Added Value

The following is a reprint of an article I wrote for the TasteBuds local food guide in Chattanooga last year. This week, I received a very nice note from some Iowa folks who picked up a copy while passing through the area recently and were moved by the piece, so I thought maybe others would enjoy reading it as well. I hope you enjoy it, too. At the end of the article is a link to the entire TasteBuds issue, if you would like to read more. -Jim

Added Value

          “Hang a left just past where the Miller tobacco barn used to be. The barn is gone, but you’ll see the old stone foundation and a pile of weathered barn boards. Go about three miles. Then, right before where they straightened the road… that’s where you turn in. It’s where Widow Taylor’s oak tree was. That’s where you turn in. You’re too young to remember, but that tree was the biggest thing in the county ‘fore lightning finally took her out, back in the aughts. I think losing that oak put the final nail in Widow Taylor’s coffin. You know she got married under that oak? So did her momma. Her great granddaddy planted that tree… You might remember the stump–bigger around than a supper table…”

          I tried my best to remember what I was looking for– a pile of wood, evidence of the old road curving off into a pasture. There were three or four more turns and a story with each one. Unfortunately, I had nothing with which to write, and this was the last phone booth en route, so I would have to remember it all. Fortunately, I did not forget the stories, and it was the images I carried from the shared memories that helped me recall each of the details I needed to find my way. Soon, I was sipping ice tea on a back porch and catching up with an old friend.

          Of course, folks whose history is connected with urban environs use landmarks the same way, but with a Starbucks on every corner and a Walmart every few miles… well, it’s just not the same. Plus, I’m pretty certain that hearing stories about the time he got a flat tire at the fourth McDonald’s on the left, the day he had to return a barbecue grill with a faulty ignition to the Ace Hardware by the Wendy’s, or that horrible morning when the barista at Starbuck’s put soy in his latte instead of whole milk would not have had the same indelible mark on my memory.

          I know what you’re thinking. We have smarty pants phones now, and GPS technology. Who needs fallen down barns and old road beds? Well… I do. I think we all do. Not because I don’t have a smart phone or GPS, or because I love reading maps and enjoy getting lost, but because there is something intrinsically valuable in the history of a people in a place, of a sense of place, and nowhere is this more evident, more grounded, more real than in farm country.

          My friend who gave me those direction twenty-five years ago possessed more than just memories of a generations-old community. He was the living history of a place where people were tied to the land in a way that is becoming rarer today.

          Wendell Berry wrote about that connection and the need to hold on to it in the opening verse of his poem, The Record.

My old friend tells us how the country changed:

where the grist mill was on Cane Run,

now gone; where the peach orchard was,

gone too; where the Springport Road was, gone

beneath returning trees; how the creek ran three weeks

after a good rain, long ago, no more;

how when these hillsides first were plowed, the soil

was black and deep, no stones, and that was long ago;

where wild turkeys roosted in the old days.

“You’d have to know this country mighty well

before I could tell you where.”

          Every community changes, but in farm country, where people rely on the land, the lives of people and the land are interconnected in ways that don’t happen–that can’t happen–in cities served by factory farms.

          My great, great uncle John Meyer was a truck farmer in Chattanooga, TN for much of the twentieth century. He grew vegetables on a farm where Howard High School now stands on the Southside, delivering his produce to local restaurants, markets, and homes. He held onto that land until the “road-builders” came along to build interstate 24 through town.

          Uncle John made daily runs around town with whatever he harvested in a given morning. When he showed up at a market or restaurant to find they had needs he had not expected, he would make a special trip back in the afternoon with the desired products. He knew his customers by name, and he tried to grow what they wanted. When Uncle John’s customers couldn’t pay, he personally extended them credit.

          Just a few years before his death in the late nineteen-seventies, Uncle John gave my cousin Steve an interview, which Steve recorded on cassette tape and later transcribed by typewriter. When Steve asked his grandfather about the depression, I expected to hear of horrible struggles, but to my surprise Uncle John said that he heard there was a depression, but he didn’t really feel it.

          Uncle John’s economy was based on relationships with the land and with his customers which were also his neighbors. In that world, credit could be extended by handshake, rather than through banks. Profitability of the farm was based on weather, demand, pestilence, and hard work, rather than a rising stock price. Because his was a land-based cash economy, and he was willing to share in the struggles of his customers who also shared in his, collapsing markets weren’t his concern. His economy was local, his fate tied directly to the fate of his community, and their collective fate to the land that provided their sustenance. This was the way of all farmers once upon a time, and this is still the way of the small, community-based farmer.

          The connections brought about by these local, farm-based economies don’t stop with community relationships and shared economic fates. In Aldo Leopold’s essay The Sand Counties, he explores the value of the land in central Wisconsin. Once mostly marsh, the region was drained for agriculture only to find it unsuitable for traditional farming. Many of Leopold’s neighbors failed at farming and abandoned their land, but others–the more stubborn ones–stuck it out.

          Leopold suggests there might be some “some deep reason back in history” for the farmers who decided to stay, an innate sense and comfort of place. “Do economists know about lupines?” he asks. “I have never met an economist who knows Draba…” Finally, of one of Leopold’s favorite birds that thrives in the sand counties, he writes, “The economists have not yet tried to resettle woodcocks.” The farmers that steward these lands see value beyond economic in the sand counties.

          On a recent afternoon I stopped by a friend’s farm just a couple miles down the road from the small farm I am looking after to do a little resettling of my own. For a couple days, his hens had been laying their eggs on top of a rat snake who very much appreciated their daily deliveries. I gently pulled the snake from the nest, slipped him into a feed sack and carried him to a place nearby where his predation would be more appreciated.

