“Pot It’s Not” by Linda Romanowski

One of my Grandfather’s greatest pleasures and talents was his green thumb, which, because he was so tanned, I’d jokingly refer to as his “Italian Brown Thumb.” In the mid-seventies, when he came to live with us in Roxborough, my father and uncles made a small garden patch for him at the side of the house, and every inch yielded vegetables, plants, and flowers – there wasn’t a seed which wouldn’t grow for him. Grandpop’s favorites included the Italian herbs, oregano, parsley, basil, and rosemary. His summer harvest yielded far more than we and our neighbors needed, so he decided to dry the herbs and bottle them for use during winter months. He’d methodically cut the herbs, wash them gently, and then string each leaf with needle and thread in a long strand, hanging them on the clothesline, rigged up from our garage door to the end of our driveway. The herbs which dried best were oregano and basil.

 The neighborhood kids knew exactly what my grandfather’s herbs resembled, so the rumor spread that Grandpop Archie, as he was known to the entire neighborhood by then, was growing pot. When I couldn’t stand it anymore, I finally told him why he’d see kids pointing at the clothesline, waving at him, and giving him the thumbs-up sign. He let out a roar of laughter when he realized what the kids thought. After Grandpop acquired this knowledge, the bumper crop increased one hundredfold.

Today, on the anniversary of his death, I went to the cemetery, fresh basil and oregano in hand. Defying cemetery rules, I furtively spread the herbs across his name on the gravestone and placed some at the base of the tombstone. I spread the rest among my parents’, uncles’ and aunt’s graves. Perhaps some bold seeds would take root.

I smiled through my tears.

The cemetery is full of Italians. They will keep my secret safe.

Linda

Linda M. Romanowski is a resident of Ardmore, Pennsylvania. She traces her roots to South and Northwest Philadelphia. Linda obtained her Bachelor of Arts degree from Rosemont College in Psychology and Elementary Education. She is currently enrolled in Rosemont’s MFA program, specializing in Creative Non-Fiction. Her primary focus is portraying her experience of her Italian heritage. She joined the Rosemont Alumni Board in 2008, where she is presently the President Elect, following her role as Secretary. Linda and her husband Ken have served as presenters for Pre-Cana marriage preparation sessions since 1982. She is an active parishioner of St. Denis Parish in Havertown, PA, primarily involved in their adult choir. Her interests include a passion for art, in its various forms, and a reverence for the beauty and the limitlessness of the written word.

Editor’s Post: “Walking the City”

One of the most illuminating activities that cities offer is walking. Contemplation, movement, and sightseeing come together in a wonderful whole, so that walking in a city proves to be a transcendent experience. During this pursuit, we seek greater insight into events in our lives, our minds, and even our own immortal souls. We can simultaneously be alone but connected to the humanity surrounding us, which puts us in tune with a larger consciousness. In this way, walking in a city can be the most contemplative state in which we find ourselves.

An added benefit of being able to walk through a city is the great sense of confidence it bestows on the traveler. I have surprised myself by walking the distance of a city, like Rome, when all I intended to do, on the particular walk in question, was traverse a few blocks. At the end of my journey, I felt as if I’d climbed a mountain or swam the length of a sea. I remember with great fondness walking through different parts of Rome, like Vatican City or Trastevere. I loved the variety of journeys I took, the week I stayed in that city.

Unless you have made your way through a city like Rome, it is hard to describe what an amazing experience it is. Walk through a city yourself to experience the wonderful sounds, sights, art, and architecture. Do it for the conversations you’ll have with others who are also exploring. Go with a friend or go alone. Either way, you will not be the same person you were when you started your voyage through the city.

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Ayesha F. Hamid is the founder and editor in chief at The City Key.  Ayesha has an MFA in Creative Writing and MA in Publishing from Rosemont College and an MA in Sociology from Brooklyn College. Her poetry and prose has appeared in Blue Bonnet Review Philly Flash Inferno and Rathalla Review. Ayesha is a lover of cities, big and small.

