Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Pretty White Gloves II (A Real Story)

A friend wrote me in response to "Pretty White Gloves" with a story of her own. I offer it here to hopefully provide my readers with the same inspiration it offered Amy and me. I've changed the names of my friends to Susan and Marshall since, not surprisingly, my friends were too modest to allow their real names to be used.

Dear Paul,

A very moving story. It especially touched me as Marshall and I had an experience just this morning arriving home from D.C. on the all-night Amtrak train. A fellow passenger, a very obese woman with a 9 month old baby in a carrier with a handle, struggled to gather herself, a suitcase, numerous bulging bags and her baby as the train pulled out of the Back Bay station. She began to cry...she had missed her stop. Then they announced that it was 7 degrees in Boston. We sat watching for a long painful moment. Then, no longer able to just watch, we offered to help her, wondering—as I am sure she was—what was she going to do. She said the baby was all wet, she had peed on her blanket. So she threw another blanket over the baby, actually covering the baby's head as well. The baby cried and she shouted at the unhappy infant. I noticed that the mother didn't have any gloves. I offered her mine which she refused. So I just put them in one of her bags and said she might need these. Anyway, to make a long story short, we eventually called the conducter who joined us in helping her get off at South Station, and he hailed a red cap telling him to get her a cab to North Station so she could get to Back Bay. Marshall stuck some money in her pocket.

We wondered if she ever made it and also worried about the baby, and wondered about its future and the condition of the mother. I cried as she slowly trudged her way along the platform following some distance behind the red cap. Your story certainly brought back the memory of this heart-wringing morning so vividly and with such sadness.

Your writing was powerful, and compassionate.

Thanks, Paul, and for giving me the chance to tell you about our experience.


Thank you Susan for sharing your wonderful story! And for reminding us how possible it is to be true to a vision of our best selves.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Pretty White Gloves

He sits on a folded-over cardboard box, slightly off-balance and without any visible sign of support other than the granite wall of the bank behind him and the few coins in the paper cup he shakes at each passerby.

Does he realize it is 4 degrees above zero, or minus 25 degrees if you factor in the wind that blows through the city and his bones with little concern for statistics? Does he notice the thick cumulous lifeforms that escape from his mouth in shapes that shift and evanesce like the opportunities that once populated his life?

Can he even distinguish the usual numbing effect of the cheap alcohol from the cruel and indifferent carress of this biting alien chill?

Too many questions, he would tell you, if he cared to say anything. But his tongue sits in silence behind crusted chapped lips and chattering teeth while half-shut eyes follow pedestrians fleeing from the bitter cold and his outstretched cup.

His gaze falls upon the hand holding the cup as if it were some foreign element in his personal inventory. Surprised at first to find it uncovered and exposed, especially in weather this frigid, he now recalls that someone at the shelter had stolen his gloves and left in their place the only option he still has in much abundance.


Examining the hand, and the exposed fingers encircling the Seven-Eleven coffee cup, he smiles in amused perplexity, murmuring to himself, "White gloves."

Lifting his hand for closer inspection, he adds, "Pretty white gloves."

An image of his daughter . . . Elissa, he thinks her name was . Yes, Elissa!, he recalls. An image of Elissa rises up in his mind, from a photograph taken when she was ten and beautifully adorned in a new Easter outfit: black shoes, frilly lavender dress and hat and, yes, pretty white gloves. The photo once sat on a table in his living room, but he couldn't tell you what happened to it, nor to the table or the living room, for that matter. They were just gone. Swept away in the same tide that pulled out all the moorings from his life, and everything else that had been tethered to them.

The last time he'd seen Elissa she was crying, though he no longer remembers why. Must have been something he'd done or said; that much he knows.

"Pretty white gloves," he repeats, staring at his hand.

He recalls the white gloves from his Marine dress uniform. At most he wore them five times: at his graduation from officer's training school, at an armed services ball in Trenton, New Jersey, and for three military funerals. There was never a need for dress gloves in Viet Nam. They would have never stayed white anyway; not with all the blood that stained his hands.

Out of the corner of his eye he can see a policeman walking towards him and instinctively hides his cup, some vestige of half-remembered pride causing him to avert his gaze from the man's eyes at the same time.

"We need to get you inside, buddy," the officer says. "You'll die of cold, you stay out here."

Moments later, a second police officer, this one a woman, steps up to join them.

"That's the Major," she tells her colleague. To the seated figure she offers a smile.

"You coming with us, Major?"

"Go away," he answers, looking up as he leans further against the cold granite wall. "Don't need you. Don't need no one."

"Can't leave you out here," the first officer says. "We've got orders to bring you and everyone else in."

"Leave me alone!" the seated man shouts, gesturing with his hands as if he could push them both away.

"Oh shit," the female officer says under her billowing breath. To her partner she whispers, "His hands. Look at his hands."

Quickly recognizing the waxy whiteness for what it is, the officer shrugs, "Guess we're a little late."

To the man on the sidewalk, he offers, "That's frost bite, buddy."

"No," the seated man protests. He holds up both hands, numb and strange as they now feel and offers a knowing smile of explanation.

Just like the marine officer he once was, just like the sweet innocent daughter he once knew, just llike the young man grown suddenly old on a frozen sidewalk, his hands are beautiful and special in a way these strangers will never understand.

"White gloves,"he insists proudly.

"Pretty white gloves."

