Hard Candy, Redux – Race and “That Word”

{Oh, hey? The title? I may not have a column anymore – at least not one that pays in anything other than “shells and beads and good feelings” – but I still have opinions. So I’m going to call entries like these “Hard Candy, Redux” or something like that, as kind of a fair warning to everyone. Anyway, back to our regularly scheduled programming…}

Don’t believe what white people tell you. Not when we tell you we want to have an “honest” conversation about race. We totally don’t. Oh, we say we do, and I think we really believe it when we say it, but when we get right down to the business of the “honest” part, yeah, not so much. It doesn’t feel good, you know? And after centuries of suppressing black people and then deciding we’d try and fix things in a few short decades, why should we have to deal with the ickiness of those white Americans who are having a hard time adjusting? Let’s just all forget about how we raised people for hundreds of years and string them up in the town square when they have a hard time letting go of outdated mores. That seems enlightened, I think.

Since Creative Loafing published my article about how ideas about race continue to evolve in Gulfport last week, I’ve been lurking on social media as people discussed it. As everyone knows, social media showcases the best of humanity, so you may now understand the prior paragraph a little better. Now, I’d prefer you click on the link and read the article, but if you don’t, here’s the least you need to know: Gulfport used to be a sundown town, according to some of the old guard. It isn’t any longer (because, well, civil rights) but some people who live here still retain some of the old thinking. Some people want the city to be more welcoming to black people. That’s the thrust of the piece.

So, when my Creative Loafing editor and I started chatting about how we’d address Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and Gulfport’s first-time-ever participation in the MLK Day of Service, we talked about the odd dichotomy that exists in my small town. You see, Gulfport is uber-accepting of the LGBT community and has been well before accepting the LGBT community was a thing. It’s weird, you know? You can walk down the street and see a transgender person, then walk another two feet and see a crusty old boat captain, and these two worlds do not typically collide. Right-wing conservatives meet Rue Paul and no one seems to notice. So, uh, weird in a good way, but weird.

Except for black people. I’ve heard more people than I care to admit use the n-word, not in anger but in conversation. I hate “that word.” Always have. I don’t make my decisions about what I think or how to treat people based on the color of their skin, but I’ve come to realize  not everyone who finds “that word” acceptable bases those things on skin color, either. I think I failed to make that clear in the article, because while the commentary on the CL site has been pretty tame, the comments on the Gabber’s Facebook group, Gulfport Ideas and Opinions, went off the rails (I won’t link to the group, but you can find it if you really need to see it) Someone posted about the article and much flogging and berating ensued.

The thrust of the anger centers around Louis Worthington, a 71-year-old man who lived through the sundown town bullshit and is married to our vice mayor. He used “that word,” and Creative Loafing printed it. According to many people, that makes him a racist. But let’s look at what Louis actually said:

“There’s black people and then there’s n——.” (Creative Loafing printed the word; I will not.)

He goes on to explain what, in his mind, is a class distinction. I see the point he’s trying to make but I cannot agree with it, although my opinion isn’t what counts. Many people make that distinction but don’t make decisions based on skin color.

I know Louis and his family – not all of it, because the Worthingtons are to Gulfport as the Kennedys are to Hyannis Port and you can never know them all – and I see no evidence of racism in Louis’ behavior. Ever. His use of “that word”? Degrading, yes. Ignorant? Perhaps, but I’d argue he knows why he’s using it, even if he doesn’t understand that it offends a class of people to whom he doesn’t believe he refers. Bear in mind, as I point out in the article, his teenage daughter is dating a black teenager who lives in the projects. This young man is being raised by a single mother. His dad is, um, not in the picture. This young man is, if you take both the teenager and Louis at face value, not the sort of man you would think Louis wants his daughter dating. But Louis respects the young man because he didn’t see skin color and decide the man was “that word.” He admits he struggles with the idea of his daughter dating a black person, but he makes it clear: When he thinks of “that word” he does not think of this young man, who has enlisted in the Marines and is trying desperately to break the cycle he sees around him. Also, I see how Louis feels about the white boy his daughter dated last, and I’m hard-pressed to think Louis would be thrilled with his baby girl dating anyone, ever.

