A Night In The ER: Stories From Higley Hill

It was a chilly night in November 2008. My oldest daughter and I were in Albany, New York visiting Sienna College. She was a junior in high school, the MVP of her lacrosse team, and Sienna was a D-1 school. Fast as grease lightening and tough as nails, she and her best friend also broke the gender barrier at Exeter High School when they earned a spot as the first two females on the boys wrestling team.

In the afternoon, we took a tour of the campus. She was hesitant about the Franciscan brothers wearing long rope belted brown robes and Jesus sandals. At the entrance to every dormitory was a cross that made her feel uncomfortable. She wasn’t raised with religion although we attended a Unitarian church for a short time. I was raised Catholic so I told her what I knew about St. Francis of Assisi, his vow of poverty and his love for all God’s creatures. At the reception in the cafeteria I dragged her over to one of the Friars and asked what percentage of the students were Catholic and how prevalent was the religious life on campus. He reassured us the college welcomed everyone and no one was required to attend mass.

We left the campus, checked into a Fairfield Inn, then drove to a cozy neighborhood restaurant. She had been complaining of a headache since the cafeteria reception. I told her it had been a long day, she probably needed something to eat. I convinced her to order some soup but she barely touched it. On the drive back to the hotel she curled up into a ball and started crying. When I say this was very unlike her, I truly mean it. I started getting scared.

Several months earlier she’d had a sharp pain in her calf. It wouldn’t go away. She called me at work complaining it was getting worse and nothing she did would relieve the pain. I called her pediatrician, Dr. Loh, the most wonderful doctor I’ve ever met. He was there when both my children were born and to this day they both wish he was still their doctor. I called her back and told her she had an appointment in a half hour. “Can you drive yourself there?” I asked. She said she could. Two hours later I got the word Dr. Loh had sent her over to the hospital for a CAT Scan and she had a DVT in her calf. He later did some testing and discovered she had Factor 5 Leiden, a genetic blood disorder that causes clotting. We soon learned my husband and several other family members, including my younger daughter, also have Factor 5 Leiden. It is what the insurance industry calls a preexisting condition.

This all unfolded after I was laid off from an accounting job I had with a developer whose office was five minutes from my house. I worked four days a week and had health insurance but then they sold the pool company they also owned, the company that provided my insurance, and they laid me off. I spent fourteen months on unemployment but rarely collected the checks because I kept busy with Accountemps. Temp jobs don’t offer benefits and my Cobra payments were $1250 a month. I had to use the small 401K I had to make the payments and this cost me a huge tax hit, too.

Two weeks before Lehman Brothers filed bankruptcy I scored an accounting job in a cubicle forty-five minutes from home. The benefits plan wouldn’t kick in for three months. By October, the 401k was depleted and my Cobra insurance had run out. I’d never been without insurance but I thought we could survive two months.

So now it was November and I was in Albany with my daughter curled up in a ball in the passenger seat beside me. I asked her to describe how bad the pain was. “Bad,” she said.

“Really bad? Like maybe we should go to the hospital?” I felt like the bad mother worrying about a trip to the ER without insurance.

“I don’t think we need to go to the hospital. I just need aspirin.” The thought of a blood clot or an aneurysm outweighed the financial concerns. I pulled into an all night convenience store parking lot, bought a bottle of water and some Tylenol and asked the Arab man behind the counter where the nearest hospital was. He tried to give me directions but his English wasn’t very good. He finally said, “Just take a right at the light. You see those blue signs with letter ‘haych’. You keep following. You get there.”

“Is it a good hospital?” I asked.

“Best,” and he added, very clearly, “Albany Medical Center.”

Back in the car, I gave her the aspirin and the bottle of water. She took it but then moaned, “I think we should go to the hospital.”

I followed the instructions the guy at the convenience store gave me, my hands gripping the steering wheel, my legs shaking, and found my way to the emergency room. When we checked in they asked for my insurance. I still had the card in my wallet so I handed it to the woman at the desk. I waited nervously as she typed the info, afraid of being rejected, but she finally looked up and told us to take a seat, someone would be with us shortly. I knew I’d have to deal with the bills another day but we were in the door.

A half hour later they moved us to a room. A doctor put my daughter on an IV to hydrate her. I explained the Factor 5 Leiden situation. He said they were ordering a CAT scan but it might be awhile. Saturday nights are very busy in the ER. She fell asleep and I sat in a hard plastic chair straining my neck to watch the eleven o’clock news on the small TV hanging from the ceiling.

The doctor was certainly right about Saturday nights. At eleven o’clock all hell broke loose. I heard a commotion out in the hall so I stood in the doorway and watched as a very loud, angry black woman wearing a fur coat and a Russian cossack style fur hat was escorted to a room. She was swearing and screaming, “Don’t you touch me there.” Two male nurses joined the fray and they finally got her settled in a room down the hall. My daughter moaned and I rushed back to her side. She was thirsty so I filled a cup with water from a pitcher. She took a sip then fell back to sleep. I stroked her hair for awhile.

Another commotion arose in the hall. This time two EMT’s and two nurses were rolling a young white man on a stretcher into the room across from me. The four of them got ready to lift the man from the stretcher to the hospital bed. One of the EMT’s shouted, “On the count of three. Gunshot wound is on the left. Ok, one, two, three…lift.” The wounded man moaned. I overheard someone in the hallway say, “Drug deal gone bad.” I stepped out to go to the ladies’ room, passing the room where the woman who arrived earlier was sitting on an examining table, still wearing her hat and fur coat. She was being questioned by two men, one a cop. Someone had taped paper signs to the door and the glass walls. “Keep out. Contamination.”

I walked faster, past a father with his young son whose face was bright red. “He pitched a fever about an hour ago.” The dad spoke with an Hispanic accent. “Last I checked it was 105.” We were all here tonight in the Albany ER. Black, white, Hispanic. Poor, struggling middle class, law-abiding,  and law-breaking Americans. I picked up the pace. The last thing I needed was to pitch a fever of my own.

An aide finally arrived to take my daughter down to the basement where they do the CAT scans. I got on the elevator with them and held her hand, waited outside while they did the procedure, and then we returned to the ER room. It was cold and the nurse brought two blankets, one for me, but it was hard to get comfortable in the plastic chair. An hour later, a doctor arrived and told me the CAT scan looked fine. I asked him if maybe I had overreacted. He said, “If it were my daughter, with the factor 5 situation? I would have done the same thing.”

We got back to the hotel room at three in the morning. There were two double beds in the room but I crawled into her bed, wrapped my arm around her waist and fell asleep.

I’ve experienced American healthcare in all its glory and infamy. I’ve had self-employed insurance and work insurance and for two months of my life no insurance. I’ve had high deductibles and in 1992 discovered my insurance didn’t cover pregnancy. When my second daughter was born two and a half years after her sister I was still paying the bills for my first delivery. We had better insurance by then so thankfully the second pregnancy was covered. My husband has a prescription for a blood thinner that without insurance and the help of a kind Walmart pharmacist would cost $650 a month.

