One powerful woman

The first Chicago high school built to serve an exclusively African-American student population opened its doors in 1935, and Wanda Bridgeforth, a 93-year-old writer in my Wednesday memoir-writing class, was a freshman there that year.

Wanda swells with pride any time DuSable High School is mentioned — her Class of ‘39 was the first to complete all four years there. “I was in the birthday class,” she beams.

Wanda at her 90th.

Wanda at her 90th birthday party with the writers.

DuSable was built on Chicago’s South Side 15 years before the Brown v. Board of Education decision — Wanda says it was built to keep schools segregated. “We had boundaries back then,” she says. “We knew not to cross Cottage Grove, 51st Street or the train tracks.” Everyone inside those boundaries was Black, Wanda says. “That was our neighborhood, and DuSable was our neighborhood high school.”

When DuSable first opened, Wanda recalls some neighborhood parents applying for permits to get their children in nearby White high schools. “Their parents didn’t think a Black school could be any good,” she says, adding that she felt sorry for those kids. “Our classes were crowded,” she acknowledges, remembering 50 or so students squeezing into classrooms at DuSable. “But at those other schools, if you were Black and you wanted to be in a play, you had to be a maid or a butler. At DuSable, we did everything, we were in all the plays, we wrote the school newspaper, we were having such a good time at DuSable.”

Wanda was in high school between 1935 and 1939, and during those four years she walked DuSable’s hallways with some pretty impressive classmates, including:

  • Nat King Cole, famous jazz vocalist and pianist
  • John H. Johnson, Chairman and CEO of Johnson Publishing Company, publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines
  • Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, one of the first African Americans to sign with an NBA team
  • Harold Washington, first African-American mayor of Chicago
  • Ella Jenkins, leading performer of children’s music
  • Redd Foxx, comedian and actor
  • Dinah Washington, jazz vocalist and “Queen of the Blues”

Nat Cole added King to his name later,” Wanda says with a laugh. “You know, like Old King Cole!” She knew Redd Foxx when he was Jon Sanford (yes, like Sanford and Son), and she remembers Dinah Washington as Ruth Jones  — they changed their names once they became stars.

DuSable’s initial fame was in its music program, and Wanda performed in the “Hi-Jinks” student talent shows there. “We put on shows that were better than what was going on in Chicago professional theatres,” she says. “With musicians like Ruthie Jones and Nat Cole and all of those guys, we couldn’t miss!”

The venerable DuSable.

The venerable DuSable.

Wanda was quoted in an Chicago Tribune article after her work with the DuSable High School Alumni Coalition for Action finally convinced the city to designate DuSable as a landmark. “When we came along, education was a big thing. That was the goal of almost every kid, of every parent,” she told the reporter. “I know my mother and father always said to me, ‘I want you to do better than I did.'” “My mother said, ‘I don’t want you to have to do house work. I want you to have a career.’” Wanda did  — as an audiometrist and bookkeeper  — and she credits DuSable with helping to make that possible.

At DuSable’s 80th anniversary party earlier this month, Wanda received the Powerful Woman Award and will soon have her picture added to those of her fellow famous alumni on the school’s Wall of Fame. A poem Wanda wrote about her alma mater was included in the 80th anniversary program — I’ll leave you with her words here, along with a hearty congratulations to Wanda Johnson Bridgeforth, one very powerful woman.

Ode to DuSable

by Wanda Johnson Bridgeforth

Birthday Class 1939

Your doors were opened in One Nine Three Five
A lot of folks said you would not survive.
Because you were built in the “Hood”
Your educating would not be good.
To be sure their kids schooling was right
Parents sent them to schools that were white.
“Separate but equal” was their thought
But at DuSable we were well taught.
You produced doctors, dentists, nurses and teachers,
Lawyers, judges, artists, stenos and preachers,
Writers, composers and politicians,
Actors, dancers, singers and musicians.
Entrepreneurs and inventors carry your name
And your athletes have reached the Hall of Fame.
So we lift our voices to the sky
Singing the praises of

Note: A savvy 74-yearold writer from my Wednesday memoir-writing class has started a blog called Beth’s Class where she publishes essays she and fellow writers from that class have written. Wanda’s Ode to DuSable was first published on the Beth’s Class blog, and essays by other writers from that class have been published there, too. Check it out!