But people are crucifying Louis and his wife and totally missing the point of the article: Even this man, this 71-year-old man who was raised in a time and town when and where segregation thrived and racism sat down to dinner with you, can evolve on ideas of race. But some people refuse to see that, and while I understand the shock value of seeing “that word” in print, let’s look past the words and look in Louis’ heart and actions, because his actions don’t speak of hatred. I can point to many elected and appointed officials whose actions drip with racism, but they would never dream of using “that word.” And so I ask you, which is worse? Please don’t blindly bash someone and try to suppress them for speaking honestly. Look, I wish people wouldn’t use “that word.” But they do. Telling them they’re jerks and that they should shut up doesn’t change anything but what you hear.

Louis Worthington doesn’t like people who feel they can steal because the person from whom they’re stealing has more than they do. When those people happen to be black, he uses “that word” to describe them. Is it racially based? Of course. But notice that in his mind, the behavior is first and race is second. To him, yes, I know. But still, I think that’s worth exploring. Of course, we won’t, because we’re all too upset that he dared utter “that word”, which is, pardon me, fucking ridiculous.

So, we want to have an honest conversation about race? Let’s take Louis and, say, the president of the Childs Park Neighborhood Association (a predominantly black neighborhood across the 49th Street corridor, and I single him out because he’s a black leader in the local community, and I think, capable of adding insight I think will help foster growth) and let’s allow them to have a conversation. Will it be uncomfortable? Hell, yes, but that isn’t a reason not to have the discussion; actually, it’s a pretty good argument in favor of it.

Instead of berating people who think like Louis does – and believe me, there are a LOT of folks out there who feel that way – why not attempt to understand what they mean and why they feel that way? Why not talk with them instead of about them? Look, the problem in places like Gulfport isn’t that a few people are horribly racist; it’s that many more people have muddy ideas about race and we’re only telling them to sit down, shut up, and change how they feel.

That actually doesn’t help, and it doesn’t signal an enlightened populace. Suppressing something doesn’t make it go away; it just makes us feel better, but the feeling won’t last because it isn’t real.

I’d rather be real.

Six Degrees: Hunter S. Cat in the Hat

And on this beautiful morning I wake up thinking of my friend J.T., who so frequently likes to quote Hunter S. Thompson to me. I grab a cup of coffee and while my brain is warming up, I idly search and find:

“The Edge… There is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over.”
– Hunter S. Thompson

This, of course, leads to me searching for other quotes about the edge, thinking I’d find some sort of scientific-type things. Instead, I find Yo-Yo Ma:

“Things can fall apart, or threaten to, for many reasons, and then there’s got to be a leap of faith. Ultimately, when you’re at the edge, you have to go forward or backward; if you go forward, you have to jump together.”
–Yo-Yo Ma

So then I click on the word at the bottom of the box that says “forward” and I get this:
“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them – that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.”
– Lao Tzu

So, of course, I Google Lao Tzu, because I know the name and I haven’t had enough coffee yet to know why. Ah, yes, the father of Taoism. This, of course, leads me to Google “Taoism quotes”, which returns a quote from The Tao of Pooh, so I Google “Tao of Pooh quotes” and I get this:

“Things just happen in the right way, at the right time. At least when you let them, when you work with circumstances instead of saying, ‘This isn’t supposed to be happening this way,’ and trying harder to make it happen some other way.”
― Benjamin Hoff, Tao of Pooh

Which, of course, leads to a perusal of Winnie the Pooh quotes, including “You’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”
– A. A. Milne

I click “similar quotes” and get Dr. Seuss:

“Sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple.”
– Dr. Seuss

And that, my friends, is how you get from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to The Cat in the Hat. Six degrees of separation between the man who said “It never got weird enough for me” and the man who said “Being crazy isn’t enough.”

Well, perhaps that’s not as shocking as it seemed at first.

Detours & Diversions – Winter Sunsets and Solstice Celebrations

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, but perhaps not for all the reasons you might think. While the rest of the world dreams of tropical vacations as they shovel snow, Floridians know a winter Florida seascape has staggering beauty unparalleled by (although breathtaking in its own right) northern snow-covered vale. 

Fort DeSoto Sunset
Sunset along Fort DeSoto’s North Beach.

  One of the finest venues for watching our winter skies slowly turn from a bright white-and-blue watercolor into a streaked pink and orange and purple symphony is Fort DeSoto, the county park at the southwestern edge of Pinellas county. 

WHO:Pinellas County runs Fort DeSoto, with a spot of help from the Friends of Fort DeSoto.



