Sitting with my laptop open in front of the East Boston library on a pleasant Summer morning without headphones is an invitation to be bothered by strangers, I guess. Sure enough, as I struggle through a sentence in an essay I’ve just begun, someone does.
Muttering unintelligibly in a thick Boston accent about the earth’s tilt or some nonsense, a man’s voice breaks through my concentration like a sledge hammer into drywall. I barely look up, tossing only a courtesy smile his way. Thinking he’ll keep walking, I continue pecking away on my laptop. He stops. Ignoring the dozen or so open chairs and benches that line the library’s façade, he plops down with a whoosh into the Adirondack next to me and began to comment on everything from the humidity to Bernie Sanders to “transvestites.” (apparently, his view on the latter has become more accepting after meeting someone beginning the gender reassignment process)
As he talks, I type, managing only terse responses of “uh-huh” and “yep” to his scattered rants. I’m annoyed. I glance at the clock on my computer. The library opens in 20 minutes. Then I can finally get back to my important work.
“I just finished drug rehab.”
His words stop me. I finally look up from my important essay. The man is balding and gray and wearing those prescription glasses that turn into sunglasses outdoors. He says he’s 66, but he looks much older. He reeks of smoke and the things people use to mask the smell of smoke. I don’t really know how to respond.
“Oh, really? Wow.”
It’s all I know to say. His all-too-familiar story begins to spill out. Healthy, married, and working as a high-level computer programmer, 16 years ago he slipped a disc, was prescribed opiate painkillers, and got addicted. He’d lived hard during the 1970s, he tells me, but never got addicted.
“Pills, man,” he says, shaking his head.
He tells me that before his injury he’d been a competitive distance runner, able to complete a 10K in about 38 minutes. His secret addiction stopped him in his tracks.
“I couldn’t tell anyone,” he says. “I was embarrassed.”
After his latest relapse and overdose, he says his wife of 45 years tossed him out. He’s now living at a sober house in Eastie. He smiles when he says they’ve begun speaking again.
“She just has to see that I can do this.”
How does a guy his age stay on the wagon? Working through all the steps of the treatment program and not skipping any, he says. Brand new to the neighborhood, he has yet to attend a meeting here. I suggest one that I know of, and give him a name of a friend to ask for. He’s appreciative, though doubt remains.
“At my age,” he says, “I’ll either die from this or get sober.”
The conversation returns to running. I tell him I ran the Boston Marathon in April. He says he used to love running the Falmouth Road Race each year. He misses being able to run six-minute miles. A few years after his addiction began he started running again and was sober for eight months before a knee halted him again – and he fell back on drugs. I’ve heard replacing your addiction with a similar obsession like running can be effective, I tell him.
Where do you run in the neighborhood, he asks? I tell him about my go-to loops. I tell him there’s a 5K coming up next month that I’ll be running, and would he like for me to email him the details. He would. I write down his email address.
The librarian unlocks the front door. Waiting readers begin to pour in. My new friend groans as he stands up, pausing in front of my chair.
“I’m John, by the way,” he says.
“Steve,” I reply. “Good luck with everything. You’ve got this.”
UPDATE: I received this email from John:
FYI. I just ordered new running shoes and they should be here on Monday. I am beginning to get my endorphins flowing already just thinking about it although this is some weather to start running in. Must remind myself to go easy for a while. (Like I would have a choice!) Running in this oppressive humidity. Like we discussed...this 5K will be my carrot stick kind of thing....NICE! AND THANKS
Teared up tonight singing the old carol, "I heard the bells on Christmas Eve." Been that kind of year.
Did you know the story behind this carol? I didn't until tonight.
The carol is based on a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. (who actually frequented the home where I sung his song tonight, but that's another story) Like many carols and hymns, we sing a sanitized version of this song, with at least two of the stanzas -- referring to the horrors of the Civil War -- omitted completely. By removing these verses, we remove the immense pain within Longfellow's original poem -- leaving a hollow shell of a carol stage-ready for a TV special with Johnny Mathis or Michael Bublé.
Longfellow is a broken man when he writes this in 1864. For three years, the Civil War has obliterated the nation. And in July 1861, just a few months after the first shots of the Civil War are exchanged, Longfellow's wife, Fanny, is mortally burned when her dress catches fire in their Cambridge, MA, home. Longfellow would suffer severe burns to his face as well jumping on Fanny attempting to put out the fire. This is why he'd wear a beard the rest of his life. "How inexpressibly sad are all holidays," he'd write following Fanny's death.
Two years later, a horrendous war hits the Longfellow home. Longfellow's son, Charles, is fighting with the Union army in Virginia in 1863 when he is critically wounded by a Confederate bullet that strikes his spine and nearly paralyzes him. He lives, but barely. He'll not fight again.