My husband and I recently started watching Breaking Bad. I don’t know how we lived in America for so long without having seen the show. I’d heard so much about it but it was always described to me as a show about a chemistry teacher who starts making crystal meth. During the very first episode, I turned to my husband and said, “This show is about health insurance in America.”

I am not sure if the writers of Breaking Bad succeeded in eliciting empathy from the American public regarding the issue of health insurance, so I don’t know why I even try except for the fact I don’t know what else to do as we careen towards January 20th. What happened to me and my family in Albany can happen to almost anyone on any given day in America.

Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell are itching to gut Medicare. During the campaign, Trump promised to overturn the Affordable Healthcare Act. If he succeeds, roughly 20 million people stand to lose their health insurance.

A month after that night in Albany, the $3700 bill for the four hours in the ER had arrived, and my health insurance finally kicked in. I already knew I hated the job in the cubicle but I ended up spending four years there sitting for healthcare. The start date for my insurance was December 25th and I put the individual cards in everyone’s stocking that Christmas.

H.L. Mencken may have been right when he wrote, “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” Unfortunately even those of us who didn’t want this will have to share in the misery of breaking bad.

***Please share your American healthcare stories in the comments below and let your representatives know if you have concerns about repealing the Affordable Healthcare Act. I am only one small voice but together we are stronger and louder.***

#bebrave #speakup #stayinformed

Hinsdale, NH: A Slice of American Life

We witness our generation and our times. We watch the weather. Otherwise, creation would be playing to an empty house. ~Annie Dillard from The Meaning of Life edited by David Friend

I needed to drive to Walmart in Hinsdale to pick up my husband’s prescription which required a drive down to Brattleboro and over the bridge that crosses the Connecticut River into New Hampshire. You know you’ve left Vermont when you pass the state liquor store and the fireworks shops.

At the pharmacy a seventy two year old woman used a three footed cane to navigate the shelves filled with prescription bags. She told me her sciatic was acting up. When she asked for my husband’s birthdate she said, “Oh! That’s today. Tell him I said Happy Birthday.” “Yes, he’s 59 today,” I replied. She laughed. “In my next life I’m going to be 59 forever.” I wondered what circumstances in her life had led her to a job standing on her feet all day at a Walmart Super Store at the age of 72. Did she need the money to pay the rent or the insurance deductibles or the prescriptions she needed? Whatever her circumstances, she was witty and sarcastic and making the best of her situation.

Out in the parking lot I passed a car with two flags attached to the hood. Don’t Tread on Me and the U.S. flag. The back of the car was covered with bumper stickers. Impeach Obama. Trump for President. If You can Read This You’re In Range. Make America Great Again. It’s 3 a.m. and Hillary’s Already Telling Lies.

I’d been driving to this Walmart since we moved to Vermont in May. I decided it was time to see what else Hinsdale had to offer besides Walmart, bottle rockets, and cheap booze so I left the parking lot and headed south along the Connecticut River to the center of town. On the outskirts I passed a couple of next door neighbors with opposing political points of view.

hinsdale-trump

 

hinsdale-hillary

Hinsdale Headline: A 38 year old Hinsdale man was accused of raping a 14 year old girl he knew. He locked her inside a house and tied her up before raping her. He was released on $10,000 recognizance bail due to the fact he had cooperated during the investigation and when told by the police they were ready to press charges, turned himself in. The man lived with his parents and bail is continent upon him continuing to do so.

In Vermont, most people have taken down their lawn signs now that the election is over and we are learning how to live with the results. Except for the Bernie signs and bumper stickers which are everywhere. Don’t blame me, I too voted for Bernie and feel sad and helpless every day I hear about another Trump appointment. I guarantee Bernie would not have chosen a Treasury Secretary even remotely connected to Goldman Sachs.

The population of Hinsdale is 4,046. 1,548 people live in the designated downtown area. Pisgah State Park and Wantastiquet Mountain State Forest are inside the town limits so there is some excellent hiking around here. The farmland is also described as excellent.

hinsdale-main-st

Main Street Hinsdale, NH

Hinsdale Headline: A 24 year old local woman has been charged with possession of heroin with intent to sell and pleaded not guilty. Police found 130 “bindles” – small packages or bags – in the car she was traveling in. She was pulled over on Brattleboro Road (where the Walmart is located). because her drug counselor was driving eleven miles over the speed limit. The woman was sitting in the back seat and one of the police officers recognized her from a previous arrest for driving with a suspended license. A warrant has also been issued for failing to appear in court so she was asked to step out of the car, which she did while pulling 2 bindles (equivalent to 20 bags) of heroin from her bra. The police asked the driver if there were any more drugs in the car and he said he saw the woman place a large quantity in her coffee cup where allegedly the officers found an additional 110 bindles. Two more bindles were found in her purse. The driver told the police he had come to Hinsdale to pick up the woman and drive her to Connecticut to continue her rehab. She is being held on $50,000 cash bail but the court approved $30,000 personal recognizance bail if she is accepted into the Cheshire County jail’s electronic monitoring program.

hinsdale-one-dollar-treasure

Main Street Hinsdale, NH

The media is now analyzing what went wrong with their election predictions. They blame the faulty polls, the DNC, Hillary’s emails, the FBI chief Comey, the fact people wouldn’t admit they were voting for Trump, and angry white men. They also blame each other. It was Fox. No, it was CNN. Rarely do they admit they all ignored the candidate drawing the largest crowds. Bernie Sanders. They were too busy making sure Donald Trump dominated the airwaves because he was good for business. His tweets were breaking news.

Hinsdale headline: A 50 year old man has been accused of home improvement fraud. He allegedly accepted more than $50,000 for a project located in Vermont but never did the work. The Brattleboro State Police arrested him in Townsend, VT without incident and the accused man did not post the $5,000 bail. He is currently at the correctional facility in Springfield, VT.

In 1875 George A. Long built a self-propelled steam vehicle in Hinsdale. It was referred to as the Long steam tricycle for which Mr. Long received one of the nation’s earliest automobile patents. Hinsdale was also the home of a paper mill that manufactured tissue and toilet paper.

 

The oldest continually-operating post office in the United States is also here. It was established in 1816 and is located on Main Street. A popular greyhound race track was a draw to the area but it was closed in 2008 due to competition from casinos. The facility has since been demolished.

hinsdale-post-office

Post Office Hinsdale, NH

According to the website Best Places the unemployment rate in Hinsdale, NH is 2.80%. That’s damn close to full employment. Future job growth over the next ten years is predicted to be 37.57%. The state of New Hampshire has no sales tax or state income tax. Income per capita in Hinsdale is $24, 362 with a median household income of $48,015. The average price of a home is $150,300 but mobile homes are available for as low as $13,000. 88.4% of students graduate from high school. 43%  of students are economically disadvantaged.

