Family business

The morning sun shines directly into the room bouncing off the walls and floor ending in a splash of bright. The faint smell of oil and rubber and exhaust drifts through the side door that goes into the shop.  A woman sits patiently with legs crossed reading from the stack of magazines, jiggling her top leg. A man stands at the counter, hands resting on the counter, paying his bill. Meanwhile, keys come and go from a peg board on the side wall, mechanics pop in and out, and the phone rings on the counter with an echo from another phone in the shop.

Nichole Allen takes care of all this — the woman, the man, the computer, the mechanics, the bills, the ringing phone . . . and even me. All with a wide smile.

Terry’s Auto Service, in Clive, Iowa, is a family business that has survived for nearly half a century. Begun by Terry Allen at the end of the Vietnam war, he has employed family and friends from the very beginning.

“Even my mom and dad worked for me for a while,” Terry says. “They never charged me a dime. It’s always been family.”

Terry’s hair is pulled back in a tight ponytail. His work shirt is buttoned tight against the chill. His hands are large and dense. His mustache moves up and down to catch the smiling corners of his mouth as he launches into a story.

“It was summer and I told my daughter Nichole she had two weeks to get a job. She didn’t think I was serious. After two weeks, Monday morning rolled around and I told her to get up, she was going to work with me. I brought her in and had her answer the telephone — 20 years ago today.”

The mustache moves.

“I’d never worked in the office, it was new to me.” Nichole picks up the thread. “I had to learn a lot about cars because people expect you to know what you’re talking about. Over the 20 years I’ve worked here, I know a lot about cars. I’ve just been forced to.”

And Nichole’s labor turned into one of “love,” to use her own word.

“The great thing is the mechanics communicate well with me. I can trust what they tell me. They are honest guys, that’s why we hire them. That’s why we keep going. We just try to be honest and fair and you know people come back to see you. It’s not hard to figure out. You’re just nice.”

She flashes another ear-to-ear grin to underscore her point.

“My customers are kind of like my family. I’m very lucky to have such clientele. We are on our third generation of customers, almost onto the fourth. We have children that have come in with their parents, and when they start driving they come in with their own car, and when they get married they come in with their wive’s cars, and then their kids get born, and they come in. We haven’t advertised for over 15 years.”

In 2006, Terry sold the automotive side of the business to his friend Eric Johnson. Terry runs the exhaust side. Nichole works the front desk for both.

“Family is everything to me. You know, I didn’t notice it as much until my mom passed. You don’t know day-to-day how much time you’re going to have with someone. I feel so fortunate to work here with one of my sisters and a brother-in-law married to another sister and my cousin.”

Nichole pauses.

“I was having lunch with my dad yesterday and said we are so lucky to be having lunch together every day for 20 years.”

Nichole smiles to herself.


The old man, the combine, and baseball

“I’d offer you lunch, but I’ve already eaten it.” The old man says without a hint of a smile.

Dry humor fits this landscape of dust and whirling blades and blowing chaff. A foreign country for sure, where everyone operates on a seasonal punch clock. Not my world, even though it’s just a few miles from Des Moines, Iowa.

But I can’t resist a big truck, or, to be more exact, a large combine.

The combine turns at the end of the row and waits expectantly for me to climb up. The machine looks like something out of a futuristic movie — foreign, large, and slightly menacing.

“I was so busy trying not to hit you, that I forgot to drop the load,” the old man shouts down over the engine noise.

I didn’t realize that hitting me was an option. Or is this another joke?

The old man sits high above the ground in a glass enclosure. He’s 80 years old. He seems friendly enough. And he must have climbed up into the combine by himself. I clutch the only ladder with some misgivings. Don’t the big rock climbers have to tie off before they ascend? He pokes his head out. Waves me up with a grin.

Warm, friendly, easy to smile, Bill Gannon welcomes me into his cab.

And off we go — air-conditioned, two soft seats, Boeing 747 controls, and the ball game on the radio.

How does this machine even work? As far as I can tell the combine runs over the beans and the beans vanish. It’s as simple as that. Magic.

And then the steering wheel begins to steer by itself.

“This combine has auto steer.  So you see it is no hands. GPS. It keeps in touch with the satellite which keeps in touch with the steering mechanism. And it works.”

See. What did I tell you? Magic.

