Author Archives: Juancho

These Days

I am no fan of baseball. I did not play little league, or round up the neighborhood lads for a pick-up game as a child. The briefest thought of attending some endless contest abbreviated by trips to the mound by some shuffling manager to mumble into his hat while the pitcher nods like a bobber is enough to send me into narcoleptic shivers.

So long ago we were in Savannah, sharing pizza on the square, strike squads of drunken bachelorettes marauding through the front lines of industrious hustlers looking to cop a cigarette, dollar, or drink for a palmetto rose. It is a spring wedding on a Monday morning. I’m swirling the ice in a greyhound, hugging the grooms-people and bride-persons smiling over a shoulder at a knockout brunette. She is my wife and to watch us you would think all we do is attend the events of the season and show strangers photographs of our apricot poodle.

Now I am on a plane to Detroit. My eleven-year old best friend and I on an adventure. It is her first flight, and my first flight responsible for a child. She is excited and I am nervous. She charms the TSA agent, the flight attendants, and our somewhat milquetoast seatmate from Ohio. Oh she is really something, showing no mercy disarming all she encounters like she is dizzying pheasants and gently laying them on the mulchy cool ground.

That night I lay back on a creaky futon,victorious, while she and her dad execute the Country Pretzel in a living room of temporary housing.

The next morning the world stops. A sickness envelopes the land, everywhere. Savannah, GA is sick. Detroit, MI is sick. New Delhi, Sao Paulo, Moscow, and Scott’s Bluff, Nebraska are sick, sick, sick. We walk empty streets and get the best table in every restaurant. We sit in the apartment watching the news. I surreptitiously reserve a car in case the airlines shut down. Escape from Detroit by any means necessary.

The airlines do not close, but they may as well do so. We fly down I-94 in a black Excursion. Our driver says not in 30 years has he seen the roads so empty at this hour. I pay him sixty dollars and tip him another twenty. Competence is cherished in dangerous times. “Bil-tawfiq” he says as he hands us our luggage. “What does that mean?” whispers the eleven year-old. “It is Arabic for listen to your uncle very carefully today and do not touch your face.”

The next two weeks every day is Monday morning or Saturday night. I convince myself I feel the virus niggling at my mind, or is that my chest? I wake up sweating, but it is only anxiety and I wipe my face with a cold, damp washcloth, staring at the mirror, asking the face in front of me if I will get it. Do I have it? Two weeks go by without incident or symptom. The clock starts over at the grocery store, when I went to my mother’s house, Walgreens,-restart the clock, the gas station, -re-start the clock. I am even now only six days into a fresh two weeks because a friend touched my door knob and entered my house in search of alcohol. A mistake akin to lighting a cigarette in the trench at night, punishable by death, but whose?

Every evening is the same. The leash, the collar, the lush green trail, then the park. We walk as long as the dog wishes. I carry a beer in my hand, another in my back pocket. These walks are celebrations. Every one we take is a defiant stand against the disease. We are fine. We will be fine.

Due to my disdain for the game, I am caught off-guard when the ping of an aluminum bat shanking a foul over the fence into the playground catches in my throat. Ping! Again. Ping! Again. A father, round as a bowling ball, is lobbing balls in with finesse, and his son swings a split-second too late, over and over, sending ball after ball over the side fence. We stop on the sidewalk across the street and watch. I want this for them both so badly it is ridiculous. I wipe tears away to focus on that point of contact, bat to ball. They pause. Dad summons the batter to the mound and he murmurs. His son nods along, bill of his cap poking to the ground like an Egret spearing fish. Back at home plate the bat comes to his shoulder. I notice his father’s fingers fanning out just so as he releases the ball and then ping, the ball is stinging low and straight beyond dad’s reach and landing between second and center field. I’m clapping and cheering, they pause confused. Dad raises his mitt or glove in a mild salute, not necessarily appreciating my fervor. I can’t help it though. I am now a fan of everything.


Just Outside the Frame

We went to a parade on Saturday morning, for military veterans, which would draw him like a wise man to Bethlehem. We walked from our home on Redberry Farm through the neighborhood of Woodland Heights into Cascade park. I had him on my mind, and I would name him here, but I fear I have no right to do so– the boy that would sleep in the woods, and the man on the go loping across Tallahassee knapsack unraveling, weighing down like a sack of wet cotton. From the park we climbed the bank of the highway onto the shoulder then the sidewalk, police officers already stationed to block the traffic below the Capitol. Just the other side of the road is the hotel where he used to sleep– not in it, but behind it by the retention pond where the big red buses idle in the night. That’s where he was staying right before I started solving problems he didn’t have, me the one unable to bear him being homeless, which he told me time and again was a bargain price to pay for intellectual freedom and a currency of time and self-determination I could never understand.

We set up on the corner, sunshine dripping on this caramel apple of a day, citizens lining themselves along the route with folding chairs, cotton candy, and strollers. A woman selling boiled peanuts and water from a cooler in a wagon caught my attention and I swear I saw him slip behind her. Cold needles ran down my arms and legs, sweat beading on my scalp, knowing it could actually be him, as this whole long year I’ve yet to find the evidence he died. It could also be his ghost, which will surely haunt me to my own deathbed, and if I see anyone waiting across the gauzy haze it will likely be him.

I follow him with my eyes until I see in profile it is not him at all, but one certainly of his kind– sliding through the crowded downtown absorbing all around him with a curious bespectacled eye. He loved Tallahassee, or he loves Tallahassee, and Tallahassee loved and loves him too. When I learned of his death, rumored to have occurred on a bridge in Mobile, AL I searched all combinations of “bridge” “John Doe” “Black Male” “Suicide” and I still do, and still I find nothing. The trail cools quick and we must accept it.