Visit the park anytime between sunrise and sunset, although the sky grows gradually more beautiful as sunset gets closer. From about 3:30 p.m. on is optimal sky viewing time in the winter months. Remember, too, most of the park closes shortly after sundown, so you’ll want to park by one of the two fishing piers if you plan to stay much past sunset.

WHAT: Sunsets in winter seem to take longer. Although technically a sunset takes roughly seven minutes, winter twilight lasts longer than summer twilight. But don’t go for the sunset alone: the seaside has a beauty unparalleled in winter. December 21 marks the Solstice, the shortest day of the year, and since ancient times cultures have celebrated the signs of rebirth that come with longer days following the Solstice. To find signs of new life, head for the trails along the East Beach or Arrowhead Picnic Area. The beach daisies popping up, the new shoots of growth on the trees, the blossoms you do not see in summertime beachscapes – these are all signs of a new growth cycle.


WHERE: Anywhere you have a clear view of the water makes for excellent sunset viewing of course, but Fort DeSoto remains the crown jewel of Pinellas beaches. People flock to the north beach and the fort itself for sunset, but the overlooked East Beach showcases a brilliant display of twilight colors this time of year. The Arrowhead Picnic Area makes for a great place to explore the winter foliage, although its water views face east. Finally, the Paw Playground, fishing piers, and surrounding beaches remain open after rangers close the gates to the east and north beaches.

WHY: Christmas coincides with winter solstice because celebrations already existed and it was easier to convert pagans if they could switch one holiday for another. Those pagan celebrations happened for a reason, and if you step outside and look around, you will understand on a primitive level why, even before we grasped the formal concepts of cell division and germination, we celebrate new beginnings in the world around us this time of year.


Question: Five dollars for Fort DeSoto; parking fees vary elsewhere along Pinellas beaches.

Contact Cathy Salustri.

2015: My Non-Plan

The trouble is, you think you have time.” – Fake Buddha Quote

Resolutions seem like a bad idea to me, as do plans, because they map a linear direction and so often in my life the best paths have twisted me along in a decidedly non-linear fashion.

However – and I really want to say this without sounding too “authentic” because even the notion of that word and its current meaning make me want to throw up a little in my mouth – I have found that verbalizing my intentions helps me make them happen. The biggest case in point? My book. An honest-to-God, printed and bound, a-publisher-will-pay-to-print-this, I-have-a-contract, book. It doesn’t have a title yet, but I’ve written it, edited it per my editor’s specs, and I suspect by the end of this year, I’ll have a hard copy in my hands (as should all of you, of course!). That book happened because I said, “I want to get my master’s degree in Florida Studies and write a book about Florida and get a book deal” and even though it wasn’t a plan or a resolution, saying it (to other people) helped reinforce my drive, and every step I took pushed me down the path that led to me sobbing with agony over revisions my editor wanted working with a bricks-and-mortar publishing house and getting a contract for my travel narrative about Florida.

If it worked once, it can work again, right? After all, it has worked better than anything else ever has, including the carefully-laid plans of my twenties. So, in that spirit, here’s a list of things that I will do. Not necessarily in the coming year, but – you know what? Yes, in the coming year. Why leave myself an out? So, because if y’all know what I’m doing, it will motivate me (because I’m apparently lazy on the inside but also big on doing what I say I will do), here’s my “This Will Happen” list for 2015:

Finish, edit, and self-publish one of my three mostly-completed novels

Every year I participate in National Novel Writing Month, which means every November I attempt to write a 50,000-word novel. So far, I have written three novels you could call “90% done” (exclusive of the editing, of course.) Inspired by my friend, fellow Florida Studies classmate, and published author Jon Kile, I have decided to self-publish those three books. I don’t know until I dive into editing the first novel how much time I’ll spend editing it, so I hesitate to say “I can self-publish three books this year!” but I can say I will publish one of them. (How well it sells is all on you, people!)