Hinsdale Headline: A 37 year old Hinsdale man allegedly jumped through his neighbor’s windshield and faces four charges in connection with the incident: criminal threatening, resisting arrest, reckless conduct, and criminal mischief. Police said his behavior was due to a drug-induced psychosis brought on by “two drugs mixed into one”. The drugs he took are unknown. The incident occurred when he was walking down the street and saw his neighbor driving toward him. He sprinted at full speed toward the car and hurled himself through the windshield, landing partially in the passenger side. After being extricated from the vehicle, he started to growl and the responding police officer had to use a taser to subdue him.

hinsdale-waterfall

The Falls that once powered the mills. Hinsdale, NH

The only coffee shop in town appeared to be closed. Despite the neon Open sign, the shades were drawn and no cars were parked out front, so I didn’t have a chance to talk to anyone in Hinsdale. When I took a photo of the waterfall that once powered the mills that are no longer here there was only one other man walking his dog in the small public park. He stared at me in a suspicious sort of way. As I walked through the small town taking photos the rain picked up. A couple of people ran into the post office but other than that the streets were quiet. A sign in front of the Congregational Church had an ominous warning: “Watch and Get Ready. You Don’t Know When the Master Will Come.”

hinsdale-war-memorial

Memorial for Hinsdale residents who fought America’s wars.

 

On November 8th, Hillary Clinton won Hinsdale 917 to 733 votes. Surprised? Yes, I was too. I admit when I Googled election results I expected to find Trump had won here. I’m not a politician or a public policy expert. I don’t know what Trump voters were thinking here or across America on Tuesday November 8, 2016 but I am living with the results of the election and I worry about my daughters who are just setting out on their lives as young adults in a very divided and troubled nation.

I left town heading west toward Route 91, referred to as the Heroin Highway around these parts. I am trying to find answers, trying to keep an open mind, and digging deep for empathy and understanding. I’ve visited a lot of these towns throughout America. I have seen the forgotten places and the people who are hurting. I am searching for hope in what feels like an angry, bitter world.

hinsdale-former-glory

Hinsdale, NH Home circa 1800’s

TATTERED FLAGS: FRYING BACON NAKED

Months ago, I started a tattered flag photo series on Instagram. The flags are not all literally tattered but in some way they are a symbol of our tattered nation and the election of 2016.

vfw-hall-shelburne-falls-ma

VFW Hall Shelburne, MA

Last week I was visiting my older daughter in Lake Tahoe. She and her boyfriend, along with my husband, like to golf. It’s not my thing, so on the days they hit the golf course they would drop me off in Truckee where I wandered the streets. I find the most interesting photos are hiding on the back roads so I walked along the railroad tracks and the side streets where old houses are tucked in together, imagining them buried in snow, snuggling to keep warm.

truckee-barber-shop

Historic Truckee, CA

I am a lifelong liberal. The prospect of a President Trump is beyond the borders of frightening. However, from my perspective, the powers that be — the wealthy donors, the respective political parties, the Super Pacs, the media — have given hardworking, taxpaying citizens an election without a choice this year. I honestly feel like someone grabbed me by the neck and shoved me up against a wall and said “you have to vote for her.”

“I know. I know. I will. I promise,” I answer in a strangled voice, gasping for air. The night before one of my afternoons in Truckee, before the weekend of the hot mic that revealed some disgusting locker room talk between Trump and Billy Bush, I finally stopped procrastinating and registered on-line to vote in Vermont. The next morning I received a reply. “Congratulations, you’re registered to vote.”

I posted the news on Facebook along with my doubts, concerns, and trepidation. Within seconds a ‘friend’, someone I only know through another friend I met after I wrote a blog about his book, called me a BernieBot and said “Fuck you, Enjoy President Trump.” It’s unsettling to receive these kinds of things so I started shaking, immediately deleted my rather innocuous post, and before I could block him, he blocked me. These are the times we live in. So much for civility and freedom of speech. This guy is voting for Hillary and so am I, albeit reluctantly. Politics is a blood sport these days.

In Truckee I took so many pictures my phone battery died. I was in need of an electrical outlet. The Bar of America seemed like an ironically appropriate place. They had outlets all along the walls and their menu offered The Stiff Drink. “Oh come on everyone asks for one, so here it is, with a Bacardi 151 float!” After last night’s emaiI, maybe I could have used one of those but instead I ordered a margarita. A passing train blew its whistle as I took my first tart limey sip. The Orioles were playing the Bluejays and at five o’clock the place was filling up fast.

train-in-truckee

Train passing through Truckee

This is a small town. The owner of the bar traveled from table to table talking to the locals. A guy passing by on the sidewalk knocked on the window and waved at two couples sitting at a table behind my barstool. “That’s my barber,” one of the guys told the other three. Another couple sat down next to me and ordered a half dozen chili rellenos standing up in shot glasses filled with a pink creamy dipping sauce. They also ordered boilermakers. The husband dropped his shot glass of whisky into his mug of draft IPA and some of it spilled over the side. “You did it wrong,” his wife told him. “You have to sip some of the beer first.” She proceeded to show him how it is done, perfectly.

The husband had a long gray ponytail and the wife looked like a friend of mine I met while working at the Inn. I quickly struck up a conversation. They are building a house up in the mountains outside of town and the wife showed me pictures on her phone. I told them about our house in Vermont and showed them pictures of the collapsing foundation and the renovation. Their kids had attended a private boarding school in Concord, MA so they were familiar with New England. We discussed my Rhode Island accent and I told them I never thought to change it but wished I had.

“Regional accents are good,” the husband said. “So, Vermont. That’s where a certain senator with the initials B.S. is from, right?”

I wondered when we’d get to the topic of the election of 2016. It seems to be on everyone’s mind these days. Did he mean bullshit when he used Bernie’s initials? Despite that possibility I decided, What the hell. The couple was friendly and I’d ordered my second margarita. I decided to go there. “You mean Bernie Sanders? Yeah, I voted for him in the primary when I was living in Connecticut.”

“So did we!” they said simultaneously, the husband slapping his hand down on the bar. Phew! A barroom brawl avoided. It seemed as if the three of us breathed a collective sigh of relief which released the flood gates holding back the desire to talk about the underlying hum of anxiety that has gripped the nation.

“Trump is beyond awful but I don’t trust Hillary,” he said.

“Well, it doesn’t matter. We have to vote for her,” she told him.

“No we don’t. We live in California. He’s not going to win this state.”

“I’ve contemplated the same thing.” I admitted. “He won’t win Vermont either and we’re dealing with an electoral college so we could lodge a protest and not vote. Still, I’ve never not voted. Democracy doesn’t work if we don’t vote.”

“Do you really think it’s working now?” he asked.

“No, not even close, but we have to protect the Supreme Court.”

“Do you think she means what she says about Citizens United?”

“No. Maybe…” I laughed nervously. “We can only hope, right?”

They nodded in solemn agreement and we changed the subject to the new Thursday night football uniforms. The wife and I didn’t like them. He did.

truckee-and-trump

Truckee, CA

One of the pictures I took in Truckee was of a flag hanging from a porch with a Trump/Pence sign on the front lawn. It was snuggled between two houses, both with Tibetan prayer flags strung along their front porches. Do we assume the Tibetan prayer neighbors are liberals and the Trump family are bigots? It’s hard to imagine voting for Trump and ignoring all the atrocious things he says, but maybe they are low information voters who aren’t tuned in? Maybe they get all their info from a certain news channel? Are they tired of politics as usual? Do they think an outsider, a businessman who doesn’t pay taxes, will improve their lives and clean up Washington? Do these neighbors get along?

