The hotel parking lot. Early afternoon. He was packing his truck. Slamming toolbox lids. Reorganizing luggage in the rear cab. Iowa plates.

I’ve never met anyone from Iowa before. Or if I have, chances are they were so timid I don’t remember them.

Midwesterners, in my experience, are quieter than your average folks. They don’t enter a room like my people. Yelling, laughing, clapping everyone’s backs like a politician or a manure salesman.

They are humble people. Reserved. Kindhearted, but very hesitant to give away a free hug. In other words: they are Lutheran.

This man was late forties. Wearing denim and boots. Quiet disposition. He talked a little like Jimmy Stewart.

His wife was with him. Reddish hair. Pretty. They looked like they just stepped off the alfalfa farm. Good people.

I noticed the gas cans and chainsaws in the back of his truck. The entire bed of his Ford was weighted in heavy equipment.

The truck was towing an enclosed trailer with even more gear loaded inside. Lawn mowers, Weed Eaters, hedge trimmers, chains, axes, you name it.

There were garbage

bags full of secondhand clothes, boxes of diapers, and baby formula.

“I’m on my way to Fort Myers, Florida,” he said.

I asked what a mild mannered Iowan was doing traveling to Florida after a Category 4 hurricane had just struck.

He shrugged. “Way I figure, what Florida people need is help. I got the tools, I got the time, so I thought, why not?”

His wife added, “It’s what we’d want people to do for us.”

I can’t help but feel like heel. I am a Floridian. And yet I have never—not once in my life—traveled to Iowa after a tornado to help tornado victims. I’ve never asked myself what I can do to help blizzard victims.

For shame.

“You must have family in Florida,” I said.

That must be why he was going.

He shook…

The little girl stood before the small civic group on a Thursday morning before breakfast. The morning after Hurricane Ian made landfall.

The child had brunette pigtail braids. A white dress. Patent leather shoes.

It was your average weekday. Local business people gathered for a quick meeting before going to work.

Tired businesspersons sat at small circular tables, wearing sports jackets and neckties. Wearing hosiery and skirt suits. I had been invited here by my friend Howie. I was wearing a tie, if you can imagine.

I was wishing I would have never agreed to come.

When the little girl took the podium, I was wandering through the buffet line, stacking a Styrofoam plate with imitation breakfast fare that tasted more like wet napkins than it did edible organic matter.

The little girl tested the sound system by tapping the microphone loudly. The speakers nearly exploded.

TAP! TAP! TAP!

That got everyone listening.

“Can I have everyone’s attention?” said the master of ceremonies. “We have a special guest here to pray for breakfast today.”

He presented the girl. Everyone applauded.

The

girl’s name was Sadie. She was 9 years old. Sadie’s grandmother lives in Fort Myers, Florida, and nobody has heard from the grandmother yet.

Sadie is taking it pretty hard. Her mother is a wreck. Her father has driven down to Fort Meyers to locate the elderly woman.

Ever since Ian hit, hundreds are presumed dead in Lee County. Florida is a disaster zone.

Everyone bows their heads.

“Dear Lord,” Sadie began. “Please help the people in Florida.”

And this is all she says. She is a kid. Not a public speaker.

Her words were followed by a long silence. Sadie didn’t really know what to say. Her mother told me that her daughter had not spoken before a crowd this large before.

Sadie added nervously, “Help everyone to be okay, God.”

This was followed by another long gap.…

In God We Trust. That’s the motto of my home state. In 1868, the Florida legislature adopted this motto. Namely, because they thought it sounded better than “Florida—most of us are Realtors®.”

Our state motto was so good that Eisenhower signed a bill to make it the national motto in 1956. Congress voted. It was unanimous.

This is just one more clear example of how everyone wants to be Florida.

I am a Floridian. My family lives in Florida. My people are Floridians. My former Sunday school teachers. My in-laws. My exes. I grew up with hurricanes.

During the feckless summers of my youth, hurricane season ran from June until the following June. And that was life. You didn’t like it. But you tolerated it because you didn’t know anything else.

When the newspaper announced a hurricane in the Gulf, you would watch TV incessantly. You’d stay up until the wee hours, waiting for updates, watching endless commercials wherein grumpy old men in supermarkets warned you not to squeeze the Charmin.

