Powell’s City of Books, established in 1971, is the largest independent bookseller in the world. Titles spread over a city block, arrayed in color-coded rooms. Blue for literature and poetry. Pearl for art and photography.
It’s poetry month, so all titles were 15% off. I love a sale, and took advantage and milked it as illicit permission to linger longer amongst the poets, including my crush, Shakespeare. I pored over selections ranging from brand-spanking new LGTBQ poems to rarer, older tomes wrapped in protective plastic. I passed a red Shakespeare t-shirt that read: “This shit writes itself,” but resisted the temptation to buy it, and snapped a photo instead.
It’s a readers’, writers’, and book lovers’ paradise, so big and so awesome that I visited twice on my first day in Portland. This is a marathon, not a sprint, so I checked out and shipped the first basketful of books off before I went to reload. Also, I had to stop for sustenance and to regroup mid visit. Fortunately, the World Cup coffee shop is located in the red room surrounded by erotica, anime, and manga.
The level of eclectic here is unrivaled on the Post Road. The metal hanging from one cashiers ears looked like replacement auto parts.
I felt self conscious because my hair is just brown and not some color of the ubiquitous rainbow. Portland is delightfully inclusive, and rainbow posters in many establishment windows proclaim that loud and proud.
A man sat close by crafting daffodils, calla lilies, and morning glories from napkins and straw wrappers. Between each creation he hand danced like an Olympic ribbon gymnast with his raw materials to music from his earbuds.
A Kathy Bates (circa “Misery”) look alike and her look alike husband sat, comfy and dumpy, hunched over a mountain of books and their lattes. It may have been Easter Sunday, but this was their church.
My seat at the wooden counter at the window allowed me to watch the world go by: Buffalo Vintage across the street was closed for the holiday, but Patagonia and Icebreaker Merino were bustling. The passing cars were small and disproportionately electric, and the bicycles plentiful. And by some stroke of fortune, so was the sunshine.
Checking back on the crowd inside the cafe, I watched a young woman with jet-black hair in pigtails that pointed up to the cosmos, like antennae looking for alien life, cross stitch a raven onto a gossamer piece of beige gingham. Her short sleeved shirt pattern blended seamlessly with her tattoo sleeves.
A young man with a voluptuous red beard and seemingly matching red plaid flannel shirt approached the paper sculptor. He wore a pussy hat composed of quilting squares, and had what looked to be a small Navajo rug safety-pinned to his back. Snug white kitty-clad tights covered his legs.
The man next to me watched Game of Thrones on his iPad.
Refreshed and refueled, I dove back into the volumes, wandering through all the colors.
After nearly three hours, I pondered exactly why this place felt like nirvana. What sway did those stacks hold over me?
In part, maybe because I write, I have an endless, insatiable fascination with the multitude of ways that others find to twist and tie a finite number of words together to create seemingly infinite quantities of delight. They hold the power to teach, transport, and titillate. I lament only the limited time to tackle these treasures.
Also, I think about my dad. He and I shared this passion. There was not a garage sale, bookstore, or street fair that he’d pass up if it featured books. They held his attention longer than almost anything, except maybe fishing on Highland Lake. We could indulge in this activity and be together without saying a word. We bonded silently in reverence for the written word. He bought me the first in my antique book collection, and contributed to it often. When he died 15 years ago, one of the hardest things for me was sorting through, and ultimately donating, many of the books we’d bought together. Maybe, I though, another father and daughter would peruse and select the collection together.
On my way out of Powell’s, a disembodied voice from the PA system announced “attention Powell’s shoppers. If you left your Tupperware in the ladies’ room please come to the information booth on that level. It’s waiting for you.”
And as I exited, red beard man stood pointing at Powell’s: “That’s a big bookstore! I’m a small bookstore, and he pointed at his chest. Several bundles of small square cards, which I realized were completed sudoku puzzles, hung from his neck from colorful ribbons. “I made these! They’re books!” I stepped closer to admire them. “Really nice,” I said. “My son makes books too. He’s taking a class on bookbinding now.”
“Cool,” said red beard as he smiled and nodded.
As I thanked him and turned to go, his handmade books flipped around. On the back of each is the word YES, writ large.