          Before corporate ways took over most of the farming in our country, this was more the norm. Farms tended to be more functional ecosystems, where lupines, woodcocks, and even snakes were allowed their place and recognized as important parts of the bigger picture. Farmers may not want snakes in the henhouse, but it is possible to recognize their role on the land.

          Farms need not be sterile, monocultural gardens. There was a time when it was also the norm not to plow under every woodlot, leaving hedgerows for wildlife habitat. There was a time when encountering an occasional fox or snake, welcoming spring wildflowers and frogs and so many other signs of wildness, were considered assets on the balance sheet of farm living.

          Fortunately, not all farms, or larger communities, have lost that value. You can find it represented at any number of farmers markets in the Chattanooga area where your farmer does his best to partner with you, his customer, where CSAs bind communities back to each other and the land, where your eggs might have been harvested from atop a rat snake that was not killed for doing what snakes do. So, when you stop in for your produce, eggs, milk, cheese, and meat, take a moment to ask your farmer about the stories behind your food, or even better, ask her for directions to the farm and take a trip to see for yourself.

A Locavore Thanksgiving

Last year about this time, I was asked by the Chattanooga Pulse to write a cover story for their Thanksgiving issue. I thought it might be nice to re-post that article here. I hope you find inspiration for a great local Thanksgiving dinner of your own.

A Locavore Thanksgiving

In 2007 Ben Zimmer, editor of American dictionaries at Oxford Press, announced their word of year, and a movement that had been building in little circles all around the country became known to the world. The new word was “locavore,” and it referred to people who make conscious efforts to eat as locally, as minimally processed, and as natural and preservative free as possible. “It’s significant,” says Zimmer, “in that it brings together eating and ecology in a new way.”

According to http://www.locavores.com, our food “travels an average of 1,500 miles before ending up on our plates.” Some of the effects of this are obvious, such as the high carbon footprint left behind by all the trucking necessary for Tennesseans to eat California tomatoes, and the amount of preservatives and processing needed to prevent spoilage, not to mention the vast scale of agriculture, that has lead to the collapse of family farms, and the sterilization of lands under the burden of monoculture. Other costs aren’t so readily clear, however, such as the reduction of the nutritional value of foods, the government subsidies that prop up farms, and the once small-time farmers that have become nearly enslaved by the huge corporations that contract them. And how about the alarming fact that many school children cannot tell you where a chicken come from or even that strawberry is more than just a flavor? And what about flavor? If your tomatoes aren’t local, vine-ripened, and chemical free, you might ask yourself what a tomato tastes like, because there is a good chance you don’t know. Or, if you are under a certain age, you might have never known.

Given the current agricultural situation, just how realistic is it to actually eat locally? Can you buy local at the grocery store? For this article, I set out to answer those questions by preparing the most locavore Thanksgiving dinner I possibly could. To help me in my task, I enlisted local cook and author of annsfoodletters.blogspot.com to help me out. Before tackling local, I asked Ann Keener to ponder Thanksgiving for me.

“There is something very special about Thanksgiving. There are no gifts to buy, no candy to gorge on, no church services to attend, no candles to light. There are simply two things: Family and Food. Thanksgiving has amazingly lived through the 300-some-odd years of our culture, from the first musket ball to the latest tweet on Twitter without being adulterated or changed. There are no new gimmicks to buy and nothing more to NEED, just the basic human desire to share the seasonal harvest bounty.

“The meaning of Thanksgiving is this: There is one day out of the entire year that, no matter how busy we are, we will stop and go home for a large, warm meal shared with friends and family. It is a deep-rooted autumn harvest festival, along with the deep-rooted desire to sit down for a long luxurious meal. It is the most amazing holiday because it is not amazing at all. And yet, the simplicity of sitting down to eat a meal lovingly prepared with seasonal ingredients like sweet potatoes and collards might just happen once a year for some folks.”

It seemed to me that at the core of locavorism is the family and food of which Ann spoke. For our experiment, we had the family part taken care of. It was Ann’s sister-in-law’s birthday, so our pre-Thanksgiving feast for twenty would honor her.
All we needed was local, minimally-processed, preservative-free food. I poked around a bit to find out what locavore experts considered to be “local.” The 30 Mile Meal Project of Athens, Ohio has a self-evident opinion, while the USDA considers 400 miles or within the same state to be a “DGD” or day-goods-distance. Others say fifty or a hundred miles is local, With such a broad range of opinions, I turned to the Taste Buds Local Food Guide, a publication of Crabtree Farms that showcases “local foods, markets, farms and food-crafters” Their focus kept them within a 100-mile radius of Chattanooga, so that is the target we adopted.

With the 100 mile goal in mind, we were ready to shop.
We would complete all shopping in one day, buying only what was available at the moment—fresh food, no pre-orders, no deliveries. We would spend the next preparing the food and serving the meal. This meant that planning the meal would happen as we shopped and while we cooked.

Shopping began with the two grocery stores I am most familiar with. At 2.5 and 2.2 miles from my house, Greenlife Grocery on the north shore and Bi-Lo in St. Elmo were pretty darned close. To make my shopping easier, I found a knowledgeable employee upon entering each store. Unfortunately, people in management at both stores informed me that because I was writing an article for publication, they were not allowed to talk with me. Bi-Lo gave me a corporate phone number, while Greenlife made the call for me and said they would get back to me when they had a response. Four days later (and two days after our meal) I have yet to hear from them.

Fortunately, not having corporate permission did not prevent me from shopping and speaking unofficially with employees of both stores, and I have to say that each had their locavore benefits. At Greenlife, I found beautiful collards, kale, and a few cuts of lamb grown right here in Chattanooga at William’s Island Farm, and a handful of meat offerings from Sequatchie Cove. Outside of those two farms, however, I found mostly a plethora of veggies labeled “U.S.A.”
Bi-Lo, while not offering anything as close as Greenlife, did stock a wide variety of vegetables in their house “Walter’s” brand, all of which are grown in the Southeast, and some of which were even certified organic, but the southeast is a big region and best I could tell, all the produce was trucked to South Carolina for processing and packaging before being trucked out to my neighborhood store, pretty much ensuring that any produce grown in Tennessee, was first shipped out of the state only to be shipped back again.

