Sharing the Love in Downtown Missoula

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Valentine’s Day has always been a little bit like New Year’s Eve for me; a second-string holiday. It all started with childhood, running down a list of classmates’ names, fretting over who would get which card from the box of valentines. What does Be Mine really mean? Will giraffes with necks entwined give the wrong message? Did I accidentally just put a conversation heart that said Hot Stuff in Bobby R.’s Valentine? It seems a lot of stress and anxiety for nothing more than a handful of Hershey’s kisses, sad bouquets of pink carnations, and those candy hearts that taste like minty chalk. Wake me up when it’s over.

But in early 2015, my experience of Valentine’s Day was forever changed when I went to purchase a chair I found on Craigslist in Missoula. 

I had found the chair, upholstered in starfish print fabric, while mindlessly scrolling through Craigslist late one night. My husband Chris voted no, reminding me of the square footage of the tiny apartment we lived in at the time, but I simply couldn’t live without it. After contacting the seller and arranging to buy the chair, I begged Chris to go pick it up for me, pleading a case of social anxiety. He objected, pointing out, “You’re the only one who really wants the chair, Karla.” Touché.  

Before I even knocked on the door, the starfish chair owner’s cheerful voice called out, “Come on in!” Inside, the brightly lit living room was a kaleidoscope, a glittery explosion of industry, creativity, and magic. There were chairs in every stage of reupholstering, TV trays covered with handmade earrings, a table heaped with paints, glue guns, sequins, buttons, and woodworking tools. A pile of plastic horses had been sawed in half, the hindquarters turned into magnets that made it look like a horse had walked headfirst into your refrigerator door.

I was spellbound.

Our connection came easily, and so did the laughter. Within minutes, Tina revealed she was a dental hygienist, which, of course, made me want to switch dentists so she could clean my teeth. It was abundantly clear how creative and artistic she was. After I told her I was a nurse, I added that I was also a writer. 

“You’re a writer?” she asked excitedly. 

She told me she was inspired by a street poet she’d once seen typing up verse on the street in New Orleans. She said she always wanted to take typewriters to the street on Valentine’s Day, typing extemporaneous poems for passers by. 

“I need a writer to help me make it happen!”

“Oh, I write…but I’m definitely no poet,” I objected. 

“It’s just for fun,” she assured, “I just want to make people smile and feel loved on a day that can be so stupid.”

A few nights before Valentine’s Day, we met up in Tina’s craft lair to prepare; cutting hearts from construction paper, card stock, magazines, and old wallpaper, embellishing them with everything from sequins to pompoms to hot pink faux fur, made possible by the hot glue gun. 

The morning of the event, we used colored chalk to draw arrows and hearts leading to our card tables on a busy Missoula street corner. We pinned construction paper hearts and letters that spelled out “Free Valentines” to a portable projector screen we placed behind our tables. We set up our typewriters, displayed the homemade cards, and then we waited.

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