Publish my grandmother’s recipes

Grandma Rae loved to cook and people loved to eat her food. I had the good fortune to learn from her while her mind was still sharp (she and my grandfather came to live with us when I was 17, so I had plenty of practice by her side). Because my dad was the only one of her children who lived near her (everyone else lived in New York), and also because no one else seemed to care at the time (most of my cousins are younger than I am, which meant I was the only one cooking for anyone on the reg at the time), I took possession of her recipes after Alzheimers made life in a nursing home a necessity. My cousins never had that time with her, and when my cousin Sue asked me last year if she could have copies of grandma’s recipes, I said yes. When I started combing through them, though, I realized I had so much more of grandma than ingredients and directions. I have great stories about her and her cooking, about the dreaded Grandma Mary’s Cake (a/k/a “the cursed cake” that stopped working after my grandmother died), about her recipe for chicken (as dictated to my dad, who interpreted what I can only assume were instructions to rinse the chicken as “bathe chick”), about the way her home smelled at Christmas – these are all things a recipe cannot convey. I inherited her passion for cooking, and to her cadre of recipes I have added my own. I will publish bound copies for my cousins, and I figure it can’t hurt to make the cookbook available as an ebook as well. I already have a Facebook page and a blog I co-author with fellow Italian foodie and friend Tiffany Anderson-Taylor (although she’s way better at posting, which I will improve as work through these recipes).

Publish my Florida  travel narrative

I realize this one’s almost a gimme because I’ve done the heavy lifting and secured a publishing contract, but it ain’t over yet – I feel confident I have more revisions coming down the pike. Because this matters so much to me, I count it, because I do intend to do whatever I can to make sure I have this book on bookshelves by this time next year. Oh, yeah, we still need a title, so feel free to leave one in the comments.

Write more for money

I love writing for the Gabber, and I intend to keep doing so. That said, I’ve used the paper as a crutch, held it up as a reason I don’t do much other writing. When I think about it, I must admit: I have no desire to cover the lawsuits on St. Pete Beach when I’m 60 (and trust me, there’s a fair-to-midland chance St. Pete Beach will still be appealing these same lawsuits when I’m 60). The best way to not have that happen is to shore up my other writing and start, as they say in the business world, developing other revenue streams. If that happens because of my self-published books (see how this helps? I already think of them as real things), or because of my published book (which is not really feasible; I don’t know how many of you realize this, but since I haven’t written Fifty Shades of Gray I have a more common publishing deal, which means my publisher doesn’t plan to publish enough copies of my book for me to earn royalties that would allow me to quit my day job) then great. If not, I still have options. I’m getting good at this writing thing, after all…

This is not me saying I want to leave the paper; this is me saying I would like very much to concentrate on the news stories, my column, and my Detours & Diversions, then pick and choose the rest, rather than take a picture – for the 12th year running – of people standing in line to vote on election day.

Get a second book contract

Yup, there’s a lot of emphasis in 2015 on writing. I already have an idea for a second book, and a third, so as soon as the first book is to bed, I will start on a proposal for number two.

Turn my Nikon into an ATM

I already take a LOT of photos (seriously, an average day for me at a street festival is 1,000 photos) and make a small – very small – amount of money taking pictures for people who want their events remembered but not in the “expensive wedding package photographer” type of way. I also teach photography in several locations, but odds are, you didn’t know that because how would you? Which brings me to…

Fix my damn web site

This site is awful; my blog is the only useful thing on it. So I’m going to fix it. Somehow. Because writers, apparently, need web sites, especially if they’re about to have a book or two to sell. You know who else needs a web site? People trying to sell their services as a photographer, or people who think it might be important for their photography students (or prospective students) to access a calendar to see where they’re teaching next.

There are other more personal things I want to accomplish, but I intend to keep them more private. Plus, you don’t care if I manage to knit my cousin’s as-of-yet-unborn baby a baby blanket in time for his birth (the odds are against me on this one), or if I can reasonably increase my protein intake and strengthen my lower back (the odds there improve a bit.)

Want to help me? Right now, other than buying me lots of coffee, there’s not much you can do, except like my public Facebook page and insist everyone you know do the same thing. And don’t forget to like Aphrodite’s Hearth while you’re at it. You can follow me on Twitter and pay attention to what I do on Flickr, and interact with me on all those things and remind me you’re waiting for me to make all these wonderful things happen. Oh, and when I post here that I (finally) have a book you can buy, buy it. If I’m really pushing the wire, think of it as a way to get all your 2016 Christmas shopping done in one fell swoop.

Happy New Year!

Hard Candy – The Appearance of Clean

Last week I alluded to my mom perhaps making me a touch OCD in regards to the holidays and cleaning, namely in telling me Santa’s elves checked inside my dresser drawers to make sure I hadn’t simply stuffed things inside to give the appearance of clean. This is how I ended up taking a stroll down Gabber-memory lane this past week.