“Yes,” I think. Yes. Yes. Yes
Monkeys perch precariously overhead holding electric candles in each hand for illumination. Bookshelves overflow with vintage LPs and classic-rock-themed hardcovers. Fairie lights line the place where the walls meet the ceiling, a nostalgic array of ceramic mugs hanging from hooks just below them. The colorful cardboard boxes atop the counter offer tempting treats reminiscent of penny candy stores of yore: Wax Lips, Fireballs, and Mary Janes that would challenge any molar.
None of the chairs or tables match – that adds to their charm. Most belong in a Formica-clad 1950s kitchen. The piano in the corner sports a bust of Beethoven and business cards from local musicians.
Rock memorabilia fills nearly every inch of wall space in this funky, hipster, local independent coffee house right in the heart of downtown Fairfield. Bob Dylan, Elvis, and the Beatles preside over this neighborhood haunt, the “Cheers” of local coffee shops.
The chalk-scrawled menu offers items like “Rock-n-Roll Tomato Soup” and “Big Bertie’s Chili” along with coffee concoctions named for the cadre of Fairfield University student staff.
The clientele is an eclectic mix of yogis from next door (Yoga For Everybody, where I practice and sometimes teach), staff from FTC down the street, Fairfield University students, commuters, and, especially on the weekends, families coming from and going to sporting events. Everyone looks up and smiles, nods, says “hello.” I’ve often fallen into engaging conversations with a wide array of fellow regulars. This is the Anti-Starbucks (and don’t get me wrong – I’m a denizen there as well). A homey, independent enterprise, the likes of which seem to be endangered in these parts.
The owner, Andrew Vetas, presides behind the counter, sunglasses often atop his head, greeting patrons by name and whipping up delicious, custom-made breakfast sandwiches on the griddle. His warm smile and mellow affability spread a chill vibe over the place. If he’s working when I come in, he’ll personally brew me a Jasmine green iced tea sweetened with just a bit of honey that he dissolves with hot-but-not-boiling water before adding it to the elixir.
Like the Cheers theme song says, “Sometimes you want to go/Where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came.”
At Las Vetas, everyone may not always know my name, but they usually remember my drink and make me feel like they’re glad I came. I’m glad that a few of these mom and pop shops still exist in Fairfield county and wish there were more like it. If you’ve not visited Las Vetas, take a drive down Unquowa Road to this gem of a coffee shop, have some joe, and tell Andrew “Namaste” for me.
Photos by Diane Lowman
My hands are raw from Purell and washing them in hot water for as long as it takes to sing Happy Birthday. The length of time preschool teachers tell their students it takes to get rid of germs. My mom was a preschool teacher. Miss Barbara. Purell has become a verb. “Purell your hands before you come in here!” Mostly for her sake. The leukemia from which my mother suffers has suppressed her immune system so we cannot risk infection. Everything in the hospital is a-glow, in my mind, in a germ aura. We move in a bacteria/viral/fungal cloud. We have to protect ourselves. We have to protect her.
We have hope for the former. None for the latter. My mother has migrated from curative to palliative care. Hospice.
She arrived from Florida a couple of weeks ago, on Halloween, to explore treatment options for acute myeloid leukemia, but during one of her doctor appointments to do just that, she is so short of breath that she has to pause every minute or two to gasp. I watch her struggle as she creeps down the corridor in the bright red quilted jacket that she reserved for trips “up north”. Her blood count is too low to risk removing the fluid that an X-ray reveals between her chest wall and her lung, though. One pinprick and she could bleed out.
“You’re scheduled for a transfusion on Monday anyway,” says the hematologist, Dr. Ruskin. “Go home. Rest. After the transfusion we will extract the fluid and you’ll feel more comfortable.”
As will often happen over the next few weeks, the target keeps shifting; we lose sight of the goal. We forget about leukemia treatment and just hope she can breathe through the weekend. She can’t.
Mom, who was staying with my sister Suzanne, knocks on her bedroom door Saturday morning, scared and desperate for breath. Suzanne calls me; they head to the ER immediately and ask that I to meet them there. I rush in, desperate to find them, and I’m met by a Rent-a-Cop reading Rifleman Magazine “guarding” the entrance. Just in case that did not tip me off to the clusterfuck into which we were about to sink, the 3 ½ hours of mayhem in the crowded, blue-curtained ER cubicle left no doubt. We helplessly watch her discomfort escalate while myriad doctors, nurses, and various other unidentified scrub-clad clones poke, prod, and ask repetitive questions while they joke with each other and roll around the floor on wheeled barstools, staring intently into attached computer screens. “Missing Zacky’s soccer game this morning,” one says, making a little pouty face. “That might not be a bad thing!” chortles another, eyebrows raised. “Fuck you,” I think. “Come help my mother.”