When someone precious is lost, and we all of us are precious, I swear to my own heart I will build a towering monument of fire to the heavens in their honor, commit countless acts of noble grace in their name, devote my dwindling days to guaranteeing they will not be forgotten– then,the dream deferred, explodes; and the falling ash frosts my lashes as guilt and regret, because the thing you want to do can’t be done. There is not enough time. Not enough me. The person is actually, and matter-of-factly, gone.

Others out there remember too, but there is no social club for mourning, no projections of the deceased’s face on the clouds across the sky, no tattoo or car window decal in memoriam. Somewhere around town there must be others who still see him too? Head down in a pained posture as he perseverates on the collapse of our civic institutions, striding like a knight through Frenchtown towards the library and anywhere else a prince remains welcome in his kingdom that forgot him.

I Shall Sleep in the Woods

He was eleven or twelve years-old when his caseworker dropped him off at the shelter. That is what we call the people who we pay, barely, to stand in for the missing parents who would otherwise tend to the menial needs of their children. These children are cases, and someone must work them.

“I shall sleep in the woods” he told me, his chin imperiously lifted as high as he could, deigning to deny this nightmare of humiliation. His caseworker went inside the shelter to sign his intake paperwork while we stood in the dusk of evening at impasse.

“What will you eat?”

“I will forage for edible plants and roots.”

“How will you stay warm?”

“I will build a shelter and insulate my clothes with leaves.”

He squinted at the trees bordering the parking lot. He wouldn’t get glasses for many months yet. Caseworkers have more than one case, more like forty at a time, and all of the unclaimed children must be worked according to the most acute need of the given day. The paperwork for acquiring prescription glasses for a ward of the state is daunting, and hard to accomplish on the dashboard of a car.

“What should I do?” I ask the boss.

“Let him go to the woods of course. He will get hungry eventually and come inside. It has to be his choice”

He sits in the woods, cross-legged, scooping leaf litter and pine needles up against his legs and busying himself with close inspection of the flora for potential sustenance. I sit with him, uninvited and unwelcome, and try to appeal to reason. There is nothing to be done about his situation today, and why not come inside and eat dinner, take a shower, and watch a movie with the other kids? He explains to me very slowly, as though I am not very bright and he must simplify his words so I can understand their meaning– “I did not ask to come here.” A co-worker brings us each a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and some kool-aid. I eat mine. He does not acknowledge his at all.

It got dark. I don’t remember when he decided to come inside, but he did, and confirming his worst fears, he stayed with us for a long time.

He introduced me to the the poem Mother to Son, by Langston Hughes. He had copied it word for word on notebook paper and he carried it, and many other things, in a backpack bursting with words and ragged at the seams. I bring him my 1935 Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, one of my most treasured possessions, and tell him he can keep it as long as he stays at the shelter. He tries to refuse it, reminding me that the place is full of filthy children who do not know how to act right. Undisciplined and driven by pop culture and hormones, they have no respect for other people’s things. I tell him I don’t care and he wraps it in a plastic garbage bag and hides it far back under his bed when he is not using it.

Maya Angelou came to town, and by virtue of being in social services, we get tickets. He, another resident, one of the few he could tolerate, and myself.

We sit in the balcony at Ruby Diamond auditorium on the campus of Florida State University, in Tallahassee, Florida. When Maya takes the stage the formal theater erupts in applause, but rising above the clapping is his hooting and shouting. His smile so wide with joy I thought the top of his head would fall off. He points at her, raises his hands to the ceiling, testifying all the while shouting, “You go Miss Angelou!” I am shocked. I have never seen him act like this, without reserve. The people around us all smile, supportive of this young, gangly black boy losing his cool over an elderly poet. Below us, in the spotlight at center stage, hearing the cheers of children, she looks up at us with her own huge smile and she bows low. This stands as one of my greatest memories in this life. After the performance, we wait with a throng outside to watch her exit the theater to her waiting limousine. A security perimeter is established and when Ms. Angelou appears the crowd breaks out in a quiet, subdued applause.

Movement flashes in the corner of my vision and then the other young lady in my company is at the door of the limo, leaning in, and a police officer is scrambling to catch up when he stops in his tracks, at a word from inside the car. My young ward and I watch aghast, as our audacious companion receives a hug and a few whispered blessings from this icon. Later, when we beg her to tell us what was said, she says, “I can’t. It was just something between black girls.”

Years go by.

I see him around town from time to time, always on the move, always with that over-stuffed back-pack. He is a writer now, and an autodidact of the highest order. Politics, jazz, literature, he has pieces underway on all fronts, but he is hard-pressed to finish anything he says, because he is so swept away with David Mcullough’s biography of John Adams that all he wants to do is finish reading it. I ask him where he is staying and he is evasive.

He shows up at my door unexpected. I’m not sure how me found me. My profession is expected to draw firm lines between professional and personal boundaries and this is clearly one of those times. He is now 25, and I have not worked a shift in a shelter in 8 years, and anyway what would you do? He is coughing with a deep rattle in his chest, and his face is ashen. I bring him inside, self-conscious of my personal space, but it is cold and wet outside and there is just no other option. I issue him a towel, soap, wash cloth and harangue him to go clean up while I find him some clean clothes and heat up some food. It’s like we are back in the shelter, which for me are such good memories. He does not want help, but he does need it. He spends a few days on the couch, going to the library during the day while I work. He gets better. I explain that he probably needs to work on a permanent living situation. He apologizes for the intrusion, I say “No, no, no it’s not like that.” It’s too late, I have offended his delicate pride. Again. This is a recurring mistake on my part.

