August 14, 1999
I can see him now, sitting in that easy chair in the book-lined room, facing the camera with that wise and all-encompassing intimacy with literature, culture and journalism that has been his hallmark for so many decades. He was always my model of what it must be like to age with grace and dignity. Urbane, witty and intelligent, a master storyteller.
I can hear the background music starting now. The familiar and comforting notes of Jean-Joseph Mouret's "Rondeau." It's 9 pm on a Sunday night. The year is 1973, and Alistair Cooke is introducing another episode of Mobil Masterpiece Theater on PBS. It's a dramatization of a novel by Dickens, or Trollope, or perhaps Henry James. Whatever it was that week, it was television with refinement, what TV ought to be capable of doing, but which, in the vast intellectual wasteland that exists i today, is rarely, if ever, to be found. Maybe a Hallmark Hall of Fame drama every now and then, but mostly zilch. Just pre-fabricated sitcoms and dramas that cater to the lowest common denominator, and that seems to be television's sole purpose. It's a mass medium, after all.
I didn't watch Masterpiece Theater for too many years. I actually stopped watching it in the 70s, and it went on for another 15 years introduced by Cooke. But every now and then I'd tune in and see that familiar and warm face and voice, the same man who did the weekly "Letter From America" radio program for the BBC for broadcast in Great Britain.
He never seemed to age or change. The measured words. The masterful articulation of sentences that were finely crafted beforehand and delivered so effectively.
Despite all the chaos and change in my life, wandering around the country, landing in one place after another, there was always that little bit of continuing and unchanging order, that civilized countenance, that could be found each Sunday night speaking to you as it you were seated opposite him in the same room, a crackling fire going in the fireplace on a cold winter evening.
Russell Baker took over the job about six years ago, and he's very good, too, but of course Alistair Cooke is really irreplaceable.
When I got older, I hoped I would be rather like him. Mental faculties fully in place. Wisdom recollected in tranquility, as Wordsworth would say. A man who is widely read and cultured, who has a great and abiding appreciation for the glories of the written word.
In the case of Cooke, he is a journalist and historian who obviously has a great love of novels. I will always feel like I am a journalist, and, although I don't read novels, I did at one time, and they were some of the classics of literature, and I've never forgotten them.
I had an English professor at the University of New Orleans around this same time in the early 1970s whom I admired a great deal, and who was my academic advisor since I was an English major. I took three courses under him, including two surveys of American literature. I remember him quite well these many years later. I'm not saying I knew him well. I only conferred a few times with him about my course progression, but I did gain some insights about him through the way he taught his courses, his obvious love of American literature, and the way he personified a kind of old-world elevation of thought and intellect that is so missing in most of popular culture today.
We've always had a long history of anti-intellectualism in this country. I sensed it as a youth in high school and before that. I didn't have to read tomes on the subject to know that scholarly pursuits were secondary to other kinds of achievement in school, that the smart and studious kids were considered, if not outcasts, then certainly different and set apart from the majority of students.
I remember once being rather taken aback and offended by a comment one of my high school classmates wrote in my senior yearbook. It wasn't anything bad she wrote, it was just indicative of the whole mentality of "do as little as you can get away with" that was so pervasive among the "average" student. I was surprised it came from her. She complimented me saying she had "never met a guy with such a sense of humor and terrific wit as yours" (that part was nice) but then she wrote, "Never forget English with Mrs. B___. You and I never read those stupid books..."
Now what bothered me about it was the sheer audacity. I couldn't believe she would think I hadn't carefully read each and every one of those novels, which I most certainly had. Although the only one I really remember is Walter Van Tilburg Clark's "Oxbow Incident," and not much about it either, the fact is I took learning very seriously. I did all the assignments by the time they were due. I enjoyed literature, although not the tests and quizes that came with the assignments. But for her to presume that I thought it was some kind of waste of time as she obviously did, was just egregious to me.
Now, all that literature I read in my high school must have had some impact. My teachers weren't too inspiring, to say the least, but I think the sheer eloquence of the prose and poetry had the desired effect: instilling of respect for, and curiosity about, literature and its possibilities, although school itself tended to dampen one's enthusiasm. I determined to be an English major in college the following year, and never looked back or regretted the decision.