Editor’s Post: “Coney Island Cats”

In front of freezing beach air, NATHAN’S glows neon, pink, and green while other lights from the central-subway depot glimmer phosphorescent. In this cold, what could be better than a steaming cup of tea? I remember that doughnut place outside the station like it’s a revelation, but you say that tea would be a distraction, and right now a driving lesson is desired. After all, that’s why we’re here, so we drive near the boardwalk, circling a few times, learning to turn, how to brake, and accelerate.

All of a sudden, we see thin, stray cats, lingering near trash bins. Is it bad luck that black cats just crossed our path? But how could any creatures so wiry and weak have any power over people? Trying to avoid and downplay, I watch with an already disturbed human heart. Its unbearable to watch these unfed felines, so we continue the aforementioned task, in front of the beach, under the neon, pink, and green of this lit-up parking lot.

Considering the starving animals, I question how God could make something like hungry or thirsty cats, but my mind moves towards a logical, and quieting answer – maybe animals don’t have a soul, so perhaps, their starvation is different than our own, but as I look at these cats with their statures of hunger, hunched over, thin, and searching in trash bins, I’m not so sure. Suddenly stopping the driving lesson, I ask if anything can be done to delay death this night.

Hoping that we’re near a pet store, I try to find cat food, but no such luck. All we have to feed them is fries, and I open the window and throw them out, secretly hoping that the cats are picky, like the snobby felines in those Fancy Feast commercials, because then I would know that those animals are more well-fed than they appear. But it does not happen this way, and as I call to them they crowd around the fries and devour them like sticks of meat. Now I know that their hunger is real, like their souls, doing whatever they can to survive death that night.

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Ayesha F. Hamid is the founder and editor in chief at The City Key.  Ayesha has an MFA in Creative Writing and MA in Publishing from Rosemont College and an MA in Sociology from Brooklyn College. Her poetry and prose has appeared in Blue Bonnet Review Philly Flash Inferno and Rathalla Review. Ayesha is a lover of cities, big and small.

Editor’s Post: “Finding Magic in the City”

Even on an uneventful trip to New York City, I’ve always had one moment, at least one, that was magical. Take my last trip to New York. After a relentless winter with little sunlight, I thought that a trip to the city, on a relatively sunny day, would be a welcome change. Hopeful for a fun-filled trip, I woke up at six a.m. and prepared myself for an eight o’clock bus ride. As I drove to Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station, the sun was already bright, heating the city and melting snow. After boarding the bus, I fell asleep immediately, so the ride to New York seemed to happen in a matter of minutes. I woke up as the bus entered Manhattan.

Exiting the bus and stepping onto the sidewalk, I again had a familiar sense of hope, a certain sense of excitement and feeling of unity with others that only New York City gave me. Crowds of people walked by me, and as my eyes went back and forth, taking in everything around me, excitement started to well up in me.

I decided that I’d walk to Strand Book Store in Union Square. Though Strand was a couple of miles away, I’d come to the city intending to walk as much as possible. Walking had become a favorite past-time when I lived in the area five years ago. Though married at the time, I still did a lot of walking alone. I could easily walk ten to twenty miles a day.

Working in Brooklyn and running back and forth from work and home, I weighed a lot less at the time though I was still too heavy for my ex-husband’s taste. Becoming momentarily distracted, I wondered what he would say, if he saw me now. Whenever I visited the area though, I prayed that I’d never run into him, his critical eyes, and his new, perfectly-proportioned wife.

While moving towards the bookstore, the negative things he used to say started to flood my brain. Though his opinion of me shouldn’t have bothered me, especially after so many years, the memory of his words still stung. I blocked out those thoughts and focused on the things around me.

I walked down from 33rd to 23rd, seeing only a small number of stores and wondering how I had not yet seen a Starbucks or any store for that matter?

“Must be the apocalypse,” I thought to myself.

I realized that this was the part of Eleventh that often remained quiet. I walked down to Ninth Avenue. Crowds of people emerged and seeing them reminded me that I loved observing the variety of ways in which New Yorkers dressed. A woman crossed my path as if I wasn’t there. Instead of being irritated, I admired her outfit which consisted of a green dress, leggings, knee-high boots, and a tan, suede jacket.

