Category Archives: Picking Up Strays

All the weirdos, freaks, artists, loners, and lovers I’ve picked up, cradled, and set free over the years.


Something happened when I was ten that I will never forget. This image has stuck with me for thirty years.

I had a brief encounter with fame if you want to call it that. I was one of three singers who recorded a local Nashville television show’s opening.

Auditions were conducted at my friend Karen’s house after a big wig heard her singing in the living room at dinner there one evening. He thought she would be perfect to accompany the intro to “Thursday’s Child,” a magazine type show highlighting the very organization helping endangered children. They asked if she had any friends who could sing.

My brother and I went to her 70’s style split-level house with the creepy animated clown head in the kitchen and sang for a couple old guys in suits and ties.

We made the cut.

Two weeks later we were excused from school and recording into a real microphone on the highest floor of a prestigious downtown Nashville building. For a one minute song we were there all day. They changed the lead adult guy twice. I liked the first one best but for whatever reason he got the shaft and they brought in a guy whose voice was more boring than 4th grade math class.

But by day’s end they had what they wanted and three weeks after that I got a real check in the mail FOR SINGING A TELEVISION THEME SONG.

Funny how I don’t tell a lot of people about this. It is one of my favorite and best accomplishments of all time. But let me tell you what happened after we finished recording and were starving.

Our parents took us to McDonald’s. That was our nutritional reward. Now if you catch me at McDonald’s I am either severely low on cash, time, or oxygen. But to us in the early 80’s it was a major reward.

While eating my skinny, salty fries I noticed a man sitting alone across from us. He looked homeless and was drinking coffee out of the quintessential McD’s coffee cup. He wasn’t so much as staring at me, my brother, my parents, Karen, and her dad, but rather glancing from time to time just enough to make me uncomfortable. At some point in our  recording after-glow conversation and fast food binge-fest I noticed the homeless guy crying. Crying. There was this look on his face of regret. And even though I was only ten I knew exactly why he was crying.

Thirty years later I can still see the remorse on his tear-stained, weathered face. He had a family somewhere. And somewhere along the way he screwed up. He saw all of us laughing together and we reminded him of what he could have had. Or perhaps did have for a time and for whatever reason did not anymore. He was regretful. I know in that moment he was sorry for whatever it was he did.

I have never forgotten that man. I have never forgotten that overflow of emotion he felt just being a bystander at a fast food restaurant.

I think I understand him now even more than I did when he was right in front of me.

We have all done things which have made us hang in the web of regret. But somewhere along the way we have to find out how to break free and ultimately forgive ourselves. I hope that man eventually found his closure, his peace.

I know through his tears he was truly sorry. I didn’t know what to do back then but now I would at least give him a nod to let him know he is not alone.






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Fuji Pro, Kahlua, and an Old Friend

Barry was the first person who ever took the time to teach me about photography. He wore over-sized early-80’s style glasses. He always cleaned them smudgy on the corner of his plaid shirts, which were half tucked around his round belly.

We worked together at a retail photography store in the late 90’s on the heels of my college years. He was one of the top salesman. I was a Customer Service Associate– fancy title for cashier-who-must-be-polite-to-whatever-idiot-walks-in-the-store. Barry and I would make fun of the weirdos and assholes who did walk in and thankfully walk out. He had an aversion to anyone of religious identity. I had an aversion to the perpetually drunk woman who swore it was our fault her photos were always out of focus.

Barry was one of those coworkers essential to making it out alive in the tumultuous world of retail hell. He made the pain of standing for hours on end a little lighter. He made jokes when the clock was moving so slow we thought we were in a time warp. He spouted off random facts I’d later recite to customers when they asked me questions a lowly cashier had no clue about. He made goofy faces. He laughed at himself. He took me under his pale, sarcastic, hilarious, genius, kindly peculiar wings.

Some nights after work I’d follow him to his house after a quick stop at the liquor store. This was before my wine days so I was still in the process of figuring out what my drink of choice was. I was in my White Russian stage so he’d buy me a four-pack of mini Kahlua mud slides and bourbon for himself. We’d drink our respective beverages in his basement, which he took over as his nerd lair.

