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Vegan Collards- Part 4 “Creating Flavor Balance”

The final step to cooking excellent vegan collards is creating flavor balance.  As you continue to prepare leaves and add them to the broth, you may have to add additional broth.  Collards cook down, but when dealing with an extremely large mess, it’s always good to have extra broth on hand.

Broth pot, full of goodness.

I like to skim broth off of my currently bubbling cauldron of leftover vegetable goodness, and then pour the ladle through a hand strainer (as shown below).

My tiny, hand-held strainer, inherited from my grandmother.

If you made your broth the day before or are using store bought broth, this step is easier, but it’s really good to know how to make broth on the fly, just in case you need it and discover you don’t have enough.

Our beautiful collards, just turning bright green.

Taste your broth (don’t burn your tongue).  The collards have to simmer for at least one hour, so you’ll have lots of time to figure out your flavor balance.

Peter Peppers from my garden, flavoring vinegar.

The blend of spicy, sour, sweet and savory are always in flux, maturing as the collards cook and maturing further overnight.  This past fall I used our final push of spicy peppers from the garden to flavor several glass containers of vinegar, which I keep in the fridge like some kind of pickle hoarder.  If you have any such thing, use it, it’s delightful.  I also enjoy adding “Scott’s Barbecue Sauce” (which is where I got this delightful bottle), to my collards if I have some laying around.

Sweet brown sugahhhhh!

A couple of pinches of brown sugar helps to mimic the flavors we get from ham or bacon.

I use about this much.
Sour balance.

You don’t have to have pepper vinegar or Scott’s Barbecue Sauce to make collards taste good, plain white vinegar can be dressed up with spices too.

Taste for salt balance.  People are hesitant to use too much salt, but keep in mind that if this is a very large pot of collards, the salt is dispersing through a very large amount of pot-liquor. The key is to taste, correct,  then taste again.

Garlic powder helps your vinegar taste delicious.  Purchasing spices in the ethnic aisle of the grocery store (or at the local dollar store), is a great way to get the most economy out of buying spices, especially for making large vats of food, or if you’re a daily cook.

My favorite hot sauce.

If you need to kick up the spice, use your favorite hot sauce.  Texas Pete is made here in North Carolina, but is hard to come by if you live in another state.  No worries, Tabasco works too.

Pizza flakes!

I never make collards without crushed red pepper.  It kicks up the spice, but be careful, the heat blooms over time.

Set a timer for an hour and let your collards simmer with the lid on.  Stir once or twice through to make sure that there is enough pot-liquor so that leaves don’t stick to the bottom of the pot.  I’ve never burned collards yet, but I’m sure it’s not out of the realm of possibilities, especially if a lot of steam is escaping.

After an hour, taste again and correct if necessary.  Taste the leaves- are they soft enough for you (and your audience) to enjoy?  If not, let them simmer for another 30 minutes- 1 hour and check again.  More mature plants have thicker leaves which may require more cooking to match the texture that you enjoy.

When I cut the heat off of the eye of the stove, the collards will continue to stew and develop until they cool.  If you’re waiting to put them in the fridge, this may be a while.  The best thing about vegan collards (aside from their kindness and economy), is that you won’t run the risk of meat spoiling in them when left out.

I finished up this batch at about 11 pm.  They were going with me to work at 9 am, so I simply left my collards on the stove to cool all night.  By 8 am, they were still slightly warm due to their sheer volume.  If you do need them to cool faster to refrigerate, transfer the collards to a big, flat oven pan.  Surface area is your friend when cooking a cauldron of anything, and cooling food before putting it into the fridge prevents spoilage and bacteria.  Cool to room temperature, then transfer.  When reheating, reheat to boiling and allow to boil at least 15 minutes to keep your pot-liquor broth sterile.

Collards and black-eyed peas are an ultimate Southern comfort food.  Add some cornbread and sop up all of that delicious pot-liquor.  You deserve it!

Vegan Collards- Part 3: how to prepare the leaf

I was gifted these beautiful collards, fresh from the ground. If you buy collards from the grocery store, they will already be mostly washed and the leaves will already be cut from the stalk, making a little less work for you. However, if you grow your own, or get gifted something as beautiful as homegrown collards, it can seem a little overwhelming.