Years go by

He works at Wal-mart as an overnight stock supervisor. He loves it. He has an apartment. We bump into each other and chat about local politics. He arrived at the shelter a child, but with a fully mature belief in the principles of small government and conservative values. He is enthusiastic about the campaign of a local journalist aspiring to a county commission seat. He spends most of his free time volunteering to help her win, which she does. I see him the night of her victory party and it is November, and cold, and he tells me he has lost his apartment until he can pay some back rent. I bring him home, but by now I am married. My wife has met him, and shares the same affection for this eccentric, absolutely bafflingly original person that I do. It is no trouble to have him at the house except we have a new dog who barks relentlessly, and our place is a shoebox, so he recuperates for a few days and then he is off again, because we can’t just move him in of course, not that he would accept the offer anyway.

Years go by

He leaves Tallahassee. He is not well, and he believes I am conspiring against him through secret chat boards, in league with his arch-nemesis at Wal-mart. I correspond with him by email, pleading with him to know that this is not true. He is scathing in his condemnation of my own faux-intellectual posturing, my adherence to charitable largess that only serves to keep people beholden to a state that does not have their best interest heart, a state that is not satisfied with just keeping him down, but that is in actuality designed to destroy him. Due to his towering intellect and bottomless pain, he is ruthlessly accurate and specific in his assessment of my abilities as a writer, a social worker, a man, and a human being.

I remember my training from working at the shelter. Spring-loaded front teeth was our creed, a metaphor for absorbing the verbal attacks and the ugliness that comes from children who understand that their footing in the world is slipping beneath them, and therefore those of us whom they meet as they fall are by definition bad. It’s true. The best youth crisis shelter in the world is a horrible place for any child to find themselves. They can knock our teeth in, but our teeth are spring-loaded, and pop right back out. I mourn the loss of our friendship, but I understand that is irrelevant now. He is in trouble, and as ever, he does not want help.

I heard that he left for Atlanta, and was living downtown in the Sweet Auburn area. I take that to mean he is homeless. He was never afraid of being homeless. He accepted it as a necessary sacrifice to pursue his independent studies, to be beholden to no person, to answer only to the self.

And now I learn that he is dead. Gone. I don’t know what happened. I hear he was last residing in New Orleans, which for him must surely have been heaven, and equally hell. It doesn’t matter where he was, or how he died, not much anyway.

What matters is that we failed him.

Mother to Son

Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So, boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps.
‘Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

Langston Hughes


A Long Day in God’s Country

I wrote this for my work newsletter, so it is in my newsletter voice, but I’m very proud to be affiliated with this organization, and their community needs them back on their feet as soon as possible.

October 10, 2018- 1:42 p.m.: Hurricane Michael makes landfall in the Florida Panhandle on Wednesday afternoon, just northwest of Mexico Beach, FL, coming ashore not far from Panama City as “an extremely dangerous” Category 4 storm, according to the National Hurricane Center.
Two hours before the storm made official landfall, the outer bands had already knocked out the power at Hidle House, the emergency shelter for Anchorage Children’s Home in Panama City, FL. Inside at the time were 9 youth and 3 staff prepared to shelter-in-place at their well-fortified concrete building outside of the mandatory evacuation zone. Reading through the daily log I can see that all youth slept well through the night after a day where they were described as nervous, but excited, to see what Hurricane Michael would bring.
They had no idea. None of us did.
The residents from another Anchorage group home facility were evacuated to Hidle House due to a mandatory evacuation order for their location, and the confidence in the bunker-like structure of their headquarters. The log entry for 11:07 A.M. reads-

Late entry/ 30 minute check: All in living area. McElvey group home youth in back area. Power out. Tubs filled with aux water. Gulf Power has been contacted about power outage.

It seems optimistic in hindsight, like the storm would be an inconvenience, and the power company would be out later that day to restore electricity. If only that were the case. As the storm bore down on the entire panhandle region at 2 mph shy of Category 5 strength, the youth care staff at Hidle House continued to follow policy and procedures and care for the physical, mental, and emotional needs of 9 youth who, without them, would be somewhere out there in the storm.

Log entry/ 12:49 PM Window broke in area McElvy youth were in, all youth now in living area together.

Log entry/ 1:01 PM All youth secure in living area.

Log entry/ 1:30 PM From our limited points of view the building has weathered considerable damage. There is flooding and pieces of ceiling missing in several parts. All youth (McElvy and Hidle) secure in the living area with multiple staff members.

Log entry/ 2:46 PM Checks are behind with the hectic situation. Select staff were using the calm in the storm to assess damage. For 2:30, all youth in living area. Power out and it is hot and dark. The youth are calm and collected.

As the storm passed only those that were there know what thoughts they had, what horrible possibilities they were forced to consider. As cell towers fell and the entire electrical grid for the region was ripped down and shattered for hundreds of miles, the staff continued to document these extraordinary events according to the expectations for the duties outlined in their mission statement, to be an anchor for today’s children, and tomorrow’s families.

Log entry/ 4:34 PM- All youth in living area trying to clean up

That’s right. Let it forever be known that Anchorage Children’s Home, and the Hidle House emergency shelter for youth officially entered the Recovery phase of Hurricane Michael before the storm left town, and the youth we care for, were caring for us too.

The log continues on to show that the staff started the generator, and lights and fans were working. Medications were administered on schedule. Some children refused to eat sandwiches for dinner because they had sandwiches for lunch, which just shows us the true resiliency of the teenage spirit. Throughout the night of October 10, and into the twilight hours of the next morning, the youth and staff at Hidle House worked to clean up the shelter after the first Category 4 hurricane in recorded history to ever make landfall in the Florida panhandle. There were no reported arguments. There were no attempts to run away. They stuck together. They took care of each other.

