Diane Duca, Reflecting on: The Plastic House
Adult First Place
Have you ever wanted to take back some stupid, thoughtless comment you made that inadvertently offended someone? Did you think of that brilliant response to a job interview question, but it didn't come to mind until the elevator doors opened to the lobby? Or, wanted to retrace your steps and go a different way as the path you chose was a dead end? It's only human that upon reflection, one wishes to “do-over”. Some more poignant experiences may even haunt you for years; if only I had…
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 2002
Addis Ababa sprawls over hills and gullies and is home for over 2.74 million people. On the Sunday of my first visit, there was little traffic when I walked from the Hilton Hotel down a street lined with masses of flowering jacaranda trees. An older, unaccompanied, white-faced woman with a big camera slung around my neck, I was a target for young men supposedly wanting to practice English, beggars, and curious children who darted across the street to tug on my skirts and shadow me.
The streets were littered; dirt blew in my eyes, gaping holes in the sidewalk made walking in my sandals treacherous. I crossed over the gray and slimy waters of the Bantiyiteku River that crosses the city. Two boys were bathing in it; several women pounded clothes on a rock at water’s edge. Sad, were women walking dazedly along the boulevard, clutching babies whose large eyes were expressionless and silent. It was hot; I got sunburned and tired of walking. I yearned for an outdoor café where I might sip a cold drink, but there were few and those appeared to cater only to men. And, I was weary of being an object of curiosity. I returned to the sanctity of the Hilton’s garden café to quench my thirst.
Restless, and with a few hours before dark, I again headed out. I decided to explore the hilly settlements behind the hotel. Immediately, I was tagged by three young boys. Were they lying in wait for a rich foreigner to emerge from the hotel? It was easier not to shrug them off and I let them lead me uphill to a complex of three churches. Aha! That was the source of the monotonous call to prayer that woke me that morning. The service for women was in progress. A priest spoke over a loudspeaker; the women prostrated themselves on the church steps and kissed the walls. The boys kissed the church gate in passing.
One boy spoke a smattering of English. He appeared to be the oldest of the three, perhaps nine or ten years. He was small and scrawny so it was hard to judge his age. He kept mentioning his “plastic house" in little boy gibberish. I didn't understand. Eventually I understood that he wanted me to visit his house. Surprisingly, I agreed. The boys grabbed my hands and pulled me back down the hill, so eager they were.
It was near dusk as I squeezed through a break in a corrugated aluminum fence, just a few blocks from the Hilton yet hidden from view. I felt like Alice tumbling down a rabbit hole into a different world. Narrow dirt paths wound between closely crowded hovels made of mud, sticks, disintegrating woven bamboo mats, and other odd scraps. This was home for hundreds of people. Charred remnants of cooking pots, broken glass, shreds of plastic bags, and other garbage lay carelessly tossed alongside the hovels.
The boys stopped before one such hovel and pointed to a sheet of plastic tarp that partially covered the “roof”. They smiled broadly. This, then, was the infamous plastic house. I was invited to enter. Somewhat reluctantly, I ducked through the entry which was but another piece of plastic serving as the door. It was dark inside; the only light came from the open doorway. One boy offered to light a tin can with a wick in oil but I shook my head saying, “Save your oil.” There was no electricity, no running water or sewers that I saw for the settlement.
The boy’s home had no furniture. They slept on mats that were laid on top of broken pieces of cement to protect them from the damp mud floor. A small ring of blackened stones, about the size of a dinner plate, was where they built a fire for heat and cooking. A teenaged youth in the house pulled aside a can for me to sit on. I sat, despite the discomfort.
The household included an old woman who was blinded years ago from a fire in just such a hovel; an old man, the teen boy, and one or two of “my three kids". Their relationship was not clear. I thought I understood that the older couple had been friends with one of the three boys’ mother and promised to care for them when she died. The old man squatting on the floor eating a plate of injera (a gray, pancake-crepe) smothered with wot (a red sauce). As he shoveled food into his mouth using his hands, he didn't once look up at me.
Donial, the teenager, told me they wanted more plastic for their shelter to cover the holes that let in rain and cold. That was my understanding of his little sales pitch, or maybe he just stated his hope for home improvements. Is that why the three young boys brought me here? Or, was it cool to tell their neighbors that an American lady visited their house? Were they actually proud of their plastic house?
My head buzzed with unanswered questions. I don't recall promising anything about plastic – I do not make promises I can't keep. But did I give that impression when I said I would be returning in several weeks?
