Migraine Weather and Shitty Brunch
There were no cabs to meet us at the train station at 9pm
We took that to be a good sign.
Walking a mile to our Air BnB above a little sewing shop awarded us the opportunity to tromp by boarded old houses and reclaimed storefronts. We smiled and passed a very bearded millenial helping his girlfriend out of their truck, and weren’t quite sure if the beard was irony or utility: maybe both.Throw a blue cable turtleneck and some steel-toed boots on the guy and we could have been watching a fisherman return home, tired and briny.
Hudson, New York is an old whaling town. In the city center, a chipped wooden case frames a giant whale puzzle made up of quilt square- like plaques depicting some part of the city’s history. One puzzle piece has fallen to the bottom of the frame.
“It’s changed even since five years ago,” rasps Meri, who has a migraine.
It’s migraine weather in Hudson, all shiny cracked cement sidewalks, drizzle on our travel coats and hiking packs, steamed windows of tiny downtown shops. Meri owns Sideshow Vintage, and has for several years: she has seen the town change, seen it become more touristy.
A Black Lives Matter Hudson sign sits in the corner of her shop window. I ask her if anyone has given her any shit for it.
“Mmm,” she thinks through the migraine. “One time. An older man (who, in my own mind, I immediately named Warren) and his wife came in and said the sign ruined their day. I told them if they wanted to have a conversation about it, we could.”
The sly smile on her face told me she really just wanted them to get the fuck out of her store.
I can already tell that Meri does not suffer fools gladly. We stopped in her shop twice. The first time I walked in all smiles and purple hiking pack, asking for a good place to have brunch. I always trust the locals more than yelp, or at least cross check yelp with locals.
“Brunch? All the food is shitty.”
To me, this meant not that the food was shitty but that Meri might be just a liiiittle tired of smiley white people coming into her shop, buying nothing, and asking for her free tourist advice.
“Well what if we brought you something?” I chirped. A little grin.
I’ve found that the best way to crack through the wall that store owners, food service folks, and other noble shop warriors must construct to deal with people like Warren or whiny customers that don’t recognize their humanity….
Is to recognize their humanity.
This is not an ice cream shop. You are not here for the food.
I spent a summer running an ice cream shop that should not have been there, should have been impossible.
In the middle of a remote mountain valley surrounded by Washington’s Glacier Peak Wilderness area, you can either spend 4 hours to take a boat up a glacial lake and a nearly broken school bus up switchbacks, or you can hike 10 miles off the Pacific Crest trail. It is in all the guidebooks.
And you can come visit the Snack Bar Queen, which was me.
I had a crown.
Are you surprised?
Every day I wore colorful costumes and capes and dipped my developing forearm muscles into buckets of sweet sugary dairy, for loggers and mine workers, exhausted hikers, my housemates, and guests of the Village.
I was 22 and felt such power: It was my realm and I curated every aspect of that shop: the flavors, the decor, the signs, the music, the volunteers and which apron they could wear.
But I couldn’t curate the customers.
Mostly they were pleasant (after all, they were on retreat). But sometimes they would hand me a sticky, crumpled dollar as they peered through me. Just right through me: a transaction machine that simply got them what they thought they had come there for.
They thought it was an ice cream shop.
They missed the community and focused too much on the dairy.
This is not an ice cream shop. You are not here for the food.
I would help them see what the shop really was.
Sometimes they would whine that the ice cream had melted a little.
Perhaps they forgot we were in the remote Cascade mountains. Maybe they were too tightly wound to remember that partially melted summer ice cream in the sunshine is what you dream of on cold February mornings. Maybe they had even missed my hand lightly resting on their arm, asking about their day of and walks and weaving rugs. Yes, this was a place where people wove rugs.
But, nope. Too melty, they said, looking away from my grin and into their bowl.
I would then pleasantly gesture to where we were, gesture up to the mountains. “All part of the experience,” I smiled.