And, it was people like Alistair Cooke and my American literature professor who cultivated a love of reading in me. I had a love of books and reading that existed since my early youth, but it was not something that stirred great intellectual excitement in me. That came only in college. I really liked the selection of short stories my professor chose for us to read, and I recall how I wanted through the years to preserve my copy of the anthology in which they were reprinted.
Years later, our paths were to cross again. It was 1992, and I was back in New Orleans for a short time when my father was gravely ill with cancer. I and my brother and mother were sitting in the ICU waiting room at Baptist Hospital. I looked up and stared in disbelief at the familiar face of the man sitting a short distance away reading a book. He hardly seemed any different at all 20 years later. I went up to him, and he said he also had recognized me, although not distinctly. It was so good to see him. I told him that he had done a good job teaching us and that "your students remember you all these years later." I think he really appreciate my telling him that. I rattled off some of the titles of the books we had read for an elective course in the literature of Americans abroad: Hawthorne's Marble Faun, Twain's Innocents Abroad, both of which I remember well to this day. I could sense he was pleased I remembered the works we had studied. I just thought it was remarkable I would see him in that place, at that time.
As for Cooke, I see him as a man of letters, a champion of literature and the power of words to elevate and inspire. Maybe one of the reasons I fancy myself a writer today is partly because of the influence of those two men, and also what they represented: refinement and attentiveness to the best our culture has to offer, something many people today would prefer to shout down and mock in their headlong rush to be amused and entertained.
August 11, 1999
Stand back, Methusala,
I'm not ready to get old,
Or to travel too much farther or deeper into the night, yet.
I see crevices of age
In a mirror's image
That doesn't blanch or flinch over truth-telling
Like me in denial.
But I look hard at myself,
And I don't see you, Ancient One.
Nothing changes, this image in the mirror tells me.
No matter how many times I see it,
It always looks the same.
I'm still that youth who even way back when
Looked for signs of aging.
Youth, but now, past tense,
Not on edge, but wary.
Knowledgeable and experienced, but where are the old enthusiasms?
Where is the compulsive need to rush out and embrace life?
Maybe someone can make it reappear.
I link myself to all who've come before
When I contemplate where I've been
And how I've lived or not
And I haven't lost, at least,
My keen awareness of getting older, slowly.
Aging is out there, somewhere,
Not for me.
I won't become that old man in white
Bare skin, bony legs, hearing aid
Stuffed in ear to hear.
Exposed, drooping a bit, paying for his prescription.
Waiting in line, like me.
But in no apparent hurry, like me.
Or at least he seems to be following
A safe path to his end times.
Going slow, and taking no notice of me.
Oblivious, or else else he doesn't care.
Why should he?
It's hot outside. No need to go fast and work up a sweat
Like we who bustle about
Brimming with more of what
We think to be life's energy and relevance
Puffed up with the importance of our busyness.
To our being here in the first place
Sometimes I just have to write in a kind of free verse style, which you can call poetry, or not, but which enables me to quickly distill what's in my mind about a subject without having to contend at all times with the formal niceties of prose -- sentence structure, and all that.
I'm conflicted thinking about age and youth sometimes, and it seems like it's most pronounced in summer, this feeling of growing older, hopefuly with some maturity, that comes with age, but conversely, feelings of loss for the youth, or even the young man I once was, and am no more.
Outwardly, at least. I like to think I'm not my age. I don't feel it, certainly, from the standpoint of how I appear to others. One side of my family, and there are numerous examples of it, has inherited what some would say is the gift of skin that doesn't seem to age. No wrinkles until much later in adulthood. This has been both good and bad. People have always treated me as if I were younger than I am, because I look a good bit younger. At least, that's what I'm often told. On the other hand, I know what age I am, and I know it really shouldn't matter that much, but in our culture, it does. Youth is prized. Aging, instead of being valued for the onset of wisdom that comes with years lived, is, instead, avoided, denied, and put off as long as possible. Especially, we are told by the sociologists, by members of a certain demographically dominant generation that didn't trust anyone over 30 at one time.
Why I get all these thoughts in summer, for some inexplicable reason more often than at other times of year, has something to do with living near the ocean and seeing mostly what I want to see when I go there, and feeling what I want to feel. The wind and surf and the whole ambience of the beach in summer are attuned endlessly to the rhythms of the warm sun and waves and tides coming and going, and kids cavorting in the water and building sand castles, and not caring a bit for anything but the eternal now that summer on the beach represents. At least to me it does, even now.
