#28 A Man and his Monkeys
St. Louis Zoo 1975
I was 18 when I moved to St. Louis and began taking advantage of the free zoo admission. It meant you could go for a brief visit, just to see your favorite animal.
I loved the monkeys most, even though the cages weren't glassed at that time...and I sometimes had to plug my nose.
I also fell in love with the old building that housed all the different kinds of monkeys.
There was something a little enchanting about every visit.
Not a Raccoon!
I can't remember how I started talking with the man who was cleaning the cages one day. But I remember his comment about the ring tailed lemurs. "They aren't raccoons." He said, almost sadly. He wasn't reprimanding me, he was confiding...sharing about his job frustration. He told me about the zoo guests who teased and showed disrespect. But he was equally bothered by their ignorance. "It's so infuriating when I see a parent hold their child up and ooh and ahh over the "cute raccoons" when they have no idea how unusual and special these lemurs are!" We stood for a very long time as he wiped the bars with soap and water. I told him that the monkeys had always been my favorite. I can't remember our exact conversation, but he probably had to remind me that lemurs are primates, but they aren't monkeys.
I had the feeling that this man's job was limited to cleaning the filthiest of the zoo cages and yet he polished each bar with great pride.
Zoo Visits, Since
Since chatting in the stinky primate house 37 years ago there have been a lot of changes. The primate house replaced the bars with glass and a new ape exhibit was built. I've enjoyed dozens of visits with family and friends since that day I listened to the zoo man.
Thank you to the Man who cared about the Monkeys!
I never saw you again even though I visited often. But over the years when I visited with my children, I was always careful to not call a chimp a monkey and I always smiled a secret smile when I saw a ring tailed leumr.
#27 Father Ralph and a Tiny Church
Near the Cemetery
It was 2009. We had heard about an old cemetery not far from our campground, so my husband and I went exploring.
We found the cemetery, but what a nice surprise to find this lovely white church with a picket fence.
I snapped a picture from the end of the curved walk. What a peaceful image in the middle of nowhere. Shady trees, colorful flowers and a lovely little bell with a rope for ringing.
Then suddenly I noticed a man coming around the corner, carrying a watering can. Father Ralph saw us and introduced himself. "Would you like to go inside?" He asked.
So Tiny and Tidy
In recent years the only Catholic churches I've entered were grand, echoing cathedrals in big cities. This was a church where you would imagine a prayer could be heard. Where the priest would make eye contact with each parishioner sitting in the 5 rows. But Father Ralph's eyes were wandering around the church as he sat down on a pew near us.
Father Ralph spoke softly as he pointed out some of the recent renovations. You could tell he was very proud of this small chapel that made it through the Civil War. Then he shared a little about himself. He was new to the church. I can't remember where he was from, somewhere in the east? I wondered how he was welcomed by this congregation closer to a Texas State Park than a town.
He was very matter of fact as he described the difficulties of getting to know church members. Many who attended church were traveling visitors. He said it was also hard because his work had been interrupted by cancer treatments.
(I just listened...no camera snapping for me. I found these interior shots recently on the internet)
Thank You, Father!
You were so warm and welcoming when you invited us into your church. The tiny bit of yourself that you shared has never been forgotten.
I remember putting some money in the donation box as we left. I also wish I could have donated a few casseroles. I worried about you over the last few years. I wondered who would take care of you if you got sicker. I couldn't picture these camping church goers bringing you hot meals when you needed them. But I found this picture on the internet. It has your name on it, just like my photo. Not only are you still at Stella Maris, but it looks like you've added another mass. Things must be going well!
#26 Freddy, The Carnival Man
We met Freddy in Gibsonton, Florida. It was a warm September morning and he had just finished a breakfast of fried eggs and chopped beef at the Showtown Restaurant and Lounge. He was chatting with a man at another table who held a fork in one hand and a lit cigarette in the other.
What brought us to Gibsonton?
My husband and I were recently on a road trip through Florida. We were traveling north on the Tamiami Trail from the gulf towards the west coast when we spotted the restaurant. I had read about this curious town of Gibsonton on the once touristy "trail". In the 1940's carnival and circus workers began to winter here and I wondered who might still be left. Showtown seemed like a place to meet some locals. It may be mostly a bar, but we lucked out. At 10 am, it was open for breakfast!
Don and I sat down and studied the menu. I had a feeling the man in the bright yellow shirt might have some suggestions. He did. " Chipped beef on toast with fried egg." He answered as he rubbed his large stomach, held in place by suspenders. I placed my order and then spent the next 90 minutes hearing Freddy's stories of carnival life.
Words of Wisdom
Freddy has been associated with the carnival world for about 55 years. He used one of the many wall murals (by local artist, "Brownie") to share some of his thoughts. He pointed to the this image, depicting a symbolic collision between numerous carnival and circus wagons. There's obviously some friction between these two cultures and Freddy was quick to remind me that a carnival worker labors many more hours than a circus worker. However he also shared the difference between going to a circus and going to a sporting event. "When the folks leave a sporting event, half go home losers. When folks leave a circus, everyone goes home a winner."
