Armchair Peregrinations


August 31, 1998

Coming back from Sumter yesterday, the road through the countryside seemed to traverse an exhausted landscape, baked by the sun and cloaked in a kind of all-embracing haze that gave everything a dull, listless appearance. The crops remaining from the drought were just hanging on, cotton wilting and stunted, soybeans still hopeful. Dessicated corn had long since withered on the stalk or been cleared away for fodder. It's like this a lot in South Carolina at the end of August, but this summer has just seemed like more of a struggle against summer's powerful elements. The swamps are dried up and there doesn't seem to be a bit of water anywhere until you cross Lake Marion, and then it seems out of place in this dry world. Everyone is longing for that first real dip in the temperatures, weeks away unfortunately, or else a good, solid rain to restore some green to the grass and relieve the earth's parched thirst.

August 26, 1998

When I think back to my childhood growing up in the suburbs of New Orleans in Jefferson Parish in the 1950s, I recall most readily three business establishments.

First was the Katz & Besthoff Drug Store down the street on Jefferson Highway. It was here that we kids would have those wonderful Cherry Cokes -- Coke dispensed from the fountain in a glass that had cherry syrup at the bottom. That was a real treat on hot summer days. Canned Cherry Cokes today just can't compare.

The second business was a small grocery store across the street from the school I attended. It was here that we could stock up on straw-filled, tart sugar candy, miniature wax bottles of fruit-flavored juice, and, of course, baseball and other cards with bubble gum sheets inside.

Finally, between the drugstore and the snack shop (the grocery store, actually), was the barbershop. Some of the keenest memories of my growing status as a soon-to-be teenager are of this establishment where I'd proceed, by myself at age 9 or 10, to get my crewcut. You could hear 50s staples on the small radio on the counter -- songs by Brenda Lee, Pat Boone, Patsy Cline, and those classics by the Ray Conniff and Bert Kaempfert orchestras. To this day I love to hear those songs -- they take back to those golden days of childhood as surely as any other memory-triggering device. "Bye Bye Blues" might be playing in the background while the electric clippers buzzed off broad swathes of our raggeddy hair. Or, we'd be patiently waiting our turn, flipping through grown-up magazines such as Argosy and Field & Stream. I remember those two most because they were in just about every old-fashioned barbershop I've ever been in. Well-thumbed copies of Look Magazine and The Saturday Evening Post were also strewn about on chairs or stuffed in magazine racks with their covers about to come off. Yes, it was almost like a Norman Rockwell scene. To city-raised kids, pictures of deer hunting and trophy-sized freshwater bass were as exotic as scenes from an African safari. Occasional conversation, the pleasing clippity-clip sound of scissors, the sound of the razor being sharpened on leather -- all were noted and stored away in my memory.

That barbershop pole out front with its moving stripes is a vanishing symbol of America in simpler times. You can still find them, but they're harder to come by. It would be a sad thing if that barbershop experience was lost as a ritual of childhood. It's irreplaceable. (For an excellent homage to this American institution, see "The American Barbershop: A Closer Look at a Disappearing Place" by Mic Hunter.)

August 25, 1998

I've been thinking the last couple of days about why I've kept journals, off and on over the years -- 28 to be exact. I've carefully preserved that first legal-sized, black ledger book in which often lengthy entries are written in a much neater handwriting than my present scrawl. Going back to 1970, they are somtimes tortured entries that really do lay bare my soul. I wrote about my college experiences, professors, courses, summer jobs, and my inner feelings, at times lapsing into the earnest and grandioquent prose that often characterized my late adolescent period. Those entries from 1970-72 are full of the deepest introspection and parodox -- trying to put into words my loneliness and estrangement from others, but also writing about the deep satisfaction of getting to know people I worked with summers on a Port of New Orleans fireboat while in college. Some of the entries on my appreciation of nature are strikingly similar to what I write today.

My journal writing over the years is sporadic, clustered into periods of regular entries interspersed with years of few, if any, new entries. They seem to correspond to times in my life when I needed to write, or at least wanted to. For example, on my first two trips West, I wrote long entries every night while I was on the road, and they constitute a singular body of writing different from anything else I've written.