I have recorded these facts as faithfully as I could, but like war, the fog that occurs in a disaster makes reality a murky thing. I do know that at 10:45 the next morning, Executive Director Joel Booth arrives on-site to coordinate the evacuation of all youth and staff from Hidle House. They successfully arrived at their sister Florida Network program in Crestview, the Lutheran Services of Florida Hope House, where they were enthusiastically welcomed. Joel contacted me from a borrowed cell phone and told me a story that will become legend for us at the Network office. As he was emerging from his own terrifying experience at home, his family safely away with friends, his neighborhood unrecognizable and impassable, Anchorage staff members Mike Bauer and Michel Marquez emerged through the rubble and one of them said to Joel, “We need a boss, Boss, let’s go.” And with that rallying cry, they marched back to the shelter together.

So forgive me if I overly dramatize these events, or if we find that two children squabbled in the dank heat after the storm. In the face of a disaster of this scale, to perform the ordinary is indeed extraordinary. I often say an organization is only as good as their front line staff, and Anchorage Children’s Home is very, very good.

If you are able to donate to the recovery efforts for the Anchorage Children’s Home, their staff, and the families they serve, please donate directly through their website at


Harry’s Hapless Plan

A true story, dedicated with gratitude to Harry Havery, and inspired by the compassionate leadership of Coach Richard Bozeman.

I never hold a grudge.

To hold a grudge is to coddle it, and allow it to believe it is dependent on you. I cannot have that. I work my grudges, push them and starve them, withholding my love and attention until they become lean and resilient things that stalk the earth far beyond my time here. I try not to accumulate too many, so that I can focus my discipline on building that esprit de corps among my resentments that sets their shoulders back and lifts their chins above the faltering, feckless grudges so common they do not warrant a mention. Here in this public forum I could say I am not proud of this pastime of mine, sanding the imperfections off of my grievances until they shine like mirrors, but it would not be true. I fear the loss of, or worse, the resolution of any one of the affronts in my collection would crack me at the knees and leave me a refugee, undefined.

Perhaps I am bored now? Perhaps a little pas a doble with self-destruction is the thrill I need? At Bucky McMahon’s invitation to participate in this event I felt I had to suffer an experience as he does, and let the story of that suffering become the final draft, so I decided to dig deep into my catalog of grudges and attempt the unthinkable, resolve a vintage high school grudge.

1985, Sebring, Florida. I am in 10th grade and I am not a jock, or a prep, or a stoner, or a hick. I am a breakdancer. We are few in number being so far from New York City, 1,100 miles far specifically. I have no idea what the Bronx is, but I nod knowingly at graffiti on trains carrying phosphate out of Frostproof. We gather behind Garino’s Pizza off of Lakeview Road and spin on cardboard to mixtapes playing on a 12 D Battery Boombox. We go to The Loop skating rink on Friday nights, but we don’t skate, just practicing backspins and windmills on the polyurethane floors. We anoint ourselves with noms de guerre- Fresh Kid, Mr. Spin, The Floor Doctor, The Dynamite Kid, Shortrock, and DJ Joe.

Our crew, the Defenders of Funk, and our best friends and rivals the Kool Rock Kids dream of making a trip to Orlando to serve notice to the big city locals at Club Electric Avenue. None of us have been, but we hear rumors they can headspin.

Harry Havery is a senior, and Sebring famous if anyone can be. Harry can play guitar, like real songs, and he plays a Fender Stratocaster. His hair is blond, curly, and down to his shoulders. He is not caught up in the music of the times, 80’s synth-pop and commercialized New Wave. At 16 years-old Harry is an anachronism already. He is a disciple of the Beatles, or what people like to call real music. I don’t know if people thought Harry was cool, but Harry Harvey was known. I didn’t know of anyone who disliked Harry. He could stand at the center of a pep rally or a Christmas Assembly and work the crowd in between songs. To this day I don’t know how he learned to play, or why. To me Harry was born with leather cuffed boots and a vest over a KISS t-shirt. It was all so surprising when we first heard the rumors about something called, “Anti-Breaker Day.” Facts were hard to come by, but we understood it was about us, and not in a good way. Since the summer before we had trouble with whom I would consider the popular kids, mostly good Christian children from respected local families. They played sports and dated cheerleaders and high-steppers, our school’s performance dance squad of sequined choreography. These guys would cruise by us wearing paper Burger King crowns and flip us off or do some clownish dance moves to mock us. We hated them, hell, I still hate them for that. They acted as if, and they knew it to be true, this sleepy orange grove town was theirs to inherit. The Burger King Breakers were the ones who ran with Harry’s hapless plan of Anti-Breaker Day, and whatever his original intention, it became a different thing.

The Defenders of Funk and the Kool Rock Kids held a summit in 2nd Hall, our turf at Sebring High School. Emissaries were dispatched to 3rd hall, the territory of the metal-heads, the stoners, and the kids generally associated with shop class. “Are you down with 2nd Hall?” was our question, which shortened to the coded reference, 2nd Hall Down, which stuck like a modern-day hashtag. We knew many kids had their reasons to despise those first hall assholes as much as we did. We shared 2nd hall with a large clique of black kids, basically all black kids who had not distinguished themselves enough to emigrate to the band crew, student council, or the big three- football, basketball, and baseball. The Dynamite Kid, Shortrock, the Floor Doctor, and me the Fresh Kid, negotiated treaties and solemnly shook on alliances to stand against the assault, when it came. DJ Joe said Harry Havery started it, and he was going to take care of him personally. He showed us a 10 inch piece of lead pipe with Harry’s name on it. Notice was given to all breakers that to come to school not in full regalia on Anti-Breaker day was treason, and 2nd Hall Down offered no second chances, not with us was the same as against us. Sharp lines were drawn throughout the student body.