“The combine has changed big time over the years. The first combine I owned I pulled with a tractor. It cut six foot. That was the width of the platform. You could crowd three rows of beans in there. Today we’re doing approximately 22 rows of beans. It is a 25-foot platform.”

We gently sway as we move across the field, down the slope, and over the still-green waterways, all within sight of the valley where the old railroad used to make the run to Kansas City.

“There’s some nice views here.” Gannon gestures with his free hands. “A couple of years ago, we got designated a century farm. This quarter section was the ground that was in the Gannon family for over 100 years. My grandfather purchased this quarter section in 1887. My dad wound up with it. Then my dad left it to me.”

What will happen after you?

“I don’t know. I would hope it stays in the family. But when you’re dead, you can’t control it.” Gannon shrugs and laughs quietly.

And your life? Has it been what you hoped for?

“I liked all the things in my life. When I was doing it, I enjoyed it.”


“Many years ago, I ran for governor in the Democratic primary. Running for governor now wouldn’t be much fun I don’t think. There’s too much acrimony going on. Back when I was in the legislature, we had people disagree, but we were civil to each other. I was in the legislature six years. I was minority foreman four of those years in the Iowa House.”

Sure enough, Gannon was in the House of Representatives from 1965 to 1971. He  ran for governor in the primaries in 1970 and 1974. He ran for lieutenant governor in the general election in 1972. His focus in those legislative days — equal pay for women and the environment. “I ran on the same issues that are still around today,” he points out.

“We didn’t have any money to run. If you don’t have money, you have to do something to draw attention to your campaign. And our campaign was Ride for Reform. I rode that horse, actually two horses, right at 1300 miles total.” He shakes his head at the thought.

After all the excitement of your life, isn’t this a little lonely sitting up in this combine on a cold, fall day in Iowa?

“Not at all,” he says, as he turns the big machine around at the end of the row. “I love listening to the ball games.”

So we sit quietly. The combine whirls its way across the bean field, the steering wheel steers itself, and the cab sways back and forth like the crow’s nest on an old whaling ship.

“Fly ball to center field . . .”
























“Of the moment”

“Our first day at the Johnston bus stop was a cluster that included kids running away from their bus stop TWICE, me realizing Finley had no shoes and had lost her new glasses as the bus was in sight (they’re at Burlington Coat Factory, FYI), and a neighbor regaling all the bus stop kids about the day in third grade she saw a kid get his head rolled over by a bus wheel and die. Happy first day.” Morgan Kent Molden of Johnston, Iowa, writes on Instagram.

Six bottles of wine sit in front of us on the oval table, deep underground in Beaune, France. Emmanuel Paulson is our guide for this tasting adventure.

“I don’t speak very well English,” he says at the start.

A heck of a lot better than my French, which, of course, is limited to the words from songs out of the musical Camelot. I’m not much help.

“I was born here in Beaune, France. Which means that I was born in the wine. I’m 41. My family, my father, my grandfather and now me. For us, wine is a way of life.”

No kidding. Earlier, my wife and I had hiked up into the surrounding vineyards that back up against the walls of the town. Miles and miles of small plots separated by stone walls shaped way before our time.

“In Burgundy, we just want to retranscribe, is the expression, from terroir. Of course, it’s some chardonnay grapes for our white wine, pinot noir grapes for our red wine, but that is too simple. We have some unique terroir with some great soil and subsoil. That is extremely important for us. If you compare with Coca Cola — if you drink a Coca Cola in the United States or here, it is the same thing, because it is a recipe. Our wine in Burgundy is not a recipe.”

Nor is raising kids.

Morgan Kent Molden writes on Instagram: “When my kids go quiet, it usually ends with a mess.”

“Today, I found Fin and Cece here. But earlier, Cece brought me the decapitated head of a Barbie and said she was going to eat it,” Morgan Kent Molden writes.

Emmanuel hands us our first glass of wine.

“This wine is something different. With something to eat, a delicate fish, a goat cheese, it is more complex. This wine is more buttery, a little like honey.”

It IS buttery. It IS like honey. And, by golly, it WOULD taste great with a delicate fish. Although I’m fairly certain that if Emmanuel with his French hat would have said the wine tastes like old tennis shoes, I would have responded equally enthusiastically: “It is like old tennis shoes! I’ll take several bottles.”

