Archive for April, 2015

Brownstone Blues


Brownstone Blues

My newspaper opens to a “Questions for the Editor” column in Section C. The first question brought memories that I had tried to put behind me-for many reasons. Unwillingly, they crept back into my mind. They have not left all day.

A writer had asked “what the two little buildings were-one looking like it might have been a church”-in a run down part of town that has seen recent interests in renovation”.Right away, I realized that  I knew a lot more about it than the editor. It was a church in the 1970’s and 80’s, the little congregation  even had managed to raise the money to build the little cement block social hall next door before the church ran low on members and closed it’s doors for good. Closed, like so many little Evangical Churches did when the neighborhood were in decline or attendance waggered.

My ex’s family went to church there all of their lives.  My 1st wedding, 40 years ago was there, my shower in the “new” cement block building. I had seen the church and event hall there, empty maybe fifteen years later, after a short try by another church to lure members in-it failing as well. It was sad, but the reason it failed was much deeper, closer to my heart.

The “projects” were just down the street, and the houses around it were run down and filled with both older, long term residents and young people on the edge of povery and drug use, some still struggling to hold on to family land.

I knew these people, they were my friends.  After an abusive marrige ended, I was part of that world for a time as I began my struggle to find a new life.

The small, sad, church was a reminder than in THIS community,at that time,  their savior, their woman, their daily life was not God, but “brownstone” (heroin, dilaudids, whatever was handy) or a thin white line between misery and estacy. I realize that “regular people” don’t understand these things. They don’t talk about it, especially now, as the plague has moved to another neighborhood. Not disappeared, as folks want to believe, simply moved.

I am of an age when I look at the obituaries first  when I open the newspaper. It is sad to see the parents of friend listed there, just as I have seen my own, but what breaks my heart is seeing the friends, I knew, hung out with, were close to, long ago, listed there too. It has been a shock, not one that was unexpected, but disappointing, often scary when the “beloved” was someone I knew well. It was often hurtful-knowing it could have easily been me. I’ve looked over death certificates in the Court House to see the ’causes of death’ in my friends’ obituaries.  It is always a shock, some of them in their mid- fifties, others in their early sixties. Liver or pancreatic cancer, alcohohoc abuse, drug overdose were listed as the cause of death. Some were homeless, many had gotten their lives together, only to watch them fall apart again. As few, like me, had suffered and survived.

In my younger days, the friends I lost to a life of the brownstone blues, herion, dilaudids, cocaine, a long list of substitues for the hard fight life can become -would often be more violent. A friends’ brother was shot on the sidewalk of the projects during a drug deal, another friends’ brother, missing for days, discovered shot dead in the trunk of a car. Maybe I would read that someone close to me had been  arrested, or the weekly trips to court listed people I had known.  One night, I heard that a childhood girlfriend, had overdosed from cocaine at The age of 23. When I had teens of my own, a friends son, blew his head off after drugs did not cure his depression. The sad story goes on.

I remember, “back in the day”, listening to the hard rock songs I’ve always loved (and still do). They told the true stories of young men (and women) who made it big, only to find the pressure of musical careers and the ease of obtaining drugs ruining their lives. Some made it to tell their story, many did not.

There is a series on “You Tube” called “Behind the Music” that tells many of these tales. In the music world, when a group found success, they often found another world as well. The program allows members of the music groups to tell the story of how life became a series of drugs, highs and lows, ruined lives, wasted talent and too often wasted lives.

I know it didn’t start with Woodstock, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, etc., but it was the first time I was old enough to hear of it. Living on the cusp of these times, then being reminded of them years later, simply made me realize how easy it can be to try to ease a pain that cannot be eased. We were numbing those unspeakable pains with habits so addictive that only the strongest survive-sometimes.

I don’t have an answer, I have lived through my own hell, I live through it every day, but somehow managed to recognize the stop sign when it appeared before me. I had heard too many times, the stories of people falling for someone on drugs or even alcohol, and the cynical laugh of their friends when they said, “Man, herion IS their woman, they “think” with that needle in their arm-or wherever they can find a spot where the veins have not collapsed. You, dear,  don’t have a chance.”