After an hour of walking and people-watching, I arrived at  Strand Book Store. Instead of going in immediately, I went to a street vendor and brought a rice and chicken dish with tzatziki sauce. Sitting in Union Square, I enjoyed my meal. Chess players sat nearby on benches and concentrated completely on their games while dancers swept past in choreographed movements.

Finishing my food, I went into the bookstore. Books of different colors, shapes, and sizes covered every visible surface. I searched for books related to poetry, literature, and publishing. On that trip, I ended up buying an illustrated anthology of Edgar Allan Poe’s writing.

Knowing that I had to meet my friend Sarah soon, I left Strand and took a subway to Brooklyn. After meeting each other near the subway, we found a Chinese restaurant to sit in and spent a couple of hours catching up. We found a seat towards the back of the restaurant.  We made ourselves comfortable in a booth, which was made of darkly stained wood. Red streamers hung all around us. A waitress, who didn’t speak much English, put a teapot and teacups in front of us. She took our order and then started speaking to another waiter in Chinese.

Sarah was excited about her upcoming wedding and wanted to go shopping for jewelry and clothing in Jackson Heights, a part of Queens where South Asian vendors sold a variety of wares. As a perpetual tomboy, I disliked the idea of shopping for jewelry all day, but I agreed to go with her because she seemed so happy, and despite the fact that I was now cynical about romantic relationships and marriages, I forced myself to be optimistic for her.

“Jackson Heights will be so much fun,” Sarah said.

“Yes, it will be great. Shopping will be fun, and I can’t wait till the wedding,” I said.

When we arrived in Queens, New York City suddenly became incomparably beautiful again. As we came out of the subway in Jackson Heights, I noticed the storefronts and streets were bright with reds, blues, and yellows. Sarah took me into the jewelry shops, one by one, and the presence of gold, lining every wall of these shops overwhelmed me again. Becoming more interested in the activity than I thought I would be, I started showing Sarah the pieces of jewelry that I liked the best.

Sarah joked saying, “look at you!  You love this stuff too, don’t you?”

In one of the jewelry stores we visited, Sarah tried on a diamond ring, and I could see her imaging everything that it meant. When learning the price of the ring, she put it down, saying,

“He’s been waiting to buy me a ring, but this one is too expensive.”

“The rule is that the price of the ring should equal three month’s of the man’s salary,” I said.

“I don’t care about the rule. I don’t want him to feel pressured about this. He can get me something more modest,” Sarah said.

Again, her optimism caught me off guard. She really loved him. She never thought of anything but trusting him. It scared me to see how trusting Sarah was. I couldn’t help telling her to be cautious in relationships, but stopped there though I wanted to tell her more.

In that mercurial city where everything could change in an instant, I wanted to tell her that there was no such thing as forever, that another person loving you could end as quickly as a proverbial New York minute, and that there was no such thing as true love and soul mates.

Except….except for her, there was such a thing as true love. It existed in her heart, in that very moment, in a city of eight million. Loving someone forever was all that she knew, so I kept quiet, looking at the decorations around us and letting her bask in the magic of the moment.

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Ayesha F. Hamid is the founder and editor in chief at The City Key.  Ayesha has an MFA in Creative Writing and MA in Publishing from Rosemont College and an MA in Sociology from Brooklyn College. Her poetry and prose has appeared in Blue Bonnet Review Philly Flash Inferno and Rathalla Review. Ayesha is a lover of cities, big and small.

“Cheers” by Steven Rosenfeld

Stan Feldstein was having lunch alone at his desk on a bitterly cold and windy Tuesday in early January, absently perusing the New York Law Journal. It wasn’t the press of work that kept him there over the lunch hour; in all honesty, he wasn’t very busy just then. No, he was eating at his desk, as usual, because there really was no one in or near his Murray Street law office that he wanted to spend an hour gabbing with over lunch. Anyone he could think of would quickly get around to asking about his love life and would suggest another “perfect woman” to fix him up with, leading to another of those excruciating dinner dates that couldn’t be over fast enough. If he’d made any New Year’s resolution, it was to be done with that dreary game.