With the temperature outside falling below zero, my thoughts turn to those who somehow live, and hopefully stay alive, on the streets of our cities. And I think about one man, not yet homeless, about whom I wrote the above story. Many years before writing the story, I had a proofreading job that started at 5 am. One dark cold morning I had a flat tire on the way to work in the rougher part of town. That was when I met the man who would become the model for my protagonist in "Pretty White Gloves." He was a former marine officer just starting his slide into the abyss of alcoholism. He kept me company while I changed the flat and gave me much needed support. In return I bought him breakfast and offered platitudes about the dangers of drink. He took the meal and thanked me for my naive sentiments. Many years later, now homeless and beyond salvation (in my mind), he returned to me in this story which also appears in my collection, "How To Train A Rock.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

"The Game Is Rigged" (A Letter From Uncle Bernie)

January, 2011
FCI 336
Butner, NC

Dear Nephew:

How the mighty have fallen. And how far they have yet to fall…

For now I reap the bitterest harvest of all!

No worse punishment can be imagined than for a father to see his son die. But I who have never taken small steps where leaps would carry me forward, nor stolen small things when the world’s riches were laid bare and unprotected—no, I can now testify to one fate even more cruel for a father…to be the cause of an adored son’s untimely and self-inflicted death.

I only pray that my fragile and beloved son—the cousinly playmate of your youth—may now know the peace he could never find here on earth.

Please know that your expressions of sympathy have comforted me in my darkest hours, and I now turn to your inquiries in the hope that some meager measure of service to you might serve as balm to my troubled soul.

You ask me to recommend investment vehicles that will offer a reasonable return for a novice investor such as yourself. Should you look to one industry versus another, stocks versus bonds, domestic properties versus international, mutual funds versus securities…well, the list goes on and on, doesn’t it?

As I indicated in my last letter, wealth is finite, which means that all investors—you as well as the millionaire brokers of Goldman Sachs—are competing for the same spoils of war. And I purposely put you in battle with such behemoths, in my example, to show you exactly how little chance you have of taking anything but crumbs from the table in your efforts to pursue what has long been mislabeled the American Dream.

Put simply, my boy, the game is rigged. Once there was a stock market where a boy with pluck and wit like yourself could search out diamonds in the rough and make a fortune for himself. Yes, he could nurture his assets and grow his future, confident that the United States government would protect his holdings and maintain a level playing field.

Well, does that sound like today’s world of finance? Like hell it does! Unless of course you’re in elementary school listening to an impoverished third grade teacher explain the workings of our capitalist system. Out in the real world, the money boys (and it is mostly men) have taken control of things. Up until recently, your poor uncle was one of them—one of the ones whose shadow fell upon billions of dollars and thousands of innocent investors. And these selfsame money boys have made a science of separating money from the system and assets from innocents such as yourself.

We used to have a saying: steal an old lady’s pocketbook and you’ll go to jail, steal her pension and you’ll go to the Ritz.

How many ordinary individuals do you know who have made more than pocket money in the stock market in the last 20 years? While I can show you hundreds and hundreds of millionaires who have made millions and millions of dollars.

Dear boy, why would anyone in their right mind invest in an American company when it is practically guaranteed its CEO, board of directors and top echelon executives will suck all the cream off the top in the form of excessive salaries, incomprehensible bonuses and golden parachutes? Before any ordinary investor receives a single penny in corporate dividends, millions will have been siphoned off by the parasites who are now recognized as a normal part of the system’s operation.

And speaking of parasites, when there actually is money to be made on investments, it is made by PWM’s (People With Money) and PWM’s alone. Companies like Goldman Sachs structure IPO’s and other deals that are open only to their own PWM’s. And rather than police these deals, government regulators limit themselves to whistling as they walk by the graveyard, knowing that one day—if they’re well behaved little regulators—they may find gainful employment with these very same financial behemoths and perhaps become PWM’s themselves.

No, my boy, the only investment that makes any sense these days is real estate which, because of the limited nature of its inventory, will always offer a good return on your investment. Even if at times the PWM’s manipulation of the real estate market creates valleys and peaks and nearly destroys the American financial system.

But enough for now. I must end this letter and return to my singular life in confinement. How ironic to recall my earlier beliefs that punishment was something externally administered. A pain visited upon me by others. The truth is, no prison cell holds the terrors I now find welling up from my broken heart. And no amount of wealth and power could possibly fill the void that now lingers in the darkest reaches of my being.

I trust you will not forget to write and say a prayer for a tired old man, who sends his love and remains,


Uncle Bernie

P.S. And please, though I suspect you have already done so, remember to say a prayer for your unfortunate cousin, may he now rest in peace.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

One Day We Will Fly

"Every one of us is born a caterpillar, seemingly sentenced to crawl and inch our way across the long expanse of our lives. But one day we will fly. And when we take flight we will see a world far richer and more beautiful than we ever knew existed when we lived as caterpillars."

From "To You Who Are Different", an earlier post on this blog (go back three or four postings). "Different..." has now been made into a one-page poster/handout that I would love to distribute to adolescents in high schools, youth groups, or wherever. If you would like a copy of the file—especially if you can help distribute it—just send me an email at paulstevenstone@gmail.com and I'll quickly send it your way. Every one of us, I believe, has had to suffer and live through the silent pain or fear of feeling estranged or isolated as teenagers, even those of us who were outwardly members of the "in" crowd.