A year later -- on Dec. 25, 1864 -- the war still soaking the South with blood, a heartbroken Longfellow pens his now-famous poem. The carol begins with the upbeat verses many of us know:
I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Till, ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
We don't, however, sing the fourth and fifth stanzas -- which were ripped from the headlines at a time when the country's peace and goodwill are shattered by a bloody and needless war:
Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
We sometimes sing the sixth stanza -- a generic reminder of the hate that too often "mocks the song" of peace and goodwill. But absent the context of the verses about the war -- not to mention Longfellow's deep personal losses -- these words somehow lack the groaning with which they were no doubt written:
And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said:
"For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"
But then, out of the ashes, we get stanza seven. And this is where I teared up tonight. We can choose to live in the sixth stanza if we want. It's quite easy, actually -- all the evidence is there that the verse rings true. Freddie Gray. Aleppo. Charleston. The election.
Longfellow didn't stay there, despite losing his wife in their home. Nearly losing his son. Watching his nation being torn in two by hate. For Longfellow, the story of Christmas was greater than the depths of personal and political despair. What courage and faith it must have taken to write these words:
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!"
Maybe you dwell in stanza six. I'm not blaming you if you do. There are plenty of good reasons to do so. But take heart: "the wrong shall fail / the Right prevail / with peace on earth, good-will to men!"❤️
Remembering the man whose food and faith inspired.
We eat to survive, to fuel and strengthen our brains and organs and sinews. Food delivers the nutrients that keep us alive.
We eat for fun. When food tastes sublime, when the individuals to our left and right and across the table are funny and caring and smart, when our stomachs are not only full but ache a bit from laughter, our body tells our brain that it would like to repeat such a meal again, and again, and again.
We also eat — more rarely, perhaps — for inspiration. Maybe it’s the particular location where the meal is taking place — on the summit of a mountain, a tropical beach at sunset, or a holy site. Maybe it’s a particular person with whom we are dining — the Dalai Lama or Dolly Parton. Food and drink have, since the start of time, served as the centerpiece for human inspiration, seeding inventions and sparking revolutions.
For three decades until it closed in 2011, Harold’s Pit Bar-B-Q operated at the nexus of utility, enjoyment, and inspiration. The Abilene hole-in-the-wall was, for decades, a lunchtime staple for scores of West Texans. In a town with almost as many barbecue joints as churches, lines at Harold’s were often out the door (especially on Fridays). The meat —from the tender, slow-smoked brisket and ribs to the steaming sausages — was a religious experience. The hot water cornbread and sweet tea was Eucharist. And presiding over each lunchtime service — the minister of meat — was Harold Christian, who died on April 3 at 71.
Read the rest at Medium.com
On Saturday, I was honored to moderate an all-star panel discussion about modern agriculture's impact on farmworkers and the environment at Harvard's Just Food? Conference. Amazing to look out and see a couple hundred attendees enthusiastic about just food production! #JustFood2016
My lovely camera assistant and I enjoyed a delicious evening Tuesday at the Taste of the South End, put on by the wonderful Aids Action Committee. Everything we ate and drank was ridiculous, but here are a few highlights:
A woman I know, a nanny from Central America, lives with her two tall, teenage boys in a tiny basement apartment -- the kind of place where the front door is frequently blocked by snowbanks and you have to squeeze sideways to get around each other once inside. It's several blocks from a bus stop that takes her where she needs to go, which is, on a daily basis, to the homes of the families for whom she nannies across the neighborhood. Before she leaves for work, she kisses her boys goodbye and sends them on a multi-block walk to the nearest subway station to begin their 45-minute commute to school, three towns away. This woman has been living in my neighborhood for more than two decades, has raised her boys here, and has grown to become a bona fide member of the many families she's served through the years. This is home, and she's given back to her adopted neighborhood in ways I cannot possibly list here.
For about a year, she's been looking for a place to live that's closer to the families she serves. A place that is a bit safer for her boys, and for herself. Closer to the public transportation on which she depends. She's run into roadblock after roadblock, as the part of the neighborhood where her families live is considered "up and coming," with some rents starting at roughly twice what she's currently paying. Many longstanding homeowners, seeing the investment potential in their properties, are selling their buildings to developers, many of whom are kicking out the tenants to flip the units into high-end condos or apartments. The woman I know has no guarantee that her current landlord will not one day do that to her. Still, she searches for a modest place for her and her boys to lay their heads, a bit closer to the families she works for, in the neighborhood that is her home.
I had an interesting online chat this morning with another neighbor — a young professional who's lived here less than five years. This guy is all for the gentrification we're seeing in our community and has no sympathy for the longtime residents who find themselves in a financial and residential pickle as rents go up and amenities become more expensive.
"It's fucking life," he wrote me. "Live where you can afford."