Four weeks, three countries and ten cities later, I returned to Addis Ababa. I had one overnight before my next evening’s flight and stayed in a cheaper hotel not far from Hilton. That last day was spent discovering new streets and monuments. And I used the last of my birr on a taxi to the Ethnological Museum. Thinking I could find my way on foot back to my hotel, I got confused and walked in circles. After two exhausting hours, I found a policeman who led me to a road that he said would take me to the Hilton. I knew if I found it, I could find my hotel. That road went up a steep hill and eventually came to the backside of the churches I had visited with the boys. Relief washed over my hot, exhausted body and blistered feet. I hoped I wouldn’t see the boys again as I was too tired to deal with the encounter.
Past the Hilton and beginning the downhill to my hotel, I heard running footsteps. I dared not look around. It was the oldest of the three boys. “Do you remember me?" he asked. But I kept on walking. Why could I not gather the energy to acknowledge him? He followed a short distance, still calling on my memory. Finally I stopped and simply promised to send him the picture I took of the “threesome” which I did after returning home. But three months later, it was returned to me stamped, “post office address unknown".
Reflecting on my brief stays in Addis Ababa, I still reproach my shameful behavior. I thought only of my tired body and frustration from losing my way. What about the young boy would have felt confused, disappointed, perhaps angry at my dismissal? That one person cannot solve the city's poverty is a lame excuse. I could have made one family's life more comfortable, if only temporarily. Why did I not spend that last day finding a market, buying one piece of plastic tarp, and providing a modicum of comfort for a family in need? If only I could do over…
Joe Rice, The McNess Man
Adult Second Place
It is not always the spectacular that brings excitement to one's life. Sometimes it's the simple, barely contained anticipation triggered by the form of a dashingly handsome traveling salesman. Our family’s thrill was the monthly visit by the “McNess Man." His name was Mr. Hank. I'm not sure I ever knew his last name. We all just called him the “McNess Man" or “ Mr. Hank" when he visited and “Mr. Clean" when he was around. He looked like the television version of Mr. Clean with lots of muscle stretching out his dark suit and his bald head under a wide-brimmed cowboy hat.
He visited our house on the second Wednesday of each month at about 10 AM. Depending on the weather, five or six of my sisters and brothers would line up at the chain link fence in the front yard anticipating the newest product samples. Powdered Kool-Aid mix, small bottles of lotion or just small packets of soap, were perfect for each of us to have as our own. Sometimes there were even candies!
I was out there with them because I was the oldest and was responsible for making sure my younger siblings were not a complete embarrassment to Mom and the neighborhood. Truth be told, I looked forward to the visit as much as anyone – for a number of reasons. Mr. Hank always treated our family as if we were very important customers. It was plain to see that our street looked more like a dirt road than a paved one; all the houses on Dover were sort of painted in multiple Mexican pastel colors, with dusty rundown cars and pickups in front of each.
I knew we were the worst of the lot though. We were poorer than most and lived day to day with whatever we got from harvesting leftover fruit or vegetables from farms in the valley or from the welfare food bank. The house was a dirty dusty used-to-be white color with green trim. The fence in front set back enough to allow our one rusted station wagon to park off the street, usually alongside another vehicle lacking an engine or transmission, but representing a long-held dream of being a two-car family. Behind the fence was a dirt patch that we sometimes made into our own vegetable garden of watermelon, carrots, corn or potatoes. The cement walkway was on the left side of the sometime garden and led right up to the door of the front of house.
It was plain to see that we didn't have much money, yet, the McNess man faithfully stopped by on the second Wednesday of every month, just before lunch, to show Mom his stuff.
Mom prepared for this visit just like she prepared for a trip to the welfare office, the doctor's office, or the bail bondsman to get my dad out of jail – and, perhaps, a bit more. She showered, put on one or the other of her two dresses, and wore shoes, which were normally optional at our house. Her light brown hair was usually short, but she would comb it relentlessly to get it just right and then Bobbie-pin any loose hairs. She was forever-in-the-bathroom while we lined the fence, waiting to give her the early warning call so she would be looking relaxed and surprised to see Mr. Hank when he came to the door.
Once inside the house, we all proceeded to the living room with Mom in the lead. Mr. Hank followed and the rest of us pushed and shoved each other behind him as we maneuvered for position. He would sit in his usual place on the davenport, perched on the edge, and all the younger ones pressed up close and tight. Mom tried to shoo them back, but that didn't work. What did work with Mr. Hank opening his shiny leather-looking briefcase and taking out treats for the kids. Without regard for decency or manners, we grabbed what we could and scurried away back outside to savor the goodies.
Again, my job was to make sure everyone left Mom and Mr. Hank alone so they could go through what he brought to show and tell, and hopefully to sell. I used to go outside and sneak a look through the window to see what he had to show her. It always seemed the same and after a while it was boring watching them huddle on the davenport, knee to knee, as he brought out each box and container. Mom would beam and giggle with delight when something more personal was presented and a sample tried. After a while, and ashamed for spying, I would go around the house and block the front door, supervising everyone while they ate candies and played.