On to the next bottle.

“This is a feminine wine. It is pretty and velvet. Smokey to the nose and red fruit to the mouth. Raspberry and strawberry. We do not have full wines in Burgundy. We have long wines. Complexity is more important than a large wine.”

Okay, is this where the poetry of the Song of Solomon came from?

“The next wine is very spicy. First choice vineyard. We don’t put pepper into the wine. That is the wine. It is a complex wine.”

And so it goes.

But, Emmanuel, what is the best wine?

“It is very personal. The best wine is the one you like. That is it.”


Bedtime. Room on the Broom is the story of choice. Morgan Kent Molden writes on Instagram, “Is there room on the broom for a . . . face palm?!”

It is the end of the day for us also. The last tour is gone. The cavern is quiet except for the distant sound of dripping water. The wines are all back on the oval table. We drink the last sip. Emmanuel raises his glass critically, looks at the color and texture of the wine.

“The most important is of the moment. The wine creates some emotion with friends and family and with your wife. That is more important. What do you eat? That is important. But the moment is important. Enjoy the life. My opinion, no?”





The drag queen and us

“Everyone does drag. Each one of us in our everyday life puts on a costume and does a performance piece as whoever it is we are.” Joe Fraioli.

The Garden Nightclub was just beginning to fill as folks got off work on this weekday night. T-shirts, a sprinkling of suits, dress shirts, and jeans. Drinks are quietly ordered, people sink comfortably into chairs, conversation is a low murmur. An exhale at the end of a long day.

Eventually, a long-legged woman in a purple skirt, sequined top, and spiky heels comes on stage to loud cheers. She’s clearly running the show. The Master of Ceremonies. Domita Sanchez is her drag queen name.

Warm, engaging, sultry, and in command, Domita begins her patter with the audience. Laughter, gentle kidding, she walks into the crowd with microphone in hand. Of course, we are the first table and I’m the first person she engages.

“Are you a bear?” she says to me.

“I don’t know, what’s a bear?” I respond. The crowd laughs.

“Perhaps you’re a polar bear.” She points to my salt-and-pepper beard. Laughter again.

And before long, I’m up on stage with Domita, drinking a shot of something called “Fireball” and singing with her the Disney classic, “The Bare Necessities.”

How did this happen?

Sandra Gay O’Connor is the reason. No, not the former United States Supreme Court Justice, but Joe Fraioli. You know, the lawyer. Smart. Warm. Funny. Fighting the good fight. Joe Fraioli, aka Sandra Gay O’Connor. Drag queen.

“I was more flamboyant in high school, but for almost a decade after that I tried to assimilate into being a straight person who happened to be gay. I sort of rejected the gay community. It was very arrogant of me.”

Joe explained all this to me the next day over a cup of coffee.

“I told myself, I’m going to become a civil rights advocate. I’m going to go to law school. I’m going to work for the ACLU. I’m going to be a civil rights lawyer. That’s how I’m going to contribute. I’m going to fight for any marginalized group. I will then be fulfilled. That will be enough to advance the rights of gay people. That is enough to be a part of the community.”

It wasn’t enough. Joe felt alone, isolated, and depressed.

“At the end of the day I was just a lawyer. If anything, I felt even more put in a box. The ACLU does amazing things, but it has to work within the system. And that does work to create change. But I was still not satisfied.”

Ah, but then a door opened when some friends introduced him to drag queen shows.

“I started seeing how talented these people are and how confident they are. Not in an arrogant way. How extremely sure of themselves that being in drag made them. Why are they so confident? Drag allowed them to be funny, to push social barriers, to be themselves, but in a way that is totally not themselves. Drag is a subversive form of art. It is about challenging societal norms. It lets you do that while showcasing things about you, your talents, your humor. It is a way to get all that out. I was enamored with it.”

Joe reached out to Domita Sanchez. And a few weeks later, Sandra Gay O’Conner was born.

“Pushing boundaries and eliminating boundaries is a goal of drag. You can identify as one thing and have a degree of attraction to other things. That is one thing straight people, especially men, do not understand. It’s why you end up with a strict Republican in an airport knocking feet with the person in the stall next to him.”