These collards are too big for my sink.

I got really lucky, these collards came to me very clean, however, that isn’t always going to be the case.  There are 2 main ways to wash collards: 1.) Washing them in the washing machine without any soap (take off of the stem first).  2.) Washing in a sink.  I’m going to rinse mine in the sink because I have a large sink and these are pretty clean.

Cutting leaves off of the main head.

I actually moved one of the collard plants to the top of my washer nearby to start cutting leaves because these were so large.

Large leaves, filling my sink in a stack.

I like to work with 3 large leaves at a time when chopping. Rinse your leaves and pile them, 3 deep, on your cutting board.

A stack, 3 deep, large collard leaves.

Collards, especially large, mature ones, have a rib down the center that is best removed.  These ribs can be saved and either added to the current broth, frozen for future use, or thrown to your chickens/composted.  There’s almost no reason to throw away collard ribs, you just don’t want them in your finished product, they can be pretty tough.

Rib cut out.
Ribless collard leaves.

At this point, I usually cut the collard in half vertically and fold it over, making it 6 half-leaves deep.  I then either cut it into fourths or thirds, depending on how large the leaf is.  These leaves are massive.

 

 

Folded over half-leaves, cut into fourths.

I then layer these 4 strips nearly on top of each other.  Some people call this “rolling the collards” into almost a tube.

Strips of collards, ready to be cut.

Now slice these into small, manageable pieces.  Some people use a tool called a collard shredder (it kind of looks like a cookie cutter, but sort of serrated.)  I own one, but with this many collards, thought cutting them would be best.

Slicing your collards into workable pieces.

I keep a large bowl nearby to put my smaller pieces in while I work on the next 3 leaves, however, these leaves were so large, just 3 of them filled up my bowl.

Large glass bowl full of collards, ready to boil.

I immediately dumped these cut collards into my pot full of onion/pepper/broth mixture, stirred them in, and started on the next 3 leaves because of space issues.  Our next blog will be about the simmering process and adding more flavor to your collards.

 

Vegan Collards- part 2

The key to making flavorful collards is in the layering of flavors. Our previous blog starts with the broth making process, this one will focus on the next layer of flavor, savory bits. Typically meat (usually pork, but sometimes chicken stock), provides this base in collard-making.  Here, we’re going to layer flavors by sautéing other vegetables.

Minced onion and bell pepper.

Onions and bell pepper are my typical go-to, but it’s not unusual for me to add jalapeño or serrano peppers as well.  If I’m making these in spring, I may have fresh garlic and leeks from the garden.  Essentially some allium and pepper combo works best.

Possible oil choices in my house at this moment.

Oil choices add another layer of flavor to your collards.  If you’re truly making them vegan, don’t choose butter of course.  I’m a big fan of making this dish with olive oil.  Today I’m choosing butter, because I have plenty of it and not as much olive oil.  You’ll instantly smell the difference in cooking with butter vs. other oils during the blooming phase.  Blooming, is allowing spices to simmer for a minute or so in the oil before adding vegetables to the sautée.

Cracked black pepper and Morton’s Nature’s Seasoning to be bloomed.
Blooming spices.

After blooming your base spices, add vegetables and sautée, allowing the onions to become translucent and the peppers to char slightly.

Slight char layers the future flavor of the dish.

By this time, your stock, if using two pots in tandem, should be about half-way finished.  Using a ladle, scoop a couple of generous spoonfuls of half-finished broth into the sautéed peppers and onions.  If broth is not available, use enough water to just cover the cooked vegetables and lower the temperature to a simmer.

half-finished broth.
Veggie broth and sautéed vegetables simmering into deliciousness.

Let your veggies marinate and simmer in all of that broth goodness while you prepare your collard leaves, which is Part 3 of our blog!

Broth and sautéed vegetables simmering while you clean collards.

Vegan Collards- Part 1: broth

There have been several folks who have contacted me about making vegan collards.  My way of making almost anything is less a recipe and more a suggestion, so I took some step by step pictures of me actually making a HUGE MESS of vegan collards.  If you’re the type of person who needs a concise recipe with measurements, this “recipe” is not for you, but if you’re like me and cook with just ideas and a mouth, you’ll love these suggestions for layering flavor so that collards taste like food.