When I read back over these journals, it's painful at times, but also necessary, because they are a priceless record of who I was those years ago. They are my history, so-to-speak, a record of my being here on earth. I regret I haven kept these journals more faithfully, but that, too, is part of the record of my life.

Six years ago, I lived briefly in the small city of Emonds, Wash., located on Puget Sound about 12 miles north of Seattle. It is a beaufiful and idyllic litle community, set apart in so many ways from the surrounding metropolis. It is a city that retains many of its small-town ways, in spite of the suburban sprawl on every side. I lived there during a difficult and unsettled period in my life, where my moods were often as gloomy as the notorious Pacifc Northwest weather. But on a clear day, there is hardly a more beautiful place on earth. The waterfront of Edmonds was always a special place to go for walks and reflection. The air was often very cool and bracing, the vistas out over the Sound spectacular. It inspired me to write. Here is a journal entry from May 1993, a short while before I headed back East:

"Sat on a piece of driftwood at the Edmonds beach next to the ferry landing. Idyllic! Soft and cool breezes off the Sound and the smell of salt water and dried seaweed. People sunning. Kids playing in the sand. Sailboats out in the water and the ferry chugging into the landing. Scuba divers clamboring out of their heavy gear. A teenager throwing rocks in the water. Seagulls. I sat there absorbing it all, eyes closed at times, breathing deeply. Despite everything, it felt really good to be alive at those moments."

August 21, 1998

I have just started reading a fascinating book, "The Last Years of Walker Evans," in which Jerry Thompson recollects experiences as a young man learning from the great photographer. Anyone who has seen and studied the Farm Security Administration photographs Evans took in the rural South during the Depression years of the'30s to document those times for posterity, can't ever forget the searing poignancy of his portraits (see the photographs of the Floyd Burroughs family, for example) and his perfectly realized architecture shots and street scenes which provide crystal clear windows into the mind of this artist. His vision of the world is captured in the faces of Alabama sharecroppers, in the wood grains of old houses and churches in the country, in the bright light and shadows illuminating and obscuring his scenes, in signs on storefronts and alongside roads.

I first saw Evans' photographs when his big retrospective show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York toured the country and came to the New Orleans Museum of Art. It was the fall of 1972 and I was a senior in college, a bit taken with myself perhaps for successfully engineering the shoals of the English Department at the University of New Orleans. As I entered the gallery space, I was immediately transfixed and humbled by the seeming simplicity and realism of the pictures before me. Even then, young and untutored as was in the world of photograhic art, I sensed powerfully the greatness of those photographs. "Crossroads Store, Sprott, Alabama" (1936) is a good example. It's a scene of a country crossroads, probably on a summer day. A weathered false-front general store is the lone landmark in this composition. It is situated slightly to the right of center, and one of the dirt roads forks off into the distance on the left. A gasoline pump sits on the landing of the store, raised off the ground on concrete blocks. The Coca Cola sign above the porch says, "U.S. Post Office, Sprott, Ala." There are no people or cars or signs of visible life, just a quiet evocation of what life might be like in this quiet community deep in the rural fastness of Perry County. That country store was probably the center of life in the community, but never all a once, just imperceptibly as people would come and go, trading stories and gossip, filling the tank, or sitting around a wood-burning stove I imagined was in there to warm up the winter days.

Today Sprott has a population of 10, and it's still on the map I just looked at. I drove through that part of Alabama about ten years ago on my way to South Carolina, looking for that country store. I recall finding some structure I thought was a store, but the dirt roads were paved and I had to make sure I was in the same spot portrayed in the picture. Walker Evans' presence was very much there that day, however.

August 17, 1998

The last day of my week's vacation has passed and it's back to work today. It's been wonderful having this time off, and I could do with more of it , too.

All yesterday, I kept looking out the window admiring the classic summer clouds over the trees to the north, and kept saying to myself that this would be a good day to take pictures at the far end of the beach by the lighthouse. I hadn't done this for a couple of years now, and I really wanted to get back there.

I procrastinated, knowing how hot it was outside, and finally ended up driving out there about 6:15. It was still hot, but I was soon walking up the beach to the inlet which separates the northern tip of Folly Island from the imposing and long-abandoned structure known as the Morris Island Lighthouse. The sun was starting to go down by this point, and the beach along the cove was quiet and still, with water barely lapping the shore. It's always been this way as long as I can remember.