Outside the snack bar windows I had once watched a mother deer give birth to twin fawns, not wasting a single speck of nutrient, eating their birth casing. I watched this beautiful, base, natural snack, a mother licking her offspring to life, with friends and customers looking at each other, eyes wide in awe and shared joy while we licked our own chocolate espresso swirls (my favorite flavor) or sweet strawberry sorbet.
So back in Hudson, NY when migraine Meri responded with some cynicism, saying nothing was good for brunch, I understood.
A shopkeep needs a wall sometimes.
Maybe I could remind her that this was not just a clothes shop.
For brunch, she finally recommended either a bakery across the way or a French cafe a few doors down.
Thanks to Meri, we walked five shops down and sat down in a corner booth, bathed in pretend sunlight peering through the raindrops. Remember, it was migraine weather. I pleasantly noticed the rainbow flag in the coffee cup pen case on the bar. I noticed the young, plaid-clad waiters, one with sharp, perfectly pastel petals etched onto his tricep as he served our coffee.
“Nice ink,” I admired.
“Thanks, everyone thinks I just got it recently because it’s so clear, but it was just a really good tattoo.”
“Wow,” I said.
I thought of how it would hurt to have hundreds of color-specked needles plunging into one’s 22 year old arm (he looked about that old) as he set our dishes. What made him get that tattoo?
Remember, we weren’t really there just for the crepes. I then asked our waitress what I always ask.
Sure, because I want a good meal.
Mostly, because I want the server to know that I see them. I am not looking through them, sticky dollar bill in hand.
“If it were your last day on the job, and you knew that you were about to walk out the door and get hit by a car and die, what would you order?”
I love to watch a smile creep across a server’s face as I ask them to reflect. If I ask it right, not too rushed, I can help them forget that I’m there, waiting to hear their answer, and let them consider the emotion of their imagined last work day (sometimes a welcome thought, sometimes poignant).
They often laugh because the question is absurd. I know they think I’m weird, and that makes them a good judge of character and it makes me laugh too. That means that we have begun this interaction by laughing together. Sometimes we talk about the type of car that would hit them. Once a server requested that it be a motorcycle instead of a car. I obliged. This is an imaginary world we were creating together as I ordered. We can do anything we want. Sometimes we talk about death a little. This time we laughed that there would be chips of car paint as an extra ingredient in whatever dish we ordered that morning.
Often I call them by their name on the nametag. This time there was no nametag, so I’ll call her Monica.
“I know. I would get the crepes,” Monica said.
“Yeah– the best is the caramel with orange. It sounds like a weird combo, and usually caramel is just too sweet, but this version is perfect.”
And how about the savory?
“The salmon and leek. That’s what you want.”
I trust you completely, I said.
I Trust You Completely
That’s what I always say: I trust you completely.
After all, don’t forget that that is already what we’re doing. I’m trusting someone to deliver something base to me, really into me- sustenance that goes inside my body, fuels me.
In the United States we have necessary but sterilizing food service laws that help us forget there are people and animals who are part of the process of eating. And we trust them.
When I was living in Ghana, “I trust you completely” was very real, daily, though unspoken. You could not forget that you were trusting the other person to feed and nourish you well, because you often met the store owner, saw the cook. One time I sat up for hours in a hotel room incredibly ill, having gotten food poisoning at a resort from some fish that appeared well cooked, tasted good.
Two days later I sat in the community international school I worked at, where a local woman cooks Ghanaian lunches for the teachers as they order it. I had ordered chicken because I couldn’t really stomach more seafood after the hotel-fish-pocalypse a few days before.
Fish came on my plate.
Along with beautiful red rice and beans, green and red dipping sauces, yams.
I looked at the fish. I was hungry. My new Australian friend Damon had explained to me the day before that in many cases, street food and home cooked meals are safer because you can see the water boiling, you can see the meat roasting. You know the cook is proud. There is no pretending that refrigeration consistently works, so careful natural methods of storing foods (or eating them quickly) are practiced. He said in hotels, sometimes when there is “lights out” (which is Ghana local speech for– the power is intermittently interrupted in this country whose postcolonial infrastructure is still young) meat in a freezer will thaw and freeze several times before it comes to your plate.
