I just have to share the story of this day, even though it’s not over yet.
I got up this morning feeling restless, so I decided to throw on some makeup and get out of the house. I didn’t have any specific plans for what to do with myself, but I had a few ideas in my head rattling around. One was to visit the local library for some quiet reading time; another was to head over to the local mall and wander around, then grab some lunch; and a third was to go check out the new Gallery Furniture showroom that opened up near us a year or two ago.
If you’re not from Houston you’ve probably never heard of Gallery Furniture or its owner, Mack McIngvale (aka “Mattress Mack”). But if you’re from this area, you know who he is; he’s a huge presence in this city and has been for a long time – he’s been around as long as I can remember, at least. He started out with a small furniture retail business and over the years grew it into a money-making machine. He’s also quite philanthropic and is known for putting a lot of his money back into the communities he serves (which is pretty much all of the Houston area at this point). I think he still makes the cheesy commercials he became famous for; he is mostly associated with them and with his famous catch phrase “Saves…You…MONEY!” (shouted while jumping up and down with a wad of cash in his hand – see video example below).
He’s also known for continuing to only sell products that are American-made, and continuing to be very hands-on and present in all of his stores. He’s put God knows how much money back into the city’s medical community, educational institutions, and the like. Plus, his commercials are a part of my childhood, as they are for everyone who was a kid in the 70’s and 80’s (and perhaps further on than that, for all I know).
This new Gallery Furniture showroom he opened in my area was a big deal when it was finally finished; it’s huge and has quite the fancy restaurant attached to it, and it’s a big attraction to the area. The showroom itself boasts an indoor atrium with lily ponds and monkeys (for some reason), a 30,000 gallon aquarium, and a huge Texas flag “mattress” playground for kids to jump on. So, I thought I might wander inside and see if there were any interesting photos I wanted to take.
Some seriously over-sized furniture; check out the yellow cab kid stroller for scale
I decided not to lug my camera in first, though, and to take some time to wander around and see if there was anything worth snapping. And what do I see first thing after walking through the entrance but Mr. Mattress Mack himself – he and two employees were actually using one of those huge kitchen table chairs in the photo above as a desk (the chairs are approximately chest-high). I recognized him right away, and although it’s well known that he visits his showrooms frequently, I was still surprised to see him there, and right as I walked inside to boot. At first I ignored him, because he was busy at the time, and walked right past their group into the showroom to wander around. A salesman was giving me the lay of the land when I decided I would, in fact, go back to my car to grab my camera, and that I would try to snap a photo of Mr. Mack if I encountered him on my journey. Sure enough, as I started back towards the entrance, Mattress Mack was heading right for me, so without even thinking I asked him if he was who I thought (knew) he was, and asked for a photo. And here it is.
He asked me if I was heading into the Brookwood Community Store located within the showroom, and I mentioned that I was (I wasn’t, but hey, you know how it is) and that I was familiar with the organization. Let me detour and explain what Brookwood is: it’s a non-profit organization dedicated to providing living assistance to individuals with severe learning disabilities. They actually have many people who live in their residential facilities, but they also provide day programs for people with Down’s Syndrome and other functional disabilities. One of the organization’s biggest focuses has always been on providing people with vocational skills so they can maintain a productive existence and be able to contribute to their communities, and in that regard they have many work programs as well as businesses in which the members work and make the wares that are sold.
The Brookwood Community store inside the Gallery Furniture showroom
They have a cafe where community members can cook as well as serve the food, a nursery where they can work in the gardens or sell the plants, and other opportunities like this to provide a sense of accomplishment to the members and help them live productive lives. It’s a great organization, and Gallery Furniture has a store inside the showroom for the community to sell certamics and other products the residents make. They also have classrooms and a workshop in this facility, where Brookwood members work every day. I learned all of this when Mattress Mack walked me over to the area and started showing me around.
So Mattress Mack and I enter the workroom, and since neither of the staff members had ever met him, we all ended up kind of introducing ourselves to each other without any formality to it. This led them to believe that I knew him somehow; that either I was an important person he was showing around, or I was an unimportant person charged with showing HIM around; I had to explain to them later that I didn’t know him at all and had just run into him when I walked into the building. I made mention of my background working with students with learning disabilities as a teacher (although I’ve never worked with students who had severe issues) and asked if they needed volunteers. I’ve learned over the years never to ask someone at a charitable organization if they need volunteers unless you are ready to start RIGHT AWAY, because they always need volunteers and are pretty darn skilled at coralling people to work. Sure enough, no sooner did I ask than I was seated at a table, making mosaic crosses with a girl named Josie that would be sold in the store later.