If you’re adept at making broth and flavored stocks out of nothing, you might want to skip this part, but you may find something useful in here, who knows.  Ingredients are all visually shown.

If you already have broth handy, you don’t need 2 pots.  If you don’t, you’ll need 2 pots or you’ll need to make up your broth in advance.

Let’s say that you’re starting from literally nothing.  How do you flavor water?

Salt, peppercorns, bayleaf, whole garlic, red pepper flakes.

If these are the only ingredients you have, use them.  Cover with enough water suitable for the amount of collards you’re making, and make that water salty enough to be a light brine, like when you boil noodles.

If this is all you have, you can totally use it. Add more garlic cloves, peppercorns or bayleaves if you want more.

Vegan Collards require an onion and a pepper.  If you’d like, use different types of peppers, including hot ones.  Whatever peppers or onions you decide to use, cut the ends off first and toss them into your broth water.

The pepper and onion you’re using for the collards anyway.

Cover with water, heat until it boils, bring heat down to a simmer.  Broth should be ready in 45 minutes.  However, if you want to step this up a notch and you happen to be a person who keeps vegetable ends in your freezer (if you are not this person, start being this person now), add all you can to the pot and cover with just enough water to top veggies.  The more flavor, obviously, the better.

Baggie of vegetable ends from my freezer.

This particular bag contains more pepper and onion ends, squash ends, basil stems and collard ribs from my last batch.  Collard ribs are excellent for making future collard broth as it just compounds that delicious pot-liquor flavor.

Ready to simmer. Yep, that’s a lime wedge. Lime and lemon juice brightens any simmering based recipe. Try it!

Non-profit Frustration Cry to the Universe

 

It’s the end of the year, the season of giving, and I’d be a fool at this point if I said I wasn’t concerned.  We just paid rent and salaries for the 2 week period, and I’m looking at the bank account, wondering, how are we going to pull this off?  I’ve got $325 in checks to deposit on my desk.  I’ve got about $600 in our Paypal account.  Our rent was $900, so if I transfer the contents of the paypal and get those checks in, that will cancel out.  It’s the 16th of December. Payroll just happened.  Are we going to even get enough money together to be able to make the next payroll?  What about the rest of the bills?

 

Being that the month is half-over, I’m terrified.  Please tell me that there is someone out there in the world who’s just waiting until 11:59 on Dec. 1st to send us a few thousand dollars.  Please tell me that.  In the non-profit world, most of the monetary giving you’re going to get to sustain you through summer comes in December.  You’ll be the most broke you’ll ever be around August.  August, this past year, was the time period that I refer to as “the -$141 bank account” month.  Seriously, we paid rent, and had NEGATIVE $141. Almost nothing is scarier than that, except the idea that instead of running into this problem in August, it might be pushed up to April.

 

What more can I do to show people that we need money to operate?  What can I do?  People will bring us literal truckloads of things.  Things that the total cost of was probably several hundred dollars, but they absolutely will not write a check for that amount.  They have to “control it”.  The sad truth is that if I don’t have a building to keep the things in, and a staff to hand them out, then I have no way to get the things to the people.

 

 

I have 2 staff members who are so incredibly dedicated, both of which could make more money almost anywhere else, doing almost anything else, but they stick it out here with me, because they are called to this cause like I am.  What can I do to make people understand that if our staff can’t get paid one day, they too may face homelessness, the very thing they’re fighting tooth and nail every single day?  I’ll find a way to get that last check to them, if it comes to that, I’ll take it out of my own savings account, but that won’t help them get jobs faster if we can no longer pay them.  Is that what I say?  What is it going to take?

 

What is it going to take?  This past August, what it took, was a frank e-mail where our pastor simply stated, “If we do not get operating funds, the center will be closing on Sept. 1st”.  That is what it took.  Am I going to be writing a letter every 4 months with our predicted closure date?  This isn’t an invitation for a well-meaning person to tell me how I can save $50 on our phone and internet bill (which I say, because someone actually did that), this is just my frustration cry into the world.