Stan’s lunch consisted of Snapple ice tea and a salad – one of those “create your own” from the salad bar at the take-out deli in the building lobby. It was barely edible. As he munched it, Stan suddenly remembered – odd how things like this just pop into your mind – the cocktail napkin he’d picked up at a dull New Year’s Day open house the week before.   Even if he could find nobody in the crowded room capable of an interesting conversation, at least the hostess had a sense of humor.

The bright blue napkin read:

ALCOHOL!
Because no great story ever started
with someone eating a salad….

Stan looked at the plastic fork, on which he’d speared a slice of pale pink tomato dripping too-sweet honey mustard dressing, and dropped it back into the Styrofoam container. Then he closed the lid and tossed the whole thing into the trash can under his desk. “What the hell,” he said aloud to the empty office. He got up, grabbed his coat from the closet and rushed out.

As Stan exited the building, the freezing wind blowing off the East River and across City Hall Park a block away cut into his face, like shards from an exploding pane of glass.  Turning onto Murray Street, he reached into his coat pockets for his wool-lined gloves and knit ski hat, but suddenly remembered that, yet again, he’d left them in the taxi that morning. He had meant to replace them at one of the cheap shops up on Canal Street during lunch, but then had decided not to brave the cold and get his lunch from the deli downstairs.  Now, however, he was bent on alcohol, not new gloves. It was too damn cold, especially with no hat and no gloves, to walk the five blocks uptown to the Tribecca watering hole where he sometimes stopped for a not-very happy hour martini on the way home. So he ducked into the first place he came to, a joint he’d passed many times on his way to court but never set foot in: Lilly O’Brien’s Irish Bar.

After 2 p.m. on a Tuesday in January, Lilly O’Brien’s was hardly bustling. In fact, as Stan entered the dim pub, blowing into his already-reddened hands, he could make out only a small group of men (Irish, he supposed) drinking beers at a table in the rear, and a woman sitting alone at the far end of the bar, nursing a drink and conversing with the bored-looking bartender.

As Stan’s eyes adjusted from the glare of the winter afternoon, he let them focus casually on the woman at the bar. She was hardly someone you’d expect to find drinking alone in the middle of the day. She wore chic black wool slacks, a turquoise turtleneck sweater and what Stan took to be stylish, expensive boots. Her mid-length brown hair was pulled back and tied with a black ribbon. A simple but elegant cloth coat and one of those large wool pashminas, in hot pink, were draped across the adjacent bar stool.  And she was very  attractive, even beautiful Stan thought , as  she looked up from her drink and gave him an inquisitive half-smile that Stan decided was an invitation to join her.

So he did. As he approached, she moved her coat and pashmina to the barstool on her other side and Stan sat down .

As soon as the words came out, he desperately wished he could hit “rewind.”  Too late! What Stan said (really) was this: “What’s a classy girl like you doing in a dump like this in the middle of the day?”

He expected, deserved, a sharp rebuke. But instead she laughed — so hard and suddenly that she expelled the sip of her drink she’d just taken, and dropped her glass, spilling the rest.

“Jesus!” she said. “That’s the last thing I expected to hear at two in the afternoon!” She turned to face him and flashed pretty hazel-green eyes. “ I’m  Jodie Robbins,” she added, extending a well-manicured hand. “Who might you be?”

“Stan Feldstein,” he sputtered, noticing the simple opal pinky ring on the hand she offered, and the absence of a wedding band on the other. He tried frantically to think of something cool to say.

“Well, Stan Feldstein, you owe me another drink. Ketel on the rocks. Three olives.”

He’d never met a woman who drank straight vodka — certainly not at two in the afternoon.  He ordered her another Ketel on the rocks and, rather than the glass of red wine he’d had in mind, the same for himself.

“Cheers, Feldstein,” she said when the drinks came, and took a healthy swig. “So? What brings a guy like you to a place like this at two in the afternoon?”

“Oh, I’m a criminal defense lawyer – my office is just down the block – and . . .”

“And you’re having a tough day, so you thought you’d take a break.”

“Something like that,” he muttered into his glass.

Still struggling to find something cool to say, the best he could manage was to ask, again, “so, seriously, why are you down here? You strike me as an uptown girl.”