He was an amazing photographer, specializing in astrophotography. He’d sometimes set up his gargantuan telescope and we’d catch the light of the stars he recognized like the freckles on the back of his hand. He had thousands of photos he hoarded in his basement. “They can’t pay me what they’re worth,” he’d say sneeringly when I suggested he try to sell some of them. He also had a mad collection of albums he’d play on his souped-up stereo. He was the first person I knew to have internet access from his television. He introduced me to The Daily Show and South Park.


I went with him to buy his second Honda Hatchback, which he paid for in full from the money he saved working at the store. He took care of his mother, who lived above his nerd lair. He bought her mayonnaise and butter and bologna, the only “food” she would eat. Barry microwaved Lean Cuisines for himself on lunch break, two at a time.

I’ll never forget the time we had worked two weeks straight during the holiday shopping mayhem. It was Christmas Eve, our store’s metal chain-link security gate was half closed, and we were doing our final count of all the drawers. Some last-minute shopper ducked under the gate and begged us to let him buy a camera. Barry frantically took care of him while I tried to make sense of the day’s numbers. The boss was at home eating a warm meal with his family. Barry and I hadn’t eaten real food or seen the light of the sun in days. The last-minute shopper finally left and Barry and I continued our closing duties. The shelves were in disarray, the carpeted floor speckled with paper liter, and our count was way off. Barry grabbed the calculator for the fourth time and it slipped out of his hand, spinning in the air and crashing on the concrete floor below his feet. “Goddamn it!” he yelled in exasperation. “Screw it,” I called back as I ran to my purse, grabbed my cigs, and proceeded to light up and give one to Barry. We stood there laughing hysterically, puffing away, trying to fix the calculator.

I found out this morning Barry passed away. I hadn’t talked to him in years. I hadn’t sent him a photograph Christmas card since the one where my son, a toddler at the time, is waving at the camera. Barry told me it looked like he was waving at him.

I don’t want to imagine Barry in whatever way I’ll find out he died. I want to remember his silliness behind the counter, or crouched behind a wall of purple pansies teaching me macro photography, or sipping Jim Beam under Arcturus.

Rest in peace, Barry. Thank you for the lessons, the friendship, and most of all, the laughter.



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Kitty was a stray.  I found him roaming a block from my childhood home.  He was on the smallish side, with yellow eyes, and short, jet-black fur that felt like velvet.  So that’s what I named him.  But we called him Kitty.


He was one of three strays we had at the time—the only time we ever had pets of the furry, four-legged kind.  I was eight years old.  My mom didn’t want pets in the house so they stayed outside.  One was all white and given to me by my grandparents after I’d found her lurking around their house.  The other, who was found scampering about in our neighbor’s yard, had black and white spots, and Kitty of course was solid black.  It was the perfect combo except Kitty was always trying to steal the other cat’s food.  He was relentless in his efforts, even brash about it.  With little regard for poor Whitey and Spots he’d barrel toward their bowls as soon as he scarfed down his own Kibbles n’ Bits.  There was a lot of scolding him, and I began to wonder if I should have carried him down the street and into our lives.

Kitty on piano

One night as we pulled into the driveway in our Caprice Estate station wagon, a big white cat was carrying Whitey by the scruff of her neck.  Their eyes flashed toward us and then they were gone.  Whitey’s mother had traveled 30 miles to come get her daughter.

And then there were two.  Kitty still raced to eat the other cat’s food when he was finished, but with a little less aggression.  A week later Spots took off with a flirty calico who’d been peeking at him through the slats in the redwood fence.

Since Kitty had no more competition he took his time eating, and slowly turned into the sweet pet I’d dreamed of and begged my parents to let us keep.  He didn’t scratch, didn’t shed, and scrunched his little toes when he napped.  My dad made a cat house for him and we painted it yellow and filled it with a soft blanket.  Sometimes on special occasions Kitty was allowed in the house to play for a bit.  He crawled under my brother’s bed when we played hide-n-seek.  In the living room he was only allowed to sit in this one pink swivel chair, which he did so obligingly.  There were a few times he was even allowed to cuddle with me in my queen-sized bed.  His purrs were so loud when you stroked his smooth fur.  He chased us in the backyard and climbed the maple tree my brother and I swung from like monkeys.