 

This isn’t an invitation for you to say “So what’s your overhead”?  I will literally laugh at that.  Our “overhead” is so miniscule, you’d be confused as to either laugh or cry just looking at it.  I’m not publishing our bank account online, for all of the privacy reasons, but if you would like to see it personally, I’ll show it to you on my laptop.  I can even show it to you on my phone.  Is that what it’s going to take?  Is it going to take me, running around with our bank statement pulled up on my phone, showing upper-middle class people that if they give us some money, it has places to go?

 

Maybe that’s what it’s going to take.

All The Needs

My living room and ungrateful cat. The amazon boxes are Maxi-pads. 

 

I’m supposed to be taking the day off, because it’s Saturday, and I haven’t had a day off in 2 full weeks. So far I’ve managed to thwart 3 attempts for me to do center work on my day off, 2 of which would have involved more donations in my living room (my living room is full of donations that are carted to the center daily in the back of my tiny car). The third would have involved me driving to pick up food in Rolesville. All of these things would have required time, gas, energy, and me gulping down yet another on the fly nutrition bar and running out the door instead of having brunch with my husband, like I promised him.

I haven’t eaten a meal with my husband in over a week. I haven’t cooked a meal in my home in longer than that. My job is an endless, 24-7 thing that, without extremely defined boundaries, I could literally do nothing but it, constantly. I could even do it in place of sleep and there would still be plenty to do. By 2 pm, Friday, I was an exhausted lump in my office, talking to the pastor. He was advising me to take very defined time to myself because, “there aren’t many jobs where people expect you to work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and then shame you if you don’t, but this is one of them. People will do that to you, if you let them in this business.” He’s not wrong. I already feel this way.

When I walked outside and realized that I was going to have to take one of our folks to the ER, I could have dropped to my knees and sobbed. You don’t simply drop someone off at the ER, especially not one of our very emotionally damaged people (and this one is), you have to make sure that you stay with them, at least a bit, and then I also realized that they are going to see this person and literally make them leave afterwards. He was going to be leaving in crutches and had been sleeping in the woods. He had: crutches, two heavy bags, 1 broken pair of glasses and couldn’t see. The hospital was going to discharge this person, who had no money and no home, out into the world, injured, with no way to get anywhere with their primary mobility (walking) gone.

Again, I could have fallen to my knees and sobbed. I knew I was in for what could quite possibly be an all-nighter for me that could end up with me dropping a hobbling man off at some woods somewhere while he cried in my car, and talked about how no one cares for him. This moment is one of the reasons that I would be very hesitant to hire someone to work for us who was in their early twenties, because if I was younger, I would have had a hobbling, homeless man sleeping on my couch to care for all weekend. While there are some of you out there who would say “OF COURSE YOU SHOULD DO THAT”!!! Let me tell you why, very explicitly, as a social-worker, you don’t do that:

1.) Now that person knows where you live and what everything in your house looks like.
2.) That person has friends who they will bring to your house. You WILL, not maybe, but WILL end up with people, probably a group, knocking on your door at 3 am and asking to sleep on your floor.
3.) Now you have a regular group of people who sleep on your floor and bring other friends over. One of the friends isn’t a “real friend”, two days later, your house gets robbed while you’re at work.
4.) If you have a husband, extended family, children, etc., now they are familiar with the ever growing group of people coming to sleep on your floor and use your shower. People regularly ask you for money and rides. People are waiting outside your house as soon as you leave to go to work and want a ride to the center. People are waiting at your house after you get off of work, wondering if you’re making dinner. Your dog no longer barks and random people on your property. You get robbed again, this time while walking your dog. Someone you told “no” to at work is angry at you, so they peed in your closet and broke all of your dishes.

See how quickly that spun out of control? Can you imagine how overwhelmed with pure need you would be every day? Can you imagine never, ever getting a rest from constantly hearing the absolutely most heart-breaking stories 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with no safe haven? How do you think that would work on say, your marriage? How about your friendships? How about your sanity?

That’s why I could have fallen to my knees and cried- I was exhausted, on a Friday, with no end of my day in sight. No dinner with my husband. No hanging out with friends. No shower. Just unbridled, desperate need. I was able to find a place that would take our friend last night, but he’ll have to tell them that he has a drug or alcohol problem, even if he doesn’t, in order to stay longer. I got lucky. How many more times am I going to have to make an impossible decision?