“You’re right – I live in the east 80’s.  And seriously?  I’m down here for the rally at City Hall.”

“Rally?  What rally?”

She reached to her left and held up the hot pink pashmina, on which were pinned two large buttons. “BAN THE CARRIAGE HORSES!” cried one; “I LOVE ANIMALS – AND I VOTE,” said the other. “The rally was supposed to start at noon,” she explained, “but the City Council put off the hearing on the carriage horse bill until this afternoon, so they told us to go someplace to warm up and come back at 3 p.m. Most of them went for coffee or hot soup, but not me.” She took another swig of vodka. “This is what warms me up.”

“Am I hearing this right?” he asked.  “You’re going to stand out there in the freezing cold with a bunch of nuts yelling ‘Hey-ho, de Blasio, carriage horses have to go’ or some shit like that?”

She gave him a withering look, but that made her look even more enticing.

“You’re not really such an asshole, are you?” she asked.  “I probably should just tell you to buzz off, but since you’re buying me another vodka,” –  she motioned to the bartender for a refill – “I’ll give you a chance. Just listen, OK?”

Stan shrugged. “You have the floor,” he replied.

Her glare was replaced by an alluring smile, but just for an instant. “First,” she began, “get it out of your narrow lawyer’s skull that I’m some kind of crazy cat lady who has nothing better to do with her time. I have a serious job on Wall Street. Trading commodities, if you must know.  In fact, I’m serious about everything I do, particularly about animals. People can protect themselves most of the time, and if they can’t, they can get lawyers like you to defend them. But animals are totally helpless.”

“The people I defend have a constitutional right to counsel, for God’s sake,” Stan replied. “You’re not telling me that animals should have the same rights as people, are you?”

“Goddamn right I am,” she shot back. “Listen, animals don’t abuse people, but they’re horribly abused by people in ways I’m sure you’ve never thought about.”

“Such as?”

She took a gulp of vodka. “OK, let’s start – just START – with the carriage horses.  It’s not just that they’re forced to work long hours in all kinds of weather – bitter cold like today, 90+ degrees and humid in the summer. They have to pound hard paved streets, dodge potholes that can easily break their legs, breathe in exhaust fumes from cars and trucks – speaking of which, I’ll bet you didn’t know that dozens of carriage horses are killed or injured every year by motor vehicles.  And even when they’re not working, the stables they keep them in – don’t get me started – you can’t imagine how awful they are.”

“Look, Feldstein, I understand. It’s not a black-and-white issue. The drivers are a hard-working group, they have families to support, so you can’t just pass a bill and put them out of work willy-nilly. And, good God, there’s a lot of work to be done to find humane respite for the horses, otherwise they’d all become . . . .”  She stopped herself in mid-sentence and sipped her drink.  Stan thought he could see tears well up in her hazel-green eyes.

By now, Stan had no doubt at all that Jodie Robbins was serious. He was wondering if she had a playful side as well.

“OK, so that’s the carriage horses. But, Jesus, there’s so much more. Just last month, I went on a lobbying trip to Albany with the Humane Society. Cost me a vacation day, just like today, but it was worth it. We had to round up support in the Legislature for the bill to outlaw docking of dairy cows – do you even know what that is? Dairy farmers cut off the cows’ tails, painfully with no anesthesia, just to make it easier to get them into milking machines! It’s so cruel.”  She took another swig of vodka and went on, getting more exercised as she spoke.

“And at the same time – up in Albany? — we were trying to stop some upstate legislators from legalizing snare traps to capture and kill coyotes. OK, I get it, coyotes are becoming a problem in New York, but these traps cause animals to suffer horribly for hours or even days before the trapper returns. And they don’t just snare coyotes – they often trap dogs and cats or even endangered species like bobcats and bald eagles!”

“Do you really think those corrupt clowns in Albany give a shit about bobcats and bald eagles?” he asked.

“Who knows? But none of them would even know anything about this stuff unless groups like ours show up in their offices and demand a meeting.”

She paused for another sip.  Was she always this passionate, Stan asked himself, or was this just the vodka talking?  No, he decided, her passion was real – he could almost reach out and touch it. He wondered what else could summon her passion. Could he?