Mondays with Mike: 50 years ago, the train from New York to Washington was faster

A few years ago our German friend Gerald visited with us on his way to an extended hiking holiday in Alaska. He’s smart, perceptive and analytical, so it’s always fun, and sometimes painful, to get his take on us Americans and our America. (For the record, he’s a good sport and takes his share of digs from Beth and me about the myriad quirks of life in Germany.)

Gerald sat in the passenger side of our car as we toured. Whenn he noticed the warning on the side mirror that says “Objects in mirror may be closer than they appear,” he looked at me in wonder, his expression begging for an explanation. The same thing happened when we stopped in a convenience store. He bought a lighter for his upcoming camping trip, read the warning sticker out on the Bic out loud, and flashed me the same look. I came up as empty as before.

During this same visit that Gerald wondered aloud, “I don’t know why Americans are so proud of this place.” So many places he’d been were so shabby. “Your roads, airports, trains—they’re like a poor country’s.”

I had no argument then. Still don’t. Our public infrastructure has only worsened since that visit, and I blame it on bottled water.

Well, not bottled water per se, but in my lifetime it sure seems like we have devalued the idea of public space and common interest. It’s like Gordon Gecko from Wall Street has won.

So bottled water. Apart from the idiotic waste in transporting it, packaging it, getting rid of the packaging—and the fact that it’s often not any higher quality than tap water, there’s something more insidious about it. Making water a consumer purchase begins moving away from the idea that clean water is in the public commons that belongs to all of us, and that we all have an interest in keeping it clean and available.

When water is a purchased good on an individual level, it becomes something different altogether. Clean water becomes another thing that some people can afford to have and others can’t. And the ones who can afford it aren’t as likely to be interested in keeping lakes and streams and public supplies clean. We’re not there yet, but I can see it from here.

This every-person-for-him/herself dynamic is playing out everywhere—public schools, public transportation, public spaces like airports. And Amtrak.

We have the money in this country to have the best rail system in the world, the best airports, the best roads. And no hungry people. That tells me something isn’t working.

If we want these things to be better, they will be. We have the money, if we remember the “we” part.

I have a notion about what’s not working, and I’m working on it. In the meantime, as long as we’re talking about Amtrak and the broader ideology around it, read this New Yorker piece. Please do. (Thanks Lydia!) Here’s an excerpt:

We all should know that it is bad to have our trains crowded and wildly inefficient—as Michael Tomasky points out, fifty years ago, the train from New York to Washington was much faster than it is now—but we lack the political means or will to cure the problem.

Please read it. And vote. And don’t watch TV News. And remember, we’re in this together.

Mondays with Mike: Our version of all right

A couple weeks ago as I walked to a sandwich shop I was stopped in my tracks by the sight of a boy in a wheelchair and a man, presumably his dad, collecting themselves on the sidewalk. They had clearly just unloaded from the car parked nearby, and were readying for a walk.

We had a nice visit.

We had a nice visit.

It wasn’t the kind of wheel chair designed to be propelled by its user. It was, instead, focused on holding the boy—who clearly had substantial physical disabilities—in proper posture, with a headrest, and foot rests arranged for that purpose, and with high handles to make it easy for someone else, in this case his dad, to push. Seeing it was a flashback to my own rituals of outings with our son Gus.

The father made a last round of adjustments to the boy’s ball cap, to his seatbelt, and then gathered himself to push his son on a walk.

For a moment, I wanted to walk up to him to say something like, well, I didn’t know what. That it’ll be all right? What the hell did I know about whether it would be all right? And as a frog the size of Alaska grew in my throat, I thought better of saying anything to him just then, because well, a stranger walking up and breaking into tears might not lift up his day.

By the time I left the shop with my sandwiches, and I was more composed, the man and his son were long gone.

This past weekend Beth and I traveled to Wisconsin to see our son Gus, who is 28 and living in a group home with three other guys. The weather was nice, and—though Gus did eventually learn to propel his own wheelchair, I supplied the horsepower this time, pushing him with Beth holding onto my arm. (Whitney stayed in our hotel room, as she is either jealous of or unnerved by Gus; a little of both, I think.)