As I said in my last entry, out there one often doesn't notice time passing at all. I was there yesterday in my chair on a perfect, breezy, late summer day at high tide, and, once again, I was lost in contemplation of nothing too much in particular, but reluctant, as always, to leave. Not that it was in any way unpleasant to think about heading back to town. Not at all. I just feel sometimes that being at the beach and looking for long periods at the ocean and waves is the only time, and the only place, I feel no pressure to be doing something, or else to be "on time." At the beach I am always "in time."
I watched an older couple go by, hand-in-hand, and since it was high tide, there were only a few feet separating me in my chair from the passing parade in front of me. I got to see them up close, and they, me. I tried not to say anything or look at them, those people and dogs and kids and teenagers who passed by every once in a while, but there was an unspoken acknowledgement of our mutual presence.
I often see older people at the beach walking briskly, firmly erect posture, perfect weight, seeming to be in great shape and ready for whatever slings old age throws at them. And then I realize, it's a fool's dream. You can extend life a bit and be healthy, but no amount of fitness changes the equation significantly. So, I'm happy for them in their health and fitness now, but aware, too, that it's only that day that they, or I, have it for certain.
I saw two teenagers walk by me carrying their surfboards and animatedly talking, quite oblivious to me, sitting there with my book. They'd surf awhile and be drawn by the currents far down the beach toward the lighthouse, and then they would come ashore and walk back up to where they had started. Their youth is always such a contrast to the older, saggier people who amble by, lost in thought and looking just a bit burdened by those same thoughts, or trying to drive them out and just concentrate on observing the scene, finding shells, walking out there under that warm sun and sea breeze that blows forever, it seems.
Then, shortly before I left, I observed a group of about six kids, 9 or 10, with one little brother, I guessed, about 3 years old, with a dog in tow, making their way slowly up the beach, stopping every few seconds to splash around in the water, saying something funny only to themselves and which was a delight, I'm sure, only to their young souls. In general, they were joyously engaged in BEING there on that beach. They passed quite close by where I sat, and stopped to dig furiously in the sand just after a wave had receded and made a soft, viscous liquid of it, perfect for sinking down in and watching it flow away in hands as if it were water itself.
They, too, seemed to have no sense of time. And they would have kept on with what they were doing, digging in that wet sand for hours, had not one of them, probably a bit too mature for her age, but necesarily so in this instance, kept insisting they had to get back, had to go in. It was getting late. At last, all of them, as if a group of startled gulls, flew up from the beach and jumped, ran, and bobbed their way back home, dog in tow.
August 8, 1999
This afternoon, the skies grew darker by the hour. The hazy-hot, yellow horizon of morning became transformed into a rumbling, advancing storm system that portended electrical displays and much-needed rain . For days, the sun has been relentless and merciless, sucking up all the carefully won moisture that drenched our soil and nourished our trees and plants only three weeks ago. The grass again became crisp and dry. That typically parched, dry-as-a-bone feeling of mid-August wiped away all traces of green grass and moderate days of bearable summer weather.
When the rains came about 3:30 this afternoon, they were half-hearted, not the heavy soaker I was hoping for. The winds passed through, knocking down my hibiscus plant on the balcony; but it was all sound and fury, with the added element of lightning and thunder. It all seemed a bit of a show, not the real, substantial storm that pours forth its liquid blessings on the land and passes on leaving the promise of sustained life in its wake.
Today it was here for a while and then it was gone. I was disappointed. It was like all half-measures: it'll do some good, but not much.
*****We have but faith: We cannot know
For knowledge is of things we see;
And yet we trust it comes from thee,
A beam in darkness: let it grow.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson
From In Memoriam
Our minister is a very erudite man. He gives sermons replete with wonderful and meaningful quotes not only form the Bible, but from literature and philosophy, poets and theologians.
Today he spoke on the story of Gideon's fleece, where the servant of God, to know that he was indeed called by God, put the Lord to the test and asked him to send dew enough to drink on the wool's fleece one morning as a sign. God complied with his wish, but it wasn't enough proof at first.