Freddy got into carnival life with an older brother who was involved in a monkey circus and later made big bucks with cotton candy and balloons. Freddy ended up doing everything from work with snakes to Hillbilly Acts...whatever that is. But he couldn't stop emphasizing the pros and cons of hard work and travel. He took pride in all the different cities he "knew". Even though his view of the city was through the carnival visitors. He described Detroit as the scariest city. Once he tried to break up a gang fight, but one kid "who wasn't even old enough to drive" killed another with a letter opener.
Why He Loves Gibsonton
Freddy said in two months the town will come to life again with wintering workers. It's clear he was looking forward to that. Freddy has a lot of friends here. He said the lack of zoning laws makes it a great place for folks who have a lot of equipment and trailers to store. He said he could never live in some small town with a lot of rednecks. He obviously views his fellow carnival workers as worldly. "They've traveled and seen places." He said, with great pride.
Freddy told a drawn out story about Grady Stiles who once lived in Gibsonton. He went by the stage name of Lobster Boy because his hands and feet were fused into claw-like shapes. He and Grady were friends and Freddy would carry him to the phone to make booking arrangements for his side show tours. In the early 1990's Freddy suggested Grady purchase a cell phone to make his bookings. He feels a little guilty about that advice because the convenience of the cell phone lead to Grady reuniting with his first wife. Grady's handicap didn't prevent him from abusing this woman and she ended up hiring a boy in Gibsonton to kill Grady. Freddy feels pretty bad about that, but he seems to enjoy telling the story. Freddy even got to be in City Confidential when TV crews came to Gibsonton to film an episode focusing on this odd story.
In the future, I'll forget all the details of your long stories and all the characters you spoke about. But I think I'll remember how bonded you were to people who shared your kind of work and your town. All workers suffer job stress, but how much harder when your job moves from place to place. I'm glad you have a place you can call home!
#25 Sponge Divers in Florida
Tarpon Springs, Florida
While recently walking through the sponge dock district of Tarpon Springs, Florida, I noticed (and smelled) two mountains of sponges... and two men sorting them.
George, in the plaids with a hint of a Greek accent, was the owner of the boat docked a few feet away. Bill was the diver who harvests the sponge beds, just like the generations of Greek divers who first came to the area in 1905.
George and Bill had just arrived after 4 days out on the Agios Fanouris. A few men nearby were praising their good catch. They agreed they had had perfect weather conditions for diving. Bill guessed they had about 1,500 sponges in those piles.
On the Boat
They sat on a bench and leaned over 2 huge mounds of sponge. As they chatted, they examined each sponge then tossed it toward the appropriate pile. (Why didn't I ask what they were looking for?) There were a couple sponge-filled nets still on the boat, so I figured they would be there a while.
I asked about the things hanging from a boat railing that looked like cartoonish deer antlers. George laughed and said those were finger sponges. He liked my name of antler sponges and thought they should rename them. These are used mostly for decoration.
It looked pretty relaxing sitting in the late afternoon, tossing these sponges around. I asked if this was the easiest part of sponge fishing. Bill shook his head like I was crazy. "I wouldn't do this at all if it weren't for the diving."
I mentioned how much fun it was revisiting this part of Florida that I remembered from age 10. George, who seemed pretty focused on his sponges suddenly seemed to have a moment of nostalgia. He paused and studied my face as if guessing my age, then asked if I'd heard of St. Mark's. He shared a memory about fishing there in the 1960's. He narrowed the date in his head by remembering a fellow fisherman wanting to see the movie, Carpet Baggers. "I don't remember when that movie was, but I remember St. Mark's!" I joined in. "We would go to Posey's Pool Hall so my parents could eat oysters!" We both seemed pleased with our St. Mark's connection. But we also seemed a bit lost in our own separate memories.
The Bear on a Sponge
This 2-inch Bear does not belong in my Stranger Blog. But while my husband chatted a bit more, I pulled the bear out of my camera bag and took a couple pictures...for a different blog. When I heard Don ask what the boat's name meant, I was pretty delighted. Agios Fanouris is the patron saint of lost items. I turned to George and Bill, (the last people on earth who might understand my obsession with photographing this tiny bear) and I told them the story of losing the bear in New York and how a family had found my "Lost Bear" note and mailed him to me. These two weary fishermen paused and listened and studied the bear's battered body (after being run over by a car) and they seemed thoroughly delighted to know their boat's name fit this little bear!
Thanks George and Bill!
I learned about a new saint from you! But mostly I was invited to think about a world I didn't even know I was curious about. Since our chat I've learned more about the unique history of Tarpon Springs and how the Greek divers brought their knowledge and culture to this fishing village long ago. But mostly I wonder about your personal histories...up to the day when I saw you on the bench sorting sponges.
To celebrate my birthday in April 2012, I decided to reflect on the past with a different kind of list. I've met a lot of people in my 55 years, but I'm going to stop and remind myself about the strangers I've met. These are people I met by accident, not through friends or work. For some reason, these strangers dropped into my life. Even though we may have only spent a few minutes together, these people have never been forgotten.
Each week, I'll spotlight someone I met in the past, who in some small way, made me stop and think.
Remember 55 Strangers