1n 1979 Detroit Disc Jockey, Steve Dahl, organized and promoted “Disco Demolition Day” between a doubler-header at Comiskey Park. Attendees got in cheap if they brought a disco record to throw in a giant bin which would be blown up in the outfield between games. I speculate that Harry was thinking of this event when he promoted Anti-Breaker Day, just a tongue-in-cheek repudiation of the new, in favor of the familiar, a story so ancient it traces back to an apple, found on a tree, and all the calamity of new things.

I don’t remember on what day of the week Anti-Breaker Day fell, but I remember showing up very early to secure my redoubt before the gauntlet of Burger King Breakers had time to mobilize. There was a banner, hung right across from the office, and it read ANTI-BREAKER DAY in red letters, at least in my mind. I was scared, but also excited. I belonged to something. One by one my fellow breakers showed up, minus a few, who can live in their shame. DJ Joe locked Harry’s lead pipe and his boom box in his locker. This unassailable control of the morning soundtrack was a stroke of tactical genius. 2nd Hall would play our music, and no one else’s. Afrika Bambatta and his Soul-sonic Force, Egyptian Lover, and the Boogie Down Bronx, songs that fill my blood with pride and defiance to this day.

Anti-Breaker Day began in a rush as the doors at the ends of both halls opened and two armies marched towards us in the middle. It ended when the king of the shop crowd decked an ancillary metal-head with no affiliation to the Burger King Breakers at all. He should have been on our side for all they cared about a guy like that. It just occurs to me now that perhaps those two had prior beef? With that single punch though, chaos ensued, and all I remember are teachers, principals, and an appearance by the Highlands County Sherriff’s Office. They found Harry’s lead pipe when they opened Joe’s locker to stop the music. DJ Joe was suspended. Me? I slinked off to home room without further incident. That is the sum total experience of Anti-Breaker Day as I recall it.

Given the deep political angst of our country I thought to myself, “What can I do to make things better?” I’m not changing my mind on any of a dozen core issues. My positions and perspectives on those topics are calcified and arthritic in my personality, immutable and painful to exercise. I could however, lighten my load. I could contact Harry Havery, and ask him about that day, and whatever the outcome it would be a known thing, and like it or not Harry would have to help me carry it from now on. I sent him a friend request on Facebook, and he accepted. I wasted no time while I had the courage and I wrote to him, explaining should he cooperate or not I planned to write this story. I was nervous, and feeling as 2nd Hall Down as ever. This is his reply.

I have regretted that day for years. Still haunts me. I was such a jackass in school. Just a complete dick. I pretty much still am, but at least I’m aware of it and I’m trying to make changes. I’m so sorry about that. So sorry. Of course I’ll be happy to talk to you about anything, especially if it helps with forward momentum. I am sickened by the state of divisiveness in our country and world. Breaks my heart to think that I contributed to it at several points in my life.

Well damn it. This was not what I expected at all. With that genuine reply thirty-three years of cherished resentment disappeared. A conversation began, and continues. My remaining grudges stretched themselves out, got more comfortable with all this new real estate available. I see my grudges all a little differently now. I question their loyalty, their genesis, and their facts. Are any of my grudges truly second hall down? For thirty-three years I have told this story on occasion, always making the point that the administration sanctioned Anti-Breaker Day, that the entire establishment was in on it. Harry says no, that is wrong. The principal told him “Sebring Blue Streaks are not anti-anything.” which puts this lump in throat when I think of it now. This doesn’t mean I don’t have my suspicions about certain faculty acting as instigators and provocateurs.

The whole Anti-Breaker Day concept had one card to play, just like Disco Demolition Day, wear a rock t-shirt to school. That was it. Somehow I either forgot, or never knew, that was the desired action as Harry conceived it. Oh the things others will do with our bad ideas. Now I often forget that my stance towards Harry is supposed to be happening in a disciplined environment for the sole purpose of creating this essay. I see him scratching the ears of an orphaned possum on his kitchen table, or liberating a cold iguana from the pool. I’ve become like everybody else who tells me, “Harry Havery is a great guy. He still plays the Christmas show at the elementary schools. You need to let it go.”

Letting go is hard! I don’t want to do it. I want my anger to remain righteous and superior to the anger of those with whom I disagree. My anger is all I have left to remember them by. The Fresh Kid (myself) fell out with Shortrock and DJ Joe over separating families at the border and shipping children to ill-funded and ill-fated holding pens around the country. “Call your Senators” I begged them. “On this one issue stand with me. For this one thing show up and be Second Hall Down with me.” I offered to tell my senators I supported the wall. They refused me. They didn’t believe the news. They blamed the parents for bringing their children. They believe the law must be upheld, and what we witnessed was the law. We called one another horrible things. Short-rock read something I wrote about to him to another friend. I think I said, “Shortrock was always such a sweet guy, he is just so damn stupid he can’t help it.” He left me a drunken voice mail calling me a piece of shit over and over. I hung it up at about number fifteen. We re-connected briefly after that incident. We both tried to walk back our insults, but our backs were already at the wall so there was nowhere left for us to go.