I thought of my hotel food poisoning.
I thought of the local woman who cooked for teachers everyday.
I trust you completely.
The fish was divine.
Back in the whaling town, Monica put in the order and then rushed back with a smile, one more thing.
“Do you like goat cheese?”
She looked excited, sharing a secret with us.
“My boss, the owner, once had me add goat cheese to the savory one you ordered, and it was great. Want to try it?”
The owner was gliding around her restaurant, as owners do. Not walking, gliding. Tanned, grey curly hair, a cutoff shirt that revealed her able arms that I knew could carry a tray, wash a dish, punch a tab, or flip the ‘closed’ sign swiftly and skilfully.
I told Monica and the owner that Meri at the vintage shop had recommended the place, and we wanted to bring Meri something with a coffee. The three of us schemed together, brainstorming.
“Oh! How about a croissant,” suggested the owner.
We smiled together at the thought of bringing treats to strangers.
Remember- this wasn’t just a coffee shop, and we weren’t there just for the food.
As we walked back to Meri, treats in hand, I told my travel partner how my family would sneakily pay double at the tolls near Chicago, giggling and looking back, scheming together and smiling at the thought of giving a treat to a stranger.
A poetry board hangs in the entrance to my childhood home. On the board:
“Life is short and we have never too much time for gladdening the hearts of those who are traveling the dark journey with us. Oh be swift to love, make haste to be kind.”
Oh, be swift to love, make haste to be kind.
Let me be clear:: The Black Lives Matter sign in Meri’s window and the rainbow flag in the French bakery are reminders that all the individual nicenesses in the world, all the beautiful coffee shop exchanges and laughs over crepes- these are still individual interactions. Important and real though they are, all of our shops and exchanges and food and how much money goes into a downtown and who is trusted to stash their bags and who can afford to live where– all of those things exist within a system of power: a structure of and laws and institutions that are often unjust if left unchecked, unquestioned. That’s why I have to write about beauty and kindness and goat cheese on Saturday then continue my activism on Monday. That’s why I eat a crepe with Monica for breakfast and then call congress about the Affordable Care Act at lunch. I cannot tell you the joy and power I have found in these individual interactions with people like Monica or Meri. They are fuel, fuel for the joy and power I feel when I march, when I scream chants in front of Trump Tower, when I step in front of 50 straight Wisconsinites to facilitate an LGBTQ ally training, or when I meet with corporations to discuss just policies and retention for people of color.
Make haste. It is urgent, now. Go, act.
We went through the rest of the day, drinking in a cast of characters in Hudson, NY and they told us stories. Rob owns the best instrument shop in town. He made a hirdy girdy in Scotland. I wondered if he would fetch it from his apartment so we could see, and he played it. His daughter Chloe writes books, hangs out with Lena Dunham. He signed Chloe’s book “Chloe’s Dad.” “She’s bashful about me selling these here, he said, but I buy them from the book shop across the way so it is recorded as an industry sale, then I bring them here.” He loves Chloe, I could see. He toured us around his store, showing us his treasures. He hesitated when I went to buy Chloe’s book, “Oh, I wasn’t telling you about it because I was trying to make you buy it,” I know, I said. I want to buy it.
We talked about genuine exchanges: exchange of story and also of goods and services. We swapped tales of international salespeople who were so good at their jobs and so personable that you didn’t care that you’d been been convinced to buy a rug in Turkey or a shoeshine in Myanmar.
I told Rob that in Ghana, it was beautiful to meet the actual people who owned shops, made things, cared about what they were giving you.
Dash it. I hope you come back.
I thought of Elizabeth the dressmaker in Accra, who gently measured me and sat with me on a Sunday.