These questions are impossible to answer and if you think any of these divides and issues and problems are going away after the election you’re a better dreamer than I.

The following night we were in South Lake Tahoe and had dinner at an old-fashioned Italian restaurant that played Frank Sinatra, had a large salad bar, and a 1950’s Italian trattoria vibe. I asked my daughter if she’d registered to vote. Yes, and she’s voting for Hillary.

“We need to get you registered, too” I told Rich. “We’ll do it when we get back to the room.”

We discussed the election for a bit although Rich hates discussing politics. A woman two tables over called out, “I’m sorry but I couldn’t help overhearing some of what you were talking about just now. So…” She hesitated. “Do you mind? Ummm, you know… I was just wondering… Who are you voting for?”

Rich nudged me under the table. The Don’t Get Started nudge, but I ignored him. “We’re voting for Hillary. Reluctantly, but the alternative is unthinkable.”

“Oh, thank goodness,” she said. “We are, too. But his..” she pointed to her husband, “his co-workers at the distribution center where he works are all voting for Trump and it’s so scary. We were beginning to think he might actually win this thing.”

They live over the border in Nevada which at the time I am writing this has Hillary up four percentage points in the polls. We talked for awhile. “I don’t see how he can win,” I said, trying to reassure her but what do I know? The waitress brought our bill and we got up to leave. “Good luck to all of us,” the worried woman from Nevada said as we walked toward the door.

junk-pile-providence-ri

Trash Heap Providence, RI

Lost in all the profanity and bullying and obscenity of Trump over the weekend of the hot mic locker room conversation and the debate that embarrassed a nation was also the news of Hillary’s Goldman Sachs speeches. My heart sank when I read about it. It left me with an anxious feeling in my gut. All that trepidation and doubt that brought about the hate email I received.

winnemucca-nevada

Winnemucca, NV

On Wednesday at the Salt Lake City airport while waiting to board our flight my husband struck up a conversation with a guy wearing a New England Patriots sweatshirt and a U.S. Marine baseball cap. They talked about Tom Brady and how he was on fire during Sunday’s game. A man with a mission. I joined in and added, “There’s no stopping him when he’s pissed.” Rich asked the Marine where he lived and he told us Rhode Island. We got into the where in Rhode Island are you from conversation. I grew up in Warwick, he grew up in West Greenwich, his wife was from Cranston.

“We live in Vermont now,” Rich told them.

“Aaaah, Bernie country,” he said. “We voted for him. He won Rhode Island. I couldn’t believe it.” He said this with a smile full of wonder then frowned. “Now we got a mess on our hands. Trump’s a raving lunatic. And her….I can’t bring myself to vote for her. Don’t trust her. I’m sitting this one out.” His wife nodded in agreement. I didn’t say it out loud but I thought to myself, Bernie was as pissed as Brady but politics is a different game than football. And yes, I know, if you want to bring deflategate into the discussion some would say both games are equally rigged. Such is the world we live in.

A guy wearing a Korean War baseball cap came over to shake the Marine’s hand and said, “Thanks for your service.”

“Well, thank you too,” the guy from Rhode Island replied.

“I always make a point of thanking another vet.”

It was time to board our plane. We were flying Southwest. The veterans had an A boarding pass. We were a C.

Before I could vote, when I was sixteen, I rode my bike to McGovern headquarters in Warwick, R.I. to phone bank for George McGovern. I was twelve the day RFK died and I cried. My first presidential vote went to Jimmy Carter in 1976. It’s been a long forty years and a lot of elections haven’t gone my way but that’s how democracy works. I have canvased and phone banked for Barack Obama, John Kerry, and other Democrats over the years. I’ve contributed small dollar amounts to campaigns. I sent twenty seven dollars to Bernie times four. I have never not voted, even in the mid-terms. Raised by a U.S. History teacher, I understand my civic duty. I know my vote is my only voice.

I am afraid for my country and the state of our democracy. Of course, I am with her.

On the flight home I sat next to a man flying to Missouri and reading USA Today. One of the headlines was Trump at War With GOP. Our descent into Chicago was bumpy and turbulent. Surrounded by clouds, there was zero visibility behind, below, and ahead of us. The landing came in hard and fast. It seemed the flight was a metaphor for the 2016 election.

Arriving safely at our gate, the steward welcomed us to Chicago and said, “It’s a crazy world out there. Stay safe, be kind to one another, and pay it forward. Don’t forget to wash your hands after handling chicken and don’t fry bacon naked.”

soutwest-airport-slc

Leaving Midway Airport, Chicago

As I write this blog, I feel nervous and hesitant about posting it. Is there someone else out there whom I will piss off because I’m not enthusiastic about my choice? Although Hillary is more than qualified, I don’t see this election changing much of anything for middle class America. It’s politics as usual and there’s some really big money involved. I felt a lot better when millions of us donated $27. We knew the candidate was beholden to We the People. I hope I’m wrong. I would love for Hillary to prove me wrong. I will gladly eat crow if I am wrong, but it seems to me the problems we have will continue to fester and I hate to think about where we will be in 2020.

There are a few things I do know. Kindness is rare but it can still be found if you look hard enough. We can all learn a lot by talking to strangers. We live in a period of history when no one feels safe, and that may have something to do with the fact that at times it seems this country is frying bacon naked.

Lessons From the Road: A Slice of American Life

The drive from Lake Tahoe to Park City, Utah along Route 80 is like traveling across the moon. It is an eight hour trip through the middle of nowhere. A full tank of gas is a necessity. It is important to remember this if you ever happen to be traveling this stretch of highway.

nevada-route-80

Route 80 Nevada

The landscape is desert sand, sagebrush, salt flats, train tracks, and an occasional cluster of trucks, RV’s and Port-a Pottys gathered together for a dirt bike rally. Exit signs mark various locations, such as Hot Springs, a place where smoke rises from the desert soil like hot water from a steamy tub but the springs are not a destination. A pipeline runs in a mile long circle and what appears to be a power plant stores energy from thermal springs. Rich and I speculated on what exactly was going on there.

Below the sign for the exit was another sign: No Services. Exits with gas stations are far and few between. If you’re ever driving Route 80 across Nevada, keep that in mind.

nevada-rocks

Rock formations along Route 80 Nevada

Economizing, we had rented a small bright red Yarvis. The golf clubs didn’t fit in the trunk so we put the back seats down. It also had a wimpy horn that Rich tooted every once in awhile, making a sound like the Roadrunner. However, the little car that could did occasionally reach ninety miles per hour. Most of the ride we tried to keep to the speed limit of seventy-five. The gas tank was much smaller than we are used to. If I ever rent a Yarvis again, I will remember that.