See, my mom’s lecture about elves has stayed with me in two ways: One, every holiday I have a 1972 Elf on the Shelf (I call him EOTS, pronounced E-Otis) who comes out in December to wreak havoc on things (some say it’s projecting; I prefer to call it “creating non-compulsive elf-related experiences”); and two, I have a list of things I must do before the new year. These things are cleaning-related, but not in the “clean the toilets and wash the floors” sense of the word. No, my holiday cleaning goes a little deeper, and this year it includes reorganizing my office (a/k/a the “Bat Cave”) closet.

So starting the day after Christmas, I dug into that closet, pulling out old papers, organizing a yarn stash, trying to make sense of a plenitude of cords and cables, and marveling at the crap I’d chosen to save instead of toss. Then I found a clear blue box that I assumed had warranties in it (because I’d stacked new ones on top of it throughout the year with the intention of filing them “when I had the chance”). When I opened it, though, I found old reporter notebooks and notes from different articles over the years.

I sighed when I read a folder of notes about 49th Street, one page of which contained a great quote about 49th Street being the “mother-in-law at a bachelor party.” I also found a bunch of promises St. Petersburg’s former police chief and a bunch of “great day in St. Petersburg” propaganda from former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker. Then I found the Uniform Crime Reports for St. Petersburg, broken down by census district, which made me thankful that both men are long gone.

The next folder in the blue bin had notes about Gulfport’s mooring field. These notes are so old the paper had yellowed – that’s how long we’ve been talking about sinking moorings in Gulfport. I didn’t bother even keeping those, because I have more faith that St. Petersburg’s current mayor will do something positive for the poorest (and historically black) sections of town than I do that Gulfport City Council will ever create a mooring field.

I found, too, my notes on the one instance in time where a Gulfport police officer acted inappropriately and helped ruin one young man’s life in a desperate attempt to win some stupid custody battle. This happened before my tenure at the paper, and the man is long gone from our force (and hopefully any force), as is the police chief who opted not to launch an internal affairs investigation on the officer. I kept those notes, anyway – not because I plan to write about that incident any more for the Gabber, but because I believe the young man in question may have a bigger story to tell and one day I’d like to help him tell it.

Not everything stays, though. I tossed the Pasadena Yacht and Country Club lawsuit information from 2004, as well as the mayoral election paperwork for Mike Yakes, Clark Scherer and Marlene Shaw. I hesitated only slightly before doing the same thing with the Ward Two race between Christine Brown, Michele King and Courtland Yarborough.

By the time I looked into an empty blue box, I had a blueprint for 2015 in somewhat tidy piles on the floor before me. The sagas of Midtown, Childs Park and 49th Street continue, as does Gulfport’s waterfront and our (thankfully) weakening belief that we don’t really need the waterfront to make us a vibrant town. Everything I kept – and I didn’t mention everything here – I kept because they are unfinished stories.

Mayor Sam Henderson recently suggested the lack of an election in Gulfport meant people were pleased with the job council was doing. While the lack of an election does indicate people aren’t unhappy – or, at a minimum, aren’t displeased enough to take action – that doesn’t mean we don’t have issues we aren’t addressing. We’ve stopped talking about the tough issues, like 49th Street or the water quality in Boca Ciega Bay, because the answers aren’t apparent and they aren’t problems we can easily solve – if we can solve them at all. So we shove them into that big blue box in the back of the closet, along with the old cameras and our grandmother’s clock, and we close the door. So when people come into the room, they think, “Hey, this place looks great.” And it does, as long as we don’t open the closet door.

But maybe it’s time we played elf.

Hard Candy is an opinion column written by veteran reporter Cathy Salustri. It does not necessarily reflect the opinions of Gabber publishers, staff or advertisers. Contact Cathy here.

Verbally Heightened Expressions of Emotion

Well, hell. I just had a whole post I’d actually edited, which is something I do not much do unless it’s for money (this blog has yet to make me a red dime, which I suspect may be a vaguely racist saying, for which I apologize. I also apologize for shoddy sentence construction, because it’s been a long week, and I’m not editing this twice), and then WordPress ate it.