The question our minister put to the congregation had to do with this very profound theological matter, one which he managed to adeptly explain: Faith and then knowledge, or knowledge and then evidence of faith: which comes first, he asked. From the perspective of Acquinas, it is the acquisition of knowledge and the use of our reason that leads to apprehension of God's mysteries and thereby, faith. From the perspective of Augustine, it is by having faith first, by believing, that we come to have, if not proof or evidence of God's plan, then at least growing awareness of the mystery and knowledge of it that can only come from having faith, and not the other way around.
That is why he used the words from Tennyson's poem to illustrate what he was saying. Trust is faith, and knowledge is not required if faith in God comes by means of grace. It is something I think about because I instinctively gravitate toward the worldview of Acquinas, which is rigorous and intellectual. But then when I realize that every shred of knowledge is of this world, whereas faith is not of this world, then I must accept that both are equally real, or else there is nothing beyond the knowledge which I am able to acquire in this life.
As I sat out on the beach last night, I felt the constant sea breeeze and smelled the salt air from time to time. Each time I did this, a little bit of memory or a sensation or a thought about something from the past related to that place came to me, and then left just a swiftly. I had to be deliberate, though, as well as receptive to the force of memory because it can be very dim and ephemeral. It sometimes needs nudging. It needs something to perhaps startle it out of the recesses of the mind's labyrinth.
At the same time, although I could call forth pleasant sensations just by virtue of being in that place, at that time in late summer, with all the familiar landmarks around me, and the seagulls flying overhead as they have on countless occasions in the past when I have looked up to see them, and the sky and clouds, and the pelicans and the sea oats rustling eternally in the wind -- I still can feel numb sometimes, wondering why more emotion does not come from those recollections, from those flickering and emergent memory tracings. What do I want to feel that I haven't felt before? Where would I rather be, if anyplace else?
As the hour passed and twilight began to descend, I waited for that precise moment when it would be right to leave that spot and head back to town. I would be ready at that moment and only then, but I didn't know when it would be, and I never do. In that regard, one rather loses track of time, literally and figuratively. Only the diminishing light reminds me that there is any time at all.
August 6, 1999
It's amazing how, many years later in adulthood, we remember some of those slings of defeat that, in the larger scheme of things are relatively minor, but which at the time were so crushing to an adolescent ego. Conversely, it is also remarkable how some minor little victory can linger over a lifetime, thought about from time to time as if it had some relevance to our fate and very being that we couldn't even conceive of at the time. Again, such a little triumph as to seem insignificant, but which resonates down through the decades.
Perhaps I seem to invest too much in these things, but let me explain. The incident of defeat had to to with athletics, something I was never good at in any organized sense. While I enjoyed playing basketball at the neighbors's hoop in back of our house, or a friendly game of touch football in one of two vacant lots when I was a kid, the idea of taking any of this too seriously, as in Little League or competitive play with the sole object to win, struck me, even as a boy, as cruel and stupid.
When I was placed, against my will, of course, in situations where I had to try to compete for a slot on a baseball or basketball team, I did miserably. I hated it with a passion that burned in my stomach with the grievous injustice of childhood dread. Each time, I'd swing wildly and strike out, or be relegated to right field. I'd miss catching zinging balls that never even thought for a minute about landing in my glove.
As far as basketball, when you're over 6 feet tall in 8th grade, it's assumed that all the gods have smiled favorably on you and your prowess on the court is a birthright so inalterable as to broach no turning back from this avenue of fate.
As I was cut from one team or another, or relegated to the proverbial bench to sit out the steaming competitions on court or ballfield, I hunkered down deep within myself and licked my wounds, embarrassed and wondering why I was such a failure at sports. I was a good student, after all. Wasn't that enough?
But it wasn't until I was 14 and in my third and last year on the swim team at our suburban New Orleans country club that the final, and perhaps most crushing, blow came. This was not something I wanted to do, either, but it was thought, I guess in a well-meaning way by my parents, that getting up at 6:30 every morning during summer vacation and riding a bike to the country club pool to swim 50 or 100 laps in stinging, chlorinated water would build character, or offer some lessons for life. No pain, no gain, right? Well, I did this when I was 12, and when I was 13 and again the summer before 9th grade. And, although I had been taught swimmming when I was 7 and 8 by a former Olympic qualifier, and did indeed have a perfectly respectable freestyle stroke, I had no speed whatsoever. I'm sure my form was nice to look at, but since there was no way that awkward, gangly body was going to knife through the water like a torpedo and win events, I became one of those people that had to be next-to-last, or last, simply because someone has to lose.