We had a happy, uneventful visit, like we always do, and are always grateful to have. We took our Zipcar back to our Milwaukee area hotel, visited with a friend who moved up there recently from Chicago, and spent a quiet night.

The next morning, we headed to the Amtrak station and boarded right on time. We sat up front in the disability seats so Whitney had room to stretch out. A woman who was sitting in the disability section across the aisle from us noticed the dog after we settled, leaned over and asked whether we wanted her space, as it provided more space for Whitney.

After a few seconds, she realized we had the same kind of spacious accommodations and said, “Oh, I didn’t see you already have room.”

Minutes later, after the train eased out of the station, she leaned over and said to Beth, “Can I be so bold as to ask how long you’ve had that dog and how it’s working for you?”

Well, 20 minutes later we’d learned that she’d lost her sight in one eye and the other was in bad shape. All to diabetic retinopathy—the same thing that got Beth’s eyesight decades ago. That she was a couple years older than us, and that she’d been diabetic for 50 years. A nurse herself, she’d always been praised by her doctors for being a model diabetic. But that’s not always enough.

She and her husband’s situation is a lot like Beth’s and mine had been some 30 years ago. She’d had good doctors and bad doctors and doctors who had the bedside manner of Attila the Hun. She can see some out of one eye and is in that awkward phase where she is doing just well enough and badly enough by herself to annoy or frighten the people around her. She isn’t blind—yet, but she wants to get ready in case total blindness comes. But how? She needed help but didn’t want to drag down her husband with endless needs, nor did she like losing independence and needing his help. For his part, her husband, a “type A” as she put it, seemed to be struggling not to over protect.

Her experience rang so familiar that it gave me that feeling I had when I saw that man and his son. This time, though, Beth could carry the conversation while I reset myself. Eventually, as Beth and I related our experiences—and how similar they were to our new acquaintance—it seemed almost revelatory to the woman across the aisle.

On her request, I wrote down the title of Beth’s book and said, “I added my email address, too” and let her know she could contact us. We said goodbye and I followed Whitney as she led Beth off the train. An Amtrak redcap came to assist our fellow traveler.

I would’ve liked, I suppose, to tell her everything will be all right. The same thing I guessed I’d hoped to be able to say to the young father on the street.

But I didn’t. Because I couldn’t, honestly. Beth and I are better than all right. But it isn’t the all right either of us had in mind. And it was harder than hell to get to our version of all right. That’s what the father and his son on the Chicago street and our stranger on the train face. Even if they have great friends and family and resources, it’s going to be really hard.

What I realized, though, was what I saw in that woman’s face was not so much a revelation as relief, relief in knowing, even briefly, that she wasn’t alone.

And if I ever see that man and his son again, that’s what I’ll tell him. You’re not alone.

The chef at La Diosa is blind, and man, can she cook!

You might remember my post about Laura Martinez, a blind woman who graduated from Le Cordon Bleu and worked at Charlie Trotter’s here in Chicago until the five-star restaurant closed in 2012. After two frustrating years trying to persuade another restaurant to hire her, Laura has opened La Diosa, her own restaurant at 2308 N. Clark in Chicago. I ate there for the first time last Thursday. It. Is. Fantastic.

The food was so delicious, and the staff (Laura and her husband Mauri) so charming that I returned there for lunch Monday, and I’m having lunch there again today, too! Joan Stinton, a writer in one of the memoir classes I lead, took a CTA bus to La Diosa with Whitney and me on our inaugural visit last week, and she generously agreed to write a guest post about our experience.

Everything in its place

by Joan Stinton

She is adorable in her oversized toque and dark glasses. She wears the traditional white, double-breasted jacket and dark trousers of a chef. Her hand rests gently on the arm of her husband, Mauri. This is Laura Martinez, a graduate of the Cordon Bleu, a survivor of Charlie Trotter’s kitchen, and now, the owner of a tiny restaurant in a vintage building in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood.

That's Chef Laura on the right, alongside her husband and fellow restaurateur Mauri.

That’s Chef Laura on the right, alongside her husband and fellow restaurateur Mauri.

Laura, blind since birth, has always wanted to cook. It sounds kind of crazy at first: sharp knives. Hot stoves. The kitchen can be a very dangerous place even for a sighted person.