Each time the limp blue drape slides open we hope that someone will tell us they know how to make her better, and plan to take immediate action, but the tail-chasing entourage dashes our those hopes repeatedly. We hear “soon,” and “I’m sorry” ad nauseum. To what depths of despair have we sunk when the news that they need to admit her elates us? How sad that we are happy to follow her, in her rolling bed, up to oncology central on six? Little did we know that we would spend the next eleven days here, and she would not leave alive.
The weekend is a bad time to check in to the hospital. The A-Team is at home with family. The skeletal B-Team is stretched. The constant, incessant cacophony of beeping, coughing, whimpering, and expectorating eclipses the details of her diagnosis, condition, and treatment. We get nothing but “I’m not sure,” and “I’ll check,” from the few staff we can snag and drag into the room. The hall fills with the smell of bodily fluids, bad hospital food, and ineptitude.
Mom only seems comfortable when she sleeps, but sleep evades her. The bed shifts at preprogrammed intervals to prevent bedsores. The oxygen tubes irritate her nose. The blood pressure cuff squeezes and bruises her arm. Random people shine lights in her eyes at irregular intervals to check her neurological function. The IV fluids make her need to pee. Which she can’t do alone because she is a “fall risk”. This feels urgent to no one but her, and assistance often arrives after it is too late.
Mom, at 77, even as sick as she is, is upbeat and more worried about us than we are about her. She is also resigned and ready to die. “I’ve had a great life,” she tells us and everyone else that comes into the room. “I have a great family. Thus, we know she is gravely ill. She usually only waxes this sentimental after one glass of white zinfandel. She may be ready but I am not. I cannot imagine the earth without her on it. I am not ready to be the senior generation. I am not ready to lose the one person in the world to whom I matter more than anything.
* * *
Suzanne and I keep ten-hour vigils on Saturday and Sunday. We are closer neither to answers about her condition nor to having the fluid removed. We are obviously exhausted physically, but increasingly, we erode mentally and emotionally. Hospitals are not soothing places; I look toward home for a brief respite; for solace from Cleo, my thirteen-year-old cat. She is my constant and only companion. I head for home to feed her, shower, and sink into the sofa. Which I do, with a glass of mead wine in hand. I glance over to confirm that she is sitting in her customary mysterious pose of simultaneous rest and vigilance, but she isn’t. She is walking in slow circles, head bent at an odd angle, eyes flickering like erratic Christmas lights. Cleo, too, as it turns out, is a very imminent fall risk.
“You’re kidding me, right?” I think for a moment. But she is not joking. The inoperable tumor deep in her right ear canal, which until now has only caused messy, foul-smelling secretions, has clearly grown enough to cause acute neurological distress. Again, I see what I don’t want to see. It is clear that Cleo will not make it through the night.
I feel badly but call a very groggy Suzanne and deliver the news. “You’re kidding me, right?” “I’ll be right over, she says.” We need to get to the vet right away, but I know I can’t drive myself. She’ll have to take us. I text my ex-husband Donald, too, who is always there for me in crises. “You’re kidding me, right?” “Let me know where you’re going; I’ll meet you there,” he texts back. I call the vet, who is alone in his oblivion to the incredulous irony. Dr. Dan directs me to the emergency clinic, conveniently located right next to the hospital that I’ve just left. My boys are both at college. I feel like everyone important is slipping away.
Suzanne pulls up to transport me and a caterwauling Cleo to her end; Donald and his wife Samira meet us at the clinic, rushing into the examination room into which we’ve been ushered. I cradle a shivering Cleo in a thick blue quilt, which hides the hastily inserted IV ports. She moans and shakes until I stroke her forehead and whisper to her. It’s surreal in here, with this small coterie of support. They won’t do the deed until I’ve paid, so Samira slips out to takes my credit card to the receptionist.
