Thursday, May 23, 2013

Chapter Nine-Tea anyone?

The next wave of mail started to hit my p.o. box. The local newspapers wanted me to be reviewed by their editorial boards, a group called The Center for Michigan wanted me to answer questions for a video piece they were doing on the candidates and the League of Women voters wanted to know if I would do a candidate forum with myself, and Mary Brown.

I had completely forgotten about Mary Brown. Everyone did. We were so focused in trying to get my name out so that I could beat Al, we forgot she even existed. She hadn't put out any lit pieces, she hadn't filled out the online questionnaires for candidate websites; she hadn't even registered her campaign finance statement with the state of Michigan, which you HAVE to do or you get big fines. She didn't have a facebook, myspace or twitter account; and she most certainly didn't have a website. When I went in to Google her, the only articles that came up were ones that we were both in and some info on a woman with the same name that was deceased, who by the way, looked like she was well loved and had a good life. RIP Mary Brown, whoever you are.

Why would somebody run and not do a thing to campaign, I just couldn't figure this chick out. Maybe she was a genius, maybe she didn't care. I had no idea. I knew she was real and on the ballot against me, but that was all the time I had to put into thinking about her, I had a lot to do, and a lot of information to learn and a lot of research to do. If Mary Brown did indeed decide to come to the party, I knew in my subconscious that I would be having a Primary debate with her and that whatever I said would be printed and for public consumption. This meant that I had to have all my positions and facts straight so that I couldn't be called out on it later in a debate with Al. All the speculation made my head swim.

The pressure that I was under to watch everything I said was almost too much to handle. I’ve always shot from the hip and pretty much say what I really feel, but come to find out this is not a good move in politics. Campaign manager Michael was constantly reminding me, over and over again, to watch my words and I was getting to the point where I was afraid to talk at all for fear of messing something up. My answers started to become more and more vague and I avoided taking a hard position on anything in conversations; I felt I was getting even further from who I was as a person and sacrificing little pieces of myself to the campaign gods.

The summer was starting to whiz by and before I knew it the day of the Flag Day parade has arrived, but we were ready for this one. After watching the Memorial Day Parade in St. Joe, I thought it would be good to follow suite with Proos and Upton so I ordered a 6 foot banner with my logo and name; I wanted to look palatable, and professional, for my first introduction to a large audience. And I wanted to be taken as a serious female candidate.

This banner was the very first marching parade banner I had ever ordered. I was completely interested in the entire process. I learned that when they print these political banners, they weave a space in the back by folding the top over backwards 2 inches. This creates a horizontal pocket across the top for a long piece of PVC pipe to slide into. The PVC pipe is cut about two-feet too long so that it creates handles sticking out the sides, now I knew how the banner carriers held onto those signs during a parade; a simple and cheap way to carry a sign that cost so much money. What an interesting facade, I guess life has lots of little interesting facades and all it takes is a little peak behind the curtain to see that the great and powerful Oz, wasn’t so great or powerful after all. It was all just a little guy in a green suit pulling levers.

Over the past few weeks after losing Red Head Chris, more losses came. I got an email Jennifer from Organizing for America. She said it had been great getting to know everyone and that she had enjoyed her time with us. She explained that she was writing the email from Ohio and had already been transferred out of our area by the OFA; and no-one was coming to take her place. She said there were pressing needs in Ohio and she wished us well.

We had been dumped.

The reinforcements that we were desperately relying on were not enroute and we were on our own.
Without the organization and manpower of the OFA; even less Democrats were going to come out to vote. I sent her an email asking her if she would still be able to help me with campaign strategy, and she said she was not allowed to get involved in elections outside her area.

I was feeling the effects of trickle down Obamics, which is the rations of hope you get to sustain you after everyone else has filled up their plate and has retired to the bar for an aperitif. During the 2008 campaign, they needed us, the small town organizers that would rally for change. They empowered us to lead the charge, they gave us titles, and knew we would work hard. Even though we could tell that many of the campaign staffers were recent college grads with a heightened sense of privilege and an eye on a cabinet position, we ignored it. We embraced them because they represented Obama, and we all knew Obama had to win. And for him to win, we all had to work together.

But after that excitement died down, the only time the OFA tried to reach out to us is when Obama needed a press op, support for a bill or a rating spike. Maybe that’s just my spurn talking, but that’s how it seemed. We’d get good grass roots movements started on pressing issues in our area and reach out to them, but the only response we’d get back was a mass email saying that Martin Luther King, Jr. day needs to be a national day of service and to “start a service project in your area.” The OFA had become corporate politics.
We were on our own again. The OFA had cut us adrift because our area was too Republican, it would take too much work and money to change us to a Democratic area if it was even possible. It wasn’t worth the manpower to even try. In my opinion it was exactly why they should have stayed.