If you ever hang out in our office, at some point in time, one of us or our volunteers will rush in, shut the door, and sigh the biggest, deepest, saddest sounding thing that you’ve ever heard. It happens several times a day. We usually just respond with “All the needs?” Yep, “all the needs”.

Someone is walking down the hall repeating “Hold on, hold on just one sec”, hands loaded with stuff, with another person trailing them, talking a mile a minute. We look at each other. “All the needs today?”

There are often moments, where I have no less than 5 people making immediate demands of me all at the same time. “Hold on guys, let’s do this one at a time.” I start pointing at the person to the right and go down. The guy at the end gets mad and says “Fuck that, you’re racist.” I stop. “Do you want to tell me how I’m racist again for asking 5 people in order what they need and then getting it for them FOR FREE?” Sometimes I get an apology later. Sometimes I don’t.

I’ll be on the way to get the last person’s thing, and another person will ask me for something and the phone will ring. Five minutes later I’m standing there, finished phone call, some needed thing in hand. A person taps me on the shoulder. With the saddest eyes you’ve ever seen, in the saddest voice you’ve ever heard, they say “You forgot about me. You forgot about me, again.”

This is my day, on a repeated loop. I walk into the office. I sigh. Blu pops around the corner, “All the needs?” Yup. All the needs.

To read Blu’s latest blog about Community, click here.  If you’d like to donate to help with the needs, click here.  

Broth

 

Sunday, Hugh did his “Hughscast”, which is a Facebook Live stream that he does on Sunday nights, while I’m at work at Flex Nightclub, so I never get to see it until the next day. I go straight home from work, get all 4 hours of sleep that I can, go back to work at Love Wins, work with him all day, and I’ve not seen what he talked about on the “Hughscast” the night before.

He started this past Sunday’s with something I said when he told me that there was some restaurant in New York that serves nothing but broth. I think I said something like “Great, we missed our calling, making free food out of shit you’d put in the trash”, and it’s true, I save ziplock bags of bones, vegetable ends and herb stems in my freezer. I own a freezer full of trash that I later make into food. I consider owning broth, or at least it’s components, a sort of rite of passage into self-sufficient adulthood.

Sometimes, out of a terrible experience, comes something beautiful. It feels rare and it’s only seen in retrospect. I moved across the country for a boyfriend that didn’t work out. At the time, I thought I had ruined my life. I no longer had my job in television, and couldn’t get it back. I was stuck working places that my heart just wasn’t in. I had a boyfriend who was the most difficult person I’d ever dated. I cried in my car. I dreaded him coming home from work because I never knew what I was going to get; was he going to flip out? Was he going to be depressed? Was he angry? It was stressful.

In retrospect, though, my life improved and became amazing. Had I not moved back to North Carolina, it would have been a different path. I would have never met all of the amazing people I know, I’d have never met my husband, worked with CMF, bought my house or found my calling at Love Wins. I’m sure it would have been a good life of some kind, but it wouldn’t be this life.

When I came to the center in April, the big debacle had just happened. The old staff had quit, a bunch of our donors were skeptical of what was going on, it looked like the end of the world. The center had been closed for a week, and the situation was just garbage. The taxes got paid and the 501(c)3 was attained. We were broke, and things were scary, but our staff is the most devoted crew that anyone could imagine. We, together, did things that I would ask of no one. Working ceaselessly for no pay, because there was none to be had. Relying on prayers and social media to solve problems. We were developing the broth.

When your choices for employees are the 150 resumes you got off of your posted craigslist ad, chances are they aren’t always that devoted; they might be good people, but they aren’t “true believers” in the sense that our staff is. Looking back, it seemed like maybe there were too many degrees in that office. Too many non-profit folks who were probably looking for something “better”. Love Wins isn’t a non-profit that “helps the homeless” in a traditional sense. We don’t sit behind desks and hand out identical toiletries. We don’t have an extensive file on everyone who walks through the door. We don’t ask people lots of personal questions and invade their privacy. We’re just different. We’re a spicy broth.

