Sunday, July 14, 2013

Living at the Bottom of the Hill

I live at the bottom of a hill. More specifically, my front yard faces the base of one of the steepest slopes in what’s called “The Grand Rounds” of our municipal bike path. On uphill cycling journeys, the sight of this hill generates gritted teeth, groans, and, often, the decision to hop off and push the bike up on foot. On the downhill side, the swift ride to the bottom seems to demand an exclamation from even the most taciturn Scandinavians -- “whee” being the standard utterance for someone who is letting go and letting gravity take over on West Minnehaha Parkway.

One of the happiest harbingers of spring is on that first Saturday afternoon when it’s warm enough for the windows to finally be open all afternoon, not just for a brisk morning airing. With the open-windowed house facing the path across the street, I’m once again connected to the community that’s passing by my door – the wisp of a baby’s wail, being shuttled past by an exhausted parent, the jingling of a heavily tagged dog trotting by, launching my dogs into an agony of “no trespassers!” warning barks.

But when I hear the first exultant “whee” from a cyclist flying down that hill, then I know in my heart that spring has finally made its way to Minneapolis. People cycle on  these paths year-round, but it’s only in spring that the “whees” return.

With every joy there is a sorrow, and, mixed in with all those happy-faced, delighted encounters with terminal velocity, there are also a goodly number of brutal examples of the essential vulnerability of our mortal selves as we combine machines, speed and gravity, fancy bike helmets notwithstanding. When you live at the bottom of a steep cycling hill, you not only hear a lot of “whees” – you see a lot of accidents, too.

I always have big band-aids on hand, and gauze, and ice packs that I can hand off -- for the woman who broke her ankle when a teenaged boy, racing his friends, decided to take a shortcut on the pedestrian path and plowed right into her last August, or for the boy who tipped over his handlebars, cut his lips badly with his own braces, and lost his eyeglasses in the underbrush a few years ago. Ambulances have been called. Seriously bad things have happened, right outside my door.

By those standards, what happened on Tuesday night, even if it resulted in twelve stitches administered to a tiny, but valiant, chin, was pretty mild. I had just stepped outside when I heard a boy’s cry, then looked across and saw the telltale signs – a bike lying flat, a Mom kneeling down over a small figure, an older sister standing by. “Do you need ice, a towel or a band-aid?” I called out, my usual First Aid Menu, here at the Accident Cafe. The mother’s face that appeared, her head snapping up at the offer of help, was wide-eyed, beautiful and worried. “A towel,” she called back, “and thank you.”

By the time I’d raced into my own house and come back out with a dampened towel, the trio had made their way into my front yard, as the injured often do. Bikes were tossed in the grass, the boy sat on the curb, and the mom began to dab at spots on his arms and legs. “Do you think he’ll need stitches?” she asked, tipping his chin up and revealing a very deep and ragged gash. I was conscious that both of them were looking right at me, so my first reaction -- "For the love of Jesus!  Don’t show me that! Now I have to go upstairs and lie down; goodbye!” didn’t seem like such a good idea. I tried to keep my face neutral, because I could tell the boy was watching it closely. “Tell you what,” I said, “Let’s put a few band-aids on it and see what happens.”

The older sister began to assert herself. You can’t be five years old, the ordained boss of a younger brother, and not begin to let everyone present become aware of your opinions on the matter. “This would be his fifth set of stitches,” she archly confided, in a tone that indicated that she was hoping for some tsk-tsking on my part. I just nodded, noncomittally. This is a man, I thought, who leads with his chin.

Once the sting from that first hard slap of reality had begun to wear off, the practicality of dealing with the aftermath of an accident began to emerge. The question is always the same -- what happens next?

“Do you think you can ride your bike home, Theo, or walk it?” the mom asked, in a jolly of-course-you-can manner that fooled no one. Let’s just say here that “Theo firmly declined this offer,” and draw a veil over the actual words that transpired.

“We can drive you home,” I suggested, “and put your bikes in the back of our car.” She thought this over for a moment, then looked up at me with her big, lovely eyes. I could tell I was talking with a woman who had read every single brochure in the pediatrician’s office, twice. “But you don’t have car seats in your car,” she said. Right.