This of course led me to a few evenings of cuddling with a bottle of red wine questioning my sanity in moving to one of the only non-Democratic areas of Michigan. But, I digress. Who can question the logic of fate? To quote Steve Jobs, “You cannot connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking backwards.”
Luckily I have never been a quitter and I had a parade to get to. Everyone was meeting at the parade route at 1:30 PM and the parade was to start at 3PM.

I stressed really hard over what to wear. It was 90 degrees, but I had to look business casual. If I was a guy I would wear a polo and khakis, but I wasn’t. I finally decided on a red and white striped, loose fitting, cotton dress. The stripes worked because it was Flag Day. I paired it with some nude hose and the nude kitten pumps that I had bought for my Livery coming out party/campaign announcement. I looked in the mirror, I felt modest and patriotic. This was new for me.

We arrived a few minutes early and stood next to Matt’s ’81 Corvette, with was a two tone Brown and camel with t-tops, waiting for everyone to arrive. I was feeling heaviness about the OFA pulling out and was having a sinking feeling that Democrats were not going to fare well this year, but I forced a smile for my fellow Democrats and fellow candidates anyway. I didn’t want to tell anyone and be the bearer of bad news on this day. It made me really glad that I had practiced smiling and waving in the mirror the day before trying to find the most genuine facial expression and wave that I could muster. This was the first time I had ever practiced this and while it felt bizarre at the time, I was glad I did it.

All the members of Harbor County Progress, my campaign staff and our families arrived and lined up waiting in the hot sun for the parade to start. Iggy and Lola were chasing each other under a tree in someone’s lawn. I tried to shoe them off because it was someone else’s property, but after an hour I gave up. They were bored. Parades are much more exciting watching from the street.

I had asked Iggy and Lola to be in the parade with me like Bob suggested and Lola was ecstatic. My daughter loves parades. She likes to go watch parades wearing her own tiara. When I ask her why she wants to wear one, she says, “To let the other girls know they are a princess just like me.”  Lola doesn’t need a parade for confidence, but she was ready to wow them in this one. She picked out her dress and crown a few weeks before. Iggy wasn’t really into it until I told him he could be the one to throw the candy to kids. He loved that he was going to have such an esteemed job.

Cindy Ellis showed up with her 21-year old daughter shortly after us, a huge box of Ellis for State Rep t-shirts and a surplus of candy. Her daughter worked for a congressman in Lansing and was glad to be a part of her mom’s campaign.

“You don’t want to risk running out at the end, the parents get really mad if you do,” said Cindy’s daughter. She was right. We had only bought two bags so she loaded up our buckets and we put extra in Matt’s vette. Weird reason for people to not vote for you, but I could completely see the logic.

It was still a half hour till the parade began and we were near the end, with over 200 parade participants, we knew it would be a while. The Republicans were at the beginning since they were all elected officials. We were like the bad kids at the back of the bus.

Matt, Bob, Patrick, and my friend and former employee Emily Klutts, who had come to carry the sign, were standing with me talking while we waited, I looked up to see an older blue 1972 Chevrolet Bel Air slowly cruised by us with a “Don’t Tread on Me” rattlesnake flag, attached to its side. Two flags, a colonial 13 star flag and a modern American Flag, were mounted on poles on the back bumper flying high in the air. As the car took its place a few spots in front of us, three men in colonial costumes got out of the car and slowly put their three pointed hats on their head.

A 10 ft-high stilt walker dressed up as Uncle Sam surreally passing by and looking down at us and smiled casually. Behind him , a black, 40’s style Chicago mob boss car pulled up and parked under the shade tree in the spot directly in behind us. Two older woman with white “Made in the USA” t-shirts on and 2 older men with yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” t-shirts emerged and started taking flags, banners and boxes out of their trunks military style.

The Tea Party had arrived.

This group of men in colonial gear started walking around congenially shaking everyone’s hand and introducing themselves with gusto and energy. They smiled and talked to people as though they were not dressed as extras from the Pirates of the Carribean.

