued to sit on that deck after the pizza was devoured and talked for hours.  As we sipped on drinks, we watched the sun slowly sink behind the top of the distant hills to the west beyond the Richmond–San Rafael Bridge and marveled as the lights of the bridge and its endless stream of vehicles began to glow with evening’s approach.  We talked and laughed about life, our memories, our hopes and fears.  We soaked up the beauty of the bay at nightfall. There was nothing spectacular about the meal, although the setting was certainly enchanting enough.  We were together, enjoying each other’s company, completely immersed in the now — the right then and there.  We had not necessarily planned for the day to end this way.  There was no remarkable event, no famous landmark, no fanfare at all.  Still, it was somehow wonderful, and I knew it would be impossible to replicate.  I took a photograph of the sunset from the deck to commemorate the occasion. Anytime I can stumble upon a moment like that, I get the sense that I have done more than travel.  I have taken a journey.