But if you think about it, it makes sense. Sound. Touch. Taste. Smell. These other senses serve anyone well in a kitchen environment. In addition, a professional kitchen is a very organized place. “Mise en place,” the rigor of “everything in its place,” prevails. Chefs set up their work stations with meticulous precision. Knives, plates, spices, condiments: always in the same order, in the same place, every day. A chef is disciplined enough to prepare an order blindfolded. In a way, La Diosa is a perfect environment for Laura.

I got to meet this chef and her husband Mauri last week at their cozy restaurant. La Diosa is about two tables wide and four tables deep, and the menu has traditional Hispanic dishes and, true to her time with Charlie Trotter’s, exotic fish specials.

But this was not the first time I’d crossed paths with Laura.

After my husband Brian retired a few years ago, he became quite a foodie. When a local charity auction offered “A Day in Charlie Trotter’s Kitchen,” I saw an opportunity to give him something he would really enjoy. I won the bid. Brian would be in the kitchen during an actual restaurant shift. I made a dinner reservation with a few friends for that night so we could eat with Brian and hear all about his big day.

Brian was quite giddy when he sat down with us for dinner and recapped his afternoon. One detail stood out for him. At one point amid all the activity, he heard the words, “SHARPS, SHARPS” behind him. He turned and saw a petite, blind chef, arms stretched forward, holding knives pointed downward, walking confidently through the kitchen. The sort of image that sticks with you, I guess! That woman was Laura Martinez, of course. Brian said it would be easy to assume that this blind chef had an insurmountable obstacle, but she was clearly right at home in Charlie Trotter’s kitchen.

And so it is at La Diosa. Laura is right where she belongs—mise en place, everything in its place.

Beth here. I’m heading back to La Diosa one evening next week with my husband Mike and some other friends. Stay tuned to the blog for a review of their dinner menu.

Mondays with Mike: Draft Town and riots, oh my


Couldn’t escape this stuff for a couple weeks.

Trying to pay attention to what’s happening in this media drenched world is at once easier than it used to be, and harder. There’s more text, images, and video out there than ever—the news is running on little screens in elevators, for crying out loud. But there’s less quality control. That’s a subjective judgment, for sure, but I’m confident it’s true.

The other difficulty is the pure dissonance that all the images and reports create. How does one reconcile it all?

Take last week. In the papers—print and online—and TV and the blogo-tweeto-spheres—we had images of Baltimore protests and violence and fires and a baseball stadium sans fans. Stories about the incident that precipitated that were fragmented and undocumented. Same for the stories about the protests and violence that followed.

Overlapping this spectacle was the NFL Draft, resplendent in wretched excess.

The excess was especially excessive if you live in downtown Chicago. About two weeks ago, on the plaza in front of the building where I work, the NFL and Pepsi installed giant football helmets representing each team in the league. Bypassers were encouraged to take a selfie and send it in for a chance to win tickets to the NFL draft, which was, finally, held this past Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

Bus stops and billboards were plastered with promotional graphics for “NFL Draft Town.” The draft was held in the historic Auditorium Theater, forcing the Joffrey Ballet to relocate its scheduled performances to another locale. Michigan Avenue and Congress Boulevard were closed for days, and you couldn’t even walk down Michigan between Van Buren and Balbo.

Police and other security measures—portable video monitors, giant salt-spreader trucks and dump trucks positioned as blockades, and cops and cop cars everywhere—probably were only exceeded by the presence in Baltimore.

The NFL and Mayor Emanuel say it won’t cost taxpayers a dime. But so far they refuse to release financials on the operation. The real question is: Why wouldn’t the cash-rich NFL pay out the nose to use our beautiful city as a backdrop for its event, money that could be used for schools, parks, etc., in other parts not so beautiful?

(There will be those who say it’s an economic positive: These things—olympics, whatever, rarely, if ever, are, and the data has proven it again and again.)

But, how is one to jibe the lavishing of cash and resources on the NFL Draft while seeing the Baltimore images, reading the Baltimore stories. Forget Baltimore, how to jibe the NFL orgy with what’s going on in Chicago neighborhoods a few subway stops away?

It’s easy to dismiss any connection between the two. I’d like to. But every cell in my body tells me that there is indeed a connection.

It’s not that the NFL is a causal factor for what happened in Baltimore. Or Ferguson. Or the mean streets of some South Side and West Side Chicago neighborhoods.