The point of the post – and I wish I could recapture it, but it’s late and I’m tired – is that recent events have taught me there are worse things than getting angry and yelling at people you love.

Let me start again.

I grew up in a family where yelling and communication were often one and the same. I almost didn’t even count a discussion unless it involved verbally heightened expressions of emotion. That changed when I married (far too young) a man who had substance abuse and verbal abuse issues. The substances he abused included booze, sugar, and – unbeknownst to me until things ended – cold medicine, which go figure, because why cold medicine when you’d already kicked a cocaine addition?, which he had. When he ratcheted himself up on any of these things, he got angry at me and yelled things. Horrible, soul-crushing things – especially if you’re an idiot who chose to marry someone way too early and didn’t fully understand that it was OK to end things that harmed you – that made me believe, for a long time after I did find a coward’s way to end a marriage that never should have happened, that expressing anger in any way less than dispassionate was wrong and scary.

You can’t blame me. You weren’t there. It was awful. I could tell by the set of my future ex-husband’s jaw whether or not we would have a pleasant night. Think about that for a moment: A personality reversal so severe that I could mark it by the set of a jawbone. He said horrible, awful, hurtful things; screamed them at me, and because he wasn’t physically hitting me – although he was cheating on me, lying to me, and certainly verbally abusing me – I didn’t feel it was my right to leave.

Ah, the wonders of being raised Catholic.

I left this all behind me, despite how it may sound. There’s kind of a point here, pinkie swear. That point is, even after I left, for years, people couldn’t get angry at me without me having a full-on meltdown. Shaking, crying, chest pains – essentially, a panic attack. I had nowhere to go and I just knew if I stayed there and dealt with the emotion I would die or collapse or explode. Good times. Something with the wiring in my brain went hinky, because normal conflict was just as taboo as screaming hateful things.

Tonight I mark my 12-year anniversary of leaving my marriage, and over the past 12 years I have managed to heal. A few months ago I would have told you I had managed to heal, mostly. But then something happened, something wonderful and horrible: I spent some time around an alcoholic with whom I do not share DNA, which means they don’t act like the Salustri drunks and also I can’t act like a Salustri around them.

See, my family has its share of chemical dependency issues, although largely we rely on booze. We also deal with actual (not fashionable) depression, and, well, we’re a big group of mostly Italians, so that’s kind of the trifecta of family fun. We yell. Lots. Although, to be fair, we haven’t had a real throw-down since we buried my grandfather and we had a brawl just outside the sanctuary, and it’s been years since anyone went to jail as a result of quality family time. None of that is made up.

However, it is, as El Cap likes to mention when he and I fight, almost sport for us. As much as he believes that to be true, I’ve spent a long time avoiding actual conflict. I might induce it, but then I avoid it. I’m a peach of a partner.

This year I’ve had the “pleasure” of seeing the long-term effects of not allowing conflict in one’s life, and it’s far worse than yelling. I’ve had the displeasure of watching what happens when someone chooses to swallow conflict and anger – along with the requisite fifth of bourbon – for many, many decades, and how chronic rather than acute anger can ruin your life.

How? Pretty simple, really: When you bottle up your anger, it’s really, really easy to open another bottle. And when no one around you likes conflict, either, no one will tell you to put down the damn bottle. And so you drink. And if you drink enough, guess what? You can actually turn your brain to pudding. Fun stuff. So then what you are, in essence, is an Alzheimer’s patient, except you’re not, because you could have changed your situation at any turn by not drinking, so people don’t really have the sympathy for you one might like. Which is fair, in my mind, because my grandmother died after a ten-plus-year battle with Alzheimer’s, and to do that to yourself when you could have avoided it is as close as this reformed Catholic gets to calling something “mortal sin.” Life is a gift, or at least it should be.

Now, before you scramble for the comments section to tell me I don’t understand alcoholism, I totally do. My father is a recovered alcoholic, and he chooses not to have a drink every day. He has since I was in my early twenties, because that’s how much he loves himself and his family and believes in life. I have no small measure of respect for what he has done, and I thank the Universe every damn day he didn’t let his drinking turn his brain to tapioca. My mother has scars from enabling him as long as she did, and the fact that I married someone with substance abuse issues is not at all lost on me. My uncle was an alcoholic, my grandfather was an alcoholic, my great-uncle died as a result of his drinking… do you need me to continue? I didn’t think so. I get alcoholism. My life is a constant state of evaluating my own drinking to make sure I don’t have those issues. I periodically stop drinking to make sure I don’t miss it. I periodically quiz my friends and El Cap about my drinking and whether they see any signs I’m missing, to the point where they’ve suggested perhaps I need to relax a bit. I get what alcoholism is and what it does. I also get that it’s sometimes a symptom rather than the cause, and in the instance to which I refer, it’s a symptom of chronic anger.