On the radio, we found a local talk show that filled us in on What’s Happening in Winnemucca, Nevada. Bill, a lifelong town employee passed away recently. He worked at the Water Department, and then Parks and Recreation until he retired. He enjoyed golfing and playing with his grandkids. The local schools in town are being redistricted. One school district has too many kids and the other has too little, so students living at the new apartment complex over by the Good Morning Furniture Store will be sent over to the underpopulated school.

A burst of green would occasionally appear on the horizon and we’d drive by what looked like turf farms or a stand of cyprus  running along a driveway leading to a group of trailers or a small ranch house. A woman on the radio sang, “I hate you. I love you. I hate that I love you.” Rich thought she sounded confused and changed the channel.

There are four exits for Winnemucca, population 7,396.  At the second exit a sign on a building announced Beer and Brothel. Get Off Now. “I suppose that could be interpreted in more ways than one ,” Rich said. The gas stations advertised slot machines but we had a half a tank. The full tank theory hadn’t occurred to me yet. Remember that?

sun-dance-casino-winnemucca-nv

Winnemucca, Nevada

It was a sleepy, quiet Sunday afternoon in downtown Winnemucca. We needed to stretch our legs and find a restroom. I suggested the Winners Inn and Casino where the New England Patriots game was on the TVs. It was Brady’s first game back. Unable to pick up the game on the radio we watched a few plays. Slot players sat alone dropping quarters in machines on a blue sky day and only one blackjack table was occupied with a woman wearing a flannel jacket and stiletto heels and a chain smoking young guy  in a leather jacket and baseball cap. Leaning his elbows on the table, he looked anxious. He hit on a sixteen. Although my husband never gambles a good friend of his does and he whispered, “You should never hit on sixteen.” The dealer, a woman a little older than me, won the hand and swept his chips away. A rancher in blue jean overalls and a white T-shirt headed into Pete’s Kitchen, a 24 hour diner.

Outside I took a few photos. The bar across the street from the parking lot offered an all day Happy Hour. Back on the road, we picked up a good radio station outside of Elko. Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit, Led Zeppelin’s Dazed and Confused, and Canned Heat’s Going Up the Country. The trippy music set the scene for desert mirages until we lost the  signal and found an old episode of Groucho Marx’s You Bet Your Life. On the west bound side of the road, a tractor trailer was flipped on its side. Two police cars and a couple of auto body shop guys were loading the cargo from one truck to another.

In Elko we stopped at Burger King and got the two for $10 Big Mac Meal Deal. Several miles back Rich said we should get gas at the next stop. After we ate we got back in the car and onto the highway where we blew through Wells fifty miles down the road. Twenty miles east of Wells, Rich shouted, “Shit, we forgot to get gas.” The next town was Wendover, fifty five miles east. The red light came on twenty miles after Rich shared this dire news so we pulled into a rest stop to ask a guy in a truck if he had some gas. Everyone drives around with gas when they live in the middle of nowhere, right? No, not necessarily. If you’re ever driving this road, remember not to take that for granted.

“Wish I could help you, but you’re not going to make it,” the guy in the truck said. “There are no exits between here and Wendover. You can’t even turn around and go back to Wells.”

Luckily, we have Triple A so we gave them a call. They found someone in Wells but it would take about an hour for him to get to us. We  immediately started arguing and blamed each other. I said it’s the driver’s responsibility to keep an eye on the gas. He thought I should have reminded him about the gas. On the bright side, there was a restroom in the parking lot. I walked over to use it and Rich paced back and forth along a dirt bike trail. When I returned a woman in a beat up old truck filled with a kitchen table and chairs pulled in to take her sheep dog for a walk. Her short hair was carrot colored and she was wearing a sweat shirt that said, “Over the Hill? I think you have the wrong person.” She appeared to be in her mid-sixties and was driving a faded blue station wagon, the passenger side dented.

We told her we had run out of gas and on the off chance, we asked if she had some. “Oh gee, I wish I did. It’s happened to me before so I should be prepared, and by the way, I know the Triple A guy in Wells. He’s a good kid. I was married to a gambler and you know what they say. Fill your tank before you go to the casino. You might not have gas money when you drive home.” It has happened to me before, too. I should have remembered the road trip to Florida.

As her dog sniffed around the parking lot, she told us she was moving to Ogden, Utah. She lived back in Elko for twenty years, “the longest I’ve ever lived in a place. My husband said we had to move there and then four years later he dropped dead. I had a good job so I stayed. But now my daughter in Ogden has scleroderma. You know what that is?”

“Some kind of auto-immune disease?” I asked.

“Yes. Your skin stiffens and turns to leather. Your feet curl up, you can’t walk, your face stiffens up, you can’t eat. Your organs, too. I’m moving out there to help her die.”

“How old is she?” I asked.

“Forty-five.”

We talked for awhile about life, bad luck, and her plans to take a road trip with her daughter while she could still get around in a wheelchair. Another dog owner pulled into the rest area and his dog jumped out of the car. Her dog got nervous and she said, “I better go. He’s afraid of other dogs.” We wished her well and then she was off. We never got her name. After she left, we didn’t return to bickering. I rolled down the windows in the car, got out my laptop, and started writing. Rich called some friends on his cell phone and spent the better part of the hour’s wait talking on the phone.

The tow truck driver arrived about forty minutes later. He was a handsome young man who had been working at the tractor trailer rollover all day. The truck rolled over one and a half times but the driver suffered only a broken wrist. “He was lucky,” he said, then told us the cost for the gas would be $11.25. The service call was covered by Triple A.

We got on the road and texted our friend Steve in Park City to let him know what happened. He said he’d have cold beer, red wine, and beef stew in the crockpot waiting for us. Thirty-five miles later we saw the town of Wendover in the distance. A mirage with neon casino signs blinking like stars against a pink and blue sunset sky. In the distance was the Utah border and the Bonneville salt flats. It appeared to be a large lake but as we got closer we realized it was an alien landscape flat as a pancake covered with thick crusty salt that looked like snow. To the west the scene was interrupted by mountains, to the east the salt flats appeared to go on forever and you could almost see the curvature of the earth.

desert-mirage-nv-ut-border-wendover

Wendover, Nevada

The view turned to darkness as the sun set and the stars came out. The moon which was just a sliver four nights ago was now a full half moon. I stared out the window at the passing taillights and thought about how running out of gas isn’t really a big deal in the grand scheme of things. Nobody knows what’s going to happen, how their journey will play out. Losing my Mom this summer was sad and I miss her but my loss pales compared to the road that lies ahead for the stranger I met at the rest stop. In a fortunate life, our parents pass away when we are adults and we don’t have to bury our children. The mother I met In Nevada was moving to Ogden to help her daughter die. A cheerful, friendly stranger at a rest stop who I will not forget, delivering a message to not sweat the small stuff when traveling the road of life.