One started to walk towards us. He worked his way through our group and when he reached me, he put out his hand and said, “Hi, I am Paul Revere Peterson. I am running for State Rep of the 79th District.”
And here we stood, face to face. “Nice to meet you,” I said and shook his hand back. “I am Julee Laurent.” I just looked at him wondering if Revere was by any slim chance, his real middle name.

“Well this thing could come down to just you and me, you know” Paul Revere said with a weird smile and a wink. He was sweaty. He had a little, Clark Gable style mustache above his top lip and was on the heavy side so he was short of breath and his cheeks were flame red against his very white skin.

“Our district needs a lot of work so I hope that happens. Seems the guys in office now haven’t been able to get the job done so if it comes down to just one of us, then that change can come,” I responded.  I wanted to be very careful about what I said to him.

“We have one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation Paul, there is no investment in reinventing our local workforce so that corporations will move here and the amount of people living in poverty is just unacceptable. Al Pscholka plans on winning this thing. They think they are going to waltz into office just like they always have. What do you think about that Paul?” I am not sure why I had said it this way, but the Tea Party’s reputation preceded them and I wanted to see how reactionary he was.

He stared at me with a challenging smile, this guy was ready for a debate, I could tell. I liked his spirit.  Then he took his three point hat off, which revealed a black pirate skull bandana. He pulled a handkerchief out of his puffy colonial pants with gold and red piping on the sides, to wipe his sweaty forehead. Paul Revere was a little on the whiter side of white and it was obvious that this kind of heat and sun were unusual for him, but he was doing what he had to do to get votes. He was enduring the sun and the heat. Paul wanted to win, and some triple digit temps weren’t going to get in his way.

“You know, you and I should get together and talk about Al. I got some stuff on him,” he said for my ears only. Then louder, and obviously to be overheard, he said, “The problem here is that we need small business development. You know that Whirlpool plant in Benton Harbor that they are closing? It’s going to cost us 216 more jobs, but I got a way to fix it.”

Curiosity compelled me to take the bait. “Great,” I said. “How?”

Paul took a dramatic pause and said three words, “Honey Meade Wine.”

That was truly not the answer I expected, “Honey Meade Wine?” I asked.

“Yes, I make the best Honey Meade Wine around,” Paul proclaimed. “We can mass produce it and distribute it everywhere. We would get those 216 people back to work and have a new business growing right here in our own district,” he said proudly.

It took me a moment to tell if he was kidding or not. I really wasn’t sure. He wasn’t. I later found out from one of Paul Revere Peterson’s neighbors that Paul attended a lot of renaissance fairs and, indeed, or should I say in Meade, had been actively trying to get his Honey Meade wine mass produced. He was all for small business growth, his own.

I became a little disgusted with him for this. Not only was he going to present himself to the voters in a pirate outfit, he knew nothing about the city, or the leadership in Benton Harbor, or did he even care about anyone’s else’s interest but his own Honey Meade Wine empire.

I was pretty sure he had never stepped foot in Benton Harbor on a regular basis, nor did he have any friends there. Everyone knows that the city is completely anti-alcohol. There are so many churches and area leaders that feel so strongly about keeping liquor out of that city that even Harbor Shores, with all its contacts and political pull, is having a hard time getting a liquor license. In fact, when Harbor Shores opened later in 2010, they had to start with one-day liquor licenses procured by allowing local charity’s to host small fundraiser golf outings. That way the charity made good money for the couple hours they were there, but for the rest of the day the people coming to play Harbor Shores could buy beer. There was no way Benton Harbor was going to allow mass production of alcohol as economic development.

“That’s an interesting idea,” I mumbled. “I hear you guys have a good strategy to beat Al, John and Fred,” I said phishing a bit. I wanted to see how much he would reveal by playing on the ego of his new found small town celebrity status, but anyone who has the stones to call themselves Paul Revere and even dress like him in public, is rocking at least a little bit of attitude and cockiness.

“We are going to make them stand by their record,” he said to whoever would listen. “Also, Al campaigns during taxpayer time, he took a 5% pay raise last year while everyone was hitting the worst of the economy and we are going to work harder than them to get elected. We have a lot of support.

“You and I should really get together and talk a little strategy,” he said quietly, leaning in too close. “Then this race can come down to just you and me. And you can try some of my Honey Meade wine too.”
“Email me Paul. Hey Patrick?” I called, backing up a bit. “Looks like we all better get ready, the parade is about to start. Will you give Paul our campaign contact info?” Patrick could instantly tell that meant I needed him to run interference. As the campaign got deeper and deeper, I really appreciated Patrick’s ability to stay neutral and strong. He was becoming someone I could lean on and that was nice.