Looking back, we now realize that what the old staff did might have actually been the best thing for Love Wins- it gave our organization the chance to change and grow in a totally different way. Our staff are, what we call, “the people who showed up”. We showed up with no expectation of a paycheck, no preconceived notions, nothing motivating us except the desire to help others, and the determination to see Love Wins remain and succeed. I know that we’ll have to continue to manage the damage that the previous staff caused to both our bank account as well as our reputation, but we’re all new people. We’re an entirely different group, running this organization the best way we know how with complete transparency. We made a spicy broth, we made soup, and then we shared it with everyone. We made it all with things that other people threw away.

What Could You Say?

Two days ago we all got some wonderful news, one of our community members, who I consider a friend, had finally had her baby. It was a beautiful baby boy named Colt Gauge, born of a good weight (over 7 lbs.), with a perfect little nose, beautiful lips, and adorable, chubby little baby legs. We were happy for her and her husband. She had been an “at risk” pregnancy, and had been taking medication (in the form of painful shots), to keep her from dilating early. Her delivery was an emergency c-section, but all seemed well and she was resting and able to post pictures for us to see.

Yesterday, we got some terrible news. As quickly as he came into this world, Colt passed away, almost exactly 24 hours after he was born. Why? We don’t know yet, and I’ve texted her, but I haven’t called her yet, because honestly, aside from “I’m so sorry”, followed by sobbing, I don’t know what else I can say to her. I’m speechless. I’ve got nothing. She moved out of state to live with family, so I can’t even give her a hug.

I can’t even imagine what it’s like to grow a being inside of you for 9 months, give birth, and then only have that tiny life for 1 day. It overwhelms me with grief. I think of every moment of her pregnancy, her at every stage. Us holding baby things for her in the office. How excited she was when someone donated a pack n’ play for Colt. How she loaded up everything into their car so that she could be closer to UNC, just in case there were any complications. I remember that tearful, 8 am phone call when she and her husband were on the way to Florida to stay with family, so that they would have a home to bring the baby to.

I had easily imagined holding him when they came back to visit. Playing Auntie. Carrying him around the center in one of those slings while everyone got to visit with each other. Seeing his picture, which looked exactly like his little ultrasound photo, only gave more reality to what I had imagined. I had imagined her getting that job that was waiting for her after she got healed up, and them making a permanent home.

Life isn’t fair. It just isn’t. It isn’t fair to experience loss after loss like this. It isn’t fair that she has lost so much, struggled so hard, and only lost more. It isn’t fair that a person can have a full-term pregnancy, while being homeless, only to have the baby die AFTER it’s born, in the hospital at that. She said that “He went to be with Jesus”, and that tears me up, because I don’t know if that’s even a thing I would say to comfort her. I can’t say “He’s in a better place”, he hadn’t even lived yet. It feels empty and condescending. All I can say is “I love you, and I’m so, so sorry. Colt was loved, and he won’t be forgotten”.

Choices and Second Chances

“I met a man today who had never met his father because he had been in prison his whole life, he died there. His mother also died in prison of breast cancer while he, himself was serving time in prison. He was born into a gang. He’s known no other life. He was tatted head to foot in gang tattoos. He’d been out of prison for 5 days. He’s never used a cellphone or the internet. He’s never seen facebook.

I sat with this man while he told me about the challenges of having not seen the outside world- not knowing how to act. Having no ID, people already offering him drugs, knowing that if he’s in hiding, his gang can find and kill him. Feeling the emotions of having been someone respected in prison, to coming out into a world where he was a “nobody”. Wondering if he can navigate this world, or if he’ll end up back in prison, and if that might not be better.

Prison: a place that people emerge from, unprepared for the modern world.”

I wrote this on my facebook page on Tuesday. The memory of my interaction with this man haunted me all night, to a point that I was having difficulty holding a conversation with my husband. One doesn’t end up serving 26 years in federal prison without a reason; I mean, there are probably some that do, but this guy wasn’t one of them. He freely admitted what he did and owned the time he served for it. For some reason, even though his story is anonymous, I don’t feel at liberty to share it; some things are better left unsaid.

Although I knew exactly who he was, as he was telling it to me, I was unafraid. Fear isn’t really something we can afford in this business, and there was something in him that shone; I could tell that he was at a crossroad. In these short days, his life could go either way. I sat with him and we talked for over an hour. He was trying to get to Wilmington because the only person he knew in the world was there, and he would have a place to stay. If he remained on the streets in Raleigh, given these circumstances, he would certainly go to jail, or worse, prison again. Any way I looked at it, it was nearly unavoidable.

