Driving and Biking in the Big City

Archive for March 2014

Staying young on the bike ride of life

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Beautiful nature photo by John Hensley.

I lived most of my adult life in sequences of three to five years in one place or another until I settled with my young children more than a decade ago. Ironically, and after leaving my roots as soon as possible, I eventually made my lifelong home just a couple of hours away from my original hometown. Being so close to my childhood memory of the same geography and climate has kept me young at heart, especially in the spring with the smell of new life in the air.

I go for a bike ride like I did this evening and, in the first few deep breaths I take, I’m transported by the sights and smells to an exact same bike ride I took at age 9, 12 or even 18 years old — when I bought my first 10-speed and put it together in the shade of the two-story garage in my mom’s backyard, reading the instructions step by step and saving the $20 or so that Sears would have charged me to put it together. It was my first bike named Streak, in this case because it was silver.

I now live in Energy City and many people will tell you the smell of nature is crowded out by refineries, cars, gasoline and just the entanglement of a  metropolitan area that smothers out the natural scents. I’d have to agree that it was pretty fetid and sour, but that was  “back in the day” when I covered my first refinery explosion before I’d finished college and was sent to the emergency room with burned lungs. With today’s more enlightened laws for clean air and water, I only occasionally can tell that I’m living in such a polluted community with its huge carbon footprint.

On today’s bike ride, I smell honeysuckle, wisteria, gladioli and something that, even when I was a kid, I thought smelled just like grape Kool-Aid or an icy grape snow cone from the public pool at our park by the Neches River. I now suspect that smell is the grape-scented Texas mountain laurel, but who can explain the whiff of bubblegum that breezes by me in patches.

Blackberries grow wild and I know what the flowers look like before they turn to berries – first green, then red, then a deep black with a whisper of purple. Mushrooms grow just as wild and there are parts of my ride that smell like newly turned earth, dirt and growth that can just as easily smell like a mushroom pizza just delivered to your door. This time of year, there is always the smell of fresh mowed grass or Boy Scout mulch that’s just been put on the lawns.

The birds sing in the bushes, creating a steady music for my ride that, at the more swampy areas, becomes serenaded by the deep-throated love calls of the bullfrogs in our area.

Tonight, there is a Gibbous moon.  I’m an incredibly amateur astronomer and remember seeing that word for the first time when I was trying to figure out what you call the moon on its way to being full or on its way back to new again. Now, I can size up the moon without an Almanac and tell you that we can expect that big yellow ball in just a week or so. And in fact, the stars at night are big and bright many nights in my city if I can get away from the big city light pollution.

After work, I try to choose my ride time to get in enough miles for good exercise but to be coming home down a specific, tree-lined path where I frequently see fireflies. If I’m lucky enough, “lightning bugs” as I called them as a kid, will pop out in twos and threes for my last quarter of a mile of my bike ride. It makes me feel magical, transported and otherworldly.

It’s when the fireflies at dusk light my way that I sometimes see a white sweatshirt weaving through the bushes away from the concrete path that bikers, joggers and dog-walkers take. I’ve seen this sweatshirt before and often, once having been a bit disturbed by the spooky vision. But I now have come to believe it’s a bit of a cosmic visitation from an old friend who lived in this neighborhood before her death at a young age. When it was happening pretty frequently, I faced it like I do most of my fears — head-on. I sat down on a bench at the crossroads and waited out the vision. I prayed and talked and got over my fear of the unknown. Because that’s still what it remains, unknown.

The sequence of events typically starts with a memory of my friend. Her name pops into my head, Carol, and I know to look around for a vision, coming and going quickly and easily just out of sight.  It’s something or someone who could be her, could be someone else or could simply be a trick of my imagination.