“And then there’s the food supply – like the way chickens and calves are tortured, yes, tortured, kept for their entire lives in crates so small they can’t even stand up or turn around!  Jeez, big agribusinesses — do you have all day?” She stopped and checked her watch. “Oh shit — you may have all day, but I don’t!  I gotta get back to City Hall.”

She excused herself and headed for the ladies’ room, leaving Stan to stare into his now-watery drink in silence.  She returned in minutes and reached for her coat and pashmina.

“Hey!” Her hazel-green eyes brightened and this time, the smile broadened and lasted. “Why don’t you come to the rally with me? You might learn something – and we might even have fun.” It wasn’t lost on Stan that she’d said “we.”

Stan looked down at his watch.

“Oh, come on – you’re not so goddamn busy, Mr. Lawyer Feldstein, or you wouldn’t have been sitting in a bar drinking with me for the last 45 minutes. Don’t worry about the cold — there’s room in this pashmina for two. Listen, I’ll  even get you your own ‘I LOVE ANIMALS AND I VOTE’ button.”

Stan kept looking down at his watch. But he wasn’t thinking about the time, or even the fact that he was without a hat and gloves. He considered the horrifying prospect of running into a colleague or a judge while he was wearing an “I LOVE ANIMALS” button.  But what he was really asking himself was whether he wanted to take another step with this woman he found so alluring and exciting, but who was so different from him – more fervent, unfastened, impetuous, than anyone he’d met before.  And animal rights – something he hadn’t thought about for two successive minutes in his life?  Stan remained on the barstool.

“OK, suit yourself,” she said as she put on her coat and wrapped the pashmina around her neck and shoulders, taking care that the buttons were facing outward. She reached into her coat pockets and extracted a pink knit hat and mittens.  “Well, guess I’m ready to face the cold. I’m certainly well-fortified.” She nodded at her glass on the bar. “Thanks for that anyway.” Then she picked up her glass, adding “Cheers, Stan Feldstein” as she drained it, and was gone.

Stan sat there for a long minute. Then he put three twenties on the bar, slid them toward the bartender, and left.

Out of Lilly O’Brien’s and back in the cold, Stan thrust his hands into his pockets and turned left onto Murray Street toward his office. But, as he did, he glanced over his shoulder. The hot pink pashmina was already halfway down the block and fast receding toward City Hall Park, fluttering in the wind like the flame of a candle about to go out.

“What the hell,” he said aloud for the second time that afternoon. He turned and ran down Murray Street after her. As he ran, he again remembered the blue cocktail napkin.  “Maybe this will be the start of a great story,” he thought.

There was only one way to find out.

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Steven Rosenfeld is a graduate of Columbia College and Columbia Law School and a retired lawyer who has been writing for over 40 years. Until recently, Steve focused on legal writing. He has written numerous briefs, articles in legal periodicals, op-ed pieces and reports. His most prominent published writing includes the public Advisory Opinions of the New York City Conflicts of Interest Board, which he chaired from 2002 through 2012, and, as Editorial Coordinator and Deputy General Counsel, the bulk of the 1972 Report of the N.Y. State Commission on Attica, which was nominated for a National Book Award

“Underground Mission” by Kathy Buckert

The streetlights barely lit the way to our destination. Flashlights, although necessary, didn’t keep the shadows from invading our space as we pushed our way through the broken fence. Bramble scraped against skin as we slid down the hill to the pavement below. The stifling air made it hard to breathe, pushing my fight or flight response full throttle. Having a battalion of armed men would not have settled my nerves, and I had only two. We marched in armed, not with guns but with folding camp chairs and provisions of coffee, sandwiches, and pastries donated by Starbucks.

The darkness outside could not match the blackness of the underground subway. Nor did the flashlights help us navigate through the broken bottles and rocks. The abandoned subway with graffiti lined passageway sidled against the Genesee River. The dampness invaded our senses with the stagnant smell of water and the pungent smell of garbage and crack cocaine.