“Sure,” he said.

“It was good to finally meet you. Paul” I said as he and Patrick went to get a card. I had weird mix of emotions going on. I was glad that Paul was motivated to beat Al, but he made me a little freaked out at the same time for reasons I still can’t explain.

Another man in colonial gear came walking toward us and called for Paul, “Hey Paul, let’s go.” He ran up towards us and shook my hand. “Hi Julee, good to meet you. I am Todd Griffee, I am running against John Proos for State Senate. ”

I said hi back, told him it was good to meet him and watched the two of them as they walked back towards their group. I wasn’t sure if Al, John or Fred had much to worry about, but the tea party was an interesting development in our little election and I was curious as to how far they would go. They were already dividing the local GOP and if they were here, wearing costume at local parades, this early in the campaign, I wondered what the next few months would hold? Maybe they would be the factor that helped Democrats by dividing the Republican vote. I felt more hopeful for my party and my personal election.

We all got ready for the start of the parade. Bob told me I was to walk behind the vette. He said that candidates were always supposed to walk if they could, it would show the voters we were willing to work. We had reserved the passenger seat of the ‘vette for Jim Hahn, and had made a sign that said ‘Jim Hahn, Chair, Berrien County Democratic Party’ to put on the car. Matt had removed the t-tops so that Jim could sit on top of the car. But for some reason Jim never showed that day.

We put Lola in the passenger seat, she was so tired that she was resisting and wanted to walk with me. Once Matt explained that princesses never walk, she stood in the passenger seat poised to wave at the crowd.  This was going to be much easier than pulling her in the wagon. Iggy walked next to me with the big bucket of candy, and ahead of us were Patrick and Emily. Pat and Emily were holding the PVC pipe handles on either side of the 6 foot banner we had made and waked in front of us. Now without any speeches, people would at least see me, and see my name and know who I was. This was the first of one the 37 impressions I had to make on them before their subconscious would even give my name any validity. That is about how many times it takes for a person to read or hear something consistently before they remember it or give it value. One down, 36 to go.

Then we marched.

HCP made up chants for us. They yelled “Laurent, Laurent, Laurent for State Rep,” and “Ellis for Jobs, Ellis for Jobs.” They made up chants for Cooney and Elliot as well who had also come to march and get their names out too. Cooney was an old pro at this, and Scott fell asleep on the lawn nearby for a half hour up until the start of the parade. I envied his ability to have his mind calm down enough to nap.

Iggy was throwing candy like a madman; it was a dream come true, he was finally in control of the candy ‘Muhahahaha’ I could almost hear his inner voice laughing. Nah, nah, nah gonna have a good time.

“Hey, watch it kid,” a lady in a Proos t-shirt yelled angrily at Iggy. Seems in his excitement he had thrown a particularly large handful of hard candy root beer barrels and hit her in the head. She looked at me with venom. I kept smiling and waving, and then recognized her as one of John’s campaign volunteers that I had seen at the earlier parade on Memorial Day. Through smiling teeth I leaned down to Iggy and said, “Be careful not to hit people kiddo.”

“I am sorry mom it was an accident,” he explained. “There were some kids in the way back that couldn’t get to the candy so I didn’t want them to miss getting some.”

“I know bud, you are a good boy and that’s sweet. You accidentally hit a lady in the head. But don’t worry about it for now, she was wearing a Proos shirt,” I said. We both busted out laughing. Although this was childish of me, he was innocent of any candy-aiming malice and we were going through this campaign together. His name was on that banner too. He also really wanted me to win so that when his class went on their 3rd grade field trip to Lansing, I would be there working at the capitol.

We kept smiling, walking and waving. And smiling and walking and waving. Sometimes I would hear a friend yell my name and I would look for them in the huge crowd. This really was a big parade. As we walked the route, I kept seeing t-shirts, and signs for Tyler, Pscholka, Upton and Proos. Some kids were wearing beads with Proos’ name on them. And everybody had their stickers slapped on their cloths. It looked like a massive Republican bomb had gone off right before we had gotten there. Now wonder they wanted to go first. This was an amazing show of financial force.

But, the candidate with the best name recognition is the one that that wins; that takes lots of money. They already had their 37 impressions to my one in one day. Damn they are good at this. Now I knew why Cindy had shown up with a box of t-shirts. ‘I need more money’ I thought as I walked and smiled and waved, I need more money.