If it’s a vision of the long lost Carol, I know she’s a benevolent spirit because we were great friends when our kids were young together. We remained friends through phone calls from my several moves and we got reacquainted when I returned to the area, our kids much older and her marriage on the brink of divorce.  Of course, being the smart ass I am, I can’t say that I never said a tacky word about her because, if I know you, I’ve typically said something at least remotely critical and what I consider pretty funny. I’ll do anything for a joke. I like to tell my friends that I never say anything bad about people I don’t know that well or don’t like. I save my true sass for true friends.

And Carol was a friend with big stories that I believed until I didn’t. But she remained my friend until the unexpected end.  That’s why I guess I worried, at first, that her restless spirit may have something to settle with me. Could I have been mistaken? Could everything she told me possibly be true? How about the one when she came home from the grocery store with more money. “A put-pocket,” my husband suggested when I was naïve enough to believe her. Or the escape from a fiery building in the rolled up carpet of a firefighter. Or the Queen’s parade that was halted by the delivery of her first child. All interesting enough but a bit fabulous when added together or compared with notes from other friends.

These visitations usually begin when I least expect them. My mind is numb or busy and suddenly something unexpected pops into my head. Typically, and in the past, it’s been Carol. Her name, suddenly entering my consciousness. It has been a signal for me to look around and see her or the slight vision that’s quickly out of sight. The only reason I’ve believed it had anything to do with Carol is that the idea pops into my head unbidden. The vision itself is nothing but a woman in a white sweatshirt with uncertain features, floating more than walking away. with the knowledge that pops into my head unexpectedly.

As I bike the last leg of my ride tonight, that’s not truly what happens. And,  now that I think about it, I don’t think it was true the last time I saw something strange on my bike ride.

I saw the white sweatshirt and now I’ve seen it again today and I don’t have an inkling of an idea of what it might mean, who might be there or if this is a bad or a good sign. Nothing popped into my head. The vision came with no warning and no “feeling.” I’m back to being concerned, worried. Is there something in the road ahead? Good or bad? Tough or easy? Clearly, it’s not going to be a smooth ride.


Written by commuterchroniclesdbh

March 12, 2014 at 7:03 pm

Old-fashioned evening on the porch

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This old-fashioned girl who loves nature, hounds, plants and bird watching took a Kate Spade knockoff wine glass of Chardonnay onto the porch with three candles in a single candleholder. The scent of the candles, bought by a good friend, is “fresh washed clothes.” It reminds me of washing on the line in the Texas sun and the crisp unique smell of clean cool sheets in a house that spent many years without air-conditioning. I light the candles and it adds to the atmosphere that makes me feel like the small-town girl who was raised 90 long miles from the big city.

This nature girl has brought to this timeless atmosphere of the porch

  1. her a laptop,
  2. an iPad,
  3. a smart phone and
  4. my very favorite, never-without-it device, a Sansa MP3 player that I use to download books on tape from the Harris County Public Library.Sansa

Ironic, huh? I enjoy almost every evening with the setting sun, rising moon and constellations – surrounded by the gray-blue screens of technology.

As a little girl, I always was a reader and remember clearly forcing myself to turn out the lights and go to bed on a school night. In my mind back then, I thought of how wonderful it would be if someone invented a device that paraded the letters from your book across the backs of your eyelids so you could keep reading, no matter how tired you were. You could be tired and heavy-lidded and keep reading. Ha!! I never could stand to sleep when I was in the middle of an excellent plot twist.

This Sansa is very close to my childhood fantasy. Of course, the words aren’t paraded on the backs of my eyelids, and, in fact, the words aren’t on any page at all. The books are read to me, allowing me to go on a dog walk, a bike ride or simply do chores around the house while I catch up on my reading. I never have to (get to) stop, sit in a comfy stuffed chair or linger for hours in bed, reading.

I have several really earth-shattering memories from my young life – first being the reality of death, second being the non-reality of Santa and the third being the incredible fact that I could never, ever read every book in the world. However, more books are now in my reading grasp again.

