The Soapbox Papers

The Soapbox Papers is my two-cents worth.

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Location: Beloit, Wisconsin, United States

I am a cross between Tinkerbell and Calamity Jane.

Saturday, January 28, 2006


I'd say I am somewhat spoiled. I've been in Florida now for just under 20 years, and I have happily gotten used to winters with 58 degree mornings, roses blooming in January, no snow, no ice, no blizzards and no itchy wooly underwear.

September Beach I like being able to go to the beach just to watch the birds and breathe in the salty air whenever I feel like it. I thought, when I moved here, that I would always be able to do that - just go to the beach and sit whenever I pleased. Terns I haven't done enough of that. Other things always get in the way -- because when you live here, you know you can always go, so this sort of little pleasure is often kicked aside. When I moved here, I told my kids I was picking my retirement spot early, that I was moving here to stay.

It was here, in the Tampa Bay area of Florida, that I started to create a new life for myself. I went to college. Got my Associate's degree, then my Bachelor's. Discovered that I still had a knack for writing (Sometimes during years of wifehood and motherhood, skills and talents get forgotten. ) I was evolving into someone I really wanted to be. I finally had a job I enjoyed with a company I was proud to be part of. I had a sense of capability, of independence, of being in charge of my own life. I was creating a local reputation as a poet, and learned the skills and nuances of public presentation. I was finding causes to support, and, though I am not one to make a flock of friends, I was friendly with most everyone, and enjoyed the bond of friendship with a few select people. Found love a time or two, found like a few times more, and have had friends die and move away. I've been disappointed and outright stunned, I've been hopeful and a diehard believer. I've loved living here.

My daughter (and her kids) came to Florida some time ago, stayed a while, fell in love and married and doubled my inventory of grandkids. Tim, Jinger,  Nikki, Aubrey, Jaime and TimmyFirst Day of School 1993Jinger and Tim - Wedding Picture

My daughter picked up her family and moved back to the roots she remembered and was familiar with in Wisconsin. I've missed her a lot since she's gone, and the kids -- growing up in a place I had visited a time or two and knew not at all, but for the climate. But Jinger is a snow-bunny. Jinger always loved snow and the more vigorous change of seasons that happens in Wisconsin. She needed to find her own place, and Wisconsin was it. Taran came and went and came and went in Florida. He had been growing up in Trinidad, and the climate in Florida suited him far better than that in the northern states where he was born and spent his early childhood. He joined the Navy here and spent some time in Orlando before going to his Great Lakes post, then he went South again until his father's health dragged him North again. Then back to Orlando, then to Clearwater to work for a time at the same company as I. I think, sometimes, that working there changed the direction of his life. He found a place where he was appreciated, not just for what he knew and his ability to get a job done, but for his ability to think, to learn, to grow. And he outgrew the place. Eventually he returned to Trinidad - a gap I cannot seem to close even to see him and do the motherly pride thing. He's been back to visit, but these days the world is his teacher, and he freelances his abilities and is constantly learning more, implementing more, and one day he'll be back again - most likely to visit. I don't believe he will set down roots in Florida again. And Dusty. Dusty's visited Florida, but his roots and family are in Pennsylvania. I doubt he and his wife will consider Florida until they are old and in need of the constant warmth.

But there are many kinds of warmth. Of late, I have lost two friends within a week of one another, both to pneumonia. Florida is no safeguard against illness. The friends I have left are busily into their own lives, as they should be. I am most often left to my own devices, which, since I lost my mind in 2001 to a sort of accumulative breakdown, are narrow and of the self-serving type one uses as one tries to mend. I've gotten much better, mind you -- but I am aware that I am not "well" yet, and while working toward that end, I do have to make allowances for what I cannot do anymore, forgiving myself for the inabilities that thwart me. It isn't easy, and while my friends have ruffled their feathers from time to time, they have stood by me and I am grateful for that. But I need more.

When my daughter calls, I immediately calm. There is nothing like her stories of her job, her family, her life, always seasoned with her laughter, to make me smile and -- miss her all the more. I have been visiting to Wisconsin in the early summer, several times in the last few years, and each return to Florida I miss her and the girls more. Now when she calls, I know some of the people she talks about. I've actually made friends with some of them. I can picture in my mind the setting for her stories.

When my granddaughters call, I can see them in their environments in my mind's eye. They are young women now, with husbands and children (though husbands and children are not evenly divided among them) and each has her successes, each has her challenges. I've met three out of four of my great grandchildren, and I miss knowing the littlest one, the one with the serious face, the one so very tiny , as my daughter was as a baby. The oldest one, a little boy with incredible dimples, is four now. I've caught myself imagining me teaching him where his five fingers go on piano keys.

I've thought of moving to Wisconsin.

I've thought about it for several years now.

(to be continued)

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Good Night, Mother Goose

I lost a friend this week. Thomas Bruce Reese has left the Planet. I feel his absence somewhere in the center of my being.

I haven't been well myself, and had not been to see Tom since last spring, though I kept promising myself I would go, kept thinking of him and what I would say when I saw him next. I wanted to tell him his babies - the stray cats he adopted - were being cared for. I wanted to tell him that he had been in my thoughts and in my heart. I wanted to tell him I valued him and our friendship, that I cherished the silly gifts he gave me: thrift shop jewelry, books, a purple teddy bear, the recycled greeting cards, the newspaper clippings he thought I'd like with notes in the margin, written in his ornate scrawl . But I didn't go. Perhaps it's just as well. His friend, right-hand man, and eventually, the man who looked out for Tom's best interests and kept the rest of us informed, Malcolm, says he suffered from dementia, as well as the physical ailments that come along when a body turns 89. Malcolm said Tom believed he was the director of a very successful art gallery. While the financial books would say that belief was a lie, in the minds and hearts of many of us poets, artists and musicians around St. Petersburg and beyond will swear his belief was correct. Depends on how you define success. Tom was a friend, a mentor, a critic, a hero and a nemesis, depending on whom you ask, and the time of day you ask.