Kitty with Hat

One afternoon when I came home from school Kitty was nowhere to be found.  I looked everywhere- all around the house, inside and out.  I looked in the creek behind our house, asked the neighbors, road my bike to the place where I first picked him up.  Nothing.  For two weeks I looked for him, called for him, prayed he would come back.  I had this sinking feeling he was hurt and needed me but I couldn’t get to him.  I held onto the hope that he scampered off to find another cat friend, went on an adventure, and was just taking his time getting back home.

On a Saturday morning while we were helping my dad in the yard two older boys I’d never seen before came over to us and asked if we owned a black cat.  They said they’d found one dead in the creek, about a quarter mile down.  We dropped our rakes and ran along the creek bank to it.

Me holding Kitty

Kitty had been shot in the head by a BB gun.  I always wondered if those boys had done it.  We buried him under the maple tree and had a little service for him that afternoon.

I cried and bawled for hours, days, weeks.  I swore I’d never have another pet.  The emptiness, anger, and relentless sorrow I felt was too unbearable for me to put myself in that situation again.

Funny how resilient children are.  Funny how adults can be, too.


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The Last Feast

This year’s Thanksgiving feast will be a small affair.  Me and the kid (hubby is working his usual retail hours) will chow down on Cracker Barrel take-out at my parent’s condo.  I’m in charge of wine and pumpkin pie (my favorite courses).

Last year’s feast was at my place out on the patio.  Tall shot glasses and coffee can vases held brown and yellow daisies I asked the kids to arrange for centerpieces.  If you took a still photograph of the table and those that surrounded it you might think it to resemble a modern-day picture of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper.  But not because there was a man dressed as Jesus, flanked on either side by disciples, and not because there was news of change and fate (although my mother-in-law is real good at bringing everyone down with her latest guess-who-died tale).  It might conjure like-imagery because of the man who created the painting, and that in that painting the guests surrounding the host came from different backgrounds and different eras.

Jesus's Last Supper

Jesus’s Last Supper

Leonardo da Vinci was not only a painter, but an inventor, observer, and experimenter.  He was a renaissance man.  I have often described myself as Jane-of-all-trades, master of nothing.  In my lifetime I have painted, sculpted, observed, experimented, and even invented (those inventions being stories crafted in my brain and poured onto notebook or computer screen).  So in that way Leo and I have a bit in common.

At our Thanksgiving supper I sat in the middle of the table.  That way, I can be a part of the various conversations around me and become included, if I so choose, into any one of them (although at one point I found it necessary to quickly become excluded from an uncomfortable mom-in-law dialogue I’ve heard at least fifty times).  I loved being flanked by my friends and family.  I wouldn’t call them my apostles, even though they are my supporters, my advocates, my champions.  I would call them my “strays”.

In The Last Supper Jesus is flanked by twelve apostles, one of which was Philip.  At my table there was Phyllis, who used to be Phillip.  After the transition she was ostracized by most of her family, except her son Dustin, who was also at our table.  A slight, ex-death metal singer with a great smile and a knack for art, he entertained the kids with his shark drawing and stories of playing music.

My "strays" at Thanksgiving

My “strays” at Thanksgiving

My parents were also there.  They never warmed to any of my stray friends growing up, but in this moment they broke bread with my new ones, with whom they’d become acquainted and fond of over the years.  On the opposite side of them were my friends Bryan and Madeleine, who had no family within at least 400 miles, but who had become more like family to me than many of my blood relatives.  Then there was Debbie, my single, lesbian neighbor, who always brings cheap beer for herself and ice-cream for the kids at any party in the neighborhood.  She is much like a child herself, requiring patience from those around her, but also bringing forth innocence and unabandoned laughter.

When the last of the chicken (come on, it’s tastier than turkey), dressing, green-bean casserole, cranberry sauce (shaped like a can), sweet potatoes, salad, and yeast rolls were scraped and gobbled from our plates, we posed for a group photo before dessert.  And not unlike Da Vinci’s infamous would-be fresco, there were those that came from near, far, and of different ideas and tastes.  But all there to feast together, to tell stories, to listen, to laugh, gasp, question, and remember.