After watching chronic anger simmer down to brain pudding, I have, to put this whole chain of thoughts succinctly, decided that as long as no one’s telling me they hate me and wish I were dead, yelling is OK. Because the alternative shatters lives.

And so, as horrible as it may be for other people this holiday season, our lesson this Christmas season, boys and girls, is that it’s OK to get angry. And I’m finally understanding that yelling isn’t the worst thing that can happen.

It’s not yelling.


Homeless for the Holiday


Cathy Salustri homeless article

Reprinted with the permission of The Gabber Newspaper.
By Cathy Salustri

“Do you need blankets?” The black woman in the late-model SUV held out a dollar bill and, as I approached her to take it and stuff it in my McDonald’s cup, tried to make eye contact with me.

“No, I’m OK,” I mumbled, unable to meet her kind gaze. Yet she persisted.

“Are you sure? How about clothes?” Again, I told her I was OK. She gave up, adding, “Well, I go down to Williams Park sometimes, and if you ever see my truck there, please take what you need.”

She smiled goodbye at me as I thanked her; the light turned green and she drove away. My eyes followed her tan Ford, then turned to the bench by St. Mary’s where a real homeless man curled up and tried to sleep.

I have a home and a job, but nonetheless I stood on the corner of 4th Street and 5th Avenue South, hand-lettered cardboard sign in hand, trying to find out what it was like to beg on a street corner.

When my editor first suggested the idea to me, I agreed, but put it off as long as possible, avoiding the assignment because I assumed real homeless people would harass me, the police might arrest me, and I would get taunted by drivers. His perseverance finally won out, so two weeks before Christmas I donned my scummiest clothes, ripped a piece from a cardboard box, scrawled “Homeless- Please help”, and drove my scooter to downtown St. Pete.

St. Petersburg doesn’t have laws against panhandling, and you can see evidence of that on many street corners. This corner, however, appeared empty when I parked by the church and walked around the back to make it appear as though I had come from anywhere other than my vehicle.

By the time I got to the corner, a man stood there, his hands gripping a thin cardboard sign that simply said “HOMELESS”. I hesitated; I didn’t want a confrontation. As I tried to decide if I could stand on the opposite corner without causing a confrontation, he interrupted me.

“You want to work this corner?” He had to say it twice; anticipating hostility, his benevolence caught me off guard.

“Yeah, but you were here first.” He had a new Florida Blood Services Cap on and clean-ish jeans, and I automatically assumed he had a home. The notion of working street corners as a scam has occurred to me before; the idea of getting conned keeps my windows rolled up when I pass someone holding a sign proclaiming themselves homeless.

“Give me 10 minutes, just 10 minutes, OK?” I nodded and walked over to the cement pillar that welcomed people to St. Petersburg, leaned against it, and considered my options.

“Don’t go away!” he called out, so, more out of curiosity than any real expectation that he would give up his corner, I hung around. True to his word, a few minutes later, he walked over to me, battered knapsack in hand, and I got my first good look at him.

His jeans weren’t clean as I first thought; rather, they were meticulously cared for, as though someone had folded them carefully and taken great care to try and keep them clean. His shirt gave no appearance of having seen a washing machine in recent memory. Around his neck he wore dog tags and a large silver and black cross. His dark eyes looked resigned but not vacant or crazy, as I expected, and his skin had a gray, mottled undertone. He spoke softly.

“OK, let’s see how you do.” And with that, he went across the street, curled up on a bench, and left me to my street corner. I held my sign over my chest and stood as cars whooshed by me.

Worrying about people taunting me faded as I grasped the reality of the situation: the moment I held up my sign, I became invisible, a non-person. People looked through me and avoided my eyes. On the off chance they had to stop for a red light, drivers became inexplicably engrossed in setting the clock in their car, digging in their glove box, or making a cell phone call.
After five minutes, I stopped wanting to make eye contact with people. Despite my internal reminders that I had a home and didn’t beg money for a living, I devolved into a sub-person, on the fringe of a society determined to exclude me. I felt the total and complete exclusion from people who drove by me, on their way to warm homes or holiday parties. On another day, I might see these people, exchange pleasantries with them in line at the bank or smile at them at the grocery store, but at that moment, I ceased to exist for them.