Well, I will tell you it was doubly hard on me losing the 50-meter freestyle and backstroke competitions, meet after swim meet, with rival country club teams, but what was even harder was pulling myself up out of the water and knowing I'd have to be back at practice first thing Monday morning.
It all kind of came to a head, at least in my mind these many years later, when I suffered the final indignity I was going to endure. I was not too fast in freestyle, backstroke or breaststroke, but I could put up a fair fight while losing and not come in too far behind the leaders. But as for butterfly, the hardest, but in some ways most beautiful of the swimming strokes, I was exhausted easily and ran out of steam hardly before I had begun. I was so bad in that stroke that I was almost never called upon to race in that category. Until one night. It was near the end of another meet, I was glad it was almost over, and had already duly lost the one event I was scheduled for, I can't remember what it was. But the guy who was supposed to swim the 50-meter butterfly didn't show up, or left, or something equally unfortunate for me because the coach put me in his place. Dread of all dread! Swim the butterfly? I couldn't believe it. But I had to do it.
There were six of us in the lineup for that age 14-and-under event. At the crack of the gun, we were off. I think I had this lump in my throat from the minute I hit the water, knowing I was going to have to furiously try to salvage an impending disaster. It was just a matter of how big a defeat it would be. I lost my initial anguish in the effort to hurl my arms ahead of me and thrust forward with my two legs together. I was moving along, maybe even getting up a little speed, I thought, as I made the turn, oblivious to the fact that everyone else was way ahead and nearing the finish. I struggled along, hurting, breathing deeply, taking in gulps of water, lashing at the storm-tossed surface of that lit-up pool at night. Finally, both hands touched the smooth concrete ledge at the end of the race, and I looked up and saw that I was the last one in the water. People were dispersing. I think someone may have said, "Nice try."
Well, to my knowledge there were no more meets after that. At least, that's what I want to believe now when I look back and try to examine what lessons I was supposed to be learning those summers of my early youth.
And I remember Steve M___, one competitive age level up from me -- as slim and sleek and fast a swimmer as I've ever seen, winning race after race, seemingly effortlessly, as did my younger brother who was also on that team. He had a collection of ribbons. I had a collection of defeats. You remember those things when you're at that vulnerable age.
But you also remember little triumphs that give you great joy, and you're not sure why at the time. I had always made good grades, and in elementary school I got little honor roll cards with the principal's signature stamped on them every report card period. I was one of those students who actually looked forward to report cards because my academic performance was somehow validated there, and I could please my parents that way.
Well, in fifth grade, at the end of the school year, something special happened. In addition to giving us our report cards as we all waited with intense anticipation for the gates of freedom to open, the teacher announced that a special award was to be presented, and it was for achievement in American history. And, of all things, my name was announced as the winner, and I had to go up in front of the class (at least I think my memory is correct on this point) and receive a very nice cetificate from the Daughters of the American Revolution.
I looked at that piece of paper, absolutely dumbstruck with pride. It was an elegant certificate, too, very fancy and embossed, and actually had some real signatures on it. I was so pleased and honored that I went home and took it out of its envelope and just stared at it for the longest time, as I remember doing when I got home from my college graduation and gazed at that diploma representing four years of unimaginable toil in the groves of academe.
I've preserved that history award in a file box containing other memorabilia from my youth. It had a lasting impact on me. I wasn't real sure why I won it, but it made me think I was good in something, and it certainly wasn't a sport, and that made it all the more valuable to me. My classmates might not have thought much of it, but I did.
Years later, in college and afterward, it always occurred to me that I was good in history, that I liked reading about it, and that my knowlege of it was something I could take some pride in.
Today, my bookshelves are crammed with books on history, and during my travels, a significant number of the sites I visited were small county museums, or state and national historical sites where I could pore over the exhibits, wander the grounds of towns, forts and settlements from the 19th century, and learn a bit about what life was like in other times. History -- it fascinates me to this day, and I know one of the reasons why.