As for the centerpiece of a traditional Thanksgiving dinner…Turkeys at Greenlife were from Pennsylvania and had to be ordered, and Bi-Lo Turkeys of unknown origin were scheduled for delivery the day after our feast.
We were not off to a good start and our one shopping day was half over. Fortunately, we had one more stop on our list: The Main Street Farmer’s Market—a weekly two-hour gathering of farmers in a vacant lot just a few blocks from my house on the Southside.

With bags in hand, Ann and I made the rounds.

The first stop: Pocket Farm, located in McClemore Cove, nine miles south of Chickamauga. According to their website, Pocket Farm “adheres to organic farming practices and offers naturally grown produce free of commercial pesticides and chemicals.” And they are 25 miles from home. So far, so good.

Several bright red-orange pumpkins caught Ann’s eye. “Let’s get some of these red kuris.” Having no idea what a red kuri was, I asked her, “what for?” to which she replied, “soup.” It was clear that I was out of my league here, but excited to see what other ideas my partner might come up with.

After spending $17.00 on several of the red kuris, we moved on to Signal Mountain Farm to buy some organic green tomatoes from Thomas O’Neal. Two booths, and the miles our produce had traveled average of about 23 miles—a pattern we would see throughout our shopping spree.

In fact, every stand we visited represented a farm that was well within the hundred-mile goal we set for ourselves, with most being much closer. And along with produce, we even found corn meal for stuffing and whole-wheat flour for gravy.
When I asked Brad Swancy from Riverview Farms how far his cornmeal traveled to get to market he laughed. “From the field to the bag it was only a mile, then about 55 miles to get here.” And what makes his corn special? “It’s heirloom, non-GMO from our own seeds so we know what we are growing,” he said matter-of-factly. “And it’s stone ground, which does not generate heat, saving enzymes.”

At the River Ridge Farm stand we chatted with farmer Dave Waters about the thirteen-pound turkey he provided. He told us about turkeys who were out of the brooder and on pasture by the time they were six week old. “We use a certified organic, whole grain, soy-free feed with no by-products,” he said. When I lauded his turkeys for being so much closer than the Pennsylvania birds available at the grocery store, Waters was quick to explain that although his farm is only fifty miles away, he did have to drive them all the way to Bowling Green for processing—the closest place available, and a problem that he and other farmers are addressing.

We chose an after dinner drink from Andrew at Velo Coffee Roasters—decaf coffee roasted in a small batch to guarantee freshness twenty-four hours before purchasing. To top it off, he delivered his beans by bicycle. Talk about carbon footprint!
At the booth next door to Velo, Tom Montague told us about his Link 41 sausage. “We use pork from River Ridge and Sequatchie Cove, and our spices come from alchemy spice—all vendors at this market. That way we know that the pork is raised well and spiced with fresh spices. And our shop is right here on Main Street, so we are serving the neighborhood.” We picked up a couple pounds of Sorghum Baconage—a sausage with extra  bacon pieces added to the regular grind and a little bit of sorghum for sweetness.

As I was leaving the Link 41 booth, Montague stopped me and asked that I turn the tape back on. Looking back towards Velo, he began talking about his neighbor.

“An important aspect of purchasing locally is that you have a concentrated effect on a community,” said Montague, “which is easy to see in our local community, but Andrew is having a specific effect on another community.” Montague was referring to the way Gage buys his beans from a broker who knows how specific farms are growing their beans—whether they are organic or not, how sustainable they are. This attention allows him to target specific growers with specific practices instead of purchasing from the industrial complex.

From farm to farm, the stories were largely the same. Organic, sustainable, pesticide-free, and heirloom were words used over and over again to describe what we put into our bags. Unlike at the grocery stores, our problem was not in finding enough local food, but in deciding what to leave behind. By the time we got back to the kitchen we had winter squash, kale, collards, sweet potatoes, peppers, fennel, green tomatoes, sausage, garlic, broccoli, corn meal, flour, arugula, sunchokes, beets, coffee, a leg of lamb, and a turkey; and we purchased every single bit of it at the farmers market. Although we did not keep an exact count, we estimated spending around $215 with an estimated average distance from farm to table for the fresh meat and produce of around 30 miles—local by any standard!

We began our cooking around 12:30 the following day, figuring out what to do with our raw materials on the fly. We stuffed the turkey with a cornmeal/squash/sausage dressing, salted the skin, brushed on a little bacon grease, and left it to do its thing in the oven.

Ann came up with a mixed winter squash soup with just enough hot red pepper to give it a little kick.
Beets were chopped and roasted, sweet potatoes were mashed with butter, garlic and a couple splashes of Pritchard’s Tennessee Whiskey (from only 60 miles away), greens were wilted with garlic and balsamic vinegar, broccoli was steamed just enough, lamb, plugged with rosemary and garlic, roasted alongside the turkey, green tomatoes were diced and glazed to make a sweet salsa, and an amazing thin gravy was cooked down from the combination of drippings in the oven.