The canvas of graffiti spoke of the divine beneath the streets of Rochester, NY. Beauty interred by the night. From a darkened doorway emerged a man. Our leader positioned the flashlight not on his face, but on the ground guiding his path to the circle of chairs. When I saw him I realized how I stereotyped the homeless. Ron didn’t wear rags; he wore jeans and a white t-shirt.  I heard the tale of a man who had everything going for him, but lost it all when his son died in a tragic accident; and how he drowned his sorrows in a bottle of whiskey because he couldn’t bear to face his wife, his coworkers or his life. Desperately wanting to get back to the world above, he went to the Department of Social Services, but they refused to help him. He didn’t have a permanent mailing address. My first reaction? Put a mailbox outside the underground subway and call it a day, but it doesn’t work like that within the system. As we listened, my jaw tightened as I considered the red tape a homeless person has to go through to obtain housing. It is easier to remain on the streets than to fight the bureaucratic world above the underground subway. We continued to talk about his plight until a scream invaded our conversation.

Although a balmy 90-degree night, goose bumps covered my skin. No one reacted. It sounded like a wounded animal. It reminded me of the night I camped at Burton Island in northern Vermont. Raccoons fought outside my pup tent, my only means of protection, and I had an anxiety attack because I felt trapped while the little demonic sounding creatures screeched at each other for hours. This scream didn’t sound much different. I pointed my flashlight in the direction of the sound.

“It’s just George. It’s his nightly ritual,” Ron assured me. “War. It does it to some of our soldiers. He’s a vet. Fought in Iraq. Now he hears voices. He screams at what he hears in his head. Nightly I tell you. Nightly.”

If I came out to serve, then I needed to do something. I grabbed a sandwich and a cup of coffee. I walked in the direction of the screams, down another tunnel, and behind a brick wall.

“You don’t need to yell George. It’s okay. It really is. You are safe.”

He stopped screaming.

“I am not going to come in, but there is a chicken salad sandwich and coffee right here on the ledge for you George.”

“Thank you,” he said softly.

When I turned around to leave our leader was standing behind me.

“Never go alone on the streets Kathy. Two by two. That is how we do it.”

Ryan wanted to protect me, but I knew his heart.  He started Streets for Christ, a ministry hoping to transform and encourage the lives of the homeless. Ryan saw the necessity of reflecting God’s merciful and unconditional love. I wanted to do something to help the homeless as well. I am a person filled with fear of the unknown, but I faced my fear of night and went to the underground subway. I wanted to be like Christ and do what he would have done: serve what the world considers undesirable.

George didn’t scream the remainder of our night, but other voices put every member of our team on edge. We could see them coming through the back of the tunnel. One wore a black cape. My imagination soared as I thought of every monster movie I had ever seen. Corpses often floated to the surface of the Genesee River.  Foul play. Murdered. We turned off our flashlights and remained still as they occupied the areas surrounding our circle of chairs. Their drunken laughter set me somewhat at ease. They were merely teenagers carousing in a fantasy world under the streets of their turf.

“These kids are always stealing from me,” Ron exclaimed. “But they are harmless otherwise. Don’t pay them no mind.”

I have doors in my home to shut out the world and to somewhat protect me from intruders. Ron and other men, women, and children on the streets do not have the same luxury. The blackness of the underground world has a dim light of hope. We are that hope. We offer food, conversation, and help in the world above. We helped Ron get out of the underground subway into his own apartment. It’s hard to believe such a world exists, but after my first experience, I had to go back. I had to let my heart pound and hands sweat while my flesh felt the heat of summer and the biting cold of winter, so I could give a little of myself to the men who created their space, their home within a world I could not imagine living in. It made me thankful, both for what I had and for what I could give. My hope is others will feel the call as well.

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Kathy Buckert holds an M.F.A in Creative Writing from Goddard College’s low-residency program in Plainfield, Vermont. Her work has appeared in The Blue Hour, Black Mirror Magazine, Silver Birch Press, Cheap Pop, Carnival Literary Magazine, Muddy River ReviewBookends Review, The Effects of Grace Anthology and other publications. She is an adjunct assistant professor at Monroe Community College in Rochester, New York. She is currently working on her novel Jacob’s Vow.