Shortrock and DJ Joe both agree on this one thing that I still can’t comprehend, but I think about it all the time now. They agreed that friends should come before values, and on that premise, I was the turncoat. I was the one wearing my civilian clothes on Anti-Breaker Day. Are they right though? Do we have friends because of our values, or in spite of our values? Apparently not so stupid after all, Shortrock left me with a morality riddle that I don’t think I am up to solving. I’m just another self-righteous piece of shit to him now, and I don’t think I can fix that. I don’t know if I want to fix that.

I won’t call it the end, but at this point in the story the third act delivers this bombshell- I feel closer to Harry Havery than I do to about thirty percent of the Defenders of Funk, Sebring, Florida’s legendary breakdance crew.

Relationships are never static. They are always moving towards distance or intimacy. How bad can things get between us before America leaves itself a voicemail it can’t delete? Gettysburg was known for its trading post and lively taverns once. Srebrenica was known for its soothing thermal spas. Gaza was a lovely city by the sea. As for now, Sebring is known for its racetrack and orange groves, but that can always change.


For Todd

I’m back home after an emotionally and physically draining weekend honoring the memory of my friend and cousin, Todd McClure. I anticipated sharing the following words about him, but it didn’t feel like a long speech situation so I abbreviated this considerably. I don’t know what else to do with it so I’m posting it here on the BRC, where I am the supreme ruler of my universe.

Words fall short in these situations. Spending time with his sons, seeing him in their eyes and their wit, that helps. Hugging his wife, my friend I had not seen in many years, that helps. Being with our tribe of friends and my family, that helps, but nothing can help enough because he is gone, and the world is not fair, and for that, it can kiss my ass. That’s about where I’m at in the ol’ grieving process.

For William Todd McClure 6/30/2018

I had the honor of being Todd’s best man at he and Jennifer’s wedding. In our private moment before the ceremony, he pulled out the ring for me to carry. My hands were shaking. Tears streamed down my face. I had already sweat through my coat. I was a total mess. Todd was perfectly calm and joyful. Forever cool in his seersucker suit, he was all about the business at hand. He gripped me firmly by the shoulders, looked me the eyes and told me “You got this,” and helped me take a couple of deep breaths. I was so emotional because I knew he had found his person, and that she loved him even more than I did, and that he would forever from that point on, be okay without me. Later that evening, at the reception, as I tried to give my toast, I got choked up again, and couldn’t finish what I had to say. One of the last things Todd said to me was that he was so happy I found my wife Melissa, so he knew I was going to be okay without him as well.

To Todd I say, the third time’s a charm buddy. I’m going to get this done today.

I was lucky enough to join this family when my father married Melanie, one of Todd’s aunts, when I was about 12 years old. I remember the first big gathering at the holidays when I nervously joined this horde of cousins, most of them here today, playing soccer in the mud before dinner. Todd was inside though, with a stack of about fifteen books, reading on the couch. I now know that is what we call foreshadowing. In the years Todd and I rambled around the country together, we shared hundreds of quiet evenings reading on some of the more disgusting and dilapidated couches one can imagine. With our other friends and brothers, Darin and Joe, we once completed a 7,600 mile road trip in a series of ever smaller cars. During those years Todd, myself, and many of our friends here today lived mostly in two places- our own heads, and the natural world. The jobs we held and the places we lived were incidental means to our more majestic and noble ends. I recommend such reckless abandon to all of you young ones here today.

Written in second person, a letter to Todd

One of a thousand priceless memories is of our trip into Bighorn Cave along the border between Montana and Wyoming. After 10 hours of scrambling for miles underground it was time to exit the cave by going back up the rope we used to rappel down. We descended into the cave around lunchtime, and now it was late evening, so looking up from the bottom we could only see that circle of stars overhead.
I went first, mainly so I could determine if I was in a crisis, or just a situation.
It turned out the desire to see that sky, and feel the blasting, minus 9 degree wind chill gave me strength and courage to climb ten times the length of the rope. I rose into the safety cage above ground swinging from a steel bar, and hanging there, 100 feet above you, I could not make sense of what I saw. The stars, the mountains, and the sky were all blurred together. I thought my eyes were not working right after so many hours of darkness underground. I could see your headlamp poking up the rope in the big, open chasm beneath me. You were moving steady, grunting, and just getting the job done. You joined me at the top, where I stood gaping into the icy wind. As soon as you looked up you recognized it immediately. As I remember that night, you hung there in your harness, 100 feet above this ancient cavern floor formed two and a half million years ago during the ice age, nonchalant like you were sitting at home on the couch.

“That, my friend, is the Aurora Borealis. The Northern Fucking Lights.” Then you did that chuckle you do when you checkmate someone.

It was true, they were the Northern Fucking Lights, and that was the first, last, and only time I saw them. I would bet money you saw them again somewhere. That spot, on that night, is where I will always remember you, suspended between the ancient mystery of the world we know, and the infinite magic of the worlds we have yet to discover. You were, and will forever be, completely at ease on that rope in between.
Being apart from you all these years never bothered me. Sure I wish we could have been neighbors, or taken vacations together, but we had it too good for too long for me to be that selfish. Neither of us were ever tourists anyway. I thought of our separate lives as two spin-offs to a blockbuster adventure movie. None of us have enough time to live all of the lives we desire, but together, as a tribe we become all things. A part of me stayed out west, built a life, and raised two incredible young men, and a part of you returned to the south and serves kids in crisis every day through me.


When my brother, Tres, moved to Tallahassee in 2003, I got to do it all over again. Yet another in the McClure gang to join forces with, another new set of goals and dreams, another round of nasty couches, and trying to replicate Grandma Jewell’s family recipes. This time, Tres was the best man at my wedding, as well as the caterer, photographer, and chief of security. Thanks to my adventures with Todd, Tres and I had a blueprint to follow, so understand that the daily routines of today absolutely become the folklore of tomorrow, and in the personal mythology that I share with so many of you here, and so many across this earth who can’t be here, there is no greater legend and folk hero than the man we all know simply as, “Cousin Todd.”
Thank you.

