Down and Out, Up and About. Rinse. Repeat

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Down and Out, Up and About. Rinse. Repeat


“Huh, huh, huh! Cough! Huh!” The enormous woman sitting at the diner is in the loud throes of ecstasy or pain, her face contorted, eyes squinted, mouth agape. I look at the server and ask, “Does she need help?” not knowing whether tragedy has announced itself through the electronic device she is holding in her palm. The clerk glances to the side, sighs, and says, “No, she’s just laughing at something on the internet.” Turns out, she’s an employee on break and he is accustomed to her public uninhibited outbursts.

This day is like that–one moment I’m apprehensive, the next moment, I’m relieved. Each instant can turn from happy to sad to hopeful to depressing at the snap of a kismet or two.

At the shop, Peter Blackstock, senior editor at Grove Press in New York, tells me his assigned author, Viet Thanh Nguyen, has just this week won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. He’s elated and I’m thrilled to meet such a literary personage. Moments later, I’m informed via terse memo that I can no longer park my car in the store’s adjacent parking lot because the new owner just doesn’t want to lease space to merchants. One second I’m elated, the next moment I’m handed a new stressful challenge to find fresh parking digs. The peculiar thing is, on a cosmic scale, each of these contiguous events means absolutely nothing to much of anybody–that is, whether I’m happy or sad is nobody’s concern. But my body does not know the difference between meaningful and meaninglessness.

In a matter of seconds, I’m up and about, then down and out.

How do I shake off this tiger whose tail is super-glued to my hand, without getting disoriented about life?

Later on, a customer brings two enormous 19th-century illustrated books for appraisal. I am delighted to see the books and equally delighted to see the customer, with whom I graduated from school a century ago–or so it seems. But while examining the books, a sour-demeanor visitor enters and loudly proclaims–as if nobody else is conversing–that the Birmingham Arts Journal has made a serious mistake that must be corrected immediately before the Earth can continue rotating. As a Journal editor, I try to explain how publishing works, and how the problem can be addressed, while at the same time I attempt to keep the customer happy and engaged in the appraisal process. The visitor closes his mouth but hovers within inches of my customer and me while I explain the books and their values.

Again, up and about, down and out, repeat themselves. All I can do is hang on to the tail, since the entire day goes on like this.

Down and out. Up and about.

I recall an old Madison Avenue advertising tale about the marketing of a hair shampoo. One Don Draper-type, searching for a way to increase sales, suggests that the instructions on each bottle be changed from, “Lather. Rinse Thoroughly.” to “Lather. Rinse Thoroughly. Repeat.” Turns out that, once implemented, these instructions helped double the sales of shampoo, and Draper lived to carouse another day.

Where are my instructions for getting through the up-and-down days?

“When Down and Out, Get Up and About. Repeat.”

In other words, there will forever be hills and valleys. I just have to keep in mind that over each hill there will be valleys, above each valley there will be hills. Navigating them is just part of each fractured day of a life well lived.

Even if life isn’t always that well-lived, pretending that it is can go a long way


© Jim Reed 2016 A.D.

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The Sing-Song Woman Under the Rainbow

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The stilled afternoon breeze of Southside Birmingham is broken by a new sound.

Somewhere off in the distance you can hear something not quite like the other sounds of the street.

Not a car un-muffled, not a dog howling against the city’s loneliness, not a baby crying cribless.

It’s another sound, and it’s coming closer.

Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high.

There’s a land that I heard of once in a lullaby…

It’s becoming clear now. It’s a flat, rounded-tone voice, and it’s very precise and methodical.

It’s the sing-song woman.

She walks by a time or two a day, singing a different song each time.

If you knew Suzie like I know Suzie

Oh, oh, oh what a gal…

The songs are all old. But they are the songs you don’t easily forget once you’ve heard them clearly. The phrases are simple and clever, the thoughts are easy to grasp, and the voices that used to record them were not drowned out by highly amplified instruments and heavy beats.

Singin’ in the rain, just singin’ in the rain.

What a glorious feeling I’m happy again…

At first when you hear the sing-song woman, you feel your day has been intruded upon. The song is loud, and you can’t ignore it and go on about your work. The sing-song woman knows most of the words correctly, and you even learn a few more by listening to her.

 That old black magic has me in its spell,

That old black magic that you weave so well…

There she is, now. Her head is down. She dresses plainly and walks slumped and straight ahead. But her voice sounds out huskily and methodically.

First you say you will and then you won’t,

And then you say you do and then you don’t,

You’re undecided now, so what are you gonna do?

I don’t know anything about the sing-song woman. She’s like many others who wander around Southside Birmingham going no place in particular. Like many of the others, she doesn’t look around. But she doesn’t bother anybody, either.

I’m laughing at clouds so dark up above,

The sun’s in my heart and I’m ready for love.

The heart inside this weathered woman is still ticking. The spirit rises above her body and sings on its own:

Let the stormy clouds chase everyone from the place,

Come on with the rain, I’ve a smile on my face.

Whatever life has meted out to this Southside denizen, there’s something inside her that won’t stay down. She’s a bag lady whose bag is a wonderful lyric.

I’ll walk down the lane with a happy refrain,

And singin’ just singin’ in the rain.

Is this woman’s entire life lived in an old tune written by long-forgotten composer?