As we reached the end of the route, I saw Paul Revere and his minutemen. Paul looked at my banner, then looked at the campaign logo postcards we had hastily put all over the vette and disgustedly, yelled to me, “Really?”

“Yes, Really Paul,” I said smiling and waving.

“OK,” he said back sarcastically, and I kept on walking to the end of the parade route.

We all gathered together with our banners, t-shirts and signs and took a group picture. Matt, Lola, Iggy and I walked to the vette.

“What’s on the back of your shoe?” Matt asked.

I looked down and there was blood coming from the back of my right heel. I had gotten a blister and it bled so much it filled the bottom of my shoe and hosiery with tacky blood. Stupid kitten heels, guess they were not intended for walking in a mile long parade. But they were sooo cute, pre-blood that is.

I got some flip flops out that I happened to have left in Matt’s car one summer night, took off my hosiery and was putting them on. I looked up and saw Fred, John and Sharon Tyler in the back of some cars. It dawned on me; they were being driven back to the start of the parade route. I hadn’t even thought of that. We were going to have to walk all the way back.

Matt took Lola in the vette since she was the littlest and Patrick, Emily, Iggy and I began the trek back. We finally reached my car a half hour later and I needed to pee.

Iggy jumped in the vette with Matt. Everyone else got into my car and we all headed back home. I was really glad to be in the air conditioning and just wanted to get home and into some shorts and a t-shirt.

I pulled my cell phone out of the glove box and saw that I had missed a couple calls. One was from Jim Hahn. I dialed my voice mail to check the message Jim had left hoping he was ok, I thought it was weird that he didn’t show. He told me that he was sorry he couldn’t make it and then said that he had decided to step down as the Chair of the Berrien County Democratic Party and didn’t feel right about coming. Our party had been plagued with infighting and everyone’s personal agendas. After the loss of Jim’s wife in the 2008 election, it was something that he shouldn’t have had to deal with, but he had stayed on as chair because he didn’t want to let anyone down. He is a strong man, but he deserved some time to finally greve and be at peace. He said he thought I was doing great and was a great candidate. He wished me luck and said he would vote for me.

I didn’t have any more words or thoughts; I was alone.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Chapter 6 from 'Small Town Politics'

Chapter 6-Daydream Believer and a Homecoming Queen
I was sitting in Mrs. Baily’s Algebra class during a spring day in my Sophomore year of high school, trying to ignore that Alan Kleevack had a boner while standing in front of the class at the chalkboard. He tried to shift from leg to leg creatively, but everyone could see it.
Mrs. Baily however, seemed unaffected, she had probably seen this a million times and a teenager with a hard-on was probably nothing new or spectacular to her. She made him finish the problem, and then he came back to his seat at the desk behind me and tried to solve his other problem.
In my peripherals I could see him shifting and putting books in his lap. Everyone kept looking over at him while doing their work in a mix of awe and confusion. Fourteen is definitely a weird age, there’s just no getting around that.  However, watching him squirm just made me glad I wasn’t a boy. I only had emotional boners to deal with and those could be easily hidden.

The intercom came on and our principal called for the entire sophomore class to meet in the cafeteria to elect their homecoming court. I always hated being forced into being a joiner in things in our school. We had to mandatorily attend pep rallies every Friday afternoon of home football games and applaud the date rapist football players and the mentally unstable girls that cheered them on. We had to gather while the Student Body President droned on about all the great things we were going to do this school year, which oddly enough were the same things they said we were going to do last year, and now we had to elect the girls whose parents were rich enough to foot the bill for the floats in the annual Gulf Breeze Homecoming Parade downtown.
I decided to rebel against this public form of worshipping uncreative people and skipped the election of the Homecoming Court by ducking into the Library to read.

I was in the Library for about an hour when I saw everyone filing out of the cafeteria to go back to class. I jumped back into the flow of students undetected. But something had changed.
People were stealing glances at me and whispering, sometimes laughing or giggling. At first I thought it was just the standard run of the mill hazing I routinely received from the popular girls, but this was different…everyone was doing it.
“There’s Julee Levine, our beauty queen!” someone yelled.
I looked around but couldn’t figure out what that meant.
“What kind of dress are you going to wear?” Shannon Pennington whispered to me in a very weird snide voice as she passed by giggling with her friends.
I went into 6th period and took my seat. Biology, thank goodness, something normal. As I was working on a paper about cells, the intercom came on again. The principal wanted to announce this year’s Homecoming Court.
He announced the freshman girls first, “We are proud to present our Freshman homecoming court Angel King, Kiesha Knight and Michelle Dawson!”
No surprise there, they were poured from the same mold as the rest of them.
He continued, ”And now for our Sophomore Homecoming Court…” here he took an uncomfortable pause. As he did two of the cheerleaders behind me started to laugh, feigning to hold their hands over their mouths as if trying to stifle their laughter.