I will leave the history writing to those who know more than I - Google "Thomas Bruce Reese" and you will find websites and stories - one even with a mostly-accurate timeline - much of which I know is true, some of which I suspect is embellished. I understand there is a book in the making about Beaux Arts Gallery and Coffeehouse, his far-reaching contribution to local culture. When Tom became ill, his Gallery and Coffeehouse, on Central Avenue in St. Petersburg, went on the market. This was not the first home of Beaux Arts. The history will tell you that, and as I said, I will leave the history writing to those who know more than I. But let me tell you about what I do remember...

I remember a man who sat in the open air of the gardens of the original Beaux Arts coffeehouse on Sunday afternoons and listened to a parade of open-mike performers, sometimes with his eyes closed; I remember how he commented at the end of each performer's set, for good or for bad, on their selection of material, their performance skills, or sometimes the history related to the performance.

I remember picking Tom up (This was when Tom could no longer drive -- many of us breathed a sigh of relief!) early on Sunday mornings and being treated to breakfast at a little restaurant in downtown St. Petersburg before we went to the Mainsail Arts Festival or other annual event. I remember not being able to keep up with him at those art shows, him, armed with the latest flyers for Beaux Arts events, flitting like a large and colorful butterfly (how he loved his bright clothes!) from place to place, talking with old friends and inviting new friends to his Gallery. I remember him trying to pair me up with unsuspecting visitors to Coffeehouse - it bothered him that I had, for a time, chosen to remain unattached. I remember him getting up and walking out of the Gallery in the middle of my recitation of one of my poems, saying (not quietly - Tom gave no criticism or admonishments privately or quietly!) he would not stay and listen to a piece of work that I cared so little about that I would read it too fast, or too carelessly. If I didn't care about my work, he said, why should he...

I remember helping him clean up the gardens, but having to check with him before tearing out what most people would regard as weeds. Tom recognized all species of plants and called few (I can't recall a single one!) a weed. I remember (after an afternoon of that ) going across the street to the gay bar where we had what he called "a dollar dinner and a dollar beer." When a friend of mine from another organization was the performer at that bar - a talented cabaret singer/entertainer - I remember excitedly dragging HIM across the street so he could hear her and appreciate her talent. And how Tom loved dance and drama! As late as the mid-nineties he would throw costume galas to see how everyone came dressed.

Because of his gruffness, sometimes, because of his very direct way of speaking, many of the younger people who visited his coffeehouse on open-mike night overlooked his direction, his attempts to teach them how to be better at what they did. But Tom Reese could have taught Bob Dylan to speak distinctly, one syllable at a time; he could have taught rappers to slow down in their delivery: he'd have said, "Your message is too important for you to race through it!" And he would have said it loudly. Toward the end, he said everything loudly. Somewhere on the premises was a hearing aid or two, but he seldom had one in use. Yet he missed little. Maybe because of his age, maybe because not many knew he had a degree in Fine Arts, many did not take him seriously.

I did. I learned a lot from Tom. When I started to get sick, he knew. He'd even call me when I had been away too long. I tried to explain it to him,tried to tell him how my mind was beating me up so severely it was hard to leave the safety of the blankets, then, much less my house. "Are you writing it down?" he asked. Sadly, much of it went unwritten, as I believed then that if I got through the worst of it, who would want to remember. When I made my uncommon appearances, sometimes during the day when he was alone, he was always glad to see me, always ready to tell me who some of the new performers were. He would show me the latest paintings and scuptures in the gallery and take me on a tour of the side garden.

I last toured the side garden, the front and the parking lot on my own, with the permission of one of the tenants, once the "For Sale" sign went up on Central Avenue. I documented it with pictures of the place - too few, and none of the inside - that I wanted to keep to remember those years. A friend of mine says it is the end of an era, now that Tom is gone. The place is sold, and will be torn down to make room for - something else. But a part of Tom carries on in so many of us, I doubt the era is over. Recently, at a grocery store, someone who knew me told the young man packing up my groceries that I am a poet. The young man stopped a moment and looked at me and launched into a spirited rap -- and I caught myself telling him, "Slow down, slow down! What you have to say is much too important to rush through like that!"

I remember how Tom would ask about people he hadn't seen for a time, and the poem I would read at the end of some of those coffehouse nights:

Counting Sheep

And the sheep have
gathered into a tight knot
near the haystack
where the little boy sleeps.

I’ve heard it said
that in the course of a day
every single sheep in the flock
will rub against its shepherd --

perhaps not in affection,
but in acknowledgment;
perhaps not in devotion,
but in loyalty.

Mary’s lamb was different --
one on one acceptance, probably;
devotion, affection --
trailing around behind her
like a ripped hem. It was
the talk of the town.

Po Peep wasn’t
the shepherdess type -
easily distracted,
no doubt scatterbrained
(quite possibly blonde)
yet even disenfranchised,
her sheep came home – remember?

Close your eyes.
The sheep are coming home again,
one by one -
even the little black one,
his wool shorn, filling three bags.

Rest easy. Everything is going
according to Plan.

Goodnight, Mother Goose.

From the collection, Bartering Copyright (C) Smokey Combs, 1993 All Rights Reserved