Reminding myself that they were no better than me stopped working as I started to get irritated at the flagrant displays of consumerism coupled with the blatant disregard for my written plea for help. BMW’s, Nokia cell phones, and diamond rings all whizzed by me. No one stopped. Awkwardly aware that the day before I was one of these people, someone who looked anywhere but at the people holding up a sign, I got angry at the people driving past.

Then a pickup truck stopped; the driver rolled down his window. I didn’t understand at first until the driver held out his hand. As I approached, he said, “All I have is change,” almost apologetically.

Next the lady in the SUV pulled up and offered me blankets; a few other cars stopped and gave me a dollar here and there.
Somewhere in this time, the man who had given me his corner woke up and crossed the street again. As he approached me, I noticed he carried a t-shirt and a loaf of bread.

“You seem like a nice lady,” he said. I smiled at him, not sure what to say in return. He told me his name: Patrick. He served in Viet Nam.

“I want you to have this t-shirt,” he continued, holding out a blue t-shirt that proclaimed me a volunteer donor for Florida Blood Services. “It’s new and it’s never been worn. I gave blood today and they gave it to me, but I want you to have it.”

“I can’t take your shirt. I mean, thank you, really, but I can’t… don’t you need it?”

“You take it” and he shoved the shirt towards me, and I, torn between taking clothing I do not need from a homeless man and insulting his kindness, finally take the shirt and mumble “thank you”.

“I have some bread,” he says, showing me the loaf of Publix bread “would you like to break bread with me?”

I thank him, sincerely grateful, but draw the line at taking a homeless man’s food. I lie and say I’ve been ill and don’t feel like eating. He nods and says “I’m gonna go eat this over here so you can still make money.” And he walks away.
After he finishes eating, he comes back over to me.

“I live behind there,” he says, gesturing toward the welcome pillar “and I have three blankets. If you need a place to sleep, I won’t bother you or molest you or nothing. The medicine they give me… well, it makes me impotent, so you don’t have to worry about that. I won’t bother you.”

As I start to thank him, I see another man walking towards us. He has a bedroll, glasses, and seems upset by my presence. He starts walking towards me and yelling, but Patrick physically intercedes, getting between us and putting his hand on the guy’s shoulder.

“No, no, it’s OK, she’s a nice lady, really. Let’s go behind there and talk for a few minutes.” He steers the newcomer to his “house”, where they disappear.

My amazement stuns me into absolute silence and guilt; I barely mutter a thank you to the next few cars who stop and give me a dollar.

The last car that stops for me has seen better days. It has rust creeping around its corners, and the white paint dates back to Clinton’s presidency. A baby sleeps in a car seat. The lady inside rolls down her window and reaches into her wallet and hands me a wad of cash that I am too embarrassed to count.

As she pulls away, Patrick calls out to me a final time.

“Ma’am? It’s my turn. I’ve been good about this, but you’ve made your money.”

“Yeah, it’s my turn, I just got out of the hospital,” the other man chimes in. I had planned on staying until the sun set, but I will not argue with him. I feel sick at the idea of moving on to another corner, so instead I gather up my cup and my sign and walk across the street, making a roundabout return to my scooter.

As I do, I see a discarded heel of bread, leftover from Patrick’s supper. I nudge it with my toe. It has the consistency of limestone.

I return home and count my earnings. $17.50 for an hour’s time, all of which will go to St. Vincent De Paul’s soup kitchen. The woman in the beat up car with the baby gave me nine dollars, which I suspect was all she had.

I want to rush back to the corner and give it all to Patrick. I want to find these kind people and give their money back and apologize for misleading them.

But I do none of these things. Instead, I wash my face, change clothes, and head down to Gulfport Elementary to take photos of the Winter Celebration.

A little boy ringing jingle bells sings earnestly to a room full of warm, laughing people. His antics interrupt my reverie, and I laugh along with them.

And then my mind flashes back to Patrick, cars whizzing past him as he huddles on a bench, waiting his turn.

The Gabber gave the money collected to St. Vincent de Paul.