I thought of Joyce the cloth peddler in Makola Market, who opened hidden bags to show me local batik. Oh Joyce, I said.
I thought of John, who took an hour to describe his acrylic paintings to me on the beach at the Gulf of Guinea where I surfed, let me record him as he described the weathered stone Ghanaian beads I was winding around my arms to bring home. After I made my purchase, he put his finger to his lips and looked over all the shop beads, carefully. He selected an thin orange strand and slowly placed it over my head.
I will dash you these, he said. Share our art. I hope you come back.
In Ghana, to dash means to give a small something for free, to indicate thanks for a purchase, to note pleasure in the interaction. Sometimes it meant that it wasn’t all about the money. On the beach on the Gulf of Guinea, after spending an hour with John and two teenagers, Ben and Jacko, I didn’t really care about the bag of beads I had in my pouch. That wasn’t my reward, that day. My time with them, that was everything.
We returned to Meri at her vintage shop, with the steaming cup of coffee and croissant.
This is for you.
She placed both of her hands around the hot paper cup, looked in the bag, looked up at us and said “I can’t believe it.”
Then we spent an hour talking with migraine Meri. I told her how the French bakery had let us stash our backpacks in their storage room while we walked the town. She told us about how she recently had to humbly beg for money in Cuba after she lost her wallet either to a pickpocket or to her own forgetfulness.
Meri remembered: “I told them, hey- I promise I’m good for it! I own a store! You give me $100, I’ll give you $200 back.”
I asked her about owning a business, since she had mentioned the possibility of going online. A simple, quiet life alone selling beautiful things. She said she couldn’t go totally online.
“So what do you like about brick and mortars?” I inquired.
I was proud that I knew phrases like “brick and mortars,” which I had learned from a friend who worked at a food justice organization in Minneapolis, helping women start food businesses with storefronts, buildings: brick and mortars.
Meri knew the phrase, too.
“Well I like the community of it,” she admitted with a smile.
The wall we’ve all constructed to protect ourselves, it cracked then.
Meri laughed about the town’s local message board, both maddening in its smallness and gossip but beautiful too:
“Once someone lost their cat. Put it on the message board. Cat was found in hours.”
I walked through the aisles of Meri’s shop, touching the skirts of rough wool and old silk. Her dog, Arrow, slept on a springy couch in the back. Meri told me she slept there sometimes. She told me she wants to sell her shop and move to Mexico.
Do I believe her?
As she confidently walked to the end of an aisle and cupped her metal clothes rack with one hand and grasped her migraine tincture- that “I can’t believe it” coffee- with another, I wasn’t so sure she really wanted to leave. Maybe.
As we checked out at Meri’s store, I bought red leather shoes. She told me a story of who used to own them, then she gave my travel partner two bowties for free.
You know, in Ghana, they call that ‘dashing,’ I said.
“Well then I will dash you these,” she laughed.
I hugged Meri and kissed her on both cheeks. We made pretend plans to go to Cuba together. We might, though. Maybe.
Back in the music shop, I squeezed Rob’s hand and smiled into his face as I bought his daughter’s book.
I squeezed his hand and he said to me:
“I hope you come back.”
CAST OF CHARACTERS (in order of appearance):
Meri Wanna, owner, Sideshow Vintage in Hudson, NY
The yummy caramel crepe, to be found at wonderful Le Gamin Country, Hudson, NY.
Rob Caldwell, owner, Musica store in Hudson, NY.
Chloe Caldwell’s new book I’ll Tell you in Person, signed for me by Chloe’s dad Rob.
Elizabeth Chibale, master seamstress + designer, Kakoara Clothing in Accra, Ghana.
Joyce, whose shop is nestled in a corner of Makola Market, James Town, Accra, Ghana.
John Eduafo (and Ben, 15, on the left) who makes pro-woman, antiracist art sold at Paradise Shop on Kokrobite beach, and with Ghanaian NGO Africa Sunrise Foundation.