But it is an illustration of a pervasive pattern of screwed up priorities by our leaders and by us–that do cause these things.

If you read one thing this week, read this. It’s a brilliantly reported and written piece by Greg Easterbrook about how the NFL fleeces taxpayers across this great land. (Easterbrook, by the way, is a giant NFL fan who writes a weekly football column during the NFL season called Tuesday Morning Quarterback for—this isn’t about the sport, but the business.)

Now think about this scenario repeated again and again—whether it’s the misuse of TIF funds in Chicago to divert funds from the people and neighborhoods TIFs were intended to help or Wall Street bailouts or….

Here in Illinois, we have big budget problems. And, as in lots of other places, we’re taking our problems and angst out on poor people and public employees (especially teachers), who are villafied as fat cats causing the problem. This, even though, as Rich Whitney writes:

The fundamental cause of our state’s financial woes has nothing to do with exorbitant spending, exorbitant pensions or “big government.” Illinois has the smallest number of state employees per capita in the United States, at 4.1 per 1,000 residents. And while the occasional abusers of our public pension systems make headlines, the media rarely tells the other part of the story: Illinois ranks in the bottom one-fifth of all states for retirement benefits paid to its state workers.

It doesn’t mean there isn’t waste that can be found—and cut. Just the opposite—but why do we always start at the bottom, and begin at the place where the cuts will hurt people who are already on the edge the most?

I’ll be happy to have public discussions about Medicaid and mental health services for the poor, two of the first targets here in Illinois.

But only after we look at the gratuitous and unnecessary subsidies and tax loopholes for those who can well do without them.

Right now, that doesn’t happen, because the really big money makes sure it’s protected.

We’ve got things upside down.

Come see Whitney and me at Sandmeyer’s Bookstore today

 That’s the star of the book in front of Sandmeyers Bookstore with me back in 2007, when Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound was published.Today, May 2, 2015 is Independent Bookstore Day in Chicago, and Ulrich and Ellen Sandmeyer have graciously invited my Seeing Eye dog Whiteny and me to come help them celebrate:

Sandmeyer’s Bookstore:
11 am- Meet Beth Finke, author of HANNI & BETH: SAFE & SOUND, and her Seeing Eye dog and learn how they work together.

I’ll be signing books in print and in Braille, and my Seeing Eye dog’s pawprint will be rubber-stamped into each sold copy as well.

But wait! There’s more! Sandmeyer’s Bookstore is holdidng a drawing, and a lucky winner will win a free signed copy of Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound, too. I’ll be there with Whitney for about an hour — come early and see us. More about Chicago’s Independent Bookstore Day from their web site:

What is Independent Bookstore Day?
Independent Bookstore Day is a day when readers, booksellers, authors and book lovers all over the country celebrate the local independent bookstores in their community.

What day is Independent Bookstore Day?

Saturday May 2nd!

What’s going on that day?

Some stores are having events. Some stores are having raffles. Some will have author appearances. Check the events page for what’s going on. There’s even a special short story written by Chicago’s own Stuart Dybek and illustrated by Dmitry Samarov!

What’s the deal with the story?

Written by Stuart Dybek, the story is a previously unpublished work illustrated by local author and artist Dmitry Samarov. The print run is limited to 120 copies.

How do I get the story?

You go to one of the participating bookstores early in the day and spend $25 to get a passbook. Then visit each of the remaining 11 stores to collect a page of the story. When you collect and combine all 12 pieces, you’ll have a book!

All of them?!

Yes. All twelve bookstores. That’s half of the fun! You’ll get to see everything the indy bookstore world of Chicago has to offer.

Check out  Chicago Independent Bookstore Day’s events and giveaways page for information on what all 12 participating Chicago bookstores will be offering, and start the day out at Sandmeyer’s Bookstore, 714 S. Dearborn St. (312.922.2104). Whitney and I will be listening for you there.

Warning: this blog post contains material which may be unsuitable for children

Who could resist an invite to a panel discussion called “Disability and Sexuality: Everything you wanted to know about disability and sex but were afraid to ask…?”

That's Bethany Stevens.

That’s Bethany Stevens.

I sure couldn’t. At the very least, the panel would give me material for my part-time job moderating the Easter Seals blog. At best, I might pick up some pointers for personal use!