August 1, 1999
It's my favorite street in Columbia, a street of dreams, if you will. Every time I'm in that city, usually every couple of months, I make the pilgrimmage up the Harden Street hill at Five Points, then turn left at the light, and on down two blocks to the house where it all began -- my adventures on the road of life after college and on my way to independence and adulthood.
It was late August during a typically hot South Carolina summer, and I was almost desperate to find the right place to live before starting school as a special student in journalism at the University of South Carolina. I had lived just a couple of days in a furnished room about a mile or so away, but I felt very confined there. It just wasn't right. I moved to a furnished basement apartment on Harden Street next, but, as I told the nice couple who rented it, I just couldn't stay there. It was old and musty and the street had a lot of traffic. It was wrong, all wrong.
Finally, reading the want ads, deadline for settling in a place rapidly approaching, I came across the ad the changed everything and led to my place of residence for the next year and a half. It was just three blocks from the basement apartment and was a second floor room for rent ($70 per month, including fresh linens and towels each week). It was on Wheat Street, arguably the prettiest street in all of Shandon, the old neighborhood that was one of the first residential suburbs of Columbia. The house was built shortly after the turn of the century, I believe, and the elderly lady who was renting the rooms (three in all) had lived in that house most of her life.
She was about 80 or 81, then, I believe, not a thin older lady by any means, and she was not in the best health. Her vision was very poor and the ravages of age had taken their toll on her body, but her mind and spirit were alive and quite well. She loved people, and especially younger people whom she doted over, as I was to discover, and loved being around. She lived in the first floor, back bedroom in the quite comfortably large house. She had a small sitting room in front of her bedroom, and there she spent most of her days, watching TV or talking to visitors. Her over-protective and rather odd daughter, whom I liked and yet didn't quite feel right about, either, was often there, hovering about.
I remember the first time I met her. I came into the sitting room to be interviewed by Mrs. B.__ and her daughter. I was a little nervous because I knew, immediately after seeing the beautiful and quiet street with its huge oak and hickory trees, that this was the place I wanted to live. I could afford it, and it was only blocks from campus. A near-perfect location.
The interview went well, and I was writing a check when someone else came to the door inquiring about the room. Mrs. B.__'s daughter had to tell him it had just been rented. I made it just in the nick of time.
I was not unaware also of all the tales from Southern literature about boarders and boarding houses. I had read Look Homeward Angel by Thomas Wolfe only a year previously, and had all sorts of idealized notions in my head about what the experience would be like. Wolfe's mother, as you may know, ran a large boarding house in downtown Asheville, N.C., for many years, and young Tom had some of his most memorable early experiences in that house. When I at last visited it two years ago, I was entranced, fascinated beyond words.
My room was in the back corner, not too large, but very nice, with a large and comfortable old double bed with the sort of cotton bedspread you remember from your childhood. There was a sizeable old dresser-drawer, and I shared a bath with the boarder in the adjacent room, which was obviously the master bedroom of that grand old house. Most of the time I was there, it was occupied by a Chilean professor who was very polite and soft-spoken, but whom I never really got to know very well. His family was back in Chile (this was also during a period of much change and turmoil in that country) and he was concerned about them, and obviously homesick. In the other room, the one that faced the street, lived a young social work grad student who truly was one of the most striking and beautiful women I have ever seen, before or since. We were about the same age. I was 22 and she was 23 or 24, I believe. I got to know her somewhat, but she later had a boyfriend and was gone a lot. She was very nice, however, and we'd sometimes talk when we came down to the kitchen to heat up some soup or fix a snack at night.
We had limited kitchen privileges, I recall, but I mostly fixed soup and had cereal for breakfast. Honestly, I can't remember what I did for most of my main meals. I ate at the college some. There was a Dairy Queen-type place down the hill on the corner that had great hamburgers, fries and milkshakes (the real old-fashioned kind), and I went there a lot.
I worked part-time in the shipping and receiving department of a large mall department store for awhile until I got my first real job -- as a houseparent in a community residential program for the mentally retarded. I had gotten the job in October of that year when a friend from my photojournalism class, who worked there, told me about it. I was very reluctant, and it took me weeks before I thought I would be able to actually continue working there. It was so strangely new, and, even stressful because of the mental and emotional problems some of the people I worked with had, in addition to mental retardation. They were not severely retarded, and could function to some extent, with much supervision, in the community, and that was our job -- to assist them in their daily living skills so they could function in the community.