Finally, twenty people showed up with wine, beer, whiskey, and homemade chocolate cage and brownies for dessert.
When we sat down to eat, little needed to be said; a toast was unnecessary. Plates were piled high and spirits were even higher.
As I picked up the pieces of my house the day after the big meal, I reflected back on my conversation with Tom Montague at the Link 41 booth the day before and how he took time to share an important part of the Velo coffee story. Perhaps this is where the locavore and Thanksgiving themes overlap. It was important to Montague to make sure his neighbor was shown in the best possible light. Tom makes sausage. Andrew roasts coffee beans. Kelsey raises lambs. Miriam grows peppers. Brad grows and mills corn. Dave raises turkeys. Thomas grows tomatoes. Robin grows wheat. Noah grows greens. Ann cooks. I tell stories. And I could go on and on. I know all this not because I researched them to write a story, but because we have all chosen to engage locally and that means much more than just selling at a farmers market, it means being an active part of a community. When I was hearing about Andrew from Tom, I could just have easily been hearing about any of the twenty or so vendors at the market from any one of them. They are part of a truly local, food-based economy—something I failed to find in either of the chain grocery stores, and something that is about so much more than just a carbon footprint. The vendors at the market are a part of each others businesses and lives as well as a part of their customers’ lives; they are a community, something to appreciate and be thankful for, and something Ann had more to say about.

“Giving thanks for the most precious and basic gifts of humanity should not only happen once a year. We should give thanks to every lettuce leaf, every tomato vine, and every red beet that is pulled from the soil each time the season rolls around. We should open our homes to our friends and families often and mound their plates with the most delicious things we have to offer. We should give thanks for our grandmother’s gravy, our aunt’s soft white rolls, and our mother’s smashed sweet potatoes more often. Thanksgiving should not be the only day out of the year where the meat we are eating is more important than the cars parked in the driveway. It should not be the only day that we celebrate the hands that grew and cooked our food, and it should certainly not be the only day that we enjoy each other’s company around the dinner table.”

Thanksgiving is coming up next week, and it isn’t too late to celebrate locavore—we are blessed to have a rich bounty of local farmers and food preparers using products from those farms.

Thanksgiving is all about family and food, and we found that by turning to the local farm community for our food, we reached a little farther to be a part of a bigger family.  This Thanksgiving, before you hit the grocery store, check out your local farmers market wherever you are. See what you can buy locally, get to know your farmer, support the local food economy, and see if you don’t have a Thanksgiving dinner that can’t be beat!

Black Helicopters

I stood atop the tower listening…waiting…checking my watch nervously.  After three days of continuous work, it was Friday afternoon and I had just finished decking the third and top tier of a sixteen-foot-tall tower in the middle of a five acre, wooded, mountaintop lot around which we recently constructed a six-foot privacy fence. Soon we would install a camouflaged tarpaulin roof on the nearly-finished tower. Until then, I would be exposed, naked, vulnerable. 

I had been working on the tower for three days. Each day, the gentleman under whom I was employed worked with me until around three in the afternoon when he would receive a phone call, mumble something about soccer practice, ask if I needed anything, then get in his truck and leave. Within fifteen minutes of his departure, a machinegun-like drone would signal the approach of a single black helicopter, flying low and slow over the trees, passing directly overhead. Forty-five minutes after the mysterious visit, my employer would return.

No credible explanation has yet been given for the construction of what can only be described as a compound. No acknowledgement has been made of the daily helicopter visits, either. Franlky, I’m afraid to ask. But I can’t help wondering what he has to hide, what he hopes to see from his tower, and why he needs overhead camouflage when he looks at whatever it is.

Pondering those questions over coffee last Monday morning, I decided to finish my cup on the front porch from which I could watch early visitors to my bird feeder. I stepped through the doorway and glanced to my right as a Carolina chickadee fled to the refuge of a neighbor’s crepe myrtle. That’s when I noticed the delicate bouquet of flowering basil on the sidewalk. 

The night before, a similar bouquet had nested in a coffee mug which served as a centerpiece for the table on my porch. Turning to my left, I saw that the flowers on the table were gone. So was the mug. Gone, too, were the table and two matching chairs. I scanned the street, walked the alleys, called neighbors and police, made a fresh cup of coffee and sat down on the steps to wait for an officer to arrive.

Needless to say, thoughts of the theft dominated the next couple days, displacing my curiosity about the compound and the helicopters. That’s when Madeline Albright came to town.

The former Secretary of State visited UTC that Tuesday as part of a free-to-the-public lecture series. Ms. Albright gave a half hour speech on 9/11 after which she took questions. I was not able to attend the event, but someone I trust reported back to me that when asked a question about the effectiveness and relevancy of the United Nations in the world today, Ms. Albright began her response with a quick summary of what the UN is not: “The UN is not the agency that sends out black helicopters under the cover of darkness to steal the furniture off of your front porch…”

Be it known that I have never been a conspiracy theorist and without compelling evidence, have tended to dismiss talk of black helicopters as paranoid nonsense. At the same time, however, I have learned not to trust my government. I believe it is our duty as concerned citizens to hold our officials, both elected and appointed, to the highest standards of evidence and honesty. I believe that, had we done a better job of this a few years ago, we might not be at war today.

What I found curious about Ms. Albright’s response was that she was not asked about black helicopters or porch furniture and yet felt a need to bring them up. We have become accustomed to obfuscation and distraction as modus operandi when our government has something to hide. Sometimes, though, when desperate, our leaders lie to us outright. Remember “Saddam has weapons of mass destruction” and “Mission Accomplished?” How about, “I did not have sexual relations…?” 

Whether truth or lies, there is always motive and purpose behind what our elected officials tell us. So, Madam Secretary, what are you trying to hide? What is the UN really up to? And where is my porch furniture?

Keep your eyes to the sky, my fellow Chattanoogans and keep your butts in your porch furniture, lest it fly by night. And if your neighbor decides to turn his property into a walled compound with a watchtower, don’t just write him off as wacko. Listen for the helicopters. He might know something you don’t. 

The Man Store

Two weeks ago I spent two-and-a-half days splitting firewood. Down to the too-long, too-gnarly, too-for-whatever-reason-unsplittable logs that required more than axe, wedge and sledge to rend, and having an uncooperative chainsaw, I needed help. It was time to go to The Man Store.