There were no smartphones

or fancy weather websites back then. You just had a radio and a TV.

In the Western Panhandle, our television news came from either Mobile, Pensacola, or Panama City. And our newscasters wore so much hairspray they could deflect small caliber ammunition.

These newspersons were from the old school of broadcasting, which meant that they were pretty sedate and matter-of-fact. There was no anxiety among news anchors like there is today. All the meteorologists were calm men who wore coats and ties and looked like your father’s dentist.

The whole town came together during hurricane preparations. You’d go into Ace Hardware to buy plywood, and all the old men were sipping coffee from foam cups, talking about it. Most of us felt a slight thrill coursing through our arteries.

You’d help your neighbors put up storm shutters. You’d bring in Miss Betty’s potted plants. You’d…

The day begins for Jenny Hicks. It’s a day like any other. She wakes up. Loads the coffeemaker. Gets dressed. Brushes her teeth. Starts the car.

Then she saves the world.

She leaves the house. It’s morning time. The sun is rising over rural Georgia like an orange billiard ball.

She pulls her SUV to the curb of a nondescript house. She leaps out of the vehicle. Her friend’s wheelchair is parked by the curb.

Meet Ben. He is a grown man with a developmental disability. He is waiting here for her.

“HI MISS JENNY!” Ben says.

Jenny gives him a hug. “Are you ready for our trip today, Ben?”

“FIELD TRIP!” he shouts. “FIELD TRIP!”

Whereupon Jenny Hicks rolls up her sleeves and lifts Ben into the backseat of the SUV. She strains to get him situated. She twists. She uses every muscle she has. She struggles. Then she buckles him in.

And now that she has worked up a sweat, her day is just beginning. Because it’s time to go pick up her next passenger.

“This

is my life,” she says. “And I love it.”

Jenny started PEAK a few years ago. PEAK is a donor-funded program run by volunteers. It is a program for people with developmental disabilities. People who have graduated from high school and suddenly found themselves lost in the crevices of a society that has forgotten them.

Jenny cut her teeth working in high school special education. She’s seen the best and the worst. Early in her career, she noticed something was wrong with the system.

“Too many of my students were graduating and going straight to the sofa,” said Jenny. “And that just wasn’t good enough for me. I had a former student pass away, and she hadn’t seen her friends for years before her death.”

Everyone deserves the opportunity to keep having a life. Everyone should have the right to continue learning,…

Morning. The lobby of my hotel is crowded. It’s breakfast time.

This is the moment of day when guests emerge from rooms with messed-up hair, bedroom slippers, and wrinkled clothes. They shuffle through corridors toward Bunn coffee machines like the living dead.

I’m eating processed “scrambled-egg-like” matter, and sausage that has been labeled “100% real meat.”

There is an elderly man in line who uses a mechanical wheelchair. He wears a green ballcap with “Vietnam” printed on the front.

He cannot reach the buffet serving spoon because his wheelchair is too low.

Behind him in line is a boy. The kid has reddish hair and freckles. He is full-faced and friendly.

“Here,” says the boy, “allow me.”

The kid uses the serving spoon to dish the “eggish” abberation onto the old man’s plate. The old man thanks him.

“What else do you want on your plate?” Junior asks.

The old man says, “Oh, don’t worry about me, I can help myself.”

“I don’t mind. I’ll help you.”

The old man just smiles at the kid. This man is perfectly capable of fixing his own plate, but sometimes an act of service isn’t

about the servee.

“Okay,” says the old man.

The boy points to the sausage. “Would you like some of this stuff?”

“Yes, please.”

“How much would you like?”

“I’ll say ‘when.’”

The boy wrinkles his face. “When?”

“It’s what people say whenever they’ve had enough of a good thing.”

The boy still doesn’t understand. “They say ‘when’?”

“That’s right.”

The boy starts dishing up the faux-meat patties until the old man says, “When.”

“Would you like an apple or banana?” the boy says.

The old man shakes his head. “Only fruit I eat comes in a wine glass. But I’ll take some orange juice.”

The boy removes a plastic cup from a stack. He fills it from the Star-Trek-like juice dispenser.