Pick Me Up And Turn Me Round: Stories From Higley Hill

It was a summer in motion. Long rides across New England through forgotten mill towns and struggling small cities. Places that informed the novel I am writing. I slept in a lot of beds. I would wake confused and wonder, where am I? Whose house is this? It took a few minutes to orient myself. Where is the door to the hall that leads to the bathroom? Where is the nightgown I discarded in the middle of a muggy night? I certainly couldn’t wander around in my underwear looking for the bathroom in someone else’s house.

When we first left the inn, we spent a few nights at home in our own bed in Vermont but we needed a paycheck. The owner of the inn didn’t give us the two months notice nor the severance we were owed per our contract. The small bonus we earned is in limbo, awaiting year-end audits. I don’t expect to ever see it, but let’s not go there. I got all of that out of my system by writing about it. Rich still harbors deep resentments.

There were a few days of unpacking and then we were off to the Cape where Rich had lined up work for friends. First a paint job in Brewster which required removing all the second floor doors. Going to the bathroom in the middle of the night was awkward but other than that we had wonderful dinners with old friends and I walked and wrote a lot.

We moved on to another friend’s house that we had to ourselves on Mondays through Thursdays. There was a view of the Bass River and for a month we slept on a trundle bed in the finished basement. The bathroom was easy to find, it was never completely dark as the curtains were sheer and the lights of the boatyard cast a mellow glow across the room. Sunrise and sunsets were sublime, the air was a perfect temperature, and pink blossoms drifted like snow across my path as I walked to the cranberry bogs, a deep crimson red in the month of May. I wrote a lot of blogs, finished the Innkeeper’s Journal, and exorcised the demons, so to speak.

geese over the bog

My Mom’s health deteriorated, and my Dad was also dealing with the turmoil created by the fire at his condominium, so there were numerous trips to Providence. My youngest daughter was working at a pecan farm in Georgia then leaving for Germany to study at a wine institute in Koblenz so I had a Providence bachelorette pad to myself. In her up and coming West Side neighborhood, trendy new restaurants are popping up everywhere and one of many speakeasies, dark bars with discreet signs, is across the street in the historic old Avery House. If I wasn’t eating at my sister’s house in Warwick I’d grab a bite at North, an Asian fusion place, or the Broadway Bistro where they played Lou Reed’s Romeo Had Juliet the first time I stepped through the door and took a seat at the bar. Pinching pennies, I ordered appetizer menu items like a bowl of corn chowder with corn fritters or crabmeat served on cucumber slices with sesame sauce, and a glass of wine, or two. I felt like I was young and single and living in Boston again.

north

North in Providence, RI

I didn’t know how to use the smart TV in the apartment, which made me feel old, but I watched the Democratic convention on my laptop and wrote a lot. It was a hot summer and the sounds of the city kept me up late after long days at the nursing home, barging into the condo association office to raise hell, and daily walks along simmering city sidewalks. Young people laughed outside Avery at midnight, the kitchen staff at North dumped bottles into recycling bins, trash pickup started before dawn on Tuesday mornings. I slept late and walked to the Seven Stars Bakery down the street where I hung out with college students and young professionals, reading the New York Times on my laptop, drinking strong coffee, and eating goat cheese quiche, chocolate croissants, or flaky cheese biscuits. All summer long, everywhere I went, people talked about the upcoming election, and that also informed my work-in-progress.

avery-bar

At the Avery Bar, Providence, RI

Everyone I stayed with drank coffee. Some had Keurigs, others brewed a pot, and a few even ground the beans. If my hosts didn’t have half and half I managed with whole milk or an extra pour of two percent. One percent, skim, or God forbid, soy or Coffeemate, were a bummer. I drank a lot of iced coffee and discovered a lot of coffee shops throughout New England this summer.

coffee-exchange

Coffee Exchange Wickendan St.  Providence

A life long friend at an undisclosed location legally grows medical marijuana in her basement, so there was that, too. Along with eggplant parmesan and meatballs, a fully stocked backyard bar, and a passion for politics that rivals mine, we spent many an evening passionately discussing Bernie (me) versus Hillary (her). As the election approaches I am still deeply disappointed.

We vacationed for three days on Nantucket with my cousin and her husband at their lovely little home near the high school. We drank Cisco beer at the brewery where we enjoyed the music of Danger Muffin, read books on the beach, and visited an old friend, a local carpenter who has lived on the island for thirty years and is trying to finish the renovation at his amazing, ambitious house but needs more cash to complete the project. Everywhere we went we bumped elbows with the one percent who don’t need to worry about things like that. Our friend has seen the changes on Nantucket throughout the decades, a microcosm of America and what all the fear and anger is about during the summer of our nation’s discontent.

surfside-nantucket

Surfside Beach, Nantucket

Rich and I also stayed in Milton, Massachusetts at an old house filled with books while he worked at his sister’s new condo. There were a lot of staircases and one room led to another. It was easy to get lost on my way to the kitchen for morning coffee but we had a room with a bathroom right outside our door. The wallpaper had an intricate pattern of palm trees, peacocks, and tigers. On our last night there, Hurricane Hermine blew through this town still inhabited by Lodges and Cabots and other wealthy Boston Brahmins. The rain beat on the dormers of the mansard roof edged with copper and dripped from leaf to leaf on the tree that danced with the high winds, tapping on our bedroom window.

We always brought dinner, wine, and beer. We served just about everyone our summer meal of BBQ chicken topped with pesto, caprese salad, and a side of street corn. The times I was home in my Vermont kitchen I finally mastered pie crust. All it took was my food processor, very cold ingredients, and the Barefoot Contessa’s Perfect Pie Crust recipe, so I showed up at some of these houses with a blueberry pie. When I was alone in Providence I hit up Venda Ravioli on Federal Hill and arrived for dinner bearing made to order cannolis.

I washed my own sheets and towels and remade the bed before I left. Last summer at the inn I was doing thirty loads of laundry on a full house weekend. I wondered how I would have managed this summer of my mother’s passing if I were still at the inn. I know I wouldn’t have been able to visit very often and most likely wouldn’t have been by her bedside when she took her final breath. Some things happen for a reason.

If someone told me this is where I would be at the age of fifty-nine I wouldn’t have doubted it. I am a nomad, a gypsy, a Native American on a ramble. I love hotel rooms, other people’s vacation homes, and small bottles of shampoo. I spend a lot of time writing alone but love the company of good friends or a conversation with a stranger sitting next to me at a bar.

On Tuesday evening after Labor Day weekend I found myself looking back on the first summer since I was sixteen that I didn’t work, for a paycheck that is. I did write a lot and I’ve reached that sweet spot where the whole thing’s come together and the editing is pure pleasure.

This was also the summer I moved to Vermont and have been living off the grid. The summer Rich and I dropped our daughter off at the airport for her flight to Frankfurt and on the drive home listened to NPR and heard the news of the terrorist truck driver who killed eighty-four people in Nice. A few days later a shooting rampage took place at a mall in Munich. So I followed her studies and later her travels, via Facebook Messenger, with some trepidation but much joy that she, like her Mom, was backpacking through Europe and having the time of her life. I reminded myself that when I traveled with my backpack, Anwar Sadat was assassinated and I accidentally stumbled upon an ETA protest in San Sebastion where soldiers arrived in armored tanks spraying tear gas and shooting rubber bullets.