The principal sounded as if he was covered the mic with his hand and but we could hear his muffled words, “are you sure about this?,” that he asked someone in the room.
He returned, “Our ummm Sophmore Homecoming Court is Eloise Huddlston, Dawn Green and Julee Levine.”
Now, at first I thought that maybe everyone had seen my inner beauty and for about five glorious seconds I didn’t feel like a freak. Being the poor kid in a small affluent southern town is quite a burden to bear. I was always watching my dreams and hopes being lived out by other kids, by kids who lucked out and got rich parents, it had always been a huge burden to carry. For this moment I felt what it was like to feel light and airy. My cares fell and crashed onto the floor.
“This can’t be right,” the principal said again into a badly muffled microphone.
He was right, the three girls elected to the court were all like me. We were all poor, unpopular and treated as if we were ugly. That was why the girl yelled that I was her beauty queen and why the cheerleaders behind me giggled in anticipation. Eloise, Dawn and I were the butt of a hysterical joke pulled off by the entire Sophomore class.
I was glad at that moment that I had skipped the assembly, but now, the entire school had just been pulled into it through the principal’s voice on the intercom. And I was sure that Jim Goodfellow, the senior I had a crush on, would go from not noticing me, to noticing me because I was the girl that the Sophmore class played that joke on.
“Students,” said the principal. “We seem to have a mistake here and will re-elect the school’s homecoming court tomorrow. Please return to your classwork.”

The silence was deafening. I had nowhere to hide. I was exposed and alone out in the middle of the classroom with all the people who had been in on the joke. My teacher looked at me with pity and I just sat there staring at my desk trying not to cry. I hadn’t asked for this. It was not my fault that my mom was crazy and my dad was an alcoholic.  I didn’t sit up in heaven biding my time with the angels until I could be put into the belly of a schizophrenic, agoraphobic, alcoholic mommy who would mentally and physical abuse me…mmm sounds like a challenge, I’ll take one of those God.

I am still not sure how, but I managed to keep myself from dissolving and class went back to business as usual until the bell rang.
I walked the halls, went to my locker and rode the bus home in a daze. It was almost as if it was all too overwhelming and my emotions temporarily shut off. The comments, the random insults and pieces of paper that were thrown at me as I walked by seemed as if they were part of a movie that I was choosing not to watch. Maybe this was just the survivor instinct that kicked in from years of living with abusive parents; I had done it at home all the time. But, for the first time I had to use it at school. For the first time my school life was as painful as my home life. I had nowhere that was safe now.
I got home and my mom was sitting naked in an easyboy chair watching the Price is Right. She never wore clothes at home.
“How wzzz yer day Mizzz Julee?” She slurred, not moving her eyes from the TV.
“Good, I learned a lot,” I said, which was very far from a lie.
I got a bowl of cereal, half-heartedly did my homework, went for a run and went to bed. The normal thoughts that gave me comfort each night until I fell asleep weren’t working . I could not be distracted by my dreams this time; neither waking ones nor sleeping ones.

I woke up the next day and thought about the Homecoming Court incident. I started to feel bad for Eloise and Dawn too  because I knew just how they were feeling. No one should feel that way. I thought about all the high schools and all the popular girls who teased those that were victims of their circumstances and said shame on them in my head. I looked in the mirror to brush my hair and looked upon a pretty girl who just didn’t have the resources. I felt a little better.
At school the next day the principal announced the real homecoming court and it was all the “right” girls. The teasing continued for a bit, but everyone started getting swept up in the excitement of homecoming and forgot about me.
The night of homecoming I watched Night Flight on TBS and ate a whole box of Count Chocula while my parents drank in the living room. It may have been one of the most peaceful nights I had in a long time.

Over the next few months I made a point to look as good as I could for school. I just wanted to hold my head high.
Later that year I saw a sign on the bulletin board for the Miss Gulf Breeze Pageant. All the homecoming court girls were atwitter with the prospect of a real pageant and the sign-up sheet filled quickly. During the break between lunch and 4th period, I walked through the people in the hall, went to the bulletin board and in front of everyone, put my name on the list to be Miss Gulf Breeze.