The list grows, the sorrows of life increased over time, but for those of us who made it, those who ended up in jail or dead and the lucky ones who managed to stay away from problems so deep that we felt there was no answer.

I’ve heard it called the “brownstone blues”. No one who hadn’t been there would know what it meant if it came up in random conversation. I think of the little church, and todays generation not even knowing that once God lived there, or tried to.

One day, I think I will drive by and force my mind to remember-both the days when church services struggled there, and the times, when the lights were out day and night. I wish to those trying to re-use the structures, the grace to remember what WAS and what CAN BE-not just in that neighborhood, but in YOURS.


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Duncan’s Ledger: Those Deadly Pies

Add Humor and Faith....mix well

A poem my grandfather wrote down in his ledger while sitting around a campfire or a bunkhouse with other cowboys about 100 years ago, which gives us some humorous insight into the anonymous author’s experience with food preservation!

Those Deadly Pies

I loathe, abhor, detest, despise,

abominable dried apple pies.

I like good bread, I like good meat,

or anything that’s good to eat;

but of all poor grub beneath the skies,

the poorest is dried apple pies.

The farmer takes his gnarliest fruit,

’tis wormy, bitter and hard to boot.

They leave the hulls to make me cough,

and don’t take half the peelings off.

Then on a dirty cord ’tis strung,

and in a garret window hung.

And there it serves a rest for flies,

until it’s made up into pies.

Tread on my corns and tell me lies,

but don’t pass me dried apple pies!

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Dedah’s Tulips

james shaves dedahThirty-nine years ago, when I was expecting my first child, my father planted red and yelow tulips down the border of his sidewalk. It became a custom to take pictures of the children in from of them each year. Sometimes, I would be in the picture with them. At first, there was just me and my baby boy, in a few years, a sister appeared with us. The tulips became a way to keep up with how my family was growing.

In years to come, I would have six children. There would be years when some of the older ones weren’t in the picture. Once in a while, we would give up on getting a lot of them together and just take a photograph of whoever we could catch up with at the moment.

I think we all saw Spring having “officially” come whenever Dedah’s Tulips bloomed. Dedah was my childrens name for my father.

Last year, my father was very sick, I was taking him to the doctor two or three times a week. It would be the last year we took pictures of dedahs tulips, with my father smiling , unseen in the background.

This year, my father is gone, I am cleaning out the house that he and my mother shared for 61 years, until her death several years ago. Along the way, I lost my 15 year old son. Taking pictures of the tulips had begun to remind us, not of spring, but of what we had lost. The work is exhausting, the memories take my breath away.

Right before Easter Sunday this year, my son, who was living next door to my father told me, “You know, mom, Aunt Phyllis’ tulip have bloomed and Dedah’s haven’t. Aunt Phyllis lived up the hill from my parents and their flowers would always bloom at the same time.

It got to the point where I found myself dreading the trips to clean out their house  so badly, there would be weeks when I didn’t go. Watching as the house became more and more empty, the losses and sweet memories of my children growing up fresh in my mind, was  just too emotional as I thought of my youngest, now 6 ‘5″ tall. Seeing another room emptied, cleaning out another cabinet, had become so painful to me that it was nearly unbearable.

Today, it was the day before “trash day”, so I felt I needed to go do some cleaning, inspite of my dread. I walked down the brick steps that my father had replaced maybe ten years ago, after I teased him about the steps feeling like walking down a waterfall when it rained. As I reached the bottom of the steps, I noticed that the tulips, now scattered, with spaces where they had died out over the years, had come into bloom. I smiled, thinking that perhaps, they were somehow waiting on dad to decide spring had come. After all, it had been cold the whole previous week.

I called my son and told him, excitedly, “Guess what? Dedah’s tulips are blooming! You’ve got to take your boys down and have their pictures made!” As I hung up the phone, I realized that time had moved on, from pictures of my babies with me, to pictures of my children with Dedah’s grandkids. How I wished he could be there to see them again. I had grieved my parents and my son so much while cleaning up that house. Finally, something had brought a smile to my face.

The sun peeked through the early morning clouds, shining a spear of sunlight directly on the tulips. With tears in my eyes, I looked up and smiled, “Thanks, Dad.” I whispered. It was warm, it was spring, and somehow , he knew.

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