Ah, so that explains my vertigo at being a straight man watching a gay man dressed as an over-the-top woman and thinking how nice she looks. Go figure.

So, Joe, aren’t you worried about being judged harshly for being a drag queen?

“Listen, we all know what it’s like to be ostracized from a group, to be hated for nothing more than who we are. We all want to be liked. We all want to like others. In the end, we all have a strong capacity to be compassionate. I used to be too judgmental. For me, I’m working on not doing that.”

Coffee break over. Joe Fraioli — aka Sandra Gay O’Conner — goes back to work.

And me? I sit with my coffee, a pastry, and a tune that won’t get out of my head.

“Look for the bare necessities, the simple bare necessities, forget about your worries and your strife . . .”










A peek through the glass doors

Walking down the hallway at Rieman Music, it is impossible not to sneak a peek through the full-length glass doors appearing every six to eight feet. Music lesson rooms. Although it feels like walking through the Snake House at the Iowa State Fair.  What is hidden inside that room? Or the next? Is that snake poisonous? How strong is this glass? Where is that python, anyway?

But instead of a snake, there’s a student holding a violin, gliding her bow back and forth as the teacher taps his hand against the music stand. In the next room over, a young girl plays the plunky notes of a piano as the teacher turns the pages of music. And through that door is a young flute student trying to copy her teacher’s spidery finger movements. My goodness. Saxophones, violas, guitars, harmonicas, clarinets, drums, trumpets. You name it, it’s here. A door for every instrument.

“The ages of my students? Well, I have a student in 2nd grade and I’ve taught a women who was 66. It is easier for that 2nd grader to do it. So you might have to work harder if you’re older. But if you love it, it doesn’t feel like work.”

Gabe Scheid looks like an old jazz standard. Goatee, thin upper body, dark eyes. Cradled in both arms or held in a firm hand is whatever instrument he’s teaching or playing. Where his love lies is not a mystery.

“I was born in Sioux City, a great place to grow up. I got my BA in Jazz Studies at the University of Northern Iowa, then I went to the University of Northern Colorado and got my Masters of Music Degree.  In the jazz education world, UNC is in the top three.”

Gabe ended up in Des Moines with his wife, who is pursuing studies at Iowa State.

“So I came back and tried to build a student base for private lessons. I tried to make connections and go to gigs. I’ve been told that if you are doing anything in the music field and you’re making money and surviving, you are lucky as hell. I’ve been humbled by that. I’m not making a lot of money and I’m fine with that.”

Gabe went to Rieman Music in Ames and Urbandale and had some luck. He is now teaching over two dozen students in saxophone, clarinet, flute, and viola.

“Teaching is by far the most money in my budget, and it takes quite a bit of my brain power, and I’m happy with that — I love teaching. I love seeing kids make strides and get self-confidence. I like doing lessons. I am humbled by many things, but teaching fits me, as well as performing.”

Really? You’re just saying that because that’s what you’re supposed to say, right?

“Listen, my youngest is a little Iranian boy, he’s going into 2nd grade. He’s a boss. He’s hilarious. He’s a little genius. He practices every day for about a half hour. I ask my students to do 10 minutes. He’s already better than some of my 7th and 8th grade students. He’s flying. He’s already writing his own music. Last week he wanted me to give him some blank manuscript paper. I love to do that. I’ve taught composition before. I compose my own music. He was like, I really want to do this. And I would love to fuel that.”

Okay, that must be a rare exception.

“No, I’ve got a student who has hearing issues. He and I performed together at his middle school talent show. He plays viola and saxophone. Seeing him grow from the first lesson to the lesson yesterday is amazing. For viola, I put tape on the fingerboard so that he can place his fingers on the tape so he is more accurate because he can’t hear the pitch as well. He will play an open “A” string and say, “This note is really annoying to me.’ I say, ‘Why is it annoying? Is it a certain frequency that is not matching up with your hearing aid?’ So we would work around it to another note that doesn’t vibrate as loud. Alternate fingering. I find this fascinating.”


“I know we are here for something, and it’s not to make money. We all have an inherent creative side and we have to learn how to use it. Art is a way.”

Gabe goes back to his teaching. And I stand outside looking in, watching him gently position the hands of the student.

Teaching as art.

Now . . . maybe that python is in the next room over.