The panel took place last Friday evening at Access Living (a non-profit organization in Chicago for people with disabilities) and was promoted like this:

A panel of “sexperts” will join our guest speaker, Bethany Stevens, J.D., M.A. (blogger of Crip Confessions) for a juicy, frank and sexy conversation about CripSex!

The promotional material also teased, ahem, that before the panel started, “disability-sex-friendly businesses will join us for a CripSex fair, providing free goodies and important information.”

I made sure to get there before the panel.

When Whitney led me into the “Crip Sex Fair,” she pulled me forward about ten or twelve feet and then suddenly stopped. I figured we were at a table, but I was reluctant to reach out and discover what “goodies” were laying there. I finally mustered up the courage, stretched my arm out to grope the goodies, and felt…the push handles of a wheelchair! We weren’t at a table at all. We were in line to talk to a saleswoman from one of the “sex-disability-friendly” businesses there.

I eavesdropped on the woman in that wheelchair, of course. When she reached the front of the line, I heard her using halting speech to compliment the saleswoman. “I love your store,” she said. I paid close attention to understand every word, and I’m quite sure I heard her say she’d celebrated her 18th birthday by going to that shop with a friend.

I won’t disclose what she was looking for there, but I can tell you that staff members helped her find what she wanted. “They actually wanted me to take my time and look around — they said I could stay as long as I wanted,” she marveled. “You all were nicer to me than the people at Wal-Mart.”

The saleswoman sounded pleased. “I’m really happy to hear that,” she said. “We train our staff to be open to people with all sorts of needs.” I didn’t hear any of the people from the sex-disability-friendly businesses mention devices or toys made especially for people with disabilities, just a lot of talk on things they sold that might be easier to use than others or could be adjusted to fit a person’s particular needs.

The CripSex Fair was only open one hour. I picked up a free goodie before they closed, and just like the old classic movies used to do, I’m going to leave the intimate details about that to your imagination.

Time for the panel discussion. Only two panelists: Sergio Tundo from Chicago House (a social service agency serving individuals and families disenfranchised by HIV/AIDS) and Bethany Stevens, a faculty member at Georgia State University who studies, teaches and writes about disability and sexuality. Bethany has brittle bone disease and uses a wheelchair. Sergio never said anything about having a disability himself, and without being able to see him, I couldn’t tell.

The panel discussion was promoted to people with disabilities of any sort, but the focus was really on people with physical disabilities. They gathered cards with questions from the audience, and Bethany announced that the questions fell into three categories. “Raise your hands or make noise for the category you’re most interested in learning about,” she said, listing the three as:

  • Relationships
  • Nuts & bolts, or
  • Miscellaneous

The panelists sounded as surprised as I was when the audience chose “Miscellaneous,” but they just shrugged and took it from there.

“Since we have people here with expertise in things like sex workers and other ways of doing things, this first question is an important one,” Bethany said, and my heart sank as she read it. “What is the best way to start a conversation with your personal care assistant or personal assistant agency about sex facilitation?”

Jeeeez. It’s hard enough to get around day to day when you have a physical disability, isn’t it? They have to think about this, too?

In the end, most of the questions in the “miscellaneous” pile had to do with personal care assistants:

  • If you’ve been using the same personal care assistant for a long time, and you like them, and you know they will probably not be open or comfortable with helping you with this, should you even bring it up?
  • How does it affect interaction if there is a need for another person to assist in the sexual experience., but that third party is not sexually involved with the other two?
  • If two people with physical disabilities would need an able-bodied person to help them move, how does that third person behave in the relationship?
  • What are some of the best practices for facilitating the experience if you are the personal care assistant?

I didn’t hear one lewd comment after these questions were asked, and not one titter, either. I did hear some answers, and learned about some new ideas, too. Example: San Francisco is working on a program similar to e-harmony to match people with disabilities and personal care assistants. The person who needs the P.C.A. spells out what they need, the personal care assistant fills out a form describing the services they are willing to offer, and you match up that way. Others shared things that have worked for them –- and things that haven’t. By the time I left, I’d changed from thinking it all was sad to thinking it was all pretty cool. People together, talking frankly, sharing stories and offering suggestions.

And I came home with a free goodie, too.

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