At that job, I'd spend a couple of nights a week on the night shift, and would assist in preparing the meals for the guys I supervised (there were about 14 in the program at that time, and it was the first such program in Columbia in the early, heady days of de-institutionalization of the large MR facilities across the state). I remember there were huge hams and roasts to slice, big pots of beans and potatoes, canned peaches for dessert and homemade rolls. The food was actually quite good, but the surroundings were less than desirable. The building we were we housed in was a former asylum for aged mentally ill persons, and all the rooms had bars on the windows. It had, to say it politely, a "problem" with roaches, and it was kind of a spooky place. But, it had been donated to the organization that ran the program, and the executive director, who started it all from scratch just three years prior to my coming there, jumped at the chance to have a place in which to begin. She was by every measure one of those rare and charismatic individuals who are inspired to help others, but who are so intelligent and intense and suffused with such a powerful inner presence, that one stands in awe of them. And that is the way I felt about her. She was larger than life. Inpsiring. The program she started went from serving 12 individuals to more than 350 in just four years, and I was there at a critical period of growth. Many of the people we served lived at home and were cared for by their parents who wanted, above all else, to keep their children from being institutionalized. We also had a number of residents who came directly from the big institutions. It was an experience I will never forget, I can tell you.
That friend I met at college, and who got me the job there, became my best friend and, really, the only true friend I had had in my life up until that point. We took a lot of photographs in the countryside together and developed and printed our own black and white film, as I've written about before in this journal. A couple of years later, he took off on a solo excursion traveling around Europe, and we didn't see each other except occasionally over the years after that. He ended up marrying a girl from Australia whom he met on his travels. I also got to know very well his friend, and my direct supervisor at that job, R.__, although I always felt just a bit of distance between us because of his supervisory role.
So, I would come home from my job at the center for the mentally retarded wiped out emotionally at times, and tired from both the job and going to school as well. But the journalism studies turned out to be something I was perfectly suited for, and I loved doing it.
That old house on Wheat Street became my sanctuary. My room had an air conditioning vent on the floor near the bed, and cool air coming up from it felt wonderful on hot days. I could see the oak tree's leaves blowing in the breeze outside my window on cooler days when I had the window open and could get some of that nice fresh air. I was so comfortable in that room, and in that house, that I would wake up some mornings and just ask myself if it was all real.
Most days, I'd try to talk to Mrs. B___, if only briefly, and she would sometimes call up to tell me I had had a phone call earlier, or else that there was some mail for me. It was all very old-timey, and I felt sometimes as if I actually was living at the turn of the century. Mrs. B.___'s cook would often leave some of her famous fried corn fritters on the stove for me to snack on later, and I can recall the taste and texture of those delectable treats even now as I think about them. She was a reedy-thin woman with a sort of high-pitched voice who had been with Mrs. B.___ for many years. R.___ was an unforgettable character. She had this wonderful laugh and was easily amused by Mrs. B.___. Sometimes I'd be home in the afternoons when she left for the day, after fresh towels and linens has ben put out in all the rooms, and I'd hear her shout as she went out the door, "I'm gone."
After a year and a half at this grand old house on Wheat Street, I knew I had to find an apartment of my own because I needed more privacy, and I was fairly established in that city by then. I didn't really want to live anywhere else, although I knew I'd have to be moving eventually to find newspaper jobs.
I missed Mrs. B.____ and R.___ very much when I left. It marked the end of an era for me, a distinctly satisfying and wonderful period in my life when I was on my own for the first time. I call that first address I had a boarding house, although technically I guess you'd have to say it was a rooming house because meals were not actually served, but I like to think of it now in that broader and more literary sense.
I drove by the house just a couple of weeks ago. If anything, the big trees that line the street seemed larger and more over-arching than ever, but the street iself appeared frozen in time. Nothing ever seems to change about it. It always looks the same to me.
I pass by the place where I spent those happy and deeply fullfiling years, and I look out the window of the car, and I can imagine myself bounding up the stairs to my room, closing the door, lying in that big, comfortable antique bed and drifting off to sleep.