Coffee memories at Grounds for Celebration

The old man gets up every day in the same one-piece long underwear he wears to bed, sits down at the breakfast table in the slanted-floored kitchen, and drinks black coffee made from a large can with beans ground at the local grocery store. The coffee cup sits inside a small, white china saucer. He tips the cup until the coffee spills over into the dish. Tearing off a piece of toast, he dips it into the spilt coffee. Swallowing, he tips the cup again. 

Coffee was not my drink of choice as a young man. The bitter, harsh liquid seemed more appropriate for use on rusted locks. No, I was a Mountain Dew kind of guy. Adventurous and sporty. I sat at my work desk and sipped a gigantic container of pop from mid-morning until it was time to go home. Keeping my body in a constant state of sugar hydration seemed to be the unspoken goal. Sure, a diabetic’s nightmare, a dentist’s dream, and a bonus for my expanding waist. But everybody had to do their part to keep the American pop industry first. I did mine for years.

Then mochas became my gateway drink. A chocolaty concoction that is a malt for adults. It had sufficient sugar, chocolate, whipped cream, and who knows what else to replace my beloved Mountain Dew. All I knew was that the extra goop nicely hid the fact that there was actually coffee in the drink. Now that’s a coffee I can like.

Ah, but eventually, without any warning from my mom or the Surgeon General, I developed a taste for coffee. Two shots of espresso, steamed milk, and chocolate, please. Hold the whip cream.

See, a slippery slope.

A small coffee shop opened in Beaverdale around this time. Grounds for Celebration. One of the early shops in the metro area. I was thrilled. I could get my mocha fix right on the way to work. Yahoo.

“George and I thought Beaverdale would be a perfect place for a coffee shop. We started educating ourselves. We went to coffee fests. We wanted to see what was out there. Java Joes had opened. This little spot came open — a barber shop and a beauty shop were there originally. We gutted the spot ourselves, and George designed the store.”

Jan Davis is bright-eyed and open-faced. She makes no bones that she is running a business, but prides herself on treating her customers and employees well. Jan and her husband, George Rivera-Davis, opened the first Grounds for Celebration in 1994. Before long, she and George were opening stores in Windsor Heights and other metro areas, and expanding the original Beaverdale store to a much larger spot around the corner. They built a staff of 30 experienced employees, grew their own coffee beans on their farm in Panama, and roasted all their coffee on site with their own roaster. Coffee drinking became an experience.

So times were good. We all got older. A harsh, bitter taste became my sweet spot. I transitioned into lattes. No flavoring. Two shots of espresso and steamed milk. Nary a crystal of white sugar or a lump of chocolate to be found.

And coffee shops grew up with me. They became much more than a place to experience a great cup of coffee. They became destinations with Wi-fi and local art and soft chairs. Yup, even fireplaces.

“It is kind of like a day-time bar. A fun neighborhood place that people can hang out.”

Really? A salon for coffee lovers?

“We get to know a lot about people’s lives. We see funerals and weddings. Two of our employees got married.  We had three different couples that actually met in line. They made a connection and they got married. We even got an invitation.”

Jan smiles at the thought.

And her own experience growing up with coffee?

“I remember the first time I tasted coffee, it is a very distinct memory, my mom had it in her thermos at a football game. I took a taste. I thought, how in the world could anyone drink anything that tastes like that. It was horrible!”

Jan laughs. Brushes back her hair. Raises her cup of coffee with two hands. Takes a sip. And gives an audible sigh as the dark, rich smell of roasting coffee drifts around the room, tickling long-ago memories.

The old man does not read the paper or watch TV or listen to the radio as he dips his toast in the china saucer while I eat my cereal. Small nods and smiles take the place of conversation. The smell of coffee settles in the kitchen like a morning dew on green cornfields. Dark and strong. Neither of us knowing that the old man, my grandpa, will die at nearly 99, many cups of black coffee later. 






Firetrucks and firefighters

“You can sit behind the wheel if you want to. Go ahead.”

The firefighter, younger than my youngest child, is grinning broadly as he encourages me. He has me pegged. Yup, beneath my bald head is a tow-haired five-year-old making firetruck noises while playing on the linoleum floor. Do I want to climb up? Please, get real. Can I also blow the horn?