Finally, it was decided that she would run the four blocks back to her house, get the car (with the car seats, thank God), and drive the kids home, then figure out how to have that chin stitched up. As she started to go, she realized that the one hitch in this plan was that she was forced to leave her children with a complete stranger, and she looked back to me for mother-to-mother comfort. “We will not leave this spot,” I promised, patting the very safe-looking grass of the front yard. She hesitated, then turned and ran off.

And that’s how I got to spend some time with Flora, age five, and Theo, age three, who, while a bit battered by recent events, were really the nicest part of my Tuesday afternoon. “The first order of business,” I declared, “is Fruit Roll-Ups and some glasses of water.” Flora’s eyes got very big. “I’ve never had a Fruit Roll-Up before,” she confessed. As I handed over the shiny little packets, their eyes gleamed with the zeal of kids who have seen a lot of baby carrots in their day. I almost said, “Let’s not mention this to mom,” but quickly realized the folly that lay down that particular rabbit hole. Instead I cheerily declared, “First time for everything,” and watched the two of them ravenously gobble down the little packets.

“I think Theo’s teeth are bleeding, too,” she said, peering in at him, but closer inspection revealed a gummy chunk of roll-up between a crevice. She was used to looking at him very closely, I realized, probably out of the corner of her eye, when she didn’t think anyone else noticed.

For his part, the injured party was having a pretty good time. I had an ice pack on his knee, and I kept applying fresh band-aids to a chin wound that can only be described as “gushing.” In the meantime, he busied himself patting the small dog and looking at the big one.

“I think that big one looks like Scooby Doo,” I told Flora. “We’ve never watched that, but I’ve heard about it,” she told me. Oh, you darling children, you've been raised on PBS and baby carrots, and now here you are at the witch's gingerbread house, I worried. Well, they'd have a lot to talk about at dinner tonight.

Theo, I noticed, was wearing a bead bracelet, which spelled out, it was revealed, “Worm.” Asked why, he declared matter-of-factly, “Cause I wuv em.” Flora’s bracelet, appropriately, said “Love,” and she hadn’t forgotten the silent “e” when she’d spelled it, either.

We talked about school, about what books they liked to read. Theo told me he loved a series about pirates who wore “dirt perfume made out of dirt,” and Flora was compelled to tell me, “that’s not a real book.” “But it could be,” I said, “and maybe he’ll write it.” She thought about that for a while.

I wondered what it was that seemed so remarkable about these children, and then I realized:  they were relaxed. Even though something bad had happened, their mom had told them she was going to fix it, and they were going to be okay. They were spending time with strangers, but, based on current experience, strangers turned out to pretty nice, with sugary snacks and dogs to pet. No matter what had happened so far in their short lives, it was clear to me that they have always had a place they can lean into for a bit of rest and comfort. So far at least, there has always been a set of loving hands to hold them up and give them peace.

I thought about the children I encounter at the Crisis Nursery, and the contrast is so marked. It’s as if Flora and Theo are allowed to face life’s dangers from the safety of a big, comfy recliner, always supported by the wise and loving adults who care for them. My nursery kids have usually been dealt the life equivalent of a hard metal chair, the sort with one wonky leg and a spring that snaps shut on little fingers. “Relaxed” is the last word I’d ever use to describe those kids with whom I've spent so much time, so it was strange to have two relatively calm children right there in front of me, even if one of them was bleeding bucketsful onto one of my kitchen towels.

“Mom should be here soon,” Flora said, and lo, there was mom, hustling up the sidewalk. You have a need, and the answer appears. What a good way to start out a life.

I hugged the kids goodbye and told them to wave the next time they rode by, but carefully, please. As they walked away, I could hear Flora telling her mother, “I have something to tell you. She gave us Fruit Roll-Ups.”  I hustled inside, quickly, to put away all the band-aid papers, wash off some spattered blood, and say a small prayer for Theo’s battered chin. 

Friday, July 5, 2013

Seven things I learned at the sno-cone booth

For an unadulterated display of mindless patriotism, summer celebration, stressful family dynamics, addiction-in-the-making and the blank, unholy inability to make a simple decision, there is no experience more educational than staffing the sno-cone booth at the annual Fourth of July picnic in the Tangletown neighborhood of Southwest Minneapolis.