“How about some bread?” asks the kid.

“You write too much about Waffle House,” writes John, from Hoboken, New Jersey. “I’m sick of reading about stupid Waffle Houses, they can’t be as good as you purport. We don’t have them here where I live.”

“You write about Waffle House like it’s the afterlife,” writes Carol of Clearwater, Florida. “For crying out loud, move on. It’s just grease and waffles.”

In response to my critics, I have three words: T-bone.

It’s 11:27 p.m. I walk into the Waffle House in Hampton, Georgia. The place is full tonight because it’s the only place open. And it’s the only place in America that serves a T-bone steak and a few eggs for under $15.

There are truckers with sagging eyes. College-age kids who have been out late, drinking too much Ovaltine. A table of young women in nursing scrubs, speaking rapid-fire Español. A four-top of guys in neon road-crew vests, eating hash browns.

My server tonight is Robert. He is young. His skin is the color of mahogany. His eyes do not focus on me directly. At first, I’m

not sure whether he’s looking at me until he speaks.

“How are you tonight, boss?”

My grandmother’s vision was impaired all her life. His mannerisms remind me of hers.

“Know what you’d like to eat?” he says in a friendly tone.

So I place my order: T-bone. Hash browns. Coffee. The trifecta.

Robert writes this down with painstaking carefulness. I can tell he is straining to see his own text as he writes. He holds his nose only inches from the notepad. But nothing slows him down. This kid is a real talent.

Meanwhile, Robert has a full house of customers constantly calling for him, asking for this and that, and just generally being giant pains in the Blessed Assurance.

Moreover, I can tell Robert is working against his own eyesight. This young man has every right to be aggravated tonight,…

Traffic is heavy. There is a blind dog in the passenger seat of my vehicle, emitting strange and exotic smells.

The dog’s name is Marigold. We call her “Marigold the Magnificent.” Or “Marigold the Marvelous.” Or, if she’s chewing another pair of my reading glasses: “Marigold the Maniac.”

We have traveled a few hundred miles. I have to make a speech at a private get-together tonight. The audience will include a very famous politician. I am more than a little nervous.

Also, I haven’t told anyone I’m bringing a canine with me. This gig was booked long before I rashly adopted a blind animal who needs me 24/7.

I’m hoping they allow coondogs at the venue.

I arrive at my hotel. It’s a nice joint. Art Deco interior. The woman clerk looks at me funny when I waltz to the front desk with a purebred hound.

The clerk is aghast.

“Excuse me, sir?” she says. “Is that a dog?”

“Is this a trick question?” I say.

“We don’t allow pets.”

“She’s not a pet.”

“What is she?”

“Episcopalian.”

No response.

“Look,” I say, “they told me

I could bring my dog when I called ahead and booked a pet-friendly room.”

She crosses her arms. “I’m sorry, sir, but nobody told me about this.”

“It hurts being left out, doesn’t it?”

It takes some doing, but we finally get things straightened out. The manager is called. He says it’s no big deal. Then I pay a pet deposit. Bada bing, bada boom. He’s glad to have our business.

Although, honestly, Marigold still holds a grudge against the clerk. She decides to let the disgruntled woman know exactly how she feels by making some Art Deco on the hotel grass.

Our room is fancy. It comes with all the trimmings. Huge beds. Fat pillows. Soft towels. Robes so thick and plush you can hardly get your suitcase closed.

I work on my…

The first day of fall arrived in Birmingham. It came frighteningly quick. Yesterday it was summer, hotter than the hinges of hades. This morning it was cold as gumballs.

But that’s Birmingham weather for you. At least that’s what everyone has been telling me since we moved here.

“Birmingham has all four seasons!” they all say while cheerfully bailing floodwater from their basements.

Well, it has been my experience that Birmingham undergoes more than four basic seasons. It’s more like eight or nine seasons. You probably think I’m exaggerating, but that’s only because you live somewhere else.

The first week we moved to town, Birmingham underwent every major meteorological event known to Wikipedia, with the exception of subtropical waterspouts.

That first day, it snowed and the streets were covered in rock salt and emergency crews. Then there was a hailstorm that lasted for the 24 hours. After which, Birmingham experienced “glaze frost,” wherein all vegetation was covered by a homogeneous coating of ice. And all this was just on the Fourth of July.