It’s usually not a good thing to see a red truck blocking the street, ladders up top, hoses ready to go, firefighters walking down the street. But not today. The sun is shining. No smoke on the wind. Everyone is healthy.

Lieutenant Cory Macumber, Josh Boyle, and Rob Harris, all from the Urbandale Fire Department, are making the rounds of neighborhood after neighborhood.

“Hello, Urbandale Fire Department.”

What is going on?

Jon Rech, the Fire Marshall for Urbandale, explains to me later at the fire station:

“We’ve been doing detector replacements and battery replacements for years. However, this initiative started last year when Chief Jerry Holt put in for a grant to Endow Urbandale.  The goal under that grant is to try to reach out to various neighborhoods throughout the city, to get in and check out folks smoke detectors. Are they there? Are they missing? Are they really old and really don’t work?”

So three firefighters enter my home (after I responded to their mailed offer to be on their list). They check all the fire alarms. Talk to me about fire safety. Explain how to deal with certain peculiarities of my home — like why the alarm always goes off when I cook but not when my wife does. And answer all my questions about escape routes and carbon monoxide poisoning and grease fires.

Surprisingly educational . . . but what about the firetruck outside? Can we go look at it?

Fire Marshall Rech, however, hasn’t yet given up on my education.

“We find that kids seem to do a better job with fire education than adults do. Remember in elementary school you went to a fire station or the firefighters came to school? But nothing in high school or college. Our fire education stops in elementary school. Should we be surprised that as adults we don’t know to replace our fire detectors every 10 years?”

Yikes, busted! I didn’t know to replace my fire detector every 10 years. So that’s what the firemen do. They replace my fire detector. For free.

Oh, yeah, and they smile and laugh a lot. They almost make me forget about the firetruck out front. Are these guys crazy?

“Firefighters have to be a certain type of person because everyone is running out of a burning building and they’re running in. We are firefighters, but we are here to serve the community.”

Fire Marshall Rech points to his patch, which states: “Mission driven, customer focused.”

“Whether we are called to your house because of a fire, or you’re having chest pains, or your detector went off and you have no idea why. That’s what we are here for. Typically, when we interact with people they are having a pretty bad day. So to be able to do something like this is a benefit.”

Yes, it is.

Now, about that firetruck out front?

Firefighter Boyle opens the big truck door.

“Go ahead,” he says, “sit right up there.”

And I do.



Shirley Ballard

Shirley Ballard died the other day. Most of you didn’t know her. Honestly, she would have been all right with that. Not because she didn’t want to know you, but because she preferred to be behind the scenes. A little off stage. Far down in the credits.

But it would not be true. From the very beginning she stood out. A female cop working back when women cops were rare. A deputy with the Polk County Sheriff’s Office. Then with the Ankeny Police Department. Smart, tough, and fair. Eventually, the Polk County attorney hired her away as an investigator for his office. Someone to work the serious and complex cases. A seasoned veteran who knew how to get things done.

She and I started working together when I arrived at the county attorney’s office years later as a prosecutor. I suspect the county attorney recognized that I was a bit too young and bit too sure of myself and needed someone to keep an eye on me. Shirley was it. The first time we went out on a drunk-driving death case, she was chain-smoking, tough, and no-nonsense. It was obvious that she had years of experience and knowledge, while I had difficulty finding the location of the accident on a map. On top of that, she had handcuffs and a gun.

I was in way over my head.

We talked to witnesses, walked the accident scene, visited with the police, and viewed the body. I was nervous and faking it. As we were driving home, she said, “Joe, I want to show you something.”

A little bit later we pulled up to some obscure cafe in some obscure part of Polk County. She ordered chocolate malts. Then, in her deep, raspy voice, she told me that she refused to drive on the interstate because of all the death cases she had seen from accidents; and, by the way, she didn’t like heights. She poured malt into my glass.

“So, Joe, what about you?”

Okay, Shirley was the mom we all wanted. Tough and kind and on your side. But still, what was I supposed to do with this snoopy questioning of my life? Just because she shared her personal stuff, did this mean I had to share mine? Should I really trust her? I mean, who was she, with her raspy voice and tough demeanor?

I told her everything.

No kidding. I told her my fears and concerns and worries. Yup, I was shameless. And what did she do? What she always did with all of us — she listened. It was heaven.