The Man Store is not the actual name of the business. To protect the innocent and guilty alike, I will not reveal its true identity. If you’ve ever been there, you know already. If you haven’t, you wouldn’t understand anyway. 

If you need to pull the engine out of your Malibu, tear down your garage, build a swing set, re-plumb the kitchen or the whole neighborhood, remodel your Econoline or re-roof your house, The Man Store has what you need. In fact, I’m pretty sure The Man Store has a tool set and all the right adaptors to do all the aforementioned jobs simultaneously. All I needed was chainsaw repair. 

I pulled into the railroad right of way that serves as pickup truck hitching post for The Man Store clientele – a diverse group, likely to be dressed like The Village People and to smell like creosote, sawdust and diesel fuel. As I entered the building, I felt my testosterone level surge. My back straightened and my chest bulged. I sniffed my armpits to make sure I wasn’t clean. I wasn’t. I felt like a man.

Inside, three men were huddled at one end of the counter discussing the BTU to horsepower ratio of competing models of turbojet kerosene shop heaters. I gripped my saw and listened in.

At the other end of the counter, a tall hunchback assisted a woman who had come in to pick up a thingamajig, or maybe a whatyoumacallit, for her husband. She wasn’t sure which it was.

Behind her were two men, one needing an adaptor, the other an extension. I waited patiently as the woman got her somethingorother and the two men were adapted and extended, respectively.

When it was my turn, in a slightly deeper voice than usual, I asked the hunchback what I should do with a chainsaw in need of service. In the line behind me, several burly men in coveralls and one in an Indian headdress nodded appreciatively at the mention of a chainsaw as the hunchback emerged from behind the counter.

“Walk this way.”

I followed Igor as he stepped with his right foot and dragged his left around the perimeter of the store to a long, dark corridor. At the end of the hall, I could see occasional sparks flying into view accompanied by the raspy crackle of raw electricity and I feared that Igor was leading me to the laboratory where Dr. Frankenstein was waiting with the brainsaw. As I opened my mouth to iterate “chainsaw,” my escort turned right through a heavy metal door.

The room before us was much brighter than the dimly lit passageway we had left. Directly in front of us was a narrow counter behind which two men worked methodically with small screwdrivers and solder guns. Igor gestured towards the chainsaw in my hand and one of the technicians shook his head, “Jack’s still in thee hospital. Send him to the garden shop.”

“You fixed it before,” I said. “Well…we left it with you, but this is the first time we tried to use it since getting it back and it won’t start…I mean, it starts, but then it quits.”

Igor looked at the old claim tag, still hanging from the handle of the saw. “Can we pull his record?”

My record, I thought, wondering how in the world they got my record and trying to remember if any of my offenses had been committed with chainsaws. I couldn’t think of any and was relieved when the three of them surrounded a file cabinet and pulled out a very official-looking document and one of them said: “Jeff?”

“No sir. I’m Jim, but that’s okay. People make that mistake a lot. Jeff is my brother.” Then, remembering that the chainsaw belonged to Jeff, I said, “I mean, yes. Jeff. Jeff Pfitzer. It’s his chainsaw.”

The men looked sympathetically at me and then curiously at the form in front of them.

“This is from July…”

“Yes, but we haven’t used it.”

“But it’s from July.”

“But…”

“John worked on this,” one of the men said. “See him.”

“Can I take the record with me?” asked Igor.

“Sure.”

“Walk this way.”

I followed Igor around the counter to another door leading to a graveled alley surrounded by an assortment of prefabricated industrial buildings and old, brick structures. The same electrical sounds I had heard from the end of the hall, reverberated through the manmade canyon. We made our way across the alley towards an open bay door through which the deep, sandy groan of soft steel being turned on a lathe joined the electricity causing another surge of testosterone. Again, my grip on the saw tightened.

Inside, rows of long, black pipes ranging in diameter from one to ten inches and coated in grease lined the wall to our right. I was careful not to brush the ends of the pipes as I followed Igor to the back of the room. There, standing behind a lathe turning threads on a two inch pipe, in the middle of what I’m pretty sure was part of the set from the movie, Flash Dance, stood John.

Igor showed John the official record. John shook his head. “Jack.”

“Jack’s still in the hospital.”

John shrugged at Igor. Igor shrugged at me. I shrugged at noone then turned and followed Igor back out of the building.

This time, we turned left in the alley to a smaller door leading into one of the brick buildings. At the end of another long hallway, we came to the front counter where the BTU to horsepower debate had been joined by the man in the headdress and a police officer, and had taken on much greater intensity.

At the other end of the counter, a very short, stocky man with very little hair was finishing up helping a customer with a 150 foot snake. 

Now there’s a customer who needs no extension, I thought to myself as I nodded to the man leaving with his purchase.

Igor showed the official record to Danny DeVito, who immediately said, “Jack.”

“Jack still has cancer,” Igor and I offered in unison.

“Take it to the repair counter.”

“They sent us to John.”

“Let me see it.”

Igor took his place behind the counter and Danny and I went outside where he tried starting the chainsaw. With one powerful yank, the machine roared to life, but as Danny rolled his eyes at me, it died.

“Does that once a day,” I said. “It won’t start again.”

Danny tried several more times without luck, before taking the saw back inside where he picked up the record he had set on the counter.

“Where’d you get this?”

“The saw?”

“No, this,” he said, holding up the document.

“I didn’t get it. Igor gave it to you.”

“Well, where did he get it?”

“The repair counter.”

“He’s not supposed to have this. Who gave it to him?”

“I don’t know.”

“What did he look like.”

“I don’t know,” I iterated. “The three of them were huddled around the file cabinet. I wasn’t invited.”

“I think I can fix it…but we gotta be legal about it. It has to go in your record.”