This was a game changer in my high school life. Guys started to notice me and girls started to hate me. Before it was just typical, uncreative high school teasing. This was something different. I was confronted by the Homecoming Queens everywhere I went. They wanted to know who my sponsors were, where I was getting my dress, what was my talent. The looked at me as if they were entitled to answers, like I had stepped on their turf. I would just smile with my messed up teeth and say, I am still working on it, and walk away.

They gossiped about me, complained to pageant officials and parents ultimately got involved. They tried to convince the pageant board that I would be a disgrace to the Miss Gulf Breeze title, but to no avail. Anyone who was interested could compete, those were the rules.

During my time in Gulf Breeze, I had worked at a couple of buffet restaurants in the area and a lot of the older folks in town liked me. I liked them too. I had many friends that were on social security or owned their own businesses and just talked to me as if I were a normal kid, which I really appreciated.
These were the first people I asked to sponsor me. After getting enough money from my older friends to buy a nice dress, I started to work my way down the rest of my list. I had Mearle Norman sponsor my make-up, a local hairdresser sponsored my locks, a local shoe store sponsored my foot wear and so on. By the end I had about 42 local sponsors in a town of 30,000.
A week before the pageant, when I turned in my sponsor list, the officials had a meeting. Normally sponsors are parents or a local business, this was new to them. They ultimately had to create an extra page in the program to mention all my sponsors.
During the actual pageant, I showed up all ready to go since my hair and make-up had been done in the after noon by my sponsers and I watched all the girl’s mothers aggressively trying to make them look prettier. Everyone was nervous, argumentative and walked around practicing their answer or their talent.
I was calm. I was actually looking forward to the pageant. It seemed like a fun experience. When nothing is expected of you, you can’t really fail.
When we were all lined up on stage for the first time they announced my name. I started with the customary walk, making sure to keep good posture and a big smile. As I worked my way around the stage the announcer said who I was, what my hobbies were. Then he started to read who I was sponsored by. Well, no one had warned him about my list. We had been instructed to walk the stage and stay on our mark till he was done and my list seemed to go on forever. He took dramatic pauses and laughed nervously at a few points and I just stood there while he read, on and on. I stood still and smiled. I was enjoying that I had the support of so many people and that no matter how this turned out, the girls on that stage knew that it wasn’t just my parents or my daddy’s car dealership that believed in me, it was enough people to fill a whole page in the pageant program.

When the announcer was finally done, he announced the next girl’s name. It had seemed like she was only on the stage for a moment compared to the time my introduction took. That was enough for me, I already felt like I had won.
In the end I did place well in the pageant, but declined the title and let it go to the runner up. I would have to make personal appearances in malls, show up for radio remotes from the state fair and ride on the float at the annual Fourth of July parade. I knew my parent’s various mental illnesses and love of the scotch wouldn’t support that kind of schedule.
Those girls never made fun of me again. They still talked about me hatefully, but since I was a good student, not a slut and had kicked most of their assets in a silly beauty contest, there was really nothing for them to say. They shunned me, along with my Algebra teacher Mrs. Baily who was the cheerleading coach, and for the most part, kept out of my way for the rest of high school. Mrs. Baily is the only disappointing part of this paragraph. It’s disappointing when an adult can’t leave the high school mentality behind. But maybe they mentally stay there because that’s where they felt most powerful and accepted.
One of my sponsors, Mrs. Haven who was about 62-years-old, said that she had a friend who had a daughter that was on the pageant committee. She told me that she overheard this friend’s daughter saying that her daughter was denied a place on the court because I cheated by getting so many sponsors. Then this woman confronted Mrs. Haven about being a sponsor of mine and asked her how she could help “a girl like that”, meaning me.
“But Mrs. Haven,” I said as I cleared her buffet plates, “I defaulted to the runner up, her daughter didn’t place anyway. That had nothing to do with me,” I protested.
“Julee,” Mrs. Haven said in her thick southern accent, ”People always need someone to blame. It’s how they avoid takin’ a good look at themselves. And I tell you this, if they did take a better look at their own lives, this world just might be a better place. You did good darlin.’ I am proud of you, I will be your sponsor anytime.”
I remembered Mrs. Haven as I stood waiting to march in the 2010 Flag Day parade in Three Oaks.  I looked around at the massive amounts of campaign buttons, campaign t-shirts, campaign signs, beads with candidates’ names on them, flags with all the area candidates’ logos and the litany of volunteers that Proos, Upton, Pscholka and Tyler, the cat lady that was running against Cindy Ellis, had on location to pass out all this campaign paraphernalia. It made me think one thing, I’m gonna have to go get more sponsors.