That all came after the kids finished bombarding Mattress Mack for photos, though, which I dutifully took for them (they all knew who he was, had clearly never met him before, and were VERY excited to see him):
I got to the showroom right at 10:00 AM, and ended up staying until around 1:30. For all of that time, I was in the workroom with the kids. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve never worked with students who have these levels of disability, so for the first hour or so I was observing more than anything. The girl I worked with, Josie, had a tendency to overload the wooden cross she was working with, trying to put a mosaic tile into every available space. At first I just let her do her thing, but when one of the workers came over I watched how she corrected and instructed Josie to be sure not to overload the cross and to pay attention to symmetry so that the end result could be sold in the store. After that, I was more comfortable doing the same thing, and started to guide her more and ask her to stop on occasion and evaluate what she was doing. It was rough going, because she’d seem to hear what I was saying and agree, then she’d go ahead and plonk whatever she wanted onto the cross. At times, she had it perfectly symmetrical, then would take a tile or two off and jumble it all up again; and when it came time to glue the pieces down things really got interesting. I noticed right away that she was dumping a ton of glue onto each piece, and she ignored my instructions to use less. After a few tiles got slopped onto the cross with glue oozing every direction, Cherie, the assistant, came over, and once again she was very direct and stern with Josie about not using too much glue and being careful with what she was doing. She asked Josie to explain to me what her issues were with glue, and together they informed me that she loves the feel of the glue so much that she always overdoes it – that was certainly good information for me as up to that point I was getting nowhere trying to get her to calm down with it! Cherie even went so far as to point out to us that some of the tiles didn’t match the overall look color-wise, and that they needed to be changed (by the way, I am NOT crafty at all, so I had no idea what I was doing and this was as much of a learning experience for me as a teaching one!).
Oh dear. An early attempt. Yeah I’m really not good at this sort of thing.
Once again I was able to see how much more direct I could be with her, and even though I could tell she didn’t like me quite as much once I started giving her more direction, we got the cross into a somewhat manageable pattern, and right away she started doing a much better job with the glue. Teaching these sorts of life and social skills to students who need it has always been a problem for me; I feel guilty and don’t want to hurt kids’ feelings, but the truth is, if you’re teaching them, you need to include those life skills they need to function independently of you – in that regard, it’s better to be liked a little less and be able to teach the kids more. I just worry about pushing a kid too far or being too stern and upsetting them. But hey, even getting upset and learning to deal with those feelings is a good lesson, so there’s no need to be overly cautious; it’s just my nature to be too nice with kids.
I swear this improved once we got it all glued down.
In case you can’t tell by how much I have to say about this experience, this sort of thing is right up my alley. I cannot emphasize enough how much I needed something like this to come my way at this point and time; to get out of my own head and spend a few hours being useful and helpful in a very direct and tangible way. Even though it’s officially summer and I’m always ‘off work’ this time of year, knowing I have nothing to go back to in the fall in a helping capacity makes me feel a bit lost and purposeless. It opened my mind a bit more to all the possibillities that are not only available to me but right under my nose, as well as opening up a possibility for the future I hadn’t considered, which is working with kids who have even greater disabilities than I’ve ever taught. And I’ve been wanting somewhere to volunteer a few hours a week, too, and here’s somewhere I can do that right up the road. Overall, what I was left with at the end of all this was a sense of amazement at how much more abundance and opportunity there is in the world than I realize, and how magical the universe can be in guiding us to where we need to go.
Josie and Mattress Mack with a Texas flag she made
Before I left I talked volunteering on a regular basis and filling out applications and possible job opportunities; I’m certain I’ll do more volunteer work there soon but whether or not anything turns into a paying job is just a remote possibility at this point. But I’m not sure either one of those things matter right now. For now, what’s important for me is to go with the flow, follow my instincts, journey down some new roads and see where they lead; sure, today it just led me to a furniture showroom, which felt weird at first, but look at the day I ended up having as a result! And there’s a whisper of a promise in all of this somewhere, I can feel it – something that’s nudging me and hinting of more. What I need to keep doing right now is listen.