“It’s my brother’s record. Not mine.”

DeVito squinted suspiciously, then led me back down the long corridor to the repair counter where he amended the record to include the day’s events then gave me a call tag.

“I’ll call you tomorrow,” he said.

“Thanks.”

I made my way back down the hall and past the front counter. As I left, I held the door for a construction worker in a hard hat, surely on his way to the debate. 

A week later, when I went back to The Man Store, Mr. DeVito still hadn’t “gotten to” my chainsaw. The store was quiet and I didn’t see Danny or Igor so I made the rounds without an escort. I could’ve just grabbed the saw and left, but wanted to take in the whole experience. Down the corridors, through the sparks, across the alley and by the dance floor I went, reminiscing about my last trip and wondering where everyone was. As I opened the door to the hallway that would take me back to the sales floor, a sound stopped me.

Cocking an ear back to the alley, I  heard it. Wafting through the complex, echoing off bricks and steel, music was playing.

Could it be? I asked myself. Indeed, it was. 

It’s fun to stay at the Y—M—C—A! It’s fun to stay at the Y—M—C—A! 

I resisted the urge to put down my saw and throw my hands over my head as I pictured them–Danny, Igor, the Indian and the cowboy, John and all the rest—perfectly choreographed and in sync. 

They might not be able to fix a chainsaw, I thought, but I bet those guys can dance! 

An Office in Town

Living in Chicago, I heard the same things nearly every day.

“Don’t call me ma’am” 

“I can get the door for myself.” 

“Do I look like an old lady to you?”

Each time, I would try to explain. “It’s not about age,” I would insist. “You could be four years old or ninety-for, and I would address you the same.  It’s about respect.”  

“Well it makes me feel old.  Don’t use that language with me!”

“Yes ma’am.”

(glare)

(cringe)

“I’m sorry. It’s the way I was raised… I’ll try to do better.”

Then I moved back home.  In Chattanooga, I am thanked for opening doors, appreciated for saying ma’am, and addressed as “sir.”  Finally, a culture that appreciates me!

Two weeks ago, I walked to the bank to pay my mortgage.  They (the bank) had just moved into a new location in an historical building in the heart of downtown  While I was there I stepped in back to congratulate Doug, the loan officer who had approved my mortgage.  He was clearly proud of the new digs and took me directly to the corner office.

“This is mine.  Beats the heck out of the all-in-one-room space we had up the block, doesn’t it?”

“You bet it does. This is nice.  You’re moving up in the world.”

He then directed me to a closed door next to his.

“And this, sir,” he said, slowly opening the door, squeezing the drama from a pregnant pause, “is your office.”

The cherry desk and high-backed leather chair were a bit grand compared to my customs, but the earth-toned leaf print on the walls definitely made me feel at home and the street-level window looking across Georgia Avenue and up the parkway to the east shed perfect morning light on a spacious suite.

“Everything is in disarray now, but by Monday we’ll have the room arranged and comfortable so you can move right in.”

Back out in the lobby, my friends Tom, Chris and Moriah were waiting for me.  I wanted to fetch them, to show off my new space, but I didn’t want to end up being the butt of a joke.

“Don’t toy with me Doug.  If you tell me this is my office, I’ll be here with my laptop and thermos Monday morning and expect it to be available.”

“I’m serious, man.  It’s yours.”

In a moment, my friends were following me down the hallway to where Doug was waiting.  Introductions were made and then Doug gestured to the open door.

“How do you like Jim’s new office?”

While we were in the in the bank it was agreed by all that it was indeed a nice space – a perfect place  for me to write, but back out on the street, my three companions pressed me for the truth.

“It’s not really yours… is it?”

“No, it is.  Really.  Doug was serious.  It’s my office.”

“But… why?”

“What do you mean, why?”

“Well, you don’t work for the bank, do you?”

“No, but they have an empty office and I need a place to write.”

“In the bank?”

“Yeah.  In the bank.”

Tom shook his head.  “Man,” he said “This is way too much like Mayberry.”

I whistled a bar of the Andy Griffith theme song to the laughter of all.

“Now do you see why I moved back to Chattanooga?”

I have a philosophy that has become a bit of a mantra.  People who know me well have often heard it expressed: That’s why there’s more than one of us on the planet.  Put simply, it means this: If I have it and you can make better use of it than I can at the moment, I should make it available to you.  It’s just the right thing to do.  Whether it’s something as big and expensive as a car or something as simple as a pocketknife or a pencil, or as intangible as a listening ear, we ought to provide for one another, take care of each other.  If we don’t do that, what is the point of there being more than one of us in the planet?

Doug had an office.  I could use a space in which to write.  He made the office available to me.  The world is a better place.

Last week I was sick and didn’t feel like getting out of the house if it wasn’t necessary.  Wednesday morning I got a concerned phone call from Doug.

“Where are you?  Is everything Ok?”

“I’m a little under the weather.  I’d best stay home.”

“I’m sorry.  You know you’re office is ready and waiting when you get well.”

“Thanks.  I’m sure I’ll be in next week.”

This morning, having recovered, I showed up at the office.  There were cookies on the desk waiting for me.  As I sat down, Doug asked me if I wanted the door closed.

“No sir. I have an open door policy.”

“Ok, but if people walk in, you know you can’t make loans or access the bank computer.” 

“Got it.”

“Feel free to use the high speed internet, though.”

“Thanks. I will.  And let me know if there’s anything I can do for you.”

As he went back to his office, I could hear Doug chuckling.  I poured a cup of coffee, opened my laptop and started writing. The words came easily. 

I have never shared my more-than-one-person-on-the-planet philosophy with Doug or asked about his own values, but I suspect they are similar to mine.  His actions certainly suggest as much.  Makes me feel good about having borrowed money from him.