To him, any phenomenon, public or private, that raises the value of his property, attracts a higher crust of residents that do the things he likes to do, and fixes up "shitty buildings" is fine by him -- low- and middle-income residents be damned. That twentysomething hotshot who's buying up buildings, evicting existing tenants, and flipping them (mostly poorly, I might add) into high-rent college dwellings? He's "a saint," a hero. Housing developments that feature subsidized units? They're the worst, according to him, and contributing to the downfall of the neighborhood. In fact, he actually believes low-income residents in affordable housing overlooking the Harbor and the skyline -- a complex that has been, I might add, in that location for decades -- do not deserve to live there because "those are million dollar views."
I could be wrong, but to him, it seems, city living is all about the gradual aesthetic improvement of the built environment, the introduction of amenities that cater to him and people like him (high-end grocery stores, gastropubs with $9 beers, CrossFit gyms, and the like), and eventually making a return on the housing investment he made when the neighborhood was a mostly affordable, blue-collar place to live.
But cities are people, not buildings. Buildings and restaurants and grocery stores serve people -- real people, with kids and no kids, living alone and with partners or roommates, employed and unemployed, documented and not, of every racial makeup you can imagine. The city is humanity's experiment in existing together in peace and creativity as one, beautiful tapestry of lives. People who thrive in cities concern themselves with the wellbeing of the collective, not just themselves.
When one of us is displaced, we all feel dislodged.
When one of us sees a family member touched by violence or fire or substances, we all run to the aid of that family and advocate for the best care possible.
When a public school does not meet our exacting standards, we throw our back into helping to turn it around.
Come to think of it, that interdependence is the American experiment as well, and that of our Commonwealth ("common wealth"). But cities are an ancient but unique microcosm of the kind of world in which we want to live. Long before "sharing economy" made it into our lexicon, there were cities -- the original sharing economy. These were economies built not around wealth accumulation and personal interest, but ones centered on people -- coexisting and thriving together as one diverse patchwork of beauty and creativity. In our modern, American iterations of urban life -- where "all men are created equal" -- the more diverse that patchwork, the better.
If we, as individuals and families living in an urban community, not only believed that cities are people but leaned into that belief, what would that mean for our nanny friend and her boys? Would their imminent displacement still be viewed by some as necessary collateral damage of a real estate market that is free and unfettered? Or would we value their contribution to the community so much that we'd do everything in our power to keep them and thousands of families like them right here, in their homes, where they belong?
Last weekend, we accompanied some friends, Peter & Giordana, who have built quite a little reputation 'round town for their cider-making. What makes our friends different is that they don't pick their apples in Chelmsford or Ipswich, but right here in the heart of East Boston, the neighborhood we all call home. Our journey started at "The Rockies" on Marginal Street, a wild orchard across from gorgeous Piers Park, where we collected a large yard bag full of apples using a garden-variety fruit picker. Picking a basket-full of apples was almost as fun for the kids (ahem) as watching apples roll down the hill and into the street to get crushed by Marginal St. traffic.
From Jeffries Point, the apples went back to Peter and Giordana's house up on Eagle Hill, where they were washed, cut, ground, and then pressed into cider. How did it taste? Just as thick and sweet as the best bottled cider from Chelmsford or Ipswich, I guarantee. Completely free, with less than a mile traveled from orchard to table.
We've been back from Texas for more than a month, but several unexpected home repair projects and the everyday of living with a baby and a seven-year-old have delayed my posting the stories that came out of that trip. We were there to see family, but Chrissy and I made it a working trip to some extent. Thankfully, my work is mobile, and my subject matter is everywhere food is eaten or grown, so it wasn't hard to find some great stories in the Lone Star State. Enjoy!
Austinites love local food so much that developers are building it into their housing communities. It was awesome hanging out with my friends Daniel and Brittany at their newly completed home, which was moved from South Austin to a shared plot of land with a garden in the middle. Pretty cool.
Nestled in the Hill Country north of Austin is Lazy Day Farm, a startup operation run by several middle-aged family members. They have chickens, goats, a donkey, miniature horses, bees and a great organic garden. (my son's favorite were the two baby goats) The plan is to expand the farm and open it up to visitors who want to get a taste for agricultural life.
When I saw "Richard's Rainwater" on the shelf at a market in Georgetown, TX, I did a double-take. "You can't drink rainwater!" I thought. I snapped this photo and went home to do some research. Turns out you absolutely can collect and purify rainwater to drink. In fact, Richard (of Richard's Rainwater) says his rainwater blows your standard tap or bottled water out of the ... er ... water in terms of taste and quality. For drought-stricken Texas, this is great news.
A repository of my work, photos, and random reflections. Views expressed here are my own and not necessarily those of publications or other clients with which I work.