To pass the time I would pull out my pocketbook and continued the tale of cowboys, rustlers, and the occasional beautiful rancher's daughter who took no notice of the handsome and rugged foreman who pined away for her. Hours later, or so it seemed, Mr. Hank and Mom would exit the front door. He would gather her hand in his, not quite shaking it, and give his goodbye with a promise to be back next month. The kids came running and saw him to his station wagon, hoping all the while that he might have, as he often did, something extra as a parting gift. The back of the wagon would open and he would set his precious briefcase inside. Before he shut the back flap he would look at us for a moment, reach back inside, and pull out a familiar box of industrial sized powdered Kool-Aid mix to hand to one of my sisters. The screams of excitement were enough to draw the looks from our neighbors and I almost had a feeling of embarrassment, but not quite. Mom stood statuesque at the doorway holding her hands to her chest and smiled as she watched him slowly drive away from our house.
Mom’s spell broke and she opened the screen door to go back inside, we darted straight back to the living room to see what she might have purchased. There on the table sat powdered laundry soap, some dish soap, and various other cleaning products. Along with these essentials was a sample bottle or two of body lotion and some ointments for cuts and scrapes. As I sat next to Mom looking over the collection, I noticed how good she smelled with the recently applied perfume and how red and shiny her lips were, after, but not before, this visit. She looked beautiful and happy so I didn't say anything.
That evening when Dad came home from wherever and asked Mom how she paid for the case of soap and other stuff, I usually offered my answer before she could say anything. I told him old Mr. McNess stopped by whenever he had leftover stuff the company was just going to throw out. I told him that once in a while the Kool-Aid was real cheap.
Dad seemed satisfied. Mom and I momentarily locked eyes. Then breaking contact and turning away I saw the beginning of a small smile chase away the worry and stress of the moment. Her lips were no longer the color of ripe watermelon.
I like the excitement of the monthly visit by the dashingly handsome and young, Mr. Hank, the McNess Man. He brought treats for us kids.
More than that, he was the treat for my Mom.
Aimee Macdonald, Mettle on Metal
Adult Third Place
I am mettle
I am mortal
I am sterling
I am steel.
I am tempered
I am tested
I am tortured
I am real.
I have covered
I have coped and
But no more.
I am metal
I am more.
I have loved it
And have lost it
And have mourned it
And grown more.
End of story
I am sterling
To the core.
Abigail Alper, Pictures on the Water
Youth First Place
Does the heron ever look down
in the rushing river
while he is fishing, and get distracted by
Does the Man in the Moon ever look down
in the serene lake at night
and wonder about the
millions of stars, shining brightly behind him?
Does the flying fish ever look down
and see himself in midair
and wonder at this scales glistening
in the morning light?
Or is it only the humans
Who will gape and stare longingly at
the pictures on the water?
Thomas Ghebreyesus, The Time Traveler
Youth Second Place
A mystical time in a far-away land: Childhood
Oh, with my past etched in stone
When moving was as graceful as a flowing river
When your toys were alive and jubilant and
You entered your own paradise
When everything was fair and
The Scales of Justice were at the forefront of your morals
When creativity and imagination roamed far and wild
When summer days seemed to last forever
When the moon and the stars would unite
To paint a majestic image up in the night sky just for you
When it was acceptable to have a dot of ice cream
At the tip of your nose on a scorching summer day
With your hands all messy from the refreshingly molten treat
When fears were non-existent and happiness filled your soul
As the world was your oyster and you were the pearl
When the moon seemed to accompany you on the ride home
When you had faith in things unseen and
Could reach for the glowing stars
When love was inescapable
Through the angelic voice of your mother,
The altruistic actions of your father,
The gleaming sparkle in the eye of your grandmother, and
The sympathetic yet unforgettable words of your grandfather
Life was simple then, but now, it has transformed.
Savannah Steffen, The Red One
Youth Third Place
A blue eyed girl watches from below
silently pleading with the sky with puppy-dog eyes
for taking away her floating friend.
Her friend with red skin, a dangling tail rippling behind
Welcomed warmly by the clouds,
the entire world reflecting on the glossy surface.
Houses, roads, trees, cars
all flashing across the traveling projector screen
of the helium-enclosed wonder.
The fluffy white, whispering past gently,
with only soft currents applauding it upward
to better things – to a new horizon.
It floats on, simply observing the good and bad:
the rich sky blue and the hazy smog,
the luscious green and the scattered litter
it mirrors it all, on its thin skin, and the red balloon