My reading rainbow was an easy enough quest when I was young and read all of the books at home, including World Book encyclopedias, Shakespeare’s plays, some Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck left behind by my older brother when he joined the Army. Then, every separate classroom in my elementary school had its own library. Shelves lined the side windows and books lined those shelves. So every school year, I sized up the small classroom library and began the task of reading everything.

doc_savage_coverThe mother lode of my reading adventures as a kid came when I visited my older sister’s house and discovered the reading material stashed under her bed by my brother-in-law. This is when I became introduced to what would become my lifelong favorite genre. He had James Bond, Doc Savage, Honey West, action, adventure, detective stories, crime novels. I read them all and some pretty soft porn he kept stashed at the way back.  Of course, these worthy adventures are mostly blotted out by my memories of his pile of tabloids that included “The Rat Ate My Baby’s Face,” a story I remember vividly these several decades later.

I was most proud to discover the phenomenon of Philip Dick earlier than most people who came to admire the movies made from his books. I read “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” and didn’t realize until “Blade Runner” that I wasn’t the only person who would come to appreciate his work. I read “Total Recall” and “Minority Report” and remember vaguely the drawings that accompanied the stories.

The reality that I couldn’t read everything ever printed didn’t hit me for a long, long time.

I remember vividly walking into the library of my junior high in seventh grade and realizing there were more books there than I could ever read. Books lined not only the four walls but free-standing walls in rows everywhere. Fiction, non-fiction, biographies, reference.  I walked over to the fiction section, of course, and feasted my eyes. But, my second thought, was that, in fact, I couldn’t read them all.

But I’m getting closer now with book downloads.

I still enjoy the paper pages of a real book and love to hold them in my hands, especially when I’m poolside or beachside. There is nothing more relaxing to me than a real read of a real book. But, if you want to know if I’ve read the latest on the Top 10 list, I have. I just close my eyes at night and keep listening.

Written by commuterchroniclesdbh

March 7, 2014 at 3:22 pm

Buck a bum policy disgustingly becomes hug a bum

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Flash forward to my move to Houston where the homeless dominate many of the main arteries of the city. Even when I taught at University of Houston, I would drive by panhandlers on the street corners. That was before Hurricane Katrina and the explosion in homeless folks, many from New Orleans where the poor were driven out by  flood waters.

At University of Houston, I established my “buck a bum” policy. That sounds harsh, but, as I said, I have a love for all humankind and a tender heart for the homeless.  But as a writer and old police reporter, I can’t help but go for the word play and alliteration. Thus, I always kept – still keep — $1 in my car’s console to dole out to the many homeless folks that I encounter. No more, no less. That way, I have plenty of money for the next guy and can somewhat assuage the critics who believe I’m contributing to the liquor supply for the poor guy or occasional woman. One regular at UH could count on his $4 from me every week, Tuesdays and Thursdays, coming and going. He’d meet me at my car some days.

Once, my “buck a bum” policy went out the door when I came across a woman who – when she turned her body sideways – was incredibly pregnant. I emptied my purse and then all the money my elementary age son happened to have on him at the time. We both remember my reaction as crazed, depressed and unyielding. I gave her all we had and I’m sure it still wasn’t much more than $40.

Occasionally, I go through bouts of other contributions to the routine homeless I see – bag lunches, McDonald’s coupons, peanut butter crackers, apples. I once gave a homeless guy an egg McMuffin I’d just bought for myself. God was watching me stop at that McDonald’s.

Most recently, I’ve taken to giving away umbrellas. This started one rainy day in the medical center when a mom and her young daughter were lost and confused in the pouring rain. I pulled up and gave them my umbrella. After that experience, I replenished my supply and would hand them out on rainy days or when it looked like it might be threateningly appropriate. I once chased down a lady, attempting to give her an umbrella, and I think she thought I was the crazy one. She said she had a perfectly good umbrella, and I begged to differ. It had two of its extensions totally broken so that her umbrella teepee was pretty one-sided. However, after I seemed to frighten her, I went back to cash handouts.

Thus, I’m on the outskirts of Houston one day when I run into this same guy who I just saw in the Mercedes in my neighborhood.