Over time, we worked together more and more. Who was at fault when a young man died when he fell off the side of a car as a bar fight spilled onto the street? Did that police officer have to shoot and kill when confronted down in a dark basement with a knife-wielding man? And did that old lady really pack her husband’s body in lime and bury him in the garden?

“Joe, I want to show you something.”

And then Shirley would take me to another obscure cafe that served chocolate malts. And we talked. Every time.

By the way, my experience with Shirley was not unique to me — well, maybe the sitting-down-with-malts part of it was. Generally, cigarettes or a can of pop were Shirley’s go-to choices. Wherever we were, Shirley would always end up outside. Smoking, of course. Or drinking pop. Or both. And there you would see the witness or victim or concerned parent smoking or drinking pop by her side. And, in case after case, they would tell her their fears, their worries, their concerns. Before long, Shirley knew the whole story from what just looked like a casual conversation next to the driveway, or outside the apartment complex, or on the busy sidewalk. She was a lie detector in reverse; she detected the truth. A skill hard to list on a resume or to recognize at an awards banquet or to post on Facebook after a rescued puppy video. But in a job where we were supposed to be “doing justice,” not a bad card to have up your sleeve.

By the way, knowing the truth was only half the discussion with Shirley. She always preferred compassion and constantly reminded me that things were never just the facts. “Joe, she’s lying about what happened because he beats her and we can’t protect her.” “Joe, these families go way back and these two sons are just pawns to their fathers.” “Joe, the police officer did what he had to do in shooting this guy with a knife, but the mom has to blame someone besides herself for calling 911.”

And so life went on. Case after case. Death after death. We did our job.

“Joe, I want to show you something.”

Shirley was retired. She was fighting the disease that would eventually kill her. Her raspy, deep voice was a whisper or nothing at all. I came to visit. Her husband, Denny, loaded her into the car, and Shirley took us to an obscure location in her town.

We all sat in the back booth. She looked at me and smiled. And, lo and behold, there was my chocolate malt.

One last time.

“Joe, I want to show you something . . . .”

I believe she did.

May she rest in peace.







The “small potatoes” game

If you’re feeling a little down because of what is occurring in the world, wondering what is going to happen to health insurance, taxes, and world peace, you should play the “small potatoes” game. It is fun-packed, travel-friendly, and can be played by the entire family. You’ve never played before? Ah, let me get you started.

The trial is not going well. Of course, my protestor is just persisting in his normal behavior toward the doctor, who, in a strange reversal of roles, is the guy being charged in this case. The protestor’s normal behavior is not nice. Trust me. I prosecuted the protestor multiple times in the past for crimes like trespass and interference. The last time around, the protestor had somehow connected himself with PVC pipe to several other people and laid across the floor in the entrance room at Planned Parenthood. Frankly, that passive resistance seemed more civilized than when he screamed at women as they entered the clinic. The abortion debate, and the protestor’s moral certitude, gave him a purpose. But the aggression seemed raw and unpredictable, especially as doctors who performed abortions were being killed around the country.

So, of course, I had loud splashy trials with the protestor and other members of his group for violating the law. Just the opposite today. Today, I am prosecuting the doctor for allegedly committing an assault. Justice for all. Ah, but holding the flag of righteousness does not make the trial less difficult.

As the doctor testifies, I see the jury staring at something behind my back. I turn to see what it is. There is my protestor, peering in through the glass window of the courtroom door, glaring angrily at the doctor. Yikes!

“Now, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, who was the aggressor, this doctor who is following the Constitution or that man behind the courtroom door with hate in his eyes?” The defense lawyer is not stupid.

The jury retires to the jury room. I rest my head on the desk.

After the jury returns a “not guilty” verdict, I am informed that I made a local radio talk program. Yup, they were calling me Shoeless Joe Weeg.

What? Can a slur be a slur if you don’t know what it means?

Come to find out what you probably already know, that Shoeless Joe Jackson, who played for the Chicago White Sox, was accused of throwing the 1919 World Series. It was the end of his career.

I was being publicly accused of throwing the trial.


Although . . . this was small potatoes compared to the late November day in fourth grade when I was walking home from school with my best friend who lived across the street. His older brother didn’t like me. Why? I’m sure it had something to do with my obnoxiousness that still pops up now and again 50 years later. My friend and I were prepubescent. The older brother was a normal hormonal teenager — hulking and scary.