Duane meets Two By

Two By and Duane were introduced in the fifth grade by the earnest intentions of an English teacher hoping to score warm fuzzies all around by handing off to Duane a clear shot at making a friend, while to Two By he offered a dependable and affable guide to the general layout and schedule of the school. Duane eyed the chubby new boy wearing shorts in the winter, and assumed that meant he was poor, like Duane, although Duane did have a coat. Two By angled his chin back at Duane and introduced his open hand between them. Duane wiped his palm on his pants and they shook hands. Duane lead them to Miss Crabtree’s Earth Science class in second hall. Once seated, Duane studied the new boy from a row back, his black and yellow Pittsburgh Steelers jersey and ball cap sitting on the desk, his shiny black hair that grew up and out from his head in all directions, and his brown skin. Miss Crabtree invited him to stand up and tell the class his name, which was not yet Two By, and where he was from. “Alaska,” Two By said, and plopped back in his desk again ignoring the stares and whispers of the room. “He’s an Eskimo,” said someone matter-of-factly, and Two by narrowed his eyes, but did not turn around.

After class, following the fat kid with the blotching face through the halls, Two By asked Duane the name of the boy who said, “Eskimo.” “That’s Anthony,” Duane told him, raising his eyebrows in a silent cautionary advisement. “Is he tough?” Duane shrugged, and nodded yes. He thought Anthony was pretty tough, tougher than he himself, anyway. “Anthony,” said Two By to himself, then he cracked his knuckles. Duane’s eyes widened, but he said nothing.

The boys repeated the routine through the rest of their classes, and in between they did get to know each other. Two By lived alone with his father, who hired on as a guard at the Metropolitan Correctional Center. Duane lived alone with his uncle, and when Two By learned this, he put his hand on Duane’s shoulder, and nodded slowly, as if they had reached a deep understanding. “Duane,” he paused for emphasis, take me where Anthony is when the bell rings. A fresh burst of sheen blossomed across Duane’s upper lip and forehead, and speaking against his fear, he nodded, “ok.”

So after the last bell without saying a word, Duane and Two By marched to the bus lines and down the covered sidewalk, Two By stepping out to kick sooty slush balls of ice into the lane methodically. Stopping, Duane’s arm rose to point at a knot of kids, backs hunched against the wind in a circle, and there was Anthony, sweater tied around his waist, mittens in his back pocket, mouth hanging open in a smile. Duane stood locked in place and watched Two By stride right through the group, bumping Anthony hard with his shoulder. The circle expanded immediately in choreographed precision until Two By and Anthony stood alone in the center, facing off. “What’s your problem Eskimo?” said Anthony, right before Two By lifted him over his shoulder and rushing to an open garbage can, dumped Anthony into it headfirst, toppling the can, its middle school contents, and a stammering Anthony onto the sloppy sidewalk. Nobody said a word as Two By walked back to Duane, now an open fountain of perspiration from the hot glare of the limelight. As they walked back down the row to Duane’s bus stop, they heard Anthony jeering, “Fatty Eskimo Two by Four can’t fit through Sweaty Duane’s mom’s door.” Two By turned to go back, but Duane did not, so the still un-defined, but maybe or maybe not Eskimo new kid, followed his new and only friend onto the bus.

Thirteen years later, Sweaty and Two By were still friends, and while Duane rejected his own childhood taunt, even as it persisted in adulthood, Two By introduced himself as Two By to everyone starting the day after stuffing Anthony in the garbage can.


Duane Clocks Out (a story continued.)

“You’re leaving? You? Leaving? Where in the fuck are you going to go? How are you going to get there? What the hell is wrong with right here? You don’t like The Service no more? I went somewhere once and you know what? It sucked. I went. I came back. End of story. Fuck up once shame on them, fuck up twice shame on me right? Are you sick of the clinic? Want something else? I can swap you with Leander. He’s working the Blue Lives Matter gig at the courthouse. They fucking love a black guy working that shit. He might not want to swap, people buying him lunch and taking pictures. A guy tipped him twenty fucking dollars on Wednesday and El said the guy was fucking crying, crying Duane man! Whatever though. You can give it a shot down there if you want, but a white guy working Blue Lives Matter is really just holding down the fort so to speak, not exactly making any headway in the disruption department, certainly nothing that will make the news. It’s not exactly going viral, but to a particular demographic of Cook county voting resident it is still a very fucking big deal. A white guy working Blue Lives Matter? Kind of like guarding base to be honest. What the fuck man, since when do you go anywhere?”

Duane took the folded bills, but Two By didn’t release them- tugging back for emphasis he shrugged at Duane, chin pointed so high his face a triangle,”What the fuck man?” Two let go and Duane slipped the cash into his wallet, the ripping velcro his only answer, he offered his hand, which Two took in a hard shake, “What the fuck D man?” Duane ducked his head in a nodding bow, shrugged back at the only boss he’d ever had, “I’m taking my uncle to Florida. Take it easy. Thanks for everything Two,” and Duane walked back out to the brittle cold wind, sweat saturating his Green Bay parka, feet slushing through the sloppy sidewalk with a feeling very close to happiness.