I don’t know how long I will be able to stay in this office – a couple of weeks, maybe a month, Doug isn’t sure – but as long as I am here, I hope people will stop by for a visit.  It’s a comfortable place with two very nice guest chairs, and the bank staff is very friendly.  And besides, I have way more cookies than I need.

Cockroach Hunter

It’s remarkable how convincingly, at 3:30 in the morning, a dead, brown, rolled up leaf can pass for a monster cockroach – complete with layered, translucent, glistening wings; curiously twitching antennae; flexed and ready legs prepared to jet across the floor in search of my bare foot or the nearest crevasse.  Even more remarkable is how quickly my heart leapt into my throat at the first sight of it.

But more amazing still is that less than three minutes after my first encounter I returned from the kitchen with a glass of water and suffered the exact same reaction to the exact same leaf.

Now, at 3:45 in the morning, with my heart racing but my thirst quenched, I sit at the computer writing rather than sleeping because it will be a while before my pulse quiets enough for me to resume sleep and laying awake in the dark thinking about roaches just ain’t my cup of tea!

I will remain awake, probably for the remaining 105 minutes until my alarm goes off because I can’t stop thinking about a non-biting, non-stinging, nonpoisonous and by all accounts harmless insect.  Which, as far as I know, isn’t even in my apartment.

When I was 16 years old I worked for a short while in a to-remain-unnamed fast food restaurant in Chattanooga – one of a young, growing southern chain specializing in chicken filet sandwiches and fresh-squeezed lemonade.  Our store prided itself in its cleanliness and was particularly sparkling on this particular week as we had just scoured the entire place in anticipation of a visit from some of our company honchos from down in Georgia which had at the last minute been cancelled.

It therefore came as quite a surprise when Will, my best friend and one of the closing crew, spotted a medium-sized cockroach on the wall in the back room, right next to where we breaded filets for frying.  Had our manager been there, I’m certain we would have quickly killed the intruder and alerted the captain, but on this night the closing authority was Michelle – a young girl no older than myself who was new to the job and not one we saw any need to impress or brown nose.  So, rather than kill it, we decided to catch it.

I approached the roach with a cup my hand, thinking that I would trap in against the wall, slip a piece of paper underneath the cup and then pull the cup and paper away from the wall with the roach safely trapped.  The first part of the plan went as prescribed and the roach was swiftly and easily trapped, but as I was about to slip the paper underneath, I realized that  the roach had never moved – not at my approach, as the cup came down around it, not even now that it was trapped. This, of course, raised several questions.

Clearly a great deal of air pressure would have been created by the slamming of the cup.  Could this pressure have squeezed the exoskeletal armor of the roach enough to have caused internal damage, killing the roach instantly?  Could the trauma induced by the simple knowledge of being captured been enough to cause cardiac arrest and death?  And if either of these things had happened, wouldn’t a dead roach fall off the wall?  And if a dead roaches don’t fall off walls, was the roach dead when we discovered it and if so, why don’t we see dead roaches all over walls everywhere roaches live?  And, perhaps most importantly, if it was already dead, did it die from eating the chicken?

After pondering these questions for a minute or two, we decided to remove the cup and see for ourselves if the roach was alive or dead. Expecting a mad dash behind the shelves, I was flanked by Will and Kevin, each double-fisting cups  and prepared to quickly re-contain the prisoner should it escape.

Slowly I lifted the tomb.  The roach remained motionless on the wall.  A ploy?  We watched it for a few seconds then Will poked it with one of his cups.  It took off running.  And fast.  Luckily, Kevin was there and slammed another cup down over her.  We could hear it scurrying around the perimeter of her cell. One lap.  Two laps.  Three. Four. Then silence.  After a minute passed without any movement, Kevin lifted his cup.  Once again, she did not move.  Then I got a great idea.

“Let’s tape it to the wall.”

We didn’t discuss my proposal.  We didn’t need to.  Will went to the desk and found a roll of packing tape then came back to the wall where Kevin had replaced the cup just to be sure and I was standing guard in case… well… just in case.  Will tore off a piece of tape and handed it to me.  Kevin lifted the cup.   In one swift motion I placed the tape over the roach, sealing it against the wall on all sides.

We stood silently and proudly over the victim of our prowess for a moment until Michelle looked around the corner and suggested that we get back to work, which we did.

This all happened on a Saturday. The restaurant was closed on Sunday and Will, Kevin and I were off on Monday and Tuesday.  Now one might expect that the Monday morning crew, upon seeing a roach taped to the wall in the back room would take appropriate measures to remove the offense.  One might also think that our boss would have had questions for us.  But on Wednesday, when the three of us returned to work, the roach was still taped to the wall and there were no questions, no comments.

Now there were several possible motivations for why none of our coworkers removed the tape and the roach – curiosity, fear, entertainment value… just to name a few.  And it is entirely likely that our boss simply never noticed the tiny transparent tomb given that his job did not frequently include breading filets.  Whatever the reason the others had for leaving it, we decided for the same reason that led us to capturing it that we too would leave it there.

A week after the night of the capture, the roach was still entombed (and presumed dead) and Michelle strongly suggested that we remove it from the wall.  The dignitaries from Georgia had not come the  previous week as expected, she explained, and it was rumored that they had re-scheduled for the following Monday.  We agreed that we did not want them to arrive and find a dead roach taped to the wall above the breading station and I volunteered for disposal duty.

The tape was still sealed on all sides of the roach, just as when I had applied and there was no sign of any struggle.  The roach was perfectly archived there and I assumed that removing the tape would remove the roach as well and then I could just toss the whole lot into the trash.  But to my surprise, the tape came off smoothly and the roach stayed on the wall…  and then… began… to run.  After a week of food and oxygen deprivation, the roach was alive, aware, and off to the races, moving faster and straighter than I had ever seen (or have since seen) a roach or any other insect move.  This time, unfortunately, I had no protection on my flanks and no cup of my own and the roach made a beeline for the shelves, behind which it disappeared, never to be seen again.