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My Couple-Skate Partner

Couple skateI’ve been taking my nine-year-old to the skating rink for several years now.  It always brings back memories from when I used to skate at the Hickory Hollow roller rink in Tennessee in the ’80’s.  My son has let me couple-skate with him maybe three or four times.  Now you can forget about it.  But I’m glad we had that short time on the parquet flooring.  He was my second couple-skate partner.

The first, well I can’t tell you his exact name, but for early memory-loss purposes we’ll call him David.  He was of average height, maybe an inch taller than me, and super skinny.  His mom probably bought his Sears Toughskins in slim.  I noticed him on the playground with the other 2nd graders.  I think he was hanging around the monkey bars where me and my girlfriends were reenacting the movie Annie scene by scene.  His dark hair tousled by the wind, he was alone, and seemed half content and half uneasy in his alabaster skin.  I was immediately intrigued.

Skating rink PatternSince he wasn’t in my class I had to steal glances of him whenever all the second graders converged—story time at the library, where I think I saw him checking out a sci-fi book, in the cafeteria, where he slowly savored his PB & J sandwiches from home, or at recess where he might be found alone or with another “mediocre on the food chain” elementary school boy.

I don’t think he noticed me.  Or at least he wasn’t looking at me when I was looking at him.  I distinctly remember one day when it was pouring rain. Since there was no gymnasium we had our recess in a blue-carpeted double classroom.  Written on the giant chalkboard was “Jumping Contest”.  A long pole was set up lengthwise in the center.  I was no athletic Einstein for sure, but I prided myself on my jumping abilities, which were acquired in the backyard with my more-than-athletically capable younger brother.

SkatesWhen David’s class entered my heart skipped a beat.  He leaned against the chalkboard, patiently waiting his turn as the contest began.  One by one each of us jumped over the thigh-high pole, and one by one, kids were eliminated as the coach raised the pole higher and higher.  David was a fair jumper, sitting down somewhere in the middle of the eliminations.  Each time I jumped I was proud yet slightly amazed I had gone on to be one of the last four.  As the clock ticked closer to the end of recess, the pole was raised to meet my chest.  I took a confident running start and made the jump without knocking over the bar! Smiling within, I hoped David was as impressed as I was.

A couple weeks later I went to the skating rink for kid’s skate night.  There was something special about the skating rink—the smell of popcorn and worn, rented skates, the neon lights illuminating the slick, wooden floor, the blinking lights of the video arcade games, and the promise of finding someone to couple-skate with.

Arcade gamesI was well-versed in skating at a decent clip to Michael Jackson, Van Halen, and Midnight Starr.  But in all the days and nights I went to that rink I never did a couple-skate.  No one ever asked me.

While sitting near the concession stand for a snack break, I noticed my crush-from-afar, skating awkwardly in time to that early-80’s rap beat.  Excitement and nervousness set in my freckled body.  His skates magnified his long, lanky limbs, and turned his slim jeans into high-waters.  But there was something about him, the way he seemed content with being alone, yet slightly lost in the shuffle.  I anxiously made my way to the floor to see if he would notice me.

PopcornEvery time I passed him my stomach would flutter.  Even back then I wondered what I looked like from behind as he surely caught a glimpse of my little round rump as I rolled by.  After a few rounds the DJ announced it was time for “Couple Skate Only” so I returned to the snack bar to find my mom for money to play Pac Man.  As she handed me a quarter, I felt a hesitant tap on my shoulder.  I turned around to see David, my exquisitely gawky David, who quietly but fervently asked if I would like to couple skate.  “Yes,” I replied non-reluctantly, and he clasped my hand in his.

Disco ballWe revolved carefully in clunky rhythm, our hair blowing and our mouths curled up in nervous smiles of relief.  We made small talk.  We tried not to fall.  As far as I was concerned we were the only kids on the rink.  When the song was over we thanked each other then he scooted away to leave for the night.

The rest of the school year when I saw him from time to time, we would smile at each other.  I never saw him with any other girls, and I don’t think he came back to our school the following year.

I could say I picked him up like a stray, an unwieldy boy who needed someone to cling to, if only for a moment.  Although I might have had the upper hand when it came to quiet confidence and certain physical skills, I think it was me who received that small rescue.


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