I was walking along a spit of land between the marsh and the tidal river, taking pictures of the lighhouse in the distance framed in the foreground by sea oats, sand dunes and spartina grass. Gulls and small blue herons flew up into the sky over the marsh. It was a beautiful late afternoon, but the walk was an exertion. This always seemed like such a remote place to me when I was a kid, and it still does.

Later, back at my usual spot on the beach, I sat out on the lounge chair until nightfall, savoring every moment of that perfect sea breeze and perfect temperature, not leaving until nightfall was securely settling in over the beach.

August 13, 1998

What a contrast between last night and the night before. Yesterday evening until about 8 I was sitting in my chair on the beach just above the tide line, listening to the ocean and reading a perfect beach book, "Bean Blossom Dreams" about a family's new life away from the city in rural Brown County, Indiana. I visited that county and the charming little town of Nashville about 10 years ago, and never forgot the place. Rolling, oak-covered hills, dense green foliage, and a lost-in-time quality characterize the whole area. This feeling was firmed up after I had visited the studio of local artist T.C. Steele and saw his landscape paintings. I can't describe the way such a place makes you feel, just more whole and peaceful. The book is quite evocative of that place, and I'm really enjoying it.

The previous night, I found myself doing my usual quick walk through the mall, locating what I wanted and then proceeding to the other pre-planned destinations. I bought a new lounge chair for the beach, went to the Chinese place for dinner and ate too much, then walked down to Waldenbooks to look around a bit. Just kind of bored at this point, but at least, I rationalized, I never go to the mall just to be going, or just to shop around with no goal in mind. Malls are strange places I've always loathed, but gone to anyway. I'm mellowing a bit as I get older, but really, they are such monuments to our blatant commercial and materialistic culture that I'm just in awe sometimes when I see what people are buying or look into the windows of some of the stores.

I sat for awhile in an enclosed area of padded, comfortable seats while the swirling currents of mallgoers ebbed and flowed around where I was sitting. Malls are always brightly lit up, colorful, clean, secure, and full of the backgound noise of elevator-type music and contented shoppers' voices. And then there are the teens and couples out on mall dates or just hanging out and cruising around the perimeter, looking to be seen and observed, perhaps by someone they know who very likely is also at the mall at that very time. In Sumter's mall Sunday, I believe about half the student body of the high school was there moving in a ceaseless circle around the mall. I couldn't have even imagined this when I was growing up.

My first experience with a big indoor mall, I must admit, was very favorable, mainly because of the novelty and excitement it afforded my impressionable 13-year-old psyche. It was the summer of 1964 and the family was on the way to the World's Fair in New York, and later to Boston. We stayed a couple of days with relatives in suburban Philadelphia on the Jersey side and there were treated to the extravagant wonder that was the Cherry Hill Mall. I couldn't believe how magnificent it all seemed. Endless stores, people, fountains, music, theaters, eating places and, most amazing of all, it was entirely contained under one roof. To a child of the 50's whose sole shopping experiences were strip malls and, earlier, the purposeful crowds and bustle of Main Street, all exposed to the wind, rain, and sun, this indoor megastructure seemed like something out of a science fiction novel -- a hermetically sealed world with no clocks and time forgotten at the entryway. You weren't supposed to know if it was night or day outside as long as you lost yourself in the experience of shopping.

Today, when I leave the local malls, I feel like I'm heading back out into a gritty world of traffic and dirt and unregulated urban chaos. In the mall, everything is orderly and safe. Just being in the department stores confers a sort of affluence on you, even if you don't or can't buy anything. There's not a trace of poverty, suffering or blight anywhere to be seen. Quite the opposite experience of downtown New Orleans where, as a kid, I noticed that just about anything and everything could be seen and heard. It was all ugly, beautiful, fasincating and real. It doesn't take a sociologist to figure out why malls have flourished in the past few decades. People wedded to a materialistic culture can only get affirmation in these consumerist shrines, and, with that, a warm feeling of belonging. By contrast, I often feel totally estranged in these places, lost in a pinball machine world of crowds bouncing here and there for no real purpose other than to be distracted by things and temporarily relieved of their boredom.