I also spoke to my older daughter in Lake Tahoe almost every day and listened to her stories of life on the West Coast. Like her Mom she loves traveling this beautiful, diverse country of ours and has a restless soul.

It was the summer my mother passed away. She too loved to travel and lived a wonderful life.

I am not much for mourning the passage of time, for time is all we have and its passage is our unique, individual lifetime. It is our responsibility and privilege to make the most of our days. For me, success has never been about money. I may live long enough to regret that, but this was also the summer I devoted time to a book I feel may be the best I’ve ever written. I’m sure many would see this as an impractical endeavor but I’m determined to see it through the whole competitive, privileged, impossible New York publishing scene.

I sold books consistently throughout the summer. If you bought one and have read this far, Thank You. (And please don’t forget those Amazon reviews. They will be a huge help in November when I pitch this book to agents.)

Hurricane Hermine followed us to Vermont last night. The sky grew dark and a smoky gray fog slipped around the base of Haystack Mountain like a ballerina’s tutu. I expected a downpour. It didn’t happen. The sky grew dark, the night was quiet, and when I later looked to the west the Big Dipper was to my right and a crescent moon to my left. There was a chill in the air. The calendar still records summer but here in Vermont autumn is creeping in.

Last night we slept like children. I knew where the bathroom was but I didn’t wake until long after sunrise. Life is like that, sometimes you don’t get what you expect but as someone once wrote (that would be me), it’s true, Life Is All This.

The Book of Love: My Mom’s Alzheimer’s Journey

My mom’s Alzheimer’s journey ended on Wednesday. She died peacefully with her family by her side. There are more chapters to this story that I have been sharing with you but at the moment I am sitting here alone in my daughter’s Providence apartment waiting for my husband to arrive and join me at the wake and the funeral. I am not religious. I know these rituals help others but for me it’s a struggle.

For me songs are like prayers.  This one is for my Dad who lost the love of his life, his wife of 60 years. When we told him he had given her a wonderful life, he said, “No, she gave me a wonderful life.”

A 4TH OF JULY TALE: STORIES FROM HIGLEY HILL

Monday, July 4, 2016: My Dad is 83, my mother is one year younger. Maybe I should have written that sentence the other way around. My Mom is 82, my father is one year older. At 59 years old, I am their eldest child. No one is feeling young around here at the moment.

In the month of June, shortly after I left the Inn to move to Vermont and finally had time on my hands to get away, I started driving from Vermont to Rhode Island to try and help my Dad fight bureaucracy. I’ve been getting nowhere. There is no direct route from here to there, and I mean that in many ways.

To physically get to Rhode Island I travel various routes and state roads from Southern Vermont through Massachusetts to Warwick where my parents raised me and my siblings, and lived most of their lives until they lost their condo in a fire on February 21st of this year. I pass through old mill towns and other forgotten places that have been riding the riptides of American prosperity and poverty over the past several decades. Cities like Brattleboro, Leominster, Fitchburg, Worcester, and smaller towns like Millers Falls, Athol, Pawtucket, and Slatersville.

woonsocket downtown

Downtown Woonsocket, RI

A distinctive feature of the landscape I pass through are the empty old factories, many with the tall brick chimney you can see from a distance, the mills where textiles, costume jewelry, and furniture were once Made In America, they are no longer the beating heart of impoverished ghost towns where meth and heroin addiction are serious problems. Interstate 91 also travels through these parts and is now referred to as the Heroin Highway. The issue became a hot national topic when presidential candidates went begging for votes during the primaries in the New England states.

Woonsocket empty building

Empty building in Woonsocket, RI

What I am doing in Rhode Island is visiting lawyers and barging in unannounced at the offices of the woman who runs the condo association and the guy who was the property manager until he got fired.

One early morning I followed my Dad through downtown city traffic that turned into local suburban strip mall traffic, until we finally finished our day’s business and headed south through beach traffic on Route 95. I don’t know how this 83 year old man does it, running endless errands that require trips to city hall to notarize something and visits to insurance agencies to argue about claims adjustments and deductibles, but I can tell you he is exhausted and beaten down.

Woonsocket for sale

Restaurant for sale in Woonsocket, RI

He doesn’t handle adversity well. He lived in a time when the GI Bill put him through college, a teacher’s union fought for his pay raises and healthcare benefits, and his retirement has been covered by a generous pension. He was able to put his kids through college with the help of Pell grants, scholarships, and our summer earnings. He retired and traveled the United States, whose history he taught for thirty-two years, and also made it to several European countries. I look at my generation and wonder how we got from there to here.

Woonsocket reflection in window

Another empty building in Woonsocket, RI

Life was good. He had healthy kids, no major illnesses, no lay-offs or financial worries. He never acquired coping skills to weather the bad times and is now ill-equipped for the perfect storm that has hit him. My mother’s Alzheimers’ and the fire at the condo are too much for him to handle at this stage in his life.

There are various reasons given for why nothing has been done over the past four months to get the six unit owners back into their homes after being displaced by the fire. None of them are good, most of them are excuses for incompetence and mismanagement. It’s a common case of he said, she said.

I made an appointment with the consumer reporter at WPRI News to meet me at the condo and tell my family’s story on camera but the staging for the roof had finally arrived and the condo association promised the work would begin on Monday, the day before my mother’s 82nd birthday. Flag Day. My Dad asked me to give them a second chance.

Woonsocket radio

Former radio station seen through the window Woonsocket, RI

A week later I was back in Rhode Island. My mother had settled down, the meds were working, and after five and a half weeks on the geriatric psych floor of a hospital in Providence, they had found a bed at a nursing home not far from the condo. I was going to meet her there, along with my Dad, when she arrived by ambulance, and help get her settled in. After crossing the Rhode Island border I got a phone call from my sister informing me that the woman who handles the nursing home’s admissions was on vacation and paperwork had been misplaced, things got overlooked, the bed was given to someone else. Blah, blah, blah…….

I can’t describe what I was feeling, the words I was yelling loudly, alone in my car as I swung into the parking lot of the condo. Not that this was their fault, but they had their own string of fuck-ups unrelated to the nursing home and I needed to yell at someone. I took a few deep breaths before calmly walking into the office where I wanted to see some heads roll and get some real, not bullshit answers about why the work hadn’t started on the roof as promised.

Woonsocket Parms building

Corner building Woonsocket, RI

More excuses were given, something having to do with permits, hurricane regulations…. I stood and listened to the background noise of bullshit while trying to control my temper. It’s the property management company’s fault, they’ve been fired, the condo has detailed notes of the steps they’ve taken to rectify things, the owners could have the possibility of suing the property management company for rent money as this project is going to take awhile and no one will be moving back into their homes until mid-October. Best case scenario.

“Have you been updating the other tenants on all of this?” I asked.

“Yes, we send out emails. Your father’s on the list.”