The older brother saw us walking, crossed the street, grabbed my stocking hat, threw it into a tree, and beat me up. I mostly cried during this clichéd event.

But I was all right with that. Until the next morning.

The next morning, the older brother’s mother saw me walking alone to school. She marched over with that strident walk of a mother who has been wronged, grabbed my ear, shook me, and accused me of picking on her darling oldest son.

What??????? Yup, I was the bad guy for getting beat up.

And the oldest son, the bully?  He became a priest.

Although . . . this was small potatoes compared to the time when I was eight and eating dinner in the large dining room at a convent in Dubuque, where my aunt lived as a nun. The nuns back in those days were in full garb and looked very serious. I was messing around and had a fork in my hand. Somehow, the fork went flying, crossed the table, and smacked right into the chest of a pleasant-looking elderly nun. My parents and seven siblings sat stunned. I sat stunned.

Who did that? Who would throw a fork at someone who had taken a vow of poverty and chastity?

All fingers pointed to me.

I am going to hell. Even as a nonbeliever, I get it. When you spear a nun on the end of your fork, no matter your intent, you go to hell. It might not actually be the 11th Commandment handed down to Moses, but it should be.

So, there you go. This is the “small potatoes” game. Sure, the health care mess is frightening, but it’s small potatoes when you’re going to hell for stabbing an elderly member of a religious order. See? Tons of fun. Now it’s your turn.








Working out

Spandex shorts, wicking shirt, sport socks. Check, check, check. Weight-lifting gloves, yoga mat, roller tube. Got ‘em. High-performance shoes carried in my high-performance bag. Yup. And don’t forget the protein drink and proper hydration bottles. Of course. At last, zip up my breathable, rain-resistant jacket and I’m ready to go.

It’s time to work out.

The late-middle-aged man lifts the shovel. It is full of black Iowa dirt from the large pile dumped on the asphalt parking lot at the Walnut Creek YMCA. The wheelbarrow gives a small groan as the man fills it with a twist of his hips. He works with a steady rhythm. When full, he lifts its handles and wheels the load down the sidewalk where he dumps the dirt into the washed-out edging. Picking up a garden rake, he spreads the dirt, pushing it next to the sidewalk. Setting the rake down, he hauls the wheelbarrow back to the pile. Once again, he shovels up the black dirt.

I go into the Y and work out.

Some time later, I walk to my car in the parking lot with my sweat wicked away and my body well-hydrated.

The pile is gone.

The man has landscaped and raked and hauled the black dirt around the sidewalks and parking lot and any other place that needed attention. He now has a push broom with which he is cleaning up the mess. Head down, focused on his task, he sweeps the remnants into a small pile to again shovel into the wheelbarrow.

“It is a little ironic, isn’t it?” says Joe Czizek as he pushed the broom on the asphalt. The contrast between his “work” and my “working out” was not lost on either of us.

“It’s a little like people coming to the gym who won’t park an inch further from the front door than they have to.” Czizek gives a soft laugh. “To each his own.”

Nonjudgmental. Proud to be working for the YMCA. Happy to be able to help and solve problems.

“I am one of the District Supervisors for the YMCA. My office is here. My duties are anything and everything.”

Czizek is the guy we all want. No matter the problem, he either fixes it or he finds someone who can. Air conditioning systems, electrical, plumbing, carpet, drinking fountains, the large boilers inside the building. Next week, it is putting in a raised garden.

“I didn’t even know what a raised garden was two weeks ago. They said, ‘Can you put in a raised garden?’ I said, ‘Sure, what is it?’”

Czizek laughs at himself.

“What I love about the Y, you can see where the money is going, the projects they do. It is well spent. That’s unique in my experience.”

Czizek can go on and on about the people working at the Y and the people who use the Y.

“The people here are good people. We have a range, from the elderly to young. I call them elderly, but they are active as heck. And then you have small kids. I love the family setting.”

And that’s enough chit-chat. Back to work Czizek goes. And I head to my car with all my gear slung over my shoulder, sipping on my protein drink.

“Oh, one last question,” I turn and shout, “do you work out?”

I hear the laughter. Then he shouts back.

“No, but I need to!”

And back he goes to pushing the dirt.