The Paddle-boat Sonata (Sweaty Duane continued)

Duane stopped the car right at the gates to a state park in Alabama. It was late and the gate was closed. He backed up and pulled into a parking lot, there were no other cars. Fourteen hours south of Chicago Duane drove, creeping down U.S. 41 in a straight line. June found the park on a AAA map and guided them towards this pullout off the road where Duane put the Impala in park and slumped over the wheel, unable to release it. June gently tugged him down across the front seat and covered him with an acrylic Pittsburgh Steelers blanket he packed in their haste. She got out of the car and walked into the tree line to pee.

The air was soggy damp and chilly, but nothing like the cold left behind in Indiana, where summer was still 2 months away. The dome light came on yellowy and dim when she opened the back door, but Duane was unconscious and wheezing into the frayed polyester seat cover. She stretched out on her stomach across the back seat and pulled Duane’s uncle’s mildewed army coat off the floorboard wrapping it around her body she drifted off wondering if Alabama was an Indian name, or an abbreviation of a phrase, “I’ll be back ma?” or “All ‘bout me?” It occurred to June this was only the second state she had ever slept in, and she wondered how many more she might fall asleep in before she got back to Indiana, if indeed she ever did.

Duane woke to the sun piercing the trees through the windshield and onto the side of his drool-covered jowls. He had to rock a few times to get momentum to pull his heft upright to peer into the back seat and see if she was still there, a habit he began that first night she came back to his Uncle’s apartment. He felt the same bemused thrill to see her now, that he felt that first morning, and then dread quickly rushed in as he remembered returning home from the clinic job to find her gone.

The morning calm broke as a squawking timbre echoed from somewhere below causing June to roll over and wrinkle the small worry lines between her eyebrows, but she did not awake, or if awake, she did not rise. Duane took the keys from the ignition so the dinging would not disturb June and he scooched out the passenger-side door feet first. They were above a lake, hundreds of feet below their turnout, and the noise was coming from a white-shirted person with a red hat and a loudspeaker. It was too far away to make out any words, but Duane opened a warm Mountain Dew from the trunk and sat on the granite wall to watch. The trees rolled up on all sides from the lake, in what Duane thought of as Thanksgiving colors, and the road they were on twisted through them until it disappeared into the creased folds of the valley.

Dozens of people, all dressed in the same white shirts and red hats and kerchiefs were lining up in pairs down the length of the dock while the squawker continued the monotone staccato of instructions which blasted from a tower of speakers above a boathouse. June’s shadow, cast by the early rising sun, fell across Duane’s shoulders and she said, “What’s going on?” Without turning around, Duane just pointed to the dock, aligned with little pastel boats on both sides like Jordan almonds placed in a compulsive row by a wedding guest, “I guess it’s a camp?” He offered the can of soda to her, and she took a sip to swish out her mouth before swallowing it down and joining him on the wall to watch.

In pairs the people, who they now assumed were children, loaded into the little square boats and began to push away from the dock and assemble in a bobbing order with a little chuff–chuff of frothy white behind them, “Paddleboats.” Said June. “Like the Lincoln Park Lagoon.” Duane knew what she was talking about, but he passionately avoided all water activities beyond the privacy of a shower. Just the thought of taking his shirt off in public or a t-shirt clinging to his back fat and under his blubbery pecs caused him to go awash in sweat, thereby manifesting his worst fear as he sat there. June did not notice and continued on, as though he didn’t understand, “You pedal them.”

With all campers deployed, the fleet broke into two ranks which rapidly chugged in opposite directions. The water stilled. The squawker fell silent. In this pause, Duane squinted at June his hand blocking the sun in salute, “Thanks for covering me up last night, it got cold, but I wish you’d kept the blanket for yourself.” June shrugged her shoulders, and smiled invisibly to Duane from her shadow. “What is an Alabama?” she said, and then rising up from the lake, came music.

Tinny with static came notes from a piano as the paddle-boats chugged from both directions back towards the dock with purpose. Perfectly spaced apart, each boat fell in rank until they appeared on a course to collide back at the dock. As the two lead boats closed, one yellow as a baby chick, the other chalky red, they veered slightly in opposite directions and the rest, Duane and June watched in wonder. The opposing rows arced in symmetry, lacing between each other in a plait of frothy green wakes never touching or colliding, but easing through each other to the building notes of now a violin, and a harpsichord, joining the piano. As the last boats executed their pass the lead boats were already hundreds of yards out from the dock and beginning to turn in, spiraling the long rows of boats into two churning pinwheels.

Coiled tightly, they paused, as did the music, before a new measure began, a cello, and the two columns of pedalers became one mixed confusion of paddling before the distinct image of a giant treble clef emerged from their efforts and with the last note of a climbing arpeggio, all boats came to rest in stillness and silence.

The sound of cheers and applause broke out from the campers, and rising to their feet Duane and June joined them, June yelling out “bravo! bravo!” so loud the red hat with the loudspeaker craned back towards them, looking above a concrete dam to wave a vague thank you, removing his cap to reveal his bald head as he bowed.

Poetic intermission

I just found the full version of this poem I published on here 10 years ago. I’m not entirely sure what it means, which for me is the mark of a successful piece of writing. Anyway- I give you, The Shit-Can Knight.

The shit-can knight

It is winter but I live for summer-
nothing broken just the frozen ether.
Time on my side nobody lives for never-
just little girls skipping rocks on the sand.
Summer comes and then I live for fall,
and by spring nothing matters at all.
Hammers look for rusty nails and
shit-can knights search for dirty grails.
The hands only want for chopping wood
but guts boil over spill and ooze.
false gods only play cover songs
and they never understand that they don’t belong
where the people live and work and play
ignoring their sins of the day.
False gods shine it all day long
and mmmh-hmmm when they could listen.
It isn’t that they do not care,
pick up the baby-
absent-minded kiss him.