“My Dad lost his computer in the fire. He doesn’t have a smart phone and he was never very good at email to begin with. Two weeks ago my mother wasn’t doing very well in the hospital and we thought she might not make it. My Dad told me he wanted to bring her home where she could lay by the window and look out at the Narragansett Bay. Then he got choked up and said, I can’t do that because I don’t have my home anymore.”

I was playing the sympathy card.

“We’re doing our best. It’s moving forward now. These things take time. They’re starting the roof tomorrow.”

Oh really?

The following day, I walked from my sister’s house over to the condo and took photos of the hole in the roof covered with a bright blue tarpaulin blowing with the wind off the Narragansett Bay. There were two roofers in the portico where my Dad used to park his car. They were eating and drinking coffee. In the office they had told me they would be working inside today on something called a two hour firewall. I had driven three hours from Vermont and again I got nowhere. There is no easy way to get from there to here where I was now standing, feeling lost and helpless in the wealthiest nation in the world where I hear we have the very best workers, the very best healthcare, the very best of everything.

So they say. I got in my car for the three hour drive back home to Vermont.

Outside of downtown Providence, not far from the on-ramp to Route 95 North I passed a junkyard full of discarded American trash, things people no longer want. A pile of consumer detritus. An American flag flew in front of it all.

Providence Trash

Providence Trash

Not long into my journey I pulled off in Woonsocket to take a walk and find a cup of coffee. The only times I ever came to this mill town were on the school bus when I was a high school hockey cheerleader. Yes, I was a cheerleader. Any time I find myself playing the cocktail game Three Truths and One Lie, the “I was a cheerleader” fools them every time. Most people believe the lie “I shoplifted when I was in high school” and think the cheerleader is the lie. I’m not sure what this says about me but it wins me the game every time.

Woonsocket Blackstone River

Blackstone River Woonsocket, RI

I parked the car along the Blackstone River that once provided the water power to the textile mills that closed during the Great Depression then were revitalized during World War Two only to close again in the 1980’s, the decade of Ronald Reagan, that led to the 90’s when Bill Clinton signed NAFTA. Since the factories closed for good, unemployment remains high. In March 2013, the Washington Post reported that one-third of Woonsocket’s population used food stamps, putting local merchants on a “boom or bust” cycle each month when the EBT payments were deposited. The median income for a family of four is $38,000.What I mainly saw on my walk through town was bust and very little boom. Across the parking lot was the The Museum of Work and Culture where a few school busses were parked but other than that the city was quiet.

Woonsocket Bienvenue

Welcome to Woonsocket

Woonsocket is referred to as the most French-Canadian city in the United States. In the early 1900’s a large wave of immigrants crossed the border from Quebec to work in the New England mills. My grandfather, my mother’s father, was one of them. He first worked in a textile mill in Newmarket, N.H. not far from where I lived in the house on River Road for 23 years, then he moved to Pawtucket where he met my grandmother and eventually became a U.S. Citizen. I am not sure if he crossed the border legally. All the years I knew him he spoke broken English and called all of his grandkids Joe because he couldn’t remember our Irish names.

At one point, 75% of the population of Woonsocket spoke French. A French language newspaper was published here and French language movies were shown at the local theater.

Woonsocket newspaper

Woonsocket newspaper

As I walked the city streets I wondered if my grandfather, and my father-in-law who was also a French-Canadian immigrant, were ever accused of being rapists and thieves. Did English speaking Americans complain when a shopkeeper spoke to them in French? I know my mother spoke French until she was eight years old and then quickly learned English to fit in, like most children of immigrants eventually do. When my siblings and I studied French in school she was very little help, having forgotten her first language. I often wish she had raised us to be bi-lingual. The Bienvenue sign painted on a brick building gave me hope that somewhere in America’s angry heart immigrants are still welcome on these shores.

I never did find a coffee shop but I took a lot of pictures before I left. I spent the rest of the drive home passing through more of America’s discarded cities and thinking about that pile of trash on the outskirts of Providence. I fantasized about renovating the lovely old empty buildings in Woonsocket set along the river where you can go kayaking or drive a few miles out of town and hike Purgatory Chasm. It’s not a bad place to live.

Why can’t we work with what we have? Why can’t we revitalize our cities? I asked a lot of questions with no one riding shotgun to answer them. My younger daughter is flying into Frankfurt, Germany next week to study at a wine institute in Koblenz. I flew out of Frankfurt over thirty years ago. It’s a very American looking city rebuilt by Americans after we bombed it during World War II. Clearly we are capable of revitalizing cities.

Rents are rising everywhere. The homeless population in San Francisco is reaching a crisis level. Couldn’t some hot shot techies move to places like Woonsocket and work from home on their laptops? Open a few decent restaurants, improve the school systems….? But wait a minute, that would take a village as someone once said. A society that believes we are in this together and when one city fails we as a society fail too. How is that going to happen? A few days earlier Congress couldn’t pass one single bill to enact a sensible gun law after the Orlando shootings. They couldn’t agree that those on the no-fly list shouldn’t be able to buy a gun. How the hell do we expect to get anything done if we can’t all agree on that?

My radio went in and out as I traveled the highways. Hitting the seek button I found some public radio where they were discussing the two years and seven million dollars spent on the third Benghazi investigation which has reached the same conclusion as the other two hearings. I thought about Woonsocket and other towns and what they could do with seven million dollars. Frustrated and disillusioned, I hit seek once again and found some bluegrass.

Back at home I sat on the deck and watched the sun set over Haystack Mountain. It’s now a private ski mountain. You have to be a member. Golf courses and country clubs have been like this for years. I walked many a private beach in Florida because like the Native Americans I believe the coastline doesn’t belong to any individual just as the air we breathe is also something we cannot own.

I recently heard of someone who received a phone call from a renowned surgeon on a Sunday afternoon. I also read about a lake that received environmental protection and tax-exemptions that reduced the wealthy homeowners property taxes in exchange for public hiking and fishing rights, however the townspeople can’t get past the gates and No Trespassing signs. It is they that bear the brunt of the reductions in the tax base that covers schools and fire departments and other social services, but no they can’t fish in these waters.

The folks with the big lake homes and private ski mountains are a small minority who have access to power. They don’t want to fish and golf and ski with you and I, and the way things are now in America, they don’t have to. We all bear the brunt of their privilege.

On this 4th of July evening while my husband golfs at the public course over at Mount Snow instead of the course at Haystack because that is now private, I look out at the setting sun and think about Vermont and how far away it feels from the rest of the world’s chaos, despite that damn private mountain. I wonder if New Zealand is like this, only better. I think about what it would be like to up and move to the other side of the world. I’m pretty good at picking up and relocating. But then I remember the words of Barbara Kingsolver that I recently read in her collection of Essays From Now or Never: High Tide In Tucson. It is from the essay Jabberwocky.

“A country can be flawed as a marriage or a family or a person is flawed, but “Love it or Leave It” is a coward’s slogan. There’s more honor in “Love it and get it right”. Love it, love it. Love it and never shut up.”

I am not about to shut up. If you’re listening, let me hear your questions and maybe together we can find the road from here to there.