Saturday, November 7, 2009

When worlds collide

During my recent vacation, I spent lots of time with family and friends, but the best moment came when a complete stranger knocked me in the shoulder with a large candelabra.

The mishap occurred at the tail end of a wedding ceremony — the point at which the bossy wedding planner makes all of the guests line up behind the happy couple for a group portrait. There was lots of jostling and rearranging as the heavily hairsprayed planner tried to get us all into the frame. During the hubbub, I felt a jab in my shoulder and turned to see a tall-ish older lady carrying a candelabra that was even taller than she was. She'd been trying to move it so more people could squeeze into the picture. As the photo shoot ended, we realized that she'd actually spilled white candle wax on my wine-colored sleeve. After a brief discussion of how one removes wax from clothes, we parted ways, and I headed for the reception. I wasn't sure who she was; I had never seen her before, and I knew most everyone who had attended the small wedding, so I thought she might work at the church.

A short while later, I was getting settled at the reception with a plate of hors d'oeuvres and a glass of shiraz. At my left was a cluster of people I knew; at the right, to my suprise, was the candelabra lady. We started talking, and I learned that she was a good friend of the groom, my friend Alex, dating back to when she was his choir teacher in high school. She is also a long-time resident of the same Texas metroplex where he used to live, and where I had been a reporter for two years right out of school.

In some ways, this metroplex is like a tumbleweed in my memory. I don't know many people there anymore, and none who can reminisce with me about much of what happened when I lived there, or help me fill in the gaps.

I remember the area as a single point of urbanity in a giant Texas desert. The main city that I reported on was a place both distinctly Texan and at the same time strangely homogenized — it was both a test market for McDonald's, for example, and yet home to what was (at that time) the longest line dance ever performed to Billy Ray Cyrus's "Achey Brakey Heart." And no, I wouldn't remember these facts if certain factions hadn't been so very proud of them.

Unlike Boston, where I live now, things in Texas tended to be big and brand-new, from the state-of-the-art highway system, to the sprawling Six Flags Over Texas, to the multimillion-dollar baseball stadium being erected by George W. Bush and the other owners of the Texas Rangers. Equally big was the look of disgust worn by my then-colleague Shelby the day she returned from a tour of the new stadium. Asked to explain, Shelby, a very liberal and very pregnant woman, said sourly, "George Bush touched my stomach," then employed a string of expletives as she questioned what lapse of judgment had led her to follow her husband to Texas from South Carolina.

Though diverse by Texas standards, the area was mainly Republican, mostly Christian and, as I recall, home to a rather vocal chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. But it wasn't all like that. We had a large immigrant community, an active gay community, and a great strip of dance clubs, each named after a character from "Dallas." (For those too young to know, "Dallas" was a TV show much like "Gossip Girl," except that the characters were done with high school and living in Texas.)

I don't miss the area, but I have often wondered what had became of some of the people I worked with and covered. My friend Alex still goes to the area pretty regularly, but he refuses to read newspapers because they get ink on his hands, so he can't really help.

Enter the candelabra lady, Berta. As luck would have it, she is a close friend of a columnist at the paper where I used to work.

As the reception roared on, Berta and I toasted the columnist, and then she proceeded to relay, in what I had come to recognize as a mild Texas drawl, all she knew about the paper, the school board I used to cover, and other local goings-on. When she got to telling me about the various school board members, I could suddenly see my early-'90s self on the phone with education wonks, learning all about things like magnet schools and tax caps. At the time, I was only 22, and my personal tax experience was pretty much relegated to things like sales tax.

Finally I came up with a few questions Berta couldn't answer, so she actually rang up the columnist and put me on the phone with him. He insisted he remembered me and gave me all sorts of info on the paper and the community. When I got off the phone, I saw that Berta had ordered me a champagne, so we toasted a few more people.

We stopped chatting briefly while the cake was cut, and I thought to myself, "How amazing that I ran into this lady." Alex had been close with her in high school, so I've been hearing stories about her for 20 years, but somehow I had never managed to meet her.

Later, Berta ordered me another champagne — and not just a champagne, a delightful concoction she called a kir royale, which was made with a blackcurrant liqueur. Then she quite randomly mentioned the name of someone she knows on Martha's Vineyard, where I lived right after leaving Texas. His name rang a bell and, after comparing notes, we figured out that this friend is the owner of the first house I ever stayed in on the Vineyard — a restored fishing shack on Edgartown Harbor. I only stayed there for about a week while I was looking for my own apartment, but it looms large in my memory. It had a private dock, a view of Chappaquiddick, and the only California-king-sized bed I have ever slept in. I'm really not a total sucker for wealth, but the house was so beautiful, and it was such a respite to me that first night I saw it, fresh from my days-long car trip across the country, on my way to live on the East Coast for the first time. I remember getting there late that Friday night. It was the first time I'd ever seen the Vineyard, and everything about that house was so comfortable and welcoming, it made me feel certain I'd done the right thing by coming East. Though I haven't laid eyes on it in many years, I'm quite nostalgic about it.

As I took in this new information, I commented to Berta on how amazing it was that we'd finally met, and with such success.

"I know," she said. "And to think it all started when I spilled hot wax on you!"


  1. You draw beautifully Sasha and you've got raw talent! Some of your illustrations remind me of the artwork in 'The Little Prince.' Beautiful.

  2. Oh, you're very kind! Thank you so much — I really appreciate it!


Copyright 2009-2010 by Sasha Sark. Please don't reuse without permission.
"West African Dark Blue Cloth" image is displayed courtesy of the Richard F. Brush Art Gallery at St. Lawrence University.