“Are you ready?” asks the doctor. I look up at everyone, searching for – what? An alternative? Agreement? Permission? Conspirators, we are, in giving her a gentle exit. They, somber, nod. “Yes, Yes.” Cleo calms and closes her eyes, and all too quickly, dies in my arms, her body going limp and tension releasing as the sedative and heart arrester work their way into her veins. I close my eyes, too, and touch my forehead to hers.
I hold just her softness and sob, not so much for her, as this seems immensely compassionate and kind, but selfishly for the loss of my companion; my aloof but alert and loving friend. And for the knowledge that while we face this same situation with my mother, it’s unlikely that she’ll meet such a swift or humane end.
At home, the wine has lost its appeal. I feel restless and overtired, so I do the one thing I know will settle me and make my mother proud. I clean. I package up or toss every vestige of evidence that Cleo ever existed because I feel my heart will implode if I stumble over and bump into her stuff after waking up without her curled up, purring, on my chest.
In the morning I drop off all of her paraphernalia at her still-closed vet’s office, with a note of thanks and a request to either use or donate her belongings. And then drive right to the hospital.
Back on six, mom looks sad. Sad about Cleo. Sad for me about Cleo. And just sad. Smaller. Sad. I go in to hug her. She looks up at me askance. “Did they save any of those drugs for me?” she asks. We chuckle quietly, awkwardly, but both wish it could be true.
I had a young man in my apartment this weekend. Very young. Seven, in fact. My boys’ brother. The son of my former husband and his wife. They had planned a long-overdue weekend away for their anniversary, and she’d put together a network of friends to look after him while they were gone.
He arrived right after school on Friday, with his Mets overnight bag. We hopped right into my car and headed to the Bow Tie Cinema across the street to see “Beauty and the Beast.” It was delightful. We laughed and sang out loud together in the nearly empty theater and enjoyed elegant dining at nearby Jordan’s afterward. The waitress, who has known our family for nearly 20 years, said she couldn’t believe that my boys were “grown and flown” and how big and polite their younger brother was.
We snuggled up on the couch, after he’d snacked on Trader Joe’s cat cookies and chocolate milk, to watch the women’s Final Four basketball tournament, although neither of us could stay awake for the historic defeat of the U. Conn women. Before his friend’s father picked him up in the morning, he brought me out the Disney’s “Hercules” towel I reserve for his visits all folded up and asked if he should put it by the washing machine. He loves that towel because both of his brothers used it. It is frayed with their childhood, but it works.
He came back to me Sunday afternoon, and we repeated our quick getaway to the same theater, this time to see “Boss Baby.” He sipped a blue Icee while we chuckled at powder fart clouds and spit-up carrots. He rested his head on my shoulder, tired from his activity-filled weekend, and what I suspected was abbreviated sleep the night before. We shared pizza at Romanacci, where the barista made him an elaborate hot chocolate milk concoction topped generously with whipped cream. I chronicled our weekend in candid snapshots that I sent to his parents and my boys.
When his parents came to pick him up at my apartment, he hid under a blanket on the couch as I lamented, “I don’t know where he is! I remembered the leftover pizza but forgot to bring him home! Have a seat on the couch while I call the restaurant…”
His mom sat right atop him as he giggled with glee at the successful subterfuge. Happily reunited, they walked down the long hall, as he regaled them with tales of his adventures.
“Why,” people often ask me, “would you watch your ex’s son so they can go away?” Or, “You are so good to do that!”
Here’s the thing: bizarre as it may seem to some looking in from the outside, we’re family. Perhaps some odd, hybrid 21st century version, but we’re family. My boys and he are brothers. We don’t say half brothers. Maybe they’re brothers from different mothers, but they are full brothers. No qualifications. There are no official societal words for what his new wife and I are, but in simple terms, and at very least, we’re friends who care deeply about each other’s children. She has watched out for and nurtured mine as surely as I do hers.
We have collectively made this work because love, in whatever unconventional forms it takes, works better for everyone than anger and resentment. We celebrate birthdays and holidays together, not on some divisive, court-appointed schedule.
So, why do I do it? Because I got to hold someone’s hand in the parking lot again. Buy chocolate milk again. Crack up over poop jokes again. Have a little kid in the house—and be a little kid myself—again. And have a big, beautiful pair of brown eyes look up at me and say, “Diane, I love you!”
I am not so good. Love is.