He had no ID, more than one felony, and people are ineligible for any type of aid when they first come out of prison (I know this because I’ve dealt with that before). His choices would be, at this point, panhandling, which he had too much respect for himself to do, and selling drugs or worse. I decided that getting him a ticket to a place where he at least has some chance of being successful was the best course of action. He was gracious. He never asks people for help. He doesn’t really know how. I wish him well, and I hope with all of my heart, that he lays low, finds something to truly care about, and finds happiness. He’s done his time, he deserves a chance.

Giving Away Privilege

I grappled, standing in the morning sun on the day I was to get my tattoo, with the last shreds of fear- I was purposefully giving away a piece of my camouflage.  This camouflage had allowed me to navigate charity Galas, high-end department stores, IEP meetings for my niece and speaking engagements.  It cloaked me in middle-class invisibility when breezing through the racks of Brooks Brother’s in Austin, TX, unfettered and virtually unnoticed; not a second glance given to me as I took a handful of dresses straight into the dressing room sans attendant.

I realized that in a few short hours, long gone would be the days that I could simply walk into a jewelry store and try on anything I wanted without so much as a glance.  I’d no longer be able to talk to elementary school students without first explaining “What is that on your hands”, and I knew for certain that there would come some point in time where someone was going to treat me poorly, maybe even publicly, for the societal stain that I was going to purposefully wear for the rest of my life.

Then again, that was the point.

“You’re old enough to get a job-killer”, my friend, Sandra reassured me over a cocktail in our favorite watering hole.  That’s what these types of tattoos are called; job-killers.  Job-killers refer to a specific subset of tattoos; ones that not only can’t be hidden, but are so highly visible that most employers won’t even take a resume or application from someone owning a job-killer.  Hands, neck and face tattoos all qualify in the “job-killer” category.  These are the tattoos that your artist will have a special talk with you about before you get them, if they’re an ethical artist.

I’m 39 years old this year, and throughout my adult life, I’ve realized that I’ve been very lucky.  I’ve always had amazing jobs.  The best jobs I’ve ever had have all been in places where I could have had a spider tatted on my nose and it wouldn’t have made a difference (except that I would have had a pretty interesting nickname, I’m sure), but I’ve been lucky.  I was born cognitively intact, white, attractive enough for all normal purposes, average height and weight; I started my life camouflaged in “normalcy”, where my differences were considered to be “artistic” or “quirky”.  I was allowed the privilege of being seen as “interesting”, which is an asset to finding amazing jobs.

In the community of people experiencing homelessness, several observations can be noticed.  There are typically more people of color than white people.  There is an abundance of “job-killing” tattoos.  In addition to tats being visibly placed, many express pain.  R.I.P (Rest in Peace) tattoos with people’s names are often found as neck tattoos.  Four-lettered words fit nicely on fingers.  Expressions of hatred of the police (“Fuck 12” or “Fuck the Police”), gang symbols, face teardrops and marijuana leaves are often displayed openly, making interaction with police officers even more difficult than they have to be.

Tattoos are expressions of periods of time.  People who experience extreme difficulties (prison, abuse, frustration with society) often express themselves through body artwork- these days we all do.  Great lengths are taken by friends of mine to create the most perfect tattoo for themselves; thought, artist research (both in the drawing of the design and in the skill of the tattoo artist), placement and of course, if the design is compatible with their careers.  In a society where spending time in prison is rewarded with a lifetime of homelessness and an inability to be hired anywhere, career tattoo placement isn’t really a consideration, survival is.

In a few short hours, I would have something worthy of being stared at in the grocery line.  A commitment that would make little old ladies shake their heads and roll their eyes.  A brand that would reward me with the ability to be followed closely through that high-end department store, eyes focused on everything I touched.  I’ll have something that no amount of middle-class mediocracy can cover up.

I can choose to dress it up, though.  I can choose to talk about it, to present it with careful words.  I can begin a conversation with it.  Our community members can’t change being black, having been born with mental illness, having served time, past associations or many of their circumstances.  I’d still have plenty of privilege, even if I gave some of it away.  I’ve decided to give it to them.