August 11, 1998

On the way to Sumter Saturday on the old Charleston Highway, I was struck by how devastating the drought this summer has been on the crops. Field after field of corn had withered on the stalk, dried up and useful only for silage. It's just about a total loss in the state, agriculture officials said recently, and I can see why. The crop had started out so promising, I noticed, back in May when I was traveling around Lake Marion. Deep green stalks about 2-3 feet high. Now, that's all a memory, but the countryside by contrast looks green and alive.

We had about 2 1/2 inches of rain in Sumter over the weekend, and Saturday's heavy, soaking rains were just what everyone wanted after so long a dry spell. It felt good to lie in bed and listen to the rain on the roof and catch up on some reading. A nice way to spend an afternoon.

Monday, coming back to Charleston, I kept thinking a lot about summer and summers past. Everywhere I looked, great white billowy masses of clouds reached high into the sky and announced summer at its peak. I liked seeing the great pecan trees in orchards I passed near Cameron framed in the background of those cumulus clouds. The creeks and swamps were about dried up, which is usual for this time of year, except more so because of the drought. The high hills of the Santee led me up and down along some curvy stretches of road for awhile, and I almost felt like I was in the upcountry part of the state. Then the terrain leveled out flat against the coastal plain, and I knew I wasn't far from Charleston.

August 8, 1998

One of the wonderful things about living near the ocean is being able to sit out by the beach and watch the sunset as I did the other night. It was a beautiful evening -- even felt slightly cool as we had another break from the summer heat this past week. There were only a few people on the beach, and around 8 I turned around and saw the beginning stages of a sunset over the marsh: blue and purple mixed together with maroon and blue streaks of sky in between the clouds. In front of me and to the north and east, the sky was still blue as day. The clouds were distinct from every angle I chose to look at the sky. A full 180 degree view of the horizon off into the ocean. It's a totally expansive feeling of freedom to be able to have this wide-open expanse of light and sky surround you.

Last night, coming over the Connector from Charleston, a brilliant full moon illuminated the waters of the Ashley River out into the distance where it widens to meet the Atlantic Ocean. An amazing sight, this slightly shrouded moon, oblivious to remnant clouds, a beacon in the night. It was a magical and mystical experience just taking in the whole scene.

August 5, 1998

Today was a day that was so perfect for this time of year in Charleston that it almost defies description. Everything a summer day should be, minus the heat and humidity -- low 80s, azure sky, so blue you had to keep looking at it to make sure it was real, clouds of all shapes and sizes standing out in sharp relief, a moderate breeze. Under these clouds and this sky, every aspect of old Charleston looked good: the church steeples, historic houses, old brick, gardens, oak trees -- everything just looked pleasing and right, there to behold and admire.

*****
An article in the New York Times Sunday discussed the "new traditionalism" or "neotraditional" in architecture that has spun off around the country from it original conception in the Seaside development on the Florida Gulff Coast in the early 1980s. This is an idea that has taken hold among some urban planners and home builders who want a return to the neighborhood and home styles of an earlier and more innocent era when houses had big front porches, were close to streets which had wide sidewalks, and there was a more genteel and neighborly feel to the urban environment, or rather suburban environment, which is classically what we're talking about here in neotraditionalism's current revival. Big city architects and academics, the article says, dismiss this as "regressive nostalgia" and merely a more pleasant form of urban sprawl that is beyond the price range of most average middle class home buyers. The critics have a point, but they also miss the point. These new developments, and Mount Pleasant near Charleston has one such development getting underway right now, are a return to a way of community living that was open to knowing your neighbors and seeing and talking to people as they passed by on the sidewalk. The porches and sidewalks hearken back to a time when everyone wasn't bottled up inside behind closed doors in air-conditioned units watching TV in every room of the house. The porch is like an additional room, but one that faces the street and is open and inviting for friends and neighbors who once sat on stoops, or rocked in swings and chairs under a ceiling fan and talked way into the night, listening to leaves rustling occasionally and watching the fireflies flicker on and off in the darkness.

If this kind of new development is "regressing" backward, then that's okay with me. Maybe we're not as open and communitarian as we once were, wary of talking to neighbors or having contact with them once we've pulled into our garages and driveways. But that's a sad commentary on today, and I wish it weren't so.


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