Hurricane Mom

My siblings and I only feel true comfort, while watching hurricane coverage on The Weather Channel. As children living on a small peninsula on the Alabama, Florida border, a good hurricane somehow provided relief from the anxiety of our daily routine. It was one of the only things that could truly bring us together as a family. Maybe it’s because of all the emotional, financial and physical disasters our family endured, a good old-fashioned hurricane was one we truly couldn’t control.

We spent our childhood in a run-down house in Gulf Breeze, FL; part of an area now aptly tagged,  Redneck Riviera. We used to watch the weather reports anxiously from June 1 to November 30 hoping that a churning tropical storm would turn into a full blown hurricane. For my family a hurricane provided an odd hope. My dad said that if a hurricane destroyed our house we could get insurance money, and we could start over.

In 1985 our fixation of Hurricane season paid off when Hurricane Kate came to Thanksgiving dinner. I was in high school, but unable to flee my moms physical and emotional abuse because I was under 18, which my mother reminded me of every chance she had. She said that if I ever ran away the police would come find me and if I thought I had it bad before, when I got back, it would be worse. Makes one only imagine what she may have gone through herself as a child. But as Kate churned up into the gulf the alpha-female battle between my mom and I started to fade and we started making plans. Nothing brings people together like a common enemy, and that enemy was Kate.

Here we were, less than two weeks from Thanksgiving and a Hurricane threatened everything we owned.  And although we really didn’t have that much, the excitement felt good. We were now all a dither with taping up windows, making plans for our evacuation and trying to figure out what we would do with our three very large, and very unkempt standard poodles. An eccentric breed for a poor family, but what we lacked in money, we made up for in taste; or at least that's what my mother said.

Hurricane Kate got so powerful that we ended up having to evacuate to a hotel in Mobile, Alabama. We knew my dad couldn’t afford a hotel, but the police came and enforced a mandatory evacuation. I felt bad for my dad, but was eccstatic. Going to a hotel meant a pool, clean sheets and hot food. We loaded up the three dogs, five kids and two parents into our wood paneled station wagon and made the ninety minute drive over the bridge in Pensacola Bay in heavy traffic and driving rain. No family could have been happier than we were in that moment.

We drove and drove until we finally found a hotel with a vacancy. Score, a Holidome! We checked in, snuck the dogs into the room, got our swimsuits on and swam in the indoor pool. We felt rich; I had never been in an indoor pool before. I thought I was in Heaven. I made a mental note that if I ever got rich, I would have a pool in my house. I am still working on that one.

After dinner, which we ate in a real dining room with nice silverware and cloth napkins, we played with the other kids in the hotel. For the first time in a long time, we weren’t the poor kids; we were just kids and had a whole bunch of new hotel friends. Nothing levels the small town feudal system like a mandatory evacuation. We ran rampant through the halls with our new friends, assuredly annoying the adults who just wanted quiet in their rooms.

Mom sat in the lobby telling stories of the past to anyone who would listen and to the kids who would take a break to catch their breath. On normal days mom was agoraphobic, but she somehow managed this new found freedom by taking up residency in the lobby with a “what the h-e-double hockey sticks, my home may be destroyed tonight” attitude and held her Johnny Walker Red on the rocks high as she slurred each and every word.

Worn out with joy we stayed up all night watching the hotel TV, eating vending machine snacks and secretly hoping that the hurricane would barrel down on our little town destroying everything in its path. We fell asleep at some point in the middle of the night, all crammed into two queen beds with just the glow from the turning hurricane graphic on the news as our nightlight.

As morning light hit my eyes, I heard the low sound of the television anchorman talking about the devastation. As I came to I heard the words Panama City. Panama City! My stomach sank. Kate had missed us, Panama City was so lucky, they always get hit. There would be no hurricane devastation in our little town of Gulf Breeze, Florida; or at my home at 111 Norwich Drive.

Slowly, the sickening realization came that we would have to go back to reality today. And that our house would be there, waiting; waiting with its smell, its mice and its despair. There would be no more tropical depression, just the run of the mill, standard depression that hung over our house like the cloud in a Paxil commercial. There would be no starting over; no insurance money. Our problems would be there waiting for us, tapping their feet anxiously as we pulled into the drive. And with the liquor wearing off, we were in for a hellacious morning with the folks.

Oh well I sighed hopefully, there’s always next Hurricane season.