We’ve been going to the parade since 1996, when we wheeled our oldest daughter up to the local high school, tied a balloon to her stroller, and followed the shambling crowd on the five-block-or-so “parade route” over to the local park. Occasionally, we’d even spot an observer -- some bleary-eyed grownup sitting on a front porch, clutching a mug of coffee and wondering why all these wound-up families were shuffling past at such an ungodly hour. For the parent of a young child, ten a.m. is the shank of the day, and we’d wave energetically at our sparse array of spectators, full of energy and good cheer.

Years passed, another child arrived, and we continued to wake with the birds on Fourth of July morning to decorate bikes, tie bandanas around the dogs’ necks and be first in line for the balloons in the parking lot.

Back then, the food was a potluck lunch, served on tables set unhygienically in blazing sunlight (the trees were smaller then), and the games were of the “toss a bean bag in the hole and get a dum dum” variety. But the neighborhood has taken a significant turn upwards in the past 20 years, and the festivities yesterday featured two different varieties of giant inflatables, Guthrie-level face painting and, that ultimate hipster beacon of fun, a food truck. I looked around at the crowd this year, and I was definitely out of my element, especially in terms of fashion.

Several women sported attractive sundresses and chic sunhats, and I saw more fresh pedicures than I could shake an orange stick at. People had painted their children’s buzz cuts to resemble the American flag. There were red-white-and-blue top hats and vests, with a minimum of beer guts or lighted jewelry, once staples of my decidedly blue-collar childhood Independence Days. One had the sense that, later, processco and sparklers, not brats and bottle rockets, would be the order of the day.

At this event, I always wear my WW II shirt, a bizarre bit of Joe Boxer’s less spot-on haberdashery, featuring tiny pictures of Churchill and Roosevelt, plus key battles. One year, it so upset a fellow parade marcher, who had examined it and declared it "warmongering," that I swore to myself that I'd wear it every July 4th until my demise.

But the shirt has gone missing this year – hiding alongside that set of steak knives we misplaced about fifteen years ago, I guess – so I had to settle for my best fifty-cents-at-a-garage-sale purchase ever – a hot pink women’s bowling shirt with “Heather” written in black script over the pocket and “Gutter Galz” on the sleeve. But, even with Heather and my getting-pretty-beat-up paper Independence Day crown, I was no match for the groovily tattooed and snappily dressed folk lining up for empanadas at the food truck. There goes the neighborhood, I could see them thinking, as they shot surreptitious glances over at the slobs manning the sno-cone booth.

And just how did I end up at that booth, wearing my bowling shirt and my paper crown, letting gooey syrup run down my shins? Several years ago, I had sat at this very event, dipping my feet in the lukewarm wading pool (whose contents, I surmise, are 90% chlorine and 10% urine) and realized that my children were no longer hanging directly off me at all times, shrieking. They were, I realized gradually, no longer little kids, but kids. Perhaps, I wondered, it might be time to give back a bit to this event that we had enjoyed so much, giving us, as it did, a chance to leave the house and Wear Them Out a Bit.

The following June, I announced to my family that I had volunteered us all to work a booth at the picnic. “I asked for the sno-cone machine, because I figured it would be cool.” No one seemed overly thrilled with this idea, but I argued that we’d spent enough years lazily holding down a blanket on the southwest edge of the Fuller Park hill, so we arrived for early duty and got to work.

As these things usually turn out, we had much more fun working than we’d ever had lolling. Even during the hottest years, we have stayed cool at our icy station – well, at least our hands have. We have run into lots of people we knew, gotten up-to-date on neighborhood gossip and enjoyed the perfect perch for people-watching. This year was no exception. So, distilled for your reading pleasure like a full gallon of iridescent sno-cone syrup, here are several of the more trenchant observations of Team Sno-Cone, 2013 version.

1.     Everything is more fun with kids
Of course I love my practically grown-up teenagers, but I firmly believe that all social activities are more fun with a soupcon of children. This year, I invited my friend Tammy’s two darlings, Mike and Maren, to assist at the booth. They made everything about 25% more fun, and the obvious delight they took in being the big kids behind the counter made all of us happier.

2.     There is a Zen of filth
When you’re covered from fingernail to sneaker with drippy, sticky, gooey syrup, there is only one logical choice to make – just go with it. Ever since the year our booth was next to the Girl Scout Troop’s cotton candy maker, we discovered that the filth of syrup is not, by any stretch of the imagination, the worst kind of dirt. Try being up to your elbows in hot, hairy cotton candy, and sno-cones will start to look like a clear mountain stream.