Why am I smilin’ and why do I sing?

Why does December seem sunny as Spring?

Why do I get up each morning to start

Happy and het up with joy in my heart?

Why is each new task a trifle to do?

Because I am living a life full of you.

The lover to whom she sings the song is not with her on these daily treks. Perhaps her lover no longer lives. Perhaps her lover never was.

But it is obvious that to the sing-song woman, her lover is as real as her song in the afternoon breeze

© Jim Reed 2016 A.D.

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Curvature of the Attention Span

I am peering into the crowds of people surrounding me, somewhat lamenting the lost art of gazing into each others’ eyes.

In days far gone, people used to make momentary eye contact in passing, just long enough for a nod of recognition, a glimpse of friendliness, a symbol of trust and well-being.

Now, I am a stranger in a strange land.

No-one in sight is observing the world around them. They are all absorbed, focused, imbedded, part of the electronic devices they hold in their palms. Ignoring partners and friends, they are always Somewhere Else. Their bowed heads and bent spines pave the way for future professionals to minister unto them…chiropractors, orthopaedic surgeons, physical therapists, masseuses, masseurs, all will benefit from these aging technolusters who wonder how they became prematurely stooped, their thumbs arthritic, their distance vision awry, their observational powers limited by metal and plastic blinders.

Rooms full of people who are Somewhere Else. Stadiums of people who are Not Quite Here. Families filled with relatives all gazing navelward.

As I say, I am a stranger in a strange land, grateful for occasional moments when I meet other strangers who for some mysterious reason are not wedded to their palms, strangers who, like me, wish to engage and share and laugh with each other instead of laughing into a virtual unreality on a tiny screen.

Where do I find the happiness, the inspiration I seek, in a world of people who have gone away?

Well, it’s all there. All I have to do is what every artist, every writer, every poet has always done: Look around and examine everything that everybody else is ignoring.

The fact that pod people are self-absorbed leaves the rest of the world unobstructed for those of us who like to NOTICE. It’s actually kind of nice, being alone in a world full of people. I get all the time I need to peruse and browse and…NOTICE.

While much of the populace is busy text-shaming strangers, gossiping aimlessly with imaginary friends,  conducting snarky conversations about nothing of any particular importance, expressing opinions they’ve cut and pasted from others’ opinions…I get to have all the fun. 

Thanks, you behemoth media empire, thanks. You’ve freed up my time to observe more, write more, share more. You have provided me with my own space, space that is filled with actual people who are much larger than tiny screens and limited-character diatribes.

I get to see you as you are.

Do you ever see me as I am, I wonder

© Jim Reed 2016 A.D.

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Two Queues in the Villages of Birmingham

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Two Queues in the Villages of Birmingham

These two snapshots keep queuing up in my mind lately, so I have to own up to the lessons they are attempting to teach me. I do not yet know what they mean, but they are begging to be set free. Here they are:

First queue: I am standing in line behind two women at the thrift store check-out counter. I forget the old maxim that states the short line is always the slowest. Now I remember.

These two customers are standing next to shopping carts piled head-high with dozens of items, mostly clothing and shoes and household goods. The patient and unapologetic clerk takes her time methodically examining each item, entering a price in the register, calling for help from above when something is not priced, removing hangers, carefully rolling everything into bunches to be stuffed into white plastic bags, which the women move to the side in a protected heap.

This is taking a long time and my impatience is beginning to rise up. But on this particular day I remind myself that I can either enjoy this experience or make myself miserable. I opt to relax and observe. The petite women are very happy with their purchases and seem proud of their trove. After a while they look at the total tab, pull out rolls of cash and pay for everything in full. They leave the shop, laden with goodies and heading for a waiting van.

The clerk begins totaling my purchases while I ask her what all that clothing at one time is all about. “They are sending everything to their families in Mexico,” she said, for the first time smiling.” “Oh,” I say, feeling a bit ashamed of myself for being fidgety.

I leave the shop, wondering what those families will feel when they receive all these super gifts, what their expressions will be like as they sport their new old togs in a village far away from this particular Alabama village.

Second queue. I am again in line behind two women whose carts are brimming with clothing and household stuff and baby items.  The male clerk is slowly handling each item, removing hangers, making ad hoc bargains for those unmarked, focusing on doing a proper job. The women are chatting merrily. The first in line pays the clerk and remains at the counter while her companion begins handing things to the cashier.

Suddenly loud, funky and fun music emanates from her purse as she gropes for wallet and phone. I look over her bent head at the first customer and we spontaneously grin at each other, which inspires me to start faking some dance moves. She starts undulating, too, and her friend is now multi-tasking, taking in the dance, counting her money and answering her call. We can hear the male voice at the other end of the line.

“Where are you?” he barks.

“At the Piggly Wiggly,” she answers, causing her, the other customer, the clerk and me to crack up while stifling our guffaws.

“How much you spending?” he snarls.

“Oh, nothing,” she grins.

The conversation is over. The dance is done. The chuckles are mollified. The merchandise is paid for. The women leave.

The clerk and I watch them leave, each of us making up the sequel to a story we will never actually see.

I pay up, lift my bags, wish the cashier a great weekend. He returns the salutations.

I head from this village to the next village, ready for the next adventure

© Jim Reed 2016 A.D.

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