Then, only

one day after the freak snow, came a snap of hot weather. Suddenly, people were wearing flip flops, doing yardwork. All was well. Two days later, it rained so hard it flooded downtown and a man trying to get into his car drowned on 24th Street.

The VERY next afternoon, shortly after lunchtime, ominous, black clouds gathered above the city while I was cutting the grass. Then tornado sirens started howling. People were hurrying indoors. Neighborhood kids ditched their bicycles and sprinted home. The world began to rumble.

Perky TV reporters told us to hide in the basement and wear protective articles of clothing. Within minutes, my wife and I were huddled in a closet wearing bicycle helmets and baseball catcher’s facemasks.

That was my first month in Birmingham.

And if Birmingham weather doesn’t get you, the sinkholes will. Yes, sinkholes.

They happen all the…

Waffle House. Midnight. I was on the road. I pulled in for supper because everything else was closed and the coonhound in my passenger seat was hungry.

I was somewhere near central Alabama. A place where there are more log trucks per capita than anywhere else. Although that’s not saying much. In these parts, there aren’t many capita.

The joint was quiet. My dog waited in the truck while I got takeout.

There was a lone businessman sitting at the bar. He was scanning Waffle House’s updated, concise menu,

“This menu used to be bigger,” the man said irritably.

“Sorry,” said the waitress. “That’s our newer menu.”

“But, why is it so small?”

“You’ll have to ask management.”

The Waffle House menu has gotten considerably smaller, you might have noticed. Used to, the menu offered everything from tomato juice to khaki trousers. Now they just serve up their greatest hits.

Which is good with me. I love this institution. We ate Waffle House takeout at my wedding.

The man at the counter, however, is not so easily pleased. He is dressed in slacks

and a necktie. His shoes look like they cost more than a Steinway concert grand. He is driving a Benz.

I was getting the impression that if his food didn’t come out dead letter perfect, he was going to paint the walls with it.

The waitress brought his plate. The man ate while playing on his phone. She kept his coffee level. His water glass never got below the rim.

But he still wasn’t happy. He asked for ranch dressing. She told him they don’t have ranch. They only have mayonnaise ever since the menu got smaller. The man was chapped when she delivered a handful of mayo packets as consolation.

“Gross,” he spat. “I’m not putting mayo on hashbrowns.”

“Sorry, sir. This is all we got.”

“You need to expand your menu.”

“I apologize, sir.”

He…

Montgomery. It’s evening. Riverwalk Stadium is thumping. Tonight is a big night for the Montgomery Biscuits minor league team. Half the town is here.

The Biscuits are squaring off against the Pensacola Blue Wahoos in the Southern League playoffs. No hand is beerless.

I approach the stadium gates with a blind dog. Marigold the blind coonhound stands beside me, on a leash. Her nose is lightly pressed against my calf as we walk, so she can follow me. I am her Seeing Eye human.

Marigold has been accompanying me everywhere I go lately. She’s still sort of a puppy, and she needs a lot of help.

Her left eye is missing because her last owner took a blunt object to her face. Marigold was garbage to him.

Well, it’s too bad her abuser can’t see her tonight. Because tonight, Marigold is Queen of Montgomery.

Riverwalk Park has made special allowance for Marigold to be here. They’ve pulled out all the stops for her arrival. They rolled out the proverbial red carpet for her. A county judge is

waiting by the gate to welcome her. Jay, the Biscuits’ front office guy is there, too.

“I feel like I know this dog already,” says Jay. “She’s famous.”

So management is making a big fuss over Marigold. People snap her photo. Staff employees treat her like a member of the Royal family. All that’s missing is her tiara.

Park employees are letting Marigold smell them. They speak sweetly to her. Ashley, who oversees retail operations doles out affection by the metric ton. “Who’s a sweet baby?” says Ashley.

It isn’t long before employees are trying to locate official Biscuits paraphernalia for Marigold to wear. In a way, it feels as though Marigold is the unofficial team mascot of the evening.

So we’re having a large night. Riverwalk Park is a loud place. Lots of sounds. Lots of smells. The crowd is screaming. There…