“Soul Sistas” by Chelsea Covington Maass

Growing up in various small towns in Kansas, I’d lived a life wrapped in the gauzy imagination that insists the “real” America is comprised of white Christians. Our neighbors were Catholics or Methodists, Lutherans or Baptists. I had exactly one Jewish playmate throughout my childhood. But then I left for college.

At the university, life was different. I met students and instructors from other countries, and discovered that instead of learning about distant places through books alone, I now had the opportunity to meet people from these wonderlands and hearall about their lives firsthand. My study partner in French class came from Senegal, one lab instructor grew up in South America, and a new friend hailed from the United Kingdom. I wanted to know everything. What was a typical day for them growing up? What were their houses like? Who were their families? They all had rich life experiences, and, to my amazement, they were as interested in my upbringing as I was in theirs. We shared our cultures with one another, relishing every vibrant detail.

While I met many people from far-reaching regions, I still lived in a college town where the majority identified as Christian. My new friends were also from countries with strong Christian backgrounds. And so, during my first few months of undergrad, I didn’t give much thought to the non-Christian world. I had no reason to.

That all changed on an October night in the late 1990’s, when I met a young woman named Mariyam who became my introduction to Muslim culture. She’d grown up in Maldives, an entirely Muslim country. The first evening we spent together ended in a shower of meteors lighting their way across an expanse of Kansas sky. A sign of magic yet to come. Watching in awe, we made wishes together. We traded stories about our childhoods and discovered we had many things in common: we loved the Beatles, were rebellious in high school, and had both dreamed of travelling to visit distant cities. She was as fascinated by my life in America as I was by her island homeland. The two of us became confidants, establishing a rapport that usually takes months for new friends to achieve. Soul Sistas.

I live in Philadelphia now. Our neighborhood is comprised of gay and straight families. Our neighbors are African-American, Caucasian, and Chinese. Some of us go to church, or temple, or the mosque, and others don’t attend religious services at all. My son has friends with gay parents, and I’m happy that he’s growing up in a world where parents are just parents. It’s easy then, in our particular corner of this Democratic city, to become blind to the terror that still grips so many Americans: the fear of anyone deemed other.

But Facebook keeps me connected to the heartland of my past. I am reminded daily of the reality that those back home are living. Simply put, millions of Americans know nothing other than themselves. Their neighbors and co-workers and extended family are white and Christian, and anyone outside of that perspective has been built up in their minds as a disruptor of their world. The Republican platform’s anti-Muslim rhetoric is gobbled up and regurgitated by many, and the only reason people get away with that kind of talk is because no one can say wait a minute, my brother-in-law is Muslim.

Back in college, I brought Mariyam to my hometown for a weekend visit. While there, we had dinner with a local friend and his grandparents. The grandfather was a school principal and a devout Christian. It was a lovely meal, with everyone engaged in conversation, and so I was surprised when the grandfather spoke to me about my friend the next time I saw him. It’s a shame, he said. I didn’t understand his meaning. Such a nice young woman, but she can’t be saved. He shook his head in regret.

Ever since, I’ve struggled with this kind of thinking among some Americans. The idea that Muslim people, or people of any ethnic or religious group that is not on the familiar white Christian landscape, are of no use unless we can convert them to become like “us.” The idea that our world must be viewed with an “us versus them” sentiment. The idea that Mariyam and I should be at odds with one another due to our cultural backgrounds. Have we Americans lost our childlike wonder and glee at discovering new friends? Have we determined that only one way of life is right, and that all others are wrong? And have we thought about all we will lose if such a philosophy becomes accepted as the norm?

I’m thankful for my little Philadelphia neighborhood. I’m also made more hopeful for our country’s future when I think of the young college students I teach. They are open and eager and excited to get to know one another. They are more accepting of others than previous generations. My wish is that their enthusiasm for people of all backgrounds will spread, and that maybe someday I won’t have to be so grateful for this little pocket of happiness. Maybe this neighborhood won’t be so unique in the future. Maybe other Americans will be lucky enough to find Soul Sistas of their own.

 

Capture

 

Chelsea Covington Maass lives in Philadelphia with her family. She teaches writing at two area colleges. Her work has appeared in HOOT Literary Review, Literary Mama, and Shotgun Honey.