Two years after my roach encounter, I found myself living for one semester on the campus of Tennessee Technological University where my dorm held the distinction of producing for several years running, the winner of the all-campus cockroach race.  I suggested to the captain of our team that research I conducted while in high school, uncovered the secret to cockroach training and I thereby guaranteed that if given the opportunity, I could produce the fastest cockroach TTU had ever seen.  But I was a freshman, he was an upper classman and my chicken-feeding-followed-by-deprivation training regimen would not be followed.  So our cockroach was trained without my assistance or advice and finished third – breaking our string of victories.  And although my dorm-mates were humiliated, I was somehow satisfied with the knowledge that, if given the chance… just maybe… I could’ve won that race.

Now, almost exactly twenty years later, I’m reminded of all this at 3:30 in the morning because I was frightened by a dry, brown, rolled up leaf on my dining room floor and more questions are surely begged.  Had that leaf been a roach, what was there to be afraid of?  Perhaps the idea, twenty-two years ago, that a roach was able to defy death and live to be a champion is somehow frightening to me – that any creature could exhibit even the possibility of immortality.

Or maybe roaches are just plain creepy and I don’t want them creeping around my house, in the dark, when I’m usually asleep or, if awake, barefoot!  But now it’s morning and the sun will be up soon so I’m going to put on my shoes and make some tea.

A Visit with Wren

Of all the people I have met since moving back to Chattanooga, I can say without hesitation or apology that I have a favorite.  His came is Wren. I have always tended to connect with children and dogs more quickly than adults.  Birds, too, come to think of it, but despite his name, Wren is not a bird.  He is a little boy.  I asked Wren how he got his name, and without looking up from the superhero postage stamps he was studying, he replied, “A bird.”

I asked him what kind of bird he was named after.   

“I like Green Lantern,” he said.

Hoping to find the answer on my own, I started listing the wrens.”

“Winter wren?”

No response.

“Cactus?”

Nothing.

“House wren? Carolina?  Sedge? Marsh?”  

Wren was paying no attention to my inquisition, so I turned my attention to his superheroes.

“How come he’s green?” 

Wren looked up, shrugged, then looked back to his stamps.

“And what’s with the lantern?”

“It’s cuz he’s the Green Lantern.” 

Wren rolled his eyes at the pointlessness of my question just as his mother, Heidi, who had been listening from a few feet away joined the conversation. 

 “What’s your full name, Wren?”

 “I don’t like Aqua Man.” 

“What’s not to like about Aqua Man?” I asked. “Aqua Man is my favorite.  He can talk to the whales, the squids, the dolphins.  And they talk back, too.”

Wren looked up from the stamps.  His father, Stuart, stopped chopping peppers and looked over from the kitchen. 

“Wouldn’t you rather be able to fly?”  Stuart asked.

“Yeah, I’d fly.” chimed Wren. “Why would you want to talk to fish?”

 “Oh, come on, guys, imagine the impact I could have on the world if I could talk to the whales.  I mean, how do you think they feel about over-fishing?  About global warming?  And what about all that noisy sonar?  That must drive them crazy!  Just think, If they had a way to communicate with us – about what we are doing to their home.  Imagine being such an advocate! The responsibility and potential! There would be no more arguing about our impact.  We would have to respond – to change things.”

I was feeling pretty good about my decision to back Aqua Man – the altruism of it! – when his father spoke up.

“Yeah, imagine requesting a meeting with the president so you can tell him that you’ve been talking with the whales and there’s some things they want him to know. That’ll change the world.” 

“Is it Canyon Wren?” Heidi asked him.

“Can the Green Lantern fly?”

“It’s Canyon Wren,” she said to me.

“I would have gotten there. Eventually,”  I responded.  “Cool name.  Hey, how fast is the Green Lantern?”

“Bobickly!” said Wren excitedly.

“Bobickly?”

Wren looked at his father and grinned.  Clearly, they knew something I didn’t.

“And just how fast is bobickly fast?”

Wren looked at me with a furrowed brow.

 “It’s a noun,” offered Stuart.

“Ok. I get it.  What is a bobickly?”

Wren smiled.

“I’ll show you.”

Wren got up from the floor and walked over to the door.  I thought maybe he had a bobickly out on the porch and was going to retrieve it until he stopped and turned around.

“Watch behind him,” said Stuart.

 Wren took off running as fast as he could across the room.

At 5 years old, Wren couldn’t run all that fast, but I understood what they were after. 

“Wow!  It’s like you blurred.  Like you were everywhere at once!”

“That’s a bobickly!” they proclaimed together.

“Aqua Man doesn’t get bobicklies, does he?” I asked. 

“Nope.  Not fast enough.  And he can’t fly, either.”

“He can breathe underwater, though…”

“Tell me a story.”

“Only if you put the stamps away.”

Wren was reluctant, but I held my ground and with Stuart’s encouragement, he put the stamps away. Then, together, we told the story of Mr. Wiggle and Mr. Waggle – a tale of best friends who moved so fast through the mountains to see each other that they left bobicklies in their wake.  The story ended just as it does every time, just the way it was taught to me by Jim May:

“…good night, Mr. Wiggle.”

“Good night, Mr. Waggle.”

Cause they were best friends!

By the time we had finished the story, Stuart had finished making supper and I needed to go home.  I put on my shoes, said goodbye and headed out the door.  As I got to the bottom of the steps, I heard the door open and I looked back.

Wren was standing in the doorway waving, with a big grin on his face.

“Goodnight Jim!”

“Goodnight Wren!”

Cause we were best friends!