Once you can decide, “I am just going to be sticky and disgusting,” it’s easy to become Zen with the muck. And there were some simple joys among the goo. Maren’s elbows increasingly looked like a Jackson Pollack painting, my left hand resembled something out of a Steven King novel and Mary’s shins developed a strange case of bluish varicose veins, so we had plenty to look at during the lulls in the action.

3.     No one is sad in the sno-cone line
While there may be frowny faces aplenty at the DMV, everyone seems very, very happy in the sno-cone line. And – I swear this is true – every single person, even the ones who look like they’re planning a suicide attempt for later in the evening – genuinely smiles when that sno-cone gets handed over. It’s just some ice and whole lot of sugary food dye, but it’s a daymaker, I tell you.

4.     Your neighbors appreciate a quick decision
This year, as with most other years, it turns out that the very first thing most people want to do after they’ve finished that grueling parade route is head to our booth. We had a long, long line. Our workers were keeping up their end of the bargain, but the customers … well, let’s just say that waiting until you're asked for your order to begin the negotiation with your two-year-old about what kind of sno-cone flavor he wants, then asking the both staff to remind you once again what your choices are, because you weren’t able to observe them at any point during your ten-minute wait – you, sir or madam, will not be named Tangletown Neighbor of the Year.

5.     Sno-cones are simple, but some people make everything complicated
And also? When I tell you we have red, green and blue, please do not ask what “flavor” those colors are. They are not flavors. They are dye and sugar. I told one woman that the day-glo green syrup was made with kale, and she was so excited that she ordered for four cones. My feeling on that is, if you want to believe a woman wearing a Gutter Galz shirt and a paper crown that's been mended with Scotch tape, you deserve to be deceived.

We also have a secret staff-only contest every year, won by the first person to help the customer who, when asked "What do you want?" says, “I want a sno-cone.” Really, as we stand here under the giant tent with the "Sno-Cone" sign out front, we thought we were selling parboiled-unicorn-meat-on-a-stick, so we're not sure we're going to be able to help you, standing as we are In Front of A Giant Sno-Cone Machine.

Our favorite fellow this year was an otherwise intelligent-looking hipster, who, when he finally had finished his wait in line and was asked what he wanted, looked around in confusion and said, “Oh, I didn’t know there were flavors.” Yeah, life is complicated like that sometimes, pal. NEXT.

6.     Our daughter is good at customer service, who knew?
Our oldest daughter has been working at the local grocery store for four months, and, in that short amount of time, Kowalski's seems to have accomplished what I failed to do in 18 years. She looks people in the eye. She bares her teeth in the form of a smile. She says chatty things like “Hey, how are you doing?”

Her father said that if she had begun to speak fluent Urdu, or levitate off the ground as she scooped ice into paper cones, he could not have been more surprised than when he heard her say, “How’s your Fourth going so far?”

Still, it was funny to see the kid-I-know-and-love return as she shut down an old guy who tried to hit on her. He trotted out a Pepe Le Pew accent and told her he’d come all the way from France to enjoy her sno-cones. Her glare, it was withering, and I felt sorry that he was from the one country Emma is least likely to ever give a break to, ever again.

7.     There will always be addicts
Some people get one sno-cone. Some are so refreshed by our delicious offerings that they come back for a second. But, every year, we have our contingent of addicts. This group always fits a very narrow demographic: affluent (hey, it’s three tickets a cone) white boys, about age 11, who tend to travel in a pack. I served each member of this year's group about 10 sno-cones apiece. And this year, they had a king – a swimsuit wearing titan whose lips, tongue and teeth had  become stained blue from the number of “Blue Raspberry” cones he was downing.

“I can imagine this guy at his first fraternity party,” my husband said, “and it’s not going to be a pretty picture.” Toward the end of the afternoon, the kid wove his way back to our booth with a giant, sweaty wad of tickets. “Keep ‘em coming,” he roared, his eyes spinning in his head from the simultaneous sugar rush and brain freeze, “I just won these in a bet.”

“Oh good,” my daugther murmured under her breath as she scooped ice and started hitting the pump of blue syrup, “he’s got a gambling problem, too.”