I love Houston and always feel safe, but it’s a big city with big city problems and some areas have neighborhoods where crime is more frequent. Of course, the medical center is one of those areas, so I’ve gotten comfortable on my usual streets. Plus, as an old police reporter, I’m always conscious of my surroundings and stay aware of any trouble that may be happening near enough to me for me to be drawn into the fray.

But, on this day, I needed gas pretty desperately and had pulled off the freeway and into an unfamiliar gas station in a neighborhood that I thought would be fine. In any case, I was going to mind my own business, get my gas and get going. I’m pretty tall, definitely athletic and not what the cops consider “a victim personality.” I checked my supplies before I got out of the car — keys, credit card. Then, I locked the door behind me and went matter-of-factly about my business.

That’s when I saw this same originally homeless man in the area around the gas station. Like I said, I’m always giving a little handout to the homeless so he didn’t stop me from going about my business. I’m pumping my gas when I realize he’s heading my way. What can I do but stand there, gas nozzle in hand, and wait.

He pushed his empty grocery cart up to me and started his spiel. I remember him but not his story. And the only reason I remember him is that I thought he looked a bit like a leprechaun. This may even be why I remembered him so clearly when I saw him in my neighborhood about six months later. He was a little guy, much shorter than me and with red hair and a red beard. If he’d have had on green clothes and a green hat, it would have been laughable.

Then, his shopping cart was empty and relatively free of rust. I’ve seen a few homeless folks with shopping carts and have made a bit of an inventory of what folks believe is essential to their lives. Clothes, blankets, empty water jugs, smokes. My mom was the same, collecting and keeping the weirdest stuff that was vital to her existence.

This particular homeless man was pushing a cart but there was nothing he’d collected as yet. I remember thinking he was new to the homeless business or his cart would not have been empty. That maybe he couldn’t pass up the good luck of finding an empty cart. Whatever, he didn’t worry me.

Well, here I am, standing there with the gas nozzle in my hand when he came up for a donation. I immediately reached for my dollar that I had put in my pocket beside my always present pencil. I handed him the donation, took his “God bless”and then realized I wouldn’t be able to get back into my car until the tank was full. I had to finish my transaction at the pump. Typically, when I give a handout, I’m careful to roll the window down only as much as I need to and be prepared to skedaddle if anyone looks like trouble.

In this particular case, I felt like I could take this guy if he made any strange moves, but I certainly wasn’t prepared to talk to him. But that’s exactly what happened. He continued to stand by me and try to talk to me.

Remember, at the time, I’m thinking this is totally a legitimate homeless person and that I’m just caught outside of my car, so I attempted to make small talk, too, and act like I spoke to homeless folks every day. After all, I think to myself, this may be this man’s only human contact in weeks, maybe months.

We’re close to an overpass, so I’m considering asking him if that’s where he’s staying when I decided to stick to the safe topic of the weather. So, I’m standing outside my car, having given $1 to a homeless man and having a pretty weird conversation as the fuel trickles into my vehicle.  Painfully slowly.

Finally, I’m done and I move to get back in the car. That’s when, my new leprechaun friend says, “I hate to ask you this, but I’d really like a hug.”

I’m so surprised and still moving for the car door that I don’t say anything, don’t do anything. I swear. I gave no consent. But he quickly grabbed me, hugged me and, then, oh my God, gave me a kiss on the cheek before I could even react. Ewwwww!! Did I mention I’m a germ-a-phobe? I was so icked out and yet tried to remain polite. Who am I anyway? Always polite no matter the situation. Even when a homeless guy gives me a smack on the cheek. Get over your manners! Get out of here!

In any case, my buck a bum policy had accidentally turned into a hug a bum policy and I was forever changed. And, in fact, the spot on my cheek throbbed like a toxic leak for the rest of the drive home and until I could give it a good scrubbing.

Written by commuterchroniclesdbh

March 1, 2014 at 3:49 pm