Friday, November 26, 2010

Friday, bloody Friday

The bodies, compressed shoulder-to-shoulder, gut-to-gut, pulsate as one unit. Expanding with the inhale, quivering in anticipation with the exhale. Pacing from foot to foot, cheeks red and anxious, hovering over the Saran-wrapped pallet.

The bodies wait, staring at the immobile plastic mountain, elbows pressed outward to mark their space, their ranking in line based on who got there first. Hierarchy rules.

The supply is limited, which heightens the stress and competition. In this tight bubble, there is no room for sharing, no consideration for need. The poor and the greedy perch on the same branch, rewarded solely by their aggression and steady commitment to piercing the plastic barrier.

The bodies have been waiting weeks for the looming moment when the plastic is removed and they can possess the object underneath. This is important. Pivotal.

I have been here before.

It is 2008. I stand in the center of a circle on a refugee camp in Uganda, my hand on a plastic-covered stack of pink mosquito nets that we are distributing. This part of the world has one of the highest death tolls by malaria -- one child dies every 30 seconds from this preventable, mosquito-borne illness.

Mothers wearing dirty babies press toward the thin rope that we strung between trees, hoping to create some semblance of order. At first, it works. But as time crawls on, the tension swells. I hear the crowd growing in my ears, like a rabid dog pushed into the corner. I try to stay calm, to somehow send peace across the crowd.

But the dirt-lined faces begin spitting at me, shouting and demanding. They are sick of waiting. I rationalize with myself, knowing that I am here out of love, knowing that fear is the opposite of love. I reject the fear. Breathing. Breathe. I summon compassion, for the refugees' suffering, for their desperation. They are fighting to survive. I stand still and accept their anger, words slapping my face like cold, open palms. Now fists.

A sharp hand claws a mosquito net out of my hands, and the man runs away like a frightened thief. He thinks there are not enough nets, and this is a matter of life or death. I feel a chill rise, and with the crescendo, the crowd bursts through the rope barrier, a sea of despondency. The levy breaks.

I frantically look for an exit out of the mob. Claws, ripping, my heart chokes in my throat. I have no saliva. In its place, the rusty taste of fear. The riot explodes at my feet. I scream and tear for any exit, through arms and faces and sweat. With the next pound of my heartbeat, I suddenly understand the fight for life or death.

Ah yes. I have seen this before.

I look across the crowd, anxious bodies, circling a mountain of plastic-wrapped goods. Only this time, I am staying on the outside of the throng.

And this time, the mob swarms around a stack of DVD players that are discounted 70 percent for Black Friday.

This time, the mob is fighting for -- what?

I laugh.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Window shopping

Indisputably, the creepiest thing about me is how much I love to people-watch.

When I lived in the city and not North-side-til-I-die Longmont, my favorite hobby was to walk through the neighborhoods around 6 p.m., right when everyone was shuffling around their homes after work. It was late enough that they turned the lights on, illuminating their windows like miniature stages, but early enough that they still left their curtains open.

My interest wasn't perverse. And it's not like I stalked a certain family, so put away that restraining order.

I just loved imagining things. I would turn to whatever poor friend I suckered to walk with me and exclaim, as if it were the most amazing news since Docs came back in style, "People live there. They relax on that couch. They've probably spilled on that couch, and only they know the memory associated with that stain. What do you think that stain is from?"

Needless to say, it was hard to keep a steady walking partner.

From the outside, I was a creeper and it was just another window to pass. But to someone inside, that window marked a meaningful refuge, his or her own little personal station. I saw a window into another life. Every home was another story. It was like walking through a virtual library, or window-shopping for imaginary characters based on actual home d├ęcor.

It's fantastic how much you can imagine about a person based on a glimpse into their living room. Like this guy: middle aged, long gray hair, spends 14 hours a day on a recliner watching TV. His walls are completely empty. His furniture is stacked magazines and plastic kitty litter outhouses.

You can't help it, your imagination is already piecing together this guy's life story, isn't it?

He's my neighbor. Yeah, I've been window-shopping again. I can't help it, though. I'm a gypsy with a mortgage.

My nature is that of Johnny Depp in the movie "Chocolat," yet

Amanda Shank, right, chooses hair feathers with the help of Laura Tietz at Umba on Pearl Street. ( MARTY CAIVANO )
I'm too something (or too little something) to actually follow through with city-hopping. So instead, I constantly rearrange my furniture and change my hair color, and I relocate every day (sometimes even 23 times in one day) in my imagination.

This is why I love working on the Pearl Street Mall, with the best people-watching in the western hemisphere. (I imagine the block outside a Japanese nightclub might be the lone rival.)

That's also why I have a crush on the shop Umba Imports ( This store is a gypsy, in and of itself.

To afford the pricey downtown leases, while keeping its retail prices low, Umba survives on a month-to-month contract and constantly relocates. The 1-year-old artisan co-op has been in the old Art Mart shell and in the basement below Lindsay's Deli on Pearl Street.

A few weeks ago, Umba moved again, into the store next to Lindsay's Deli on the 1100 block of Pearl. The large, bright windows and sleek hardwood floors have begun attracting more "mainstream" faces (yoga moms and hipsters), which has led some of the shop's biggest sales days ever.

The merchandise is the same: fair-trade imports and jewelry, clothes and accessories made by local artists.

Although Umba has hippie roots -- I mean, the owners call themselves "gypsy love pirates," -- the products are elite and cutting edge, but with a gypsy twist, says co-owner Leesah Noble. In fact, I credit Umba for igniting the local trend to weave feathers in your hair. Umba's been doing it for a year (and for a cheap $10 a locket), whereas a surge of hair salons has only recently picked it up.

The next trend, according to Noble? Happy Cow recycled-leather utility belts with pockets ($75) instead of the trusty handbag. No, not fanny packs. OK, they're totally fanny packs.

Since moving into its new location, I've never seen Umba's feather station without a long line, and the belts are already selling off the racks.

Which I'm taking as proof of power of a good window.